Spring 2016

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: Altered States

Luther Orientalisch: Soldiers, Missionaries, and Second-Comings

Today, Martin Luther’s name insistently appears alongside “Islam,” to signal Islam’s lack and its need for its own Luther. Such calls are neither new nor exclusive to Islam: across the nineteenth century, in the Near East, South Asia, and East Asia, many identified themselves or others as Luther’s second-coming, as a Luther of the Orient. These calls forget the significance of Luther’s own writings on the Orient, on the Turk. This talk turns to Luther’s writings on the Turk to excavate his political theology of war. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Altered States

45 Years Trying to Destroy the Theater in Order to Illuminate My Own Stumbling Self

Full title: "45 Years Trying to Destroy the Theater in Order to Illuminate to My Own Stumbling Self or Perhaps Others."  This lecture examines the varying methods Foreman has used over 45 years to create theater that blocks normal ways of perceiving a theatrical event—and forces the spectator to use a different mental rhythm to make sense of his rather aggressive style.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Altered States

Jazz, Meditation, Ontology

While the ontology of musical works is a venerable theme in the philosophy of music, works of classical music have been the primary focus of study. This talk displaces that focus by considering the ontology of musical works in relation to jazz “standards.” Responding primarily to realist conceptions of musical works for performance, Professor Kane outlines an emergent, non-essentialist, network-based ontology of jazz standards. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Altered States

Mourning for Lincoln: Altered States, Transformed Nation

When President Lincoln was murdered, less than a week after his armies won the American Civil War in 1865, the nation confronted its first presidential assassination. Public responses to Lincoln’s death have been well chronicled, but Martha Hodes is the first to delve into the personal responses of African Americans and whites, Yankees and Confederates, men and women, soldiers and civilians. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Altered States

Smoke Ring: The Japanese Smokers’ Wives Study and the American Anti-Tobacco Movement

In 1981, the British Medical Journal published the results of a Japanese study that concluded that the nonsmoking wives of smoking husbands were twice as likely to die from lung cancer as women whose husbands did not smoke. This talk examines the intertwined circulation of commodities and knowledge around the world: how American tobacco exports to Japan inadvertently fueled the nonsmokers’ rights movement in the United States. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Altered States

Unfinished Art and Altered States

Two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art discuss their exhibition, "Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible", which examines a subject critical to artistic practice: the question of when a work of art is finished. The curators discuss the many ways in which unfinishedness and ideas of 'altered states' coincide. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Altered States

Life from Inert Matter: The Mechanics of Spontaneous Generation

Spontaneous generation, the idea that some animals spring into life from nonliving matter (maggots from rotting meat, eels from mud) was a remarkably tenacious idea in the history of biology, not completely disappearing until almost the dawn of the twentieth century. Focusing mainly on the period from antiquity through the Renaissance, this paper argues that there were very good reasons for believing in spontaneous generation, but that at the same time, the phenomenon posed major theoretical problems that had to be overcome. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Altered States

The Castrato Phantom: Moreschi, Fellini, and the Sacred Vernacular in Rome

This talk explores what Professor Feldman calls the "sacred vernacular" to puzzle out the conditions in twentieth-century Rome that mark the uncomfortable anomaly of the castrato, the last of whom, Alessandro Moreschi, died there in 1922. The term "sacred vernacular" refers to the peculiar Italian and especially Roman tendency to domesticate the sacred by means of the everyday. >>