Knowledge Exchange

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 www.transnationalradio.org – 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?

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