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?

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

Johann Weyer and the Emotions of Witchcraft

In this talk, Tom Robisheaux explores the emotions of witchcraft in sixteenth-century Europe through one of the most astute and critical commentators on witchcraft and the witch trials: Johann Weyer.   A German Protestant-leaning physician who often visited women accused of witchcraft, Weyer was the first to treat the emotions of witchcraft comprehensively as witch trials began to surge in the last half of the sixteenth century. In a magisterial and widely read treatise on witchcraft, Weyer argued that human emotions were porous, and resulted from both natural and medical causes as well as preternatural manipulations by demons.  An individual’s feelings could therefore never be understood as internally generated or self-contained, but instead were connected to forces that saturated the natural and preternatural world.  Weyer’s views sharply challenged jurists, magistrates and theologians with simpler views on the emotions of witchcraft. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

An Automaton’s Interiority: Ajeeb in Brazil, 1896

The paper considers the attraction to human-like automatons. Center-stage is a machine named Ajeeb as he made his way from Europe to North America and then to Brazil. In spite of Ajeeb’s short career in Rio de Janeiro, from 1896 to 1897, he left his mark--a trail of wonder, but also of polemics on personhood and fraud. I explore the ways that this automaton “Turk” took part in a moment that birthed a new family of spirits, the turcos. The goal of this essay is not to intervene in the already-extensive literature on the automaton whether as thing or concept, but rather reconsider the body of work on the automaton from a distinctive point of view, namely that of the "religious" appeal of nearhumanness. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

Technology, the Supernatural, & Social Gospel: Post-war Debates abt Industry & the Order of Creation

How and why does the supernatural become productive, political, visible, and sensible – and how does it disappear?”The organizers of the Lecture Series posed this question, and this talk addresses it in concrete, material terms, asking how debates about the supernatural origins of the universe appeared in post-war European debates about industry, industrial society, and human social needs. The talk contrasts different responses offered by liberal and evangelical Christian groups to the social dislocations of post-war industrial society. Both liberal and evangelical groups developed arguments about industry as part the supernatural order of creation, but the two groups different greatly in the responses they offered.One group used the supernatural or divine sanction of industry as a call to reform it; the other as a justification for industrial and social laissez faire. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

Medieval Mystics on Persons, Human and Beyond

What is a person? This question often arises today in debates about the beginning and end of human life: when, e.g., does a fetus becomes a person, and at what stage of brain death does a body ceases to be a person? In the 13th-14th centuries, there were also lively and broad-ranging discussions about the nature of persons. In the social-political realm, the juridical notion of 'person' stressed the idea of inherent dignity and rationality. In logical and grammatical discussions, 'person' was used to indicate individuality (as opposed to universality or commonality). In theological contexts, 'person' was a term used most often in Trinitarian and Christological debates: God was three persons in one Being, and Christ was one person with two natures (human and divine). In this talk, I address how these three contexts for discussions of persons in the Middle Ages intersect in the work of 13th-15th century mystics, such as Hadewijch, Meister Eckhart, and Catherine of Siena. The focus on first-personal narratives and self-knowledge in the contemplative tradition combines with ideas about dignity and a highly complex understanding of individuality to yield a concept of 'person' that has room for embodied human beings, immaterial angels, and a triune God. I argue that the resulting discussions also prefigure both early modern and contemporary notions of persons, as well as playing an important role in the development of the theory of personalism.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

Scandalous Genres and Monstrous Race(s): Black Writing, the Gothic and the Question of Whiteness

By now critics have clearly recognized the ways in which foundational Gothic texts such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula¸ and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter among numerous others are rife with discourses and debates on racial otherness.  Critical studies such as H.L. Malchow’s Gothic Images of Race in the Nineteenth Century and Teresa Goddu’s Gothic America have done much to explore the appearance and conjunction of racial otherness and monstrosity in British and American Gothic Literature.        >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

Romantic Music and the Transmigration of Soul

The survival of musical works as participants in cultural life depends upon the reenactment of patterned sounds through performance or (in the era of mechanical reproduction) playback. But what precisely is reproduced for listeners in such transhistorical resoundings?  Music has at least since the Romantic era been conceived of as, among other things, a stimulus to feeling, whether in the form of a generalized “aesthetic experience” or as the transmission of emotions.  Are the feelings and experiences inspired by music, then, communicable across time, exhibiting as much (and as little) stability as the patterned sounds that occasion them? >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

Moralizing ‘High Gods’ Historical Chinese Religion & the Alleged Origins of Cooperation in East Asia

The paper has two goals. The first is to provide a data-centered, epistemically justified judgment about the status of moralizing high god theory’s contested ability to explain the origins of cooperation in China. The second is to demonstrate the utility of new quantitative methods for the potential disconfirmation or confirmation of close reading interpretations (or at least of those that are operationalizeable and falsifiable). Central to ongoing debate about the role of gods on cooperation is a widening difference of scholarly opinion on what have come to be identified as ‘Moralizing High God Theory’ and ‘Broad Supernatural Punishment Theory.’ We introduce an automated technique for association mining for the humanities and operationalize the moralizing high gods theory in the context of an ancient Chinese corpus. Both theories argue that supernatural agents with certain traits bear a special relationship to cooperation.  >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

The Afterlife of Bunkers: Nazi frisson, creative capital, and the branding of Berlin

In recent years numerous former Nazi bunkers have been converted into exhibition spaces for contemporary art. These cultural venues capitalize on the historical associations of these buildings, not as sites of memory, but as stage sets for fantasy and heroic regeneration. Vying for attention in an increasingly saturated experience economy, curators, collectors, artists, and gallerists commodify the popular fascination with National Socialism, exploiting its potential for erotic transgression, making “Nazi chic” fashionable and more socially acceptable. For the purposes of this talk, I will focus in particular on two recently renovated bunkers, the Boros and Feuerle collections, which are now among the most celebrated artworld destinations in Berlin. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

Luther, Death and Popery

In 1546, as Luther lay dying, he made one last sally against the Pope: ‘Living I was your plague, Dead I will be your death, O Pope!’ This imprecation was faithfully recorded in the published accounts of Luther’s death by his followers. Why did Luther curse the Pope at such a time? How could this outburst become part of Lutheran memorial culture? >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

Our Lady of the Alt-Right: Catholic Traditionalism, Russian Orthodoxy, & the Theology of Nationalism

Full Title: Our Lady of the Alt-Right: Catholic Traditionalism, Russian Orthodoxy, and the Theology of White Nationalism Within the toxic brew of ideologies and interests fueling white supremacist nationalism, observers have detected the ominous persistence of neo-Confederate infatuation with Catholic traditionalism and, increasingly, its eastern variant, Russian Orthodoxy. In publications and through privately funded ideological centers, the Old Right and the Southern Agrarian tradition were kept alive during the 1980s and 1990s for those conservatives underwhelmed by the fusion of American Catholics and evangelicals in the New Christian Right. These rock-ribbed traditionalists saw in the GOP of the Reagan years and the 1994 Contract with America not the triumph of conservatism but “the increasing secularism, hedonism, and carnal and material self-indulgence of the dominant culture.” The Republican Party, these paleoconservatives believed, had capitulated to a soft and shallow version of family values, trading the substance of a robust Anglo-Saxon-Celtic political and cultural tradition for the shadow of a telegenic frenzy about sexy movies and prayer in the schools. The enduring romance between a certain strain of Catholic traditionalism and the white supremacist attachment to its vision of the Old South today reaches wider audiences in the form of on-line communities and a renewed movement for the “Church Militant.” Perhaps even more startling has been the rise of Eastern Orthodoxy as the home church of white nationalism in the U.S. as well as around the world. Periodically, the status of the Orthodox Communion has come into vogue as the uncorrupted church—the “Third Rome,” as Russians call Moscow, to which the true faith retreated while Western Christianity succumbed to Roman domination, Enlightenment corruption, and eventually to the liberalization of Vatican II. With Pope Francis widely perceived on the Right as the first gay communist pope, and with international awareness of the robust anti-gay, anti-feminist, and pro-white agendas of Orthodox flag-wavers like Vladimir Putin and Greece’s Golden Dawn, Russian Orthodoxy is growing in the U.S., albeit sometimes in the shadows of the institutional church. Through a network of institutions, publications, conferences, and political action, then, Confederate romanticism joins right-wing Catholic anti-modernism and Russian traditionalism to offer spiritual succor to a new “nationalist international” in the age of Trump. >>

Thursday Lecture Series: Supernatural

Investing in the Stars: The Astrology of Money and Markets in the Modern United States

In 1984, Stanford Economics Professor Ezra Solomon famously quipped, “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.” Though intended as a jab at other economists, Solomon’s claim also spoke to a growing trend in market prediction – the application of astrological tools and methods to financial forecasting. Financial astrology, popularly known as “market gazing,” did indeed gain respectability over the past half century. As Solomon suggested, the failures of economists to predict the behaviors of markets undoubtedly played a role in that process. But the rise of astrology in the field of finance can be linked to other historical contexts as well. This talk offers a brief history of the astrology of money and markets in the United States, from the Gilded Age to the present. Special emphasis will be placed on the past 40-50 years, and linkages between the growing popularity of financial astrology and market rationality in a neoliberal era. >>