Week 1: Introductions

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CLASS NOTES

I’m going to go ahead and try to offer a brief résumé of our ranging introductory conversation. Comments below are welcome, but I also appreciate that everyone is just getting going learning the mechanics of this website as framework for the documentation (and discursive extension) of our seminar discussions. We are here at the inception of what I hope will become, across the next twelve weeks, a shared enterprise. So here goes…

I suppose maybe our first session was a fiasco. I didn’t really think of it that way, but my faculties for self-deception are pretty well developed. The basic reality is that, as I explained when we all finally found ourselves in the same room (note registrar’s last minute room change; note, further, being in a room with no seminar table, no white board, no markers, and many fewer chairs than we needed — not to mention a basement room in a building I have never actually entered across nearly 20 years of campus life), I had thought this class was probably going to take shape as something like a reading course with perhaps 2 or 3 graduate students. I got materials for the course in late, and up to about a week ago there was no one registered for the class. For this reason I was not well prepared for a first session attended by 26 people, and decided that I needed to suspend commitment on the syllabus I had been preparing, pending some clarification as to who you all were, and what it was that you hoped to encounter/engage/achieve across a semester together. With the acquisition of further intelligence on those matters to mind, a significant portion of our first meeting consisted of our going around the room and taking a moment to listen to everyone in attendance. Yes, I wanted to hear names and departments, but I also wanted to give each of you a moment to talk about the kinds of historical problems you had confronted in your work. Here’s what I wrote:

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I was myself amazed, and even touched, by how much came out simply in the course of those brief introductions. We brushed so many questions that seemed to me so central to an inquiry like the one I hope we will have succeeded in undertaking — as we look back on this semester from January 2017. I will not attempt a proper summary, but it is easy to touch a few of the salient subjects invoked in the course of that first two hours of our talking: the problem of seemingly unrecoverable dimensions of human experience in the past (sexuality, the dialectic of thought and bodily experience that constitutes an awareness of gender, the carriage of a head or the mien of a face, the history of desire); the problem of belief, and the awkwardness of attempting to access messianic and other forms of theological time by means of tools forged in the secular dilapidation to metaphysics (or indeed, perhaps, using tools actually forged as instruments of secularizing iconoclasm); the general problems of “untimeliness.”

In the course of all this I had a chance to put into the mix a number of the works and thoughts that have inspired my hunger for our subject: artistic achievements like the work of historicizing artists (e.g., Walid Raad and the Atlas Group, but also David Wilson and the Museum of Jurassic Technology); experiments with performance and experience in both pedagogical and contemporary art settings; great works of historical fiction; powerful encounters with virtual reality and gaming; increasing awareness of the transformational implications of new archives and new modes of accessing those archives; deepening concern about the long term viability about certain forms of immersive long-form text-based media, etc. There was no table in the room, going around that room I feel like we got a lot on the table.

Let me pull one thread out of what we wove, and tie it around my finger — tie it around your fingers. Put knots in it.

When Hélène mentioned having been ill for sometime (I think she referred to “two years”) and to having become interested during that time in the historicity of her own malady or condition, I got goose bumps. I had not thought before of this example, and I have not myself experienced that form of historical appetite (?), but I must say that very notion of finding oneself drawn to the historicization of one’s own internal pathological processes (the distinctiveness of the form of access, as well as the form of urgency; the quality of alienation that would seem to be inevitable attendant on such an inquiry) made a considerable impression on me. It goes right to the heart of what I have invoked as an interest in forms of history doing/thinking/making that disavow (or do not rely upon) some kind of objectifying distanciation, modes of historical work that permit or acknowledge (or even proceed from) the entanglement (even convergence) of subject and object -– modes of historicity that do not fear contamination. I found this moment so compelling that I would welcome any follow-up anybody might have. Is there work like this out there? Is there a discourse in the history of medicine that picks up on this theme? Have there been experiments in method and / or form directed to this end?

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We took a break. After the break, we rolled up our sleeves and filled the blackboard with some thematic propositions and some good books – the idea being to begin to shape a syllabus that might let us get at the stuff we cared about. You can see a photo of the blackboard up above. The syllabus that I cobbled together out of our discussion is represented here on our website. I am looking forward to next week.

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