hybrid Humanities – Ben Cullen

On the anniversary of the untimely and sudden death of Ben Cullen in 1995.

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Ben Cullen thought beyond conventional distinctions under a fresh evolutionary notion of humanity as deeply hybrid – material and immaterial, personhood and artifact, species and thing. Humanity: an undecidable, in Derrida’s sense. The lens through which he approached such questions – viral phenomena, beyond the biological.

This is such a refreshing and vital perspective for those interested in the future of the (academic) Humanities, when a growing crisis about their scope and character is centered precisely upon how we conceive of human being and its study – see my recent entry on declining numbers of students in the Humanities – [Link] also, more generally – [Link]. Too many want to retrench the Humanities in letters and the arts, in (high) culture, emphasizing the old distinctions between the Humanities and Sciences, worlds of people versus nature, culture versus technology. Repeated is the old and simple exhortation: read books, because they delve the depths of the human condition. OK, but so limiting.

This year I finished, with Bjørnar Olsen, Tim Webmoor and Christopher Witmore, our book Archaeology: the Discipline of Things (University of California Press), and my own The Archaeological Imagination (Left Coast Press). Both follow Ben’s suspicion of Cartesian dualisms and treat human being as distributed through rich and indeterminate networks of people-and-things. This doesn’t square with our current disciplines and questions the very validity of the Humanities, but in a positive way – because a new Humanities focused upon hybrid human being will be central to any address to real-world issues that includes people, which means just about any issue that matters. I have commented much about human-centered design thinking, as practiced in our d.school, as a manifestation of such a new Humanities [Link]. Ironically perhaps, and as we point out in our book, the corollary of human-centered engineering is thing-centered Humanities that understands our materiality.

The Archaeological Imagination explores the world of eighteenth-century antiquarians in the Borders between England and Scotland before radical distinctions set in between disciplines in the Humanities and Sciences – mélanges of memories and material remains, human landscapes and physical geologies, natural histories of local plants and animals, family genealogies, collections of manuscripts and artifacts, itineraries through pasts-in-presents. Even in what became something of a homage to Walter Scott, the antiquarian inventor of the historical novel, I couldn’t help but think of Ben, and the book is dedicated to him.

Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and other Pieces of our earlier Poets, (Chiefly of the Lyric kind.) Together with some few of later Date. London: Printed for J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall. First Edition, 1765. Ex Libris Michael Shanks.

The title page: “the work of poets endures”. It is, ironically, the voice and music’s notes that carry history; buildings fall into ruin and our writings disperse on the wind. And when the poet is vates, prophet and visionary, reading signs, past and present, of what is to come.

A great antiquarian debate in the eighteenth century concerned the essential role of poetic conjecture in what we now call scientific modeling – and this included historical reconstruction.