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Sunday, 28 February 2010





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The case for much maligned humanism

Once upon a time, humanism was a term of sovereign approbation, a badge of recognition, an attribute worth fighting for. Many writers and intellectuals, justifiably, sought to wrap themselves around humanism as a way of gaining greater visibility and legitimacy for their projects. That was then; during the last two or three decades we have begun to notice a sea-change. Humanism is no longer promoted as a worthwhile goal; it has not only lost much of its lustre, but is increasingly becoming a term of disparagement. It has degenerated into a smear-word in certain Western intellectual circles.

To say that a writer displays a certain residual humanism is to condemn him in no uncertain terms. Why has this transformation taken place and who is responsible for it? This is due in large part to the spread of such approaches to arts and letters as structuralism, post-structuralism, post-modernism. These schools of thought, admittedly, have had a salutary impact in the sense that they demonstrated the fallibility of the thinking that human beings are sovereign, self-present and in total command of their circumstances, which is clearly not the case.

However, they have moved to the other extreme of totally denying human agency and responsibility, thereby undermining the central pillar of humanism. What we need to do is to re-occupy the radical middle.

Humanism, to be sure, is a word that has a complex history and admits of a plurality of definitions. As with words such as culture and ideology, we have to recognize its multi-faceted nature and seek to interpret it while not removing from its interpretive habitats. From the very beginning, humanism gave rise to certain predictable debates and controversies. There are a number of dominant features associated with humanism" human beings are the makers of their destinies, there are no supernatural powers that guide human action, one has to have unwavering faith in the possibilities of human beings, questions of ethics and morality have to be grounded in this-earthly experiences (after all, etymologically humans refer to earthly creature), reason, logic, scientific methods should inform our thinking and behaviour. These are important traits, and many of them deserve our assent. However, the problem arises when they are applied to diverse societies, especially non-Western ones, without taking adequately into considerations the complex and shaping powers of different cultures.

In the early phase; humanism aroused deep antithetical passions of various religious groups who saw it as a threat to religious thinking. This battle has been fought over the centuries, both in the East and the West, and today there are many who express the view that religion and humanism are perfectly compatible; as a result we have concepts such as Buddhist humanism, Upanishadic humanism, Confucian humanism and so on. Some years ago, I co- edited a series of books for the State University of New York Press titled Self as Body in Asian Theory and Practice", "Self as Person in Asian Theory and Practice", "Self as Image in Asian Theory and Practice", "Self-Deception"; in all these books, I sought to underline the need to understand Asian humanisms within religious and cultural frames of intelligibility.

As I stated earlier, the last twenty or thirty years have witnessed a formidable challenge to humanism by structuralists, post-structuralists and post-modernists. Structuralism, as given original shape by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, undermined the expansive authority of the speaking subject .As Levi-Strauss, the originator of structuralist anthropology remarked, "What I have struggled against, and what I feel is very harmful, is the sort of unbridled humanism that has grown out of the Judeo-Christian tradition". Louis Althusser, who formulated a form of structuralist Marxism, observed that, "Strictly in respect of theory". One can, and must speak openly of Marx's theoretical anti-humanism." Michel Foucault, the post-modernist thinker proclaimed the dissolution and death of man.

The eminent cultural critic, Roland Barthes, went so far as to announce the death of the author. Similarly post-structuralist thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, from their diverse vantage points, have sought to undermine the power of the human subject as originator of meaning, and thereby undermine humanism.

These newer modes of analyses and their resolute attempt to undercut humanism have great implications for the understanding of literature. Highly privileged terms such as genius"authorship- imagination- consciousness have been replaced by terms such as discourse" system - cultural formations "ideology" inscription - textuality. On the one hand, the move to challenge the notion of unbridled and unfettered humanism that is still prevalent should be welcomed as justified.

The liberal humanist articles of faith such as the sovereignty of the subject, the transparency of language and reason as infallible guide to unitary truth as well the perceived elusive inexhaustibility of humanism needed to be questioned. However, the danger is that we have moved to the other extreme. There is a disconcerting thread of iconoclastic desire that runs through these writings and a certain destructive temper shadows much of them. As a consequence, we seemed to have lost the significance of the sense of agency, ethically grounded humanism, the powers of resistance that are so vitally needed. For this mind-set to descend just at the moment when women were securing their due rights and people from post-colonial societies were beginning to assert their individuality is indeed a cause for concern.

While discarding the unbridled humanism, we need to recognize the importance of a limited, but purposive, humanism. In order to achieve this aim, it is important for us to, for a start, pluralize the concept of humanism; the term humanism should not be confined to lexicography alone and the contexts of use should be given their due weight. As it is we tend to think of humanism as a unitary phenomenon that had its origins and growth in Europe. However, countries such as India and China have long and different traditions of humanism, and they need to be explored in their full plenitude. Martin Heidegger is wrong when he says that, "It is in Rome that we encounter the first humanism."

There is a widespread feeling that modern critical theory is incompatible with humanist thought. This is clearly not the case. Edward Said who has done as much as any other scholar to disseminate modern critical theory in the United States as well as in Asia, makes the following pertinent observation.

"Although I was one of the first critics to engage with and discuss French theory in the American university". I somehow remained unaffected by the theory's ideological anti-humanism". In fact, in his book "Humanism and Democratic Criticism", which I would recommend very highly, he makes a powerfully persuasive case for humanism in the context of modern Cultural Theory. In order to clarify the point I am making, let me invoke the name of one of our distinguished writers - Martin Wickramasinghe. Wickremasinghe, Sarachchandra and Gunadasa Amarasekera are the three most brilliant Sinhala writers of the twentieth century, and each in his own way, promulgated a form of critical humanism. Let me focus on the writings of Martin Wickremasinghe. In my book "Enabling Traditions", I have discussed at length the humanism inscribed in Wickremasinghe's work.. In his creative works such as "Gamperaliya", "KaliYuagaya", "Yugnathaya", "Viragaya" as a well as his critical works such as "Sinhala Sahitye Nagima", "Sinhala Vichara Maga", "The Buddhist Jataka Stories and the Russian Novel", he mapped the complex ways in which a form of Buddhist humanism invigorates the best of Sinhala writing.

Let us, for example, consider Wickremasinghe's approach to literary criticism. His ambition was to fashion a form of literary criticism that had as its central and guiding strand the animating presence of Buddhist humanism. Buddhist thought provided him with an authority of conviction and a communion of shared resonance. He maintained that humanism was not monolithic and unitary and that there were differences among humanists. This is indeed true when we consider the broad range of humanisms available to us today" civic humanism, Protestant humanism, rationalistic humanism, positivistic humanism, revolutionary humanism, existential humanism, pragmatic humanism, technological humanism and so on. He advocated a form of Buddhist humanism that could not be conveniently mapped on to the Eurocentric humanism that is still mistakenly regarded by many as a universal humanism. Humanism does not have to speak in a European accent. What is important, in Wickremasinghe's judgment, is that it remains a corrective pathway to an amendable world.


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