Inaugural International Conference ‘Beyond Crisis: Visions for the New Humanities

Inaugural International Conference
Centre for Humanities Innovation (CHI), Durham University, UK

Beyond Crisis: Visions for the New Humanities
July 7-8, 2014

We have received more than fifty submissions for the upcoming conference and about thirty of them have been accepted. Confirmed plenary speakers include Prof. Thomas Docherty (Warwick), Prof. Francis Donoghue (Ohio State University), Prof. Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway), Prof. Sander Gilman (Emory University), and Dr Luciana Parisi (Goldsmiths University of London). The registration to the conference will open within a week, please look for our announcements.

For further queries please contact the organisers (Prof. Mikhail Epstein, Dr. Caitríona Ní Dhúill, Dr., Gerald Moore) at the dedicated conference email: humanities.innovation@durham.ac.uk.


Most people agree that the humanities are going through transition, even if they disagree over the details. At the more optimistic end of the scale, exemplified by the Digital_Humanities project, the collapse of the paradigm of classical humanism has coincided with the proliferation of visual and digital culture, creating unprecedented possibilities in a field that is already defined by constant intellectual renewal. More pessimistically, however, an ideological shift toward the sciences means, on one hand, that student numbers and funding for the humanities continue to fall, while, on the other, humanities research is increasingly assessed against inappropriate criteria designed for the sciences. Even among advocates of the humanities, debates on their future continue to be framed in economic terms, with critics caught in the contradictory position of heralding our contribution to the labour market, while valorising the unquantifiability, the irreducibility to exchange-value, of critical thought.

Have we no choice but to adapt to the culture of commodification, to pursue profit and output in a way that entails complicity in the very processes we are seeking to resist? How might we harness the creativity and intellectual resources of the humanities to envision and create alternative futures? Does the future of the humanities lie in becoming anti- or post-human, or in a renewal of the ‘human’, however defined? To what extent does the relentless growth of science and technology both constrain and liberate our possibilities of becoming-other?

The Durham Centre for Humanities Innovation (CHI) has been founded to contest the inevitability of acquiescence in the marginalisation of the humanities; to foster intellectual creativity in scholarship and research; and to encourage the creation of new ideas, concepts, mental schemes, and other products of intellectual imagination. Discussions of the humanities’ future, and of the future humanities, have recently appeared in the form of book-length manifestos (John Russo 2005; Martha Nussbaum 2010; Mikhail Epstein 2012). The modality of the manifesto reflects the urgent need for methodological breakthroughs in the humanities.

In a bid to break with the established format of papers followed by questions, our inaugural conference will revolve around brief presentations on pre-circulated material, opening onto discussion and collective improvisation, with the aim of creating a programme for action. Topics for consideration include:

  • Creativity and imagination in the humanities
  • Paradigmatic and methodological innovation in the humanities; new genres and disciplines
  • Humanities scholarship as foundation for cultural practices
  • The humanities and the digital: modes of mutual transformation
  • The humanities confronting environmental challenges
  • ‘Third Cultures’: effective interactions between the humanities and sciences
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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

Inaugural Conference ‘Beyond Crisis: Visions for the New Humanities’

Inaugural Conference
Centre for Humanities Innovation (CHI), Durham University, UK

Beyond Crisis: Visions for the New Humanities
July 7-8, 2014
Call for Manifestos

Most people agree that the humanities are going through transition, even if they disagree over the details. At the more optimistic end of the scale, exemplified by the Digital_Humanities project, the collapse of the paradigm of classical humanism has coincided with the proliferation of visual and digital culture, creating unprecedented possibilities in a field that is already defined by constant intellectual renewal. More pessimistically, however, an ideological shift toward the sciences means, on one hand, that student numbers and funding for the humanities continue to fall, while, on the other, humanities research is increasingly assessed against inappropriate criteria designed for the sciences. Even among advocates of the humanities, debates on their future continue to be framed in economic terms, with critics caught in the contradictory position of heralding our contribution to the labour market, while valorising the unquantifiability, the irreducibility to exchange-value, of critical thought.

Have we no choice but to adapt to the culture of commodification, to pursue profit and output in a way that entails complicity in the very processes we are seeking to resist? How might we harness the creativity and intellectual resources of the humanities to envision and create alternative futures? Does the future of the humanities lie in becoming anti- or post-human, or in a renewal of the ‘human’, however defined? To what extent does the relentless growth of science and technology both constrain and liberate our possibilities of becoming-other?

The Durham Centre for Humanities Innovation (CHI) has been founded to contest the inevitability of acquiescence in the marginalisation of the humanities; to foster intellectual creativity in scholarship and research; and to encourage the creation of new ideas, concepts, mental schemes, and other products of intellectual imagination. Discussions of the humanities’ future, and of the future humanities, have recently appeared in the form of book-length manifestos (John Russo 2005; Martha Nussbaum 2010; Mikhail Epstein 2012). The modality of the manifesto reflects the urgent need for methodological breakthroughs in the humanities.

It is in this spirit that we are launching a call for manifestos – not traditional papers – for our inaugural conference. Submissions may take the form of an entire manifesto (of between 1,000 and 2,000 words); a series of points for address; or even a single item for inclusion on the new humanities agenda. In a bid to break with the established format of papers followed by questions, the conference will revolve around brief presentations on pre-circulated material, opening onto discussion and collective improvisation, with the aim of creating a programme for action. Topics for consideration include:

  • Creativity and imagination in the humanities
  • Paradigmatic and methodological innovation in the humanities; new genres and disciplines
  • Humanities scholarship as foundation for cultural practices
  • The humanities and the digital: modes of mutual transformation
  • The humanities confronting environmental challenges
  • ‘Third Cultures’: effective interactions between the humanities and sciences

Submit your proposals for what can and needs to be done, along with a brief biographical note, to humanities.innovation@durham.ac.uk. Manifestos will be considered until March 31, 2014. Please specify whether you would like your manifesto to be published and opened to comments on the CHI website, or pre-circulated to conference delegates only.

Confirmed plenary speakers include Prof. Thomas Docherty (Warwick) and Prof. Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway). For further queries please contact the organisers (Prof. Mikhail Epstein, Dr. Caitríona Ní Dhúill, Dr. Gerald Moore) at the dedicated conference email: humanities.innovation@durham.ac.uk.

Sad Statistics

In the last 40 years, the number of students majoring in the humanities in the US has declined by more than half, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. As the figures below indicate, the popularity of the following subjects among undergraduates has significantly decreased from 1970/71–2003/04 :

English: from 7.6 per cent of the majors to 3.9 per cent

Foreign languages and literatures: from 2.5 per cent to 1.3 per cent

History: from 18.5 per cent to 10.7 per cent

Academy of Arts and Sciences (USA): Report on the State and the Future of the Humanities

On June 19, 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published its report “The Heart of the Matter” on the state and value of the humanities and social sciences. The “Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences,” as it is called, was formed two years ago in response to Congress’s request to know how “to maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education.”

The report arrives at a moment when others are sounding the alarm. In a report issued last week, Harvard University said that humanities majors there had fallen to 20 percent in 2012 from 36 percent in 1954 — a grim figure until you consider that, nationwide, just 7 percent of bachelor’s degrees were awarded in the humanities in 2010, down from 14 percent in 1966.

 The report states that “there is no reason liberal arts education cannot flourish in a new environment using new tools. The future will still need the human skills that the liberal arts promote, and perhaps will need them more than ever: skills in communication, interpretation, linking and synthesizing domains of knowledge, and imbuing facts with meaning and value”.

The central message is  that thriving long-term in the job market depends on developing “qualities of mind: inquisitiveness, perceptiveness, the ability to put a received idea to a new purpose, and the ability to share and build ideas with a diverse world of others.”

Read more: http://www.humanitiescommission.org/