Risk is increasingly felt to be endemic to modern societies, threatened by ecological catastrophe, political repression, social injustice, economic inequality, and the rapid constriction of personal and intellectual freedoms. Indeed we might be said to inhabit a global condition of risk, affecting the smallest personal decisions as much as planetary outcomes over which we have no individual control.
What might be the role of the humanities, a set of disciplines directly reflecting on the world, on life and on choice, in responding to this crisis and understanding or interpreting risk? The humanities are themselves in crisis: the threats to their survival are manifold, and their space within the university is increasingly threatened by a new managerial economy suspicious of speculative and ‘unproductive’ intellectual work. In society at large, moreover, the critical function of the humanities renders its practitioners vulnerable to punitive action from the state as well as from interest groups of many kinds. This is especially true of India, where the past few years have seen a spate of attacks on rationalists, writers, activists and public intellectuals who have spoken out against caste and gender oppression, majoritarian politics, human rights violations, environmental degradation, and state-sanctioned terror. But while repression on the one hand and vulnerability on the other might seem more apparent in the Global South, it is arguable that the Global North today does not present a more reassuring picture.
The humanities are nothing if they are not a way of thinking through crisis, thinking critically, and engaging with risk. Literary, artistic and philosophical practice involve a constant risking of thought in dangerous terrain, and manifest a willingness to understand the conditions of risk affecting planetary existence as a whole. How can the humanities, within and outside the university – also a deeply threatened institution today – reflect on the topography of risk? How can they negotiate their own crisis, the threats to their own survival, while also working in the unstable terrain of populations, behaviours, religious practices, sexualities, livelihoods, cultures – at risk? How might new networks, mobilities, cultural experiments, and intellectual enquiries open up the field of humanities research and enable it to engage productively with the crises of the present time?
This colloquium will attempt to ask these questions and engage scholars, researchers, and students in a free and open discussion on the state of risk, the crisis of the present, and the role of the humanities today. Themes discussed would include: funding cuts and the destruction of traditional liberal education; the humanities as gatekeeper, timekeeper, guardian of the margin; pedagogy as it negotiates theory and activism, information and outreach; intersectionality; public intellectuals; uncertainty, precarity, and predatory environments in higher education.
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