Spring 2017

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: Shock and Reverberation

RESCHEDULED: Shock of the Old/Reverberation of the New | Now 2/10/17 at 12:15pm

A number of scholars in the 1990s lamented that we can no longer truly hear the Ninth, and exhorted us to listen with fresh ears. A recent radical rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth should make them prick up their ears: Leif Inge’s 9 Beet Stretch (2002), a digital installation stretching the sounds of a CD recording of the Ninth to a length of 24 hours. At this glacial pace, the phrases, motives, and rhythms of Beethoven’s music are almost unrecognizable. Is it in fact still the Ninth? In this paper, Harvard Professor Alexander Rehding argues that this digital installation responds to a number of specific cultural and philosophical challenges of the turn of the millennium—temporality, monumentality, and selfhood. Not only is Leif Inge’s innovative 9 Beet Stretch an appropriate version of the Ninth for the digital age, for our time. What is more, its fundamental principle—which media theorists call “time axis manipulation”—can also be read as a parable of the pair shock/reverberation itself.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Shock and Reverberation

Tensions of Refuge: Revolt, Backlash and the Sanctuary Ideal in 19th Century America

This talk explores a crisis in the sanctuary ideal as a fundamental approach to US immigration policy and the United States’ role in the world.  Nineteenth-century Americans took very seriously the idea that the United States, as an emerging republic in a world of powerful monarchies, had a duty to offer safety to those escaping political repression elsewhere: if America wanted the distinction of being an exemplary and exceptional republic, Americans must hold open their doors for the persecuted.  According to this ideal, refugees fighting for their homelands’ freedom could keep their torches alight in America, mobilizing fellow exiles, financial resources, and public opinion to advance their causes worldwide; Americans would promote the global advance of liberty precisely by serving as a welcoming harbor for the persecuted.   >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Shock and Reverberation

The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Why it Matters Today

On September 9, 1971, almost 1,300 prisoners took over the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York to protest years of mistreatment. Holding guards and civilian employees hostage, the prisoners negotiated with officials for improved conditions over four long days and nights. On Sept. 13, the state abruptly sent hundreds of heavily armed troopers and correction officers to retake the prison by force. Their gunfire killed 39 men -- hostages as well as prisoners -- and severely wounded more than 100 others. In the ensuing months, troopers and officers brutally retaliated against the prisoners.Ultimately, New York State authorities prosecuted only the prisoners, never once bringing charges against the officials involved in the retaking and its aftermath and neglecting to provide support to the survivors or the families of the men who had been killed.This talk considers the 1971 Attica prison rebellion and why it matters today >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Shock and Reverberation

Fracking, Earthquakes, and Public Science in Rural America

The middle of the United States has shaken in recent years with unexpected earthquakes.  The most recent large midcontinent quake, an M5.8 tremor centered in eastern Oklahoma, was felt from the Dakotas through Texas. Scientists studying these earthquakes have implicated our recent shale energy revolution, particularly the pressure created by the massive volume of toxic wastewater produced when we use hydraulic fracturing to harvest oil and gas from shale formations.  In some states, regulators have restricted the underground injection of wastewater, but other states are taking only limited action or continue to deny the science linking fracking to earthquakes.  What can we make of such divergent responses to earthquakes that shake across state lines? >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Shock and Reverberation

Visualizing Fascism

Today, we are well immersed in the politics of shock, where unexpected events are carefully designed to jar the political system and civil society, causing a disorientation and disruption among the public and the political class that aids the leader in consolidating his power. This talks takes aim at the designed strategies of fascist politics, current and historical, as these unfold in the aesthetic realm. Drawing from research on the cultural practices that undergirded the regime of Benito Mussolini in the Italy of the 1930s, the talk will include reflections on how to deal with Fascist visual sources from the period, and what lingers of those sources and the Fascist aesthetic now. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Shock and Reverberation

Women’s Work: Allusion and Education in Mid-Twentieth Century Fiction

This paper is drawn from a new project that shows how the expansion of university education into the formal study of English literature profoundly shaped the form of the English novel. Catherine Robson has described the educational reforms that led to a wider incorporation of English Literature as a field of study.The subjects of this paper, Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Pym, were both trained in the Oxford and both embed allusions – to the texts they studied at University and to the Victorian and modernist texts they read in their free time – throughout their work, though their uses of these allusions are quite different. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Shock and Reverberation

Sensing the Limits of the World: Towards a Transhuman Ear

At several points in the history of acoustics, figures have argued that human hearing can or should access ultra or infrasound. And certain recent post-tonal works have notated pitches that explicitly play with, or exceed, the ordinary range of human hearing (cf. Schoenberg, Per Nørgård, and Salvatore Sciarrino). This talk asks what kind of listener such works imply. Amid recent moves toward sound as vibrational force, it argues that hearing has a special role in determining our natural sensory limits and human identity, and that attempts to push against these limits foreground the underlying matter of what status the biological body has for performance and the perception of music. In a historical critique of auditory sense augmentation, I contrast Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of Umwelt (where sensory limits are a material fact of biology) with a transhumanist worldview which anticipates—and for some, already realizes—the enhancement of biological sense capacities through technology. The discourse of transhumanism poses questions for musical listening as soon as the body becomes an assemblage subject to variation. It raises the question of how identity—ours as well as that of musical works—might be affected by “morphological freedom,” the extent to which self-identity becomes the lost referential when agency is distributed between biological and non-biological parts, and it asks what value are the new intellectual vistas that emerge when musical experience is conceived in material terms as communication between bodies. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Shock and Reverberation

Powers of Hearing: Acoustic Defense and Technologies of Listening during the First World War

During the First World War large-scale aerial warfare necessitated new methods of acoustic defense: tracking the enemy through listening and acoustic sensing. Referencing now-declassified military reports, military manuals and scientific literature from this period, this presentation investigates the the development of WWI-era acoustic defense technologies including geophones, double trumpet sound-locators, acoustic visors, listening wells, sound mirrors, acoustic goniometers, the Baillaud paraboloïde and the Perrin télésitemetre. It examines new modes of listening that emerged in relation to these devices, including “alt-azimuth" listening and other modes of collaborative and cooperative listening. It further uncovers historical phenomena like the establishment of écoles d’écoute, “schools of hearing” where Allied soldiers received training in operating acoustic defense technologies, and it examines the design of “ear training exercises” for a new class of expert military auditor. It argues that, during this period, the listening act was reconfigured as a complex, fragmented act of data collection in ways that prefigured modern notions of “machine listening.” Similarly, directional listening, which had previously been studied in terms of perceptual psychology, was newly understood in strategic terms: a tactical activity that could determine human and even national survival. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Shock and Reverberation

Cruel Empathy: The Shocking Case of Beatrice Cenci

This talk will illustrate the practice of cognitive historicism as it develops the theoretical foundation for a new reading of P. B. Shelley’s The Cenci. Rather than inquiring into the morality of Beatrice Cenci's murder of her father, as numerous readers have done, Richardson will consider the efficacy of Count Cenci’s program for corrupting his daughter and turning her into a version of himself. Count Cenci, he will argue, engineers a perverse kind of empathic identification, one that Shelley calls, in Prometheus Unbound, “loathsome sympathy.” Richardson understands “loathsome” sympathy in turn as an extreme or inverted form of the sympathy that plays so crucial a role in Shelley's poetic and ethical theory and that he develops from 18th century writers including Hume, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. >>