Theme for 2022-2023

The Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh is thrilled to announce the 2022-23 theme of Breakdown.

When global health and the planetary climate are in crisis, when trust in policing has broken down, when billions of people across the globe are learning to re-inhabit the physical and virtual spaces they share with others, and when political systems are struggling to respond, it's time to reflect on the processes, histories, philosophies, languages, and experiences of breakdown.

A breakdown is an event when things stop working in a conspicuous or sudden way. The machine or system that had been in motion shudders to a halt. The glitch becomes systemic. What had been whole comes apart. What had been in homeostasis comes out of equilibrium, and a chaos of new motions is set loose. It can be personal and political. What we thought we knew - or knew how to do - leaves us grasping.

A crisis can create trauma. But it can also be an opportunity to ask whether what has broken should be repaired, or how it might be repaired: to look as new, or to bear the marks of its histories (like the aesthetics of kintsugi)?

When we (or our ecosystem, or our communities) experience a breakdown, what is lost? And can the loss of a paradigm be empowering, by destroying barriers that limited possibilities or entrenched inequalities and forms of oppression?

Breaking things down is also a method of inquiry and explanation. We reveal the workings of a complex system by focusing on its constituent parts, and we show how the interplay of those parts constitutes the system. Perhaps we demonstrate an understanding and familiarity with a system by showing that we can take it apart and put it back together.

Our bodies break down; our mental equilibrium too. A breakdown can be a metamorphosis. It can be a rotting, or a vivisection. Or it can be an opportunity to hear particular voices and instruments in a piece of music, isolating a particular sound or sequence and bringing it to the fore, enabling us to remake the whole by listening more attentively to its individual parts. We can experience breakdown like a DJ, a composer, a caterpillar in a chrysalis.

Pitt's Humanities Center is a place for people to work together humanistically across disciplinary boundaries. The theme of breakdown aims to bring people together around a series of related processes, to spark new possibilities for research and experimentation. Colleagues applying during 2021-22 for Faculty Fellowships, Graduate Fellowships, and Co-Teaching Fellowships to be taken up in 2022-23 were encouraged to make the connections between this theme and their projects explicit in their applications.