Spring 2018

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?

Special Events

Explorations in the Medical Humanities Series

As a set of disciplines, the humanities face the challenge of how to write about embodied experiences that resist easy verbal categorization such as illness, pain, and healing. The recent emergence of interdisciplinary frameworks such as narrative medicine has offered a set of methodological approaches to address these challenges. Yet conceptualizing a field of medical humanities also offers a broader umbrella under which to study the influence of medico-scientific ideas and practices on society.  Whether by incorporating material culture such as medical artefacts, performing symptomatic readings of poems and novels, or excavating the implicit medical assumptions underlying auditory cultures, the approaches that emerge from a historiographical or interpretive framework are different from those coming from the physician’s black bag. This lecture series will explore the enigma of how what we write relates back to the experience of bodies in different stages of health and disease. Our speakers will explore how the medical humanities build on and revise earlier notions of the “medical arts.” At stake are the problems of representation and the interpretation of cultural products from the past and present through medical models >>

Special Events

Experiments in Opera Today: Conference and Symposium

Over the last four decades, a wide range of musicians and composers, visual artists, and theater practitioners have taken up opera as a form ripe for experimentation. It has been conceived for serialized television broadcast, performed by robots, staged in site-specific spectacles, transformed into non-narrative installations, wedded to free improvisation, and intended (if not quite realized) as interstellar rituals. This conference and symposium considers how artists from numerous disciplines are currently working with opera now that pieces such as Meredith Monk’s Vessel (1971), Carla Bley and Paul Hanes’s Escalator Over the Hill (1969-1971), Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (1975/6), Györgi Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre (1977), Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives (1983), Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus (1984), and Luigi Nono and Massimo Cacciari’s Prometeo (1984/5) have already grown into ‘classics’ of the avant-garde.  >>

Special Events

The Borrowed Muse

“An imitator shares his crown, if he has one, with the chosen object of his imitation,” the poet Edward Young declared in 1759, “an original enjoys an undivided applause.”  But just where does one locate originality, and how does one determine its relationship to artistic merit and value?  Over the past few decades, several developments have called the very notion of originality into question.  Postmodern thought has relegated it to one among many creative paradigms — think only of the practices of interpreting Jazz standards and of sampling.  Moreover, there is the stockpile of knowledge (two centuries of critical editions, often state-supported) and its explosion into the everyman’s land of Google. In moving books and manuscripts into an endlessly searchable, domestic platform, the digital revolution has likewise created new forms of knowledge and expertise. This proliferation has created brought forth “algorithmic divination,” (Freedgood), i.e. new forms of reading and other scholarly practices that unearth various unsuspected lineages of, and connections between, works.  Indeed, modern scholars frequently have access to a richer and deeper range of primary sources than would the authors have had themselves. Taking these materials and tools into consideration thus offers a prime opportunity for a reassessment of musical creation and creativity in the distant past. This panel examines originalities in musical cultures from the fourteenth through eighteenth centuries, while turning a critical eye from the dawn of the digital age toward scholarly creations of musical pasts. Each contribution opens questions about the paradox of modern musicology, at a moment when it has become possible for scholars to establish more thorough textual contents than might even have been available--or even desirable--to the creators whom they study.  Eric Bianchi (Fordham) will examine Charles Burney’s writings on musical borrowing against the tension between his own covert indulgence in textual borrowing and careful cultivation of his literary reputation; Ellen Rosand (Yale) will consider Francesco Cavalli’s self-borrowings and the distorting effects of too much scholarly knowledge, and Michael Cuthbert (MIT) will discuss how new digital tools can uncover patterns of transmission and borrowing in medieval music.  >>