The Subject of the Black Humanities

Contemporary defenses of the humanities and social sciences generally downplay the need for self-reflection.

We consistently neglect how the disciplines have acted upon the human subject, often to keep the subject locked in racial formations. We continue to remain blind to how humanities and social science research was bound up with the racial formation of disciplinary power and reason in South Africa. Even when expressly opposed to the repressive apparatus of the state, the human sciences at times functioned unwittingly to secure the contract between the university and state power. This was achieved through an alignment between disciplinary and instrumental reason. What is called for in our times is not a knee-jerk defense of the humanities, but a careful consideration of the work that the humanities have performed historically in disciplining the subject in collusion with the demands of the state. Such a move would likely demand a more systematic unravelling of the way the humanistic study acted upon the subject. To this end, we might consider the possibilities that ensue from what can be called a subversive genealogy of humanistic study in South Africa. The reckoning with the apartheid state’s attempts to shift the debate on black subjectivity from culture to institution diminished a sense of how the foundational fictions of race were being re-routed through a mode of disciplinary reason at the institutional site of the black university. In its own affairs instantiation, the newly established racial and ethnic universities often justified their existence by staking out a sphere of research about “community” that mostly extended the unwritten contract between the university and the state. And with it came not only a normalized subject of race, but also a subject that was for all intents and purposes kept in its place. It is perhaps here that we may begin to trace the elements of a crisis in the humanities and social sciences in a proposal for a subversive genealogy. But this will require specific attention to the racial formations of separate universities, which are the points at which the crisis of the humanities and social sciences obtains as more than a response to repression. In avoiding the pitfalls of the repressive hypothesis, we may have to attend to the overlapping configuration and co-articulation of instrumental and disciplinary reason that gave us the humanities and social sciences in South Africa in the first instance.