New Concept – Transhumanities

Transhumanities, Transformative Humanities – the future-oriented humanities that do not limit themselves to scholarship, but rather seek to create their own ways of changing what they study and transforming the human world.

We know that technology serves as the practical extension (“application”) of the natural sciences, and politics as the extension of the social sciences: both technology and politics are designed to transform what their respective disciplines study objectively: nature and society. Is there any activity in the humanities that would correspond to this transformative status of technology and politics?

Nature natural sciences technology transformation of nature
Society social sciences politics transformation of society
Culture the humanities the transhumanities transformation of culture

The transformative humanities encompass all humanistic technologies and all practical applications of cultural theories. When offering a certain theory, we need to ask ourselves if it can inaugurate a new cultural practice, a new artistic movement, a new disciplinary field, a new institution, a new life-style, or a new intellectual community.

For example, the main insights of literary theory, as we study its innovative ideas and peak achievements, are found not in scholarly monographs or articles, but in varios genres of the transhumanities, in particular, literary manifestos, which are products of theoretical imagination, rather than of empirical study and scholarly scrutiny. The manifestos of Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Symbolism, Futurism, or Surrealism proclaim new literary movements and cultural epochs, and they trigger these movements by the very act of their proclamation. Manifestos are performative rather than descriptive speech acts; they implement what they pronounce. Those who found new literary movements typically are not scholars, but a separate breed of creators of ideas and theories. They are transformative thinkers and humanistic inventors.

Manifestos are neither factual nor fictional—they are formative. The proper place of manifestos is precisely in the as yet unmarked domain of theoretical inventions, or the transhumanities. The transhumanities embrace both modes of cognitive advancement recognized by the sciences: the discovery of some existing principles and facts, and the invention of those tools and ideas that can transform a given area of study. Inventorship, as a mode of creativity, is as indispensable a companion to scholarship in the humanities as technology is to science. The transhumanities can be defined in Mikhail Bakhtin’s words as “the co-creativity of those who understand [culture]”, as the constructive and transformative potential of cultural theories.

Our academic institutions, however, currently have no place for such avenues of conceptual creativity. There are departments of literary theory and scholarship (“comparative literature”); departments or programs of fiction and creative writing; but there are no departments of constructive writing in “practical theory”, no transhumanities departments.

Is there any institution in contemporary academia in which such literary inventors and builders as Friedrich Schlegel, Vissarion Belinsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, André Breton, or Walter Benjamin, could flourish as professionals? Imagine Friedrich Nietzsche applying for the position of assistant professor in a department of philosophy and bringing his book Thus Spake Zarathustra as confirmation of his credentials—a book without a single reference, with no list of sources, devoid of scholarly apparatus, and full of pompous metaphysical declarations voiced by an arrogant author in the guise of an ancient Persian prophet. Most likely Nietzsche would be denied even the position of an instructor, while, following his death, dozens of distinguished professors of philosophy have made their careers studying Nietzsche’s oeuvre. The contemporary academy dismisses humanistic inventorship, while retrospectively holding it in such high esteem. The academy’s failure to recognize the cognitive status of the transhumanities raises the question of whether various intellectual capacities are adequately represented at our universities. According to Alfred North Whitehead, “the task of a University is the creation of the future, so far as rational thought, and civilized modes of appreciation, can affect the issue.” Humanistic inventorship, even more directly than humanistic scholarship, shapes our future. For the humanities to survive and to enhance their intellectual impact on society, their transformative branches need to be recognized and institutionalized in contemporary universities by establishing programs in creative thinking and humanistic inventions. The academy needs creative minds in these fields no less than they need the academy.

Mikhail Epstein
(26 November 2013)
Source: Mikhail Epstein. The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. London, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2012
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