Making a Difference

Patrik Svensson is Professor of Humanities and Information Technology at Umeå University and Visiting Professor of Digital Humanities at University of California at Los Angeles. For this year’s Being Human Festival he is the organizer of a conversation on “Making a real difference”. We approached him to ask a few questions.




Why the conversation?

Let me first say that I’m very excited about the event. While I am very appreciative of work done in the established disciplines, the need for humanities-based action has really grown on me. There is a great deal of power in the humanities that could be unlocked, I think. The humanities often end up in outside position, which in some ways is productive, but also hinders us from actively engaging with societal, cultural and technological issues and challenges in ways that would benefit our students, ourselves and the world. This is not about giving up a critical role or succumbing to external pressures to be useful, but rather to follow a humanistic ethos, take responsibility and further our research and teaching.

What does it mean to make a real difference?

I hope that this is what we will find out through the conversation, but for me it is about taking the knowledge and competence of the humanities very seriously and thinking about how this can be part of attempting to solve real-world challenges. This is not about just handing over ready-made journal articles to external partners or the humanities serving as window dressing, but rather about being involved in collaborative processes where conceptual thinking, critical perspectives and making come together. Humanists can take a lead or be high-value and confident partners. There is not one model, of course, and I am not saying that there is not good work of this kind already going on, but we need to scale humanities involvement up which also means that new practices, platforms and understandings need to be developed inside and outside the humanities. It is a matter of changing how we think about ourselves and others, and also about our partners engaging with us full on and with respect.

A two-hour conversation?

Yes! I think the format will work very well. It will be a semi-structured dialogue between the five people on stage in the magnificent Senate Room in the Senate House. The audience will be asked to participate and brief recorded skype interviews will be incorporated into the presentation. The central question is how human and humanistic knowledge make a real difference. Key issues to be discussed include the environment, race, austerity, neuroscience and philosophy, and the digital. I have organized many events and conversations, and I can honestly say that the caliber and intensity of these people and the format surpass anything with which I have been involved earlier. It is a dream come true.

Who are the participants?

 Natalie Jeremijenko’s work as a scholar and artist on the environment is brilliant and persistently innovative. She commands and deserves attention. David Theo Goldberg is a leading intellectual and scholar on race, ethnicity and critical theory and one of the most prevalent champions of the humanities. Gary Dirks, who was an executive at BP for thirty years in Asia and China, calls for the humanities to take the lead approaching global sustainability with a low-key, insistent fervor. Barrý Smith is a fiercely sharp philosopher and cognitive scientist who calls for the coming together of philosophy and neuroscience. Gargi Bhattacharyya has few peers in the way her scholarship acutely addresses key challenges in our world – including race, sexuality, trafficking, austerity and the war on terror. How can her–and their generally–work inform action?

 The event will also incorporate brief pre-recorded skype interludes with participants who are equally important, but not present physically. Allison Guess’s research focuses on critical Black geographies and she is placed in the program of Earth and Environmental Sciences at The Graduate Center at City University New York. Matt Ratto, Director of the Critical Making Lab at the University of Toronto, explores the intersections between digital technologies and the human life world. Stefanie Wuschitz is an artist and researcher at the Vienna University of Technology who does work on feminist hackerspaces, open source technology and data publics.

 There will be plenty of time for open discussion. I hope to see you all there!

Sign up for the event on the 21st Nov, 4pm, at Senate House: Making a Real Difference