Penn Humanities Forum on Connections

Topic Director: Peter Conn
Vartan Gregorian Professor of English, Penn

The notion of “network” is a key to contemporaneity. As the new century opens, words beginning with “inter-“ hold a special cachet, for the world has never felt so small, so dense with interconnections, interrelations, and interdependencies. Even “six degrees of separation” seems intolerably remote by our day. The central task of twenty-first-century education and culture may well be to help us adjust to this unprecedented state of affairs, to expand from individuals or nationals to citoyens sans frontières.

As humanists, we might embrace this future by discovering its image in the past. History is replete with examples of interconnection. The subject peoples of the Persian or Roman Empires contended with the enforced centripetalism of these ancient networks. "Connection" means something quite different for diasporic peoples. Adherents of the world’s major religions have for centuries participated in communities that overarch languages, nations, geography, and period divides, and movements in philosophy and the arts link free spirits through ideas and visions. Every communicational technology, from clay tablets to the printing press to photography, has offered new modalities of interconnection.

But is the past a faithful guide to contemporary connection? Now, in a world in which place is increasingly irrelevant and ideas spread instantly, we might wonder whether “affinity,” “influence,” and “allegiance” mean what they previously have. Would it be reasonable to think, for example, that we are moving toward a state in which "world music" and "world art” would be equivalent to “music” and “art” tout court? In that case, the humanities may well be led into a new phase of research into universals.

The multiplication of human contacts seems like progress of some sort—a very good thing. But why it is so good is not easy to articulate. You Tube, out-sourcing, and global hedge funds are not exactly what the writers of the United Nations Charter had in mind when they spoke of the “family of man” and universal human rights. Besides, in our day, increased interconnection is as likely to provoke collision as peace and communication. The popularity of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and Benjamin Barber's MacWorld and Jihad suggests a widespread resistance to connection. Indeed, a strong current in contemporary debate might be called "the wish for disconnection": nostalgia for the local—even the parochial. The desire to express distinction and difference has been discussed (by Bourdieu and others) as a marker of class; with the new cosmopolitanism, it is increasingly a pan-class imperative.

Globalism's discontents surface, too, in fear at the sheer scale of global systems. On a personal level, we are so thoroughly “plugged in” and “networked” that when technology fails, we feel lost. The borders between public and private, work and leisure—the very concept of individuality itself—are becoming bewilderingly destabilized. The threat of networks going haywire haunts us: pandemics brought on by the ease of international travel and trade, worldwide economic collapse caused by the global entanglement of markets, vast webs of international terrorism ready to pounce, and the “inconvenient truth” that we may have disrupted forever the intricate interdependencies of nature. Globalism has made the scenarios of science fiction and espionage thrillers our everyday reality.

Connect with us in 2009–2010 as the Penn Humanities Forum hosts a wide-ranging conversation on these issues.

Peter Conn, Topic Director
Wendy Steiner, Penn Humanities Forum