Dear colleagues and friends,
Taking on the direction of the Whitney Humanities Center is both an absurd and moving task. Moving because of the dedication of our staff and colleagues, who inspire me with their ideas and their enthusiasm, and absurd because our mission—to bring faculty in the humanities together for fellowship and debate—has been temporarily thwarted.
Despite all the constraints, the cancellations, and the empty halls of 53 Wall, I feel extremely fortunate to be able to welcome Diane Berrett Brown as our new co–Associate Director of the Whitney. Formerly the managing editor at Cornell of the cutting-edge journal of critical theory Diacritics, Diane brings her exceptional talent for theory, process, and design to the Whitney.
What is to be done? After Wendy Brown’s brilliant lectures last fall, “Politics and Knowledge in Nihilistic Times,” we were looking forward to Saidiya Hartman’s Tanner lectures, scheduled for October 2020. Hartman, a Yale PhD and MacArthur fellow (2019), focuses her writing, teaching, and activism on what she calls “the as-yet-incomplete project of freedom.” She is the author of numerous essays and books, including Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, and Scenes of Subjection. The Tanner organization has decided, wisely I think, to suspend the lecture series until the talks can be in person again. The roundtables and responses that are the soul of the Tanners thrive on what the French are calling “le présentiel”… the qualities of being present. We made a similar call for the other endowed lecture series, the beloved Finzi-Contini lectures, which bring a writer or translator or comparative literary theorist to campus. And the fellows lunches: well, nothing tastes as good on Zoom. We will be reaching out to our outstanding group of fellows in the coming weeks to forge a different kind of fellowship. We are also reaching out to our humanities partners: RITM, the Beinecke, The Yale Review, and others, to strengthen our ties.
Look to our website for a range of online events: a series of lectures on antisemitism and racism organized by the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism and others cosponsored by the Yale Translation Initiative—such as a conversation between Sunny Xiang and distinguished translator Jeremy Tiang. I’m personally very excited about translator and classicist Emily Wilson’s forthcoming reading in the Beinecke “Readings at Yale” series. Meanwhile, Paul North is offering a Franke seminar on Karl Marx’s Capital, with an array of guest speakers. These thirteen colloquia will be open to the Yale community; registration and Zoom details will be on our website.
“Hope’s a thief”—and yet I’m hopeful that we may start to meet in person, in some form, in the spring. Know that we’ll be organizing, planning, improving our online presence, and generally profiting from our constraints to make sure that our reopening will be worth the wait. Look for us as well on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—yes, social media, where we look forward to spreading the word about the extraordinary achievements of humanities faculty at Yale. Send us links to your new books, lectures, and articles.
Another mail to look out for in your crowded inbox: In the coming weeks we’ll be sending a survey to all humanities faculty to find out: 1) what your relationship to the Whitney has been; 2) what you would like to see more of; and 3) how we can expand our reach.
A personal note: I’ve begun our “hybrid” graduate seminar in the French Department on War and Memory, touching on WWII and Algeria and the two events intertwined. One of our members is in Shanghai, another in Brittany, and the rest are here in New Haven. We organized a “Watch Party” in two parts for The Sorrow and the Pity with a WhatsApp Film Club group for texting comments—one of the new ways of being together. In my writing life, I’ve just added a postscript to a “tract” I wrote for my French publisher, originally finished in February 2020 and now scheduled to appear in October … The title, ”Turbulences, USA.”
Driving on route 146 from Guilford to Stony Creek, I almost missed the small sign, nearly camouflaged by trees, which gave me hope that humor and imagination will help us through the turbulent weeks to come: “Make Orwell Fiction Again.”
With all good wishes,
Sterling Professor of French
Director, Whitney Humanities Center
September 11, 2020