President Quillen crystalized my understanding of the Humanities in her lecture, “Telling the Truth: On Language and Representation.” She tied together the work we have done in the course so far and raised vital questions regarding the nature of the discipline and how we study it.
As students of the humanities we must be constantly mindful of the power and limits of language as a means of representation. Language can be used, intentionally or unintentionally, to misconstrue ideas or experiences. Language imposes various ideological limits and can be used as an exclusionary tool for political reasons. In Gayatri Chakravarti Spivak’s essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” she critiques the representation of the “third-world” subject within Western discourse, arguing that Western intellectual production is complicit with its economic interests. The language that is used to describe the third world subject in discourse imposes ideological limits in that it always constructs the colonial subject as the “Other” and does not allow the colonized people to occupy the Subject position in discourse. They are always theorized about from an ethnocentric perspective. The construction of this “Other” is dangerous as it creates divides between different groups and provides the grounds for the exploitation of “lesser” groups by the dominant group. Slavery and colonialism have been justified because of this.
The humanities can be defined as the study of the human experience. It is important to remember that does not mean the universal human experience and conception of reality but that of the people who dominated the production of discourse. The narrative of the past that is presented to us leaves out the versions of reality of subordinate groups. During our first study trip, we discussed the Enlightenment. It seems, through the analysis of the work produced in Europe during the period, that humankind was making moral progress, attaining freedom, and the realizing their capacity to reason. At the same time, however, imperial powers were colonizing countries and practicing slavery. The narrative of progress during the Enlightenment is therefore distorted.
The idea of a person’s ability to reason was also elaborated by President Quillen. She explained how Kant said that the public exercise of reason will lead to progress and raised the question of who decides what constitutes a reasonable idea. The idea of reason often leads to arrogance, as exemplified by Macaulay in his Minute on Education, when he said, “I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is indeed fully admitted by those members of the committee who support the oriental plan of education.” Macaulay is an example of thinkers who believe that all men have the capacity to reason, but what is reasonable is determined by the West. Such thinking completely ignores the wealth of knowledge and ideas from the colonized countries.
What does it mean to tell the Truth in the Humanities? The nature of the discipline makes it impossible to convey an ultimate, indisputable truth that applies to the universal human experience. We must be wary of this when we study the humanities. The representation of truth is limited and only conveys the experience of the people who dominate the production of discourse in the humanities. The “truth” is the truth of a select few. I believe there needs to be a restructuring of the way that we study this discipline. The stories we tell should not be limited to the Western perspective. The lens through which we understand the past should change to more inclusive and representative of Subjects other than the Western Subject. In this manner, we will be able to gain a cohesive and true understanding of the ideas in the humanities that shape the world in which we live.