Since September 2017 I’ve been Director of the newly-created Centre for Experimental Humanities here at NYU. It’s an interdisciplinary MA programme that is devoted to singing, to slow thinking, the analogue humanities, the synthesis of rapture and reason, of theory and practice, of archaeology and astronomy. Why slow thinking? Because who can really be happy with 24/7-ism, with the culture of rapid responses, with twitter-happy presidents, the dementia of dromology? We offer, either currently or in the very near future, classes on underworlds, nothingness, failure, David Bowie, John Berger, play, bad women, the 1990s, insomnia (taught at midnight).
Clearly, we’re interested in topics that allow for mystery, for speculation, the joy of being lost, for multiple ways of seeing. We’re not so interested – as our name suggests – in disciplinarity: in the contemporary university, disciplinarity is all too often punitive, endogamous, monocultural, a straitjacketing, an imaginative foreclosure. The richness and hybridity of our curiosities and passions gets pasteurised; we become used to identifying ourselves – over-identifying ourselves – by beginning conversations with ‘as an anthropologist’, ‘as a historian’, ‘as a musicologist’. We also fetishise criticality, suspicion, and the forensic gaze rather than camaraderie, companionate knowledge, the tactility of the lover, or the beating of the heart.
Over the last couple of years, it has been a delight to meet, talk to, and learn from Jacob Burda and Alan Lawson, and to participate in the Alpine Fellowship. I attended the symposium on ephemera in August 2016. There were philosophers, poets, musicians, dramatists, and a Buddhist monk who created and dismantled a mandala. There was a spatial commitment to creating an environment in which artists and scientists, historians and technologists, distinguished academics and younger thinkers could decelerate; where they could meet, ruminate, and explore together. There was song, there was verse, there was Venice. Thinking felt tender, topographical, intimate. Alan has spoken about the Fellowship’s desire to increase the ‘capacity for reflection and empathy, to sing a new song.’ These are worthy and crucial goals – now more than ever. If you hunger to sing new songs you would do well to consider joining the Alpine community.
We are an association of writers, artists and scholars who wish to define and pursue our common interest in the humanities. As we see it, the world of scholarship has been fragmented by specialisation, has lost some of its vital connection with the arts, and has also retreated before the advance of scientism. Many questions confront us in our attempts to imbue our lives with meaning. Some of these are scientific questions, concerning the function and evolution of the human brain, the nature of the cosmos, the ultimate structure of the matter from which we are composed. But some of them are not scientific questions, since they do not seek to explain the world but to interpret it. The world is our world, imbued with the aspirations through which we aspire to a total conception of its meaning. Questions surround the phenomena of consciousness, beauty, morality and the sacred; the meaning that we seek and find in art and music; the poetic use of words and the power of metaphor. They are not scientific questions, and the attempt to squeeze them into the mould of scientific theory leads all too frequently to caricature and even nonsense.
Our Fellowship is neither a dogmatic sect nor a career path. We are a diverse group of people who enjoy the life of the mind. We want to release the imagination, so that it can flourish again according to its own innate principles. We would like to explore the boundary where scientific explanation stops and the true humanities begin. Our goal is to encourage meetings, discussions, publications and performances that will bring together those who share our concern for the future of the intellectual life, and who wish to restore the links between philosophy and culture. We reach out to creative people of every age, who want something better than the education that has in so many ways put a barrier between them and the real knowledge that they are seeking – especially in the arts of painting, architecture, literature and music. Most of all we want to explore and learn from imaginative worlds, to turn away from the things that reduce and demean us, and to restore confidence in our human capacity to transcend the obsession with ephemera.