On Belief

Belief is a curious phenomenon in our postmodern, posthuman age. If anything, per Jean-François Lyotard, our present era is best characterized by its loss of belief, especially in grand narratives. Religion, a principal site of grand narrative and a bastion of belief, has seen its influence gradually wane in recent decades. And while the deterioration of strong faith traditions gives way to a virtually endless array of totemic icons (presenters at the most recent conference of the American Academy of Religion appealed to the mystical properties of sci-fi, comic books, and The Hunger Games), the cultural objects in play seem to devolve less on deep psychic investments than on something like user friendliness and circulation. Indeed, for this new mysticism, belief almost seems to be an indication of bad faith: one does not believe in cultural objects as much as like them, work out one’s identities and find one’s communities (of the “like”-minded) through them. In this way, cultural icons do not serve as the oracles of other worlds that may actually exist as much as function as projective mirrors that reveal us to ourselves. They make our brave new world, the world as we know it, a little more manageable, a little more “friend”-ly.

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On Being Vulnerable, Part II: Faith after the Anthropocene

In 2018, the BYU Humanities Center held a symposium titled “On Being Vulnerable: ‘Crisis’ and Transformation.” BYU faculty and distinguished invited speakers reflected together on how retrenchment has become a dominant reflex of the humanities during vulnerable times, and how such a response only exacerbates the state of “crisis” from which the impulse toward retrenchment, toward defensiveness, is designed to protect us. In response, we sought to reflect on how vulnerability opens us to the prospect of change.

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On Being Vulnerable: “Crisis” and Transformation

MLA explained its choice of theme, “Vulnerable Times,” for its 2014 annual conference by citing precarious conditions facing humanities disciplines: reduced funding, cutbacks in jobs, exploitation of non-tenure-track teachers, the bleak prospects facing language departments, and so on. Underscoring the pertinence of this subject—indeed, extending it beyond the university …

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Moods of the (Extended) Moment

If one reads academic news media like The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed—or, for that matter, The New York Times—one quickly ascertains that these aren’t the best of times for the humanities. Lending voice to that sentiment a few years ago, in 2014, the Modern Language Association made “Vulnerable Times” its theme for its large annual conference.

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After Suspicion…

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur once described the interpretive habits of the modern age — a period extending from the mid-nineteenth century all the way through the twentieth — as “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” Such suspicion designated the belief that texts are defined by a kind of constitutional secrecy, either because they obscure what is most essential about themselves or because they have more at work than they can reveal in a single reading. For the past decade or two, however, a number of critics have begun asking whether the compulsive suspicion toward texts actually limits our appreciation of the myriad ways texts move us. Moreover, the very tendency toward suspicion runs contrary, in some ways, to a new mood (of earnestness, of belief) that attends a broad rejuvenation of interest in beauty, in community, even in religion. Gregg Lambert and Rita Felski, this year’s guests invited to address this theme, will help us inquire into this new sensibility — what we have to learn from it and why, perhaps, we should be wary of ridding ourselves of all suspicion.

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The Work of Art

What is the work of art? That is, what labor does art perform? This year, the Humanities Center brings this question into focus. Our interest is to explore the broad influence of the arts (that is, of literature, music, painting, cinema, photography, rhetoric, and more) in public as well as private spheres.

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Disappearance is one of the great and enduring motifs of literature, though in narrative it rarely does what it says. Typically, it motivates something new to happen. Helen’s disappearance (in the form of her abduction by Paris) incited the Trojan War and inspired The Iliad. Moby Dick’s attack on Captain Ahab and subsequent disappearance beneath the waves drove a later crew of The Pequod, Ahab’s ship, on a quest of epic proportions. The disappearance of an epistle containing compromising information – a “Purloined Letter” – formed the basis of a story by Edgar Allan Poe that helped launch the genre of detective fiction.

But does the same hold true of disappearing languages? Does attenuation or even extinction at that foundational level inspire anything new? And what about the inverse case, things that haunt us because they will not disappear (like recalcitrant and unproductive institutional practices, prejudices, traumas, and so on). This year the BYU Humanities Center addresses both sides of the question surrounding disappearance.

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Innovation and the Humanities

Innovation, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, denotes some alteration to an established order “by the introduction of new elements or forms.” But it’s interesting to reflect for a moment on what any “introduction of the new” entails. For instance, it implies a sense of history as well as novelty, of memory as well as imagination: one must be able to retain an image of what has passed if the innovation is to hold its allure…

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States of the Humanities: New Keywords

In this inaugural year of BYU’s Humanities Center, it seems fitting that we should inquire into the state of the academic discipline the Center promotes. Where are the humanities now? For that matter, what are they now?

Perhaps these questions partly furnish their own answers. Inquiries into the state of the field have become habitual across the humanities, an academic reflex to situate the discipline relative to other fields as well as to its own past…

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Click below to read the full statement from the Director of the BYU Humanities Center, Matthew Wickman.