PITH — Politics in the Humanities

PITH — Politics in the Humanities hosts speakers studying politics at the humanistic ends of various social sciences and at the more social science ends of the humanities. PITH complements the work of the Political Concepts Initiative but aims specifically to open up dialogue on political questions across the humanities and the social sciences. In botanical terminology, pith refers to a spongy, central cylinder of tissue found inside the stems of most flowering plants. The pith of an argument is like the pith of a plant: pith is the central idea or essence of something.

The lecture series, which hosts two speakers a year, is supported by funds from the Cogut Institute and the Department of Political Science, and is convened by Bonnie Honig, Nancy Duke Lewis Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science.

Upcoming Events

Details of future events will be displayed soon.

Previous Events

  • Mar
    5:30pm - 7:30pm

    Paul C. Taylor

    Uneasy Sanctuaries: Rethinking Race-Thinking

    In the introduction to his remarkable book, Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison identifies one of the stumbling blocks to successful “Negro” fiction. The problem, he suggests, is “the writers’ refusal… to achieve a vision of life and a resourcefulness of craft commensurate with the complexity of their actual situation” (Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison 59). What does this refusal lead to? “Too often,” Ellison explains, writers “fear to leave the uneasy sanctuary of race to take their chances in a world of art.”

    Ellison’s diagnosis, or something like it, applies with equal force to philosophers. “We are also prone to treating real-world complexity as something that sullies or sidetracks the work of philosophy,” Paul Taylor observes, “especially when that complexity arises from the swirl of intersecting conditions that work through and with the forces of racialization. For us, too often, race is just the first sanctuary, and our attempts to escape it lead us to other places of refuge, to other ways of evading the vicissitudes of embodiment, location, finitude, and politics.”

    In this talk, Taylor proposed to explore the itinerary of evasion that can result from philosophical attempts to take race seriously. This itinerary ran through a variety of uneasy sanctuaries, starting with race itself and winding through disciplinarity, canonicity, heretical theory, and prophetic witness. The aim was to highlight some underappreciated challenges to the work of philosophical race theory and to cultivate a responsible orientation to the work in light of its challenges.

    [2020 bioPaul C. Taylor is the W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. His research focuses primarily on Aesthetics, Social and Political Philosophy, Critical Race Theory, and Africana Philosophy. His books include On Obama (Routledge, 2016) and Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (Blackwell, 2016), which received the 2017 monograph prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. He also provided commentary for a variety of print and broadcast outlets, including Xinhua News, the CBC, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the BBC. 

    This event was convened by Kevin Quashie as part of PITH – Politics in the Humanities and co-sponsored by the Departments of Africana Studies, American Studies, and Philosophy.

    More Information Humanities, Politics in the Humanities PITH
  • Feb
    4:00pm - 5:30pm

    Lori Marso

    Dear Dick: A Feminist Politics of the Epistolary

    Beginning with Laura Mulvey’s pioneering work on how narrative film replicates the male gaze by sexually objectifying women’s bodies, this talk charted the visibility of women’s bodies and the circulation of sexual desires to explore what happens when women’s desires are made public. Focusing on Jill Soloway’s 2017 television adaptation of Chris Kraus’s pioneering 1995 feminist memoir I Love Dick, Lori Marso suggested that the television show may be seen as a reception of the work of feminist filmmaker Catherine Breillat, specifically her 1999 film Romance. For Breillat, women’s sexual desire is female genitalia and fluids, ontological evidence presented as a challenge to male impotence. In Soloway’s I Love Dick, the body is shown as a less reliable indicator of desire, although it doesn’t disappear. Letters, circulated and read by others, make women’s desires public and their bodies visible. What if we all started writing love letters to Dick? Another way to ask this question: how can women’s desires be made visible?

    [2019 bio] Lori Marso is the Doris Zemurray Stone Professor of Historical and Literary Studies and Professor of Political Science at Union College in Schenectady, NY. She is the author or editor of several books and articles. Her most recent book Politics with Beauvoir: Freedom in the Encounter (Duke University Press, 2017) won the inaugural Pamela Grande Jensen Book Award, presented by the Politics, Literature, and Film section of the American Political Science Association. Her articles have won the Susan Okin and Iris Marion Young Award for Feminist Political Theory (2013), the Marian Irish Award (2009), the Wilson Carey McWilliams Award (2018), the Betty Nesvold Award (2008), and the Contemporary Political Theory Award (2014). She is a Consulting Editor to the journal Political Theory.

    More Information Humanities, Politics in the Humanities PITH, Social Sciences
  • Nov
    5:30pm - 7:00pm

    George Shulman

    Fred Moten’s Refusals and Consents: Maternity, Natality, and the Politics of Fugitivity

    The paper situates the recent work of Fred Moten in two conversations. One conversation is focused on “the black radical tradition,” in which Moten places his “avowedly anti-political romance” with a fugitive black sociality radically opposed to any organized form of politics. How do other voices in this tradition validate — and problematize — his view of an inherent antagonism between black fugitivity, and a democratic politics inescapably tied to the unthought premises of anti-black, settler colonial modernity? A second conversation involves radically democratic voices in political theory, for Moten directly criticizes Hannah Arendt’s work, and his argument also suggests a fruitful engagement with Sheldon Wolin. Each offers a catastrophic account of modernity, criticizes politics as bio-political sovereignty, and defends a “revolutionary treasure” that each deems fugitive. Each also offers, however, contrasting accounts of pariah invisibility, natality, and public disclosure on the one hand, and of commonality, scale, and insurgency on the other hand. Whereas agonistic theorists typically modify how Arendt or Wolin conceive and conjure the political, as if to redeem it, Moten insists that any conception of the political — no matter how modified — necessarily entails “counter-insurgency” against the sociality he equates with blackness and maternity. Tracing intersections and tensions between voices of black radicalism and of radical democracy, we complicate figurations of fugitivity, natality, and commonality, and open inherited conceptions of the political to risk and reworking.

    [2018 bio] George Shulman is Professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. His research interests lie in the fields of political thought and American studies. He teaches and writes on political thought in Europe and the United States, as well as on Greek and Hebrew—tragic and biblical—traditions. His teaching and writing emphasize the role of narrative in culture and politics. Professor Shulman is a recipient of the 2003 NYU Distinguished Teaching Award. He is the author of Radicalism and Reverence: Gerrard Winstanley and the English Revolution (University of California Press, 1989) and American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), which won APSA’s David Easton Prize in political theory. Focusing on the language that great American critics have used to engage the racial domination at the center of American history, American Prophecy explores the relationship of prophecy and race to American nationalism and democratic politics. Professor Shulman edited Radical Future Pasts, which was released by The University Press of Kentucky in July 2014.

    More Information Humanities, Politics in the Humanities PITH, Social Sciences
  • Mar
    5:30pm - 7:00pm

    Cornel West

    [2018 bio] Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and holds the title of Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. He has also taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris. Cornel West graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton.

    He has written 20 books and has edited 13. He is best known for his classics, Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and for his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. His most recent book, Black Prophetic Fire, offers an unflinching look at nineteenth and twentieth-century African American leaders and their visionary legacies.

    This event was presented as part of PITH (Politics in the Humanities) and co-sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of the Provost, and the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

    Watch Dr. West’s talk on YouTube More Information Humanities, Politics in the Humanities PITH
  • Dec
    5:30pm - 7:00pm

    Lida Maxwell

    Queer/Love/Bird Extinction: Rachel Carson and the Politics of Environmental Desire

    From 1954 until her death, Rachel Carson exchanged letters with her friend, Dorothy Freeman, that depict their love for each other as a wondrous multispecies achievement constituted through encounters with birds. Reading Silent Spring through the lens of these letters, speaker Lida Maxwell, Trinity College and Boston University, asked how our conceptions of love and environmentalism might be productively transformed by foregrounding the connections between inter-human affects and a vibrant multispecies world.

    [2017 bio] Lida Maxwell is Associate Professor of Political Science and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Boston University. She is the author of Public Trials: Burke, Zola, Arendt, and the Politics of Lost Causes (Oxford UP, 2015), the co-editor of Second Nature: Rethinking Nature Through Politics (Fordham UP, 2014), and the co-author of The Right to Have Rights (Verso, 2018). Her articles have appeared in Political Theory, Contemporary Political Theory, and Theory and Event.

    More Information Humanities, Politics in the Humanities PITH
  • Apr
    4:00pm - 5:30pm

    Astra Taylor

    Where Are The Gears? Thoughts on Resisting the (Neoliberal, Networked) Machine

    As Mario Savio famously said at Berkeley in 1964, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part…you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. But how do we find the levers in a system that is globalized, financialized, and digitized? What power to we have and how can we use it?”

    [2017 bio] Astra Taylor, filmmaker and activist (Examined Life, 2008), reflected on the lessons learned over five years of organizing around indebtedness and debt refusal while arguing that the task of devising new tactics and strategies to leverage social change is more important than ever.

    More Information Humanities, Politics in the Humanities PITH
  • Nov
    5:30pm - 7:00pm

    Glen Coulthard

    Fanonian Antinomies

    This talk interrogated the reception and application of psychiatrist-turned-anti-colonial-revolutionary Frantz Fanon’s theoretical work in Canadian political thought and activism from the 1960s to the present. Fanon’s theoretical influence in the United States has been well noted. The profound mark that Fanon in particular and Third Worldism in general left on post-war US anti-colonial radicalism led cultural theorist Stuart Hall to declare The Wretched of the Earth nothing less than “The Bible of Decolonization.” Interestingly, however, Fanon’s influence is perhaps even more pronounced (although decidedly less discussed) in Canada. For example, Quebecois sovereigntists in the 1960s often borrowed the language of Fanonian anti-colonialism in their own struggles for national recognition, while largely ignoring both Fanon’s insights into the problem of recognition in colonial contexts and Quebec’s own problematic status as a settler-society actively complicit in the violent dispossession of Indigenous peoples in the province. Fanon’s work was also used by high-level federalists like Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau to critique Quebecois nationalism and by multiculturalists like Charles Taylor to chart a conciliatory path between both the claims of Quebec and Canada’s concerns about national unity. And, of course, truer to form, Fanon was also an inspiration to francophone Black intellectuals contesting the racism of Quebec and Canada and by “Fourth World” Indigenous nations in their struggles against the colonial state at both the provincial and federal levels.

    [2016 bio] Glen Coulthard is Yellowknives Dene and an associate professor in the First Nations and Indigenous Studies Program and the Departments of Political Science at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), winner of the 2016 Caribbean Philosophical Association’s Frantz Fanon Award for Outstanding Book, the Canadian Political Science Association’s CB Macpherson Award for Best Book in Political Theory, published in English or French, in 2014/2015, and the Rik Davidson Studies in Political Economy Award for Best Book in 2016. He is also a co-founder of Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, a decolonial, Indigenous land-based post-secondary program operating on his traditional territories in Denendeh (Northwest Territories).

    This event was co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science, the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, and the Cogut Institute for the Humanities.

    More Information Humanities, Politics in the Humanities PITH, Social Sciences
  • Mar
    5:00pm - 6:30pm

    Corey Robin

    The Capitalism of Clarence Thomas

    Clarence Thomas claims the economist Thomas Sowell as one of his formative influences. In Race and Economics, Sowell suggested that capitalism may have been one of the few forces, if not only the only force, that put some constraints upon the white slave-master. Speaker Corey Robin traced the power and presence of this claim in Thomas’s thinking about capitalism, as evidenced in his Supreme Court opinions about the Commerce Clause, the Takings Clause, and the First Amendment (commercial speech and campaign finance).

    [2016 bio] Corey Robin is a professor of political science. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump - hailed by The New Yorker as “the book that predicted Trump” - and Fear: The History of a Political Idea, which won the Best First Book in Political Theory Award from the American Political Science Association. His next book, The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, is coming out in September 2019. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, and other venues. His writings have been translated into thirteen languages. Robin has received fellowships from the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies.

    More Information Humanities, Politics in the Humanities PITH
  • Sep
    4:00pm - 5:30pm

    Davina Cooper

    Gay Weddings and the Limits of Equality Law: A Play-based Approach to Christian Claims of Conscience

    [2015 bio] Davina Cooper, Kent Law School, University of Kent, addressed the contemporary legal drama that has erupted in many jurisdictions in recent years as conservative Christians refuse to provide lesbians and gay men with goods, membership and services, arguing that their right to refuse is entitled by religious freedom and equality law.

    This was the first event presented as part of the PITH – Politics in the Humanities lecture series.

    More Information Humanities, Politics in the Humanities PITH