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Humanities to the Rescue: A Militant Editorial Project

The deterioration of the information environment in our age of inflationary media has precipitated a crisis of reality: any sort of baseline for what we take to be “facts” no longer exists. Evidence-based information is routinely drowned in a media market that rewards the loudest and most strident voices at the expense of truth and the common good. The powerful AIs employed by social media giants like Facebook (now Meta), Twitter (now X), YouTube, and TikTok have been trained to generate the most engagement from global users, with little or no regard for information integrity, including in vital areas of public interest. What industry insiders call “personalized amplification” is an AI-driven efficiency model that uses our own biases as hooks to keep us glued to the screen. We can curate our world through a combination of artificially augmented reality (promoting media feeds that reinforce our beliefs) and diminished reality (limiting exposure to inconvenient information that may call those beliefs into question).

In this context, reality itself has become a consumer good, a product to be bought and sold in the marketplace. The result has been a deadly devolution of the language of democracy. As historian Yuval Harari and former tech industry insiders Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin warned at the time that Generative AI entered the media market with the release of OpenAI ChatGPT: “The specter of being trapped in a world of illusions has haunted humankind much longer than the specter of A.I. Soon we will finally come face to face with Descartes’s demon, with Plato’s cave, with the Buddhist Maya. A curtain of illusions could descend over the whole of humanity, and we might never again be able to tear that curtain away—or even realize it is there. . . . Democracy is a conversation, conversation relies on language, and when language itself is hacked the conversation breaks down and democracy becomes untenable.” As if on cue, OpenAI the company behind the release of ChatGPT has since been looking into developing new features that will presumably allow users to customize their version of the technology based on their personal “AI values” and political orientation, even as their own developers realize that such tools are likely to result in “sycophantic A.I.s that mindlessly amplify people’s existing beliefs.”[1]

Given this situation, how surprised should we really be when we witness the unprecedented rise in polarization, divisiveness, and authoritarian language (and actions) in countries that not so long ago were thought of as stable democracies? Is there a solution to this “infocalypse,” as Nina Schick called it in her prescient Deep Fakes: The Coming Infocalypse (2021)? While red-flagging initiatives such as deepfake detection tools and other debunking mechanisms are clearly important and necessary, the availability of cheap, highly sophisticated generative AI technologies makes it increasingly difficult to stay ahead of scammers and cynical opportunists, let alone deal effectively with disinformation campaigns run by demagogues and other attention merchants in what seems like an unending game of whack-a-mole.

As I see it, the real game changer is not going to come from reactive debunking technologies but from proactive “prebunking” training, the kind of reality literacy approach that the humanities can provide. This is the recognition that inspired much of my public humanities activism as UB Humanities Institute Director (2016-2021), as well as my current work as founding co-Director of the UB Center for Information Integrity, including targeted community conversations, collaborative publications, and editorial projects, starting with Medialogies: Reading Reality in the Age of Inflationary Media (2016), which I co-wrote with William Egginton.

Full disclosure: I am a Cervantes specialist who looks at the toxic effects of mis- and dis-information from the vantage point of an earlier age of inflationary media, which caused a similar crisis of reality back in the early modern period, with all kinds of fake and manipulative news circulating in printed form, including state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. In Imperial Spain, for example, the monarchy supported a “royal chronicler” office tasked with the rewriting of history from a properly Catholic/patriotic/monarchical perspective to justify policies that discriminated against and ultimately criminalized religious and cultural minorities, including “new Christians” of Muslim and Jewish heritage. The new disinformation-filled monarchical “histories” and the conspiracy theories spread by “yellow journalism” would play a crucial role in fomenting discriminatory practices and mass deportations, including the expulsion of more than 300,000 Moriscos between 1609 and 1614, known at the time as “the final solution.”[2] Such policies and practices were officially defended as necessary means to ensure the security and integrity of the true Spanish nation (meaning Catholic and monarchical): Make Spain Great Again!

Cervantes would include poignant references to the morisco mass exile in Don Quixote II (1615) and Persiles (1617) and would ridicule the ideology of racial purity that led to discriminatory policies against Jewish converts in his short satirical piece El retablo de las maravillas (The Wondrous Tableau, 1615). His ironizing strategy would be familiar to fans of the Borat films and The Colbert Report, consisting of nearly mimetic repetitions of xenophobic and racist language with just the right kind of humorous modulation to reveal its nonsense. More generally, Cervantes was deeply concerned about the manipulating potential of the new media of his time, including such mass spectacles as the wildly popular Comedia Nueva championed by Lope de Vega and his followers. His response was to urge his “discreet,” “prudent,” “judicial,” “discerning” readers to examine closely, critically (“despacio”) what was coming at them too fast to make sense of it. This is arguably the common thread of much of Cervantes’s work, including his collection of plays and interludes Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses nuevos nunca representados (1615), which were directed to a reading public rather than a live audience.

As I have been arguing for decades now, Cervantes’s writings offer a model of humanistic pedagogy and activism that teaches us to press the pause button to examine not just the content but the form of manipulative messages in their multilayered contexts. If a central goal of the humanities classroom is to help students read critically and think outside the box, the key Cervantine insight is that we must teach them to see the box first. This is a point Egginton and I have made more recently in What Would Cervantes Do? (2022), as we redeploy Cervantes’s lessons in critical reading to promote reality literacy in our own age of inflationary media and disinformation. This is also a central goal of two of my forthcoming projects, the co-edited essay collections Anti-Disinformation Pedagogies and Truth Seeking in our Age of (Mis)Information Overload.

This last volume is the latest offering of the SUNY Press book series Humanities to the Rescue, which I founded in 2018 during my tenure as UB Humanities Institute Director. As a collaboration between STEM field experts, social scientists and scholars working in traditional humanistic fields, including English, Romance Languages, Comparative Literature, Art, and Media Studies, Truth Seeking in Our Age of (Mis)Information Overload rehearses a convergence (all-hands-on-deck) approach to the existential challenge of mis- and dis-information with a focus on understanding the role of Artificial Intelligence as an accelerant and the need to cultivate critical awareness and develop more effective strategies of science communication in such vital areas as public health and climate change to build trust in collaboration with local community partners.

Book cover
Fig. 1. Cover, David R. Castillo, Siwei Lyu, Christina Milletti, and Cynthia Stewart, eds., Truth Seeking in Our Age of (Mis)Information Overload (Albany: SUNY Press, 2024).

As a joint venture between the UB Humanities Institute and the UB Center for Information Integrity, Truth Seeking in Our Age of (Mis)Information Overload speaks most directly to subjects in science, mathematics, and technology, albeit with a distinctive humanistic framing.

The other three volumes of the Humanities to the Rescue book series published to date, while interdisciplinary in scope, are anchored in traditional humanities subjects such as literature, cultural studies, critical theory, history, philosophy, art, and music.

Book cover
Fig. 2. Cover, Victoria W. Wolcott, ed., Utopian Imaginings: Saving the Future in the Present (Albany: SUNY Press, 2024).
Book cover
Fig. 3. Cover, David R. Castillo, Jean-Jacques Thomas, and Ewa Płonowska Ziarek, eds., Continental Theory Buffalo: Transatlantic Crossroads of a Critical Insurrection (Albany: SUNY Press, 2021).
Book cover
Fig. 4. Cover, Laura Chiesa, ed., Resonances against Fascism: Modernist and Avant-Garde Sounds from Kurt Weill to Black Lives Matter (Albany: SUNY Press, 2024).

Given such varied repertoire of subjects and fields, what lends the Humanities to the Rescue book series coherence as an editorial project is its in-your-face militancy, born out of a firm belief in the essential value of humanistic disciplines and the need to reinvest in all of them as a matter of human survival. With so much pressure building on humanists to “defend” themselves and explain the value of their disciplines in utilitarian terms narrowly defined by the incentive structures of the market society, administrators of multidisciplinary centers and (journal and book series) editors could and should play a role in reminding us all that the question most worth asking is not what can our communities do to help the humanities? but what can the humanities do to help our communities? This is ultimately the conviction behind my activist approach to editorial politics, which grew out of the community engagement projects that our Humanities Institute team (and now the Center for Information Integrity) has been organizing, fostering, and supporting for over a decade, in collaboration with Humanities NY and a host of local partners in the Buffalo area.

As I see it, in the current sociocultural environment dominated by attention merchants who trade in misinformation and divisiveness, humanities editors have an opportunity (and a responsibility) to support “activist” awareness-raising projects and help seed informational resilience in our communities. As an example, the second volume of our series, Resonances Against Fascism (2024), edited by Laura Chiesa, mobilizes modernist and avant-garde studies, critical and cultural theory, musicology and sound studies, critical race and gender studies, performance studies, and philosophy to address the urgencies of the present, from perspectives attentive to the distinctive anti-authoritarian echoes audible in the works of Kurt Weill, Nina Simone, Chico Buarque, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Luc Godard, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, and the coral chants of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

I remain convinced (today more than ever) that coming to grips with the current crisis of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism in the United States and abroad will require a collective reinvestment in community conversations, dialectical inquiry, public ethics, critical thinking, and political imagination; more humanities, in other words, sharpened for the existential challenges of our time. Speaking at the inaugural 2018 “Humanities to the Rescue” event series that inspired the eponymous editorial project, Margaret Atwood urged her audience to revisit historically humanistic questions as we ponder the future we would want to inhabit: “Here is a question that is at the core of the humanities: Where and how do we want to live? Is it in a society that strives to right ancient wrongs, to search for balance and equality, and to respect truth and fairness, or do we want to live in some other place in some other way? It will be up to you to decide that, to question values, to explore the nature of truth and fairness. It will be up to you to understand the stories and to create better ones.”[3] These are in fact the driving questions and central quest of the Humanities to the Rescue editorial project, richly illustrated by the third book of the series, Utopian Imaginings: Saving the Future in the Present (2024), edited by Victoria Wolcott, a volume steeped in hope that examines alternative paths for the present and the future, while vindicating the utopian potential of the humanities classroom.


[2] David Castillo, “Dis-Info Ops and Strategies of Resistance from Another Age of Inflationary Media,” Anti-disinformation Pedagogies, ed. David Castillo and Bradley Nelson (Minneapolis: Hispanic Issues Online Book Series, 2024). 

[3]  Julia Beck, “During Speech at UB, Atwood Stresses the Importance of the Humanities,” Buffalo News, 19 March 2018.