“Innovationitis” and Humanities

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By Marko Demantowsky (History, University of Vienna, Austria)

Marko Demantowsky. Photo: private.

You read it everywhere. Everyone talks about it, always as a value in itself. We are all haunted by it, not least at universities, not least in the humanities, by the ubiquitous requirement to be innovative. Projects that do not require innovation would not receive the grace of funding in an academic system that is both bloated and thinned out at the same time. Above it all is the god of innovation, the symbol of non-constipation, which is cherished by politics and think tanks. But what kind of scholars are we, particularly in the humanities, if we do not ask: Where from? Why? And since when?


The term ‘innovation’ began in a very flowery way, so to speak, and, at least in German language history, even Meyers Lexikon (a leading and giant encyclopedia) in its 1907 edition knows innovation only as a term in the field of biology: “(lat., ‘rejuvenation’), the extremely widespread phenomenon in the world of plants that vegetative activity continues to pass from older parts to new spin-offs, e.g. from dying shoots to young ones.”[1] ‘Innovation’ has a rich etymology in other European languages that are closer to Latin than German is, but it was dominantly pejorative until the late 1940s and the public career of its re-foundation via a German native speaker. But one thing at a time.

Crisis and Replies

The world economy was in a deep structural crisis at the beginning of the 1930s and for longer. Answers to this crisis were desperately sought. Some of them would, however, soon reveal an unpleasant facet, as they adopted a political scapegoating rhetoric charged with conspiracy theory, eventually leading to exclusion and violence, or rejected elementary features of free economic activity in a democratic society. One could nonetheless identify approaches in economic theory and practice to arrive at new concepts within the framework of a liberal democracy and a basic market economy, to provide new dynamics for economic activity, especially growth, in view of the rapid demographic development, and new stability for the state-guaranteed financial system.[2] These theoretical concepts were not entirely ‘new’ – as ideas always have a history of effect (Wirkungsgeschichte) and require periods of modification and adaptation in order to gain acceptance in a community – but they were heard in the 1930s; they responded to this new interest and became popular as a result. You may think of ‘neoliberalism,’[3] which has changed its face to some extent today, the theory of Keynes and, last but not least, the economic theory of Joseph A. Schumpeter.

Schumpeter, the Inventor of ‘Innovation’

I wonder if Schumpeter, whose horticultural inclinations have not come to particular research interest until today, was metaphorically inspired by botany in his economical conceptualization. We do not know, but it is hard to imagine otherwise. As early as 1911, only four years after vol. 9 of Meyers Lexikon had appeared, the metaphor of ‘fertility’ (Fruchtbarkeit), which comes completely out of the blue within his argument, entered his text when explaining those specific and surprising “developmental thrusts” of capitalism, breakouts from the low-growth balance of economic activity or its agony.[4]

Schumpeter’s first ideas on this theory of innovations, still not yet emerging explicitly and just as much more descriptive as less resounding as “new combinations,” had been published already in 1911 when he was a very young professor at the University of Czernowitz.[5] Some factors generated worldwide resonance for his theory after decades: his immigration to and presence in the US since 1932, the early theory’s adaptation within the framework of the theory of business cycles (1939) that was published in English by Harvard University,[6] and, probably most importantly, its reformulation as a metaphor and a positively charged introduction to economics, which was, incidentally, much easier to do in English than in German. The term ‘innovation’ was explicit from 1939,[7] and this concept subsequently unfolded its botanical metaphorical magic.

Schumpeter resorts to the concept of ‘innovation’ to be able to offer an explanation of where an independent dynamic of a capitalist economic order can come from; a dynamic which, in this case, is not supposed to stem from state intervention or contingent environmental factors. He starts from capitalism as (also) a self-dynamic system in which contradictions (disturbances of the market equilibrium) are driven out, which can find an aufhebung (resolution) of a higher order in the sense of a materialist dialectic. Advantages in this game of competition are enjoyed by the market players who are able to combine the so-called factors of production in new ways, thereby achieving new types of products or a new level of efficiency. This advantage makes these actors market dominators for a time, whose dominance can then be successively relativized or broken by imitations or competitive market breakthroughs.

These ‘new combinations’ of production factors can be of different character; “innovations,” as he called these new combinations, are extraordinarily diverse; they are recognized mainly only by their resounding success in the market. It is not without reason that Schumpeter writes in the plural of a theory of innovations. The importance of the subjectivity of individual market participants is, above all, significant in this theory: special actors who question the usual set of success and failure take on the high risk of uncertain initial investment and only succeed with it on a case-by-case basis. Along with other factors of capitalist dynamics, it is these initiators that make a change in the market as a whole possible: its acceleration, its turnover and its production of new wealth. Paradoxically, this gives rise to opportunities for intervention by actors external to the market system, such as state actors, who provide an education system that promotes anti-conventional thinking, set up a state credit system that lowers the investment risk of innovators or establish a reward system that gives public recognition to the questioning of business, design and technical standards. This theory has a strong tendency to branch out comprehensively into all areas of society, and it also reaches the everyday life of the humanities at universities worldwide. As a scholar in the humanities, one would have learnt all this from university life.

Just a Cheap Commonplace?

As is so often the case with the over-generalization of approved rules, a culture, not to say a cult of innovation, is created. This is all the more so when the economic dynamism of a capitalist system diminishes due to various other factors that are doubtlessly more significant: one only has to think of the prices on the commodity markets, the shaking of planning certainties by political events and developments, demographic shifts, environmental costs and so on. In these situations, a university policy that promises to promote ‘innovation’ with those relatively simple measures becomes a cheap rhetoric with press appeal. A fetish is created, as it were, whose substitute worship is supposed to make more inconvenient, only long-term and uncertain supportive initiatives politically seemingly superfluous. Science policy at all levels dislikes thinking of itself as having limited power to act. So, it loves ‘innovation.’

Therefore, it is no wonder that the cult of innovation has since spread to other, if not all, areas of society in a thoroughly capitalized society. Who does not claim to be innovative? The attribute is seldom missing from any research proposal; paper submissions to double-blind peer-reviewed scientific journals already make a ritual effort to use it. Project plans for the big funding agencies are, of course, also ‘innovative’ if you want to find donors. All the talk about innovation in every conceivable field is endemic in our time. Economic theory almost has to dodge it and, consequently, almost ridiculous in its exaggeration, pulls the concept of “leap innovation” out of its hat.[8]

But what exactly does it mean for the social sectors that are certainly not economic per se, such as education, art, science and humanities, when they are all continuously confronted with this economically justified claim of innovation? When state resource allocations to them are made dependent on such economic parameters? The answer is simple: market events are staged everywhere, connected with the corresponding competition, statistical accountability, characteristic data, budget parametrization, competitive comparisons and indexing.

A look at the German vocabulary[9] suggests that the concept of ‘innovation’ has gradually replaced the concept of ‘modernization’ in German, even if not completely. This gives food for thought, since the concept of ‘modernization’ represents a holistic model of social improvement, including living conditions, opportunities for justice and education for all (however, often mendaciously). The concept of ‘innovation,’ on the other hand, is a thoroughly economic terminus technicus that justifies growth, dynamism and disruption as values in themselves (Schumpeter, of course, was concerned with something quite different). The measurable public reception of Schumpeter’s theory of innovation began in the mid-1960s in German-speaking countries. The German publication of Schumpeter’s 1939 English book in Göttingen after 1961 was essential for this. The language barrier had proved to be large.[10]

The breakthrough seems to have come at the end of the 1980s, with typical latency and as a reception of Thatcherism and the new neoliberalism.[11] It was also the time of the unipolar moment,[12] which not only helped the victors reach their historical-philosophical satisfaction but also coincided in everyday life with the implementation of New Public Management as a showcase for innovation outside the private sector. The New Public Management that so dominates the academic world today certainly does not come from Schumpeter’s theory; its origins may be traced in the concepts of the Chicago School. Schumpeter’s theory of innovation, however, has just been fitted in and incorporated. His skepticism about the idea that a democracy could be permanent and, in the long run, based on a pure or dominant market economy[13] was turned cold at the moment of apparent triumph in 1990.

What Schumpeter certainly did not have in mind, however, was a university system with ‘humanities’ that have grown enormously in comparison to his time but, at the same time, are completely run over by financial balance sheets, output expectations and rules. All this has been done under the banner of his word formation, ‘innovation,’ which was fetishized into a magic formula. To expect rapid monopolization, the creation of new demands and an offensive supply disruption from the humanities, resounding market success with a new kind of product, is to misjudge the core of their reflective mission and their specific talent.

To state that one knows both mission and talent very well, and yet to continue to demand ‘innovation’ from the humanities and their disciplines is (how else to put it?) to speak without sense or reason.

[1] Meyers Grosses Konversations-Lexikon, vol. 9, 6th ed., Leipzig 1907, 848 [author’s trans.].

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991, New York: Pantheon Books, 1994, 85-141.

[3] Thomas Biebricher, The Political Theory of Neoliberalism, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018.

[4] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung: Eine Untersuchung zu Unternehmergewinn, Kapital, Kredit, Zins und den Konjunkturzyklus, 7th ed. (unchanged reprint of the 4th edition published in 1934; first edition 1911), Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1987, 95. (English translation: The Theory of Economic Development: An Inquiry into Profits, Capital, Credit, Interest, and the Business Cycle, trans. Redvers Opie, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1934).

[5] Schumpeter, Theorie der wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung, 99–139.

[6] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Business Cycles: A Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process, New York, London: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1939 (German Translation: Joseph A. Schumpeter, Konjunkturzyklen: Eine theoretische, historische und statistische Analyse des kapitalistischen Prozesses, vol. 1, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1961).

[7] Schumpeter, Business Cycles, 84–100.

[8] Shanta R. Yapa, “Leap Innovation: A Strategy to Get Ahead and Stay Relevant,” Innovation Management (blog), 29th November 2016, [accessed 27.07.2021]; Rafael Laguna La Vera and Thomas Ramge, Sprunginnovationen: Wie wir mit Wissenschaft und Technik die Welt wieder in Balance bekommen, Berlin: Econ, 2021.

[9] Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (DWDS): Das Wortauskunftssystem zur deutschen Sprache in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, https://www.dwds.de/ [accessed 13.07.2021].

[10] Schumpeter, Konjunkturzyklen; Alfred E. Ott, “Review zu Konjunkturzyklen, Übersetzung aus dem Amerikanischen, 2 Bände von Joseph A. Schumpeter”, FinanzArchiv 22/1, 1962/63, 169–171.

[11] Biebricher, The Political Theory, 157–192.

[12] Charles Krauthammer, “The Unipolar Moment”, Foreign Affairs 70/1, 1990/91, 23–33.

[13] Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1942.

Marko Demantowsky is a full professor of public history at the new Centre of Transdisciplinary Historical-cultural Studies at the University of Vienna as of October 2021. After occupying several positions in Germany, he was appointed a full professor for modern history and history education at the FHNW School of Education (University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland) and the University of Basel 2012-2021. His work focuses on the digital transformation of public history and the cultural anthropology of historical thinking, imagining, and constructing individual and cultural identities.

This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.

Further articles in this series:

Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021

Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021

Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021

Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021

Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021

Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021

Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021

Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, 12.05.2021

Daniel Weidner, Pluralities, Transfers, Memories: Some Reflections on the Humanities Today, 20.05.2021

Haidar Lashkry, The Political Redefinitioin of Memory: The Problem of Studying History in Contemporary Iraq, 27.05.2021

Sabine Schülting, Shakespeare, History, and ‘Cancel Culture’, 03.06.2021

Nadia Bahra, Archaeology in Algeria: Challenges of Multidisciplinary Research and the Identity Question, 10.06.2021

Roman Singendonk, The Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin and Its Quest for Socio-Political Relevance: The Example of the TAMAM Project, 24.06.2021

Amani Albedah, The Humanities in the Age of Digital Information Exchange, 01.07.2021

Abdulhadi Alajmi, History without Debate: A Reading of the Crisis in Arab Historiography, 15.07.2021

Hala Auji, Outside Looking in: On Teaching Art History from the ‘Margins’, 22.07.2021

Citation: Marko Demantowsky, “Innovationitis” and Humanities, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.09.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/30899

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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