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Durham University

The Centre for Humanities Innovation

Repository of New Ideas

The task of the Repositiory is to present new ideas in the most direct and condensed form and to provide a public forum for their discussion. What is crucial to the "new humanities" is a specific genre of "a new idea," so pertinent to the receptiveness and responsiveness of the electronic network.

Jump to:

  1. What is "The Interesting"? (03 December 2013)
  2. The Role of Inventions in the Humanities (24 June 2015)
  3. From interpretation to retextualisation (24 June 2015)
  4. Textonics: Types of Electronic Textual Configurations. (24 June 2015)
  5. From Translation to Interlation and Stereotextuality (1 July 2015)
  6. Horrology - study of the self-destructive mechanisms of civilization (1 July 2015)

Idea No.1: What is "The Interesting"? (03 December 2013)

Name Mikhail Epstein
Email address
keywords Interest, interesting, probability, modality, proof, aphorism, idea, profit, paradox
Further information about your idea Mikhail Epstein, The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, pp. 227 – 237.
Field of expertise Cultural and literary theory; new methods and interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities; postmodernism; the history of Russian literature (particularly Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and 20th century poetry); philosophy and religion in Russia; semiotics and language evolution; ideas and electronic media; essays on cultural, ethical and international issues.
Professional affiliation Emory University, Atlanta, USA; Durham University, UK
Interested in the CHI Membership Yes

What is Interesting about "The Interesting"?

The “interesting” is a complex trans-disciplinary concept often applied not only to works of literature, art, and sciences, but also to real life phenomena - persons, events, actions, relationships, and so on. In its evaluative scope, the interesting is hardly less universal than the “beautiful” or the “truthful”, and it seems to have become even more popular in our day. While in the past a literary or scholarly work was generally valued for its truthfulness and beauty, or usefulness and instructiveness, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries it is a work’s primary evaluation as “interesting” that paves the way for its further assessment, including critical analysis. My intention here is to clarify the meaning of the term “interesting” without sacrificing the breadth of its current usage both within and outside of academia.

The Modal Definition of the the Interesting

The interesting is related to the modal categories of the possible and the impossible, the probable and the improbable. The oscillation between these two and their mutual trans­formation constitutes the phenomenon of the interesting. Thus, what makes a certain theory interesting is its presentation of a consistent and plausible proof for what appears to be least probable. In other words, the interest of a theory is inversely proportional to the probability of its thesis and directly proportional to the provability of its argument. This criterion can be applied to such different fields as religion, history, and physics. For example, the probability of a human being’s resurrection after death would appear to be extremely small, and it is in part for this reason that the Christian narrative, consistently arguing in favour of resurrection, has been the focus of interest for a significant part of humanity for two millennia. Similarly, among the most interesting theories of the twentieth century are those of relativity and quantum physics, the conclusions of which challenge common sense to the extreme, leading to a situation in which the ultimate improbability nevertheless seems to possess scientific provability.

Thus, as the probability of a thesis increases and its provability decreases, a theory becomes less interesting. The least interesting theories, meanwhile, are those that: (1) prove the obvious; (2) speculate about the improbable without solid proof, or, worst of all; (3) fail to prove even the obvious. The interesting is the relationship of provability to probability—that is, a fraction where the numerator is the reliability of the argument and the denominator is the validity of the thesis. The degree of the interesting grows both with the increase of the numerator and with the decrease of the denominator. On the other hand, as the probability of a thesis increases or its provability decreases, a theory becomes dull.

We now see that the category of the interesting emerges as the measure of tension between wonder and understanding, or, in other words, between the alterity of the object and reason’s capacity to integrate it. On the one hand, an object offering a proliferation of wonders without any reasonable explanation diminishes its potential to be interesting because we give up all hope of rationally integrating such a phenomenon. On the other hand, the evacuation of wonder that guarantees an easy triumph for reason undermines our interest as well. If wonder involves the measure of improbability, then reason provides the measure of provability.

The same double criterion of the interesting would hold for a literary text. An interesting plot development is one that is perceived, on the one hand, as inevitable, and on the other, as unpredictable. As in a scientific theory, the logic and consistency of fictional action must be balanced by its provocative novelty. Voltaire’s famous saying, “All genres are good except for the dull ones”, is also applicable to scientific genres and methods. The dull is the opposite of the interesting and is characteristic of research in which, like a story that goes nowhere, the conclusions repeat the premises, and nothing unpredictable happens in between.

Aphorisms as Condensation of the Interesting

For the purposes of my analysis of the interesting, short utterances, rather than long narratives, would perhaps be most suitable. Such utterances as “A table is an item of furniture” or “The Earth revolves around the Sun” are true but trivial, because the truth they describe is well known. On the other hand, such utterances as “A table is an agricultural tool” or “The Earth revolves around Jupiter” are false, yet this does not make them any more interesting. Errors and falsities may be as boring and trivial as plain truths.

Which utterances, then, are most interesting? Those which express truths, but the least evident and predictable ones. Aphorisms, in particular, exemplify the interesting as such, producing a revolution in our consciousness by undermining common-sense truths and affirming apparently unpredictable and nevertheless true ideas. Take the famous saying attributed to Heraclitus: “You cannot step twice into the same river”—a profoundly interesting statement precisely because it denies the obvious fact that one can enter and cross the same river many times. (But, we learn to ask: “Will the river be the same?”, “Will it be filled with the same water?”). Or take Henry David Thoreau’s aphorism: “Men have become the tools of their tools”. The conventional relationship between men and tools is reversed in this statement, but the reversal does not make it false; on the contrary, it suggests a deeper truth about economic alienation and the psychological subjugation of men by their tools.

Among aphorisms, there is a special variety called “paradoxes”; the etymology of the term (Greek paradoxon: from “para-“, beyond, and “doxa”, opinion) suggests the way that paradoxes are understood to conflict with expectation. Oscar Wilde was, famously, a great master of them. “Action is the last refuge of those who cannot dream”, he proposes, reversing the conventional view that dream is the last refuge of those who cannot act. In some cases, a paradox becomes an end in itself, a pure reversal of a plain idea, and does not bring forth a deeper truth. But in fact, any good, memorable aphorism is more or less paradoxical, because it conflicts with our established opinions and defies truisms in order to find the truth at the very edge of common sense. And it is precisely this edge that sets the parameters of an interesting object of whatever kind—text, theory, situation, or individual.

The Interest and the Profit

It is instructive to trace how the modal meaning of “interesting” in its contemporary usage (“curious”, “attracting attention”), a meaning which in English dates only from the late eighteenth century, has evolved from the earlier sense of the word “interest” as a financial term. Since the fifteenth century, “interest” has signified “compensation for loss”, “interest in money lent”, and “money paid for the use of money and the rate of such payment”. Raymond Williams, in his famous dictionary of conceptual etymology, remarks: [i]t is exceptionally difficult to trace the development of interest [from an economic term to] the now predominant sense of general curiosity or attention. . . . It remains significant that our most general words for attraction or involvement should have developed from a formal objective term in property and finance. . . . It seems probable that this now central word for attention, attraction and concern is saturated with the experience of a society based on money relationships. (1985, pp. 172–3)

The development of “interest” from its early financial sense to its contemporary evaluative usage can be explained precisely by the notion of the high value attached to the low probability of profit. There is a clear conceptual connection between the modal definition of interesting and interest as a term of lending and investment. Both refer to the notion of a higher return under the condition of higher risks. The least probable profit results in the highest rate of interest. An idea is more interesting, that is, it generates a higher interest, if its assumptions are less probable. The less predictable a narrative is, the more interesting, i.e. engaging and fascinating, it is. Similarly, higher financial interest is reaped from a more risky investment: the probability of its return is lower, thus the potential gain should be higher.

Our interest in a certain book or a theory is an intuitive anticipation of a possible profit from an intellectual investment. We invest our time, our labor, indeed, a portion of our life in consuming an intellectual product, in the hope that we will be rewarded by multiple gains and eventually receive more than we had invested. If a book or a theory is based on familiar assumptions leading us to obvious conclusions, that is, if they simply return to us what we already know, then they are not worthy of investment as they do not generate interest—in both the financial and cognitive senses of this term.

3 December 2013

Idea No.2: The Role of Inventions in the Humanities (24 June 2015)


Mikhail Epstein

Email address


Invention, humanities, science, creativity, patent, experiment, program, innovation, database, repository

Further information about your idea

Mikhail Epstein, paper presented at the workshop "The Emerging Humanities: Strategies for the Future". 22nd June 2015,Durham University.

The Role of Inventions in the Humanities

Discovery is the product of knowledge, i.e. adaptation of mind to reality. Invention is the product of creativity, i.e. adaption of reality to mind.

Similarly to the division of knowledge into three branches: natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, — inventions are of three kinds: scientific-technological, socio–political (including economics and law), and humanistic. The latter are least recognized and explored, although they are as important for cultural evolution as technological inventions are for material progress.

Scientific–technological: railroads, aviation, vaccination, hybridization, antibiotics, astronautics, holography, the atomic bomb, computing, internet, the i-phone.

Socio–political invention is a new law, institution or procedure that radically change modes of social behavior and establish new forms of human interaction and organization. Examples: constitutions, parliaments, trade unions, boy scouts, suffragism, communism, Zionism, Feminism, Red Cross, Olympic Games, United Nations, Universal Declaration of human rights.

No less than natural or social sciences, the humanities need inventions and inventors. We address to the natural sciences a question of what is the technical potential of a discovery. Equally legitimate would the question whether the humanistic idea or theory is able to generate a new cultural movement or an artistic style? Is it possible on the basis of this idea to create a new intellectual community, a literary group, or a creative environment?

Humanistic invention is a new idea that contains the potential of its own realization in the form of cultural practices, intellectual movements, and forms of creative cooperation.Humanisticinventions encompass culture in its entirety and can be divided according to its domains:

Language: Cyrillic and Armenian alphabets, artificial international languages, orthographic reforms,neologisms and idioms coined by individual authors;

Literature: Neoclassicism,Romanticism, the Gothic novel, Naturalism, Symbolism, Futurism, Socialist Realism, Surrealism;

Art and Music: Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism, Art Deco, Bauhaus, atonality, jazz, rock music, Neorealism, Pop–art, ready–mades;

Philosophy: dialectics, Utopia, the "overman" (Übermensch),semiotics, phenomenology, existentialism, postmodernism, deconstruction;

Psychology: psychoanalysis, behaviorism, stream of consciousness, Rorschach test, multiple intelligences, Enneagram;

Religion: Kabbalah (The Zohar), Protestantism, Methodism, Deism, Pantheism, Mormonism, Bahai.

Some inventions can be attributed to the mixed categories:

Techno-Humanistic: photography, cinema, computer games, hypertext...

Socio-Humanistic: dandyism, hippies, punks, emo, goths, and other youth subcultures ...

The vast majority of inventions have individual creators. This emphasizes the creative nature of even those disciplines, genres, and trends that would seem to have existed eternally and emerged spontaneously of their own accord.

As is clear from this brief inventory, the transformative humanities should be distinguished from the so-called applied humanities. The latter include arts management, librarianship, media and museum studies, archiving and digitalizing practices, etc. The applied humanities aim to make culture accessible to the public, to enlighten and educate society at large, and to popularize the results of research, but this task is radically different from the field of humanistic inventions that transform the very subjects of scholarship: languages, arts, literature, human beliefs, worldviews and psychology.

Types of Humanistic Inventions

Invention in the humanities should be distinguished from creativity as such. Even a great literary work not always is an invention - and vice versa, a work which is far from being a masterpiece can become an invention. For example, Anna Karenina (1878) is Leo Tolstoy's magnum opus and perhaps the greatest novel in history, but it is not an invention. Nikolai Karamzin's "Poor Lisa" (1792), though much more modest, unpretentious, didactic and sensitive story — was the invention of a new literary direction, Russian Sentimentalism. From the viewpoint of literary aesthetics, Charles Dickens' novels were the highest achievement of nineteenth-century English prose, but other writers turned out to be even more successful inventors: Walter Scott invented the genre of historical novel and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein laid foundation for the genre of science fiction.

Invention is not a creation of a given work but rather a certain principle or technique that can be used in the creation of many works. Therefore great inventions often happen to be imperfect accomplishments — in technology as well as in literature or in philosophy. The first steam-engines, phones, cars, planes, computers were primitive works of technical art that cannot match the sophistication of their descendants but this did not prevent them from becoming great inventions. The first photos and movies were aesthetically weak but they created new types and genres of artistic creativity. An invention often occurs in the form of a sketch, a rough draft, an experiment, a hypothesis, i.e. a not completely realized idea which attains to a more developed and perfect embodiment much later, with other authors.

There are several types of humanistic inventions. We will consider them using the area of literature.

1. Spontaneous. Creation of an original work which later finds a number of successors/followers/imitators and becomes the first example and model of a new style, genre or trend. Such an innovation may emerge without the conscious intention of the author and then make an impact on literature, becoming a reference point for the generations to come. Thus Edgar Poe became the inventor of the genre of the detective story ("Murders in the Rue Morgue", 1841).

2. Experimental. The authors pursue the goal of creating a new technique, a genre, a type of narratitive and subordinate their writing, partially or completely, to this purpose. Such are the pinnacles of of experimental literature - Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and James Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

3. Programmatic. The author not simply composes experimental works, but puts forward the whole program of transformation of literature and consciously establishes a new direction, i.e. along with the actual art creates programmatic texts, manifestos, which proclaim a new type of creativity. Thus, Victor Hugo's preface to Cromwell became, along with the drama itself, an act of the invention of the French Romanticism and its major artistic technique - grotesque.

4. Systematic. In rare cases inventorship is not limited to a certain literary direction or technique but is carried out systematically in various areas of creativity. The authors make literary invention their profession de foi and set themselves the task of creating diverse techniques, styles, genres. An instance of such systematic type of invention is Oulipo, "workshop of potential literature", a gathering of French writers and mathematicians who sought to create texts using constrained techniques, founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais. In Russian literature, such systematic innovation was undertaken by Anrei Belyi and Velimir Khlebnikov who invented techniques, genres, grammatical forms, words, and philosophical and mystical concepts. Among the most inventive writers of the XX c. we see the Portuguese poet and essayist Fernando Pessoa who created about one hundred fictional authorial personalities and wrote on their behalf, and the Serbian novelist Milorad Paviç who invented for his prose a special nonlinear form which is better perceived as a hypertext.

It is much more difficult to allocate the elements of invention and novelty in the humanities than in sciences and technologies. For humanistic inventions patents are not granted, though it would be worth establishing such an institution, with the purpose of rewarding the author, at least only morally, and, above all, of drawing attention to radical innovations in the fields of intellectual achievements and human self–awareness.

In addition to the four above–mentioned types, inventions can also differ in their scope. For example, in linguistic area it is possible to invent an entire language (like Esperanto, invented by Ludwik Zamenhof in 1887), or the alphabet (Cyrillic invented in the 9th c. AD), or the colloquial, modernized version of a language (Hebrew revived by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda at the turn of the 19–20 cc.), or methods of word formation (as J. Joyce, V. Khlebnikov), or single words, neologisms (as Lewis Carroll or Andrei Bely).

Thus, the typology of humanistic inventions can be based on the intersection of at least at least three coordinates:

1) Discipline, area (philosophy, psychology, language, art, literature, etc.);

2) Type: spontaneous, experimental, programmatic, systematic;

3) Scale: whole area of cultural activity, its partial forms or separate elements.

A worthwhile experiment would be to build a repository of new ideas in the humanities that would accept electronic preprints for circulation even before the professional journals will make decisions on their publication. Such a database for physics, mathematics and other hard sciences exists at Cornell University Library under the world–famous address: It was established in 1991 and now contains about one million of publications. Many of them have been also published in professional journals but some works, including most influential papers, remain purely as e-prints. We should build a similar Repository of New Ideas in the humanities, or Inventory of Humanistic Inventions, given that the criteria of what to consider a humanistic invention could be clearly pronounced. The task of the Repositiory would be to present new ideas in the most direct and condensed form and to provide a public forum for their discussion.

Idea No.3: From interpretation to retextualisation (24 June 2015)


Mikhail Epstein

Email address


Text, textoid, utterance, internet, interpretation, retextualization, reading, writing, performativity

Further information about your idea

Mikhail Epstein, The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, pp. 69–72.

From interpretation to retextualisation

Does the traditional notion of text being central to the humanities remain intact in the digital era? Or, is the immutable, self-identical text now being converted into flexible, dynamic, nomadic text-like formations that wander from site to site, modified by users, much like an epic song in a traditional community? Perhaps electronic discourse is closer to folklore than to the culture of fixed literary texts. Can we pertinently apply the term “text” to oral and digital genres in preliterate and postliterate societies? Or could the term textoid (the suffix “-oid” of Greek origin meaning “like”, “like that of”) be more precisely used to denote those unstable entities easily changed in the process of their perception?

Bakhtin’s concept of utterance as a speech unit modelled on oral communication, as distinct from text, can illuminate this transition from literary to digital textuality:

The utterance (speech product) as a whole enters into an entirely new sphere of speech communication. . . . The term ‘text’ is not at all adequate to the essence of the entire utterance. There can be no such thing as an isolated utterance. It always presupposes utterances that precede and follow it. No one utterance can be either the first or the last. Each is only a link in the chain, and none can be studied outside this chain. (Bakhtin M., Speech genres and other late essays (trans. V. W. McGee). Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 135–6)

On the one hand, the digital textual formations that can be called textoids are similar to utterances in Bakhtin’s sense. Unlike stable, finished texts, they are fluid configurations of signs obedient to such commands as “cut”, “copy”, “paste”, “find”, or “replace”. On the other hand, the Web allows its users even greater freedom than oral communication: we can insert our voice into utterances of other people, and interrupt, or spontaneously transform, others’ texts. In fact, electronic textoids are even more fluid than utterances as defined by Bakhtin:

[T]he change of speaking subjects, by framing the utterance and creating for it a stable mass that is sharply delimited from other related utterances, is the first constitutive feature of the utterance as a unit of speech communication . . .. In each utterance —from the single-word, everyday rejoinder to large, complex works of science or literature—we embrace, understand, and sense the speaker’s speech plan or speech will, which determines the entire utterance, its length and boundaries. (1986a, pp. 76–7)

For Bakhtin, the utterance is a separate unit of communication produced by a single speaker, which preserves its integrity within a certain interval of speech. This notion of utterance, however, appears too rigid for electronic dispersal of voices and authorships. The Web is a different aggregate state of verbal communication: like watches in Salvador Dali’s paintings, textoids are fluid texts that can acquire any form and blend freely with any other texts and voices.

Another aspect of Bakhtin’s theory of utterance is the role of dialogical context:

The text lives only by coming into contact with another text (with context). Only at the point of this contact between texts does a light flash, illuminating both the posterior and anterior, joining a given text to a dialogue. (1986a, p. 162)

According to Bakhtin, contextualization implies that the meaning of each text can be understood only through its dialogical relationship with other texts, while the text itself supposedly remains unchanged by this textual environment.

Bakhtin’s concepts of utterance and context clearly help to theorize the patterns of electronic communication; however, his conceptual system still falls short of super-fluid forms of textuality now found on the Web. The Web develops a more radical form of contextualization, which can be viewed as retextualization. Texts do not simply “live” by contacting other texts; they are also reshaped by such contacts. In digital networks, contextuality transforms the structure and substance of texts, not only their meanings. For example, we answer emails by altering the received text, inserting our responses and reactions into it. In oral communication, what has been said can never be “unsaid”; the oral message is locked into an immutable past, just as the written text is connected to an immutable presence of its printed medium. In the electronic universe, however, there is only an ever-open future, and everything written can be unwritten and rewritten in multiple ways. Even intellectual discussions on the Web tend not so much to interpret electronic publications as retextualize them, performing new semi-critical and semi-transformative writing on the basis of what has been read.

Web texts lose their fixed character not only because they are subject to spontaneous rewriting, but also because their own structure depends on the activity of reading. In the past, it was the order of writing that determined the linear order of reading; now, on the contrary, what we find published on the Web is determined by what we read and how we read it. Instead of following a ready-made text, we compile a new text in the process of its creative perception. Searching the Web is an increasingly productive method of compositional reading that constructs new supratextual unities, such as virtual anthologies, collections, compilations, and encyclopedias.

Today, to read means not only to follow a text with one’s eyes, but also to compile it with one’s own hands. The position of the reader becomes that of a curator, who arranges and displays artwork at an exhibition. In the world of literature, this corresponds to the role of the compiler of anthologies and collections. Readers compose new texts from the materials provided by the original authors. The position of a hyper-reader contains various possibilities as it combines functions of both the traditional reader and the traditional compiler. In fact, any hyperlink is a multiplier of virtual books emerging in the process of our creative hyper-reading. The hyperlink fastens numerous texts by various authors, organizing them in a different way: repaginating, reshuffling, and thus retextualizing them. Any hyperlinked word, phrase, or idiom can serve as an entry into an entirely different textual universe. We are now reading rhizomatically, in all possible directions along and across the screen. The floating and soaring quality of our gaze, incessantly changing its focus, brings forth the ephemeral quality of those texts that we are creating in the process of reading. It is possible to speak of floating signifieds in the process of reconfiguration of textuality. In this sense, the textoid is a virtual text that exists only in the process of its reading: it has no author other than its reader.

The art of interpretation—the constitutive procedure of the humanities—has developed in response to literary texts as fixed and immutable utterances. Interpretation modifies the meaning of a text based on the assumption that its verbal identity is preserved. Interpretation and literary criticism as we know them are the ingredients of paper culture, reactions to the solid stature of verbal production. In preliterate societies, utterances are not fixed and can be adjusted to the changing conditions of perception through direct performative acts of textual variations. For instance, if one hears a popular song from a neighboring village and wants to perform it to one’s own community, one simply changes it, incorporating local names to adjust it to the needs of the audience. Why do we need to interpret something that can be easily transformed?

Similar performativity applies to the post-literate conditions of digital culture. Instead of interpreting the online text, one simply recites it differently. With the transition to textoids, performativity may supplement or even succeed interpretation in the textual economy of digital networks. A new reading is enacted through rewriting or reframing the textoids, putting them in various metatextual, supratextual, syntextual and other formations (see the idea "Textonics: Study of Elelectronic Textual Configurations").

In literary culture, text has a sacred status, whereas digital culture desacralizes it. If there is no finished aesthetic product, there is nothing to interpret. Understanding a text now involves not simply processing its meaning, but enacting its transformation. Or, in the words of Bakhtin: “understanding supplements the text: it is active and also creative by nature. Creative understanding continues creativity, and multiplies the artistic wealth of humanity” (Bakhtin, op. cit., p. 142). The Web challenges readers, scholars, and critics to participate creatively in what they previously studied and interpreted.

Idea No.4: Textonics: Types of Electronic Textual Configurations. (24 June 2015)


Mikhail Epstein

Email address


Text, electronic text, textonics, megatext, supratext, syntext, pertext, unitext, reading, writing, virtual book

Further information about your idea

Mikhail Epstein, The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, pp. 72 - 76.

Textonics: Types of Electronic Textual Configurations

Textonics is the art of organization and transformation of electronic texts. All the basic humanistic concepts: "read", "write", "text", "interpretation" - take on new meaning in the electronic universe and sometimes even require a diffrenet terminological articulation.

Textonics is part of what is broadly called "digital humanities." Most often DH involves collecting and using information databases in the humanities, as well as teaching and promotion of humanistic knowledge through electronic networks. In the same sense, digitalization can cover both natural and social sciences, i.e. it is not specific to the humanities. Textonics is the use of computer technology to create new textual configurations and to develop new genres of textual creativity, as well as for the reorganization of existing texts. Electronic networks bring forth new textual configurations that were invisible or even non-existent in the age of printed texts.

Megatext, supratext, unitext, pertext—all these concepts reflect the upper levels of textuality, which manifest themselves on the Web and must be studied on their own terms.

Megatext is the totality of texts perceived or studied as one discursive whole, characterized by common topics, symbols, archetypes, keywords, leitmotifs, or stylistic devices. For example, we can talk about the megatexts of German Romanticism, or of Chinese Landscape lyrics, or of the superfluous man in Russian literature.

Supratext designates the same textual configuration but, unlike megatext, it is a relational term that links any text or its fragment with megatexts on other levels. Supratext is a text of a higher, more general plane in relation to the given text. For example, ‘English romanticism’ or the genre of ‘lyrical ballads' are supratexts for S. T. Coleridge’s poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1797–8). Many motifs in Andrey Belyi’s poetry can be understood only within the supratexts of Russian Symbolism and the Antroposophic movement. If context is the environment of a text on the same systemic level, then supratext is a unit of the next, higher level. If Russian Symbolism is a supratext in its relation to the poetry of Belyi, then Russian Modernism or European Symbolism are supratexts in relation to Russian Symbolism. Any literary work, as well as any image, motif, or textual unit has a variety of supratexts and can be understood only in relation to them.

Here is, for instance, a list of some supratexts of Alexander Pushkin’s most famous poem “To***” (“I remember a wonderful moment. . .”):

1 All texts, which include certain lines or expressions of the poem, such as “in a remote corner of the Earth”, “like a fleeting vision”, and “life, tears, and love”;

2 All texts that incorporate the names of Anna Kern (the addressee of the poem) and Alexander Pushkin;

3 All texts that were written in Russian in 1825 because the date of the text’s creation is also a supratextual unit, a common marker of a certain megatext;

4 All texts that were written by Pushkin in the village of Mikhailovskoe because the place of the text’s creation is also a supratextual unit;

5 All texts about love;

6 All texts about memory.

The list of such supratexts can be continued ad infinitum.

Thus, the same text can have many supratexts, depending on which of its components is regarded as the constitutive feature of a given supratext. Supratext is a totality of all the texts united by a common element that can be a phrase, a metaphor, the name of the author, the name of the hero, etc.

All texts, united by a common supratext, relate to each other as syntexts, or co-texts. Just as synonyms are words sharing the same meaning, so syntexts have a common component with respect to which they are determined as "synonymous." For example, the poem "To ***" (“I remember a wonderful moment. . .”) by A. Pushkin, "No, it's not you I love so fervently" by M. Lermontov and "K. B." ("I met you, and the past...") by F. Tiutchev are syntexts modifying the motif of "love memory" and "a second encounter." The notion of "syntext" is particularly important in the textual reality of the network as organized by the search engines. Each search for a certain textual unit is, in fact, the process of collection and comparison of all syntexts that contain it.

The supratext of all existing texts can be called Unitext—the universal text of humanity. Unitext embraces to all texts as the universe embraces to all components of the material world. In 1827, Goethe introduced the concept of “world literature” (Weltliteratur), pointing to the growing unity of national literatures: “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is now at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”

With the development of digital technologies, the unitext becomes a tangible manifestation of the world literature, in which every word is potentially connected to all others. The unitext is both a universal text and a unique text. Just as our universe is unique, there is only one unitext that encompasses everything that has ever been written. This “unitextuality” becomes increasingly achievable through the growing capacity of electronic libraries and automatic translation on the Internet.

Contemporary authors, therefore, must take into account all supratexts in which their texts will be inscribed, including the unitext as the supratext of all supratexts. Before using certain words or expressions, one may want to check the presence, frequency, and combinational capacities of these units on the Web. This can help the author to avoid repetitions, inscribing the text into multiple thematic, disciplinary, ideological supratexts, and even projecting the text’s key words as possible entries in the dictionary-like, hypertextual structure of the entire Internet.

Today, any text must be submitted not only to syntagmatic, but also paradigmatic, reading and writing. The syntagmatic dimension connects each text unit with the surrounding context and is manifested on the printed surface of paper. The paradigmatic dimension connects the text and all its units with their supratexts, which are presented in digital form through actual and potential hyperlinks. This new art of paradigmatic writing and reading weaves each textual thread into the multi-dimensional whole of unitext. In this respect, authors interact with the entire Web, which requires them to be responsible and responsive when selecting words, concepts and metaphors. Each word has to be properly placed not only in its immediate context within a certain text, but also in the supratext of its usage by all other authors throughout the history of writing. For example, while writing about “time as a dynamic image of eternity”, one must place this expression within the vertical context of supratext, in which it would be compared to the same expressions used by Plato, Bergson, Semyon Frank, and many other less famous authors.

The information retrieved by a search engine—the list of the Web pages that contain a certain word or phrase—is also a new type of textual formation. It can be called pertext (from Latin “per”, meaning “through”), and it functions as a table of contents for megatexts or supratexts[1].

For example, the first four lines of the pertext for the word ‘poem,’ according to Google, are as follows:

1 PoemHunter.Com—Thousands of poems and poets. . . Poetry Search . . .

2 Poems

Best poems from famous poets. Read romantic love poems, . . .

3 Love Poems And Quotes—Romantic Love Poetry & More

The pertext is a textual thoroughfare of many different texts connected by a certain unit, such as a word (in this case, “poem”). The pertext is complementary to the concept of the hypertext. The hypertext is a coherent text containing links to many other texts, while the pertext is a collection of links (or references) to many texts connected by a single word or phrase. We encounter pertexts more and more often along with traditional “syntexts”, i.e. coherent texts that are read syntagmatically. Pertexts contain the titles of the sites, the names of the authors, initial sentences of their works, Web addresses, and links to those pages where certain words or expressions are used. If all texts that contain the word “poetry” in them make up a megatext, then the pertext “poetry” serves as a table of content or a collection of references for this gigantic text that, according to Google, contains about 330 million pages.

Multiple virtual books are inscribed in any single pertext and may be open for vertical, rather than horizontal, reading. By a “virtual book”, I mean not simply a digitized paper book, but rather a potential book unique to the compositional capacities of the Web. Using various search engines, it is easy to compile a virtual book of any imaginable content, e.g. an anthology of texts or utterances on any topic. For example, a collection entitled The Dynamic Image of Eternity would be composed of all the texts in which this expression is used.

Thus, we read what we ourselves “write”, our own compositions being compiled from Web searches. This new reconfiguration of textuality imposes new obligations on writers and simultaneously expands the potential scope of their works. Each writer becomes a transformer of unitext, a voluntary or involuntary contributor to the hundreds of virtual anthologies, collections, and online dictionaries. Any textual unit (e.g. a sentence, a paragraph, or a page) becomes a wanderer in the digital world, inserted into the multitude of virtual books that emerge only when Web readers need them. It is interesting to note that the Russian word for page is stranitsa, which is derived from the same root as strannitsa (“a wanderer”). Thus, released from its binding, the emancipated page migrates through disciplines and languages.

From the multitude of such “pages-wanderers”, “stapled” together by the keyword from a Web search, a new virtual book can be compiled in an instant, with the pertext acting as its spine. Writers need to foresee the possibility that each of their pages not only belongs to the original text, but may also fit in the variety of virtual books produced by Web searchers.

If in pre–electronic era supratexts were perceived as abstract sets, speculative constructions (historical, aesthetic, literary), now they are as easy to read, or at least to look through, as traditional "connected" texts produced by their authors. Pertext, or the table of contents of supratext, which appears as a result of the web search, is like the spine of a new virtual book instantly compiled from a variety of sites on the basis of matching the search word, phrase, or fragment.

Any text is now included in a variety of megatextual, supratextual, syntextual, unitextual formations of different levels and has to be written and read, or rather read–rewritten, through all of these configurations, as their potential link. Therefore, the interpretation as a semantic interpretation of a given text is increasingly supplanted by its retextualization - expansion or contraction of its textual frameworks. Deep semantics of the text is replaced by the dynamics of changing configurations of the electronic textual universe. The meaning is transferred from a semantic plane into a syntactic one. If earlier the richness of meaning was projected — through interpretation — to the outside of the text, the sphere of its signifieds, now it is projected on the textual environment, its shifting configurations.

[1] We must distinguish between the “pertext”, as a web phenomenon, and the more conventional literary term “paratext”, which Gérard Genette (1997) defines as those elements that accompany a published work, such as its title, preface or introduction, its illustrations, the name/s of the work’s author/s, etc.

Idea No.5: From Translation to Interlation and Stereotextuality (1 July 2015)


Mikhail Epstein

Email address

Key words

translation, language, polyglossia, stereo effect, Borges, Nabokov, Brodsky, Bakhtin

Further information about your idea

Mikhail Epstein, The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, pp. 76–78.

From Translation to Interlation and Stereotextuality

The globalization of cultures radically changes the role of languages and translation. Transculturalism presupposes translingualism, or what Mikhail Bakhtin called polyglossia: “Only polyglossia fully frees consciousness from the tyranny of its own language”. [1] With the spread of multilingual competence, translation is becoming a dialogical counterpart to the original text rather than its substitution. While bilingual or multilingual persons have no need for translation, they may still enjoy interlation—a simultaneous contrastive juxtaposition of allegedly “equivalent” texts in two or more different languages.

Interlation is a multilingual variation on the same theme, with the roles of source and target languages becoming interchangeable. In his essay The Homeric Versions, J. L. Borges famously argued that we could only evaluate a translation and original fairly if we had no prior knowledge of which is which. What is more important here, however, is not the comparative value of the original and its translation(s), but their complementarity and mutual enrichment. One language allows the reader to perceive what another language misses or leaves unclear.

I will cite one example of interlation from a poem by Joseph Brodsky in Russian and its English auto-translation. The original line Odinochestvo est´ chelovek v kvadrate in Brodsky’s poem To Urania literally reads: “Loneliness is a person squared”. Brodsky himself reconfigures this line into English as “Loneliness cubes a man at random”.

It would be irrelevant to ask which of these expressions, Russian or English, is more adequate to Brodsky’s poetic thought. Both are necessary to embrace the scope of its metaphoric meaning. Both a square and a cube represent the inescapable self-reflexivity and self-multiplication of a lonely person; they convey loneliness as geometric projections intensified by the dimensional transformation of a square into a cube. For bilinguals, this poem becomes a work of unique art that can be called stereo-poetry, which contains more metaphorical levels than mono-poetry. In Brodsky’s poem, the stereo effect is produced by the figurative relationship between the Russian and English lines: the English “cube” amplifies and strengthens the meaning of the Russian “square”. Both the “cube” and the “square” serve as metaphors for loneliness, and at the same time these two words are metaphorically related to each other.

Robert Frost famously said that “poetry is what gets lost in translation”. By contrast, interlation doubles or multiplies the gains of poetry. In addition to metaphors that connect words within one language, a new level of imagery emerges through the metaphorical liaison between languages, producing a surplus of poetic value, not its loss. It can be said that poetry is what is found in interlation.

The author may intend a certain stereo effect, or it can also be achieved through the experience of reading multiple versions of a text. For example, Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography can be read as a stereo-text in two languages (English and Russian) and in three consecutive versions: Conclusive Evidence (1951), Drugie berega (1954), and Speak, Memory (1964). Nabokov himself emphasized that these versions are far from being mere translations, rather they relate to one another as metamorphosis:

This re-Englishing of a Russian re-vision of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.[2] (1964,)

Thus, at the crossroads of languages, a new work of stereo-poetry or stereo-prose is born which can be characterized in Bakhtin’s words: “[I]n the process of literary creation, languages interanimate each other and objectify precisely that side of one’s own (and of the other’s) language that pertain to its world view, its inner form, the axiologically accentuated system inherent in it” (1981, p. 62).

Translation as the search for equivalence dominated the epoch of national cultures and monolingual communities that needed the bridges of understanding rather than the rainbows of co-creativity. When languages were enclosed within monoethnic cultures, their combination was perceived as an artificial device. In the past, the deliberate mixture of languages called “macaronic” were mostly used for comic effect. With the globalization of cultures and automatization of translation, the untranslatability and non-equivalencies among languages come to the foreground as genuine polyglossia. In the proto-global society, a stereo-poem written partly in English, partly in French, and partly in Russian could find a tri-lingual audience that would be able to savor precisely the meaningful discrepancies between the three languages in which the poem is created.

In the course of time, stereo-textuality may come to be viewed as a distinct form of verbal creativity and not just as an exotic outcome of the growing multilingualism. It is known that stereo-cinema (3D film) reproduces sights and stereo-music reproduces sounds more naturally than their mono predecessors. The same can be applied to our intellectual vision and conceptual hearing. Can an idea be adequately presented in only one language? Or, do we need a minimum of two languages to convey the range of thought just as we need two eyes to see and two ears to hear? In the near future, we can envision a set of new multilingual creative activities in the venues of stereo-poetry, stereo-philosophy, stereo-aesthetics, and stereo-criticism. They will draw from a variety of languages and capitalize in meaningful ways on different worldviews. Multilingual writing or, to use Bakhtin’s words, the "mutual illumination and interanimation of languages," may become as conventional for the global age as stereo-music and stereo-cinema are conventional today.

[1] Bakhtin M. The dialogic imagination: four essays. Trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist. Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 1981, p.161.

[2] Nabokov, V. Speak, Memory. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1964, pp. 12–13.

Idea No.6: Horrology - study of the self-destructive mechanisms of civilization (1 July 2015)


Mikhail Epstein

Email address

Key words

terror, horror, technology, ciliization, destruction, humanities

Further information about your idea

Mikhail Epstein, The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. New York and London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012, pp. 173–177

Horrology is the study of the self-destructive mechanisms of civilization, which make it susceptible to all forms of terrorism, including its biological and technological forms. Horrology explores how any accomplishment of civilization can be used against it, as a means for its subversion. So many forms of technology can put humanity at risk that practically any of them deserves its own horrological study. The atomic bomb is one of them. Albert Einstein was deeply shocked and saddened when his famous equation E=mc 2 was finally demonstrated in the most awesome and terrifying way by using the bomb to destroy Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. For a long time he could only utter "Horrible, horrible".

Terror is usually defined as violence, or threats of violence, used for intimidation and coercion; often, terror is carried out for political purposes. In its turn, horror as a painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay is caused by terror. Etymologically, horror is derived from the Latin word horrere, meaning “to bristle with fear”. It would be more appropriate to relate terror and horror not as an act and a reaction to that act, but as the actual and the potential. Horror is caused by the possibility of terror even more than by actual terror. It is known that illness can cure at least one thing—the fear of getting ill. Horror is incurable because it is not the fear of illness, but the illness of fear itself.

If the fear of pollution—civilization’s threat to nature—haunted the second half of the twentieth century, then the twenty-first century may fall prey to another type of horror—the threats of civilization to itself. Ecology, as the primary concern of humanity, is succeeded byhorrology that explores civilization as a system of traps and self-exploding devices, and humankind as a hostage of its own creations.

For example, after 9/11, it is possible to speak of the horrology of aviation and the horrology of architecture (or sky-scrapers). Consider also the threat posed to civilization by self-replicating machines and nano-devices, as described in the “hell” scenario by Bill Joy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, and rendered by Joel Garreau in his book Radical Evolution:

"Robots more intelligent than humans could reduce the lives of their creators to that of pathetic zombies…. Unlike nuclear weapons, these horrors could make more and more of themselves. Let loose on the planet, the genetically engineered pathogenes, the superintelligent robots, the tiny nanotech assemblers and of course the computer viruses could create trillions more of themselves, vastly more unstoppable than mosquitoes bearing the worst plagues"[1].

An archetype of such endless and self-destructive productivity is the magic pot from the famous fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm: the porridge that came pouring out of it began to fill the kitchen, the house, the yard, the street, the town, and potentially the entire world. The more productive a system, the more potentially destructive it becomes in the age of advanced technologies, these “magic pots” of today. As an example, it is possible to speak of the horrology of the Internet, focusing on the spread of viruses in computer networks. Viruses do not spread in telephones or TV networks; it is much more powerful electronic connections that fall easy prey to such misorganisms (to use the same prefix as in the words mistake and misunderstanding). As was shown with the newest Macbook laptops, a hacker can hijack the firmware to render a battery useless, or worse, turn off the temperature management to make it potentially explode; thus, a laptop potentially becomes a bomb ready to explode in our hands.

This self-destructive potential of the hyperactive Western civilization was clearly foreseen by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the early nineteenth century. Though often misrepresented as social utopia, the second part of his Faust testifies to quite the opposite. The activity of Faust as a social reformer and “civilization builder” culminates in his constructing a new city at the shore that is forcefully won from the sea. Faust dreams of settling a new world “on acres free among free people”, and with this last effort he savors his “striving’s crown and sum”:

I might entreat the fleeting minute:

Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!

Faust, lines 11581–2

However, Mephistopheles, who had instigated Faust to this feat, makes a sarcastic note behind the back of his blind and half-deaf patron:

For us alone you are at pains

With all your dikes and moles; a revel

For Neptune, the old water-devil,

Is all you spread, if you but knew.

You lose, whatever your reliance—

The elements are sworn to our alliance,

In ruin issues all you do.

Faust, lines 11544–50

Such is Goethe’s vision of the master terror, whose executor turns out to be “the sea devil” Neptune himself, or Mephistopheles’ brother. Terror is not a chaotic destructive action against civilization, but an ironic accomplishment of the latter’s own catastrophic potential.

Horrology as a dicipline is the reverse of all other disciplines, it is a negative science of civilization: hence nega–technology, nega–architecture, nega-sociology, nega-politics, and nega-aesthetics as branches of horrology. Everything studied by other disciplines as positive attributes and structural properties of civilization, horrology studies as a growing possibility of its self-destruction.

[1] Garreau, Joel. Radical evolution: The promise and peril of enhancing our minds, our bodies—and what it means to be human. New York: Broadway Books, 2005, p. 139.