Spring 2011

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: Evidence

Film, Science, Politics

  • Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University

Peter Galison’s lecture addressed speculation as it pertains to inaccessible sites, focusing on “nuclear wastelands” and “pure wilderness.” >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Evidence

Medicine, Evidence, and the Grand Inquisitor

  • Terrence Holt, Assistant Professor of Social Medicine , University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

His presentation— which comprised the reading of one of his stories and its discussion as a form of medical evidence—addressed the differing ways in which patients and doctors interpret and respond to medical statistics. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Evidence

“Objective” Desires

  • Rebecca Jordan-Young, Associate Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Barnard College

Since it is hard to imagine something more subjective than sexual desire, Rebecca Jordan-Young became intrigued with the attempt to devise measures that avoid, and even contradict, subjective reports of desire, and asked the question: Why do it? >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Evidence

Evidence, Argument, and Story

  • Dingxin Zhao, Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago

 Dingxin Zhao, who has been doing research on both modern and historical China for twenty years, has contemplated various methodological issues related to these questions. His talk, based largely on his recent research on the patterns of Chinese history, considered the problems in the collection and interpretation of historical evidence and in the construction of plausible arguments and stories. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Evidence

The Evidence of Torture

  • Kenneth Pennington, Kelly-Quinn Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Columbus School of Law, The Catholic University of America

Jurists have struggled with the definition of evidence longer than any other discipline. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Evidence

The Egyptian Music Box

  • Alexander Rehding, Fanny Peabody Professor of Music Theory, Harvard University

What seems like an awkward scholarly conundrum can actually be turned into an advantage: the idea of Egyptian music—unfettered by actual examples of it—can give us a rare glance into wide-ranging ideas about the nature of evidence in historical narratives, the inner workings of music histories, and how the wider cultural tasks of music are imagined. >>