Doris Bachmann-Medick, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC), Justus Liebig University Giessen

About the Author

Doris Bachmann-Medick is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC) of the Justus Liebig University Giessen. She held numerous appointments as a visiting professor, recently at the universities of Graz, Göttingen, UC Irvine, Cincinnati, and Georgetown University/Washington, DC.

Her main fields of research are cultural theory, Kulturwissenschaften, literary anthropology, and translation studies. Her recent book publications include Cultural Turns. Neuorientierungen in den Kulturwissenschaften (6th ed. 2018 [2006]), revised English edition Cultural Turns: New Orientations in the Study of Culture (2016), and her edited volumes The Translational Turn, a special issue of the journal Translation Studies (2.1, 2009), The Trans/National Study of Culture: A Translational Perspective (2014), Migration: Changing Concepts, Critical Approaches (2018, co-edited with Jens Kugele), Futures of the Study of Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Global Challenges (2020, co-edited with Jens Kugele and Ansgar Nünning).



A crisis like the coronavirus pandemic affects the very core of human existence. But how does it affect the existence and future of the humanities and the study of culture? Are we currently witnessing the emergence of an encompassing ‘pandemic turn’ that could marginalize the humanities by prioritizing research in the realms of epidemiology, biology, medicine, and digital technology?

I seek a more nuanced depiction of the challenges that the present crisis poses to the humanities. This depiction comes into focus when we consider the phases and narratives of the pandemic, along with the phenomena of reactions to and management of the crisis, including restrictions on civil liberties, increases in social control, as well as changes in patterns of work, spatial orders, and generational relations. By analyzing such changes with their accompanying narratives and exploring their critical links with other global crises, the humanities can highlight a specific feature of the pandemic: its continuing liminality. Indeed, it seems to me that focusing on this enduring liminality could become the driving force for dynamic and relevant research in the humanities.

                As critical observers of the current predominance of scientific and medical discourse and its political appropriation for crisis management, scholars of the humanities and social sciences are much needed. A study-of-culture approach seems indispensable, as it directs a strong analytical and critical focus on the explosion of narratives that have been disseminated throughout the course of the pandemic. Only from this perspective can the clash of scientific explanations, political legitimations, heroic exaggerations, depressing stories, fake news, and conspiracy theories be disentangled. What is more, this approach also has the ability to connect the cultural and social effects of the pandemic with the sequential phases of the crisis itself by using the tools of ethnological ritual theory elaborated by Victor Turner. In this sense, one could ask, ‘Has the pandemic unfolded along a similar three-stage pattern of dramatic ritual that begins with a first phase (separation from familiar bonds), followed by a transition phase (intermediary liminal state) and culminating in a third phase (stabilizing new aggregation or reintegration)?’ This analogy certainly seems appropriate with regard to the first phase: All energies had to be concentrated on pandemic research, medicine and biology, biotechnology and virology. ‘Outbreak narratives’ (Priscilla Wald) of infection, contagion, and contact restrictions determined behavior and discourses. But even if the scientists, epidemiologists, and virologists have desperately worked towards crisis management through traditional or new instruments of disease control, the awareness of uncertainty and a state of liminality have come to dominate, and still remain.  

What is the role of the humanities in this process? The full potential of the humanities could not be exploited just by looking at the biopolitics of the crisis from a cultural perspective. This perspective is necessary indeed, because it prompts questions about the cultural politics of the crisis and the diverse ways in which different cultures perceive the crisis and respond to it, whether in pragmatic, technological, apocalyptic, or religious terms. A humanities perspective is also needed to question the racist implications of our responses to the crisis, changes in the relationship between the private and public spheres, and transformations in work. On an even larger scale, the humanities must rethink the global capitalist order in its entirety and examine massive restrictions to civil rights on national and local levels. These critical contributions — sometimes also historically based — are certainly indispensable in the crisis, but they are not enough.

What is required is an increased awareness of enduring liminality to incite a foresighted self-positioning in the humanities. The narrative of ongoing liminality provides a provocation to generate new horizons that could lead us out of a fragile, disruptive, borderline state of being ‘in-between’ without a foreseeable transition into a new phase of re-integration. It is precisely the humanities that can explore and make sense of the precarious experience of a disaster — leading to sharpened perceptions and an illumination of the irritations of social distinctions, familiar conditions, and cultural patterns of behavior that the pandemic has produced. Our state of liminality is a stimulus for the humanities to critically interrogate the cultural-symbolic order of our societies and reevaluate the potential for cultural change. This goes beyond hoping that the current experience of liminality will end with a more stable re-integration into an everyday life and a ‘return to a new normality’.

We have to reckon with the possibility that the crisis experience of Covid-19 could endure as a permanent state. What seems to emerge is a persistent border and transition experience with increased uncertainties of prognosis and continuing existential uncertainties of survival. In such a fundamental crisis there can hardly be any talk of transition anymore, since the stabilizing tripartite structure of the conventional (ritual) process has been massively disturbed.

But with regard to the humanities and study of culture one thing seems certain: This period of uncertainty offers a potential opportunity to target new social conditions, elaborate new ethical frameworks and bring cultural-ecological transformations on their way. If, for example, previous forms of uneven global coexistence are reconsidered, including consumer behavior and its global interdependencies, then initiatives could emerge to create new standards of global cooperation and solidarity, and ultimately more sustainable forms of economic activity. In any case, the crisis should be used in this sense as a chance to rethink, decelerate, redirect or restructure (with regard to cultural norms, social relations, work processes, etc.). This depends, however, on a far-sightedness in the humanities that does not aim at providing orientation or creating meaning through just one synthesizing crisis narrative. Meaningful horizons, including the possible endings and solutions to this ongoing pandemic story, lie outside any constructed narrative. By facing up to the state of continuing liminality and not merely focusing on crisis management from day to day, research in the field of the humanities and the study of culture — in contrast to the natural sciences and politics — can make use of its freedom from direct decision-making constraints. Navigating the maelstrom of public crisis narratives, humanities scholars could reach beyond an analysis of the conflicting claims to authority in public discourse. They could make much larger contexts visible and open up course-setting horizons. Without investigating the pandemic in its global interdependence with other crises (climate, financial, refugee, etc.), no solutions can be expected. Here, again, liminality is an important connecting link. By realizing that the liminality of this crisis (as well as other crises) could become a permanent state, the humanities have the potential to reach beyond the exploration of mere coping strategies. They can point out new ethical and sustainable horizons of reference for reflecting on and responding to the crisis, and thereby transcend the narrowing claim of a ‘pandemic turn’.

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