Mikhail Epstein, The Transformative Humanities

Arianna Dagnino
University of British Columbia

Epstein, Mikhail (2012). The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. London: Bloomsbury.

[1] Written in the form of an extended polemical manifesto for the rejuvenation of the humanities, Epstein's The Transformative Humanities is a dense and highly stimulating book. However, even though it offers a stern defense of the role and importance of the humanities in our highly technological and pervasively digital contemporary world (at least with regard to Western societies), more than one academic active in this field might find the book somewhat annoying. The reason is that Epstein provocatively hits—although gently, and most of all humbly—where it most hurts, identifying the main cause of today's crisis in the humanities as a dismal lack of creativity and, even more, of "inventorship" among its scholarly practitioners (14). He contends that in order to infuse creative and innovative energy into the debilitated body and soul of the humanities, a breed of dynamic "transhumanist thinkers" well versed in the art of crossing boundaries and disciplines needs to be allowed access to the well-defended but also paralyzing towers of academic privilege and be granted acceptance at scholarly level (98). As Epstein writes, "Our academic institutions... currently have no place for such avenues of conceptual creativity... Is there any institution in contemporary academia in which such literary inventors and builders as ... Friedrich Nietzsche, André Breton or Walter Benjamin, could flourish as professionals? Imagine Friedrich Nietzsche applying for the position of assistant professor in a department of philosophy somewhere in the United States" (14).

[2] Innovators are usually perceived as disruptive of a given status quo. In his academic career in the former Soviet Union and then in the U.S., where he emigrated in 1990, Mikhail N. Epstein has repeatedly called upon his innovative spirit, letting his research interests follow a protean, pluralistic and hardly graspable pattern, from literary theory to culturology, from philosophy to religious thought, from electronic media to the creation of new disciplines and new ideas. (In 1995 he won the Social Innovations Award from London's Institute for Social Inventions for his electronic Bank of New Ideas). His activity, supported by two dozen books published in Russian and English, has culminated in the recent foundation of the Centre for Humanities Innovation at Durham University, UK.

[3] Epstein was certainly aware that producing his provocative manifesto was a heretical act. Nonetheless, in his personal and shared quest for a solution to the declining role of the humanities, he has not hesitated to call to attention its main practitioners and their sanctioned canons as well as to question some of the most prominent theoretical idols of humanities' current discourse—starting from American-flavored postmodernism, which he endearingly describes as "our vivacious sepulcher" (48). While crediting postmodernism for its indisputably critical stance, Epstein invites us to move forward, to leave behind "the philosophy of deferred expectation," the repetitive "obsession with the present" (48) and embrace instead, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a proto-global mentality. The prefix "proto-" indicates the beginning, the early development of a new phase characterized by its open-endedness, a generating event, and an expansion; the word post signals death, decline, the end of something, and it has a self-defeating connotation. As Epstein (2004) has long insisted, a proto-global mentality "would reflect a Bakhtinian transition from finality to initiation as our dominant mode of thinking" (46). This does not mean, however, according to Epstein, to forget the lesson of postmodernism and naively approach the future as a renewed, progressive grand utopia or truth narrative but rather, following Mikhail Bakhtin's vision, to regard it as "a comedian," that is, as a temporal dimension whose "ambivalent laughter" allows the contemplation of ceaseless, multiple possibilities (49). As if it were a sort of innocent, metaphorical chameleon, in Epstein's eyes the future represents the fluctuating, ungraspable and unpredictable nature of things to come. Its elusive nature induces Epstein to evoke the mythological figure of Proteus, "who was able to foretell the future, but avoided this task by permanently changing his shape and escaping anybody who would try to capture him to get a definite prediction" (49). According to Epstein, we shouldn't fear the future-chameleon but rather learn to adjust to its protean, open-ended nature, which allows the multiplication of possibilities and leads to the contemplation of a sort of quantum multiplication of futures. Epstein calls "potentiation" this process of disruption and recombination into new dynamic meanings, alternative worlds and possible futures (51). It is an approach which privileges the conditional and hypothetical mood rather than the imperative mood of the modernist era or the time-blindness of postmodernist discourse: "The future is not something that will be, but something that may be. A possibility never comes alone, but only in the form of doubling and multiplying possibilities. Possibilities clash yet do not exclude one another" (51)

[4] The second idol challenged by Epstein is multiculturalism, especially in regard to global studies and postcolonialism, although, rather disconcertingly, throughout his book he never mentions the latter and the related politics of knowledge, thus making the reader wonder about the more or less conscious choice of such a blatant omission. Again, he prompts us to move forward, to overcome the "pluralistic world of self-enclosed cultures" and develop a transcultural or "interferential" model, where cultures are no longer conceived as rigidly defined and self-contained entities but rather as open organisms mutually interacting through countless cultural flows (60). Also in this case, "Culture as a whole is coming to be understood as only one set of possibilities" (53). From this standpoint, what now needs to be preserved is, most of all, "one's right to live beyond one's own culture," which, accordingly, leads to the individual's transcendence into what Epstein calls a "meta-cultural beyond" (61). All this does not imply renouncing or disregarding one's native or acquired culture; rather, through liberating us from the complex set of socially imposed or self-imposed cultural identities, the transcultural process invoked by Epstein allows us to change, extend and amplify "the sense of existence" through constant processes of cultural metamorphosis. In the manifesto's conditional mood and worldview the "universal" principles of moral life, which are "contained within [...] the individual" (53), also tend to shed the imperative mood of ethical injunctions ("Thou shalt not steal") and duties ("Honour thy father and thy mother") to assume the character of possibilities. Drawing on Nikolai Berdyaev's anticipation that a future morality would become "the individual's creative task," Epstein envisages the future of ethics as a way of "creating possibilities for one another" (54).

[5] While heretically knocking down some idols, Epstein provocatively rehabilitates some others. For example, going against the flow and with the potential risk of promoting new forms of creative and/or intellectual elitism, he stresses the role and importance of the avant-gardes, both in the arts and, even more importantly, in the domain of "experimental criticism" (89-90). Avant-garde scholarship, as Epstein maintains, can be viewed as the exploration and intellectual encouragement of what he calls "the unspeakable" (the unutterable), "the blank spaces in language and culture" (79) which make manifest that transcendent region of human experience which cannot be expressed in words (84). Taking up where post-structuralism ends, but pushing it forward and sideways, Epstein also re-establishes the importance of the writer in the creative process (117-118). Although he accepts the view of the absence of the author in the text proposed by Derrida's Grammatology, he shifts our focus back to the writer, asking some fundamental questions: "Who is the subject that is absent in writing" and why is this subject willing to leave only traces of him/herself on the page or on the screen by making a more or less conscious self-erasure, that is, by making a "sacrifice to the text" (119)? In other words, "Why do subjects substitute their life in flesh and blood by traces removed from their bodies, voices, and gestures?" (119) To address these questions, Epstein envisages a new discipline—"scriptorics"—the study of writing subjects, those whose social and existential motivations are solely determined by the activity of writing (117-118).

[6] While critically addressing the current and possible future developments of science and technology, Epstein pushes his provocation even further, re-evaluating the role of religion, not its institutionalized and separate millennial manifestations, but religion meant as an act of "cognitive faith" (144). Going against the materialism and positivism of the nineteenth century as well as the atheism of the twentieth century, he suggests the possibility of a "cognitive religion" whose two main allies will be, paradoxical as that may sound, science and technology, "since reason is increasingly in agreement with faith" (144).

[7] After having invoked the need to bravely challenge our critical outlook and question the current but somewhat "outdated" or simply jaded dominant paradigms and discourses of postmodernism, Epstein offers a series of practical tools to develop and express creativity and imagination in our scholarly endeavors within the humanities. One of the most powerful ones is the creation of new humanistic disciplines more attuned to the techno-scientific challenges of the twenty-first century. This activity, as Caryl Emerson emphasizes in the foreword to the manifesto, has nothing to do with the "current habit of timidly yoking together existing disciplines" (p. xi). On the contrary, it aims to expand the scope of the research conducted within humanities departments into newly invented fields and into practical and experimental branches. Among the multiple examples provided by Epstein are "ecophilology" (the study of the role of textual environments, 80-81); "semionics" (the study of sign formation, 99); "humanology (the study of the transformation of humans as part of the technosphere, "the ecology of humans and the anthropology of machines," 137-139); "technosophia" (the metaphysics applied to the construction of virtual worlds, 155); and michronics (the study of the qualitative meaning of the smallest entities and of the miniaturization of things, 193).

[8] Drawing on the bold anticipations and at times rather controversial positions of scientists, futurists, science fiction writers and posthumanist theorists such as Ray Kurzweil, Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravek, Epstein's manifesto envisages, and, I assume welcomes, "a deeper level of integration between biology and technology." Perhaps here the reader feels that a deeper level of problematization of such issues is needed, especially in regard to the progressive disappearance of the human body's main functions from the future's horizon. We are more or less aware that techno-scientists are intent on devising ever more sophisticated technologies of artificial manipulation of our biology. Within two or three generations we might expect to have among us new breeds of humans genetically enhanced and born out of artificial wombs—nonetheless, they will still have a body. But what if we progressively forgot about our bodies? What if instead of humanizing as much as possible our technological artifacts (from robots to artificial intelligences), giving them "a body" and a "a sensory system," we concentrated more on technologizing our corporeal structures, with the ultimate end of making them progressively replaceable and, possibly, totally disposable? As the philosopher Erin Manning maintains, bodies invent movement and "what moves as a body returns as a movement of thought" (1). Will we have the same thoughts without our sensory bodies in movement or might we be stuck in a repetitive routine of digitalized, cerebral and mechanical functions? We could create a new discipline in order to study to what extent our consciousness and creativity (including the creation of new life) stem from our physical acts and embodied performances. I leave to Epstein to find, under the umbrella of "humanology," an appropriate name for such a discipline—I would propose "somativity" (somatic creativity). In any case, it is precisely by venturing into the domain of the integration between biology and technology that Epstein's vision of transformative humanities shows its highest potential. It does so by forcing us to look at which technological innovations may be harmful or, on the contrary, may assist us in our human development. More importantly, it urges us to question what are humanity's goals and which evolutionary changes in our species, prompted by the pervasive nature of new technologies, are advisable or should be critically rejected.

[9] That is why one of the last chapters of Epstein's manifesto reads as an invocation for the return to the search for wisdom as the main pursuit of a holistic philosophical (and trans-philosophical) approach; in this light, wisdom is seen as "an intelligence that understands its own boundaries and can deliberately choose to act according to the heart or the body, to the soul or the spirit, instead of the mind" (p. 243). And if the future is drawn towards the development of ever- expanding digital realities to be accessed by our avatars or our technologically enhanced bodies, Epstein urges us to involve contemporary philosophers as wise, beneficial demiurges in the creation of our virtual worlds (p. 156).


Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Epstein, Mikhail, N. (2004) "The Unasked Question: What Would Bakhtin Say?" Common Knowledge Volume 10 (1): 42-60.

Epstein, Mikhail (2012). The Transformative Humanities: A Manifesto. London: Bloomsbury.

Manning, Erin (2009). Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Schulze-Engler, Frank and Sissy Helff. 2009. Transcultural English Studies: Theories, Fictions, Realities. Amsterdam; New York: Rodopi.

Sturm-Trigonakis, Elke (2013). Comparative Cultural Studies and the New Weltliteratur. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press.

Thomsen, Mads Rosendahl. 2008. Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven, ed (2003). Comparative Literature and Comparative Cultural Studies. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press.

Welsch, Wolfgang. 1999. "Transculturality: The Puzzling Form of Cultures Today." In Spaces of Culture: City – Nation – World, edited by Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash, 194-213. London: Sage.

Zabus, Chantal J., and Silvia Nagy, eds. 2011. Perennial Empires: Postcolonial, Transnational, and Literary Perspectives. London: Cambria Press.


  1. Epstein is renowned for his thought-provoking neologisms, of which he gives ample proof also in his manifesto.
  2. A similar argumentation is presented by other theorists in the fields of transcultural, transnational, and comparative cultural studies at the crossroads with social studies (especially with regard to literary studies). See, among others, Schulze-Engler and Helff (2009), Sturm-Trigonakis (2013), Thomsen (2008), Tötösy de Zepetnek (2003), Welsch (1999), and Zabus and Nagy (2011).