Fall 2019

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

Cold War Drugs and the First Era of Psychedelic Science, 1945-65

In 1952, a cheerful, Jung-obsessed Scottish psychiatrist named Ronald Sandison paid a visit to Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. He was there to meet a chemist named Albert Hoffman, today best remembered as the discoverer of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Hoffman and his associates, Sandison recalled, “spoke of LSD as enabling them to hold a mirror to themselves, of enabling them to understand and see things in themselves which they had not known before.” Sandison believed that these experiences could not be readily classified according to older scientific categories: they seemed to derive “not from drug intoxication… but from the release of some inner life force hitherto denied to the individual.” From 1952 until the mid-60s, Sandison began to systematically prescribe LSD to his psychiatric patients – and to himself. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

The Void of Faceless Faces: Ralph Ellison and the Matter of Black Affect

What is a face? And what might it mean to be without one? This talk considers these, and related, questions through a reading of Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel Invisible Man. Specifically, I consider the deployment of the concept-metaphor of “facelessness” in Ellison’s text as a means of theorizing the matter of Black affect. I argue that Ellison’s rendering of Blackness as facelessness makes a key intervention into theories of affect which center on the face as the primary site of the affective encounter. Breaking with dominant conceptions of the face as a universal, anatomical reality or an ethico-affective horizon, Ellison demonstrates that the face is the product of obliterative violence––a social, political, and historical construction contingent on Black abjection.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Contemporary Land Enclosures in Central Sudan: Troubling the Romanticization of the ‘Commons.’

This talk situates contemporary Saudi and Emirati large-scale land investments in central Sudan within a layered history of enclosures and unequal landed relations shaped by legacies of colonialism and enslavement. Prevailing approaches to the study of contemporary land grabs in Africa tend to characterize them as a tidal wave that is hitting the continent, pitting powerful land grabbers against those who are dispossessed, in a binary conflict of opposites. This approach often situates the process of land grabbing within a narrow temporal frame and glosses over landless actors such as pastoralists and agricultural workers. In this talk, I propose an approach to the study of contemporary land enclosures that conceptualizes them as a set of historically situated negotiations and contestations, shaped by different notions of space, land ownership and belonging. Using a fine-grained analysis of several moments drawn from ethnographic fieldwork in the Gezira region of central Sudan, I argue against a tendency within the contemporary literature on land grabs to romanticize and de-historicize ‘the commons’ and the social relations that govern access to communal land and water resources. My aim is to trouble the romanticized idea of ‘community’ that prevailing conceptions of the ‘commons’ rely on, to show how rights and access to land in central Sudan has long been shaped by hierarchical social relations. To do so, I demonstrate that ongoing processes of land dispossession are gendered and racialized, while examining how race, class, gender, class, and enslaved descent shape the different forms resistance to these processes can take. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

The Voice and Historical Conscience

Composers have long used the human voice as a medium of expressing and critically addressing the historical moment and they have done so in very different ways: from Donizetti to Schoenberg… In this talk I will discuss the ways in which I have used the human voice in my own compositions over the last decade. These works include: “Love and Mercy”  for chorus and large symphony orchestra, a piece based on a text by Bar Hebraeus, written during the Mogul invasion of Syria; “ Variations on (R)evolution for soprano, violin and piano, text by Yvette Christianse, commissioned by Beethoven Fest in Bonn to be performed in concert about the Arab Spring; “ 30 Articles for Viola and Electronics” commissioned by Salt Festival in Victoria, Canada and premiered in Ravensbruck concentration camp; as well as large scale and chamber operas. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Martial Love: Intimacy without Incorporation in the Military Occupation of the Moskitia

Full Title: Martial Love: Intimacy without Incorporation in the Military Occupation of the Moskitia (Nicaragua/Honduras) Nicaraguan and Honduran soldiers occupying Caribbean coastal villages in the Afro-Indigenous region of Moskitia habitually entangle themselves sexually or romantically with one or more local women during their three-month rotations. In addition to the economic, affective, and logistical conditions driving women and soldiers to initiate these affairs, the military character of their intimate relations remains an undertheorized aspect of soldier sexuality. This talk shows that what is properly martial in these affairs is not the straightforward weaponization or instrumentalization of intimacy, but something that pertains to the peculiar legality and sociality of the armed forces: their condition as intimately linked to the state, to capital, and to the social, but as impossible to fully appropriate by any of them. The extensive practice of intimacy with soldiers in the Moskitia does not lead to the military’s local “incorporation”, nor to a peaceful synthesis of soldier-resident cohabitation, but to a predatory relation of domination in which the military remains an awkward appendage to Miskitu villages, restricted to strategic but peripheral geographic and quotidian locations. This “intimacy without incorporation” is reflected in the kind of local knowledge soldiers acquire and produce, as well as in the kinds of value they extract from economies deemed legal or illegal. The talk fleshes out some of the implications of this analysis of “martial love” for the literatures on the War on Drugs, indigeneity and multiculturalism, and punitive prohibitionism. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

The Form of Forms: Tables, Information, and Nonsense in the Maoist Dossier

Beginning around 1945, the Chinese Communist Party drastically redesigned its dossier files. Replacing what had once been a collection of narrative evaluations and epistolary reports, the Party adopted a slew of new bureaucratic forms and templates. The new forms reorganized information on persons of interest into neat fields of questions and answers with headers, labels, and tables, all locked into the graphic device of the rectangular grid. The production of these new dossier templates was part of a broader process of formalization in the 1940s that transformed the paper instruments of bureaucratic work. These formal changes established a new and unmistakable visual style for Chinese paperwork that persists in official documents to this day. At the same time, the shift to fixed templates carried important implications for practices of information-collection and surveillance conducted through the dossier. Biographical facts and political histories of cadres and enemies alike had to be abstracted, simplified, and reconfigured to fit the parameters of grid-lined fields. In this talk, I revisit several examples of party personnel forms to show that even as these new forms were not inherently more efficient in capturing information, they served to communicate technocratic regularity as a distinct visual aesthetic. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Byproducts and the Novel from Defoe to Richardson

Turner’s talk, “Byproducts and the Novel from Defoe to Richardson,” draws from her current book project, The Salvaging Disposition: Waste and the Novel Form, in which she argues for the central importance of waste to the cultural, social, and economic transformations that took place over the course of the long eighteenth century. In this talk, she argues that Samuel Richardson adapted the commercial logic of salvaging in order to reconceive the literary domain as a set of materials itself in need of maintenance. In doing so, Richardson developed the notion of literary plotting as a mechanism for recollecting textual byproducts—the discarded characters and sequences of events generated by episodic fiction. By making the recovery of these characters a condition of narrative closure, Richardson’s novel helped to establish a literary framework in which disparate persons could appear both as the components of a single plot and as members of a social totality more generally. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

The Judgment of a Connoisseur

The first Parthenon sculptures arrived in London in 1802. Initial remarks about them were few, far between, and inconsequential. It was a different matter when in 1806 Richard Payne Knight pronounced a judgment upon them. A wealthy British connoisseur and a member of the Society of Dilettanti, Knight judged the sculptures – by then known as the Elgin Marbles – as aesthetically worthless. He would repeat in years to come that he had “looked over” the marbles and arrived at the same conclusion, a conclusion that stalled Lord Elgin’s efforts to sell the marbles to the British Government. This talk will consider two related questions: why did Knight consider a quick visual examination of the marbles sufficient for estimating their value, and why was his judgment influential? The answers are to be sought in connoisseurial practices and the kind of judgment they were understood to develop, and the ways in which such judgments circulated in early nineteenth-century London. Rather than taking connoisseurial authority as an automatic attribute of social or institutional positions, I examine how such authority was produced in situations that can be delineated and described in their specificities.  >>