Cultural Encounters

Dubrovnik Blog 1: the power of terminology


By Pat Kane

It was a privilege to sit in the Dubrovnik Palace Hotel on Monday 1st October, and hear the list of approved projects for the Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA), under the title “Cultural Encounters”.

The sheer historical and geographical range of the subjects – with Europe as the locus, but European influence also tracked to all corners of the planet – along with the methodological richness and analytical precision often displayed, was hugely impressive.

As a commercial media-maker, I’m an outsider to this particular academic process – but I have an insider’s commitment, via my activist and personalresearch interests, to a general humanities approach.

“Cultural Encounters” shows a discipline fully rising to the challenges laid down by other knowledge domains – like natural or social science, or engineering and design – to show both societal relevance, and intellectual rigour.

It’ll take more than one blog to parse out the value contained in the HERA process, as presented on Saturday. I am genuinely interested in how the humanities can fashion their own, distinct strategies for “public engagement” and “knowledge exchange” going forward, rather than simply emulating the approach of other domains. That interest will shape everything I write here.

To begin with, I’d like to explore what is often seen as the most forbidding, least “public” aspect of humanities research – which is its range of specialised analytical vocabularies and methodologies.

Public writers often take concepts from humanities research and try to apply them in journalistic, arts-writing, activist or consulting contexts. The stylistic compression required in most media outlets usually means that the best that can be done is to introduce the concept, and let it point to deeper and wider sources (I recently managed to get Deleuze’s notion of “dividuality” into an Independent book review of Thomas Pynchon).

So it was a delight to find some new critical notions to deploy from the HERA programme presented on Saturday.

An obviously usable concept is the “fashion-industrial complex”, as coined by Prof. Regina Lee Blaszcyk, coming out of her topic, “The Enterprise of Culture: International Structures and Connections in the Fashion Industry since 1945”.

Regina began with a classic act of political semiotics: inviting us to look at what would seem like an exemplary photo image of French fashion, and then revealing that its commissioner was actually the US chemicals giant DuPont, who had made all the materials worn by the model in the shot.

So the “curtain” of “catwalks and models” shown by the media is to be pulled back, and hidden dimensions investigated. From my own experience in the cultural industries, Regina is on the right track in trying to map the power of fashion’s “intermediaries” – those whose choices (and forecasts) about hues, colours, fabrics and textures really determine the direction of “the fashion system”, constituted through giant European trade-fairs.

Miranda’s account of fashion’s decision-making process in The Devil Wears Prada looks like it’s about to be subjected to some serious research.

Another new and wieldy concept, to these ears at any rate, is that of the “image itinerary” – used by Prof. Christiane Brosius as a way to record how women in Delhi and Shanghai explored their “singleness” in a mega-city.

Image itineraries bring the best qualities of humanities research to what would otherwise seem like an obvious social-science project.

Sociological approaches like precarity (the floating populations of rural women coming into these vast conurbations), autonomy (how to build safe cities for women, by questioning standard divisions of public and private) and respectability (how to move through these spaces without losing one’s honour) are clearly relevant.

Yet we should be interested in how this experience is both externally imagined, and self-imagined: how these women narrate, and are narrated, through these times – and not just by state bodies or media institutions, but by artists and intellectuals.

An “image itinerary” – a multi-sourced visual sequence, I’m guessing, that maps to the movements and intentions of these women as they move through their cities – seems a powerfully humanistic way to render this new socio-economic experience. (Christiane’s mention of the “Virgin Tree ritual”  at Hindu colleges is an extraordinary example of the kind of cultural forms to be patiently mapped and explained).

Take another robust theoretical term, this time from Prof. Golo Foellmer’s presentation: “materialised transnationality”.  Not much chance smuggling this into the Saturday supplements…

But I’m utterly struck by the talismanic object it refers to: the classic circular radio dial, across which the stations of Europe were scattered (I found a Croatian version in the restaurant at our conference venue, see below).

An evocative image from my own childhood: I remember sitting with my gran’s radio, experimenting with accessing Helskini, Athlone… Cultural encounter, as the movement on a bar through a circular fascia.


Golo’s research prospectus – gathered here at – is fascinating and comprehensive. By virtue of its technological design, radio has an inherent cross-border impact.

Yet the points at which national radio practices both assert their identity to the wider world, and mutate that identity with the knowledge that many communities beyond their borders are listening, is a worthy topic for a broad humanities approach.

The tantalising archive broadcast played in the presentation opens up a world of investigation into sound sources across Europe – now readily accessible via web-based curated archives.

But this history, as Golo suggested, can guide policy tangibly in the present. In my own country, Scotland, debates over the repatriation of broadcast institutions(which are coming to a head, given our referendum on independence in September 2014) are often based on tricky questions of national, cross-border and global impact.

In a landscape of ubiquitous digital availability – whether through streams or podcasts – might a new “National” radio always already have to be an “Transnational” radio? How might the insights of studying cultural encounters shape the continental or global strategies of a newly-created national radio broadcaster?

My last example of “wieldy terminology” could easily be framed as an example of humanities research at its most difficult, even recondite. What, beyond the seminar room, could “semio-material punctualisation” possibly mean?

Yet in Volkhard Krech’s Iconic Religionproject, this term is being used to help investigate an element of our daily cultural landscape – the religious icons, objects and styles of the street – which go to the heart of how a multi-faith, multicultural Europe might negotiate its inevitable tensions, and also discover its overlaps and fusions too.

“Semio-material” is an important concept – to the extent that objects set in a city-scape (Baudelaire’s “family of eyes”) can easily incite local debate and dispute about the religious worlds they imply.

“Punctualisation” is important too. The propinquity involved in busy cities like Amsterdam, Berlin and London means that religious iconicity, if intended, is easily witnessed – and if not intended, then as easily constructed and interpreted by passers-by.

And if “cultural encounter” is the dominant concept for this tranche of HERA projects, then Iconic Religion meshes with the regular experiences of the urban-dweller. I can turn a corner in my city of choice, and find myself amidst the dance of Hari Krishnas, or the poised movements of Falun Gong. Or catch sight of a religious hanging, draped on the wall behind the counter of a fast-food outlet.

We often note these semiotic traces of religious worlds in our urban lives. Yet it seems eminently the job of the humanities to rescue them from being mere background texture to our days – and point us towards an interpretive fluency with them.

Firstly, by explaining their occurrence, the tactical judgements implied by their precise appearance. And secondly, by sensitizing us to the emotions and commitments invested in them, improving the subtle decoding skills required for modern, multitudinous urban living.

So, even at the toughest end of the humanities “offer” – its terminological distinctiveness – I believe there are bridges to be built that extend right to the heart of mainstream concerns.

In the next blog, I’ll explore the challenge raised by Steven Pinker to the humanities, cited in my opening blog in this space, in light of the presentations made in Dubrovnik. Should the humanities embrace the insights of the natural, physical and computer sciences?

Dubrovnik Blog 2: A natural consilience

If there’s one thing that a reporting writer knows, it’s that being fully present at an event is always better than sitting at a desk, sifting through sources, links and bios. Shoe leather expended always beats PDFs downloaded.

So one of the delights of the HERA conference in Dubrovnik was to be able to put some human detail into the picture of a “humanities in crisis” debate I referenced in my first blog, leading up to this event.

Indeed, Steven Pinker’s very challenge to the humanities – that it avail itself of the “explanatory tools” of evolutionary, materials and neurological science, of computation and “big data”, in its investigations into human culture – was precisely answered, in presentation after presentation. The consilience between humanities and the sciences seems like a natural reflex within HERA.

For example, Pinker’s advocacy of “digital humanities” (this MIT freeware guideis very useful) would seem to be pushing at a door that is already long open, and well-oiled.

Joris Van Eijatten, the principal investigator in “Asymmetrical Encounters”, described a recognisable humanities research goal – the study of how one national culture might provide a reference point for another. But the team are pursuing this through the data-mining of “millions and millions of pages” digitised newspaper archives, available from the Treaty of Vienna (1815) to the Treaty of Maastricht (1992).

Are there patterns, trends or “break-points” that simply have not been observable by cultural historians till now? Once the data shows the novelty, isn’t this the cue for context, deep reading and the identification of sources? A word cloud may show inevitable correlations between “Eiffel Tower” and “Paris” in the newspaper digital archive, noted Joris -  but “Eiffel Tower” and “Zulu”? What’s happening there?


"Caribbean Encounters” was an equally impressive combination of a humanities-inspired study topic, yet pursued via a range of techniques and methodologies that would reassure the most militant “Third Culture” warrior. How might one, in the words of the project summary, “valorise Caribbean cultural heritage”?

Mapping the complexity of the impact of colonial cultures on the aboriginal, or “Amerindian” peoples of the Caribbean is one way to do it. And certainly, the classic approaches of archaeology and history – the placing of artefacts and material records in context – would be expected to be applied here.

Yet two approaches – new to me – that are being deployed  in “Caribbean Encounters” are archaeometry (the combination of archaeology and natural/physical science) and network science. The former uses optical emissions technology to help you place the origin and mobility of objects (like these artefacts from Argyle, St Vincent); the latter will then use algorithms to take that data and help reconstruct some of the indigenous settlement patterns.

Although there is no data of the early Amerindian responses to colonisers, at the very least this project will help us move beyond the idea of the “carib” as “savage, wild cannibals” occupying a “phantasic insulate world” – the Hollywood cliche embodied by Pirates of the Caribbean. (The project website will be available here). 

So with these two projects – and others, like “Encounters and Transformation in Iron Age Europe”, and “Music Migrations in the Early Modern Age” – Pinker’s request for a humanities with “the explanatory depth of the sciences”, but still maintaining a commitment to “close reading, thick description and deep immersion”, seems to be more than granted by the HERA process.

Yet I did notice the absence throughout the projects of any engagement at all with Pinker’s own domain, that of “evolutionary psychology” – or in his words,  the “obsessions that are universal [ie, our common evolutionary inheritance of behaviours and responses] from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture… [These] can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries” that might drive a narrative, or saturate an archive.

Does ev-psych (or for that matter, neuropsychology) challenge some core assumptions of mental and imaginative autonomy, of creative agency, at the heart of humanities research?

In a previous response to Joris van Eijnatten on this blog, I suggested that a consideration of the evolutionary paradoxes of play – an adaptive behaviour, but one that emphasizes a potentiated and plural response to conditions, and gives an evolved locus for art and creativity – might be a fruitful meeting point between the humanities and the strong claims of evolutionary mind science.

(Brian Boyd’s On The Origin of Stories is a good place to start on this, though spoiled by its combative tone. Patrick Bateson and Paul Martin’s Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation is thoroughly recommended, as a grounding in evolutionary accounts of play, and a pathway to its support for a general creativity in culture and society. )

Joris’s response was equally fascinating – and playfully intellectual. If we grant what he called “‘new materialist’ notions about natureculture and culturenature, or extrapolations of iammybrain into cyberspace”, then who exactly is responsible when you crash your smart-car? “In other words: Where would we be without the humanities, conventionally defined?” (Rosa Braidotti’s The Posthuman is an interesting response to this.)

In my final blog, I will address directly the topic of “knowledge exchange” that was the topic of my chaired panel at the Dubrovnik event – and suggest a few strategies for public engagement to the HERA community.

Pat Kane: Humanities and the public intellectual


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, 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.


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

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