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October 28, 2019

On Humanities Day, Everything Is Everything Becoming Everything


The very humanities themselves converged upon campus, inviting insight, interconnection, and interrogation of what the humanities still mean in a world that sometimes appears to pass them by.

Courtesy of UChicago Humanities Department

“Everything is everything.”  

It’s hard to disagree with this sentiment from the presentation “Art in the 21st Century” when one so much as glances over the 39th Annual Humanities Day’s list of events: an interdisciplinary analysis of the future of climate change, Greece in both “space and time,” Italian novels, and the effects of deceit upon everyday life. It seemed as if the very humanities themselves converged upon campus, inviting insight, interconnection, and interrogation of what the humanities still mean in a world that sometimes appears to pass them by. 

Or, at least, that was my first impression of it.  

Since 1980, the University has celebrated Humanities Day with a host of speaking events. Previous years’ topics include truth in media, fairy tales, and the voice of Bob Dylan. This year, with guided tours and almost 30 different presentations, the event offered something for everyone. 

My second impression was that there were fewer attending undergraduate students than I had anticipated. Rather, the presentations I attended hosted a diverse mix of members of the Hyde Park community, from students to older residents.  

Concerned with the intersection between data and societal ills, “Imagining Climate Change Futures” focused on discussions of the research and engagement within the campus community regarding a sustainable future. Ashlyn Sparrow, assistant director of the University’s Weston Game Lab, spoke about how her video game research informs people about climate change issues, which culminated in a video game for incoming students to play over the summer and during O-Week. She proposed that video games should be utilized in the mainstream as a tool for responding to and grappling with human struggles. 

Other speakers included professors Sarah Fredericks, Kristen Schilt, and Dipesh Chakrabarty, as well as panel moderator professor Patrick Jagoda, all of whom shared their own research and their impact upon climate change outreach and advocacy. 

Professor Schilt also emphasized the importance of going beyond simply presenting data in outreach efforts, saying, “This is where the social sciences need the humanities.” 

In contrast, the next two panels I attended were in a more traditional lecture format. In “Keats’s Odes at 200,” professor James Chandler delivered a presentation on the legendary poet and his odes to nature. He also expanded on the themes prevalent within Keats’s poetry, namely dreams, poetic sensation, the psyche, and the human soul. 

Out of all the presentations I attended, I was most impacted by the last: “Art in the 21st Century.” Presented by professor Matthew Jesse Jackson of the art history and visual arts departments, it opened to a rapid blast of images accompanied by a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” quotes and images vanishing almost as quickly as they appeared. 

Professor Jackson then discussed the notion of art in the age of the Internet, in which he divided 21st-century artists into two categories: those who leap into the social media vortex for their own gain and those who believe in the power of social media as the medium itself. The latter, he said, are the artists worth examining because they are truly utilizing the primary medium of today’s society. He cited artists who he believes do this—among them, Thomas Hirschhorn, Walid Raad, and Theaster Gates, Jackson’s colleague in the Department of Visual Arts.  

“Looking at good art in an intelligent way will make you an intelligent human being,” he said. And as the way that we have traditionally accessed art has changed, so too should our way of examining it. 

Jackson ended the presentation with some aphorisms. The one that most resonated with me: “Everything is how anything becomes something today.” 

Humanities Day proved yet another success, challenging attendees to embrace the newest expressions of art and research in the rapidly-developing age of technology, while remaining aware of their impact on the criticism of societal issues. 

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