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The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto by Mikhail Epstein (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 2, Spring 2014
pp. 154-156 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0016

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Reading Mikhail Epstein’s The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto, one could do worse than to begin at its glossary, a collection of sixty-five “protologisms” (101). In the mode of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ordinary language philosophy, Epstein’s work hinges on grammatical exploration. Each chapter coins a theoretical term and examines how research into the field the term institutes might alter scholarly methodology and thus sustain the humanities in global cultures. Through this practice of sign creation, or “semiurgy” (95), Epstein means to reestablish the human within the humanities—to foreground truth and objectivity in future-thinking cultural inquiries. Reviving such standards long since disavowed by English and philosophy alike, the work clearly earns its subtitle.

Epstein regards the manifesto as “performative discourse,” a genre that constructs the future “through the very act of its manifestation” (19). Accordingly, the text’s experiments in language take form as directives, which the editor and translator of the Russian manuscript, Igor Klyukanov, arranges into five thematic movements that trace new intersections across humans, creativity, wisdom, and machines. Deliberating why “the orientation to the future [has] become the exclusive privilege of natural sciences and science-based technologies” (286), Epstein posits the threatened status of the humanities in conjunction with recent technological development as signs for scholars to shift from a mindset of “post” to “proto.” Postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism: for Epstein, these terms signal scholarly dependence on the past that is antithetical to the growing demand for innovation that higher education now imposes on literary and philosophical study. Hence Epstein names the spirit that drives Transformative Humanities “proteism,” defined as the study of “emerging, not-yetformed phenomena” (33). Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of “embryonic genres” serves as the foundation for future thinking, insofar as Bakhtinian thought opposes finalization and helps to orient Epstein’s inquiry away from post-postmodernism and towards “proto-global, proto-virtual, protobiotechnic, proto-synthetic” grounds among others (28). In effect, Epstein’s text pragmatically emphasizes how the digital humanities and interdisciplinary crossover with the sciences might reconstruct humanities research as central to societal and technological evolution. The disciplines proposed, for instance—in chapter 11, “Horrology: The study of civilization in fear of itself,” and in chapter 13, “Micronics: The study of small things”—make recent paradigm shifts central for literary criticism, metaphysics, and aesthetics alike. One could then cast global warming, biotechnology, nanotechnology, conspiracy theory, and postapocalyptic narratives, to name a few possibilities, as foundational rather than topical disciplinary elements. Ideally, research becomes capable not only of responding to these subjects but also of shaping their implications for behaviors and beliefs. In a posthuman age, Epstein argues, the humanities must take the role of cultural transformer.

With this responsibility in mind, Epstein’s project recognizes its ethical underpinning, a more detailed take on the old supposition that the humanities can cultivate perceptive and considerate human lives. Epstein’s pragmatics, in other words, exist at the crossroads of technological innovation, philosophical ethics, and disciplinarity. Foregrounding ethics not only affords the text value in an introductory philosophy class, but also, according to proteism, enlivens the moral, human undertones of longstanding epistemological dilemmas. Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974), for example, grounds Epstein’s inquiry in the role of imaginative projection in human selfconsciousness. Moreover, Epstein conceives a “diamond rule”: “Do that which others need and no one else can do in your place” (217; emphasis in original), which one could easily transect with the altruistic ethical imperatives posed by moral philosopher Peter Singer. These cases bolster Epstein’s grander outline for “techno-sophia,” “a technically-armed philosophy or philosophically-oriented technology” (155; emphasis in original) that marks analytic and empathetic human features as defensible even in a posthuman context. Following Epstein, then, any investigation into the institutional history of English or philosophy must elucidate ethical implications.

Which is not to suggest that The Transformative Humanities is without direct import to the interpretation of texts. Epstein’s fifth chapter, “‘Ecophilogy: Text and its Environment,” lays promising groundwork for theorizing the new materiality of contemporary literature. Invoking environmental studies, Epstein attempts to refocus criticism from text alone to the sanctuary-like non-text environment in which the...


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