Smuts Memorial Lecture Series – Detecting the Human: Under Which Skies Do We Theorise?

15 October 2019, 17:30 - 19:00

Large Lecture Hall, Department of Geography, Downing Site, Cambridge CB2 1QB

A Lecture series hosted by the Smuts Memorial Fund in association with Polity Press.


Slum Acts in Three Scenes

Speaker: Professor Veena Das (John Hopkins University)

The overarching theme of these Smuts Memorial Lectures deals with the way knowledge that is inordinate, excessive, and overwhelming is secreted into the 'everyday' in low-income and poor Deli neighbourhoods with crumbling infrastructures and pervasive violence. While the overall mood in which these three lectures are written swings between anger, fear, outrage — it is also laced with utter admiration, bursts of laughter, and humility on my part. The capacity for friendship with people in these neighbourhoods has enabled me to work in these areas, along with a dedicated team of field assistants, for the last twenty years. The final question I ask is about finding or founding the human, while in the grip of the inhuman.

 

Detecting the Human: Under Which Skies Do We Theorize?

As I was preparing for these lectures, sitting in Delhi and revisiting what I have come to think of as “my places”, I was again struck by the uncanny character of the everyday. The sense of an unspoken doom loomed large in my mind as reports of Kashmir in complete shutdown mode were pouring in; my interlocutors were sending me links on YouTube of wild celebrations and at the same time I was receiving messages in WhatsApp groups of purely local events such as four murders in an ongoing clan warfare in a resettlement colony primarily inhabited by Muslim families. The knotting together of cruelty, care, fear, laughter —the residues of lives that had been crushed but sometimes arose again from the ashes, so to say. One comes across the human here as encountered in scraps, scattered about as ruins of what might once have been whole. As Cavell wrote, “But only what is human can be inhuman". I am challenged to ask how might one think of the human outside of moralistic announcements or intellectual leaps asking us to go beyond the human as if the limits and possibilities of the human are already known.

In asking if the idea of the human could be recovered not as some kind of universal human condition, but as essentially woven into the concreteness of lives, I hope to put my experiences of the neighborhoods I know in conversation with thoughts from a particular philosophical lineage (Wittgenstein, Austin, Cavell, Laugier ) that I identify as having an anthropological rather than a platonic tone in its philosophizing. I hope that this concluding lecture will enable me to ask what is it that counts for anthropology and philosophy as forms of inordinate knowledge? What does it require of us to keep our eyes on the near and to strive for a fidelity to theorize under these particular skies? Paradoxically, then, the human might be retrievable only within a form of life, that can simultaneously harbour the inhuman within it.