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The Centre for Humanities Innovation

The Transformative Humanities: What, Why and How to Transform?

by Mikhail Epstein. Professor of Russian and Cultural Theory, Durham University

If we look at the major trends in higher education, the cause for what many are calling the “crisis of the humanities” becomes clear. The total number of UK students increased by 13.5% between 2003–04 and 2011–12. The largest growth occurred in mathematical sciences (43.4%), whereas the smallest was in languages (2,5%) and historical and philosophical studies (0,1%). Figures for US universities are even more eloquent. Only about 7% of undergraduates specialise in the humanities: about half as many did in the 1970s.

So it is not difficult to find compelling evidence in support of the increasingly frequent declarations about crisis. But those of us who work in the ailing school should be responsible enough to accept at least part of the blame for the decline of our professions. Currently the tendency seems to be to point an accusing finger at job markets, the economic crisis, the greed of corporations, the indifference of government, shallow consumerism, superficial obsession with new technologies … the list goes on. We need to look more critically at our own methods in order to see what is wrong with the self-proclaimed intentions to keep the moral and liberal spirit of humanity alive.

The current crisis of the humanities is caused by their intellectual autism, characterised by impaired social interaction. The humanities have lost the ability and desire to communicate with humans as spiritual beings; instead, they choose to deal with the texts of the past, mostly for the sake of criticism and deconstruction. The humanities are caught in the old dogma of specification as advanced in the 1920s by Russian Formalism and in the 1930s and 1940s by American New Criticism: everything in literature is reduced to pure literariness, and literariness is further reduced to textuality. There is no metaphysics, no biography, no psychology, and no living people: only texts conversing with other texts. This tenet was further exacerbated by structuralism and poststructuralism. The humanities of today are hypercritical, hypertextual, and hyperpasseist.

In order to overturn this tendency, we need a program for developing the innovative, transformative and future oriented humanities. Here are three key questions:

What to transform?

The humanities have the goal of studying and transforming their subjects, i.e. humans, in all their cultural manifestations. The humanities can be defined as the self–transformation of the human species by the force of its self–awareness and self–exploration. Even while researching the past, the humanities aim to shape human future.

Why to transform?

Without transformative practices and applications, the humanities are what botany would be without cultivation of plants, forestry and gardening, or cosmology without practical exploration of outer space. Scholarship becomes scholastic. All sciences need their own technologies to increase knowledge through experimentation with objects of knowledge. What impact does cultural theory have on contemporary culture, or poetics on living poetry? It should be the task of literary scholarship to project new practices of writing; the task of linguistics should be to create new systems of signs, lexical units and grammatical models that would expand the richness and expressive power of language; and the task of philosophy should be to project new universals and universes, the alternative worlds that may become more and more palpable and habitable through the advance of technologies. Every humanistic discipline needs its practical extension in order to convert knowledge into constructive thinking and creative action.

How to transform?

The system of priorities in the humanities needs radical revision. Today, it encourages the proliferation of overly detailed and highly specialised descriptions rather than genuine new ideas. In order to survive and prosper in the 21st c., the humanities must shift their focus from descriptive scholarship to creative thinking capable of producing new intellectual movements, spiritual practices and socio–cultural institutions. Such a shift in focus would enable the humanities to shape the future on par, and in interaction with, sciences and technologies. The humanities need a transition from their autistic concentration on "close reading" to socially engaged "open reading" and "open writing": open to humans beyond texts and to methods beyond criticism and deconstruction. The humanities must learn how to concentrate and disseminate intellectual energy through concise genres, such as aphorisms, manifestos, programs, theses and thought provoking fragments and drafts. These are genres that would grasp the spirit of creative thinking and resonate with the surging noosphere and technosphere of the 21st century.

Einstein famously stated, "Imagination is more powerful than knowledge." Indeed, knowledge merely reproduces the existing world, whereas imagination creates the world that never existed before. This type of innovation is in short supply in the humanities. Our disciplines must recapture the intellectual initiative and imaginative powers that in the 20th century were appropriated by sciences and technologies.

In the past, the humanities, through philosophical vision, moral imperatives, socio–utopian projections and aesthetic manifestos, led the humankind into the future. Will their sole role in the future be to lead us back into the past?

Mikhail Epstein's view on the new humanities is presented in his book The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto, Bloomsbury Academic, 2012