Fall 2018

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

Spring 2020 Thursday Lecture Series "Ambivalence:"
This lecture series will offer a variety of disciplinary and methodological perspectives on the question of ambivalence as it relates to affects and operations of the aesthetic, modes of political action, forms of belonging, regimes of governance.

Ambivalence is often conceived in terms of absence or aporia. But at a time of polarization in contemporary thought, conventional perspectives on political action as grounded solely in either true belief or cynical rationalism fail to explain the many contradictions found within social organization and orders. Likewise, the sovereign “decisiveness” often attributed to political and economic configurations of power has long relied on shifting, swaying, often internally incoherent strategies of domination and dispossession. Rather than approach ambivalence as an absence, we propose to think of it as a form of agency that accounts for the varying, conflicting desires and demands that position subjects. Do ambivalence, contradiction, and alternation entail resources or risks for states, markets, or revolutionary movements? What changes if we think of ambivalence not solely as an affective experience on the level of the individual, but as a structure of feeling which is central to (post-)modernity? How might ambivalence characterize attitudes towards cultural objects and performances, as well as to aesthetic operations themselves? How could adopting ambivalence as an analytical position lead to new insights into processes of dispossession, reclamation or structural change? 

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

The World and Africa

“The World and Africa” is the pilot in an ongoing project to develop a model for using podcasting as a pedagogical tool in public humanities work. Public high school students from Wings Academy in the Bronx collaborated to make episodes of a podcast in which they interviewed scholars in New York City on their subjects of expertise. As well as contributing to their program of learning in their Advanced Placement classes, the project encourages students to develop critical thinking skills and their ability to form questions, cultivate intellectual curiosity, gain confidence as interlocutors, and collaborate with one another to apply their class lessons to a 'real world' project. It gives scholars the chance to engage with aspiring undergraduates from underserved communities and bring their expertise to a broader public. The first two episodes are with our own Professor Souleymane Bachir Diagne, on the topic of the Negritude movement, and Professor Marie Cruz Soto, an historian at New York University, on Puerto Rico’s colonial experience. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Productivity Under the Influence: Liquor Rations and Labor Mgmt in the Nineteenth C. Atlantic World

Countless histories of alcohol have focused on efforts to restrict its consumption across the Anglo-American world in the nineteenth century.  And yet the era that witnessed the rise of the temperance movement and the first calls for prohibition was also a period in which numerous anti-temperance arguments proliferated.  This talk unpacks one such argument—the widespread but understudied contention that the working poor worked harder under the influence of regulated quantities of alcohol.  By examining the practice of issuing liquor rations aboard British warships and on American slave plantations, I will probe how labor supervisors in both settings operated on the assumption that alcohol could and did increase workplace productivity.  In doing so, I will suggest that making sense of managed intemperance as a strategy for extracting labor helps us to consider anew the historical relationship between extra-economic coercion and economic development in the nineteenth-century Atlantic world. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Adoptions of Indigenous Children during State Terror: Guatemala 1982-1986

On December 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that legally defined genocide for the first time. The definition included five acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” The fifth act deemed constitutive of genocide was: “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” During the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), the government forcibly disappeared at least 5,000 children. The vast majority of these children were indigenous (Maya). An estimated 500 children were placed for adoption both domestically and internationally through state orphanages, and thousands more were placed through a private adoption system set up in 1977. In a war crimes trial following the conflict, adoption files were presented as evidence of genocidal acts. This talk will consider the systematic separation of indigenous children from their families during the height of wartime violence, 1982 to 1986, as an aspect of Guatemalan state terror. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Reliance on Unwanted Immigrants: Foreign Contract Labor as a Problem in American History

This presentation is taken from my current book project, “The Business of the Nation: Foreign Contract Labor and the Rise of American Immigration Control.” The project examines the transnational business of importing Asian, Canadian, European, and Mexican contract laborers to the United States and the evolution of federal alien contract labor law designed to restrict this form of immigration during the long nineteenth century. Since the early nineteenth century, Americans opposed the immigration of poor foreign workers who would degrade the dignity of labor and lower American wage standards. The opposition to immigrant labor became especially strong in the case of contract workers. In 1885, American workers’ antipathy to “alien contract labor” resulted in the passage of the federal Foran Act, which banned the landing of foreign contract workers. This project examines how hostility toward contract labor migration influenced American immigration law and how the alien contract labor law in turn affected immigrant workers. >>

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, walls and homes, 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 agendas, often while promoting modernization and the promises of  development in the very same breadth. 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 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. With Franquista Spain as a  as unique context to understand the historical and ideological progression of fascism after its alleged demise in 1945, the talk also argues 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 of social imagination 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,  the construction of social emotion and the production of a  moral regime at every scale of everyday life. 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 of daily life, and specifically not in terms of reasoned debate or the pursuit of truth, historical or otherwise. >>