Towards the Techno-Humanities: A Manifesto

The creative aspect of the humanities has not yet found its recognition in the established classification and methodology of scientific disciplines. Are the humanities a purely scholarly field, or should there be some active, constructive supplement to them? We know that technology serves as the practical extension (“application”) of natural sciences and politics as the extension of social sciences.

Both technology and politics are designed to transform what their respective disciplines study objectively. Is there any activity in the humanities that would correspond to this transformative status of technology and politics? In the following schema, the third line demonstrates a blank space, indicating the questionable status of the practical applications of the humanities.

Nature – natural sciences – technology – transformation of nature

Society – social sciences – politics – transformation of society

Culture – human sciences – ______ – transformation of culture

There is a coherent connection between theoretical and practical disciplines regarding the exploration and transformation of nature and society. But the third line suggests that we need a practical branch of the humanities which functions like technology and politics, but is specific to the cultural domain.

What are we to call it? Naming is sometimes the best way to define or even to solve the problem; a name contains the embryo of a concept and the beginning of future theory. I will suggest several terms that could operate in that blank space (the current embryonic stage of theorizing leaves the future open to multiple possibilities).

“Culturonics” will refer to the discipline that deals with culture practically, in the mold of “electronics,” “bionics,” “avionics,” “tectonics,” “mnemonics” and other “applied,” constructive disciplines. “Pragmo-humanities” suggests that the humanities have a pragmatic side that regulates the relationship between their practitioners and users, their authors and addressees. “Trans-humanities” indicates that this group of practical disciplines – translinguistics, transaesthetics, transpoetics, etc. – aim to trans-form those areas of culture which are studied by the corresponding scholarly disciplines of linguistics, aesthetics, and poetics.

Among these trans-disciplines, one of the broadest applications can be assigned to translinguistics, which creates artificial languages or introduces new directions for the development of natural languages. Obviously, Dr. Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof’s project, the international language Esperanto, does not belong to the field of linguistics properly, though it expands from intensive linguistic scholarship. The comparative analysis of existing languages allowed Zamenhof to synthesize a new language, combining in its grammar and vocabulary Roman, German, and Slavic elements.

In the first half of the twentieth century, before English became the predominant language of international communication, Esperanto laid very serious claims to becoming the lingua franca for modern civilization; even now it still claims about several millions users. Translinguistics covers the area of the so-called constructed international languages (Volapuk, Ido, Occidental), fictional languages (Klingon in Star Trek series, Quenya and Sindarin in Tolkien’s books), and specialized languages of various disciplines (math, logic, linguistics), as well as languages of computer programming, and man-machine communication.

Finally, the term “technohumanities” would refer to the art of the humanities. It includes the art of building new intellectual communities, new paradigms of thinking and modes of communication rather than simply studying or criticizing the products of culture. We should bear in mind that the humanities constitute the level of meta-art, different from the primary arts of painting, poetry, or music, all of which comprise the object of humanistic inquiry. The fact that the humanities belong to this meta-discursive level does not preclude their practical, productive orientation. The humanities do not produce works of art but rather new cultural positions, movements, perspectives, and modes of reflexivity.

The concept of “technohumanities” does not imply that the humanities should adopt the idea of “techno” from scientific technology; on the contrary, it was technology that usurped “techno” (Greek techne – “art, skill, craft”) which originally embraced all arts and crafts including those based on non-scientific knowledge. For example, some “techne” mentioned in Plato are medicine, housebuilding, horsemanship, huntsmanship, farming, calculation, geometry, generalship, piloting a ship, chariot-driving, political craft, prophecy, music, lyre-playing, flute-playing, painting, sculpture, carpentry, weaving, pottery, smithing, and cookery. Now it is time for re-appropriation of “techne” in the humanities. By utilizing this term, we do not intend to “scientize” the humanities, but, on the contrary, to draw them closer to art, to creativity in the sphere of ideas and communications. When offering a certain theory, we need to ask ourselves if it is able to inaugurate a new cultural practice, an artistic movement, a disciplinary field, a new institution, life style, or intellectual community.

By reintegrating “techno,” the technohumanities complement the project of human sciences with the concept of humanistic arts. While the primary arts, such as poetry, painting, theater, etc. are studied by the human sciences, the secondary, humanistic arts are not the object of human sciences, but their constructive extensions, the transformative practices built on the foundation of scholarly findings and theories.

Primary arts are transformative practices directed onto material objects or natural languages (as Yury Lotman put it, “primary signifying systems”). For example, sculpture transforms marble, dancing and theater–the human body, poetry—-natural language. The humanities, or human sciences, are designed to study these primary arts and build certain theories and generalizations on their basis. The technohumanities constitute the third, post-theoretical level of cultural activity, that is, the variety of practices that aim to reconfigure the elements of the preceding two levels.

For example, Russian Symbolism integrated cultural activity on all three levels: first, poetry and fiction, second, theory of symbols in general and its application to symbolist writing, and third, the transformative practices that emerged from symbolist theory. These included the production of manifestos, critical and journalistic writings, polemics, the organization of public events (concerts, readings, discussions) and of new journals and presses, the creation of the Symbolist milieu, and the expansion of Symbolism into different arts and intellectual circles. All these practices could be identified as constitutive of the technohumanities, or humanistic arts.

The existing division of culture into primary practices and scholarly theories is incomplete and does not allow the proper definition of the creative contributions made by many cultural figures. For example, the major representatives of Russia’s Silver Age–Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrei Bely–were both writers and theoreticians. But there is a third factor in their work not to be found in pure writers (such as Chekhov or Leskov) or pure scholars (such as Veselovsky or Potebnia). They did not simply produce literature or investigate it, but broadened the frontiers of literature proceeding from the theoretical vision of its possibilities. They wrote Symbolist poems and treatises and manifestos. They created the program of symbolism as a comprehensive cultural movement, incorporating artistic, mystical and social components.

In distinction from the humanities, which study existing cultures, the technohumanities explore that which does not yet exist. They project and produce possible cultural objects and forms of activity including new artistic and intellectual movements, new disciplines, research methodologies and philosophical systems, new styles of behavior, social rituals, semiotic codes, and intellectual trends.

That the technohumanities are not just a construct of our time has been demonstrated by cultural communities such as the Italian Humanists, German Romantics, American Transcendentalists, Italian and Russian Futurists, French Surrealists… It is the inherent property of such cultural groups to generate their creative practices on the basis of certain theories. In the late 20th century, the technohumanities in Russia are exemplified by the work of Dmitry Likhachev in “ecological” preservation of cultural memory; Yury Lotman in the development of semiotic consciousness and systematic exploration and transformation of the semiosphere; and Georgy Shchedrovitsky in the implementation of the reflective methodology (“thought-action,” “mysledeiatelnost”) in education, architecture, design, and economics.

I will give one more detailed example of what I understand by technohumanities. 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 literary manifestos. The latter are products of theoretical imagination rather than empirical study and scholarly scrutiny. Manifestos of Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, Futurism, Surrealism, etc. are not based on the discipline of research, the “careful, systematic, patient study and investigation in some field of knowledge,” as defined by the Webster Dictionary. Manifestos are neither factual nor fictional–they are formative.

They aim to produce new literary facts rather than register and analyze the facts, past and present. Under which existing academic categories can this constructive activity of theory be placed? Does it belong to the realm of scholarship or literary fiction? Obviously, none of them. Its proper place is precisely in the yet unmarked domain of theoretical inventions, techno- or trans-humanities?

The humanities should embrace both modes of conceptual activity recognized by the sciences: discovery of some existing principles and facts and invention of those tools and ideas that can transform a given area of study. “Inventorship,” as a mode of creativity, should become as indispensable a companion to scholarship in the humanities as technology is to science. Thus, technohumanities, or transhumanities can be defined in Bakhtin’s words as “the co-creativity of those who understand [culture],” as the constructive and transformative potential of cultural theories.Mikhail Bakhtin. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern McGee, Austin:University of Texas Press, 1992, p. 142.

Our academic institutions, however, have no place for such peculiar avenues of conceptual creativity. There are departments for literary theory and scholarship, for fiction and creative writing, but not for constructive writing in “practical theory,” not for technohumanities. Is there any institution in contemporary academia in which such creative thinkers, literature inventors and builders, like Friedrich Schlegel, Vissarion Belinsky or André Breton could flourish as professionals? Paradoxically, their views, works, and biographies are deemed worthy of extensive and scrupulous academic study; yet the very constructive impetus of their writing, its “inventive” genre, lacking proper documentation and scholarly “apparatus,” would keep them outside of academia.

This paradox can be compared to an impossible scenario in which a university would exclude an engineering school or department on the grounds that, unlike departments of physics or chemistry, it deals with inventions and not discoveries. Engineering in the humanities is no less important.

This failure to recognize the cognitive status of technohumanities raises the question whether various intellectual capacities are adequately represented and integrated 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.”A. N. Whitehead. Modes of Thought. The Macmillan Co., New York, 1938, p. 233. Literary inventorship, even more directly than literary scholarship, shapes our cultural future. Though held in such high esteem retrospectively, why is theoretical inventorship dismissed in the contemporary academy?

To recognize the constructive potential of the humanities is not enough. Bakhtin’s methodological insights help us to specify the character of cognitive activity in the humanities as different from the sciences. Up to this point, the tendency in the “applied humanities,” inasmuch as they were called to prove their practical value, has been to technologize or politicize these disciplines, that is, to subject them to the practical modalities of natural or social sciences. The humanities, however, have their own constructive potential that corresponds to their unique object. Bakhtin characterizes this object as “the expressive and speaking being [vyrazitel’noe i govoriashchee bytie].” Bakhtin further indicates:

[There are] various ways of being active in cognitive activity. The activity of the one who acknowledges a voiceless thing [like in natural sciences] and the activity of one who acknowledges another subject [like in human sciences], that is, the dialogic activity of the acknowledger.Bakhtin, Speech Genres & Other Late Essays, p. 161.

Following Bakhtin’s emphasis on the dialogical activity of cognition, we can single out a specific set of utterances, which I call transformative, that are crucial for the logic and ethics of humanistic discourse. Transformative utterances communicate something that changes the very process of communication and the roles of its participants. “I love you” is an example of a transformative utterance, as it refers to the relationship between communicators and radically changes this relationship in the moment of its annunciation.

Humanistic discourse, like any discourse in natural or social sciences, is addressed to human individuals. But only humanistic discourse has human individuals and their creativity as its subject matter. Thus humanistic discourse is not purely informative. It is potentially as transformative as a declaration of love (or of hatred); it addresses the same subject about which it speaks. The activity in the humanities is different from technological or political activity in that the former is directed not to material objects or social masses, but to creative and responsive individuals, engaging them in the events of creative communication. To technologize or to politicize the humanities means to ignore their specifics.

Mikhail N. Epstein (Epshtein) is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Cultural Theory and Russian Literature at Emory University. Epstein founded the Laboratory of Contemporary Culture in Moscow. He is the author of inteLnet and seventeen books.