IGP Stories

Reflections from the WHR project and the Lisbon 2021 European Humanities Conference

Juan Manuel Moreno

1 July 2021

In May 2019, I began working with Professor Henrietta L. Moore on the World of Humanities Report (WHR) project – an international collaboration between The Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes (CHCI), the International Council of Philosophy and the Human Sciences (CIPSH), and the United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organisation (UNESCO).

Our contribution was to the European branch of the WHR, which brought us together with researchers from Barcelona, Belgrade, Bologna, Dublin, Utrecht, and Gottingen universities to better understand and reflect on the contributions of the humanities to knowledge and society. The WHR-Europe later led to the launch of a Network of European Humanities (NEH.21) with academics and practitioners from all corners of Europe.

Two years later, I found myself ‘viewing’ the European Humanities Conference 2021 (EHC2021), co-hosted last May by CIPSH in collaboration with the Fundaçao para a Ciencia e Tecnologia (FCT), the UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations (MOST) programme, and the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian.

The conference tried its best to mirror ‘normalcy’. The four-day event was held between 4-7 May in Lisbon, mainly through screens, and had with an ambitious programme of public lectures, presentations, artistic exhibitions, and music performances. Scholars, artists and practitioners from across mostly European universities and institutions brought together physically and digitally to examine the development and contributions of the humanities to societal challenges in Europe and globally.

EHC2021’s main website consisted of an interactive interface whereby, through mouse-clicks or screen-finger-taps, one could ‘walk’ to the ‘welcome desk’ and register, and then go to the main ‘amphitheatre’ to ‘attend’ the various interventions. Later, if one could choose between a ‘visit’ the Gulbenkian Museum, ‘take a peek’ at the arts and culture exhibition, or ‘take a stroll’ in the gardens.

The contents and format of the conference itself, as many other hybridized events nowadays, are an honest reflection and echo of current conditions of our contemporaneity. We are, have always been in fact, living through intransigent and unyielding times interwoven with disparate realities, moments and events of opportunity and uncertainty. In the context of the current pandemic, for some, the world and its spaces now seem to be reopening, expanding, outreaching, and coming back to some form of normality – whatever ‘normal’ is or was in the first place. Yet, for others, unfortunately many others, things are closing, contracting, reducing, displacing, excluding. These parallel conditions are not new to the pandemic. Incommensurably devastating realities of despair and hopelessness have long coexisted – very often uncomfortably – with positive, creative, and inclusive engagements and relations based on care, solidarity, and healing.

However, when faced with daunting figures and incommensurable realities of despair such as extractivism 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 harms on those left behind, one can easily become confused and forget where arts and humanities are situated and how they might ‘help’.

How can the humanities help challenge preconceptions and normalised narratives of privilege, inequality, and injustice? How are humanities scholars changing and adapting their many epistemologies, ontologies, and methodologies to the many uncertainties of 21st century? How and to what extent can the humanities influence and shape public policy, funding, and research agendas?

I cannot but emphasize that WHR-Europe has been a long, challenging, often frustrating, yet also inspiring, humbling, and refreshing journey. Since joining the project, Henrietta and I have attended and intervened at numerous conferences, drafted policy recommendations to UNESCO, and co-wrote two important chapters for the final report – which is being published in summer 2021.

The overarching message from our contribution to the WHR-Europe report echoes the main call from the Lisbon conference; this is that we must urgently promote, facilitate, and act on more and better collaborations accross and beyond the humanities, social sciences and STEM research based on more open, transparent, and responsible pathways of knowledge communication and exchange. These ideas also resonate with the British Academy’s 2020 report Qualified for the Future which suggests that building the society we want to live in, with individuals able to tackle the challenges we face and shape the future in a post/with pandemic reality, will require renewed arts, humanities and social sciences education and skills systems.

Yet, these collaborations and systems will not be enough in themselves. The importance of arts, culture and humanities research need to be also better recognised in community and popular understandings and in evidence-based policy-making, drawing attention to the language needed to communicate knowledge and expertise. This requires us to engage with a more honest exploration and promotion of experiential, affective and speculative forms of knowledge production and methodologies that take account of people’s wellbeing in all its forms and states as much as the economy and the environment.

In his prose poem Sometimes I consider the names of places, Kei Miller writes “[w]e are insufficiently imagined people, from an insufficiently imagined place.” His poem is a clear denunciation and lament to the blindness, deafness, and ravages of colonialism, yet it also touches on an immanent and persistent human condition; that of the feeling and experience of inhabiting change as beings that occupy spaces, actual and imagined, in relation. Sometimes this change comes through fast-paced, sudden, and dislocating transformations, others it is in slow, frustrating or comforting, transitions. Sometimes these changes are unjust, imposed on us, others they emerge organically, they are sought for.

What is clear is that these uncertain disruptions we experience through time and space are also part of newly emerging and perceived crises of the self and its relationship to ‘others’. There is a continuous questioning, rethinking, and reimagining of our interactions within the ‘self’ and with the ‘other’ (human and non-human others: the living world, machines, materials).

Navigating these new forms of interconnectedness involves opening up spaces for the exchange of ideas, experiences, and imaginaries about the various ways of being and living together with others.

The humanities, the arts, culture, are the spaces, physical, emotional, political spaces, where we can negotiate, study, reflect, broaden out an ethics of care as a fuller response to our fears and fantasies, to new and necessary forms of solidarity that will sustain all humans, non-humans, and the planet, and where we can learn to live together with welcome and unwelcomed proximities and differences.

This blog draws on IGP’s contribution to the European branch of the World Humanities Report (WHR) project. You can find out more about the WHR-Europe project and the Network of European Humanities here.

Image Credit: Photo by Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash

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