Following the ever-changing humanities

Dr. Mikhail Epstein, the Samuel Chandler Dobbs professor of cultural theory and Russian literature at Emory University, gave a lecture Monday entitled From Post- to Proto- On Possible Paradigmatic Shifts in the Humanities, which used the work of Russian Formalist theorist Mikhail Bakhtin to frame shifts in humanist thinking in the new century.

Speaking in the English department conference room, Epstein began with an introduction on the nature of paradigmatic shifts in the humanities.

He said that the shifts in humanities “in the past 30 years has been dominated by post-structuralism theory over others such as multiculturalism or post-colonialism.”

In this time, Epstein noted that “there was plenty of time for new developments in methodology besides these ‘-isms,'”and that he wished to “break this cycle of post-everything.”

Citing the work of Thomas Kuhn, Epstein defined paradigm as “a set of cognitive tenets which underlie any scientific or scholarly research in a given field, which may be unconscious.” He felt that with “the current situation in the humanities, there is a question as to what this next shift will be.”

Epstein then described that the idea of paradigmatic shifts can be rooted back to the work of the Russian Formalists, a movement of literary criticism in early 20th century. Kuhn’s idea of paradigmatic shifts is related to Shklovsky’s idea of “defamiliarisation,” which saw art as a new way of seeing things, another perspective, that defamiliarises things that have become habitual or automatic.

“In the second half of the 20th century, the theory of science converges with the theory of art, as science is increasingly seen as mental constructions rather than objective presentations of reality,” Epstein said. “So if science can be seen as an irrational change of vision, then we can talk about difference stylistic versions of science much in the way we speak about different styles of art, such as realism and serialism.”

The whole idea of using “post-” in terms such as “post-modernism,” is problematic to Epstein because “its dependence on the past is in some ways self-defeating,” especially with the ubiquitous use of the prefix. Epstein would prefer to refer to these ideas with the prefix “proto-” instead, such as “proto-globalism” or “proto-virtuality,” “Thinking in term of beginning and initiation leaves us open future rather than continuation of the past.”

The idea of the death of the author that has been theorized by intellectuals such as Michel Foucault should thus be seen as “the beginning of a new era of authorship, a hyper-authorship.” argued Epstein.

For the next section of his lecture, Epstein then asked, “Is the multicultural model sufficient for understanding the new model of cultural flow? Or should there be a new model that will challenge the ‘melting pot’ model?” He suggested that a model of “inter-ference” be considered, “assuming that the most beautiful patterns in culture, as in nature, are created by overlapping waves, coming from various traditions and efforts.” This model, he argued, “would no longer isolate cultures from each other, but open up perspectives, and undergo self-initiation and mutual cooperation.”

In redefining culture, Epstein theorized that “outsidedness is an advantageous position for understanding, as being outside makes it more possible to see things more clearly, as only others can see their own appearance.” Epstein then proposed that the idea of “transculture,” which he defined as “a mode of being, located at the crossroads of cultures, a new emerging sphere in which more and more individuals position themselves ‘outside’ of their native cultures.”