Home » Entry » Culturonics
No Comments
Keywords: | | | |

Culturonics (kul’turonika)

Humanistic technology; constructive and inventive activity in the field of culture; the transformation of culture as the result of its scholarly studies. The term “culturonics” uses the same Greek suffix –onic, as in the names of such practical disciplines as “electronics,” “bionics,” and “avionics.” Culturonics is a practical superstructure over the sciences of culture, an attempt to embody the transformative potential of humanistic thinking without losing its specificity, without technologizing or politicizing the phenomenon of culture. In relation to the humanities, culturonics fulfills the same function that technology—the practical transformation of nature—does in the natural sciences, and that politics as the practical transformation of society does for the social sciences. Culturonics answers the humanities’ deep need for their own technology and their own politics. Culturonics is the construction of new forms and paradigms of cultural activity, and new techniques of cognition, communication, and creativity that are both intrinsically characteristic and transformative of culture.

Culturonics evolves on the basis of culturology (kul’turologiia), inasmuch as the exploration of culture discloses its own unrealized possibilities. In distinction from culturology that explores existing cultures, culturonics produces possible cultural objects and activities, such as:

  1. New artistic and intellectual movements.
  2. New disciplines, philosophical systems, research methodologies.
  3. New styles of behavior, cultural rituals, semiotic codes, intellectual fashions.
  4. New types of religions, cultures, and civilizations.

Religious–philosophical unions of antiquity, such as the Pythagorean Order and the Academy of Plato, are examples of the practical impact of theory on the cultural patterns and customs of society. Culturonics includes the activities of such cultural communities that, based on certain theories, generate certain cultural practices, for example, the Italian humanists, German romantics, American transcendentalists and beatniks, Italian and Russian futurists, the French Surrealists and the Tel Quel group, and the Russian symbolists and late Soviet conceptualists.

In late 20th century Russia, culturonics is exemplified by the activity of literary and cultural scholar Dmitry Likhachev (1906–1999) and his ecological preservation of ancient and modern Russian culture. Likhachev writes:

Ecology should not be reduced to the task of the preservation of nature and the biological environment. For the life of humans, no less important is the environment created by the culture of their ancestors and by themselves. (50)

On a practical level, this implies the preservation of historical and architectural monuments, and of ancient manuscripts; and also of contemporary monuments and manuscripts, which will become antiquity for posterity. This task was especially urgent in the Soviet Union due to the barbarous destruction of the treasures of the prerevolutionary epoch. Likhachev thus became the founder and leader of the movement for the conservation and restoration of cultural heritage in the 1970s-1980s.

The philosopher Georgy Shchedrovitsky (1929–94) became the leader of what was called the “general methodology” movement, or, as it was often referred to by its representatives, “systematic thought-activity” theory (sistemo-mysledeiatel´nost´, three words in one). Shchedrovitsky’s contribution to this movement, as its founder and indisputable leader, cannot be understood solely in terms of his publications, which are rather sparse; his crucial influence was, rather, his experiments in the practical transformation of cultural structures. An example of culturonics was what the practitioners of the “general methodology” movement called “organizational-activity games” (organizatsionno-deiatel´nostnye igry). From 1979 to the early 1990s, members of the group, under the direction of Shchedrovitsky and in cooperation with various cultural, administrative, research, and educational institutions, undertook practical experiments in the analysis and optimization of certain professional activities, such as urban planning or university administration. This involved a redistribution of roles among managers, employees, and methodologists—a kind of intellectual “carnival” that for a week or two took the place of actual work. By removing professionals from their conventional roles, the game redefined the job’s rational components and the worker’s organizational predispositions and capacities. The task was to deconstruct conventional, automatic forms of work and expose their inadequacy, with the purpose of establishing a rational scheme of action for each employee. This interdisciplinary organizational activity was instituted in the “reduced” form of game-playing, since the real structure of Soviet society was hardly open to deep transformation in this way. For a period of more than ten years, Shchedrovitsky virtually ceased writing research papers, insofar as game itself had become his preferred mode of performative collective reflection.

Among the new culturonic projects and initiatives, one can cite the activities of Pavel Pepperstein’s and Oleg Anufriev’s group “Medical Hermeneutics”; Vitaly Komar’s and Alexander Melamid’s projects “The Choice of People” and “Monumental Propaganda”; and Mikhail Epstein’s projects “Collective Improvisations” (1982–1989), “Lyrical Museum” (1984), and “InteLnet” (since 1995).

Humanistic scholarship needs an extension in the humanistic arts—not those primary arts that are studied by the humanities, but those reflexive practices that develop from them. It is important to recognize that humanistic thinking evolves in the form of both (1) research or scholarship; and (2) the secondary arts, including the arts of communication, information, and semiotic coding and decoding. These secondary arts transform culture like the primary arts transform nature. The sculptor transforms marble and theatre and dance transform the human body; likewise, the secondary art of exhibition based on scholarly exploration of the history and theory of the arts transforms cultural conventions and the modes of perception and communication about visual art. The profession of the art curator belongs to the field of culturonics.

Thus, culturonics should not be confused with artistic creativity or other forms of activity within certain primary areas of culture, such as poetry, fiction, music, or painting. Culturonics is a meta-practice, a meta-level of humanistic creativity. In the natural sciences, we clearly distinguish the natural phenomena that constitute the object of science from the technological processes that constitute the application of science. In the social sciences, we distinguish spontaneous social processes from purposeful political reforms. In the same way, we need to distinguish three levels in the humanities:

  1. CULTURE constituted by objects: forms of primary semiotic activity, i.e., language, myths, arts, norms, values, beliefs, rituals;
  2. CULTUROLOGY constituted by theories: cognition, exploration, information;
  3. CULTURONICS constituted by practices evolving on the basis of theories: meta-practice, secondary arts, transformation.

In the humanities we can observe a syndrome of “physics and sociology envy” – the ubiquitous attempt to technologize or politicize humanistic thinking, to neglect the specificity of its methods in order to achieve a degree of practicality, to make an impact on society. Culturonics attempts to realize the transformative potential of humanistic thinking with full recognition of its uniqueness, avoiding the temptation to technologize or politicize the phenomenon of culture.

Mikhail Epstein, March 2019



Likhachev, D. S. Proshloe–budushchemu. Stat´i i ocherki. Nauka, 1985.


Related Entries