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  • Mutant TonguesTranslating English in the Postcolonial Humanities
  • Vicente L. Rafael (bio)

Post-colonial humanities, Singapore, Philippines, USA, comparative humanities history, language policy

I. Capitalism and cosmopolitanism

About a year ago, I received an invitation to give a talk at the Nanyang Technical University (NTU), the second-largest university after the National University of Singapore in the Southeast Asian city-state. As part of a series of celebrations marking the tenth anniversary of the founding of the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences at NTU, it was also an opportunity to reflect on the role of humanities in Singapore and the world at large. As the e-mail from Professor Wee Wan-ling put it: “Since the late 1990s, many East and Southeast Asian societies have become increasingly interested in reforming their educational systems … to produce creative and thoughtful students who can better participate in an increasingly globalized world where innovation in the workplace is important. Developing skills in critical thinking, analysis, argumentation, research, and [End Page 93] writing, the humanities and social sciences have come to the fore as educational reform advances.”

There are a number of interesting things that struck me in this note. First was the implicit acceptance of the role of education as a means of production. It exists to turn students into citizens of the nation-state, but only insofar as they were also workers for the “globalized world.” Second is the role ascribed to the humanities. They are meant to provide certain skills: “critical thinking,” “analysis,” “argumentation,” “research,” and “writing,” all of which were necessary components for “innovation in the workplace.” At the vanguard of educational reform, the humanities and social sciences are assigned the task of refining the preparation of students for careers, making them “competitive” in the global workplace. Thus is education in general, and the humanities in particular, invested with the capacity to produce a cosmopolitan citizenry. But it is a cosmopolitanism that is wholly enveloped within the workings of global capital.

If these assumptions seemed noteworthy to me, it is perhaps only because I don’t live in Singapore, where these notions go without saying. Based in the United States, while doing research on what is perhaps the Southeast Asian country furthest away from Singaporean ethos, the Philippines, I tend to take note of these notions only because they seem so natural in Singapore while they remain vexed and contested in the two other countries I am most familiar with. In what follows, I want to ask about this difference. How does a comparative understanding of the histories of Singapore, the Philippines, and the United States help us track the formation of the humanities in the current moment, often characterized as one of neoliberal globalization? How does education in the humanities at once continue and displace the work of what was once called national development? How does the nation-state recruit languages—specifically English and the mother tongues—into the work of translating the inhuman conditions of global capital into the humanizing ideology of development? In the case especially of Singapore, how does the work of English translation create new—one could even say mutant—formations of expression that exceed, if not defy, the nation-state’s mandates for an educated citizenry? What are the consequences of such linguistic defiance for revising regnant ideas about the prospects for pursuing a postcolonial humanities? [End Page 94]

II. Humanizing Globalization

In the United States, the so-called crisis of the humanities has emerged in the last three decades precisely from the growing hegemony of global capital. Whereas the state—both federal and local—used to provide for teaching and research in the humanities, it has drastically cut back on its financial support. Since the 1990s, public schools and universities have increasingly relied on private and corporate funding. The result has been the transformation of the university along the lines of a corporate culture. At the same time, the work of the faculty has multiplied while their pay has dwindled. By contrast, the number of administrators has swelled along with their pay. Tenure-line positions have been drastically cut back, and casual labor in the form of contractual...


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