Humanities Expert Homi Bhabha Addresses Ismaili Studies Conference at Carleton

By Susan Hickman
Photos by Justin Tang

The humanities, says Homi Bhabha, are essential to understanding how we view culture if we are to live in a just and ethical society. Facts alone are not enough.

Bhabha, director of Harvard University’s Mahindra Humanities Center and a former member of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture jury and steering committee, was among more than 60 speakers from a dozen countries scheduled to make presentations during the second International Ismaili Studies conference on campus March 9 and 10.

The conference and keynote was organized by Prof. Karim H. Karim, director of the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam.

Homi Bhabha: Humanities are Absolutely Essential

“The humanities are absolutely essential in beginning to understand not only that political and social life is deeply involved in cultural interpretation, but also that the work we do with interpretation is as important as the dissemination of the information. Facts are being thrown around the world,” he said, referring to the influence of the Internet. “But information is not knowledge. It is only when information is processed through humanistic interpretation that we can begin to get knowledge.”

This concept, he explained after his one-hour lecture, was his main message to  more than 300 people who attended his keynote address. An important figure in contemporary post-colonial studies, Bhabha’s talk on Thursday was entitled Thoughts on Diasporic Cosmopolitanism.

Much of his address focused on the aftermath of the widely-distributed image of the body of the young Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, who drowned while fleeing across the Mediterranean in a boat that capsized in September 2015. The photograph of his body face down on a beach in Turkey, snapped by journalist Nilüfer Demir, quickly spread around the world, highlighting the horrific human cost of the global migrant crisis and changing the debate on immigration. In Canada, his death became an issue in the general election.

“I want to say something about the global interpretation and the circulation of images in relation to this tragic event,” said Bhabha, who projected the iconic photograph on a screen, as well as subsequent montages that used the image in unexpected associations.

“Why does that image stir the conscience of Europe?” Bhabha asked. “It’s a humanistic question as much as a question of the horrors of history. The photographer saw the beach strewn with dead bodies and chose this one figure. It’s a question of global evaluation. The humanities has the right to interpret, as well as the right to feel grief and sorrow.”

The circulation of the image has been studied extensively and its dissemination has served public opinion and public policy.

“His body was montaged onto other situations, of celebration, and of political contexts, making it part of a global conversation. But you have to make the story. You have to do the work.”

Migration a Profoundly Important Experience

Bhabha said the experience of migration is “a profoundly important experience, and one that can be changed through the disciplines of the arts and humanities. “Migration,” he said, “challenges the humanities. Our notion of citizenship needs to be reformed. We have to excavate the silences. We have to see the history of migration, the history of diaspora, the history of refugees. And they have to be seen as ongoing in the conversation of living the good life in the kind of society we want to see.”

Bhabha admitted his several years working on the Aga Khan Award for Architecture committee – he dedicated his talk to the Aga Khan — inspired him to question assumptions and to seek a clearer and more diverse view of s good and just society. He also said the Canadian stand on immigration is inspirational “for those of us who live in the U.S.”

A global, informed, civil conversation is crucial, he said. “A worn-out world deserves our attention. We must build a world as best we can. It is our duty to the future. We have an ethical duty to rethink freedom of expression, as well as freedom of interpretation. This allows us to open our minds to other voices, other peoples and other times.”