Futures for Knowledge and Its Institutions

In April—pooling for the first time our interests, energy, and expertise—the Re:Enlightenment Project launched a joint effort to fashion specific futures for knowledge and for its institutions.

PURPOSE: What animates all of The Re:Enlightenment Project’s initiatives is that they are not “about” Re:Enlightenment; they are all efforts to enact it—to answer the question “What forms might Enlightenment take now?” No setting could better convey the urgency of this question than the Trustees Room of The New York Public Library. With its traditions of a republic of letters, of civic benefaction, and of universal access, the NYPL is one of the finest examples of the Enlightenment in action anywhere in the world. But under extraordinary pressure from digitization, Google, and the financial crisis, it must figure out how to act now. It is not our place, of course, to solve any institution’s particular problems, but the prospect of gathering around the tables of our partner as it transforms itself has inspired us. It is time to raise the ante of Re:Enlightenment.

ORGANIZATION: The futures of knowledge and its institutions are, of course, co-dependent, and thus the Program wove those threads—knowledge and institutions—together throughout the two days. And those threads are themselves spun out of our individual strands of work. Each of the participants in different ways already does work that can engage the questions of what forms Enlightenment may take now—that’s why we are all part of this Project. The point of the spinning and weaving is twofold: to figure out how our strands connect, and to generate specific strategies for change out of those connections. Without that specificity, our ambitious agenda will collapse under its own weight. Yes, it would have been safer to build an entire conventional conference around one strand, but each of us could do that on our own. The success of the Exchange--and the promise of the Project--lay in the very real risks of working together.


  • New Knowledge—If the historical Enlightenment reorganized knowledge into the modern disciplines, then how will knowledge be reorganized today? Will this be a matter of re-shuffling the familiar, or are genuinely “new” kinds of knowledge possible? How can we identify/construct it?
  • New Institutions: The co-dependency already noted of these threads of knowledge and institutions meant that every conversation that took place during the Exchange contributed to both areas of inquiry; these are not determinate categories but heuristic ones. As the Exchange explored how knowledge, old and possibly new, will be produced, authenticated, classified, and circulated, we at the same time tried to identify what the institutions that do this work might look like. How will they be re:organized?

FORM AND FORMATS: Experiments in content require experiments in form, and thus this event shared features with the traditional genre of the “conference” but with a collaborative and generative shift from the familiar format of individual performance to shared efforts to be performative.