The broad field of arts and humanities still possesses this capacity to take us away from what is known

By Professor Ruth Livesey

It would be exaggerating to say rereading a novel by Anthony Trollope saved my professional life in summer 2021. But there was a moment of such unexpected shared experience in the pages of his Barchester Towers (1857) that I laughed about my job and at myself for the first time in a long, long while. And the laughter – with its recognition of 130 years of shared experience of what it is to be stuck in the middle of organisational change whether in a nineteenth-century Cathedral close or a present-day university  – made it possible to carry on.

Exploring the potential of the arts and humanities to surprise us into such moments of recognition remains vital today. In the mid-nineteenth century, when scientific fields and social science methods were starting to emerge from the rich pre-disciplinary soup of Enlightenment and Romantic knowledge projects, George Eliot claimed the extension of experience as the distinctive power of the arts and humanities to effect change. For all the enquiries launched into industrialisation and poverty, little would alter, she argued, without the surprising power of imagination and narrative:

Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made…; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give surprises even the trivial and the selfish into attention to what is apart from themselves.

(‘The Natural History of German Life’, 1856)

The broad field of arts and humanities still possesses this capacity to take us away from what is known, immerse us in another world and return us to where we are with a sort of prosthetic extension of our experience – what Eliot termed ‘the raw material of moral sentiment’.

The need for new work that can surprise people and make them see and care and act in relation to the experience of others is, if anything, even more urgent now in the face of the climate emergency. The work of humanities must help us understand how narratives in the past have worked for change and might again in the future, whilst the arts explore new ways of what Eliot termed ‘amplifying experience’. We need to find ways to realise here and now the experience of distant, future, and non-human others if we are to have a sustainable planet. Researching the industrial and colonial history that normalised extraction and expropriation is part of that work. So too is collaborating with writers, film-makers and critics in the field of speculative Science Fiction (or ‘Cli-Fi’) who have shown time and again the capacity to extend experience beyond the horizon of the present.

The subject of experience is itself growing as a field of study with rich collaborations across the humanities and sciences. These include projects in the Experimental Humanities exploring the use of multi-sensory stimuli in museums to convey intangible forms of heritage such as scents and sounds or to explore the experience of visually impaired visitors; eye-tracking software in galleries to analyse the act and effects of looking at a painting; experiments with binaural storytelling, VR and AR, attempting to capture and quantify the changing nature of narrative immersion in an age of digital augmentation.

Many of these projects are inspired by another ‘E’ for which the work of the Humanities is crucial: equality, diversity and inclusion. The capacity of research in the humanities to direct attention to the experience of minoritized individuals and groups has been more evident than ever in the last few years. Building environments which offer clearer routes to research leadership for those from under-represented groups in Humanities is a vital next step.  When we talk about experience we always need to pause and ask – whose experience? We still have a long way to go in unpicking the default model of a white Western, able bodied, normative male subject in the Humanities. But that is all the more reason to explore and rewrite experience past, present and future in diverse, ever-changing, ways.