We meet one sunny afternoon at Södertörn University, just south of Stockholm. This is a relatively new seat of learning, which suits Sara Danius very well. She is a professor of aesthetics, and enjoys being in a culture prone to change with plenty of tolerance and a young faculty. She came here three years ago from Uppsala University, with a successful international career in England and the USA behind her — something that is relatively unusual for a humanist in Sweden today.
Sara Danius makes clear what she thinks of the lack of mobility among researchers in all the humanities.
– There is a painful tendency toward institutional reproduction! To avoid moss on the stones we need to keep them rolling.
What is humanistic research to you?– While natural scientists deal with explaining, we concentrate on understanding — a humanist wants to understand people and their presence in the world, society, and history. We study the arts of reading, writing and thinking, and convey them to young people who are to make contributions to society. A country that treats the humanities as an exception soon becomes a poor country. Humanities are an area where society scrutinizes itself and acquires awareness of itself. Democracy calls for strong humanistic research.
More books and audio books are consumed today than ever before — how do you view the fact that so many people flee from the real world into fiction?– One doesn´t flee! Certainly we sometimes read in order to escape reality, and this isn´t wrong — but as a rule we read because we want to understand reality.
Then does one become a better human being by reading?– No, unfortunately there are no such guarantees! But since human beings are capable of symbolic thinking, they can do many things that no other creatures on Earth can, and it is these representative worlds that we humanists study. Ideally, this gives people a greater understanding of themselves and their place in the world, so that they find it easier to identify and handle new situations and problems. Besides, we are not timeless, but immersed in history — and history creates us as much as we create it. One understands this, too, as a humanist."
So by understanding how we thought in the past, we can better relate to what happens today?– Yes, in my own research I have studied, for instance, how people´s ways of representing and simulating reality have changed. New sensory technologies such as photography and cinematography allow one to narrate a new history of how realism and later modernism emerged during the 19th century. Didn´t X-ray pictures mean a great deal for medicine — and for art and literature? Suddenly it became possible to visualize what happens inside the body, and to recreate the perception as an object, a picture to hold in the hand. I am working just now with the history of visibility.
Text: Eva Krutmeijer.
Published in "Passion for research and innovation"