Fundamental Concepts in Critical Theory

For decades faculty and students at Wesleyan have been interested in critical theory and a few years ago that interest led to the development of a Certificate in Cultural and Critical Theory. This program “aims to facilitate a coordinated, inter-disciplinary program of study that encourages students to seek out theory-intensive courses in a wide range of disciplines with the aim of developing proficiency in the study of critical theory.” Thanks to the leadership of Assistant Professor of English Matthew Garrett, next week begins a series of lectures on some of the major concepts behind work in these fields. Here are some of the theory talks this semester on Wednesdays at 4:30 in Downey 113 (Hobbs):

ALIENATION– Ulrich Plass, Associate Professor of German Studies (2/11)
MEANING – Joseph Fitzpatrick, Visiting Assistant Professor of Letters (2/18)
HARMONY – Stephen Angle, Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the College of East Asian Studies (2/25)
DIFFERENCE – Amy Tang, Assistant Professor of American Studies and English (3/25)
UTOPIA –  Eirene Visvardi, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies  (4/8)

The Center for the Humanities has been a home for Critical Theory since the 1960s. On Monday night the Center begins its lecture series on mobilities, focused on “a new approach to the study of mobilities [that] has emerged involving research on the combined movement of peoples, animals, objects, ideas, and information. This can be viewed through the lens of complex networks, relational dynamics, and the redistribution or reification of power generated by movement.” You can read more about the theme here. Lectures take place in the Daniel Family Commons on Monday nights at 6 p.m. The first talk is scheduled for February 9 by Professor Enda Duffy, University of California at Santa Barbara, and is titled “Rush: Adrenaline, Stress, and Modernist Velocity.”

Center for the Humanities: Audiences

This semester the Center for the Humanities explores a new theme, Audiences. Most Monday nights this term at 6 pm in the Daniel Family Commons, Wesleyan faculty and distinguished visitors will present new research. The conversations that develop after the talks help create new paths of thinking for everyone present. On Tuesday mornings, there are follow-up seminars at the CFH. Here’s a description of the theme:

The CFH theme “Audience(s)” asks us to explore the phenomena of the audience from multiple perspectives. How does audience shape the form and function of our work? Is the desire to reach a wider audience consistent with our academic or artistic goals? How should we reflect on the relation of intellectuals to their audience or audiences in general? What can the audience tell us about past or present works of scholarship, theater, music, politics or art? Does the audience shape the work and intention of the author or is the reception by the audience the moment where meaning happens? In what ways are we able to understand either the intended or actual audience for a work? What effect do existing normative practices have on the role of audience in respect to those who do not conform to them (i.e. those who do not conform to existing conventions of masculine or feminine for instance)? In addition we are eager to explore the ways in which audience behavior is changing in the new media environment and the ethical and social ramifications associated with measuring audience behavior on new media platforms. How might an understanding of multiple audiences help or complicate the issues raised above?

The series begins tonight (Feb 3) with Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown, who will be talking about gender, media and privacy. You can find out more here.

Banality of Evil: 50 Years Later

This evening kicks off a major conference on political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who was in residence at Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities 50 years ago. The conference, titled “Exercising Judgment in Ethics, Politics, and the Law: Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Fifty Years Later,” is organized by Sonali Chakravarti, assistant professor of government; Ethan Kleinberg, director of the Center for the Humanities; and Uli Plass, associate professor of German studies and Center for the Humanities faculty fellow. The first lecture is at 6 pm tonight (Thursday), when Susan Neiman (Director of the Einstein Forum, Potsdam) presents “Philosophy Not History: Reading Eichmann in Jerusalem.” The conference is part of the Center for the Humanities program on Justice and Judgment. I am looking forward to welcoming the many visiting scholars who will be attending, and to participating in their interactions with Wesleyan faculty and students.

Still today we have major questions about how to exercise judgment about massive violations of human rights. What is the role of international law, if there is any, when it comes to “crimes against humanity,” and who will enforce this role? Is there a responsibility to witness, to act, to pass judgment? Or is our role only to protest these transgressions while trying to improve our own country’s international behavior? Taking action clearly involves risks, and inaction provides no safe haven. How do we make these judgments so as to act more justly?

Crimes against humanity have become institutionalized since Arendt wrote her report on evil, but justice has not. Perhaps this conference will help us think more deeply so that we can act more effectively.



Some photos of professor Arendt at Wesleyan:

Arendt at desk Arendt_reading2 Arendt in class room

Center for the Humanities – Justice and Judgment

When I was a student at Wesleyan in the 1970s, I spent almost every Monday night at Russell House attending lectures from the Center for the Humanities. They usually drew a decent sized audience of faculty and students, and many of the visiting speakers were big names in their fields. It was the heyday of critical theory and deconstruction, and I heard many a talk in these areas that I found difficult to understand. Still, I was always at what were affectionately called “Monday Night Services.” Knowledge was happening at the Center, and I wanted to be part of it.

Years later I came back to Wesleyan to offer a Monday night lecture at Russell House. My faculty advisor, Henry Abelove, was the director of the Center at that point, and he’d asked me to talk about psychoanalysis and the exhibition I’d curated about Sigmund Freud at the Library of Congress. I found it terrifically moving to stand at the podium there where I had often sat in the audience (bewildered).

The Center for the Humanities has gone through a variety of incarnations since it was founded in 1959. Its current director, Ethan Kleinberg, has beefed up its web presence (see iTunes and YouTube), brought together a great group of fellows and speakers, and planned some exciting events. Next Monday at 6 p.m., Professor Samuel Moyn, from Columbia University, will speak on “The Political Origins of Global Justice.” This lecture kicks off the series on Justice and Judgment. The lecture series has moved from Russell House and will take place in the Daniel Family Commons (on the third floor of Usdan).

From September 26-28, The Center will host a conference on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, which was published 50 years ago. Arendt, one of the most important political theorists of the 20th century, came to Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities to finish the book, and so it’s particularly fitting that the conference marking its publication will take place here.

For its first 50 years the Center for the Humanities operated with various funding streams that fluctuated with the times. We decided to change that and asked the Mellon Foundation for help. I am delighted to let everyone know that in the late spring we completed a matching gift program with Mellon. Wesleyan raised $4 million in endowment funds, and the foundation added another $2 million! Others may be fretting about the “crisis in the humanities,” but thanks to the generosity of our donors the Center for the Humanities will continue to offer great things to Wesleyan and the world for decades to come.


A Campus Infused With Art

In preparing my syllabus for a seminar on photography and philosophy, I’ve been thinking about how the arts and the other academic programs intersect at Wesleyan. The recent lectures and concerts of Music and Public Life were a great example of such intersections. And in general, I’m just so impressed by the variety and quality of creative work on campus. Here’s just a sampling as we begin the week before the Thanksgiving break.

Tomorrow, Monday November 12, English Prof. Lisa Cohen will be giving a talk at the Center for Humanities entitled “Minerals Alone Escape It: Mourning Time.” She will read “from work in progress, a multi-genre project about the temporalities of friendship, illness, grief, and activism in the context of the AIDS crisis. A book in three parts and three genres, it also dramatizes three different historical moments, their echoes and discontinuities.” Lisa’s recent and very successful book, All We Know, also has three parts — delicate, incisive biographies of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta and Madge Garland. Lisa brings art and research together in stunning ways.

Speaking of bringing art and research together, I am very much looking forward to Rinde Eckert‘s play “The Last Days of Old Wild Boy,” which presents a man who, having been raised by wolves, has “risen” to heights of culture and success. But he wants to go back to the wildnerness of his early years… What does it mean to go back to one’s animality, to one’s wild youth? Rinde is a musician, composer, playwright and (by all accounts) an extraordinary artist. This play has been commissioned by the Center for the Arts and has benefited from the involvement of students and faculty. Performances from Thursday-Saturday.

Tomorrow (Monday) night Benh Zeitlin ’04 Michael Gottwald ’06, and Dan Janvey ’06 of Beasts of the Southern Wild will be at the Goldsmith Family Cinema at the Center for Film Studies at 8 pm to talk about about their extraordinary movie. Check out the exhibition about the film in the Rick Nicita Gallery there.

And on Wednesday, New York Times jazz and pop music critic Ben Ratliff will be talking in the Daltry Room (Rehearsal Hall 003) at the CFA.

Let’s not forget the drawing workshop, a great place for those who want to develop their figure drawing practice. Students gather every Monday, 4:30-6pm in Art Workshops 105.

The arts…intersecting with almost everything we do at Wesleyan.


Profiles in Academic Innovation

Two of Wesleyan’s many centers of interdisciplinary scholarship have new leaders who are doing exciting things:

Jennifer Tucker is now the interim director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life. Jennifer is a historian with deep interests in the intersection of visual and scientific cultures, paying especial attention to how this intersection is often mediated by questions of gender and sexuality. She has long been a member of the Science in Society Program and also currently chairs Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies (FGSS). You probably have seen her op-ed on the “science” behind Congressman Akin’s notions of pregnancy and rape, and she is eager to see even more Wes faculty (especially women faculty) contribute to the public sphere through essays, op-eds and editorials. I’ve gotten to know Jennifer better because of our mutual interest in the intersections of photography and history. Nature Exposed, her book on Victorian science and photography, is already a key text in the field, and she recently edited an issue of History and Theory devoted to photography, history and philosophy. At the Allbritton Center, Jennifer will be developing the foundations and frameworks for planning future programs that link the campus to the most pressing issues in the public sphere.


Ethan Kleinberg began his stint as director of the Center for the Humanities this summer. Ethan is also a historian, with a joint appointment in the College of Letters. I first encountered his work many years ago when he was doing research for his excellent book, Generation Existential, a study of the impact of Heidegger on 20th century French intellectual history. In addition to his work in history and COL, at Wesleyan Ethan has been one of the creators of the Certificate in Social, Cultural and Critical Theory, and he is the Executive Editor of History and Theory. Ethan intends to build on the great tradition at the Center for dynamic interdisciplinary research and teaching, ensuring that Wesleyan’s humanities programs remain a crucial node in the networks of international scholarship. Students, faculty, and distinguished visitors make the Center for the Humanities a place where knowledge happens — where scholarship gets jump-started. You can learn more about Ethan’s vision for the Center here.

There are many faculty across the campus doing exciting things across the disciplines — from the College of the Environment to the Center for East Asian Studies. These two new leaders will surely add to our distinctive educational experience on campus — and beyond!

Performance! Now!

Yesterday afternoon I stopped by the opening of the new exhibition in Zilkha, Performance Now. What a wonderful show! The entire gallery space seems transformed, and there is so much to look at, listen to, laugh with, and be absorbed by.  The exhibition is a collaboration between Wesleyan, Independent Curators International, and Performa. Roselee Goldberg, who has long championed adventurous performance art, curated the exhibition, and was on hand yesterday to make some remarks. She’ll be back on November 17th to lecture. A group of alumni who are making performance based work (check out Liz Magic Laser ’03 in this show) will be speaking on campus October 20. Here’s a brief summary of the show from the website:

Performance Now is an exhibition that will debut at Wesleyan, and show how performance has come to be at the center of the discussion on the latest developments in contemporary art and culture. Bringing together some of the most significant artists working today, this exhibition surveys the most critical and experimental currents in performance over the last ten years from around the globe. Segments of the exhibition featuring video, film and photography, by artists including Marina Abramovic, William Kentridge, Clifford Owens and Laurie Simmons, will be showcased in Zilkha Gallery.

Throughout the semester there will be seminars, talks, and performances. And check out the very cool Film Series on Thursday in the Powell Cinema at the Center for Film Studies.

There is plenty of performance on campus every year, but there is a strange synergy brewing this term. The Center for the Humanities is focused on temporality this semester, and performance is certainly a time-based medium. I heard historian Lynn Hunt’s great talk on Monday night, and it got the series off to a strong start.  And, of course, the Music and Public Life program continues all year with great performances and reflections on them.

As I meet with folks on campus, it seems that scores of students are auditioning for plays, dances and musical groups in these first weeks of the semester.  Here’s to “call backs!”

How to Choose Your (Our) University

It’s that time of year again: the time when high school seniors previously anxious about whether they would get into the college of their dreams, now get to worry about choosing the college that is just right for them. In the last few weeks applicants have found out where they’ve been accepted, and now they are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, find friends that will last a lifetime? How to choose? I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on this, with a few revisions.

For many high school seniors, the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan next week for WesFest (our annual program for admitted students). They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (even more difficult this year!). But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. Earlier this week, Henry Abelove gave a stirring lecture at the Center for Humanities call “What I Taught and How I Taught It.” I was Henry’s student in the mid 1970s, and members of his first-year seminar from a few years ago were also in the audience. His care for students and his dedication to the material being taught were everywhere in evidence. How proud and grateful I am to have been his student and colleague!

The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior theses this week. We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Cracking the Genetic Code: Genomic Science and Bioethics

Thanks, I suppose, to my friends Joshua Boger ’73 and Joe Fins ’82, I joined the board of the Hastings Center last year. At our last meeting, we saw a film that Hastings consulted on with PBS’s NOVA. It has to do with the tremendous advances in genomic science, and the ethical issues that have arisen as the clinical applications of the science become more accessible. Wesleyan’s strengths in science studies are really formidable, and some of those strengths fall into the bioethics category. The Science and Society Program, Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Center for the Humanities, the Sociology, History and Philosophy departments are just some of the areas where one can find sophisticated work on bioethics at Wesleyan. And in throughout the life sciences at Wes, one can find advanced work that depends on genomics.

I put his up today on the Huffingtonpost.

On Wednesday, March 28th (9 p.m./8c), PBS will broadcast an important film that explores some of the crucial ethical issues that are emerging from the life sciences: how to use our knowledge of personal genetic information; and who should have access to this information about our individual and familial genetic data? On the one hand, genomic science promises us an unprecedented look at the material sources of our lives, and on the other hand, this science may tempt some to think that we are nothing more than our genetic makeup.

Cracking Your Genetic Code is a joint project of PBS’s NOVA producers and the Hastings Center, a bioethics research center on whose board I sit. The film gives an insightful and moving portrait of how people who suffer from genetic disorders are investing their hopes in genomic science. Designer drugs, like those to combat some forms of cystic fibrosis, are shown to have enormous potential for patients who can get access to them early enough to reverse the ravages of disease. In addition to the patients’ stories, we hear from scientists eager to use their understanding of the genetic bases of disease to prevent symptoms from emerging in future generations. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is particularly compelling as he describes the clinical potential of genomic medicine.

Cracking Your Genetic Code also describes the more troubling potential in our new understanding of our biological heritage. Will we want to know if our genes make it likely that we will develop a life threatening or debilitating disease? Will we want to tell our children, and, if so, when? Will the knowledge be helpful, or just a burden? Who else will know about our genetic destiny? Insurance companies? Advertising firms?

The Hastings Center’s Help With Hard Questions website provides a useful way of navigating in the new world opened up by contemporary genomic science. NOVA, too, has a website that complements the film. Both use social networking to bring together people concerned about what to do with the new knowledge that is available to us through science and technology.

It was not long ago that the goal of cracking the genetic code seemed like a wild ambition. Soon we will be able to get our own personalized genetic information almost anywhere for under $1000. The information tells us about our biological constitution; how will we relate that to our sense of self, family and destiny? Cracking Your Genetic Code raises more questions than it answers — perfectly appropriate as we strive to understand how to use and to protect these new modes of knowledge.

Here’s a clip from the film:


The Center for the Humanities — Thriving into the Future!

Wesleyan just announced a very generous 2 million dollar challenge grant for our Center for the Humanities from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The challenge for us will be to raise another $4 million for the Center’s endowment. Rising to that challenge will strengthen Wesleyan’s leadership role in creating programs in the humanities, broadly conceived, that advance scholarship while making a deep impact on the lives of students.

Wesleyan’s Center for the Humanities began as a place for scholars, artists and public intellectuals to develop their ideas with support, encouragement and without the disruptions of their normal working routines. Hannah Arendt worked on Eichman in Jerusalem at the Center, and C.P. Snow revised his thinking about the “two cultures.” Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden developed there, as did Gayatri Spivak’s work on the subaltern. John Cage presided over many a conversation in the Center’s early years, and while I was a student the Director Hayden White brought in one extraordinary thinker after another. The current director, Jill Morawski, has kept the Center at the leading edge of important interdisciplinary scholarship. This term the focus is on how facts are constructed and recognized in a variety of fields, and next semester the Center’s Fellows will deal with the role of affect in the political sphere. Future projects at the Center will tie directly into pedagogy as well as research, and I’m very excited about that. The grant will also allow us to expand our reach into public life and to promote collaborative projects on and off campus.

While I embrace any opportunity to strengthen Wesleyan, this challenge grant has a special feel for me.  As an undergraduate, I attended the Center for the Humanities lectures with devotion (if not always comprehension). I loved the atmosphere of experimentation, boldness and rigor that I found there. I wrote my senior thesis as a student fellow at the Center, and it became my first book publication.  Later, as a young professor, I started the Scripps College Humanities Institute with Wesleyan’s Center as my model.  My undergraduate advisor Henry Abelove invited me to lecture at the Center, and it was very moving to stand behind the podium in Russell House that I had so often looked up to from the audience.

Faculty and students here today often tell me how valuable their time at the Center has been for their scholarship, teaching and learning. I’m never surprised. With help from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the generous Wesleyan donor community, we will be able to enhance the work of interdisciplinary humanities work for many years to come!