The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is participating in the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, which aims to bring the humanities into closer connection with disciplines that study the built environment to help address the complex problems facing today’s urban areas. To jump-start conversation for an upcoming working session, participants have been asked to “reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement.” This posting is by Michael Dear, Professor of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkeley.
The ‘geohumanities’ is a transdisciplinary and multi-methodological inquiry that begins with the human meanings of place and proceeds to reconstruct those meanings in ways that produce new knowledge as well as the promise of a better-informed scholarly and political practice. The term is meant to encompass (but not supersede or replace) related but more specific constructs such as the ‘digital humanities.’
A common analytical object in the geohumanities is place. It is an analytical ‘primitive,’ one of our principal ‘key words.’ Place may not be the only relevant primitive, and the term has many meanings. Researchers commonly distinguish between space as an abstraction, and place as a social construct – that is, what humans create out of space. Another meaning is landscape which encompasses natural and cultural dimensions. The production of place refers to both material and cognitive processes and outcomes, and representations of place may include textual, visual, sculptural, quantitative, performative, qualitative, perceptual, and oral dimensions.
Embracing complexity: a non-exclusionary ontology
Theory and practice involve degrees of simplification and abstraction in which some loss of information and complexity is inevitable. In order to minimize such losses, a non-exclusionary ontology is preferred that avoids reductionism or commitment to a single world view, and is able to shift among analytical registers flexibly and nimbly.
Transdisciplinarity: epistemological openness
The fullest knowledge is possible only when every epistemological alternative is included the geohumanities toolkit. This is a heavy burden since no single discipline or individual can absorb all ways of knowing with equal facility. Hence transdisciplinarity, comparative analysis, and a critical self-reflexivity become prerequisites for successful theory and practice in the geohumanities, as does confronting the thorny issue of incommensurablityamong epistemological alternatives.
Knowledge and action
Instead of practice dominated by a single hegemonic discipline or approach, the geohumanities offer a radically different practice in which all disciplines adopt contingent and supportive roles. The potential consequence of such self-awareness is a democratic intelligence that invigorates and extends knowledge and action. However, it also risks an untidy accumulation (or bricolage) of viewpoints beyond the point of coherence, where vision becomes blurred and action is stifled. Physical proximity and textual propinquity are not sufficient to forge a community of inquiry. Those who would create a geohumanities are charged with inventing new vocabularies and attaining heightened levels of fluency across disciplinary boundaries, including the capacity to distinguish among competing knowledge claims, in both theoretical and applied contexts.