Upcoming Events

Thursday Lecture Series are open to Columbia faculty, students, and guests.
Special Events are open to the public, unless otherwise noted.

Thursday Lecture Series

Diagnosing Insanity in the Modern Middle East: The case of ‘Asfuriyyeh

In this talk I use aggregate data of annual reports and other statistical material retrieved from various archival material related to ‘Asfuriyyeh (one of the main modern psychiatric hospitals in the Middle East at the turn of the twentieth century) as an indicator of mutations in the topography of mental illness in the region. The talk examines the patient population of ‘Asfuriyyeh comparatively to other contexts. I analyze trends in the shifting diagnosis and rationalization of mental illness in its relation vis-à-vis various socio-political and economic changes as well as the various therapeutic innovations deployed to treat them. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Transhumanist Technologies in the Early Modern World: Drugs, Automata, and Magic

In the 1660s, the celebrated natural philosopher Robert Boyle recorded a list of "desiderata" that he hoped future savants would discover in the decades and centuries to come. Some items on Boyle's list, like "the Prolongation of Life" or "the Art of flying," did in fact come to pass, in a fashion. But for many others, we're still waiting: "the attaining [of] Gigantick Dimensions," "the Emulating of Fish without Engines by Custome and Education only,” or Boyle’s cryptic final entry, "A perpetuall Light," are a few that come to mind. This talk uses Boyle’s list as a starting point for thinking about “transhumanist” technologies in the early modern era: techniques that, it was hoped, would allow human beings to transcend their mortality, their fate, their physical and mental attributes, or even the laws of physics. I argue that, for Boyle’s generation in the late seventeenth century and for those that followed, there was an increasing recognition that novel technologies — and not just divine intervention — could make such seemingly miraculous transformations possible. For instance, Boyle’s desire for "Freedom from Necessity of much sleeping" referenced a newly-introduced exotic drug that had recently become popular among the beau monde of 1660s London:  Boyle explained that his hoped-for stimulation was "exemplify'd by the Operations of Tea." Likewise, Boyle's dream of "Potent Druggs to alter or exalt imagination" may have been inspired by his associate Robert Hooke's contemporaneous experiments with cannabis, newly carried from the Indian Ocean by East India Company pilots. This talk will explore three arenas in which dreams of supernatural human alteration mingled with an emerging technocratic worldview: the development of new drug regimens, drawing upon emerging global trade routes and colonial conquest; the global travels of automata, such as Tipu’s Tiger; and the cross-cultural encounters between different conceptions of magic and its limits that, I argue, helped define both globalization and the history of technological change in the early modern world.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series

The Dossier: Archive and Ephemera in Maoist China

What would a living archive of a revolutionary society look like? In Maoist China, one of the primary responsibilities of the local bureaucracy was to compile detailed individualized dossiers on party members, cadres, workers and students under their jurisdiction. The dossier constituted a master record of a subject's social identity, probing issues of class status, personal background, family relationships, political activities and attitudes. A state project of immense ambition, the dossier system sought to facilitate governance of the population by archiving Chinese society in the Maoist image. This talk explores the history of the dossier to illuminate habits of paper, the neuroses of the socialist bureaucracy, and stories of individual lives subjected to file systems. Approaching the dossier as an everyday object of politics reveals the material limits of bureaucratic knowledge and what happens when revolution meets the archive. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Bituminous Forms: The Poetics of Tar from Milton to the Romantics

In our ecological moment, the extraction of bitumen (a semi-solid form of crude oil) from the Athabasca tar sands has provoked an impassioned outcry. The Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline and more recent demonstrations against the Keystone XL and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipelines have drawn attention to the environmentally destructive means of excavating and transporting bitumen, as well as to the colonialist imperatives of its extraction. And yet, these resonances are by no means new. The interdisciplinary turn of our moment asks us to reconsider the figurative and ethical charges of bitumen through its extensive treatment in literature, from biblical epics to Romantic lyrics. This talk turns to bitumen in English poetry—most notably, John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), Percy Shelley’s Alastor (1816) and Lord Byron’s Cain (1821)—to reveal not only a deep literary substrate behind modern criticisms of the tar sands, but also a new reading of bituminous excavation as a surprisingly productive model for formalist analysis. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Noise in the System: Recording Technologies in 20th C. American Dance

In the early 1940s, a New York City organization known as the Dance Notation Bureau (DNB) began a decades-long effort to promote a system known as “Labanotation.” Using a combination of shapes, shading, dots, and lines on a eleven-column vertical score, Labanotation was designed to capture the ephemeral, three-dimensional complexity of dance on the flat surface of paper. Eschewing notions that dance was too emotional, evanescent, or complicated to be documented, the women who ran the DNB saw the moving body as swarming with potential data points. To them, a dance was information, and—with the right system in place—that information could be “objectively” and “scientifically” recorded. Doing so would catapult dance into the modern era, finally freeing the field from its “primitive” and “illiterate” past. Focusing on the period between 1940 and 1975, this paper catalogues the DNB’s efforts to record and preserve movement, and explores how these efforts contributed to broader transformations in the definitions of creativity, preservation, authorship, and dance itself.   >>

Thursday Lecture Series

The Formation of a Taste Judgement: How Benjamin Haydon Came to Observe & Evaluate the Elgin Marbles

When the Elgin Marbles arrived in Britain in the early nineteenth century, they were objects of uncertain aesthetic value. Centuries-long Ottoman rule had limited European travel to Greece and restricted the study of antique Greek sculpture. The fragmentation of the marbles presented another obstacle to their evaluation. Not for Benjamin Haydon. A young historical painter, Haydon first saw the marbles in 1808 in London and later claimed to have immediately judged them the finest artworks ever made. The claim is not surprising — instantaneousness of operation was often presumed to be the defining trait of refined taste. It was also what made taste subjective, frustrating contemporary and historiographical attempts to account for it. The diary Haydon kept for several years after 1808 and drawings he made during the same period indicate, however, that he took a long time to come to a judgment about the marbles. In this lecture, I examine how he used anatomical knowledge and drawing to observe the marbles and comparison with various artworks to determine their aesthetic value. I also analyze how the overlapping of the medical and art worlds provided the crucial condition for Haydon’s judgment. My aim is to delineate practices used in the period to render taste judgments objective, that is, to root them in the referential aspects of objects and to make them as certain as judgments of matters of fact. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Building Fascisms: Architecture, History, and the Right

From the planning of entire city landscapes to the construction of monuments and the debating on walls, fascist regimes have long held claim to the power of the built environment to construe their ideology. Spatial and building practices, that is, have been powerful instruments to prefigure, test, and materialize nationalist images and exclusionary programs, as well as the modernizing and developing promises that have invariably accompanied the rise of fascism since its inception in the early twentieth century. As both academia and the broader public come to terms with fascism as synchronic rather than locked in a region and period, and we begin to speak (at times all too hasty) of fascism as a global phenomena that goes beyond the so-called “successful fascisms” of Italy and Germany, this talk posits architecture and the writing of its histories as a particularly privileged instrument to unpack ideological and programmatic developments of the right. Through a global overview of salient examples of monuments and manifestoes, housing and infrastructural developments, city plans and mass spectacles, I will argue for the capability of architectural history to unlock some of the least evident and perhaps most efficient mechanisms through which nationalist regimes have construed their systems of thought and forms of social organization—specifically those mechanisms yielded at the intersection of technological processes of production and aesthetics. This is an intersection that architecture occupies rather uniquely and fascist regimes mobilized rather successfully. For architectural aesthetics are here taken to encompass not only the realm of the image and the much-discussed relationship between style and nation-state but also, and more pressingly, the realm of the sensorial and the construction of emotion. This was, as per Walter Benjamin’s acute observation in the mid 1930s, fascism’s defining thread, in that it activated politics and technology as sensorial experiences and specifically not in terms of reasoned debate or the pursuit of truth, historical or otherwise. >>