Fall 2014

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

“Why do you shrink and speak so faintly? Are you superstitious?”
“I am constitutionally nervous. I dislike the discussion of such subjects. I dislike it the more because--”
 You believe?” --Charlotte Brontë, Villette

Throughout history, conceptions of the supernatural have permeated art, science, culture, and politics, from the divine right of kings to the practice of illusionists, from transubstantiation to witchcraft, and from the power of political myth to the technological sublime. Conceptions of the supernatural make sense of seemingly irrational forms of knowing the world and experiencing it. They manifest in material ways in the form of religious and mystical experiences, in the “placebo” effect in medicine, in eerie sounds and optical illusions, and in debates about “post-truth” and “alternative” realities.


This lecture series explores the interdisciplinary facets of the supernatural from the symbolic to the spiritual, from the metaphorical to the political: What counts as supernatural in a religious, artistic, scientific or political context? What are the processes and structures around belief in the supernatural and what are the debates around supernatural tenets in traditional or occult religions? What aesthetic or scientific technologies--from gothic narratives to spirit photography--engender illusion and a belief in magic? How and why does the supernatural become productive, political, visible, and experiential--and how does it disappear? How do we understand efforts to obstruct, confront, or even dismantle the supernatural? And what role does the supernatural play in the formation of state-sanctioned ideologies and charismatic personalities? How might conceptions of the supernatural reshape our visions of new secular futures?

Thursday Lecture Series

For What It’s Worth: The Historical Epistemology of Financial Bubbles

  • William Deringer (‘12-‘15), Assistant Professor in the Science, Technology and Society Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Financial crises have long served as exemplary trials of economic rationality. Many observers have cited financial panics as instances of the collective limitations of human rationality, of what Victorian chronicler Charles Mackay memorably called “extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.” >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Nature’s Laboratory: Soay Sheep and St Kilda in Twentieth-Century Ecological Thought and Practice

  • Rebecca Woods, Lecturer in History, Columbia University

Since at least the nineteenth century, islands have held a privileged position in evolutionary and ecological thought. Encircled by water, the self-containment of an island offers a a discrete unit—an evident “natural laboratory” where the selective forces of evolution operate with more intensity, and therefore more apparently to the human observer. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Painting Banknotes, Coining Landscape: Ralph Blakelock and the Economics of the Nocturne

  • Maggie Cao, Lecturer in Art History, Columbia University

The language of value, in its aesthetic and monetary ambivalence, has long played a role in destabilizing artistic representation, from the sixteenth-century portraits of Flemish moneylenders to Andy Warhol’s dollar bills. This talk examines a specific moment of that history—the United States in the final decades of the nineteenth century—when artistic and economic theories coalesced around landscape, a genre that Americans feared functioned too much like money within economic circuits. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Divine Institutions: Religion and State Formation in Mid-Republican Rome

  • Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Assistant Professor of Classics, Princeton University

Republican Rome’s progression from Italic city-state to Mediterranean superpower during the 4th to 2nd centuries BCE continues to fascinate. Over two millennia after the Greek Polybius asked at the opening of his Histories whether there was anyone so trivial-minded and lazy that he could not be bothered to know how and under what constitutional system the Romans had subjugated “almost the entire inhabited world” (Hist. 1.1.5), Rome’s imperial expansion remains a topic of lively debate.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Mobile Media and the Paleolithic

  • Grant Wythoff, Lecturer in English, Columbia University

In this presentation, Wythoff attempts to put debates from the history of archaeology into conversation with an exciting new field in media studies known as “media archaeology.” Media archaeology has thus far been informed by Michel Foucault's (largely metaphorical) use of the term archaeology to denote an inquiry into “the law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events.” But Wythoff will argue here that the traditional field of archaeology, its primary concern being the study of how objects mediate our relationship to the past, has much to offer a media archaeology. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

The Journey Continued

  • Hidetaka Hirota, Lecturer in History and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, Columbia University

"The Journey Continued: Nineteenth-Century American Deportation Policy, Laws of Belonging, and the Lives of Deportees in Britain and Ireland” introduces one of the chapters in Hirota's current book manuscript, Expelling the Poor, which examines the origins of American immigration control. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Life Without Lights (Electric Affinities)

  • Brian Goldstone (‘12-‘15), Justice-in-Education Fellow at the Heyman Center for the Humanities, Columbia University

This talk explores the empirical phenomenon of light – specifically electric light – as at once a moral and metaphysical, spiritual (even quasi-vitalist) and infrastructural event. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

A Plan for Universal Peace: Sayyid Qutb in the Shade of Immanuel Kant

  • Murad Idris, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Virginia

“Before us today is the problem of universal peace,” Sayyid Qutb declares in the prologue to his much-neglected Universal Peace and Islam (1951). “Does Islam have an opinion on the matter? Does Islam have a solution?” Immanuel Kant’s construction of the political universe would foreclose any answer. After all, Kant’s arrangement of non-European peoples as lagging others implies that those of Qutb’s ilk only receive constitutions, states, and ultimately, universal peace; they do not design them, and any thought Islam might have on peace is irrelevant to history. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Hawthorne’s Disenchantments

  • Emily Ogden (‘10-‘13), Assistant Professor of English, University of Virginia

In his preface to The Blithedale Romance (1852), Nathaniel Hawthorne claimed to have been trying to construct a "Faery Land" in his novel, a place of enchantment where the fragile "beings of imagination" would not be exposed to killing skepticism.  Why then also have a first-person narrator, Coverdale, who seems to be skepticism incarnate?  >>