Humanities in the Public

In my research with literature festivals in India I ask: why have writers, translators, artists, academics, publishers, and concerned citizens come together to produce a network of legitimation for literary production? These festivals are public rejoinders that have compelled me to reconsider the function of the humanities. They are neither just publicity events nor book fairs. Many are curated to provoke polemics about the literary and cultural field.1 Writers and non-writers, social scientists and their "objects" of study, Dalit activists and university professors perform critique, often unscripted, in public settings.

These free events point to an informal engagement with literature and culture that raises questions about the "location of the humanities," a phrase I borrow from Sunder Sarukkai. The festivals bring to mind practices that took place in bazaars, baithak-khanas/majlish (place of sitting, council), mutts (monasteries), and at events like the musha'irah (poetic symposium), kavi/sahityakari sammelan (poetry and literature conventions), and addas.2 Historically (and even today), these were (are) the location of the humanities. Sarukkai observes that in the Kannada literary field, a "primary engagement with humanities was not through the institutional structures of universities but through cultural organizations, activism, and public writing."3 He asks, what is the "site" and what should be the "site" of the humanities, and as a result, what role do universities play?4 These questions point to a disjunction between the locations of the humanities one that is public and that might not register as secular or academic, and the other that is embedded in the imperial and global history of formal literary education and the development of disciplines.

The crisis of humanities education in India is in part a problem of conflicting institutional attitudes about what an engagement with literature and culture mean for a multilingual and plural country.5 We might approach the problem by asking what kind of practices motivate the persistence of an informal humanities. Attitudes towards knowledge production are often functions of institutional location. We work within those limits. But a humanities practice that takes the public as its partner will ask us to breach these limits so that contrary values and belief systems seep into each other.

What could US humanities learn from India, and vice versa?

The Public Humanities

Public humanities in the US questions the autonomy of the critical enterprise, the styles in which knowledge is produced, and the efficacy of a program of study in relation to the labor market.6 It mostly emerges within the university. Despite this, Robyn Schroeder suggests that "a tension between academic and non-academic public humanists was an originary impulse of, and has remained at the core of this field."7 This tension is a problem of legitimation: which humanities speaks for which publics? The underlying logic among Schroeder and her team is to find ways to shed the authority of one's institutional location.

Many realize that academic humanities cannot exist without social relevance, especially as acknowledged by the public. Simultaneously, the humanities must contend with the university as a legitimizing producer of expert knowledge. This duality can be traced to the nineteenth century. Terry Eagleton writes, for the "Victorian man of letters . . . either criticism strives to justify itself at the bar of public opinion by maintaining a general humanistic responsibility for the culture as a whole, the amateurism of which will prove increasingly incapacitating as bourgeois society develops; or it converts itself into a species of technological expertise, thereby establishing its professional legitimacy at the cost of renouncing any wider social relevance."8 But the Victorian man was not bringing down the boundaries between experts and laymen. He was responding to a broken public sphere and rampant consumerism by endorsing the institutionalized intellectual. The good public intellectual today understands the untenable nature of this top down and individualistic system. That is why she is attempting to change attitudes about what expertise itself is.

What if we placed the responsibility for knowledge production on the community rather than the individual? The public in theory is an abstract entity. Can it also be a space of engagement? This is what I think Mary Mullen means when she says that the public humanities "needs to allow community groups and public actions to transform how the university defines knowledge and culture . . . [and] take seriously publicness as a form of authority in and of itself."9 While Mullen and Schroeder ask how publicness can change academia, Wright asks how academia can foster public knowledge in public spaces. These positions are not mutually exclusive and when taken together they could be powerful heuristics for the public humanities and the humanities in the public.

Possible Institutions

Back in India, my academic vulnerability lay in how easily I was willing to think with the organizers, collectives, and practices I encountered. When I started my research, I hadn't read Schroeder, Mullen, or Wright. But something Partha Chatterjee wrote about not examining popular culture through a "fully formed scientific worldview [but] to immerse oneself in its forms" stuck with me.10 I wanted to find out whether the events were organically driven by an ethos, or if the curators produced a vocabulary (theoretical or otherwise) about their practices. I attended the festivals and engaged in discussions with the writers, organizers, and event managers to understand what drives them to approach literature and culture the way they do. I offer two short examples from very different kinds of events.

Sanjoy Roy is the Managing Director of Teamwork Arts which produces the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur, India. It attracts almost 65,000 people every day for five days. Its organizers repurpose a location associated with passive consumption (a heritage hotel) into a platform for debate. The space is defined by the pandal (tent), the chaiwallah (tea seller), rediwallah(hawkers), and the haat (bazaars). These signify not only the improvised nature of the enterprise, but also a purposeful non-exclusivity associated with the janta (public). This is how Roy described the event:

there is this magic that you sense in the air . . . from the collective emotion and energy that a large group of people with one focus bring . . . positive focus, and I am using positive focus very specifically as opposed to a mob which has its energy, but as a negative focus to destroy things . . . that collective energy is the reason why the average joe from across the country is happy to do a tirth to Jaipur in spite of all its problems to experience the Kumbh atmosphere.11

Roy's use of the janta (people) expressed in the Americanism "average joe," the tirth (pilgrimage) with its sacred connotations, and the Kumbh (fair) denoting an embodied community is self-aware. He seems to know that the way he describes literary engagement is sure to stir resentment in those who think that literature has more to do with the secular, the individual, and a life of the mind. This is a subversion, but it dissipates in energy and magic, a perception in the air. The emphasis is on the makeshift, where a public is embedded in the magic for five days and then exits the scene.

Institutions emerge to manage uncertainty and to protect ideas that societies and cultures value. But this is not necessarily a good thing. Anthropologist Mary Douglass reminds us that "certainty is a cheat and bully" because it censures what does not fit and terminates debate.12 Rizio Yohannan Raj, writer and one of the curators of the Indian Languages Festival: Samanvay would agree. For her, the festival "allows you to see what an institution actually is in its practice, so it's a true institution in that way . . . but if you don't keep yourself on the edge, the border space where you can jump off, at the end of the festival . . . so that you can make your entry into another [space], you cannot fall back on the same thing."13 I understand this "jumping off," "another space" and not falling back as a sign of the ephemerality of the literary and cultural enterprise as it is practiced. Things change all the time. Raj does not reject institutions. Rather she seeks a "true" one that does not attempt to preserve, classify, or remember in the same way that more formal spaces do.14 This is because she finds the security (or certainty) of institutional structures self-indulgent.15 She told me that normally "knowledge emanating from within structures is thought to be objective and the person who is evolving her practice seems self-indulgent . . . It's the other way because it's a very indulgent thing to be embedded in the institution."16 We ended up calling this other kind of space a possible institution (of practice) because a type of performance replaces discipline. "Possible" here refers to attitudes that do not aim towards objectivity and systemization, but at the same time offer a sense of community that institutions can simulate.

What can US public humanities learn from these festivals? But first, in India, where much of the academic humanities is methodologically linked to the Euro-American field, the emerging debate about the public humanities points to the dangers for academic humanists of too much autonomy. From the perspective of the literature festivals, it is a mistake for academics to assume that humanities education is not embedded in what people actually do. We need to take the different locations of the humanities seriously.17 Literature festivals in India could be thought of as possible institutions that iterate rather than endure (to sustain, persist etc.). In the US, acknowledging the other location of the humanities would affect the way one sees the knowledge produced within academia. This would mean interacting with the informal humanities on equal terms. To allow different institutional attitudes and imaginaries to seep into each other is to give up some of the certainty that strong institutions offer.

Sushil Sivaram is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Rutgers University. His research interests lie at the intersection of South Asian and Postcolonial Studies, World Literature and the Sociology of Literature. His current work, "Possible Institutions: Literature Festivals and Talk-Culture in India" seeks to understand contemporary public literary cultures, reading communities and the history of the discipline in the subcontinent.


  1. I work with three festivals: The Jaipur Literature Festival, the Indian Languages Festival: Samanvay and the Almost Island Dialogues. The Dialogues have little internet presence but produce a companion online journal called Almost Island. []
  2. The OED defines adda as a "gathering where free-flowing, informal conversation takes place." "adda, n." OED Online, June 2017, Oxford University Press, accessed November 6, 2017.[]
  3. Sundar Sarukkai, "Location of the Humanities," Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 37, no. 1 (2017): 159.[]
  4. Ibid.[]
  5. For more on the crisis of humanities education in India see G.N. Devy, After Amnesia: Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism (New Delhi: Orient Longman Limited,1992); and The Crisis Within: On Knowledge and Education in India (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2017).[]
  6. See for example Gregory Jay, "The Engaged Humanities: Principles and Practices of Public Scholarship and
    Teaching," Imagining America 15 (2010).[]
  7. Robyn Schroeder, "What is Public Humanities," Day of Public Humanities. Last modified May 9, 2017.[]
  8. Terry Eagleton, The Function of Criticism: From the Spectator to Post-Structuralism (London: Verso, 1984), 56.[]
  9. Mary L Mullen, "Public Humanities' (Victorian) Culture Problem," Cultural Studies 30, no. 2 (March 2016): 198.) This transformation might ultimately depend on how robust and autonomous the various locations of the humanities are. A more self-sufficient institution will be less likely to submit to other values and more likely to formalize alternative practices as an activity of its own. This is what geographer Willie Jamaal Wright warns against. We must not sanctify a category like the public humanities or the public intellectual, or corral them into the university, but instead begin by acknowledging that "the public is intellectual" because "our role as academics should be to support analysis made within the communities on which we report."(( Willie Jamaal Wright. "The Public Is Intellectual," The Professional Geographer 10, no. 10 (May 2018): 3. A phrase like "communities on which we report" could be an interesting methodological problem for publicly engaged literary studies which critiques individual agency (author and reader) and turns to a complex field of practice - similar to an artworld.[]
  10. Partha Chatterjee, Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), 171.[]
  11. Sanjoy Roy, discussion with the author, January 9, 2018. The Kumbh Mela or Kumbh fair is the world's largest congregation of religious pilgrims in one place.[]
  12. Mary Douglas, "Dealing with Uncertainty," Ethical Perspectives 8, no. 3 (2001): 152.[]
  13. Rizio Yohannan Raj, discussion with the author. January 7, 2018.[]
  14. In postcolonial locations knowledge production is often overdetermined by too much remembering because it is a past that colonialism attempts to erase. []
  15. Ibid.[]
  16. Ibid.[]
  17. An example of this is The Bhasha Research and Publication Center and the Adivasi Academy does not attempt to bring tribal languages, oral literatures and practices into the classroom, but works with the community to produce social and cultural infrastructures where their epistemologies can continue to live. See Ganesh N. Devy, "Culture and Development, an Experiment with Empowerment," Field Actions Science Reports: The Journal of Field Actions 7 (2013): 1-7.[]