Zoom for Thought | The Humanities of the Future

The article below is brought to you by UCD Discovery - fuelling interdisciplinary collaboration.

In our Zoom for Thought on July 13th, 2021, UCD Discovery director Prof. Patricia Maguire spoke with Anne Fuchs, director of UCD Humanities Institute, about, “The  Humanities of the Future”. In case you missed it, here are our Top Takeaway Thoughts and a link to the video.

The Role

There are “three central aspects” to Anne’s role. The first is supporting research in the humanities through organising funding, hosting conferences and workshops and building international partnerships. The second is to increase the impact and visibility of humanities research through public engagement, such as with the Plotting the Future series. The third is to support the Institute’s thirty-six resident PhDs and postdocs in their career development by providing an inclusive, diverse and lively research space and environment. “While I'm passionate about all these things, if I had to pick one aspect, it's the interaction with PhDs and postdocs from a broad spectrum of disciplines that makes me really really happy.”

The Humanities of the Future

The humanities of the future will make an indispensable contribution to the big societal challenges that we are facing, including the climate crisis, migration, racism, AI, democratic societies, just societies and health. They will do this by being “deeply interconnected and transversal” with a broad spectrum of disciplines. Researchers in subjects such as music, history, modern languages or English will not only collaborate with other humanities researchers but also with empirical researchers in the social and hard sciences. 

“Above all I think that the humanities of the future will be environmental, postcolonial and posthumanist. These three aspects are actually all interlinked.”

Instead of simply celebrating the progress of human civilisation, environmental and cultural historians are critically deconstructing our history of extreme violence and warfare. Researchers in new fields such as environmental humanities, posthumanism or energy humanities are looking at our approach to consumption, the history of exploiting natural resources and non-human life forms “and the disastrous consequences of the pervasive anthropocentrism which has defined the humanities for so long”.

Porous Research Landscape

Methodological nationalism, which has shaped the humanities since the 19th century, is being abandoned. This methodology assumes that the nation is the natural, social and political form of the modern world. It “needs to be replaced” with a more “porous research landscape that engages with transnational issues” such as the history of violence, colonial exploitation and the climate crisis. “I think it's fair to say that the humanities have been reviewing some of their traditional assumptions and premises for quite some time.” Fields like cultural studies, queer and gender studies, postcolonial studies and migration studies are all transversal and “have already exploded traditional subject boundaries”.

Posthumanism

Posthumanism refers to a critical approach to anthropocentrism, which regards humankind as the most important element of existence.

“The argument is that we need to replace this with a planetary consciousness” which looks at the material world in “a completely different way… dethroning the position and purpose of humankind”. It involves “critically examining the disastrous legacies we have created for the next generations to come”. The second aspect of posthumanism is “really engaging with artificial intelligence and robotics”.

Humanities and Technology

Technology studies are an intrinsic part of a lot of humanities research, not just within the digital humanities. The current debate on posthumanism looks at how people have become enmeshed with technology. 

“All of these technologies come with huge promises but sometimes this technological optimism is one-sided. So the humanities can look at how we can engage with technology critically, which means that we don't deny its uses but we also discuss its limitations.”

The Humanities and AI

There is no agreed definition of consciousness but artificial intelligence does not yet have consciousness. “I'm not sure that we won't get to a point when this is possible. So at the moment we can still distinguish between humans and computers or robots.”

In the future computer chips may be inserted into the brain to, for example, prevent memory loss. 

“I think this is where we need much more debate and where humanities scholars need to make an effort to engage with what's happening in this rapidly evolving field, and vice versa. I think students of computer technologies need to engage with critical debates of what they are doing, and that's something that can come from the humanities.”

COVID-19 and Ageism

During the pandemic Anne was involved in a Wellcome Trust project on framing ageing, in collaboration with medical humanities in TCD. “One of our interdisciplinary workshops was on COVID and we looked at the manner in which the over 65s have been represented in public discourse. We found that the representation of that age cohort was overwhelmingly ageist. They were lumped together, one could say, as one homogenous vulnerable group in need of protection without any agency or differences - deeply offensive to many people over 65 who are very active and make a very very important contribution to society”. The category of vulnerability “is not a medical category [but] influenced by social and cultural frames, and we need to examine these frames critically and ask ourselves, are they appropriate?”

 

Check out Anne’s latest monograph:  

Precarious Times: Temporality and History in Modern German Culture. Cornell University Press, 2019.  pp. 322. ISBN: 978-1-5017-3510-3   

Published: 15th October 2019, Paperback | £21.99. SAVE 30% • USE CODE 09FLYER