Renewal and Recovery: 2021-2022
We have endured a battering year of plague and protest, distance and death, change and anxiety. Even our most enduring social patterns have become different, strange, and disorienting: celebrating a birthday, seeing someone in public without a mask, or settling in for a day’s work or school alone in front of a tiny camera. In our politics, we now look at each other with growing suspicion as we grapple with the aftermath of a violent insurrection that laid siege to the seat of our democracy. We find ourselves flooded with information from all sides and awash in a seemingly endless cascade of crises: racial injustice, accelerating climate change, and the yawning disparities in wealth, education, and health laid bare by the ravages of the pandemic.
Our era is not the first to face such extremities since change itself is an integral part of all existence. “Human beings,” Goethe wrote amid the chaos of his own era, “renew and rejuvenate ourselves through change; otherwise we harden.” Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities will explore the process of change, renewal, and recovery. This will mean looking to the past, crossing cultural boundaries, forcing new connections, and imagining alternative futures for ourselves, our communities, and our planet.
Courage is a universally admired trait, what Maya Angelou once called “the most important of the virtues, because without it you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” It is the wellspring of invention, integrity, faith, and justice. Conversely, rage is often condemned as a hostile and provocative, a negative emotional response to a real or perceived threat. But rage can also be a productive force for change. We have seen its power in protests, marches, and movements ranging from Hong Kong to Chile, from Black Lives Matter protests in Tulsa to the #metoo hashtag. And so too have we seen its terrors in Charlottesville’s Unite the Right march and in violent attacks on displaced people around the world. If rage is fundamentally human, then what should we do with it? Is it, as James Baldwin argues, an emotion that “can only, with difficulty, and never entirely, be brought under the domination of the intelligence” or is it instead a potential source of energy and change? Throughout the year we will explore the intersections and conflicts between courage and rage in order to better understand how they express and shape our sense of identity, humanity, and community.
Play is a fundamentally inventive social activity in which we craft rules, experiment with boundaries, find new opportunities for expression, and engage in creative work. Both a noun and a verb, the word itself is wildly expansive and can describe everything from musical and dramatic performance to sporting events and apps on our phones. Play is among the first things we do as children in order to test the affordances of a complicated world and try to understand—and perhaps even change—its bewildering rules and constraints. Yet we sometimes imagine that such activities have to be pushed aside as part of the growth into adulthood, treating them as somehow opposed to things like work, seriousness, and maturity.
Memory is the most powerful yet fragile of human faculties. Around its mysteries, we weave our deepest sense of self and community, making it, as Cicero wrote, the “treasury and guardian of all things.” We fill our private spaces and public squares with its icons: photographs and monuments, locks of hair and historical markers, dried flowers and weed-wracked cemeteries. We know, however, that memory can be flawed, that it’s fashioned not just by fact, but by trauma and triumph, by emotion and prejudice, and most often, by the need to fashion a compelling story about ourselves. Salman Rushdie describes it as a “way of telling you what’s important to you,” an individual archive, or what Oscar Wilde calls “the diary that we all carry about with us.” Unlike obdurate facts, objects, and events, memory is fundamentally human.
For some, the idea of home promises shelter, identity, authenticity, and stability, while for others it evokes loss, exile, oppression, constriction, and the impossibility of return. The idea itself has shaped and been shaped by gender, race, class, geography, religion, and ethnicoity while being deployed to both offer protection and propagate terror. The idea of home has defined family relationships and, as a physical space, it serves as a metaphor for a sense of community that can extend to a neighborhood, a city, a state, and now even the planet itself. Some of the earliest works of art and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to the Diné creation story and the Summarian Kesh Temple Hymn revolve around stories about leaving and returning home. Immigration and exile feature in art, music and literature from across the world, as does the ethical imperative to show hospitality to the stranger who has ventured away from home. Homelands, however, also evoke the idea of difference and exclusion and thus open the way for the kind of violence we see in Odysseus’s revenge on the suitors in his home as well as in the campaigns of ethnic and religious “cleansing” that have helped define the modern world.
Food is a foundational aspect of all human cultures. The manifold ways we grow, prepare, regulate, and share what we eat gives shape to identities both cultural and political, ethnic and national. Food preparation is a source of enormous creativity—our kitchens are social sites where tradition mixes with innovation amid a now global flow of ingredients, tastes, and techniques. Eating itself lies at the very core of most world religions, giving rise to ritual as well as to values like hospitality and generosity. In the arts, we find food everywhere, from early images of hunters scratched into rock through Renaissance still lives and modern cinema. It’s there in the earliest recorded literatures, like the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and it drives the plots of Renaissance plays and contemporary dystopian novels.
Humor is a nearly universal human trait, yet it remains strangely difficult to define, or explain. Looking askance at any attempt to make sense of it, E.B. White wrote that “humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Fraught with contradiction, it is at once intimate and public, cerebral and emotional, serious and whimsical. It has a place in nearly every form of art and thought, ranging from the rowdy comic plays of classical Greece through the punning crosstalk dialogues of Qing-dynasty China, to Freud’s meditations on jokes and Richard Pryor’s sharply pointed examination of American racism. Humor can be subversive and liberating, as we see in the ancient traditions of carnival, but also cruel and abusive, as when it’s used to bully others or reinforce degrading stereotypes. Plato’s Republic urged the guardians of the ideal state to refrain from humor, while Nietzsche crafted a “gay science” that imagined laughter as a pathway to freedom. And now, emerging research in medicine, neuroscience, and other fields has begun to help us understand how integral humor might be to the structure of the human brain and to see possible roles for it in a variety of therapeutic settings.
In our inaugural year, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities examined the topic of privacy from a variety of critical, cultural, and artistic angles. Through conferences, lectures, film screenings, and public discussions, the Center and its guests raised questions about how privacy shapes our democracy, how it has changed over time, and how digital technologies might now be redrawing its boundaries.