2017-19: Speech, Image, Spectacle



In 1967, Guy Debord wrote in The Society of the Spectacle, “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation.” Fifty years later, his claim seems both remarkably trenchant and ripe for revisiting. In our boisterous world, we are saturated in sound and image, and the boundary between life and representation has become increasingly porous. Technology has intensified our capacity to conjure and circulate speech and spectacle in ways that envelope and interrupt, entertain and offend, enlighten and obscure. In such a highly mediated context, how should we conceive the very act of communicating?

SPEECH/IMAGE/SPECTACLE invites inquiry into the politics, aesthetics, technologies, genealogies, and epistemologies of contemporary public discourse. Over the course of two years we will explore the ways we generate, encode, and circulate meaning through representation, inquiring after the nature and effects of speech, image, and spectacle on the senses, on human subjectivity, and on politics and sociality.

How should we understand shifting relations between speech (in the guise of words, languages, speech acts, free speech rights, and so on), performance, and spectacle, both now and historically? Has speech now been spectacularized? What is the relation between spectacle and identity, authenticity, or truth? How do image and spectacle translate or channel power? How should we assess calls to regulate or repress publication and circulation of troubling speech and images, or conversely to expand their scale and reach? What ways of perceiving and practicing politics does a spectacular society demand or allow? How does the very domain of representation change as the global circulation of text and image compresses space and recalibrates time?

2016-17: Conservation

Water drop We live in the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by human intervention and a time of rapid and often disconcerting change. Its predominant narrative is one of decline and fall—of transformation, deterioration, and loss. This tragic narrative is a familiar one:  in the humanities we see it, for example, in stories of the material world and its ruins; of the demise of ancient and indigenous cultures and moral systems; of lost arts, artifacts, and aesthetic forms.

Our theme, CONSERVATION, invites inquiry into how humans have responded to that narrative. We associate the idea of conservation with care, repair, and stewardship both of nature and of culture. To conserve is to place oneself in relation to the past—perhaps an imagined past—that one values and believes ought to remain and persist into the future.  In rehabilitating wetlands and restoring great works of art, reanimating lost languages and spiritual traditions, creating archives and preserving work born digital, conservation generates a set of values, techniques, and orientations to temporality and change. These move beyond merely capturing the past on its own terms and toward enlisting it for present and future purposes.

Yet valuing and engaging in conservation raises a number of questions: What do we choose to conserve, and what do we allow to be lost or let die? What imagined visions of an authentic or prelapsarian past fuel our desire to conserve? What conservation modes and methods do we employ, and what are their limits? What is conservation’s relation to traditionalism, conservatism, and reform? How are acts of conservation related to visions of the future: utopias, dystopias, and other fantasies?