Annual Theme


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.


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…



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…


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