50th Anniversary: Looking Forward
WORDS OF WISDOM ABOUND AT GC'S SPRING CONVOCATION
Promising attendees “a kaleidoscopic glance across time and discipline, Plato to NATO,” Provost Chase Robinson welcomed the Graduate Center community of faculty members, graduate students, staff, and alumni to Elebash Recital Hall on April 16 for a spring convocation honoring the GC’s fiftieth anniversary.
“This afternoon we deepen our appreciation of who we were by capturing what we have learned and what we still promise to learn—where research has been, and where it is going,” Robinson declared, before introducing six relatively recent appointments to the GC faculty. Each had been asked to elucidate briefly how humankind’s view of a single-word subject of their choice had transformed over time.
First to take up the challenge was Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Prof., GC, Earth and Environmental Sciences), who focused on Incarceration. While explaining that incarceration began as a reform in that it “shifted punishment from the flesh to the body,” she also asserted that, across history, it is closely associated with territorial partitions, population transfers, capital movement, racial murder, and competing notions of freedom. Today it is most prevalent “wherever inequality is deepest,” she said, adding that the United States currently incarcerates one in a hundred adults, who constitute 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Next at the podium, David Sorkin (Dist. Prof., GC, History) discredited what he held was an old-fashioned notion of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. As a graduate student in the 1970s, he recalled, he was taught that it was “an intellectual and cultural movement emanating from Paris” that “championed reason over faith and science over scripture.” Yet, he emphasized, by looking beyond an artificial canon of texts and rediscovering popular thinkers of the time who had long been condemned to obscurity, scholars have come to view the Enlightenment in more complex polycentric terms that encompass both the secular and the religious.
Using the term Diaspora as his central motif, Herman Bennett (Prof., GC, History) framed his comments around an observation, cited in a recent New York Times article, that the majority of Latin American immigrants to New York City—close to 95 percent in the case of Mexicans—request to be sent back to their homelands for burial. Half a century ago, he asserted, scholars relegated such phenomenon “to the realm of culture—the quixotic.” Today, however, as global diasporas proliferate, he argued, they “call for a fundamental rethinking of our theoretical common sense as it relates to state and society, the political and the economic, and discrete social and cultural forms.”
From the vantage point of what she humorously defined as “our posthistorical age,” Anne Stone (Assoc. Prof., GC, Music, Medieval Studies CP) addressed the topic of Song, showing how new scholarship has overturned many truisms about medieval song. Focusing on stanzas by the twelfth-century poet-composer Bernard da Ventadorn, Stone showed how the poetic image of “‘the lark moving with joy against a ray of the sun,’” long held up as an example of the “courtly love” paradigm, was considerably more ambiguous in its medieval reception; the modern courtly love interpretation relied on suppressing medieval readings of this line as, for example, a joyous sexual encounter, which Ventadorn ostensibly witnessed, between Eleanor of Aquitaine (the lark) and a knight who loved her (the ray). Recent research, she suggested, has allowed not only the words of medieval song to be more open to different interpretations, but also the musical renditions, and concluded: “The plurality of the posthistorical moment might turn out to be, dare I say it, a Renaissance for medieval song.”
In his remarks, Uday Mehta (Dist. Prof., GC, Political Science) reflected on the origins of Violence, making the point that it is the State, rather than that unwieldy “pulsating and unpredictable behemoth of the late Victorian imagination,” the Masses, that has often been the biggest instigator of violence in history. “Real peace and the real absence of violence is not just a form of political order,” he averred, “but as Gandhi ceaselessly reiterated, a commitment to fearlessness and courage and the abjuring from violent means.”
Finally, Jesse Prinz (Dist. Prof., GC, Philosophy) invoked the names of some of the world’s greatest philosophers, from John Locke and David Hume to Immanuel Kant and René Descartes, to explain the evolution of humankind’s understanding of the word Brain. Answers to centuries-old debates as to whether human knowledge is innate, or derives from sensory experience, can now be answered by science, he asserted. “Once viewed as hard-wired,” he declared, “the brain is now known to change dramatically with experience.”
The spring convocation was sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC). Under the leadership of Donald Robotham (Prof., GC, Anthropology), ARC promotes interdisciplinary research; partners with the GC’s forty research centers, institutes, and interdisciplinary committees; connects the research activities of CUNY faculty at the colleges to GC research programs and seminars; and provides a home for outstanding visiting scholars to collaborate with faculty and students.