Fall 2020

Thursday Lecture Series

Photography at the Factory Gates: LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Last Cruze

  • Benjamin J. Young (‘20 - Present), Lecturer in Art History, Columbia University
  • Noam M. Elcott, Chair of Art Humanities*, Art History and Archaeology
    Columbia University

This talk discusses photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier’s exhibition The Last Cruze (2019), which documents the closure of the GM automobile plant in Lordstown, Ohio, by linking it to a history of images of workers leaving the factory. Situating her artwork in relation to the critique of documentary launched by San Diego school photographers Fred Lonidier, Martha Rosler, and Allan Sekula in the 1970s, it considers the centrality of portraiture to her account of work and unemployment. Finally, in the face of a rise of nationalist, racist, and xenophobic right-wing populism, it examines how The Last Cruze refuses to concede the terrain of family and community to reactionary forces by providing another account of work and industry, and of community, culture, and family, that taps the critical potential of working-class cultures of organizing and mutual aid. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Monumental Witnessing in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem

  • Megan Boomer (‘20 - Present), Lecturer in Art History, Columbia University
  • Holger Klein, Lisa and Bernard Selz Professor of Medieval Art History, Columbia University

For twelfth-century pilgrims and patrons, monuments in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1187 CE) were sanctified by their association with the events and figures of scriptural narrative. The design and decoration of the structures staged encounters between medieval present users and the biblical past, presenting architecture as an enduring material witness to textual truth. This connection to an authoritative antiquity, however, was reconfigured in the aftermath of the First Crusade through both rhetoric and restoration. This paper presents the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Church of the Nativity as two facets of this dynamic, and situates them within the context of my ongoing research. In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I argue that the twelfth-century spaces positioned Jerusalem’s Latin Christian community as the revivers of the Resurrection commemorated on the site. In the Church of the Nativity, I ask how we can understand Bethlehem’s medieval mosaic images and inscriptions as a testimony of local Christian practice and positions, and as evidence of a continuous monumental dialogue within the landscape.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series


  • Tyrone S. Palmer (‘19 - Present), Lecturer in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Columbia University
  • Dorothea von Mücke, German Language and Literature, Columbia University

This talk considers Dionne Brand’s 2001 experimental memoir A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, arguing that the text theorizes the gulf between Blackness and the World as rooted in the question of affective experience. I read Brand’s deployment of the concept-metaphor of “the Door” and its attendant “tear in the world” as indexing the chasm from which Black feeling outside of and against “the World” as relational container irrupts. Brand’s text reveals that rather than offering an escape from meaning-as-capture, when considered from the position of Blackness, feeling is capture, and it is this seemingly paradoxical state of things that renders Black affect aporetic. Feeling-as-capture is antithetical to dominant theorizations which posit that the ontology of affect is escape. In thinking capture as endemic to Blackness and therefore at the root of Black sensorial experience, Brand locates a rift in the very structure of affect.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Duanfang and His Altar Bronzes: The Group Photo Portrait as an Imbricated Ritualistic Event

  • Tingting Xu (‘20 - Present), Lecturer in Art History, Columbia University

Conceptualizing an alternative to the Rieglian analyses of the correlation between power and composition in group portraiture, this article proposes a ritualistic approach to understanding the group photo and its commemorative purpose. The proposal is raised through a case study of the photograph of Tohoro Duanfang (1861-1911) and an assembly of scholarly officials with the altar bronzes in his collection. Despite the obscurity of time and location, the photograph has been widely published in books on Chinese ancient bronzes and the culture of collecting. This article dates, decodes, and contextualizes this image within the imperial tradition of reinstating ancient bronzes in Confucius worship. It also discusses photography’s primacy in the late Qing antiquarian praxis of studying, cataloguing, and displaying bronzes. Meanwhile, this study demonstrates that the process of taking a group photo consists of a composite ritualistic event in which a "pro-photographic" event is imbricated with a "photographic event." This imbricated flow of event and ritual may shed light on understandings of group photos with an intelligibility that is not visual, but temporal. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Military Custom: Conceptualizing Graft in the Central American “War on Drugs”

  • Fernando Montero (‘19 - Present), Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, Columbia University
  • Gareth Williams, Classics, Columbia University

Despite the ideological differences professed by the regimes that have clung to power in Nicaragua and Honduras since the late 2000s, both governments have addressed drug commerce within their jurisdictions in remarkably similar ways: with mass incarceration in the countries’ hegemonic “mestizo” regions, and military occupation in the Afro-Indigenous Caribbean region of Moskitia. In both countries, however, state officials across the branches and strata of the police and the armed forces habitually enmesh themselves in drug commerce, giving shape to Janus-faced governmental interventions that the practitioners themselves often struggle to understand. Based on participant-observation research among soldiers and local residents in recently occupied Afro-Indigenous Miskitu villages, this talk conceptualizes graft not as a byproduct of Central American security regimes, but as a structuring part of them. At the local level, soldiers’ practices of extortion, collusion, and inaction vis-à-vis drug commerce are typically justified on two grounds: 1) their difference from punitive prohibitionism; and 2) their customary and habitual character. Graft, then, may be most accurately conceptualized not as an aspect of “martial law” or as a practice of exceptional “extralegality,” but as a form of “military custom.” Law here is neither doctrine nor fiction: it is leverage. Graft is not “lawfare,” as Eyal Weizman refers to the battle over legal definitions in the US and Israeli “war on terror” that have gradually stretched international law in order to establish the geopolitical legality of drone warfare and targeted assassination. Nicaraguan and Honduran soldiers’ actions in the Moskitia, on the other hand, make manifest the “customfare” of geopolitically subordinate states that cannot aspire, in Weizman’s words, to “develop international law through its violation.” >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Gas Guzzling Gaia

  • Leah Aronowsky (‘20 - Present), Lecturer in History, Columbia University
  • Eugenia Lean, East Asian Language-Culture, Columbia University

In the 1970s, US scientists began sounding the alarm about a new kind of environmental problem: manmade chemical products that threatened to permanently damage the atmosphere and the climate. In response, chemical companies ranging from Royal Dutch Shell to Dupont began inventing new strategies for contesting this science and forestalling regulatory intervention. One especially salient strategy concerned a claim about the nature of the environment itself. It claimed that the environment was a fundamentally stable, self-regulating system and, as such, would eventually restore itself in the face of anthropogenic pollutants. This talk examines one iteration of this claim—the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that life controls and maintains the environmental conditions for life to exist—and reconstructs its epistemic life in the world of industry. In so doing, I show how the theories scientists use to produce environmental knowledge have historically been wielded to undermine efforts to link environmental problems with industrial operations.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Resonant Perspectives in a Pluralistic World

  • Suzanne Thorpe (‘20 - Present), Lecturer in Music, Columbia University
  • Elaine Sisman, Chair of Music Humanities*, Music
    Columbia University

The intensifying effects of climate catastrophe has implicated anthropocentrism and the effects of human dominance on the more-than-human world. The position we find ourselves in calls for more equitable and sustainable paradigms that have the capacity to shift concepts of power and agency, and emphasize materially pluralistic and agential domains that humans are entangled with and depend upon. In this talk I will discuss an  interdisciplinary methodology I’ve designed that explores how the flows, velocities and contingencies of sound may reassemble our assumptions of who perceives, and amplify the intermaterial effects we have on each other. Specifically I will discuss my creative research project Resonance & Resemblance (R&R, Thorpe 2017), a sonic meditation that accentuated the mesh of geo-bio perception (of which humans are but one). I will discuss how, with R&R, I engaged non-hierarchal music-making strategies to listen with particular attention to the phenomenon of resonance in our environment. In addition I situate this project alongside the work of sound and sculpture artist Jacqueline Kiyomi Gordon, who also figures resonance strongly in her process. These works in conversation point to what I frame as resonant perspective: a relational and situated knowing (Haraway 1988) of a materially plural, protean and impactful environment (Cajete 2016).  >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Jane Austen’s Worlds; or, the Novel vs. the World

  • Allison Turner (‘19 - Present), Lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University
  • Leah Aronowsky (‘20 - Present), Lecturer in History, Columbia University
  • Jennifer Wenzel, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University

This talk will situate Jane Austen’s fiction within a larger conversation about worlds and worlding that has emerged over the course of the Thursday Lecture Series this semester. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

The Danger of Small Details: Autobiographical Surveillance in Cadre Dossier Files

  • JM Chris Chang (‘18 - Present), Lecturer in East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University
  • Rishi Goyal, Institute of Comparative Literature and Society; Emergency Medicine, Columbia University

It was no secret that throughout the 1950s, the cadres were among the most closely surveilled groups of persons in the PRC. As both an instrument and a product of this surveillance, cadre personnel dossiers collected evidence and observation into a system of administrative records that at times approximated secret police files. But how did cadre dossiers from this period come to resemble the police archive? To better understand the means and ends of internal surveillance as practiced by party organs, this paper focuses on early cadre examinations (ganbu shencha) carried out from 1953-1957. While acknowledging historical continuities with Yan’an-era approaches to internal threat control, this study highlights the professionalization of the Public Security Bureau and the role of local police in background investigations and internal vetting. Through comparison of specific examples of cadre examination with published PSB manuals from the period, the documents utilized here detail how PSB investigators pursued evidence by means of field research, extensive interviews, and by poring over old dossier materials. The working methods of cadre examination reveal the crucial importance of local networks of officials and witnesses to the day-to-day business of police work, insofar as evidence in these examinations was secured by trust between bureaucratic agents. The frictions between evidence and authentication that commonly arose from cadre examinations invites a further rethinking of the information flows produced by internal surveillance, in addition to their broader effects upon Maoist administration. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

How Much Knowledge Is “Just Enough”? Anatomy for Artists in Sixteenth-Century Italy

  • Ardeta Gjikola (‘18 - Present), Lecturer in History, Columbia University
  • Turkuler Isiksel, Political Science, Columbia University

The centrality of the human figure is one of the most distinctive features of Italian Renaissance art. What Michelangelo in particular achieved with the depiction of the human body – understood by contemporaries to be based on an extensive knowledge of anatomy and even dissection – made anatomical knowledge a desideratum for the education of the artist in sixteenth-century Italy. It was not clear, however, how far most artists ought to pursue such knowledge. Some said that they should study “just enough.” But how much anatomical knowledge was “just enough”? This talk examines the nature of this epistemic predicament, as well as two answers that became prominent in the period: just enough anatomical knowledge to avoid errors, and just enough to avoid exaggerations. More generally, this talk is an attempt to reflect on qualities and states of knowledge beyond certainty, or the lack of it. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

The Day After Tomorrow: Revolutionary Spirit and its Lost Treasure

  • Naeem Mohaiemen (‘20 - Present), Lecturer in Anthropology and Institute for Comparative Literature & Society, Columbia University
  • David Scott, Professor of Anthropology, Columbia University

In "The Revolutionary Spirit and its Lost Treasure" (On Revolution, 1963) Hannah Arendt considered how to preserve that spirit after the uprising had transitioned to orderly nation building. The core of the spirit was, according to her, the possibility of starting anew, the possibility of action, and the position of being beginners in an enterprise. Paradoxically, the revolution eventually set up institutions that prevented widespread participation by all, as was possible during the upsurge of revolutionary action. As Arendt bitterly points out, the name "Soviet Union" remained as a nod to the popularity of the soviet system while the actuality was reduced to impotence. In such a situation, what remained for the revolutionary except to recall through memory and retelling the spirit of the beginning? Arendt considered poet René Char, whose poetry betrayed an anxiety about the arrival of liberation– for he knew that with the removal of a public role, he would have to withdraw from a space where he had found himself, ultimately repressing the treasure found during the time of liberatory struggle. Considering the melancholy that sets in after postcolonial nations’ actual experience of post-liberation, what modes of remembering are available for those navigating the crushing disappointment of the day after? >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Huamanquiquia: Making an Intercommunal Peasant Coalition against the Shining Path in Peru 1983-1992

  • Renzo Aroni (‘20 - Present), Lecturer in CSER/Anthropology, Columbia University

Conventional views portray noncombatants, such as Indigenous peasants, as helpless victims of warring sides in armed conflicts. However, they are often resistant actors who switch support from one side to another to protect their community. This talk examines Peru’s internal armed conflict (1980-1992) between Maoist Shining Path insurgents and government forces from a micro-dynamic of wartime violence and resistance in the Andean village of Huamanquiquia. It asks, how did the Indigenous peasants shift from supporting to rejecting the insurgents and maintain their resistance against them? Based on original archival research, including the community’s record books, called libro de actas, and oral history interviews with wartime peasant leaders, I assert that the Shining Path’s brutal attack on Huamanquiquia’s authorities and local affairs was the breaking point in the village, prompting the switch in support from insurgency to counterinsurgency. This led Huamanquiquia, along with its neighboring communities, to organize a large multi-communal coalition, called the Pacto de Alianza entre Pueblos, to defend their communities against incursions by the Shining Path guerrillas. Although encouraged by the Peruvian state and its agents, but often on their own initiative, around a dozen peasant communities embraced this anti-guerrilla coalition from 1983 to 1992. This intercommunal coalition and the concomitant resistance–combined with the armed forces’ strategy–ultimately defeated the Shining Path in the early 1990s. >>

Thursday Lecture Series

Beyond Boundaries: Inspirations and Motherhood in African Women’s Music Creative Process

  • Ruth Opara (‘20 - Present), Lecturer in Music, Columbia University
  • Elaine Sisman, Chair of Music Humanities*, Music
    Columbia University

The Igbo African woman is inspired by her surroundings and experiences, including the variety of roles she performs in society. She breathes nature and utilizes all its gifts in creating her arts; her experiences translate into songs, dances, clothing, and instrumentations. She consistently performs her motherly and mother figure roles in society by making them part of her creative process. The inspirations could come from a faraway land, but she responds and utilizes them as soon as they are “brought” into her environment. Inspirations from faraway lands are brought through physical contacts and the media. Her creativities align with time, space, and specific contexts; a song she creates when happy may differ from the one she makes when sad, though she may compose both within a short time. Hence, conflicts, contradictions, and complexities that characterize Igbo, African women’s creative experiences, as well as my descriptions and analyses. I examine the creative process of Obiwuruotu Women’s Dance Group, a group of married women musicians in Southeastern Nigeria, to reveal where they get inspiration to create music and how their creative process is centered around their roles as mothers and mother figures. >>