Summer Seminar

We bring one scholar to campus to host our Seminar, a five-day intensive event featuring advanced readings or film screenings and revolving a particular topic of wide interest that cuts across departments and disciplines. As space permits, graduate students and faculty members from other local institutions may also participate. 

The 2022 Humanities Center Summer Seminar will be led by Sharon Marcus (Columbia University).  All are invited to join us for a series of discussions May 2-6, 10am - 12pm in the Humanities Center Zoom.  Ahead of the seminar, a reading group will be meeting through the semester.  Please see here for further details, and if you are interested join us at the reading group planning meeting on Feb 1, 12:30pm - 2:00pm. All are welcome to attend, but we ask that you preregister for the seminar here


Professor Marcus lays out the topic of the seminar in the following terms:

"Grief, numbness, torpor, temporal dislocation, intensified vulnerability, anxiety, irritation, denial, experienced through the prism of inequality: all of these have characterized the last two years of life in a global pandemic. These are also the subjects of Ottessa Moshfegh’s lauded 2018 novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which tells the surprisingly gripping story of an unnamed 27-year-old white woman – college-educated, conventionally beautiful, and wealthy enough to afford not to work – who uses an array of drugs, real and imaginary, to pursue the goal of spending most of an entire year asleep. 

In its uncanny anticipation of life under COVID, My Year of Rest and Relaxation helps us see how COVID did not simply wreak havoc with ordinary existence but also exposed many of its long-simmering discontents. In one of his last works, Roland Barthes turned to novels to think about How to Live Together. Moshfegh’s novel, like many works of millennial fiction, approaches that question by pondering how to live with our individual selves – with our pains, pleasures, needs, and anxieties. In contrast to the “cruel optimism” that Lauren Berlant identified with attachment to fantasies that disappoint and even harm, My Year of Rest and Relaxation depicts a searingly thorough attempt to detach from all sources of pleasure and disappointment. Despite its mordant bleakness, Moshfegh’s novel ultimately aligns itself with the literature of self-help, intoxication, and spiritual quest, since the protagonist seeks to make a truce with waking life and attain moderate contentment. 

My recent research and writing explores the literature of mortality, with a focus on fiction and memoirs. In an essay on Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On the Beach that will appear in Critical Inquiry this spring, I analyze how people facing death hold on to everyday life, often using denial to make the most of their last months, weeks, and days. In contrast to more canonical tales that associate dying with enlightenment, epiphany, and dramatic transformation, the characters in On The Beach face almost certain annihilation from nuclear fallout but continue to carry out routine activities and plan for the future. Shute’s novel refuses the transcendence many accounts of death and dying opt for, but adopts an emphatically humanist stance. Moshfegh’s novel interests me as an account of how one might contend with mortality and life by rejecting, at least temporarily, the human condition itself."

Past Seminars 

Spring 2019: Eitan Wilf, Professor of Anthropology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, "Creativities: Unpacking the Varieties of a Key Normative Ideal"

Spring 2018: Robin Bernstein, Professor of American History at Harvard University, "The Tragedy of William Freeman: A Story of Prison Labor, Mass Murder, and Slavery in the North"

Spring 2017: John Durham Peters, Professor of English and of Film & Media Studies at Yale University, "Atmospheres and Inscriptions"

Spring 2016: Lydia Goehr, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, “Emancipation Narratives in the Arts”

Spring 2015: Michael Wood, Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton University, led the seminar "Crime and Crime Again"

Spring 2014: Lauren Berlant, George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago, led the seminar "Affects of the Commons"

Spring 2013: Priscilla Wald, Professor of English and Women's Studies at Duke University, led the seminar "Science, Culture, and the Human After World War II"

Spring 2012: Wai Chee Dimock, William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale, led the seminar "American Literature in the World"

Spring 2011: George Lipsitz, Professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, led the seminar "Music, Race, and Place"

Spring 2010: Bruce Robbins, Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, led the seminar "Rethinking Cosmopolitanism"