Violence and Humanities

The 2013-14 Penn Humanities Forum examines themes of violence.
October 1, 2013

In 1949, German sociologist, philosopher, and musicologist Theodor Adorno said that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric. His statement, however, “calls less for the end of artistic production than for a deeper understanding of the complex entanglement between violence and culture,” say professors Karen Beckman and James English, discussing the 2013-14 Penn Humanities Forum topic: violence. English, the John Welsh Centennial Professor of English, is director of the Humanities Forum; Beckman, Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor of the History of Art, is this year’s topic director. She is a scholar of cinema and modern media who has written on subjects including feminism and terrorism, death penalty photography, the animated documentary, and the relationship between cinema and contemporary art.

“The program very much puts humanists in conversation with social scientists and artists, as we think this is a particularly generative space for the topic,” says Beckman. “Penn has a strong core group of faculty across schools working in this area. It is a topic that demands interdisciplinary thinking, and that approach thrives here because of our many programs and cross-school initiatives.”

The forum opened with a discussion of “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” led by Michelle Alexander, Associate Professor of Law at Ohio State, in the Dr. S.T. Lee Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities. Other topics during the year include “The Violence of Gandhi’s Non-Violence,” “Archeology and War in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and “The Murder of Larry King.”

Overt physical conflict is only one facet of violence, which often takes more obscure and elusive forms. The Forum will examine violence done by the environment and economic conditions, and new guises of racist violence. In addition, special attention will be paid to gender and sexuality studies, where scholars must take into account the huge asymmetry of violence between men and women while guarding against regressive notions of masculine and feminine.

Beckman also heads the new University-wide Art and Culture Initiative, and what she calls the “profound place” of violence in art and music will be considered in the forum. There will be a cinema series in the fall and another in the spring, and Penn’s Daedalus Quartet will debut “Music From Exile,” exploring music of composers who were forced into various states of exile by the Third Reich. In collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), the R. Jean Brownlee Lecture in Women's Studies, “Violence in Contemporary Art,” will bring artist Kara Walker together with Penn's Charles Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature. Walker is also this year’s Katherine Stein Sachs, CW’69, and Keith L. Sachs, W’67, Guest Curator at the ICA, for a show entitled “Ruff Neck Constructivists.” The Penn Museum exhibit “Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster,” curated by Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations and Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies Tukufu Zuberi, is also part of the forum.

As always, the Humanities Forum will provide a setting in which humanities scholars and students can learn from those outside their fields, bring their research into a public conversation, and help make the University a place of benefit to the wider community. During weekly seminars forum faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates from Penn and elsewhere will build intellectual bridges and conversation both internally and externally. Says Beckman, “This is what I love about working with the Penn Humanities Forum.”