Keynote Address

11 A.M.–Noon

Presenter: James Chandler

Doing Criticism / Doing Without Criticism


Rumors of the death of criticism have been greatly exaggerated. It is, after all, one of the oldest of our disciplines, with roots that reach beyond Aristotle. Criticism changes in function over time, as Matthew Arnold suggested, but we cannot do without it. Indeed, it arguably plays a more active role contemporary culture than ever before. But how to do criticism?  How to do it now?  Departing from I.A. Richards’ influential idea of “practical criticism” as a starting point, but rejecting his invidious distinction between literary criticism and film criticism, this talk will offer some answers to these questions with examples from poetry, fiction, drama, and cinema.

Session 1

9:30–10:30 A.M.

Presenter: Benjamin Callard

What is a Man?


The past few years have witnessed a dramatic development: conversations about the rights and identities of transgender people have entered the public consciousness. Accordingly, the question of what gender identity is and how it should be handled socially and legally has taken on an urgency it never had before. This talk will bring some of philosophy's analytical resources to bear on this question.

Presenter: Garin Cycholl

Beyond the Michigan Sea: Chicago Writing and Great Lakes Literature


Disrupting geographical and literary boundaries, this session reintroduces work by Chicago writers not in the context of a “Second City” in a generic Midwest, but as one center of Great Lakes/Rust Belt cultures. How do factors likes deindustrialization, economic migration, and globalization redefine writers like Saul Bellow, Jeffery Renard Allen, and Daniela Olszewska? Where does one locate Chicago on the compass: north, west, or even south?

Presenter: Imani Winds

The Imani Winds in Concert and Conversation


Meet the Imani Winds—the path-breaking, Grammy-nominating woodwind quintet recently appointed as the Don Michael Randel Ensemble in Residence at the University of Chicago. This dynamic chamber ensemble, known for its superb musicianship, culturally poignant programming, and inspirational outreach programs, presents an informal program of standard woodwind quintet repertoire and engaging orchestral transcriptions, capped by an interactive Q&A session with the audience.  

Presenter: Sarah Nooter

The Mortal Voice on the Ancient Greek Stage


This presentations looks at how voice was used in ancient Greek comedy and tragedy to explore the outer limits of human experience by focusing on moments in fifth-century drama when language (logos) breaks down and leaves the inarticulate utterances of voice (phônê) to carry on alone. First we will consider what is at stake in such instances of voicing through works of Plato and Aristotle. The we will explore several instances of the intrusion into language of nonverbal vocal sounds in plays of Aristophanes, Aeschylus and Sophocles. What is gained on the stage when language is lost?

Presenter: Edward Shaughnessy

Of Trees, a Son, and Kingship: Recovering the First Chinese Dream


The first volume of the Tsinghua University Warring States bamboo-strip manuscripts contains a text with passages that match medieval quotations of a text referred to as Cheng wu程寤, or Awakening at Cheng, which in turn is said to be a lost chapter of the Yi Zhou shu逸周書, or Leftover Zhou Documents. The passages concern one of Chinese literature’s earliest interpretations of a dream, and were quoted in medieval encyclopedias in their sections on dreams. This presentation will discuss the significance of this discovery both for Chinese textual history and also for the early development of dream interpretation in China.

Presenter: Olga Solovieva

Nakata Hideo's Ringu and the Memories of Atom Bombings


Nakata Hideo's horror film Ringu (1998) with its abundant allusions to the memories of atom bombings offers a contemporary example of the Japanese film genre called hibakusha cinema (films about the victims of the atom bomb). In the context of Fukushima, anti-nuclear activism, and President Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima, Ringu’s atomic iconography acquires a historical and political dimension that harks back to the history of nuclear physics on the University of Chicago campus.

Presenter: Vu Tran

Noir and the Refugee Experience


Vu Tran’s 2015 literary crime novel, Dragonfish, tells the story of a white American police officer searching for his Vietnamese ex-wife in the gambling dens of Las Vegas and amid the Vietnamese-American gangsters who’ve brought him there. Tran will read from Dragonfish and discuss how he used the conventions of noir fiction to tell a deeper story about the refugee experience and the shadow it casts over the lives of the Vietnamese-Americans in his novel.

Presenter: Theo van den Hout

Hittite Hacking and How to Avoid Seal Fraud


The loss of a credit card or your PIN code falling in the hands of hackers are concerns that people in the ancient Middle East some 3500 years ago could relate to. For them their personal seal was like a PIN: they used it to sign important records and transactions and those seals were traceable to them and them only. What was hacking like then and what could one do against it? This talk presents some relevant Hittite material from ancient Anatolia (nowadays Turkey) between 1500 and 1200 BC.

Presenter: Lawrence Zbikowski

Words to Music to Words


A few years ago the music psychologist Diana Deutsch circulated an astounding recording in which everyday speech was magically transformed into music. Her recording prompts the first question I want to explore: what makes words change into music? And finally, using my research on relationships between words and music in songs—how does music change how we hear and understand words?

Session 2

2–3 P.M.

Presenter: Seth Brodsky

Non-Repetitive Music in Repetitive Time


What happens when we think about the history of musical modernism less as a proverbial “search for the new” than as a larger project in resisting or “breaking” repetition, whether it be the repetition of forms, laws, and languages, of genres and styles, or of themes, patterns, motives, etc.? What ramifications does this “breaking” have today for music as a repetitive practice—as a way of practicing repetition, but also of performing its very possibility?

Presenter: Ahmed El Shamsy

How Printing Remade the Islamic Tradition


In the world of Islamic scholarship, the transition from a manuscript culture to a culture of printed books took place less than two centuries ago. The advent of the printing press did not merely replace one medium of recording with another; rather, it lifted almost forgotten medieval texts out of oblivion and effectively created a new canon of Islamic classics. This talk sketches the reinvention of the Islamic intellectual tradition through the printing press and sheds light on the diverse agendas that drove the process.

Presenter: Ghenwa Hayek

"I Think We Will be Calm During the Next War”: Past, Present, and Future Violence in Lebanese Comics


As conflict creates epistemic and cultural ruptures, it also produces new aesthetic engagements. In Beirut, a city where the physical landscape has been altered by four decades of conflict and violent reconstruction—and which is continually under threat of further destruction—how does a young generation intervene in ongoing cultural and social debates about the violence of history, the tense and (sometimes) violent present, and the anxious future?

Presenter: Chrysanthi Koutsiviti

3,000 Years of Greek Poetry in 60 Minutes

’’Poem’’: Greek word meaning ”creation.” From Homer to Dimoula, Greek poetry responds to all the human situations: Love, Death, War, Peace, Family, Fatherland, Democracy, Feminism. The questions that dominate our thought and soul during all the stages of human life are expressed in precious words, forming an excellent and rare art which has reached its mastery as it became more and more elaborated from century to century in ancient, byzantine, modern and contemporary time.

Presenter: Michael Kremer

Margaret McDonald and Gilbert Ryle: A Philosophical Friendship


Recently, I uncovered evidence of a close philosophical friendship between Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976), one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, and Margaret MacDonald (1907-1956), whose promising philosophical career was cut short by her untimely death. I will tell a minor detective story explaining this discovery, and discuss its significance for understanding the work of both Ryle and MacDonald, and the neglected place of women in the history of twentieth-century analytic philosophy.

Presenter: Rochona Majumdar

Songs and Storytelling in Bollywood


Why do Indian films have so many songs? The function of the song, I will demonstrate, is deeply tied with the ebb and flow of time in these films. Through a close reading of select song sequences from Bollywood and Indian art cinema I show how Indian cinema combines realist and utopian dimensions of time.

Presenter: Maria Anna Mariani

Close Reading of a Title: Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz


For many years in the United States, Primo Levi's first book was known by the title Survival in Auschwitz, rather than the Italian original If This Is a Man. This talk will interrogate the meaning behind this unfaithful, but also symptomatic mistranslation. How did this new title contribute to the extraordinary success of the work and in what way did the word "survival" condition its reception? What does it mean to survive not only in Auschwitz but also after Auschwitz? Most importantly, can the two titles shed light on each other, forcing us to ask: is this a life?

Presenter: Steven Rings

Bob Dylan's Blues


Bob Dylan’s musical appetites are famously omnivorous. Over the course of his career, he has metabolized a vast range of musical genres, from folk to rock ’n’ roll, country to gospel, Tin Pan Alley to Western swing. This talk will focus on one genre that has saturated Dylan’s music from the early 60s until today: the blues. I will propose that the blues is not merely a genre among genres for Dylan—one tongue among many in his musical Babel—but that it is something more: an assemblage of idioms and performative behaviors that may be disarticulated from one another while nevertheless retaining their signifying potential. By exploring the multi-dimensionality of Dylan’s blues—from lyrical structure to musical form, rhythmic groove to vocal inflection—this talk will demonstrate the genre’s critical role in the fascinating play of generic consonance and dissonance that has animated his music-making for over fifty years.

Presenter: Haun Saussy

What It Took to Shock the Ming Dynasty: The Case of Li Zhi (1527–1602)


Li Zhi’s career gives us many perspectives on the Ming Dynasty in the years of its decline. Li veered from scholar-official to Buddhist lay brother to critic of his times—or more broadly of the whole course of Chinese civilization since Confucius. In each of these roles, he stirred up controversy and made enemies. He occasionally made friends and allies, too, but these were unable to prevent his arrest and death in custody.  The talk, based on a new translation, focuses on the scandals (actual and imagined) surrounding Li Zhi’s writing. 

Presenter: Richard Strier

Why Shakespeare?


The answer to the title question probably seems laughably obvious.  But what if we ask how we know this, how we are so sure of it?  Let’s stipulate that Shakespeare is great.  But what about the comparatives? How do we know that his plays are better than those of his contemporaries in the great period of early modern English theater?  This lecture will try to address these questions in a serious way.

Session 3

3:30–4:30 P.M.

Presenter: Catherine Baumann

Collaborative Language Instruction: Learning Less Commonly Taught Languages at the University of Chicago Language Center


The Chicago Language Center was awarded a five-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to bring together individual instructors of Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs) to establish collaborative pairs, developing shared sequences of languages such as Czech, Haitian Kreyol or Bangla.  Come learn about the many LCTLs taught at UChicago and what role those languages play in graduate and undergraduate education. You will also have the chance to see what it’s like to attend a LCTL language class remotely, and how multimedia supports and enhances that learning format.

Presenter: Jason Bridges

Is the Mind Real? The Place of Thought in the Natural World


That we think about things, that we remember past events, that we perceive the world around us, that we feel pain and other sensations, that we have emotions, that we formulate plans and strive to put them into action—these are among the most quotidian, undeniable realities of human life as we know it and experience it. And yet philosophers and scientists have long struggled to find a place for such "mental" phenomena within a conception of the world as natural and un-mysterious. Why has this been seen as such a difficult task? Is this challenge genuine, or is it illusory? What would it take for us to achieve genuine satisfaction in our understanding of the place of the mind in the natural world? We will consider these questions against the backdrop of both contemporary and historical philosophical approaches to thought and consciousness.

Presenter: Maud Ellmann

“Vaccies Go Home!”: Evacuation, Psychoanalysis, and Fiction in World War II Britain


On September 1, 1939 the British government launched a program ominously codenamed Operation Pied Piper, whereby thousands of children were evacuated from the cities to the countryside. This operation brought class conflict into the foreground, laying bare the drastic inequalities of British society, but also provided the foundations for the development of child psychoanalysis. This talk examines the impact of the evacuation crisis on psychoanalytic theories of the child, comparing these to the depiction of children in wartime fiction.

Presenter: Allyson Nadia Field

The Archive of Absence: Speculative Film History and Early African American Cinema

While African Americans produced films starting around 1909, no prints or fragments survive prior to 1920. This cinematic absence—a lost decade—is a great challenge for Black visual historiography, but also offers an opportunity for a more flexible and imaginative reconstruction of Black filmmaking practices, something that a number of contemporary Black artists have taken advantage of. This talk considers how a speculative archive can be mobilized not only to give form to what’s absent but also to create the visual material anew. 

Presenter: Lenore Grenoble

On Thin Ice: Language, Culture, and Climate in the Arctic


Climate change, and its immediate and long-term effects, is a major issue of our time. In the Circumpolar Arctic, climate change is proceeding at an accelerated rate and affects all aspects of life. This talk focuses on the impact of these changes on Arctic languages and cultures and demonstrates the links between them, and explores the relationship between cultural and linguistic maintenance on the one hand and sustainable human development on the other.

Presenter: Miguel Martínez

World Travelers in the Early Modern World


The early modern period is a time of mobilization and displacement of people—soldiers, missionaries, slaves, merchants—on a massive and global scale. This talk will explore the life and writings of a few sixteenth- and seventeenth-century travelers who set foot in five continents and tried to make sense of an increasingly globalizing world.

Presenter: Christine Mehring, Lisa Zaher

Conserving Public Sculpture: Wolf Vostell's Concrete Traffic

This year, Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell’s sculpture Concrete Traffic (1970) returns to the University of Chicago campus after a four-year conservation study. Christine Mehring (Professor, Art History) and Lisa Zaher (UChicago Arts Conservation Research Fellow) discuss the material challenges and aesthetic decisions that guided the conservation of this monumental public sculpture consisting of a 1957 Cadillac covered in concrete. This talk will take place in the presence of the sculpture in its new location, the Ellis Parking Garage. For related Concrete Traffic events this year, visit

Presenter: Samuel Pluta

Information as Beauty in Musical Software Design


Composer and electronics performer Sam Pluta has been designing software for live electronic music performance for the past fourteen years. Software design, like music composition, is a game of information. As humans, almost everything we care about lies somewhere in between simplicity and complexity, somewhere between too little information and too much. A composer, for instance, wants to present enough sonic information to pique the listener's interest, while at the same time not oversaturate the listener with too much complexity. But how do we approach this problem of sonic information when designing software for musical performance? While there are numerous commercially available platforms, the linear design of most commercial software systems limits their ability to be musically expressive. This talk will give examples of how small changes to simple processes can take sounds from the mundane to the beautiful. Pluta will also share how the non-linear design of his own software system allows him to be musically expressive in almost any performance environment.

Presenter: Hervé Reculeau

Coping with Climate Change in Mesopotamia


Present-day concerns about global warming have sparked the interest of scholars and the general public in understanding how complex societies managed (or failed) to cope with climate change in the past. While dramatic situations (from collapse to resilience) have long been the focus of study, archaeological and textual evidence from Mesopotamia in the second-third millennia BCE reveals long-term societal adaptations and elite-led strategies (not all successful) to maintain agricultural production in a changing environment.

Presenter: Tyler Williams

Burn Your Books! Ten Good Reasons to Destroy Books from South Asia and the Middle East


Why do people destroy books? In this session, we will look at examples of book destruction from the ancient period to the present day in South Asia and the Middle East and reflect on the widely varying philosophical, cultural, religious and political meanings of these acts. We will also discuss what, if anything, book destruction in other times and places tells us about how we ourselves think about knowledge.


Noon-2:00 p.m.

Presenter: Laura Letinsky

Curator Tour of There Was a Whole Collection Made


Join co-curator Laura Letinsky for a tour of the Smart Museum of Art’s fall exhibition, There Was a Whole Collection Made: Photography from Lester and Betty Guttman. Featuring photography from the Guttman’s 2014 gift of 830 photographic works to the Smart Museum, this exhibition showcases the history of photography from the very earliest days of the medium to the near-present day.