Saturday, August 23, 2014

MIkhail Epstein: Tranformative Humanities: A Manifesto

 I am beginning Mikhail Epstein’s Transformative Humanities for the second time. My plan is to write something about each chapter. Looking back to April 2013, you’ll find a post on Epstein's Chapter 6, entitled "Semiurgy: From Language Analysis to Language Synthesis,"chapter. But I am starting over again with the introduction. You can find Professor Epstein’s smiling and friendly face on the Web. At his Emory University Website you might sum up his areas of expertise, by using the old fashioned term Renaissance individual: “cultural and literary theory; the history of Russian literature (especially Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and 20th century poetry); contemporary philosophy and religion; Western and Russian postmodernism; new methods and interdisciplinary approaches in the humanities; semiotics; modalities; lexicology and neologisms; ideological discourse; ideas and electronic media.” Many of these interests, especially, Western and Russian postmodernism through to electronic media are evident in the “Introduction” to his work. Professor Epstein was born in 1950 in Moscow, and, according to his “brief biography” at, he graduated from Moscow State University in 1972. From 1978 he was a member of the Union of Soviet Writers specifically for literary studies and criticism, the founder and director of the  Laboratory of Contemporary Culture in Moscow. In 1990 he moved to the United States.

Something that comes across strongly in the opening pages of Epstein’s book is a sense of optimism not only for the humanities but maybe even for humanity.  In short, the humanities should be about becomings and initiations, rather than “a consummated past” (19).

Epstein considers the “crisis” in the humanities, and reviews some of its practitioner's more pessimistic prognostications. He suggests that alienation has long been a trait of humanists, who saw themselves as outside of a production and consuming, materialist world. Epstein suggests that this is no longer a meaningful stance to take, because we now live in a world where “ideas rather than material riches makes up the wealth of society” (3). [I’ll have to give this a little thought—we do claim to live in an information world, but consumption of and amassing of material goods is still very much part our society]. If this is the case, humanists gain nothing by cultivating a sense of alienation from the societies of which they are a part…what if humanities were viewed as fully integral parts of the societies  from which they have been in long opposition, what would that mean for the humanities? For the world?

Epstein calls out the humanities for having taken a turn away from the study of humans to the study of texts. “Humanities stopped being human studies and became textual studies” (2). Criticism rather than creativity became the focus. You could say that the humanities lost site of the power of texts to transform humans, to impart ideas that make us more human as we learn more about ourselves and the world we live in. If the text is the subject and the object, can there be transformation, can the world be changed?

While the humanities seek to, in some respects, imitate the sciences, the sciences, claims Epstein, are looking to concepts from the humanities. In coming to an understanding of the universe, in the development of artificial intelligence, in the exploration of consciousness, the sciences need the humanities for its fuzziness, metaphor, concepts of free will, language, investigation of ethical and theological problems, creativity, and intuition. How can one even begin to conceive of and describe the extent and nature of an infinite universe without imagination and metaphor? In considering the humanities' tension between criticism and creativity, he suggests a new term, techno-humanities, which would encourage a move toward the ancient Greek term techne, defined as craftsmanship. As such, techno-humanities aligns the humanities not with the sciences but with artistic creativity, with the power of imagination and the ability to create new concepts that will lead to new ways of thinking and newly constructed paths.  Thinking of creation as opposed to criticism, Epstein considers the manifesto. Manifestos propose something new, not yet realized. They are not written by scholars nor are they a result of scholarship, they are acts of creative inventorship that have the power to transform institutions, create movements, foment ideas, and lead to entirely new disciplines. As a rule, we are not taught to write manifestos in academia.

Techno-humanities and inventorhsip are two of Epsteins’ Futurlogisms: new words that embrace concepts that do not as yet exist. Some of the terms he offers up in the introduction are culturonics and pragmo-humanities, techno-humanities as already mentioned, and of course, transformative humanities. A futurlogism is a one word manifesto. In turn, Epstein tells us that a manifesto is a book length futurlogism.

Finally, Epstein does not see the machine as the enemy to humanities, rather it is a tool; a prospect for innovation.  Indeed, the mechanical manipulation of texts by scholars can leave the humanities still mired within the realm of textual studies, still missing the link to how engagement with texts can lead to the transformation of our understanding of self and human society.  The tools enable the scholar to “ask new questions” of the text, but where do the answers lead?  Epstein wants us to expand our language, create words that help us to envision new meaning and that lead us from ourselves to the rest of the world and back to ourselves. This journey should leave us transformed and make it possible for us to transform the world we live in.

Epstein concludes the introduction with the following questionsj (20):

What makes a theory interesting?
How can these criteria be equally applied to a work of fiction and to a work of scholarship?
What is the modality of humanistic discourse?
Why does the category of possibility acquire a new meaning in contemporary philosophy?
What is understood by research in academia and why should the acquisition of knowledge as its goal be complemented, in our professional orientation, with the value of conceptually creative and hypothetical thinking?

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