2017-2018 Faculty Research Initiatives
The Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society holds an annual competition for collaborative humanistic research projects led by University of Chicago faculty. In its first five years the Neubauer Collegium will have supported 67 collaborative research projects led by 130 Faculty Fellows – coming from all departments in the Humanities and Social Sciences Divisions, as well as nearly all divisions and all professional schools at the University. These projects have also brought to campus Visiting Global Fellows from around the world. The following Neubauer Collegium faculty research projects will begin in July 2017.
Haun Saussy (Comparative Literature)
The regional cultures of East Asia are porous and mutually influencing. The major literary tradition in the area, that of China, has integrated forms and materials from all its neighbors, as well as transferring aspects of culture to them. But the history of these cultural flows—among Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Manchu, Vietnamese, Tibetan, Malay, and the languages of the southern highlands, just to name a few—is yet to be written. This project is meant to fill that gap. In 2015 the International Comparative Literature Association commissioned a cross-border, long-term, multilingual history of the literature of the East Asian region. As part of the conceptualization of this ambitious project, an international team of scholars will gather to set the contents and emphases of this comparative literary history. The team expects to fill six or seven volumes with new content, some of which will be translated into English from the work of scholars better known in their home countries.
This effort, a cross-disciplinary collaboration between machine-learning experts and those with expertise in social theory and ethnography, aims to investigate the predictability of human behavior in the context of criminal infractions transpiring in the city of Chicago. The project also aims to investigate the social and ethical issues that arise from enhanced methods of prediction. The project uses as its database the detailed spatio-temporal logs of reported criminal infractions publicly available from the City of Chicago Data Portal. Sophisticated machine-learning algorithms will be deployed to automatically infer predictive generative models, with the ultimate objective of gaining deeper understanding of the temporal evolution of complex social structures. Participants aim to assemble the vast number of local models they infer into a predictive causality network that resides live online, ingesting data as it updates and projecting predicted incidence risks across the city. Any predictability that the project successfully distills from the data raises epistemological questions about human behavior, culpability, and the societal share of responsibility for individual actions. Key issues pertain to the social origin of biases, particularly in a culturally, economically, and ethnically diverse urban environment, and even what we mean by a “systemic bias.” Related questions concern how to identify, quantify, understand, and mitigate such issues. For example, does aggressive selective surveillance, including that driven by predictive algorithms, simply lead to higher opportunity of getting caught, and hence to higher crime rates, thereby bringing to fruition self-fulfilling prophecies of specific communities being more crime-prone? Or does unbiased opportunity to commit crime, resulting from larger societal forces, drive such dynamics? How can we design systems that mitigate crime while at the same time limiting these feedback loops? More broadly, the project will attempt to interpret predictive models/algorithms of normative human behavior and investigate the extent to which interpretation is important for crafting policy informed by such predictive analytics.
This project will lay the foundations of a new paradigm for understanding movement, practice, materiality, and embodiment as constituting factors of social relations across long temporal arcs and geographic itineraries unbounded by national borders in the Indian Ocean region. The project builds upon and extends a strong base of interdisciplinary collaborations that the participants, together with colleagues from North America, Europe, and South Asia, have developed over the past three years in workshops at the University of Chicago and in South Asia. Those workshops, on sonic and visual culture in South Asia, have called for the integrated and multidisciplinary approach to an expanded field of practices and objects, which will provide the basis for a performance, exhibition, and multimedia publication that establish a new paradigm for understanding the arts in the Indian Ocean region. This expanded field will enable the participants to produce a robust understanding of the historical significance of the diverse artistic practices in the region, and the complex ways they helped shape local and transregional cultures.
This project will adopt a field linguistic approach to interrogate the subjectivity of human experience in the absence of a typical sensory palate. The research, drawing on insights from neurobiology and linguistics, will center on a remarkable individual, Kim, whose sensory world is radically different from that of the typical human. Kim relies on vision and hearing and lacks somatosensation (touch, pain, temperature, proprioception). Kim has minimal taste and smell perception. The project’s aim is to learn “the language of Kim.” This will require the formalization of a new methodological approach to understand the interaction between linguistic encoding of sensory perception and actual perception. The new approach will have broad applicability, as the method can be extended to understand those of different backgrounds, physical conditions, and even species.
This project will support the Visiting Fellowship of Günter Thomas from Ruhr-University Bochum. In collaboration with William Schweiker (Divinity), Thomas will explore the place of aspirations from the vantage point of moral philosophy, religious thought, and socio-cultural analysis. The project takes it as intuitively the case that one of the most profound characteristics of human beings is to seek to realize their aspirations in actual life. The experience of aspirations coming alive, really motivating thought and action, is the starting point of all social, religious, and academic creativity. The project will consider aspirations as the key missing link, under-examined in current thought, between human creativity and social and cultural processes of transforming and enriching life. The project raises three fundamental questions: (1) How and under what conditions do human aspirations become powerful drivers of innovation in culture, religion, the sciences, and society?; (2) What are the conditions that endanger human aspirations from motivating thought and action for the sake of enhancing life?; and (3) How do we distinguish between aspirations that are destructive of human life from those aspirations that respect and enhance life?
The profound and intensifying effects of climate change will likely bring significant harm to those vulnerable to the harsher environment to come, human or otherwise. Yet climate debates have so far been dominated by scientists and policymakers, with limited effectiveness in terms of either public communication or political action. Where and how should the humanities and social sciences intervene in order to place the science-policy nexus on more ethically, epistemically, and politically responsible foundations? This project will bring together internationally renowned scholars of the philosophy of science and environmental politics with their counterparts at the University of Chicago in order to open up the science-policy relationship. Through a series of workshops, reading groups, roundtable discussions, and public symposia, the project will bridge divides and foster interdisciplinary dialogue on a range of issues, from climate modeling to ethical decision-making and democratic participation.
The NigerHeritage project involves rethinking the design and function of two cultural facilities and one paleontological site—a museum, a cultural center for nomadic peoples, and a fossil field site—for preservation of Niger’s paleontological, archaeological, and cultural heritage. Research, discussion, and forums held in the U.S. and Niger—involving scientists, social scientists, architects, planners, and the public—aim to forge consensus plans for these cultural initiatives, the ultimate goals of which include long-term preservation and celebration of unique cultural heritage, engagement of surrounding communities, and novel architectural solutions that are sustainable and environmentally sensitive.
“Open Fields” is rethinking the very meaning of a natural history museum. In particular, what should the museum’s goals be with respect to the vast collections of artifacts of Native American and other indigenous peoples? This project brings together curators, tribal elders from native communities across the country, individual artists, and lawyers. The project – which builds on a previous collaboration between Justin Richland (Anthropology), Jessica Stockholder (Visual Arts), and Alaka Wali (Curator, Field Museum) – will use an innovative approach to data analysis drawing from ethnographic and linguistic methodologies. In a series of workshops participants will listen to and discuss excerpted recordings from the exhibit-creation process and together reflect on how better to represent the collection at a natural history museum. In addition to formulating new conceptualization of how to exhibit the art and artifacts of indigenous peoples, the project will also contribute to the ongoing renovation of the major hall of the North American Indian at the Field Museum.
Robert Bird (Slavic Languages and Literatures)
Beginning on the centenary of the Russian revolutions, this project will question the concept of revolution, specifically the link between political and intellectual change. The Russian revolutions in 1917 quickly reverberated around the world, generating revolutions and political changes from East Asia to Latin America and Africa, but also framing a broad paradigm shift in intellectual life. Communist aesthetics, the artistic avant-garde, Russian formalism, the Bakhtin Circle: all were parts of a global intellectual revolution whose causes, ramifications, and impact stretched far beyond the Soviet Union, beyond even the reach of global communism. This history forces us to ask: what constitutes an intellectual revolution? What are its causes and mechanisms? How do revolutionary cultural and intellectual changes relate to political change? What role is played by the disruption of settled populations and by the waves of migration revolution sets off? To what degree can intellectual revolution be translated and re-situated? How do new media change our understanding of these mechanisms and the prospects for future intellectual revolutions? Are we today in a revolutionary moment? The project will address these questions in collaboration with Visiting Fellows and participants in a series of three workshops that will focus on key texts in the production and dissemination of intellectual revolution. The workshops will allow for the creation of a publicly accessible digital archive with sophisticated tools of data visualization, and eventually for a volume of essays.
As global awareness of environmental crisis and resource constraints heightens, pressures for the development of sustainable agro-industrial practices are intensifying. But what do we mean by “sustainable”? A key feature of sustainability is that it is a relational phenomenon involving multiple parties or stakeholders, frequently in ways that cross farm and industry boundaries and link public and private players. In order to be effectively sustainable, in other words, individual firm, farm, or associational efforts must be connected to larger coordinated relations among players in communities, value chains, and political jurisdictions. Inevitably, the term “sustainability” has very varied content and different meanings in different relational arrangements. Moreover, in any given context, the meaning of sustainability can be highly contested. Regulations pertaining to sustainability are subject to political battles involving normative and technical disagreement. Seen in this way, sustainability is less a level or stable point to be reached and more a multivalent process involving continuous reimagination, optimization, and learning. It is therefore crucial to understand what kinds of practices and governance arrangements facilitate learning and change in the interconnected agricultural social and political economy, and what kinds of practices and arrangements do not. This project will examine efforts to create “sustainable” agricultural practices in three major dairy-producing countries: the United States, Germany, and New Zealand. The focus will be on how those who pursue sustainability strategies understand sustainability and give it meaning, and what accounts for variation and difference in the way in which they enact their strategies.
This project responds to the changing face of literary and textual scholarship in the digital age. The project centers on the concepts and practices forming around new scalable reading methods, many of which are imported from the sciences – everything from data mining and visualization to machine learning and network analysis. Bringing together a number of existing digital research initiatives and collaborations at the University of Chicago, the project aspires to foster a lab-like environment where scholars who work across different textual traditions and disciplines will help formulate a unique type of data-driven humanistic research called “Textual Optics.” This research will comprise a set of tools and interpretive methods that allow scholars to read textual archives through multiple lenses and scales of analysis, from single words up to millions of volumes. In particular, the project will consider how readers might move between close and distant readings of texts. Over the course of the project, participants will produce a set of technical interfaces and models for digital literary study that expand access to this kind of work for humanities scholars and facilitate a critical awareness of where these methods stand in relation to other analytic frameworks. Textual Optics is ultimately a call for a new approach to textual studies and a way to materialize it through sustained interdisciplinary collaboration.
This project, the Neubauer Collegium’s first collaboration with the Court Theatre, will support the Visiting Fellowship of award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and director David Auburn. Auburn’s first play, Proof, received the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and is set on the University of Chicago campus. His other plays include Lost Lake (2014), The Columnist (2012), The New York Idea (adaptation, 2010), and An Upset (2008), among others. As a Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellow, Auburn will complete a stage adaptation of Saul Bellow’s picaresque novel The Adventures of Augie March for a world premiere production at Court Theatre. Working in collaboration with Larry Norman (Romance Languages and Literatures) and Charles Newell (Marilyn F. Vitale Artistic Director, Court Theatre), Auburn will lead a new exploration of this uniquely Chicago novel on the campus that both Bellow and Auburn called their academic home.
How did the rapid spread of the railroad and telegraph in the late 19th century remake American life, economy, and policies? With the advent of the telegraph, communication over great distances became instantaneous. At the same time, railroads brought about rapid movements in people and goods. These technologies were not merely contemporaneous but deeply intertwined. Scholarly research on the implications of these twin technological transformations has hitherto been limited by an inability to examine when and where people gained access to these new networks, and the nature of that access. To address this gap, this project will produce a digital map of railroad stations and telegraph offices in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This map will cover annual changes over a 30- to 40-year span of time in which these networks expanded to cover North America. Information for the map will come from recently digitized books that include tables from telegraph and railroad trade publications. Interdisciplinary collaboration will enable the team of scholars to compile and transcribe a large set of archival records and images, and unify work on communication infrastructure. The team will also create a website to crowd-source the transcription and geographic placement of railroad stations and telegraph offices. The data and maps generated through this process will be shared with researchers and the general public in the forms of interactive maps as well as downloadable data via a new website dedicated to the project.