ReX 6: Applied Enlightenment

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Murray Pittock, Bradley Professor of English Literature
Murray Pittock, Bradley Professor of English Literature and Pro-Vice Principal of Special Projects at the University of Glasgow.

Re: Enlightenment is an international research network founded in 2009-10 by New York University in association with New York Public Library. It holds its regular meetings (called Exchanges) annually, and the meeting in Glasgow is its sixth, following previous meetings in New York, London, California, Virginia and Oslo. It is still run from New York University with a steering committee based at the universities of Cambridge, Glasgow, Oslo, California at Santa Barbara, London and the British Museum.

Re:Enlightenment is focused primarily on three major research questions:

  • Past and Present—How should Enlightenment then (in the eighteenth century) relate to the possibilities for Enlightenment now?
  • Connectivities—How can we reconnect across the boundaries and divisions—institutional, professional, disciplinary—that arose after Enlightenment?
  • Mediating Technologies—How can we reconceive our structures and tools for making knowledge work in the world?

Re:Enlightenment exists to break down boundaries between knowledge producers within universities and between knowledge production inside universities and in wider society, in the context of awareness of the new questions being posed by digital innovation.  It is holding its 2016 international exchange at Kelvin Hall on 27th and 28th October. Kelvin Hall represents many of the values  held by Re:Enlightenment: those which break down boundaries, encourage new forms of knowledge and engage communities. The University of Glasgow’s development at Kelvin Hall will be a third partnership hub for Re:Enlightenment activity after the Digital Lab Cambridge, and Re:Enlightenment London, which launched at the Royal Society of Arts in October 2015 with an event on ‘Optimism, Knowledge and the Future of Enlightenment’ with David Deutsch and Martin, Lord Rees, subsequently broadcast on Australian television.

Re:Enlightenment projects include:

  1. New Approaches to Publishing  This is a co-operation with Open Book Publishers, an innovative scholarly initiative based in the UK, whose Chairman William St Clair FBA is a member of Re:Enlightenment Steering Committee. Open Book publishes peer-reviewed monographs in the humanities and the social sciences in accordance with a new business model for reaching a wider audience more quickly, more cheaply, and with better opportunities for interaction. In addition to inexpensive hard copies and linked websites, OBP offers its books in digital form to be read free of charge via Google books. It is at the forefront of gold access, as is Studies in Scottish Literature, the journal edited by Re:Enlightenment network member Tony Jarrells, with 150 000 downloads in 2015.This was a collaborative research project on the effects of IT on administration, education management and social policy funded in New York and connecting NYU Faculty of Arts and Science with colleagues from Steinhardt’s Departments of Media, Culture, and Communication and of Administration, Leadership, and Technology as well as from the Institute for Education and Social Policy. Their joint purpose is to investigate Technologies of Mediation and Translation. An important part of this effort is comparing and evaluating forms of archival projects with a view to initiating a Re:Enlightenment archive project.
  2. Technologies of Mediation and Translation This was a collaborative research project on the effects of IT on administration, education management and social policy funded in New York and connecting NYU Faculty of Arts and Science with colleagues from Steinhardt’s Departments of Media, Culture, and Communication and of Administration, Leadership, and Technology as well as from the Institute for Education and Social Policy. Their joint purpose is to investigate Technologies of Mediation and Translation. An important part of this effort is comparing and evaluating forms of archival projects with a view to initiating a Re:Enlightenment archive project
  3. Post-colonialism and Enlightenment: An Experiment in Reconstituting Knowledge ( Re:Enlightenment and Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), French Republic) The Project collaborated with NYU’s Anglophone Project and France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in a two-year Research Seminar (2009-2011).
  4. Financial Literacy: a joint public project between Re:Enlightenment New York University and the New York Public Library This project aimed to dissect, analyze, and comment on the diverse forms of writing (professional, popular and literary) that created the conventional wisdom challenged by the current financial crisis. The primary outcome has been a book project on financial modeling currently being co-written by Project co-founder Kevin Brine and NYU Professor Mary Poovey.
  5. The Digital Lab, Cambridge The Concept Lab studies the architectures of conceptual forms. It is committed to the view that concepts are not equivalent to the meanings of the words which express them. The Lab considers conceptual architectures as generating structured environments for sensing that one has arrived at understanding. Through computational methodologies it seeks to describe and analyse these structured environments which have both internal and external manifestations. With respect to the internal structure of concepts we aim to characterise not only form and function but also modalities and other attributes of conceptual entities. In the case of external features we seek to uncover the conceptual networks within which concepts circulate. In both cases the Lab develops data driven accounts of these structures.

Books published from the project include:

This is Enlightenment (2010)

Protocols of Liberty (2013)

Material Culture and Sedition (2013)

The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights (2014)

Theatre and the Digital (2014)

System (2016- to be launched in Glasgow)

Re:Enlightenment 6 at Glasgow, titled Applied Enlightenment, will explore the application of Enlightenment values to society and what that would mean today. On the occasion of the opening of the unique Kelvin Hall facility, bringing into partnership university, museum, national library, sport and civic partners for the first time in the world, ReX6 will foreground the importance of connectivity and the breaking down of boundaries not only between disciplines in the academy, but between the academy and external knowledge producers and providers. How can we be the change we wish to see in the world ? Gandhi’s question, is the question for ReX6 on the eve of the 70th anniversary celebrations of Indian independence and in the year of the 250th anniversary of the first paper of Henry Cavendish, the birth of John Dalton and the passing of the first freedom of information legislation in the world by the Kingdom of Sweden. In Scotland in 1766, James Craig’s winning entry for the New Town was approved and Charles Mackintosh, the inventor of the raincoat, was born. Shortly after finishing his portrait of William Hunter, whose legacy to Glasgow founded the first museum in the world based on the Enlightenment principle of improvement, Allan Ramsay painted both Hume and Rousseau in 1766. Among the Glasgow faculty of 250 years ago, James Watt’s wife was expecting their first child, Adam Smith began work on The Wealth of Nations and Joseph Black moved to Edinburgh.

ReX6 will be engaged in an exchange not with their memories, but with their legacy, and the characteristic value of the Scottish Enlightenment: the application of reason to knowledge in a context of material improvement. In 1783, our national academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, dedicated itself to ‘useful knowledge’; in 1796, Anderson’s University, now the University of Strathclyde, was dedicated to ‘useful learning’, and became the first higher education institution to admit women to its lectures. In 1796-7, women were 50% of the 972 students who had attended James Garnett’s Natural Philosophy class there.

The challenge we face now is the challenge Anderson faced, or Black, or Watt or Hunter: to break down the defensive boundaries and territories of particularist cultures self-defined by origin not potential, memory not legacy-whether they be disciplinary or institutional- in pursuit of a more unified field of enquiry in which all can more fully share. That was the vision of the Enlightenment; that is the vision of the Kelvin Hall partnership and its funders; and that is the principle of engagement of ReX6.

Post Author: Nicole Cassie

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