Difficult Discourse: Searching for a Critical Generosity

Berkeley Institute Graduate Conference

February 26th and 27th, 2016

315 and 330 Wheeler Hall
UC Berkeley

The question of this year’s conference touches the heart of our intellectual work and our personal integrity, and points to practical challenges we encounter as academic professionals, as intellectuals and researchers. Among the ideas and arguments that we meet in the course of our work, some will strike us as unproductive, false, willfully mistaken, even offensive; influential currents of thought may seem (and sometimes really are) actively hostile toward our understanding of our field or of responsible argument, or toward other beliefs and values to which we are committed. How can we form the habit of interpreting what we dislike justly and generously? How can we seek out and learn from what is best in the ideas we most thoroughly reject? How do we cultivate this attitude of openness and justice while also being clear and rational about what is in fact wrong about them? More complexly still, how, practically and concretely, do we engage those ideas openly and nobly in the formal and informal exchanges of our professional lives? And how do we engage the colleagues who advance those ideas–engage them as colleagues, as fellow searchers for the true and the good, from whom we are willing to learn and with whom we are eager to cooperate? How do we learn to state our own positions and offer our critiques with confidence and grace? The conference will explore the intellectual questions raised by influential academic ideas we might find troubling; it will also explore the attitudes and practices that can help us be attentive and generous while also being principled and rigorous.

Register for the ConferenceRegister for the Seminars

Difficult Discourse: Searching for a Critical Generosity

Berkeley Institute Graduate Conference

February 26th and 27th, 2016


Friday, February 26th

1:30   Coffee, Registration

2:30   Welcome, Matthew Rose, Director, Berkeley Institute

       Panel discussion (1): What Is Good Work?, Revisited 

4:00   Seminars, Stream One

5:30   Coffee

6:00   Plenary Lecture: Professor Steven Justice

7:15 Dinner

Saturday, February 27th

8:45 Breakfast

9:30 Plenary Lecture: Professor Lara Buchak

10:45  Coffee

11:15  Seminars, Stream Two

12:45  Lunch

2:00   Panel discussion (2): Difficult Discourse in Action

3:30   Seminars, Stream Three

5:00   Coffee

5:30   Concluding discussion  


Stream One:

  1. Nature and Humans in the Anthropocene

Organizers: Keith Bouma-Gregson (Integrative Biology, UC Berkeley) and Chad Hegelmeyer (English, NYU)

Title: Nature and Humans in the Anthropocene

This seminar will investigate our understanding of the categories “human” and “nature,” and the relationship between them, In hopes of better understanding current “posthuman” trends in scientific and philosophical thought. We will draw from both literary and scientific disciplines to think about humanity’s place in the world and how the different perspectives can inform one another. In particular, we’ll focus on ecocriticism, conservation, environmental justice, and the Anthropocene. Here are some of the questions we hope the seminar can address.

  • How do we define “human”–as a rational autonomous individual? as a fragmentary, socially and historically conditioned subjectivity?
  • Is “nature” a useful category, or is the distinction between the human and natural a misleading ONE?
  • Can “nature” and “human” be discarded by new paradigms in science, technology, and philosophy?
  • What is the relationship among humans, non-humans, and the physical environment?
  • Have we entered a new era of global human influence on the environment that demands new ways of thinking through these issues?
  • What new perspectives or understandings are produced by terms and discourses like “the Anthropocene,” “object oriented ontology,” or “ecocentric conservation”? Does the scale or perspective of these discourses actually obscure important humanistic topics or insights such as human suffering or the role of capitalist social inequity (to name just two examples, one from Pope Francis and one from a radical marxist critique of the Anthropocene)?
  1. Definite Meaning

Organizers: Kevin Doxzen (Biology, UC Berkeley) and Jonathan Shelley (English, UC Berkeley)

This seminar considers critical practices in both the sciences and humanities and their ability to produce forms of meaning. Where is meaning located? What kinds of interpretive methods produce truly meaningful ideas? Is it more valuable to reveal “new” perspectives or verifiably true ones? Is it possible to have two conclusions from the same evidence? Do the “academic” or “scientific” strategies of meaning creation apply to our everyday means of thinking? Do we have a political responsibility to champion particular kinds of critical practices because of the conclusions they render?

To approach these questions, we will focus on two essays: Stephen Best’s and Sharon Marcus’s 2009 essay “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” and Bruno Latour’s 2003 lecture “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Of particular interest to our discussion will be the status of “gaps” or “anomalies” in either literary representation or scientific theory and their effects on knowledge formation. We are also curious if anti-symptomatic methodologies such as “surface reading” effectively move us away from an unhelpful preoccupation with “secrets” and political motivations that obscure the search for more objective forms of meaning. In considering a broad range of critical practices across disciplines, this seminar seeks to articulate some of the shared principles and vocabulary between the sciences and humanities.

Stream Two:

  1. Privilege

Organizers: Dena Fehrenbacher (English, Harvard) and Janet Zong (English, Harvard)

This seminar will discuss the concept of privilege as it is used to describe structural social inequality. We hope to attend to:

  • How social privilege is understood conceptually
  • How the term “privilege” is used rhetorically in popular discourse
  • How we might productively engage the concept in pedagogy and personal work

The seminar will try to untangle the rhetorical maneuvers flanking “privilege” (e.g. “check your privilege”) from the phenomena that the term is tasked to describe. How might we talk about the concept if we didn’t have this term to describe it? How might we understand the concept’s denotative and connotative functions in relation to terms with which it’s often closely associated (e.g., diversity)? What burden are both the concept and the rhetorical maneuvers asked to bear? In the classroom, how might we encourage students away from cliché and self-righteousness, toward productive self-reflection and intellectual openness? How do we teach students self-checks but not paralysis or self-absorption? And how, in general, do we deal with discourses that have grown so formulaic that they obscure the phenomena they attempt to describe and ameliorate?

In asking these questions, this seminar will think through how these terms can be productive in working toward the goals of our profession, and in upholding the values of our antecedent commitments.

  1. Big Data

Organizers: Amada Beltrán (History, UC Berkeley) and Stephen Thompson (English, Cornell)

This seminar will discuss the theoretical motivations and implications of data-centric approaches to the study of history, literature, and the humanities in general. We hope to take a bifurcated approach to this question, addressing both the potential problems/limits of Big Data, as well as the ways in which its approach offers productive avenues for inquiry. Among the questions we hope to consider are the following:

  • How do Big Data methodologies in the humanities explain change?
  • How are human actions understood?
  • What value, if any, (is/should be) given to human agency? phenomenological experience?
  • How might Big Data accommodate the human, how might a shift in scale or focus affect its methodology?
  • What makes Big Data possible? What are its epistemological assumptions/implications, and how separable are these from its “tools”?
  • What is the status and function of meaning and interpretation in Big Data methodologies?
  • If we didn’t have Big Data to rely on, how might we answer questions of long duration?

In discussing these questions, we hope to approach Big Data with theoretical self-consciousness and methodological openness; examining how a Big Data approach to the humanities figures the human, we hope to explore both the difficulties and possibilities it presents for understanding history and culture.

Stream Three:

  1. Aesthetic and Religious Experience as Knowledge

Organizers: Alexandra McCleary (Anthropology, UC Berkeley) and Cassandra Sciortino (History of Art, UC Santa Barbara)

Materialist and functional accounts of human behavior have driven a wealth of scholarship and established intellectual assumptions defining the  humanities. Yet within these paradigms, aspects of human culture that allow for considerations of the transcendent self ­­ beyond mere subjectivity — have been overlooked or even villainized.

Beauty and religion are among these polemical threads. Very recently, there have been isolated efforts to generate academic discourse sympathetic to the legitimacy of aesthetic and religious experience. This seminar will examine these phenomena from two different academic perspectives: art history and archaeology.  Readings will orient attendees to relevant discourse in these fields.  We will provide a brief overview of the theoretical trends that both reinforce and push back against considering the transcendent as a form of knowledge. But beyond that we will be open to broader conversations about:

  • How revolutionary intellectual agendas  — i.e liberation from oppression and challenging hegemonic systems of power —  are structurally similar to transcendent and ennobling values linked to beauty and religion historically.
  • How we can recognize that beauty is not  a supernumerary quality but causally linked to reason, justice, and goodness.
  • How  transcendent qualities of human experience have been dismissed and or aligned with hegemonic conscription.  What is at the nature and root of this suspicion?
  1. Post-Empirical Science 

Organizer: Jonathan Kohler (Physics, UC Berkeley) and TBA

What defines the boundary of a discipline, and what happens when academics reach the edge of what they can learn using the methods admitted by their field? In this seminar, we will approach these questions from an example in theoretical physics.

Often touted as the pinnacle of objective science, it is a field some prominent scientists think is in crisis. Decades of research in theoretical, high-energy physics developing ideas related to string theory and the multiverse have so far failed to result in a well-defined physical theory or any hope of empirical validation for the postulates underlying them. By most conceptions of how science progresses, these theories lack the characteristics of successful research programs. While interesting on their own merits, can these programs promise scientific knowledge? In the possible absence of better alternative theories, how does the field best move forward?

Some prominent proponents of these theories are advocating a new paradigm of ‘post-empirical science,’ extending traditional understandings of the scientific process to allow for theory confirmation without empirical evidence. They claim that mathematical consistency and elegance, the lack of alternative theories, and previously demonstrated theoretical successes can be sufficient to confirm a new scientific theory in the absence of any conceivable experimental test. But if skepticism is an integral part of the scientific ethos, then does this not amount to just giving these theories a pass, and risk distracting from rigorous investigation of currently un-imagined alternatives?

Skeptics have raised the concern that in an era of eroding public trust of science, removing this distinguishing factor of scientific progress risks undermining the basis of trust that science offers. In addition, often over-hyped claims of pending success in these programs is seen to have drawn a disproportionate amount of research funding, attracted many of the brightest minds in the field, and convinced the public these are firmly established scientific dogma. Is it healthy for the field to devote so many resources and so much talent to theories which have largely failed to make contributions back to the broader Physics community? How should the hypothetical nature of these ideas be communicated honestly to the public?