rhizomes.02 spring 2001

The Role of The Humanities in Global Culture:
Questions and Hypotheses
Mikhail Epstein

1. Global Citizenship and the City of Humanitas

[1] One of the key terms of the early 21st century is "global citizen." How to educate and nurture this "character from the future"? A citizen is a person who owes allegiance to a state ("a city") and is entitled to protection from it. To which city does a global citizen have allegiance? Is this a political body (world government, the UN), an economic body (multi-national corporation), or an informational body (system of communications, the Internet)?

[2] I doubt that global citizenship entails an allegiance to a government, a corporation, or a network. My answer would be: the City of Humanitas. This Latin word combines three meanings:

human nature, humanity;
kindness, compassion, human feeling; and
culture, education, refinement, civilization.

The concept of Humanitas unites the biological and moral dimensions of the human species with the disciplines of the humanities, as the concept of personality unites the biological nature of the human individual with his/her capacity for self-consciousness, self-exploration, and self-determination.

[3] However traditional this equation of globality with humanity may seem, we do not have any alternative way to measure the "globality" of a certain theory or practice unless it can be applied to--and enacted by--all humans, human kind as a whole. Of course we have to distinguish between Humanitas as it was perceived by the early humanists of the 15th-16th centuries, and as it can be reconceptualized now, after the dramatic lessons of ethnic, racial and cultural diversity that the 20th century has taught us, both in a positive and negative sense, as an experience of contradictions and reconciliations, of differences and interferences. Humanitas as it grows today out of ethnic and cultural diversity, is related not to the pride of humans as the center of the universe but to the incompleteness of each culture unless it finds its dialogic space with other cultures and traditions.

[4] Some postmodern intellectuals may find the concept of Humanitas a liberal illusion, a setback from the principle of uncompromising diversity. In this case, the concept of globality also should be put under suspicion. It is hardly possible to divorce globality from humanity: either both of them are working concepts, though in need of qualification and elaboration, or both are rotten bourgeois prejudices.

[5] I would like to add, however, that what makes Humanitas of the early 3rd millenium different from the Humanitas of the mid 2nd millenium, is its self-awareness of localities. The Muse of the Humanities now talks with the Genius of Locus. Thus it may be terminologically effective to speak about Glocality rather than mere Globality. Each process, to maintain its dynamics, needs a counterpart, and globalization is accelerating today simultaneously with localization of cultures. Glocality means that we are truly global not in claiming some universal truths but in acknowledging limitations of our locality and giving voice to other models and traditions beyond our own. GloCality is a (self)critical concept whereas gloBality sounds (self)aggrandizing. Glocality is the globality that departs from locality and never reaches its final global destination.

[6] Claude Levi-Straus suggested that the 21st century will be the century of the humanities, or there will be no such a century at all. If we allow particular political or economic or religious interests to prevail over the self-constitutive consciousness of humanity, it will end in self-destruction; thus the humanities hold the key to the biological survival and cultural self-construction of the species.

2. Globality and Interdisciplinarity

[7] Is the age of globality paradigmatically close to "the theory of everything," the ultimate "unification" of all physical, biological, social and cultural phenomena in one theory? Can global studies accomodate sociobiology, cultural genetics, memetics, cognitive science and other theories that claim the fundamental interconnectedness of culture and nature? What is the relation of these "postmodern" disciplines and strategies to the concept of the humanities as it was shaped by the Renaissance and developed throughout Modernity?

[8] What are the temptations and dangers of interdisciplinarity, of new scientific discourses that present themselves as theories of everything? The more a certain method X claims to be interdisciplinary, the more it usurps the right to speak on behalf of all disciplines and to produce a unified picture of the world. The result is the expansion of post-totalitarian discourses, a new methodological imperialism. Though the postmodern critique did much to undermine the so-called "metanarratives" and grand ideological schemes (religious, Marxist, liberal ones), it has created is own dogmatics, its own neo-foundational discourses that claim to unite all knowledge on a specific methodological foundation:

Physical theory of everything.
Chaoplexity (theory of chaos and theory of complexity that have merged).
Cognitive Science.
Artificial Intelligence.
Cyberspace and Global Communication.

Can we subscribe to any of these discourses; should we reject them? How shall we treat these new cognitive ambitions and ambivalencies? Are not these disciplines/discourses an example of a new, postmodern methodological expansionism?

3. The Humanities and Sciences

[9] Today's physics, with its theory of superstrings vibrating in 10 dimensional spaces, becomes increasingly similar to science fiction (an observation of the physicist Steven Weinberg, 1982 Nobel Prize winner). The humanities, on the other hand, become increasingly similar to dull accounting, as they slip into the empirical science of intertextuality. Is it possible to reverse this trend and to make the humanities more akin to the human ability to wonder? May the reenchantment of the humanities become part of the methodological agenda of the next century? On the other hand, the demand for the reenchantment of the humanities can be seen as even more oppressive than the demand for scientific rigor, since it kills the freedom of thinking by imposing the obligation of freedom and unpredictability.

[10] Many scientists believe that contemporary physics converges with the humanities, with aesthetics or even poetry and theology, because the rules of symmetry and elegance apply no less to mathematical equations and unified field theory than to the humanities.

[11] Statements of the three major contemporary physicists. Source: John Horgan. The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. NY: Broadway Books, 1997.

[12] Sheldon Glashow, Nobel Prize winner, electroweak forces (1979). "...Contemplation of superstrings may evolve into an activity as remote from conventional particle physics as particle physics is from chemistry, to be conducted at schools of divinity by future equivalents of mediaeval theologians. /.../ ...for the first time since the Dark Ages, we can see how our noble search may end, with faith replacing science once again". 63

[13] David Lindley (the author of The End of Physics, 1993). "Physics working on superstring theory, Lindley contended, were no longer doing physics because their theories could never be validated by experiments but only by subjective criteria, such as elegance and beauty. Particle physics, Lindley concluded, was in danger of becoming a branch of aesthetics". 70.

[14] David Bohm. "This division of art and science is temporary. It didn't exist in the past, and there's no reason why it should go on in the future. Just as art consists not simply of works of art but of an attitude, the artistic spirit, so does science consist not in accumulation of knowledge but in the creation of fresh modes of perception. The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained". 88-89.

[15] If sciences explicitly acknowledge their dependence on the "human factor," how can the humanities respond to this "gesture of invitation" and strategically use the "commanding height" that the sciences are ready to yield to them in contemporary knowledge?

4. Scholarship and Inventorship. Techno-Humanities, or Culturonics.

[16] In his Emory lecture "The Future of the University in the Digital Age" (March 8, 2000), James J. Duderstadt (president emeritus of the University of Michigan and director of the Millennium Project) predicted that subtle shifts in scholarship will occur as research is done in teams linked by technology: "The shift will also come in knowledge production, away from knowing what has been to what has never been." (Emory Report, March 20, 2000 Volume 52, No. 25).

[17] Are the humanities a purely scholarly field, or should there be some active, constructive supplement to them, in the way technology serves as the practical extension ("application") of natural sciences, and politics, of social sciences.

Nature - natural sciences - technology - transformation of nature

Society - social sciences - politics - transformation of society

Culture - the humanities - ??? (culturonics? trans-humanities? techno-humanities?)- transformation of culture

[18] The tendency in the "applied humanities" up to this point has been to politicize or to technologize these disciplines, that is, to subject them to the practical modalities of natural or social sciences. We need a practical branch of the humanities which resonates with technology and politics, but is specific to the cultural domain. What to call it? Culturonics? Trans-humanities (transformative humanities)? Techno-humanities?

[19] The latter term would refer to the art of the humanities, the art of building new intellectual communities, new paradigms of thinking and modes of creative communication rather than simply studying or critiquing the products of culture. This does not mean that the humanities should steal the idea of "techno" from scientific technology; it was technology that stole "techno" (the idea of the art) from the humanities, and it's time for its reappropriation. The inclusion of this term intends not to "scientize" the humanities but on the contrary, to draw them closer to art, to creativity in the sphere of ideas and communications. Is a certain theory able to inaugurate a cultural practice, an artistic movement, a new disciplinary field, a new institution, life style or intellectual community? "Inventorship" should become as indispensable a companion to scholarship in the humanities as technology is a companion to sciences.

5. The Humanities and The Internet

[20] How does the Internet affect the nature and methodology of the humanities? Does it enhance their creative potential by reducing the amount of mechanical effort (through electronic archives and hypertext in place of footnotes) and by providing more intensive interdisciplinary links and intercultural communications through digital networks? How does the Web affect academic institutions and professional communities in the humanities (the status of electronic publications and peer reviews, the rise of newsgroups, technological subversion and/or protection of intellectual property; new forms of (co)authorship or the communal ownership of texts)? Is the traditional notion of text, which is central to the humanities, left intact in the digital world or, rather, is it converted into flexible, dynamic, nomadic forms that wander from site to site and are modified by users, much like an epic song in a traditional community? Can we properly apply the term "text" to oral and digital genres in preliterate and postliterate societies, or would the term "textoid" be more appropriate for these unstable entities that are easily changed in the process of their perception? (On these open, dynamic texts where the reader must perform specific actions to generate a literary sequence, which may vary for every reading, see Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1997). How will the gap between reading and writing be narrowed or erased in post-literate communities? The art of interpretation--the constitutive procedure of the humanities--developed in response to the fixed status of texts in literate societies. What will succeed interpretation in the textual economy of the digital networks?

6. Translation and Interlation. Stereo-Textuality

[21] Will the globalization of cultures change the role of languages and translation? With the spread of multilingual competence, translation will serve not as a substitution, but rather as a supplement to the original text, a multidimensional, "culturally curved" discourse, "interlation" rather than simply translation. Interlingual writing and reading will focus on the non-equivalency of the two texts in different languages running against each other. The translation will allow both writers and readers to feel deeper the untranslatibility of texts and to perceive aesthetically the metaphorical relationship between the original and the translation, or rather between the two ingredients of the interlingual play. According to Robert Frost, "poetry is what is lost in translation"; but if the translation is intended as a supplement rather than a substitution of the original, then a new level of a metaphoric play between languages provides a surplus (not a loss) of poetic value. When I'm reading in a poem of Andrei Voznesensky "we are people" and in its translation by Auden "people (meaning us)," I'm interested not so much in these two passages as such (rather trivial in contents) but in their curved figurative relationship. Translation as the search for equivalency has dominated the epoch of national cultures and monolinguistic communities that needed simple bridges of understanding rather than rainbows of co-creativity. But with globalization of culture and with automatization of translation, the aesthetics and semantics of non-equivalency comes to the foreground. A work written in parts, where appropriately, in English, in French, and in Russian, can find an audience that is able to relish precisely the meaningful discrepancies and gaps among languages... In the past, such multilinguistic style was called "macaronic" and was used mostly as a comic, parodic technique. Indeed, when languages were enclosed within monoethnic cultures, their mixture was percieved as an artificial device. In the global world, multilingual discourse is becoming a "normal" response to the interference of cultures and languages.

[22] This posits further fundamental questions on the effects of "stereo-textuality." Can an idea be adequately presented in only one language, or do we need a minimum of two languages (like two eyes or two ears) to convey the volume of thought and image? Can we project, in the near future, a sort of stereo-poetics and stereo-philosophy that use a variety of languages and fill interlingual spaces, in the same sense that we've become accustomed to stereo-music and stereo-cinema? Will such growth of interlingual and interlational discourses become a hallmark of the global age?

7. The Humanities and Transculture

[23] Is the "multicultural" model--the pluralistic world of self-enclosed cultures, each valuable in itself--sufficient for understanding new cross-cultural flows? Or do global studies have to work out a new model that will challenge "mosaic" multiculturalism, as multiculturalism had earlier challenged the "melting pot" model and the "universal cultural" canon? How can we move away from multiculturalism without losing the value of cultural diversity?

[24] What paradigmatic shifts in the humanities can we expect in the age of global culture? Could we move from the model of "difference" (or "differance") that dominated the humanities in the 1970s-1990s to, say, a model of "interference," assuming that the most beautiful patterns in culture (as in nature) are created by flows coming from various traditions, epochs and disciplines? The "interference" model would no longer isolate cultures from each other, but rather would open up, in the liminal space between them, perspectives of both self-differentiation and mutual involvement.

[25] Globalization produces new effects of cultural networks dispersed beyond national boundaries, whereby more and more persons transcend their inborn cultural heritage. Does this lead to a new cosmopolitanism, or are we witnessing an even more radical break with the traditional concept of culture? In the global age we are progressively liberating ourselves from our cultural limitations in the same way that people in the past sought to transcend the limitations of their physical environments. If culture positions itself outside nature, how can we conceptually articulate this new sphere in which humans position themselves outside their cultures? How are our physical and cultural bodies related to these new transcultural dimensions?

8. The Humanities and The University

[26] What is the role of the humanities in the university? There are two interconnected questions crucial for the self-determination of the university in the 21st century.

  1. Why cannot computer based educational technologies, such as distance learning, replace the University as the real Place, the community of collaborators and interlocutors?
  2. What makes the University different from a shopping mall, a commercial server for buyers of diplomas and professions?

[27] In my view, these two questions are crucial for the self-determination of the university in the 21st century. Both are interconnected and have one answer. The university is not an informational network and is not an intellectual supermarket because it is a humanistic institution. Its purpose is to educate humans by humans for the sake of humanity.

[28] Alexander Pushkin's poem "The Conversation of a Bookseller with a Poet" (1824) includes one remarkable passage: "Inspiration is not for sale though it is possible to sell a manuscript." Teachers share with students their inspiration, not only their manuscripts (notes, books, ideas). Sometimes in the classroom I ask myself: can my instruction be computerized, transferred to a disk, offered as a digital package? I hope, the answer is no.

[29] We do not need to diminish the value of the market economy that has shaped the ethos of modernity, or the value of information technology that is shaping the ethos of postmodernity. I suggest, however, that the next historical period will witness a new ethos of eco-humanity, an attempt to revive humanity as a disappearing species that needs preservation and cultivation. In the coming era of humanless production, robotic post-industrial enterprises, self-managing plants and electronic networks, the university can become a very special place as the sanctuary and preserve of Humanitas. (This word connects biological, moral and cultural dimensions of humanity in one concept). This may be a rather pessimistic view on the fate of humanity as an endangered species but this is quite an optimistic view of the role of the University as the ultimate refuge of this species.

[30] I think that education is one of the most mysterious and intimate moments in the life of personality--a truly existential experiment and revelation about myself and others. Usually professional activity, even in creative arts, is presented in premeditated and generically predetermined forms, for example, as paintings, poems, dances--as results from which the professional has already distanced herself even if she is singing or acting on the scene. In education, the mystery of human creativity is revealed most intimately and spontaneously, as the self-creation of a personality here and now through her dialogue with others.

[31] Therefore, education is not only a social but also an existential event, or, more precisely, a rare case of existential sociality where sociality and existentiality do not exclude but presuppose each other. Though "reproducibility" is considered a standard requirement for academic research, education involves "irreproducible" moments of human interaction here and now, it is "becoming-through-knowledge" rather than acquisition of knowledge as such. Education is an improvisational activity which exercises the human capacity for wonder, freedom and unpredictability. Education is not just talking about what we already know, but creating a social event of co-thinking where each participant is as unknown to others as he is unpredictable to himself.

9. Specialists and All-Purpose Intellectuals.

[32] Some contemporary theorists offer a vision of a specialist as a professional animal fully immersed into his isolated disciplinary domain of special terms and conceptual schemes that he cannot and should not estrange and objectify. Stanley Fish is an advocate for such a limited notion of professionalism: "Competent members of a practice not only already know what to do,--they need no theory to tell them--they can do nothing else, at least as long as they think of themselves as occupying this role (lawyer, baker, candlestick maker) rather than another. . . .Theory can add nothing to the abilities we already have as members of whatever practice we think of as ours. . . .The literary critic who picks up a poem--who knows that it is a poem he is picking up--doesn't have to ask himself, 'what do I do now?' He's already doing it..." (Response: Interpretation Is Not a Theoretical Issue. Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, vol. 11, 1999, p. 513).

[33] Such professional automatism and reluctance to estrange and rethink one's one practice hardly can serve the future of the humanities. To put it roughly and maybe crudely, an intellectual of the future will stand among specialists, like a human being stands among animals. Animals, however beautiful and useful they are, are what they are, whereas a human being can choose herself to be this or that and to be different from herself. Humanistic education aims at the capacity of critical thinking, elucidating each discipline's inherent ideology, rhetoric, and hidden assumptions, and making strange what seems familiar and routine to the practitioners of the profession.

[34] It is not a certain disciplinary field that is in the center of humanistic education but a thinking personality that can convert values of various disciplines into one another. The task of humanistic education is not to produce specialists, but to create creators, intellectuals of broad profile who would be able to reeducate themselves and to change fields of concentration during their careers. "They would be all-purpose intellectuals who were ready to offer a view on pretty much anything, in the hope of making it hang together with everything else." (Richard Rorty, "Pragmatism and Philosophy," in After Philosophy: End or Transformation? ed. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, Cambridge, MA, and London: The MIT Press, 1991: 56).

10. The Rewards of The Humanities.

[35] What are the REWARDS of the humanities? The term "reward" suggests that the humanities do not have "goals" or "uses" beyond themselves. Service to the humanities is rewarded by the humanities themselves. Can we extend to the humanities the Kantian imperative as it was earlier addressed to individual humans: to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, as an end and never as merely a means? What could be the ethical foundation for a new humanistic methodology, as compared with structuralism, poststructuralism, Marxism, existentialism, and other methods that prevailed in the 20th century humanities?

11. Humanology and A-Humanities

[36] Humanists shall consider the project of a new discipline--HUMANOLOGY--that will focus on the forms and transformations of humanity specific to the postmodern, electronic age. Humanology is the study of human functions and specifics in posthuman societies where machines assimilate many functions previously fulfilled by humans, such as labor, calculation, management, reproduction, even consciousness (artificial intelligence)... Humanology is the ecology of humans, the exploration of the human milieu in the era of its tecnological subversion and erosion. Some forms of humanity disappear, because they are transferable to technical functions; some are irreducible and shall be preserved. In the past, nature served as the cradle of humanity, now humanity serves as the cradle of technology, as a link and transition between the natural environment and artificial milieu. Humanology as a discipline, would be different from the humanities. The humanities study products and forms of human activity; humanology studies humans as products and instruments of technical activity.

[37] In the 21st century the humanities may undergo a radical crisis similar to that in theology of the 20th century. The kenosis of God: His self-exhaustion in humanity--may further extend in the kenosis of humans: their self-exhaustion in technology (artificial intellect and artificial life). Thus the humanities need to adapt their project to the perspective of "creative disappearance" of humans. Along with a-theology that examines the absense of God, can we envisage the a-humanities that explore the human dimension in its radically alienated or degraded forms, such as colonies of computer viruses?

[38] All these questions are not intended to impose certain hidden assertions but rather to suggest the inescapable interrogativity of humanistic thinking. Interrogo ergo cogito.