Humanities Center Blog

The Ice is Melting

Posted by on Mar 18, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Ice is Melting

For some, the college admissions scandal that proliferated headlines last week was revelatory; in an unprecedented move, Federal prosecutors charged 50 people with the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Justice Department.”1 Included among the accused are actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, with the details of the scandal encompassing direct cheating, bribery, and fraud. Many of the people that I encountered following the scandal seemed caught off guard by the exposure of corruption, of a broken system laid bare. Yet for others (apparently many others2), the scandal was anything but surprising. So the rich and powerful act in ways to guarantee those same privileges for their children, and they get away with it? Isn’t this an accepted fact of American life? It seems like this has been the sad reality, the fabric underlying conversations, jokes, and real-life decisions regarding school choice for years. What’s new here? I remember a similar sentiment expressed at the height of the #MeToo movement. A popular SNL sketch around that time depicted women welcoming men to the world in which they have lived their entire lives—a world full of violent men and constant vigilance.3 “This is the water we swim in,” they seem to say, “Where have you been?” Indeed, an article in USA Today ties these two phenomena together—the college admissions scandal and the Me Too movement (along with recent revelations concerning the Catholic Church, which has been in the spotlight since at least 2002)—by positing, “In some ways, the only thing shocking about these events is that they’re shocking at all.”4 Yet I consider many of these measures of pushback a bit of a strawman, at least in some ways. “Surprise” when scandals like these come to light may not be indicative of ignorance, nor of denial (as the USA Today article suggests).  Rather, they reveal the complexity of priorities. Living my daily life certainly includes assumptions about the world and how it functions, but I also have to worry about how I’m going to feed myself tomorrow, and that much more than I have to worry about the rich nefariously getting their children into top-tier schools. When large collective and political concerns become explicit, undeniable by the perpetrators, then—as they did in the college admissions scandal, the Me Too movement, and at other notable times—these larger-scale concerns take priority in quotidian life for just a moment. In this moment, people express outrage (what else are they supposed to do?) before returning to their daily duties. What looks like surprise may just be an attempt to negotiate personal, daily concerns with those of a more collective, permanent nature. I recently read an article in Victorian Studies by Allen MacDuffie that deals with some of these same frameworks, but perhaps in more expansive terms—in the realms of climate change and spirituality.5 In the article, MacDuffie quotes the anthropologist Kari Marie Norgaard as describing “a double reality,” in which there exists on the one hand “the collectively constructed sense of normal everyday life” and on the other “the troubling knowledge of increasing automobile use, polar ice caps melting, and the predictions of future [extreme] weather scenarios.” A cognitive dissonance arises wherein we struggle through the contradictions of living our fossil-fuel driven lives while every once in a while being hit by the grandeur of the concerns we face as a civilization. MacDuffie’s choice to include an epigraph from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, in this context, is striking. For, as Janis Dickinson has recently argued, “such soft denial of climate change is really a version of an age-old problem: the denial of mortality.”6 James’s quote from Varieties is so...

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A Bridge Over the Abyss

Posted by on Mar 11, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

A Bridge Over the Abyss

Two of my teenage son’s friends committed suicide this winter. Their situations were different, their challenges particular to their lives, but their deaths both came as a profound shock to me and my son. I found myself weeping for days, mourning the loss of the light that these young men took with them out of the world, aching for the pain of their friends and family, wondering what could have led them to the point that ending their lives seemed like their only option.  Since I’m a scholar of literature, I turned to books to try to make sense of these tragedies. In his 1980 sci-fi novel, Se dagens lys [See the light of day], the Danish author Svend Aage Madsen describes a society that institutes a nationwide system of rotation—in which people wake up every day in a new home, with a new family situation and a new job—as a means of combatting a global suicide epidemic. An older woman named Varinka, who lived through that era and helped shape the rotation system, describes how the crisis developed:  It started very quietly. A young man jumped from the tower of City Hall. No one paid that much attention, that sort of thing happened now and then. A young couple was found dead in the forest, in a tight embrace. An older woman set herself on fire, apparently intentionally. People began talking about it. It was still just a faint rise in comparison to the things people had become accustomed to. Somewhat later, a book became popular, in which the young protagonists killed themselves, not because of unhappy love—that was nothing new—but because of boredom or powerlessness. Several couples imitated the book and were found with it in their arms. “We have finally found a purpose: death,” one of the couples wrote. Someone made a film that magnified the situation even more. The tendency toward suicide spread. It wasn’t just in this country. New reports came in every day, especially from large cities, but also from the countryside. It became —I hate to use the expression, but it is the most fitting term—fantastically fashionable. Serious newspapers were shocked, distanced themselves from it, analyzed it, and sought its cause. But it didn’t change anything. Popular rags promoted suicide, worshipped it almost, and it became even more popular. Every day, the papers were full of famous, touching, or clever goodbye notes. Articles about the most inventive, beautiful, or grotesque methods.1 Looking back years later, Varinka tries to make sense of the collapse of her society. She concludes, “It was as if humanity had reached a natural ending. The final goal of development, it was called. There had been wars and periods of violence, there had just been a wave of violence and criminality, naturally as a consequence of anger, envy, and a sense of injustice. But even those things were understandable and even acceptable, in comparison with … the mental plague. It was so incapacitating and at the same time so predictable, because it was the logical consequence of the meaninglessness.” That last line really struck me, that hopelessness is the logical consequence of meaninglessness. I look around at our society’s obsession with money, the love of money, if you will, that seems to inform the priorities of our political leaders and to motivate people in their choice of studies, their professions, their voting, their life choices, and so on and I see the same kind of creeping meaninglessness that Varinka describes.  Although the author couldn’t remember, when I asked him a few years ago, if this was the case, I see a...

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Never Again

Posted by on Mar 3, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

Never Again

On my way back from a visit home to Idaho last week, I saw a billboard on the side of the freeway that caught my attention. It was a black and white picture of a little Japanese American girl sitting atop a pile of belongings, and underneath were written the words “Never Again is Now.” The sign was referring to the illegal imprisonment of more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent in desolate prison camps during World War II.1 If you ask someone about the internment today, many people don’t know that it even happened. It seems incredible that while the internment has been lauded as a “story that needs to be told,” it yet remains obscure—we are still trying to tell the story of something that happened more than 70 years ago. As I think about the picture, the faces of the internment appear in my head; but they are not the only ones that come to mind. The billboard is part of a larger movement to call attention to world atrocities in an attempt to combat injustice and prevent it from happening again. However, even in our modern day, the injustices of the past seem to echo. Japanese Internment has been cited as a possible precedent for acts of discrimination within our own country.2 And with Muslim Internment camps in Xinjiang, concentration camps in North Korea, and what the New York Times has called “American Internment Camps” at the border, history seems to be repeating itself now. When we promise “Never Again,” why does it so often seem that we are unable to call out modern examples of the same racially charged injustices occurring today? As a half-Japanese student taking a senior seminar on the literature of the Japanese American Internment, the faces, places, and stories of this historical moment have been fresh on my mind. I look at the little girl in the picture and how much she reminds me of a picture I’ve seen of my mother as a child; then I can’t help but remember that my sister’s name is Yuki, the name of the main character in Yoshiko Uchida’s young adult novel Journey to Topaz, the story that we have been reading of the internment told through the eyes of a child. And that there was a camp in Idaho—a four-hour drive from my home. And one two hours from Provo. And that I too have struggled with navigating Japanese American identity like Uchida notes in Journey Home, that I have felt the same conflicted and poignant debt towards my issei (first generation Japanese) mother that Toyo Suyemoto notes in her memoir, I Call to Remembrance, and that had my family been here one generation earlier, we probably would have been put into the camps, too. My grandmother was born during the war, during the internment in 1944 in fact, but across the Pacific—when bombs were a constant threat to the densely packed coastal city of Makurazaki. Her mother died soon after she was born. And as the city was no place for a single father to raise a large family and a brand-new baby, my great-grandfather made the sad decision to give my Baba (grandma) away to be raised by a family in the country. When her older sister, then a high school student, returned home to find Baba missing, she confronted my great-grandfather, exclaiming, “How could you give Hisako away? She is family!” She then walked miles out into the country on foot to retrieve Baba and spent the next years of her life raising her, walking from door to door daily to beg for milk to feed her. A generation later, my mother crossed the Pacific...

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The Art of Archive: Interns at the IEB

Posted by on Feb 25, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Art of Archive: Interns at the IEB

This week we are delighted to feature the experience of a number of students who have fulfilled internships at the Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros (IEB), a research institute connected to the Universidade de São Paulo. BYU has a significant relationship to the IEB thanks to the coordinating efforts of Professor James Krause and others. Students who have helped out at the IEB through this partnership have stories to tell not only of their own edification, but also the enlightenment of scholars past and future as well as the Brazilian public. Two weeks ago on February 13th, 2019, Elisabete Ribas visited our beautiful (and cold) campus. Over the past five years, Elisabete—a dedicated and essential figure at the IEB—has helped to facilitate dozens of student internships from BYU. Interns have described her as going “above and beyond” in everything that she does, and as “one of the most selfless people” that they have ever met. Together, students, professors, and Elisabete met together to reminisce about their experiences of the IEB and how to sustain their work going forward. Perhaps one of the most impressive elements of the IEB internship is that Elisabete makes sure that each student is given a project that aligns with his or her own personal interests. For example, while she was an intern at the IEB, Dalila Sanabria (one of our Humanities Center undergraduate fellows this year and a Visual Arts double major) was assigned to organize an archive of documents and objects surrounding Waldisa Rússio—a prominent museologist who facilitated museum programs throughout Brazil. Along the way, Dalila gathered first hand exposure to documentation, archive methodologies, and preservation techniques for future study. She referred to this experience as an “intimate way to get to know these people and see what they cared about.” Courtney Walker, a Public Health major, similarly helped to organize the archive of Maria Lúcia Mott, a feminist activist and health reformist idol who wrote about the representation of women (as well as the lack thereof) in literature. In addition to being hand-picked for each student, these projects are also significant in their novelty. In fact, Mott passed away so recently that as part of the archive process, Courtney was able to talk to people whom Mott knew—professors who collaborated with her about literature. Courtney related that through “getting to know this person through the various versions of her work, I got to see how she evolved and developed; you can kind of piece together her work with how she interacted with others and how that changed her work, how she developed as a person.” Christina Newell’s experience was a bit different than Dalila’s or Courtney’s, in that she was given the opportunity to focus on a literary genre instead of a specific person. Literatura de Cordel refers to a kind of folk literature passed down as spoken as well as written texts in a semi-poetic format, typically sold as booklets closepinned to strings in markets (where it receives its name). She was able to gather information about cordel literatures and disseminate that information through digital and other means. Now working on a Master’s Degree in Portuguese, Christina has even used her work at the IEB in an academic setting to compare variations of a well-known story in different cordel texts. BYU’s partnership with the IEB has allowed these students to meaningfully connect with their respective projects both inside and outside the Institute, and both personally and professionally. During her stay, Dalila accompanied student interns from the University of São Paulo to a conference of curators and museologists. She detailed how much “seeing so many...

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What Do We Owe to One Another?

Posted by on Feb 19, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

What Do We Owe to One Another?

Out of all television media produced within the last three years, I would be hard pressed to find a comedy show more intriguing than The Good Place. For those who haven’t seen it, The Good Place follows Eleanor Shellstrop after she dies and finds herself in “the good place,” despite knowing that she’s not meant to be there. Convinced that she can learn how to belong as a good person, she enlists the help of a (former) professor of moral philosophy, Chidi Anagonye. As one critic described just over a year ago in The Atlantic, the show “stands out for dramatizing actual ethics classes onscreen, without watering down the concepts being described, and while still managing to be entertaining.”1 It fascinates me to no end that a show based explicitly on ethics and philosophy could dominate primetime airwaves, not to mention the amount of time it does in the lives of my friends. One important concept that Chidi brings up fairly early in the series, and one that is revisited several times in the course of the first three seasons, is what we owe to one another. Taking the social-contract-based question from the philosopher T. M. Scanlon, Chidi asks Eleanor to consider what it is that we each owe to the human race; what can each of us be expected to give to another human being? In my wholly anecdotal experience, it seems that we have shifted from comedy shows that deal with how we treat each other within our families (anything from Leave it to Beaver to Fresh Prince or Everybody Loves Raymond) to those about friendship (Seinfeld, Friends), and then on to work relationships (The Office, Parks and Recreation), before finally dealing with how we treat those we’ve actually never met. Rather than dwelling on what it means to be a good husband, wife, parent, child, friend, or coworker, The Good Place attempts to tackle what it means to be a good person—and it does so in a way that is completely hilarious. In this, I see the show not as a fluke but as a weathervane (speaking of its call for ethical behavior and not of its hilarity). In our increasingly singularized and simultaneously global world, we may need to ask what it is that we owe to each other, not only in our own families and communities but to all people. Perhaps we are ready to discuss what we really do owe each other and to realize how much of our meaning derives from the ensuing relationships we create with others. Last semester, thanks to a suggestion by my brother, I read a book of lectures by Sam Scheffler entitled Death and the Afterlife.2 Scheffler’s main project in the book is to consider the impact of ongoing human history—what Scheffler calls the “collective afterlife”—on the meaning we construct within our lives. By proposing new and provocative thought experiments, Scheffler examines how behaviors would shift if our assumption that other humans will survive us were somehow unfulfilled. In a way, Scheffler is asking not only what we owe to one another but also how that owing creates meaning and structure within our lives. Although responding scholars (included within the book) argue that such meaning is still egocentric, Scheffler’s argument persists that personal meaning is dependent on the continued existence of others and, to some extent, what we leave for them—including how we treat them while we’re here. I’m not suggesting that there has ever been a time when people have not been interested in morality, nor am I heralding this as a new ethical revolution. But I still find it significant that these influences...

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Political Activism and the Academy

Posted by on Feb 11, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Political Activism and the Academy

“To act … and not to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:26). One of my favorite essays on the field of Brazilian Studies bears an unusual and entertaining title: “Brazilianists, God Bless ‘Em! What in the World is to be Done?”1 Written by Richard Morse, one of the most eminent scholars of Brazilian culture and history during the twentieth century, the speech in question was given at the time of his retirement, a sort of farewell address to the academic community. In the paper, Morse reflects on the role of the academic in society and he concludes with a provocation: “The central function of scholarship and universities is, after all, curatorial and not revolutionary—nor even, alas, intellectual. Any tidbit, once gathered and classified, has its interest some time for someone. … We need to be on the lookout for occasional prophets coming along in our seminars. We’ll recognize them because they’ll be impatient with meticulous demonstration and more concerned with pointing and exhibiting; they’ll take paradox as acceptable statement rather than as a resolvable issue; they’ll have discounted the precept of freshman English manuals to connect all assertions by straight lines. We needn’t do much about these prophets or place them in the hydroponic soil of a greenhouse. We need merely flick off the academic seat-belt sign and allow them to move about the cabin. Which takes confidence on our part and, of course, assumes that we’re airborne. (But please, no smoking in the lavatories.)”2 Here, Morse highlights the role of the scholar as a teacher and a steward of knowledge. He asserts that the role of the professor is one of preparing the rising generation to grapple with the complexities of contemporary society. I doubt few at the university would bat an eye over Morse’s defense of the professor as teacher, guide, and mentor. On the other hand, I am certain that many within the academic community would question Morse’s claim that the function of scholarship and the university is “curatorial and not revolutionary.” In an age when universities increasingly serve as sites of political contention (consider, as just one example among dozens, the recent debates over the placement of confederate statues on university campuses), and when professors place themselves (literally) on the front lines of political protest, many in the academy ardently call for revolution. A tension thus exists between two extreme views of the purpose of the university. If I might hazard a gross exaggeration, we could summary the two positions in this way: Critique 1:      The academy exists in an ivory tower, cut off from the “real” world. The university is a place of theory and impracticality. The role of university is to preserve knowledge. Critique 2:      The academy is composed of “activist professors” who teach ideological positions and seek to “indoctrinate” students. Professors inappropriately use their privileged positions to unduly influence students and to be involved in local, national, and international politics. From our vantage point as teachers and scholars, as we consider the myriad difficult issues facing both local and international communities, we may find ourselves wondering where we fit between these two extremes, and we might ask the same question posed by Morse: “What in the world is to be done?” I have been thinking about Morse’s essay recently while pondering the current political situation of Brazil, a country I love deeply and have spent my (admittedly short) professional career researching and writing about. Brazil recently experienced dramatic political change through the election of Jair Bolsonaro, whose political rhetoric has led him to be characterized by numerous political commentators as the Trump...

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