Perhaps you’ve heard of the World Cinema Project, which is making foreign language films, largely unknown outside their native countries, available on Blu-ray discs and DVDs. Established in 2007 by director Martin Scorsese, the project has thus far restored and distributed 50 obscure, overlooked and neglected films from 28 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, South America and the Middle East.
This extraordinary preservation project has not been without critics. One critique, for example, focuses on the paucity of works by female directors, the prevalence of narratives that emphasize female suffering and the number of hackneyed love triangle plots, which grows out of the project’s concern with formal aspects of filmmaking rather than plot or themes.
Yet despite these criticisms, there can be no doubt that the project exemplifies a growing concern with internationalizing our conception of the humanities, a concern also manifest within the academy in the rapid growth of world history and world literature.
If the humanities are to be truly inclusive, it’s not enough to study previously marginalized and exploited groups within Western societies. It’s imperative to ensure that the humanities’ subject matter become more explicitly international and cross-cultural.
The future of the humanities is global and comparative. Propelled by demography and economic and technological interconnectedness, the humanities need to forsake Eurocentrism and national insularity and adopt a more international, cross-cultural perspective that focuses on differences and similarities within and across cultures and regions.
So argues Wiebke Denecke, the German, Chinese, Danish, Hungarian, Japanese and U.S.-trained professor of literature at MIT, in a recently published essay that deserves far greater attention than it has received.
Having received an education of extraordinary breadth, in Japanology, Korean studies, philosophy, medicine and Sinology, Denecke, one of the editors of The Norton Anthology of World Literature, proposes to re-energize the humanities by internationalizing its subject matter and championing methods that involve systematic comparisons and contrasts.
At a time when fundamentalist nationalism is on the rise in many parts of the world, Denecke argues persuasively that the humanities have a special role to play in combating narrowness and provinciality. “To create more equal societies in the present,” she maintains, “we need to create more equality for other pasts—and learn from all they offer.”
Of course, the trend toward the global humanities is well underway. It’s manifest in Atlantic history, global antiquities, the global history of empire, maritime history and subaltern history. It’s also apparent in a proliferation of courses on world history and literature and a torrent of scholarly books that focus on labor system, such as slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, debt peonage or contract labor, on crops or foodstuffs—such as sugar, cotton, cod—or disease.
Indeed, there’s only a few branches of the humanities that have, according to their harshest critics, resisted this trend—notably classics and philosophy—which, critics charge, are racist and elitist. Racism, we are told, “is baked into the structure of dialectical philosophy” and the discipline as a whole “ignores and disdains the thought traditions of China, India and Africa.” At the same time, critics claim, classics “has been ‘instrumental’ to the invention of ‘whiteness’” and has provided justifications for “slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism and other 20th-century fascisms.”
However appealing, globalizing the humanities is not easy. Trained in specific national and linguistic traditions, neither I nor most of my colleagues are trained or prepared to offer truly global, comparative perspectives. After all, meaningful comparisons require deep knowledge about specific contexts and language skills that most humanities scholars lack.
Comparisons are also problematic. As the important collection of essays Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses, edited by University of Virginia literature professor Rita Felski, explains, comparisons are too often invidious: intentionally or unintentionally, comparisons can belittle, privilege or mislead.
Too often, comparisons treat Europe as a standard or as a model for emulation, diminishing the achievements of other societies or failing to recognize the singularity and incommensurability of a particular work or phenomenon. There’s also the danger of essentializing or caricaturing cultures or decontextualizing a particular form of cultural expression (for example, anachronistically treating a religious object as a work of art).
Among the biggest challenges facing comparativists are to avoid implicit assumptions about cultural hierarchies, Eurocentric standards or assumptions (for example, that religions have clearly defined doctrines, foundational texts and ecclesiastical institutions) or teleology (for example, unspoken ideas about progress or modernization that suggest a convergence or homogenization of cultural forms over time). There’s a genuine worry that the global humanities will diminish the study of national histories, literature and philosophy.
Another challenge: much global humanities scholarship focuses on issues of contemporary relevance and on the relatively recent past, examining the circulation of texts, ideas and people across borders after 1450, when new forms of global interconnectedness emerged. How, then, should the global humanities incorporate premodern history or forms of cultural expression?
World history, the oldest, most developed branch of the global humanities, presents its own challenges. Too often, it deals with processes so broad that they lose sight of national histories, politics and cultures. Much current world history scholarship focuses on cross-regional linkages, networks, borrowings, interrelationships and interconnections which can have the unintentional side effect of downplaying the ways that cultures define their identities in opposition and resist cultural intrusions.
Still, comparisons are, as Felski notes, “fundamental to knowledge,” and it’s impossible not to think comparatively. However, difficult, we need to make comparisons and contrasts explicit, whether we are speaking about discourses of race or gender or national and ethnic identity, examining contrasting notions of cultural hierarchies and cultural difference or exploring how various host societies absorb and incorporate or exclude or marginalize immigrants or slaves.
I’d be hard-pressed to point to a more stunning example of the comparative, global humanities than Lois Parkinson Zamora’s The Inordinate Eye: New World Baroque and Latin American Fiction, which bridges the boundaries between literature and the visual arts and juxtaposes literary texts, codices, murals, paintings and photographs across centuries to show how a particular form of baroque visual images have shaped the narrative styles of contemporary Latin American fiction.
A model for future postcolonial studies of literature and culture, this volume shows how Latin American writers and artists seized on the baroque to resist colonial rule. The baroque, combining Indigenous, African and European elements, provided a language through which Latin Americans could define a distinct postcolonial identity that challenged European literary forms, perceptual categories and power structures.
I find Wiebke Denecke’s vision of the global, comparative humanities extraordinarily exciting and inspiring. But is it realistic and realizable, given the way most humanities scholars are trained and the limits of their language skills and historical knowledge? My answer is yes, but only if we are willing to treat this as a collective action problem.
We need more books like Benjamin Elman and Sheldon Pollock’s What China and India Once Were, in which noted scholars systematically compare these two cultural giants and make differences in their ecology, polity, gender relations, religion, literature, science and technology accessible to a broader academic audience. We also need to rethink the way we train doctoral students, do much more to encourage the development of multiple language skills and encourage collaboration across areas of specialization.
It’s not surprising that studies that focused on particular national contexts flourished during the eras of nation building and the Cold War. But in today’s fraught political landscape, where increasingly tight global connections have prompted a profound backlash apparent not only in resurgent and aggressive forms of nationalism and vocal, vociferous opposition to immigration but in antiglobalization protests, we need a humanities that can speak authoritatively to issues involving identity, cultural borrowings and syncretisms and the dynamics of historical change.
Globalizing the humanities is only one of many prescriptions that have been advanced to stem the loss of students, faculty positions and funding within these disciplines. Others include the applied or practical humanities, the digital humanities, the environmental humanities, the medical humanities and the public humanities.
Especially exciting is what Thomas Carey, who is driving teaching and learning innovation at a number of universities in Canada and the United States, calls the innovation humanities. His vision combines the humanities with the arts and emerging technologies in areas that include game design, simulation and interactive development, media production, and new immersive modes of communication.
Stunning examples of the innovation humanities are the interactive, 3-D, real-time virtual reality reconstructions of historical sites created by Lisa M. Snyder, who directs campus research initiatives for UCLA’s Office of Advanced Research Computing. Her projects allow users to embed annotations and links to primary and secondary resources and web content in digital models of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and Egypt’s Karnak temple complex.
Another avenue for the innovation humanities lies in preparing those graduates who will assume leading roles in education, training, advising, counseling and human services not only within but outside the academy or K-12 schools. In increasingly multicultural societies, there is a pressing need for intermediaries and trainers and facilitators who can help institutions maximize the effectiveness of exceptionally diverse workforces and who can address the anxieties that many individuals feel in environments without well-defined norms, expectations and pathways to advancement.
The American theologian Leonard I. Sweet said, “The future is not something we enter. The future is something we create.” We can stand back and watch the humanities slowly fade into irrelevance, depending largely for their survival on various service courses. Or we can embrace the inspiring visions of those like Wiebke Denecke and Thomas Carey who want to re-energize and revitalize the humanities and ensure that the humanities speak to the issues and needs of our time.
Don’t let inertia or lethargy or a misguided commitment to tradition thwart these efforts to reimagine the humanities. Remember, the humanities’ future is in our hands.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.