CFH 2019-2020 Theme Description

Revolutions: Material Forms, Mobile Futures 

On its 50th anniversary, the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University returns to its inaugural theme of 1969-70 (“The Humanities in Revolution”) to consider anew the forms and meanings of revolutions past, present and future.  Evolving from the Latin verb revolver (meaning to turn back, again, around or over), revolutions take many forms, from periodic, temporal returns to spatial rotations around a central point or axis. Although cyclical, their movements need not demarcate a closed circuit, whether that of a defined historical period or geographical boundary, but often coil, spiral and loop through unexpected convolutions in hitherto unimagined, unbounded configurations.  They recur in myriad scales (from the micro to the macro) and temporalities, unfolding gradually in the ongoing work of sustaining or re-making everyday life, and suddenly, in the form of crises or upheavals that overturn established orders, paradigms and institutions. 

Repetition and transformation form the double helix of revolutions.  Whether small or grand, sudden or gradual, fugitive or epochal, revolutions past may serve as resources for grappling with challenges of the present moment, as occasions to reexamine the histories, contemporary realities and future possibilities of social and cultural movements, and as opportunities to rethink the material flows, forms, and shapes of power and resistance today.  In so doing, we return to an older meaning of “revolution,” namely, the process of turning over in the mind, of considering, reflecting and mediating upon, of discussing and debating an idea, and of searching and researching, as a means of turning, returning and overturning, of moving on, around and beyond.

This year, the Center for the Humanities provides an axis around which researches into the many forms of revolutions past, present, and future may unfold from diverse disciplinary, interdisciplinary and anti-disciplinary perspectives.


Spring 2019

Hyperbole: Sense, Sensation, Spectacle

Hyperbole—flagrant rhetorical exaggeration—was defined by the Roman philosopher Seneca as the affirmation of the incredible or false to arrive at the credible or true. Given the term’s etymology, which literally means “over-throwing” or throwing beyond, it should not be surprising that many have found in it a revolutionary potential. Aristotle associated hyperbolic vehemence with anger and youth. What are the advantages and disadvantages of overstatement versus understatement, immoderation versus moderation, in the search for truth? On the one hand, hyperbole has been viewed as a path or method to attain truth, as though overreaching were the only way to arrive at the facts of the matter. On the other hand, hyperbole often seems unreliable because one cannot always trust bodily sense and sensation, much less an immoderate speaker’s temper. When reaching toward the credible, hyperbole links itself with sense-as-truth, though perhaps a truth found at the level of sensation, of sense as embodiment or affect. When inflating toward the boastful, however, hyperbole collapses into spectacle. Across historical periods and discursive conditions, hyperbole has been characteristically split between—or articulated along the fissures that mark—these modalities of representation.

Is the problem with hyperbole in the world, in an incredible truth, or in us, in our recourse to outrageous styles of representation? This semester we will pursue the question of hyperbole, tracing sense, sensation and spectacle along the division between world and representation. We will examine its appearance in many guises, under the rubrics of camp, poetics, performance studies, popular culture, media theory, affect theory, genre studies, and beyond.  Over the course of the semester we aim to scrutinize a set of practices that have been and continue be used to pump up audiences, to diffuse tragedies into comedies, to skewer normativity, and to reach by overreaching what otherwise seems unreachable.