Astrid Erll, Professor of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures, Goethe-University Frankfurt
About the Author
Astrid Erll is Professor of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures at Goethe-University Frankfurt. She has worked on German, British, South Asian, American, and South African literatures and media cultures. Her research interests include literary history (focus on 19th-21st centuries), media history (focus on film and photography), English and comparative literature, cultural theory, media theory, narratology, transcultural studies and – last not least – memory studies.
Astrid Erll is general editor of the book series Media and Cultural Memory (with A. Nünning, De Gruyter, since 2004) and co-editor of A Companion to Cultural Memory Studies (with A. Nünning, 2010) and Mediation, Remediation, and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory (with A. Rigney, 2009). More recently, she published with Ann Rigney Audiovisual Memory and the (Re)Making of Europe(Image & Narrative, 2017) and Cultural Memory after the Transnational Turn (Memory Studies, 2018). She is author of Memory in Culture (Palgrave 2011), an introduction to memory studies which was originally published in German as Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen (2005, 3rd ed. 2017) and has also been translated into Chinese, Spanish, and Polish.
In 2011, Astrid Erll founded the Frankfurt Memory Studies Platform, a vibrant forum for memory studies across the disciplines, connecting researchers both in Frankfurt and internationally.
In 2016, she received a research grant from the VolkswagenStiftung for an „Opus Magnum“ on the reception of Homer as cultural memory (“Odyssean Travels: A Literary History of Cultural Memory“).
Breaking Down the Siloes (in Times of Coronavirus)
Astrid Erll (Goethe University Frankfurt)
Some might say that the coronavirus pandemic has further marginalized the humanities, with attention and money flowing into virology, epidemiology and related natural sciences. I think the opposite is the case. The experience of Covid-19 has shown that modern societies can address their crises only with an integrated vision of humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
A little thought experiment for those who believe that COVID-19 has left the humanities obsolete. Without the humanities we would have had no ethical guide for lockdowns and other measures (philosophy). We would have had no idea why home-schooling might affect the language skills of children from less privileged families (cultural studies, sociolinguistics). We would have had no awareness that humanity has been through similar pandemics before — the medieval plague, the ‘Spanish Flu’, HIV/AIDS (history, art history, literary history). We would have no way of assessing the detrimental effects of fake news in new media on compliance among coronavirus-ridden societies (media studies).
In a sense, the coronavirus crisis has turned us all (not just the academics) into interdisciplinary scientists. Our societies have had to learn that knowledge is an always preliminary, multi-perspectival process rather than a holy grail from which clear directions for action would emanate.
What became clear during the coronavirus pandemic is that crises in a ‘global risk society’ tend to be complex transdisciplinary phenomena — from climate change to species extinction, to religious fundamentalism, rampant racism, resurgent transnational populism, authoritarian regimes, and the promises and challenges of digital media and AI.
Here are five measures to tackle the transdisciplinary future demanded by our ‘world risk ecologies’ (my adaptation of Ulrich Beck’s term) and to break down the siloes of natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.
- Rename the humanities ‘human sciences’ (as in the German language) — and not in order to suggest that ‘science’ inadvertently means empirical methods, but instead to show through language use that the three ‘siloes’ are on a level playing field and that they share a fundamental drive: to understand the world we live in.
- Bolster inter-disciplinary agents: As part of their basic and permanent structures (i.e. beyond the three-year cycles of EU and other funding), universities should have interdisciplinary research professors and centres that address the challenge of bringing the disciplines together — and that can also systematically identify the obstacles that keep making exchange difficult (basic and tacit assumptions, methodologies, discipline-specific habitus, stereotypes etc.). To bring global knowledge together this can only be done in an ongoing international exchange.
- Reserve measure no. 2. for a ‘coalition of the willing’ and do not impose interdisciplinary work on everyone. Networked inter-sciences are desirable, but they are not every scholar’s cup of tea. We also need those who are ready to invest their life into, say, editing the works of a particular medieval author. Highly specialized deep scholarship generates important foundations of knowledge. Therefore, as a concomitant move, support the so-called ‘small disciplines’. We cannot afford to lose them. A break in the continuity of generations of scholarship means a loss of cultural memory handed down from scholar to scholar. This is very difficult to rebuild when you realize a few decades later that you would like to have them back at university after all.
- Endorse untimeliness. It is the very well from which innovation can spring. An anecdote: In February 2020, I was to write an introduction to a collection of essays on the ‘Spanish Flu’ of 1918. How untimely! Nobody seemed to care about this half-forgotten global event. And even the centenary had already passed. When I reluctantly picked up my pen, coronavirus was at the doorstep and my knowledge about the Flu helped me in understanding the viral and social dynamics of the current pandemic (surely not as a simple analogy, but as an important mental model).
- Conceptually (and this comes from my work in Memory Studies) connect the diverse ecological approaches developed in media studies, ANT, the posthuman studies etc. to the extended and embodied mind and to biocultural temporalities. This would help us understand how the ‘out there’ of media, political speech, and social interaction is related to the ‘in here’ of the mind, the body, and affects, and how the dynamics of past, present and future shape all the global risks mentioned above. (Corona, too, has a long past that goes back to human settlement when viruses first emerged, and it has a past in the ways that societies have learned to think about illnesses. It will have a future with still unclear legacies and aftereffects).
If nothing else, Covid-19 has brought home to us and laid at our doorsteps the necessity of a transdisciplinary future. It is high time now to break down the siloes of natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.