Keynote Address

Homi Bhabha, "The Burdened Life: On Migration and the Humanities"

Friday, March 22, 2019
7 PM-8 PM
Gaylord National Resort Center, Cherry Blossom Ballroom
Book signing and reception to follow

Homi Bhabha

"How do we inscribe historical situations in which the struggle to sustain the desire for an 'actual life' places you at a precarious point of survival, locked in close encounters with the hard, legal facts and shadowy figures of death – loss, fear, risk, vulnerability, negation, the void?"

Professor Homi Bhabha's question challenges us to revisit the notion of global progress in the light of the new barbarism that pervades political discourses and nationalist agendas. Following a figurative pattern of thought that engages with the work of Levinas, Arendt, and Benjamin, and applying the lens of humanism, he examines the philology and phenomenology of migration, and with it the corollary of emergencies that travail our present history, climate change, racial crimes, targeted terror, and the demonizing of migrants and minorities. 

Both time specific and timeless, Homi Bhabha’s talk addresses the state of the humanities in an "age of iron," when the human condition suffers "a violation of the very order of mankind," and confronts the crises of political history by positing a curricular question: What is thinking, when we are faced with the disposable body of the migrant? As he visits Kerala, he returns to Arendt's ethics of everyday action. In the Caribbean, he rediscovers Benjamin in a body-strewn beach. In the Tunisian coastal town of Zarzis, he invokes Arendt's "actualizing of difference," the political and ethical practice of seeing the world from the standpoint of somebody else. Tragically, here, it is the standpoint of the human rights of refugee corpses. Humanism revisited traces experiences rather than doctrines and engages with the linguistic complexities of thinking from the standpoint of alterity, urging us to think politically and to act ethically, to restore our community.

NeMLA is proud to have as its keynote speaker Homi Bhabha, the Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities in the Department of English, the Director of the Humanities Center, and the Senior Advisor on the Humanities to the President and Provost at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous works exploring postcolonial theory, cultural change and power, contemporary art, and cosmopolitanism, including Nation and Narration, and The Location of Culture, which was reprinted as a Routledge Classic in 2004. His next book will be published by the University of Chicago Press.

Professor Bhabha is a member of the Academic Committee for the Shanghai Power Station of Art, and the Mobilising the Humanities Initiating Advisory Board (British Council), an advisor on the Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP) project at the Museum of Modern Art New York, a Trustee of the UNESCO World Report on Cultural Diversity, and the Curator in Residence of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1997 he was profiled by Newsweek as one of "100 Americans for the Next Century." He holds honorary degrees from Université Paris 8, University College London, and the Free University Berlin. In 2012 he was conferred the Government of India’s Padma Bhushan Presidential Award in the field of literature and education, and received the Humboldt Research Prize in 2015.