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Aesthetics and Politics: Perspectives

General Programming

dateOctober 5, 2023 timeThursday, 10:00am–5:30pm EDT location The Forum at Columbia University, Columbia UniversityRoom 301 locationVirtual Event
  • Institute for Comparative Literature and Society
  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Columbia University’s Global Cultural Studies
email address [email protected]
  • No registration necessary
  • First come, first seated
headshot of Hortense J. Spillers

All around us, at every level, there are expressions of regret that society is becoming more and more criminal. Many solutions are offered, but the trivialization of Humanities education since the middle of the last century is never mentioned. That is the task of institutes of postsecondary and post-tertiary education all over the world, and corporate Research 1 universities should be able to take the lead here. It is within that urgent need that this conference rethinks this relationship as thought by Ernst Bloch, Ranajit Guha, Jose Rizal, Chinua Achebe, Kofi Awoonor, Assia Djebar, Mahasweta Devi, Lu Xun, René Zavaleta, Abdessalam Benabdelali, and others.

Note: seating is limited. Virtual access to this event is available at the link here. No registration required.


time10:00am EDT

The Archive Onscreen: Reflections on History in “In Search of Bengali Harlem”

In recent years, archival research has made its way into the public consciousness in the form of television series focused on tracing the genealogies of well-known public figures. These series, however, center both celebrity and the individual. The documentary “In Search of Bengali Harlem” also places genealogical research onscreen but as part of a larger political intervention, using the individual family story to bring to the arena of popular media a history that has otherwise been submerged, hidden, and excluded. What are the contours, challenges, and limits of this mode of representing a popular history “from below?"

Vivek Bald

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

time10:00am EDT

Emancipation (Re-)Considered. Aesthetic Education and the Aesthetics of Education

In one of her projects, the Scottish-Ugandan artist, researcher, and convenor of the Africa Cluster of the Another Roadmap School, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa (1976-2023), delved into the work of the art teacher Margaret Trowell (1904-1985). During the 1930s Trowell established one of the earliest schools of 'fine art' for Africans in the Uganda Protectorate. Wolukau-Wanambwa outlines how, despite Trowell's 'good intentions,' her advocacy for incorporating fine art into the 'indigenous' curriculum and her teaching methodology (un-)intentionally perpetuated the colonial government's control over aesthetics. Along similar lines, the British colonial rulers had previously established schools of applied art in Madras (1852), Kolkata (1854), Mumbai (1854), and Lahore (1875). In his talk, he will examine the relation between art education and emancipation, both during the civilizing mission and the process of decolonization, in order to understand the connection between aesthetics, politics, and ethics.

Maria do Mar Castro Varela

Berlin Portechnic

time12:00pm - 1:00pm EDT


Lunch will be provided

time1:00pm EDT

Singing [In]elegance: A Critique of Tradition and Custom in African Women’s Songs

Kasena women in northern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso use and perceive ‘tradition’ as a means through which to ‘play/perform’ with ideas and ritualized actions in their recreational and work songs. Kasena women sing traditional genres less as a source of fixed legitimacy that involves re-enacting a valued past; tradition to them is most ‘authentic’ when it gives them the freedom to create their own constructive criticism of what Kwasi Wiredu calls the “inelegant features of traditional thought and practice” (inelegant in the sense of standing in the way of human wellbeing; of their being anachronistic, or authoritarian). What ‘inelegant’ customs and traditions have their songs redefined, and to what end? What artistic techniques do they deploy to keep their audience engaged and yet invite deep contemplation of these ‘inelegant’ features? What implications do their songs have for studies of such oral traditions, especially in light of perceptions of African women in discourses on customs and human rights?

Helen Yitah

University of Ghana

time1:00pm EDT

Aesthetic Enlightenment and the Art of Decolonization

Considering the historical role of art in colonial and fascist regimes, can one entrust art with the task of emancipatory politics? Can art make us political and ethical by provoking us out of our indifference and irresponsibility? Might critical artistic practices facilitate transnational justice and democracy, protecting and promoting human rights? Or should art be autonomous and non-purposive and not be placed in the service of political and ethical imperatives? Given that art functions within structures of capitalism and neo-colonialism, the political, social and economic role of art, artistic practices, and art institutions in current conditions of global inequality remains ambivalent and controversial. Kant, for instance, speaks of “purposiveness without a purpose” in his account of aesthetic judgments. This also influenced Adorno's distinction between "autonomous" versus "committed" art. In my talk, I will address whether the political labour of training the imagination can mitigate imperialist, racist, orientalist and heteronormative structures and practices.

Nikita Dhawan

University of Toronto

time1:00pm EDT

Up Close and Personal: The Space of the Aesthetic.

In a pair of late essays, brought together under the title, “On Lying and Politics,” Hannah Arendt argues that lying is the coin of the political realm and that the historical actors who enter into it always have something at stake, some investment to protect or advance; according to this view, there is a space apart from the political, which Arendt calls the “objective,” or perhaps we could say it is the equivalent of the “philosophical,” or mimetic of it. In any case, Arendt poses it in opposition to the political realm. Would we be justified in suggesting that this “other”place, which I would demark as the aesthetic, might be adjacent to, or compatible with, Arendt’s space of objectivity?

Hortense Spillers

Vanderbilt University

time4:00pm EDT


All participants


Emily Apter

New York University