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Humanities Across Boundaries: Profiling Daniel Herwitz

Humanities Across Boundaries: Profiling Daniel Herwitz

Mariah Cherem and I recently interviewed Daniel Herwitz, the lead organizer and host of this year's HASTAC Conference. We hope you enjoy meeting him as much as we did!


Daniel Herwitz, Director and Mary Fair Croushore Professor of Humanities at the University of Michigan, is the lead organizer and host of the 2011 HASTAC V International Conference. Since 2002, he has taught at the University of Michigan where he serves as the Director of the Institute for the Humanities, a center for innovative, collaborative study in the humanities and arts. Before coming to the University of Michigan, he co-founded the Centre for Knowledge and Innovation at the University of Natal where he served as Director for six years. His new book, Heritage, Culture and Politics in the Postcolony is in production with Columbia University Press and due out in Fall 2012. The book is a study of the making of the past into that modern thing called a “heritage” in colonial/Victorian times, and the moral, artistic, social and political urgencies (not to mention marketing adventures) around global rewritings of the past into heritage today.

What brought you to your field? 

After receiving a PhD in philosophy at the University of Chicago (1985) and teaching for a decade in Los Angeles, I emigrated to South Africa with my wife and child. My wife, a South African national, was keen to return during at the moment of political transition and I was keen to engage universities and write books out of the intensity of the moment. South Africa was my primary school for learning what a university is made of and the complexities involved in its re-design. It gave me a strong sense of the stakes of developing new/emerging areas of scholarship at the undergraduate and graduate levels. While there I was appointed to the Committee on Transformation which reviewed and occasioned change across the university, from curriculum and governance to research and internationalization.

Universities in South Africa are deeply engaged in public matters, which is central to their brief, and the socially driven character of research and teaching (within communities, across constituencies, in the name of addressing social problems) was appropriately central to our mission. I have brought this work to the University of Michigan, where the issue of heritage construction, transformation of museums and the making of art positioned between Africanization and global profiling is central to projects we generate between South Africa, Ghana and America.

What topics interest you and what questions have driven your work?

I’ve published nine books across the humanities and, although I hold a PhD in philosophy, I sort of fled the discipline into a more wide-angled use of what I consider among its great resources: the essay.

Film, television and new media have figured centrally in much of my writing, often in relationship to other media (art, architecture, music, literature). My writing has been pretty uniformly essayistic, addressing conditions of modern, avant-garde and contemporary culture (in India, South Africa, the United States, Europe), between registers of philosophy, history, politics, and economy (markets of profiling, branding, consumption).

In a number of books (The Star as Icon, Race and Reconciliation, my forthcoming Heritage, Culture and Politics in the Postcolony, forthcoming in 2012 from Columbia Press) I have tried to understand cultural and political phenomena through specific synergies between distinct types of media (film v. television along with tabloid and consumer culture in the making of what I call the star-icon, film, television, heritage and the internet in the construction of American political candidates and the celebrity element in American democratic procedure). Further, my book Aesthetics(2008) addresses the problem of new media for philosophy.

I have also worked consistently on the global system through which dependency, global profiling, uneven circulation and problems of interpretation qualify innovation, but also leave it free to graft global and local exigencies in new ways. My first book on the iconic modernist painter of India, M.F. Husain was entirely about this condition (Husain  won a National Book Award in India in 1988).  My books on South Africa (Race and Reconciliation, 2002,; Heritage, Culture and Politics in the Postcolony, forthcoming) address South African art, film and culture through a similar lens, which is central to the understanding of how South African architecture, film, art and even rural artisanship addresse the politics of transition, the making of heritage and so on.

Finally, my work on the avant-gardes has tried to understand the roles of “theory” in avant-garde practice, taking theory-making to be part of that practice, subject to similar formats of experimentation, innovation, utopianism and the like. While theory may be part of what seeks to turn visual experimentation into political gesture, it is itself part of the experimentation. This story is told in Making Theory/Constructing Art (1993).

What makes you interested in the digital or interdisciplinary aspect of your field?

My interests in global systems through which knowledge is generated and in the stakes of innovation across inequitable global conditions have been crucial in how I approached digital humanities. The Institute’s first foray into digital humanities was  a contribution to one of Michigan’s most longstanding and dynamic intellectual projects, Law and Slavery in the Atlantic. That project is a consortium of universities north and south—Michigan, Windsor, Sciences Sociales, Centre Juan Marinello in Cuba, Campinas in Brazil, and others.. This cluster of universities share classroom seminars and discussion through internetII, as well as archival materials dealing with micro-histories of slavery and emancipation (especially concerning issues of law) from locations active in the Atlantic slave trade including the the U.S. South, areas of Latin and South America, France and West Africa. 

Having lived in the global south before the onset of the internet, I felt in my bones how much this kind of work could change the global conditions of knowledge production by including southern partners from the getgo, and hence the potential of the digital humanities.

Issues of methods (data mining, etc…), new publication and circulation, and cross-over between art and humanities using the web came later. I do believe we are living in a state of being early to the future of artistic projection, digital communication and the like. At this moment of being early (and I mean this in Nietzsche’s sense of untimely, out of sync with habits and norms), it is hard to distinguish the analytical from the prognosticating, the prognosticating from the prophetic, the prophetic from the hallucinatory, the hallucinatory from the insightful. Hence both the terms of scholarly (and artistic) communication and the terms for reflection on these are in a state of flux, and one must approach the digital humanities in a way both engaged and a tad skeptical or sanguine. 

How do you see your field at large changing? What excites you most about the future of the humanities?

The very structure of experience is changing with digital technologies, and this has to do with the way time is punctuated into experiential shapes. I was brought up to inhabit the Museum of Modern Art at a moment when you stood in front of an abstract painting for two hours before drawing forth its inner voice. We were taught the discipline of slow focus, of slowing time down into a scale of experience both mesmeric in absorption and self-authorizing in imaginative voice.

Nowadays young people go to the Walker Art Center, a pilgrimage of abstraction and minimalism, spending five minutes in front of a painting while looking up all manner of collateral information on their iPhones—and perhaps also texting friends or de-friending enemies. The scale of experience has shifted and with it the terms of aesthetic intensities, but also of reflection, thought, listening and so forth.

It is very hard to say exactly what the implications are for human community, encounter, reading of the world, politics and so on. And so it is not simply that communities are being reshaped or displaced in favor of global lines of dissemination. It is also that the terms of human experience, of how time is and should be measured--and inhabited--are changing. And since universities are the repositories of thought but also of the history of innovation in thought (as well as recalcitrance, small mindedness, tenacity, ideology etc…) they should be applying their resources to these potential and actual changes. And not simply analytically, but in the name of intervention:

Parenthetically, I once found my child asleep with her laptop open and running on her chest, and her cell phone in her hand placed at her ear. I had the sense she was channeling messages from her unconscious dreams into Facebook. Our Pomeranian dog has his own Facebook site but we forgot the password so no one can get in to read his messages.

What conversations, insights or solutions do you hope might evolve out of this year's HASTAC conference at the University of Michigan?

A central goal of HASTAC V is to build connections at Michigan between those units who are so beautifully, and newly, engaged in the digital humanities — the School of Information, the Library and Press, the College of Literature, Science & the Arts, the Institute for the Humanities and so forth. These connections must and will continue into all manner of future projects, because these projects (such as publication) do need input from all of the above! Synergy (creatively integrating partnership) is especially crucial in manners digital. Together, we the collective in turn want to become an icon for the campus at this moment when the humanities really are changing through integration of digital technologies.

The importance of North-South partnerships in reframing knowledge production is something that also should not be lost, and we are highlighting Michigan’s various projects in that by sampling some of them such as Law and Slavery in the Atlantic mentioned above and the new digital press DigitalCultureBooks. Finally we have made a point of inviting commissioned work from the OpenEndedGroup in New York, whose digital projections, I believe, recreate the intensities of art at a level of scale that is new (faster) but also taut, narratively controlled and psychologically deep. I consider the work of the OpenEndedGroup exemplary for the digital arts.




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