Month: December 2017

You SHOULD…Watch Battlestar Galactica

 

You should… sample widely.  More on this in a second, but if I have to foreground a single recommendation it’s this: the new Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009). In some of the tightest, most compelling storytelling I’ve ever seen on film, this series asks profound questions about belief, belonging, sentience, servitude, family, survival, politics, power, responsibility, and war.  It explores an epochal confrontation between humankind and the increasingly sentient AI creatures of its own making.  It’s The Odyssey of our time crossed with Paradise Lost. It asks what is civilization, why does it matter, and what are its costs.

 

The “Humanities Lived” project is testament to the virtues of sampling, but to me this is an ethic. In this spirit here is a list: The Tales of Desperaux by Kate DiCamillo (a so-called “children’s” book); The Epic of Gilgamesh, an early story about how knowledge and narrative are connected; Claude Lelouch’s La Bonne Année, a romp of a heist film, but among the more thoughtful feminist movies to have been made in the 1970s; Hugh Anderson, Drone: Remote Control Warfare (this book covers the practicalities and ethics of a subject we should all understand better); Martin Grey’s For Those I Loved, an astonishing autobiography about endurance, love, and the Holocaust; Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a haunting reconsideration of Greek Mythology; and given the times in which we live, the United States Constitution.

 

You SHOULD: Listen to Three Soundtracks By Jennifer Lease Butts

I confess I have procrastinated with this assignment, though I was excited and honored to be asked. I’ve felt squeamish sharing what you “should” listen to or look at or read. I realized my reaction comes from two places. First, I typically seek recommendations rather than give them. Second, as someone with a doctorate in Counseling and Human Development, “should” statements are generally things to be avoided. So, I’d like to offer a twist on this assignment; rather than recommending “what” you should choose to bring the Humanities into your life, I’d like to suggest “how” you should do it.

 

First – multitask. I listened to three soundtracks – Immortal Beloved, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Last of the Mohicans – while studying for comprehensive examinations and writing my dissertation. I could feel myself coming up for air sometimes and I’d relax into familiar melodies and percussions, breathe deeply, and dive back down into work. I read multiple books at the same time because I like the juxtaposition and can pick what I read based on my mood.

 

Second – connect with the past. History is about context and the human condition. As a history major I learned you must seek differing perspectives. I’m currently reading my second book about the history of my new hometown because place and belonging are important to me. I also love to re-read books. Beyond the cozy feeling of reconnecting with old friends, I learn how I’ve changed since the last time I read the book.

 

Third – connect with others. My favorite time of day is reading to my son at night. We are reading all of the Harry Potter books as a family. We take turns reading them aloud (we’re on Order of the Phoenix, a favorite!). We ask him how the characters feel, what words mean, and we talk about good and evil, light and dark, and the importance of magic and believing in it. We want him to be a good reader and have a good vocabulary and all those parental things. But mostly we want him to learn about himself through empathizing with others. It’s perhaps the most important thing we can teach him right now given the current state of our world.

 

My honors student self wouldn’t be fully satisfied, though, if I didn’t actually answer the question. So here you go: If it’s music – try Duruflé’s Ubi Caritas or Ralph Vaughn Williams for relaxation; Beethoven for studying and concentration; Foo Fighters or Silversun Pickups to rock out. Art? Art is what you like; go outside and find beauty in simple things. Literature – Jane Austen is always the answer. I have a mug on my desk emblazoned with Mrs. Darcy and a tiny book entitled “What Would Jane Austen Do?” Both are quite useful at work. Whatever you do, find time to engage, connect, and feed your soul with the Humanities. That’s a “should” I feel quite comfortable telling you.

Encountering Alchemy

On October 28, 2017, several members of the UConn Early Modern Studies community participated in “Encounters: Alchemy & Science” at the Hartford History Center sponsored by the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at UConn in partnership with the Amistad Center for Art and Culture, the Hartford History Center, the Hartford Public Library, and the Wadsworth Atheneum. Debapriya Sarkar (English) and Walt Woodward (History) served on a panel of faculty experts for the event. Below is a wrap-up written for us by Debapriya Sarkar:

The public humanities event on “Encounters: Alchemy & Science” convened at the Hartford History Center centered around the relationships among science, alchemy, religion, and politics. The discussion aimed to use the art—or science, or esoteric practice—of alchemy to test the boundaries between modernity and pre-modernity. In order to facilitate a common starting point, participants (who ranged from members of the local community to students and faculty from UConn) began the session by reading short excerpts from Albertus Magnus’s writings on alchemy (13th century), Fama Fraternitus (c. 1610-1614), and a “Letter from Jonathan Brewster to John Winthrop, Jr.” (January 31, 1656) (available here: http://hhc.hplct.org/encounters-alchemy-science/). These texts immediately exposed all attendees to some of the main issues of alchemy: the relation of art to nature, the importance of secret knowledge, the idea of perfection as it pertains to both religious and epistemological contexts, and contemporary disagreements about the usefulness of alchemy.

It was striking how quickly the common texts provoked a wide range of questions: what are the boundaries between “scientific knowledge” and “alchemical knowledge”? Who gets to be designated an “alchemist”? How does the practice of alchemy test the boundaries between “science” and “belief”? In a culture where alchemy was often related to fraud, were there avenues for policing or censoring it? How successful was alchemy in its goals? How do we reconcile the contradictory views, that alchemy was both the precursor to modern chemistry and a useless form of practical knowledge? How did alchemy become vital to discussions of perfection in the New World? What is the status of alchemy today, or—are there living alchemists? As our ensuing discussions made evident, the answers to these questions were often multifaceted. For instance, it is not always clear what the “success” of alchemy means—while alchemists might not have attained their final aim of transforming base metals into gold, they achieved enough changes in chemical reactions of entities to convince themselves that the translation of metals was possible.

While a significant portion of the discussion was devoted to the status of alchemy in the pre-modern period, one of the abiding concerns of the group centered around the relationship of the past to the present, or more specifically, how could our understanding of alchemy as a practice, or even as a way of being, shape our comprehension of our current social, political, and intellectual moment? To this end, we discussed topics like the centrality of religion or religious discourse in science—while pre-modern alchemists claimed that the alchemical perfection would mirror or fulfill God’s perfect creation, modern science explicitly distances itself from religious discussion. We also encountered how our concerns about changes in nature (for example, on the topic of climate change) forces us to grapple with competing points of view about knowledge and belief, in ways similar to those found in alchemical discourse. Thus, the discussion enabled us to see what while the specific problems faced by alchemists might not seem relevant, the larger questions of expertise, knowledge, faith, belief, and power that were central to the lives of alchemical practitioners resonate in surprising ways with our own understandings of intellectual, religious, and intellectual life.