Dubrovnik blog 3: Knowledge exchanged, and critiqued

knowledge-is-power1In my final blog, as a non-academic visitor to the HERA event in Dubrovnik, I’d like to explore the notion of “knowledge exchange”. This was the topic of the panel I chaired, but it also seemed to shadow many of the discussions and presentations I heard throughout the day.

How can humanities research share its value and efficacy with the wider society – and benefit directly itself, intellectually and materially, from the exchange?

I’ve had two previous encounters with the issue – one with Cambridge University’s CRASSH unit in 2009, and another with Professor Barbara Townley (a HERA conference attendee) at a Doctoral conference in St. Andrews University.

In both presentations I was responding with some enthusiasm to the ways that humanities research has informed my own commercial media-and-music making, and social activism. I came to Dubrovnik with the same expectation – and in general was not disappointed.

For example, the “Arctic Encounters” project identifies one of the most fascinating geopolitical areas in the world at the moment.

This is an Arctic region whose shrinking ice-mass, as a result of human-caused global warming, is raising all manner of economic and territorial claims from surrounding powers – whether in terms of oil and gas drilling rights (with Russia and the Nordic countries all in play), or the possibilities of eco-tourism around aboriginal populations and endangered species.

The crucial humanities point made by the project leader Graham Huggan was that the idea of the Arctic “tests the imaginative and ideological limits of Europe itself”. Will the old exploitation narrative of the colonial era be allowed to dominate the new wave of buccaneers?

Tourism turns out to be a fulcrum point here – and perhaps eco-tourism could cast the Arctic’s indigenous peoples as “agents in a vision of shared belonging”, in Huggan’s words. There could be “a utopian dimension to the postcolonial Arctic. Can it belatedly be given the chance to negotiate modernity on its own terms?”

As a left-wing supporter of Scottish independence, I have some direct interest in new cultural framings of the Arctic. The current geopolitical orthodoxy about the area, as the passive theatre for energy and trade realpolitik, is providing legitimation for a future Scottish foreign policy which is being strongly bent towards NATO membership. A “utopian dimension” would be a welcome input to an otherwise grimly realist discussion.

The question of “Mediating Cultural Encounters Through European Screens”, apart from its intrinsic interest to this ex-Film-and-Television-Studies student of John Caughie, also is germane in my own Scottish political context. The possible repatriation of broadcasting and media regulation powers (mentioned in a previous blog, in the context of transnational radio) makes Andrew Higson’s overview of the enabling conditions of European “screen drama” extremely germane to Scottish policy and programme-makers.


Again, the complexity mapped by a humanities approach would be welcomed. Andrew’s brief comments on the differingcommercial fates of two European historical dramas – success for the English-language The King’s Speech, less so for Denmark’s A Royal Affair – points either to a strategy of competitive advantage for a Scottish screen-drama industry. Or, preferably, a meditation on how its productions could explore cultural encounters within and across Europe.

I cite these examples (and I could cite several more within the projects, from “Cultural Encounters in Interventions in Violence”, to Santanu Das’s timely investigations into cultural encounters in WW1) only to demonstrate, in a very personal way, the immediate efficacy of humanities research.

I am someone very much involved in “societal challenges” – to use the language of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research programme, which is directly funding the HERA process. There should be no essential worries about the “knowledge to be exchanged” between these projects, and policy and cultural entrepreneurs like myself.

Yet from my panel on knowledge exchange, and also from several conversations I had with delegates throughout the day, I heard some sharply expressed anxieties about how the humanities could best “make its case” for societal relevance, alongside the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

One strand of anxiety was the worry that the humanities were “just another input into the infotainment industry”. Guilty as charged, perhaps! Yet it does strike me that the “quality” revolution in various forms of “niche” media, in James Harkin’s terms – in the UK, channels like BBC4 or Sky Arts, or the new “documentary” circuit looping through digital, theatrical release and festivals – holds out at least the possibility of a new showcase for humanities research, operating as a conduit to scholarship as much as a crudification of it. (I note that “Marrying Cultures: Queens Consort and European Identities” already has its tv series lined up).

The temptations to infotainment may go beyond the broadcast media. Humanities as a kind of rarified market-research for museumry, festivals, tourism or other public and commercial cultural practice? Jo Sofaer’s presentation on my panel showed very well how her predominantly pre-historical project (“Creativity and Craft Production in Middle and Late Bronze Age Europe”) benefitted from a comprehensive plan based on “knowing your stakeholders” – which ranged from schoolchildren to fashion-designers, local papers to national educators.

It was also good to hear some scholars in the day defend the right to humanities being about troubling certainties, rather than smoothly fitting into more societally functional agendas – or even just gilding them (“we’re not just the glace cherry on top of everything else”, in Jo’s pithy words).

Walter Pohl showed how a sensitivity to current affairs could mobilise the most seemingly non-contemporary of scholars. He told a tale of a right-wing Dutch politician who had been abusing history – explaining the fall of Rome as a consequence of allowing in “dirty foreigners and barbarians to their midst”. In a week, Walter and his colleagues had  set up a mini-conference where they refuted each one of the politicians claims, before the glare of an invited media.

Walter also cited Umberto Eco’s experience, being invited to join an expert group considering the causes of rioting in French banlieux in the mid-2000‘s. Eco wrote back saying: “Our role as scholars is not to help you politicians to solve problems, that is your task; our role is to create problems, that is, to make society realise that there is a problem in the first place.”

Yet if “knowledge critique” does not – and should not – sit easily with “knowledge exchange”, perhaps experimenting with the specific conditions of the encounter could allow both practices to occur. Jeremy Till from Central St. Martins described his own interfaces with “amateur knowledge” and “mutual encounters” – creating a set of “scarcity exchanges” between scholars and radical activists for his previous HERA project.

It did seem unusual for two major funding administrators at the conference – Mark Llewellyn from the AHRC, and Robert Burmanjer, Director General of Research at the European Commission – to be advocating “serendipity in your research – things must change” (Mark), and that “risks should be taken with the bureaucrats – we tend to prescribe too much” (Robert). Yet this may reveal a deep strength and confidence about European research frameworks in general.

In my subsequent researches, I’ve found a fascinating blog from Helga Nowotnyof the European Research Council, noting differences between the US and Europe in the balance they strike between “SSH” (social science and humanities) and technology/engineering and natural sciences.

In the US, SSH is literally under attack: in Europe, the Horizon 2020 has formally recognised its importance to issues like energy efficiency, climate change, health, ageing, security, privacy issues and digitisation. In Nowotny’s words:

It is obvious that the social science and humanities have a lot to contribute to each of these agendas, and the EU’s integrative approach is laudable. It recognises the reciprocity of technological innovation and societal advancement: the more we strive for scientific and technological innovation, the more social innovation is needed.

Science and democracy are never completely free of tension, but the social sciences and humanities can help to further mutual understanding on both sides. What’s more, these fields are the lynchpin for public engagement with science.

Perhaps this is a bit too much in lock-step. The recent Lithuanian conference on “Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities” was replete with papers like this from the League of European Research Universities, which attempted to drench each one of Horizon 2020’s  goals with humanities-and-social-science-oriented projects and approaches.

One would always want a humanities’ research process to allow for a deep-dive into the most classical sources. In Hera’s Cultural Encounters presentation, examples would be Charles Burnett’s “Encounters with the Orient in Early Modern European Scholarship”, or “Travelling Texts 1790-1914”, mapping new women’s networks in European literary culture.But also, one would also wish for there to be humanistic scholarship that stands in a critical mode towards all establishments, even those as integrative and supportive as HERA and its supporters in the Commission.

The academic journals to which I have most regularly subscribed over these years of media-making are New Left Review,  Radical Philosophy and Ephemera – drawing mostly from academia, but free enough in their commissioning rules to let many currents of social, cultural and economic change pulse through their pages.

And they in turn tapped into the student protests of a few years ago, which often expressed themselves in the establishment of “Free Schools” asking severe questions of the institutional context for humanities research (see Paul Mason’s writing on this).

In conclusion, is there anything specific that “Citizen Kane” – that work-a-day doppleganger who tensely stalked the tables of the conference on the opening Friday night – would continue to ask of “a room full of humanities academics in Dubrovnik”?

I think all he would ask is that you keep a percentage of your operating mental powers devoted to communicating the worth of your investigations, using all the modes of contemporary media, and public display, at your disposal.

And particularly, keep trying to communicate it to all those bereft of the context, and depth, by which they can measure the complex challenges of their everyday lives – whether on religious, environmental, media, commercial or military themes.

A few HERA Blogs from each project in this space, aimed at catching the interest of a passing, engaged and intelligent general reader, may be a simple and coordinated way to start. I shall keep you on my radar, and disseminate your posts on my own networks when appropriate.


I wish you well on all your research adventures!

Pat Kane