IGP Stories

Juggling macroeconomics, arts and humanities: physical distance with the closeness of care

Social Prosperity Climate Emergency Mass Displacement Europe

Juan Manuel Moreno

On the morning of Thursday 21 May, I was preparing me a maté as I logged on to Microsoft Teams from the tatty décor of my kitchen. Everyone was ‘there’… in London, Bologna, Gottingen, Utrecht, Belgrade, Lisbon. Over the course of two days, we engaged in eight hours of lively and intense discussions on the role(s) of the Arts and the Humanities for society, the planet, and contemporary existential challenges. The plan had not been for me to ‘view’ everyone on my laptop screen but to take a series of trains from Brighton to Bologna and present, alongside Prof. Henrietta L. Moore, our contribution to the European chapter of the World Humanities Report project. Instead, we did this online, amidst microphone glitches, delays and background noises.

Not long after viewing and discussing our work, I was preparing for another event, also virtual due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The latter was part of the Developing an Economy of Belonging project, a collaboration between IGP and the Rebuilding Macroeconomics consortium. The event brought together senior economists and political scientists to discuss how to reform our economies in order to bring people back to better work and more secure livelihoods, responding to major social, political and economic challenges, including climate change.

Since I started working at the IGP, I have been juggling these two seemingly unrelated pieces of work and trying to connect them. How to connect macroeconomics and issues of economic and social policy with the Arts and the Humanities?

Over the past months, colleagues at the IGP have shared important commentary and research pieces on the impossibility of locking down inequalities, the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the most marginalised sectors of society, and the deeply rooted systemic racism behind them. IGP have given much thought to the lessons this crisis can teach us and the possibilities and challenges of imagining different futures. Much of IGP’s current thinking and research points to the urgent need to move towards the more local and place-based economies necessary for sustainable post-Covid-19 recovery strategies, and the community-led initiatives and extended system of public provision, universal basic services, as effective, inclusive and sustainable ways to achieve them.

What these debates highlight is the need for approaches that engage with and foster different ways of knowing, researching and imagining our worlds, and how we relate to others in those worlds. I think the Arts and Humanities are crucial for this.

Since Covid-19 took hold and lockdown forced a ‘dematerialisation’ of our bodies and the self within those bodies, there has been increasing interest in less academically bound, community-led research and collective initiatives in the Arts and the Humanities. This proliferation of work has ranged widely and wildly from research on how the pandemic is narrated across cultures, the role of language in ‘world making,’ to the effects of the digital divide, and the challenges posed by the increasingly digitalised experience economy. I have come across collectively co-created and live-open toolkits for artists and practitioners transitioning and reimagining their practices into the digital, critical commentaries on the importance of contagion novels, and collective archives and oral history projects (some more established, like MassObservation, some more punk, resurgent and anti-systemic, like MayDayRooms). I have attended (viewed) virtual music festivals, and read about story reading aloud groups to combat self-isolation and loneliness, and lessons offered by indigenous knowledge and traditional practices.

The collective creative, collaborative and hopeful nature of these practices is evidence of them being intrinsic to society’s reawakening to value what matters. Through these practices, it is even more evident that arts and humanities are bound up with, and constitute, relationships of care.

Howevever, when faced with daunting figures and incommensurable realities of despair such as extractivist and resource depletion industries, the mass displacement of millions of people, the pervading and systemic racism towards black and ethnic minority communities across the world, or the uneven extent and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic health, social and economic impacts on those who have been left behind, one can easily become confused and forget where arts and humanities are situated and how they might ‘help‘. What is their role in critical debates calling for more secure livelihoods and a labour market realigment through, for instance, universal basic services?

Now, more than ever, the focus should not be on the form (epistemologies, ontologies) or the public value (measurement, impact) of the Arts and Humanities. ‘Narrating’ Arts and the Humanities collaborative research ‘value’ does not easily fit into formal, audit culture, funder-friendly categories. Instead, we should focus on how their many knowledges, practices and performances – from the academic to the activist, the individual and the collective, from the traditional to the emergent – help create and cultivate different forms of engagement and relations based on care, with ourselves and with others – humans and non-human others.

The Arts and the Humanities are offering solutions for some aspects of Covid-19 and the ‘new normal’ that is emerging. Yet, they do not merely offer spaces or tools to ‘solve’ a set of problems, such as the existential challenges highlighted by the pandemic. We must abandon obsessions with always wanting to solve, control, achieve. To approach the uncertainties of the contemporary moment we need new ways of thinking, working, doing research. We need alternative frames of reference and speculative potentialities.

Yet, this will not be enough on its own. Gaining purchase across the borders of ‘academic/expert’ and ‘community/popular’ understandings also means making such knowledges meaningful and translatable to public policy contexts. This requires paying attention to the languages used when practising Arts and Humanities and how and with whom communication happens.

This is not just a repackaging exercise, so that disciplinary conventions and methods of inquiry are more accessible and palatable to wider audiences. The forms through which the Arts and the Humanities study and imagine the self and interactions with others must start from collaborative practices that are based on ethical imaginations. These are practices that take us beyond the ‘state of affairs’, are simultaneously sensorial and cognitive, normative and speculative, and allow us to engage across different spatial-temporal realities and potentialities.

Delivering a better quality of life and wellbeing for people and the planet beyond Covid-19 will require reimagining and repurposing our economies, political structures and ways of being. Many of the solutions are known: investing in sustainable food systems and regenerative agriculture; shifting to more cooperative, local and circular economies; responding to technological changes and automation; investing in renewable energy, nature and reforestation; supporting unions and labour rights; condemning and disrupting systemic practices of racism and exclusion … the list goes on. But as the Club of Rome have said in a recent open letter, how leaders across the world decide to gear this change will either amplify or mitigate many of the global challenges we are facing.

The Arts and the Humanities are crucial for imagining and cultivating collective attitudes of hope and relations of care needed to ground and guide many of these policy transformations.

I finish writing this piece on a Thursday evening, a week after our WHR online encounter and just hours after the Rebuilding Macroeconomics webinar on post Covid-19 jobs. Sounds from outside tell me it is 8pm, so I close my computer and walk to my front door to join neighbours and clap, at a physical distance yet with the social closeness of care.

This piece is inspired from IGP contribution to the World Humanities Report (WHR) project. Initiated in May 2019, the WHR project is an international collaboration between The Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, the International Council of Philosophy and the Human Sciences, and UNESCO. The aim of the project is to better understand and reflect on the contributions of the Humanities to knowledge and society. The hope is that this initiative serves as a tool to document how humanities are practised across the world and give policy recommendations for their role in the 21st Century. You can find out more about the WHR project here.

Image credit: Skye Studios on Unsplash

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