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A Humanist Who Knows Corn Flakes

Homi Bhabha tells a story about corn flakes to illustrate the relevance of the humanities to international commerce. “For many years in India there was a ban on imported goods because the government wanted to encourage local markets,” he says. “But people travel, and while you can stop traders from importing things, you can’t stop people from knowing about them. Indian manufacturers would produce imitations of foreign goods—for instance, corn flakes.

“When the Indian market opened with globalization,” says Bhabha, “Kellogg’s set up a branch in India and started producing corn flakes to give consumers the real thing. What they didn’t realize was that Indians, rather like the Chinese, think that to start the day with something cold, like cold milk on your cereal, is a shock to the system. You start it with warm milk. But you pour warm milk on Mr. Kellogg’s corn flakes and they turn to wet paper. You pour warm milk on the sturdier Indian corn flake, it holds up. Does it taste better than Mr. Kellogg’s? No. If Mr. Kellogg’s is eaten as Mr. Kellogg intended, it is somewhat better than Indian corn flakes. The point is that in business studies, when you look at a market, you have to know something about the anthropology of a place and its cultural rituals. People in the humanities have to be part of the conversation.”

Homi Bhabha: He “wants to sow conversation in Harvard’s rich soil.”
Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell / Harvard News Office

Bhabha, a prominent figure in postcolonial studies, has written and lectured widely on cultural migration, globalization, human rights, race, gender, and the arts; The Location of Culture is his best-known book. He says he feels equally at home in Bombay, where he grew up and graduated from the University of Bombay; in England, where he did his graduate work at Oxford and has been a visiting lecturer at University College, London; and in the States, where he taught at the University of Chicago before he came to Harvard in 2001 as Rothenberg professor of English and American literature and language. On July 1 he became the new director of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Humanities Center, succeeding Kenan professor of English Marjorie Garber, who held the post for the first 20 years of its existence (see www.fas.harvard.edu/~humcentr).

The center now offers a robust program of 39 ongoing seminars—on subjects ranging from Buddhist studies to opera—and also supports lectures, conferences, workshops, and informal occasions for faculty and graduate students of Harvard and other local institutions to come together for interdisciplinary talk and the sharing of scholarly work. Bhabha hopes to focus the conversation, “to emphasize through the center the central importance of the humanities for Harvard as a whole.”

At a time at Harvard “when science and internationalism are the two major new fronts for research and intellectual and academic expansion,” he says, “I want to convince my colleagues of the importance of the humanities in those fields. Anything to do with genetic engineering, stem-cell research, or even issues related to the treatment of AIDS demands that a whole set of humanistic issues be addressed. These issues are as fundamental as ‘What is human life?’ and ‘What have been the historical and social values that define what human life is about?’ We need to understand how we choose to make decisions that are in keeping with our scientific ambitions, but do not neglect our moral, cultural, social, and humanistic commitments.”

While Bhabha hopes “to sow conversation in Harvard’s rich soil,” he wants also “to make links between the center and major institutions outside Harvard that take the whole culture of the humanities seriously, whether they be newspapers or museums or governmental institutions.” He wants to see humanistic concerns have impact “on important areas of policy, whether the policy has to do with education or social interpretation.”

He is exploring new programmatic initiatives. Bhabha imagines a University-wide seminar based at the center that would examine an important, current topic over a period of two or three years. “If the topic were, for instance, changing notions of freedom in the global world, the philosophy and government and sociology departments could address the subject from their perspectives during the first year,” he says. “The next year there might be a different constellation of departments or schools exploring the topic, their results issuing forth in publications, meetings, and conferences. These constellated approaches would create crossroads, I’m hoping, across the University.”