Pat Kane: Humanities and the public intellectual

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I’m Pat Kane, and I’m delighted to be playing the “public-intellectual” role at the launch of Cultural Encounters, a joint research programme from HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), in Dubrovnik in a few days time.

I use the phrase “playing a role” advisedly. As an ideas-driven writer, musician, consultant and public advocate, mostly operating in the cultural marketplace, I am in a constant – and I hope fruitful – tension with core research.

 After getting my English Literature and Language MA at Glasgow University in 1985, I have sustained an appetite for humanities scholarship that has never left me. One of the great advantages of being a band singer (one of my hats over the last 30 years) is the university and college tour – always a periodicals shelf in the library to raid the morning after!

Now of course, in the internet-shaped age of open access and powerful search engines, the nomadic thinker can be enabled to the max – an Alexandria or British Library, of sorts, accessible to her Kindle or his smartphone.

 So careful and rigorous humanities research is never far away from anyone these days – and curatorial sites like Bookforum’s OmnivoreArts And Letters Daily,Arts JournalBrain Pickings and others help the passing surfer access some of it. (Worth noting, in passing, that the new UK edition of the Australian “academia-meets-journalism” website The Conversation subsumes humanities topics under “politics and society”).

But the question of how humanities research can be best mediated to the non-academic world, let alone engaged or utilized, for me requires subtle answers.

Because there are certainly crude answers, on all sides. As I sit here typing, I have literally found this highlighted on the front page of the Arts Journal “Ideas” page, mentioned above.  The hyperlink there, “Humanities In Trouble? It’s Their Own Muddle-headed Fault”, takes you through to a page on Edge.org, a site run by a literary agent for science writers called John Brockman – who generally runs pieces from his client-base.

If you’re going to read this, I’d grab a beverage and clear a hour or so for infuriation. You might be amazed to see one of the oldest debating tropes of the last 100 years – CP Snow’s “two cultures” of inquiry, scientific and humanistic – still being hammered away at in op-ed pages and current affairs magazines.

 You might be equally amazed at the characterization of positions: humanities defended as the study of “the irreducible reality of inwardness”; humanities attacked for its “postmodernist” rejection of new “thinking tools” and “data-manipulating tools” from science that could better answer its research questions.

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As someone shaped by my own years reading philosophy, via literary theory and film studies – Derrida, Foucault, Althusser – my natural response to still see these competing claims over scholarly “truth’ as acts of public discourse and language, and try and note how the underlying binaries and metaphors structure the surface rationalisations.

Or perhaps adopt a media studies or cultural studies approach, and try to identify the institutions, power-relations and political economy that allow such a debate to occur in the first place.

But what I’m trying to demonstrate, in a climate where the justification for any kind of core academic research is becoming more and more acute, is that humanities should be essentially confident about their methods and tools of understanding – even, and particularly, when they come into the media spotlight.

Indeed, rather than the humanities defending themselves against attack, forward motion into new areas might be a better tactic. My own first point of contact with HERA was to be part-chair of their Kings Place conference The Time, The Placein 31 May-1 June this year. I was genuinely delighted at the easy crossover between music performance and cross-cultural scholarship, particularly around jazz (with Soweto Kinch an obvious star).

The relationship between humanities research and literature, and the actual making of music (or visual art, or film), is active but not (in my experience) always fully avowed. And for understandable reasons: a certain Romantic sui-generis egoism can help you get a project up and running, and brushing away the tracks of research that led you to your moment of poiesis is an easy temptation… A temptation which, in my own creative practice, I have generally resisted (if you’re interested, see this presentation)

The HERA research strand of “Cultural Encounters” that the coming event in Dubrovnik develops and takes forward is, from this observer’s viewpoint, another opportunity for humanities to easily proclaim its insight and utility to the wider world.

What could be more urgent and relevant than considering what “Europe” signifies, when cultures, nationalities and ways of being-and-doing have encountered each other – whether they’ve clashed, fused, or all gradients in-between?

When faced with staged and set-piece media battles over the “future of Europe”, might it be the role of humanities to steadily trouble, make subtle and complexify such polarities, through detailed accounts and strong reconceptualisations?

In any case, as the resident “public-intellectual” – and I’m hoping to have surfaced a few more by the end of this process – that’s the role I’ll try to play over the next few weeks, before, during and after the event.

Journalistic risks will be taken with scholarly positions… but I am robustly ready for all responses – either as comments to these blogs, or in blogs you want to write yourselves (please contact Sorcha Carthy [to avoid spam, scarthy at research dot ie ] if you want to participate). Looking forward to hearing from you all!

 Best, Pat Kane