Previous Themes and Lecture Series
The term “affect” encompasses a range of bodily and social experiences that has traditionally been defined in contradistinction to rationality: visceral reactions, feelings, emotional attachments, and states of mood. Recent studies across the disciplines, from literature to political theory to neuroscience, have complicated this definition by according a foundational role to affect in human behavior and cognition. These inquiries destabilize the grounds on which affect has been excluded from rationalist discourses in both academic and public realms. This “affective turn” thus affords new possibilities for understanding aesthetics, reasoning, art, personal experience, power and the civic sphere, posing as well new problems for the conceptualization of feelings, emotion, and mood.
Our inquiry is organized around a broad scope of intra- and interdisciplinary questions, including: can the deployment or solicitation of affect in civil life be understood as complementary to—or even partially constitutive of—reasoned debate? How might fields such as moral philosophy, social theory, and psychology adjudicate between canonical rationalist frameworks and those proposing constitutive dynamics of affect? To what extent do aesthetic representations and practices provide grounds for new approaches to the interplay of affect, subjectivity, and sentiment in social life?
To what extent has the modern fact been redefined as artifact, as an entity shaped by human hands? Scholars have at once recognized the production of facts about the empirical world as a central achievement of modernity and redefined facts not as paragons of objectivity but as markers of human intervention. Facts thus are alternately seen as a triumph of knowing or as products of social processes shaped by tools of witness, communities of inquiry, and methods of narration. Scholars of language, art, narrative, historical epistemology, philosophy, and archaeology have contributed to our understanding of how people fashion facts, which may in turn be accepted as veridical statements about reality or called into question as the conceptions of interested and historically situated human beings. They have explored, for instance, the practices and technologies used in apprehending the natural world: e.g. those used when collecting plants for herbaria and gene banks, or when tagging nutrients with radioisotopes. They have considered, too, the epistemological claims of aesthetic realism, the implication of historical facts in rhetorically constructed narratives, and the very possibility of establishing objects of knowledge in the humanities as facts in the sense in which that term has been used in the sciences. These investigations draw and redraw the lines between fact and artifact and fact and fiction – that is, not what we know to be true or false, but rather how we think we know it.
Under what conditions can facts be created? How do efforts to pin down empirical reality gain access to the material world? How do they depend upon symbolic or aesthetic logics of representation or produce such representations? What is at stake in the legal and moral order of facts? Does new knowledge change people’s aesthetic or moral sensibilities or alter their understandings of their first-hand experiences? What light can the study of artifacts shed on the status and function of facts in our world?
Wars bring brutality, death, upheaval, and trauma. Participants and survivors bear witness to the disruptions of war in concrete detail. Nothing is so urgently documented as war, and war-making itself is often organized with reverence and precision. Yet accounts of war struggle with the limits of their narrative grasp. How might we make sense of the very breakdown of meaning and order? Can war be understood, as commonly claimed, to be the continuation of politics by other means or is it more accurate to understand politics as the continuation of war by other means? By virtue of the vivid struggles bound up in our ordinary and literal understanding of combat, war inevitably becomes the ground for metaphorical extensions, and these in turn affect our understanding of war in its most visceral form. The interaction between concrete and symbolic dimensions of war is far from simple.
The Center for the Humanities invites scholars and visitors for 2009-2010 to shed light on the realities and meanings of war, and to explore whether and how these are changing. Is war paradoxically presented as a state of exception, yet one from which there is no exit? Has Kant’s ideal of “perpetual peace” yielded to an ideology and reality of eternal war? What is the impact of bringing war home to civilian life, whether in the marketing of combat games and paraphernalia or in the involuntary re-enactments of post-traumatic stress disorder? How has war become a paradigm for political projects such as “wars” on terror, cancer, drugs, or poverty? How are cultural debates figured as social battles such as the war on the family or gender wars? What new responses to war are emerging in politics, theory, and religious and social movements?
Founded in 1959, the Center for Humanities at Wesleyan University is among the oldest in the United States. In celebration of the Center’s 50th year, we seek to reflect upon the category of “the human” in the humanities.
At the time of the Center’s founding, this category was all but unquestioned; it was assumed that “the human” transcended all cultural and history specificity by virtue of a set of universal cognitive, moral, emotional, and creative attributes. The last fifty years have brought major challenges to these assumptions. The purported unity of the human subject, occasionally unsettled by claims such as those of psychoanalysis, has been trenchantly interrogated through post-structuralist appraisals of the human subject as decentered, fragmented, heteronomous, or “dead.” Without a stable “humanity,” the humanities themselves consequently seem lacking epistemic foundation. The visual and performing arts similarly have become sites for enacting critiques of identity, authorship and even creativity. The long presumed universality of human nature, although periodically the subject of critique, also has been extensively contested through feminist, race, and queer studies; paralleling these innovative counter discourses are postcolonial critiques of the dominant western notions of the individual. In the meantime, inventions in medicine, computer science, genetics and fiction have spawned thinking about the possibility of new categories of humans – hybrids, clones, cyborgs, and avatars. Alongside such explorations of the posthuman emerged fresh examinations of the not human, those animals usually taken to be other than and less than human. This rethinking has even occurred in certain social sciences where new knowledge has suggested that rationality and agency are quite different phenomena than long assumed.
On the occasion of the Center’s anniversary, we must ask ourselves a series of questions. How has the “human” been figured over the last fifty years? How has our understanding of what it means to be human changed? What is the relationship between the animal and the human? Is the human a singular kind? How have the substantial even revolutionary challenges to long-established views of human nature influenced our commitment to understand the human condition?
During both fall and spring semesters of 2007-2008, the Wesleyan University Center for the Humanities will consider the theme "Revision and Translation." We hope to pursue inquiry into the nature and role of revision in the academic disciplines as well as its natural counterpart, the project of translation. We will investigate what sorts of conditions stimulate revision and or translation and whether these conditions are discipline specific. But what constitutes a revision? What sorts of shifts qualify as revisions? What are the character, scope, and function of these revisions? Does (or should) a revision have the same sweep as a "paradigm shift"? Does translation itself qualify as "revision" or is there something else essential to the task of the translator?
During the spring semester of 2006, the Wesleyan University Center for the Humanities will consider the theme "Hope and Fear." We will ask what hope and fear are, what they consist in. Are they best understood as elemental orientations? as feelings? as something else instead? How may they shape or motivate social movements? governmental policy? scientific programs? personal behavior? How have they been figured or represented in popular culture? art? dance? music? literature? How have they been conceptualized, analyzed, explained, valued, deployed, in theology? philosophy? psychology? psychoanalysis? political theory? economic theory? law? historiography?
During the fall semester of 2005, the Wesleyan University Center for the Humanities will consider the theme "Culture and Policy." We will ask how culture is, and has been, related to public policy. How have cultural norms and practices of various kinds including, for instance, marriage customs--philanthropy--sport --etiquette--rituaI--highway design--film-going--dietary usage--television- viewing--novel reading--architecture--post-secondary education--systems of class and caste and race classification--influenced public policy? in democratic regimes? in non-democratic regimes? in the past? in the present? And how has public policy in turn influenced cultural norms and practices? Also, should there be any limits to the use of public policy to influence cultural norms! and practices? and if so, what should those limits be?
During the spring semester of 2005, the Wesleyan University Center for the Humanities will focus on the theme "Truth." We will consider questions such as these: How has truth been variously understood, conceived, represented, valued, de-valued, at different times, in different places? in philosophy, in the arts, in religious doctrine, in ritual observance, in social science, in physical science, in psychoanalysis, in social movements, in popular cultures? Is any one understanding of truth preferable to all others? Is realistic fiction more truthful than any other kind? Can dance or poetry or music convey truth, and if so, in what sense? Should they endeavor to convey truth?