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Research

Collaborative research is often driven by a question that does not fit naturally within a particular discipline. Neubauer Collegium projects bring together experts who draw on various methods and tools to address questions of great significance. We encourage these collaborations to go in whatever direction they need to in pursuit of their aims: often across disciplinary boundaries and even into new areas of inquiry.

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Ancient Greek Philosophy of Race and Ethnicity

Detail of an early eighteenth-century map of the Mediterranean illustrating the voyage of St. Paul to Rome, with biblical illustrations. Lindenberg, De Reysen Christi des Heyland en Pauli met andere syne Bloedgetuygen, Amsterdam, 1703.

Ancient Greek Philosophy of Race and Ethnicity

The team on this project will edit a volume of essays on Plato and Aristotle’s understanding of racial and ethnic differences. The goal is to make the topic available to teachers, students, and researchers, as well as to set up debate for years to come.

Plato and Aristotle lived in societies that took human beings to differ according to the region in which they lived, their culture, language, and also their skin color and other phenotypic markers. These differences – whether labeled as "racial," "proto-racial," "ethnic," or otherwise – were often associated with cognitive, emotional, and moral dispositions and traits. Yet there has been little engagement with the ways in which representations of race and ethnicity shaped the philosophical views of Plato and Aristotle. This project will fill that gap by producing an edited volume of essays that maps, systematically, the treatment and significance of race and ethnicity in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The volume will contain accessible, cutting-edge research that will make the topic of ancient Greek philosophy of race and ethnicity more available to teachers, students, and researchers, and it will set up debate for years to come.

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Arts Labs

A man in a soundproof room, seen from below.

Arts Labs

Six independent but linked initiatives will shape and support a culture of experimentation and critical analysis around arts research on campus.

Six independent but linked initiatives will shape and support a culture of experimentation and critical analysis around arts research on campus. Our projects include conceptual and practical workshops in opera; the creation of a Movement Theory Lab; a dance-theater adaptation of a classic dramatic text; workshopping a new musical with Court Theater; diversity initiatives in contemporary literary publishing; and renewed operations of the Black Cinema House, bringing UChicago faculty and visiting artists into conversation at the intersection of scholarly inquiry and artistic making. The labs will create space for the development of creative projects while fostering dialogue among scholars and artists (and artist-scholars) about the opportunities and challenges of artistic research.​

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Becoming Urban: Understanding the Urban Transformation of Migrants to Phnom Penh

A cyclist stands in the street at Central Market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Becoming Urban: Understanding the Urban Transformation of Migrants to Phnom Penh

Through traditional and distributed ethnographic methods, the research team is exploring the lived experiences of Cambodian migrants from rural villages to urban centers; the factors that drove the decision to migrate; and the changes that result from becoming urban.

This research project seeks to understand the process of becoming urban at a critical time in Cambodian history. Combining traditional and distributed ethnographic methods, the research team will explore and analyze the lived experiences of migrants from rural villages to urban centers; the economic, environmental, and social factors that drove the decision to migrate; and the changing connections to place, space, and people that result from becoming urban. Ultimately, the project aims to produce a deeper understanding of the lived experience of migrants and a better account of their transformation from villagers to urbanites.

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The Case of the Human: Co-Producing Plural Knowledge on the Body, the Social, and the Subject

The Case of the Human: Co-Producing Plural Knowledge on the Body, the Social, and the Subject

Medical and humanistic understandings of health and well-being have intersected in recent decades, but the category of “the human” continues to be defined and applied in different ways. This project will identify a more holistic understanding of “the human” that is neither primarily medical nor humanistic, generating critically and clinically innovative knowledge.

Between the humanities and medicine there exist numerous definitions of the human, from different perspectives and with different political implications. In recent decades, these disparate fields have built a tentative and growing dialogue. However, truly multidisciplinary research between the two is still rare. The Case of the Human is an ambitious collaborative project aimed not merely at translating existing theory across humanities and medicine, but rather at co-producing new plural knowledge of the human that transcends epistemological boundaries. As such, The Case of the Human proposes one ambitious project addressing core questions: “What is the human?” and “What does the category of the human do?” Our project is thus to create novel, multidisciplinary, and pluralistic knowledge on the human along three important axes: the human as body, as social, and as subject. We achieve this goal through three key aims, each involving specific outputs: 1) co-developing novel, plural knowledge on the human, through a multidisciplinary research conference series; 2) disseminating new knowledges on the human, through a collaborative case series published in The Lancet; and 3) fostering community reflection and personal engagement on the human, through collective writing on this collaborative process as well as the development of a graphic medicine exhibition exploring key cases and the case form through large graphic novel-style panels. The Case of the Human promises important next steps beyond the boundaries between medicine and the humanities in our engagement with the human.

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Costumes and Collapse

Costumes and Collapse illustration by Slavs and Tatars

Costumes and Collapse

What is the relationship between imperial collapse and material culture, specifically textiles and clothing? The research team on this project will explore this question by focusing on two diverse post-imperial spaces: the Soviet Union and the Middle East.

Through the long twentieth-century a series of imperial, social, and ecological collapses and reformations have registered in the fabrics and fashions we use to form and transform our bodies and social environments. Textiles and wearable costumes have at once structured imperial formations and their ordering of ecological, racial, and gendered regimes. However, they have also materialized alternate ways of being, refashioning conceptions of identity, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality as they transform the shape of the body and our interaction with lived space and environment. Comparing the Soviet and French Orientalist imaginaries of its southern and eastern colonies in North Africa, the Caucasus, and Central Asia exposes a common preoccupation with costume and textiles as both modes of exoticization and imperial capture and revolutionary forms of anti-colonial resistance. This includes the ways in which French orientalist photographs of women in North Africa exoticized dress, bodily ornamentation, and textiles to mediate colonial desires, as well as how costume and textile served the Soviet orientalist creation of distinctive "nationalities" and their assimilation into the multinational imperial project. The collapse of these two empires renders legible how self-fashioning through forms of wearable art and textiles—as indigenous semiotics shared by both regions and interconnected through overlapping migratory histories of textile production and circulation—provided a means of evasion, disguise, and play. This project turns to costumes, textiles, and wearable art as forms of anti-colonial and queer resistance at the interfaces of embodiment, materiality, ecology, and affect. Activities include a series of reading groups, lectures, performances, and exhibitions that will travel from Chicago (2024) to Tbilisi (2025) and Paris (2026). Reinterpreting traditional clothes, parodying uniforms, or queering garments against a backdrop of imperial, social, and ecological collapse, the project addresses the formation of new modes of politics and aesthetics fashioned through wearable art.

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The Diversity of Color: Safeguarding Natural Dye Sources and Practices in Michoacán and Oaxaca

Illustration of an Indigo branch, a cempazuchitl flower, and a grana cochinilla.

The Diversity of Color: Safeguarding Natural Dye Sources and Practices in Michoacán and Oaxaca

Recent international interest in dyes extracted from plants and insects in Mexico is putting pressure on the local communities that manage these culturally significant natural resources. This project will facilitate local efforts to study the organisms and improve their cultivation, conservation, and ongoing use.

The use of dyes extracted from plants and insects has a complex history in multiple communities in Mexico. Organisms such as indigo plants, cochineal insects, and cempazuchitl are ingredients in artisanal practices, local cuisine, and traditional medicine that in many cases predate Spanish contact. Recent international interest in these natural resources is putting pressure on their management, but scientific and educational opportunities would allow local communities to study these culturally significant organisms and improve their cultivation, conservation, and ongoing use. We propose an interdisciplinary project to collect histories and taxonomies of the organisms used in natural dye production, addressing their identities, their ecologies, their cultural uses, and their manifold significance to colorant makers. Although the colorant uses have been previously documented, many of these studies rely on partial taxonomic classifications, where only the genus of the plant but not the species has been identified. We hypothesize that scientific documentation of the species used will provide new insights into the uses of these organisms and their dyes. A more precise description of the plants and organisms used for dye extraction will also facilitate the communities’ efforts to manage their own resources; their request for a collaboration is what gave rise to this proposal. In addition to a series of workshops, we will publish our findings in a bilingual general audience book and project website, as well as peer-reviewed journals. We will also organize six conferences in Mexico and twin exhibits in Chicago and Oaxaca.

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Economic Planning and Democratic Politics: History, Theory, and Practice

Economic Planning and Democratic Politics: History, Theory, and Practice

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, governments and central banks have aggressively intervened to address economic crises and challenges. These interventions have coincided with growing public mistrust of political and economic institutions. The interdisciplinary research team on this project will explore the range of possible relations between markets, states, and democracy in this new “post-neoliberal” period.

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, the strategy of governing the macro economy primarily through the management of money and financial markets while ceding most of society’s investment to the private sector has been in retreat. Again and again, governments and central banks have aggressively intervened in the economy to backstop runs on financial institutions, prevent the collapse of various asset markets, bolster purchasing power in the economy through direct payments to citizens, maintain the solvency of intensely pandemic-disadvantaged businesses, and stimulate employment (Tooze 2018). Perhaps even more remarkably, this revival of state and fiscal intervention has not simply been an emergency response to a series of crises. The accumulation of longer term economic, social, and environmental externalities, widely believed to be generated by policies privileging private-sector investment and market freedom, also has given rise to impatience with the use of market mechanisms to achieve social goals or redress imbalances. Political demands from society have already generated moves to use the state to redistribute income, forgive specific forms of debt, restructure industry, engineer “energy transitions,” encourage investment in “green tech” and otherwise redirect investment toward ends that appear to be, or are alleged to be, in line with the will of the demos (Allen 2022, Aronoff 2019).

Dramatic in itself, this re-politicization of investment and consumption comes at a time when our confidence in the institutions of liberal democracy is being challenged. The contemporary demos, wherever it is, often feels alienated, underserved, or excluded from the institutions that are there to represent and serve it. With the pursuit of social, economic, and environmental goals intentionally displaced to the market for half a century, the non-market, deliberative, political mechanisms for the democratic transmission of citizen will into investment and consumption policies have atrophied, or, worse, become instruments of economic and social interests favored by the market (Fishkin & Forbath 2022, Philippon 2019). Core institutions in the incumbent order (parliaments, parties, corporations, markets, unions, nonprofit entities) are being attacked, their authority and effectiveness as governors of economic process delegitimized and their claim to be channelers of democratic will called into question. Many once powerful movements and organizations that traditionally represented broad social interests in macroeconomic policy formation, such as those for workers and farmers, have nearly disappeared altogether (Andrias 2016). Other crucial governance institutions that continue to exist – in particular, central banks and corporations – are being continually recomposed by new social, economic, and environmental dynamics in ways that are dramatically recasting their boundaries and forcing a reconsideration of their social roles and the way in which they formulate and pursue investment goals (Omarova 2021; Herrigel 2018, Baldwin 2016,). Old norms, such as an understanding of economic growth as an unadulterated good capable of creating social harmony and overcoming material division and conflict, are losing their appeal in the face of worsening inequality and climate crises (Daly 2007, Kallis et al 2018). To be sure, there is no shortage of new ideas about alternative social ends – involving different ways of relating to nature, to work and production, or to community life and solidarity – but the existing political economic arrangements for converting those ideas into investment seem often inadequate to the task.

We believe that this confluence of mounting state intervention into key social processes of investment and consumption combined with growing disarray and disillusionment with the incumbent political and economic institutions and organizations of will formation and governance is the defining political economic dilemma of our age. Our proposal to the Neubauer Collegium is to convene a series of workshops that gather different groupings of scholars (from an array of disciplines) to discuss the relationship between the market, the state and democracy in both historical and contemporary contexts.

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Entanglements of the Indian Past

Hemachandra, Leaf from a Jain manuscript, 13th century

Entanglements of the Indian Past

A series of interdisciplinary workshops focused on key themes and pivotal moments that shaped the course of Indian historiography will help chart a future course for the study of the Indian past.

The Entanglements of the Indian Past project aims to make the study of the Indian past more self-conscious of the forces that have shaped it. A three-year series of interdisciplinary workshops will focus on three issues where serious engagement is critical: caste, materiality, and historicality. The project pairs each of these issues with a crossroad moment in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century that determined the course that the study of the Indian past would take: Rahul Sankrityayan’s quest for a past that mirrored his commitments to justice and equality in the present, Muni Jinavijaya’s efforts to free Indian thought from the limitations of manuscript textuality, and Georg Bühler’s vision of recovering the history of a country that, according to a commonplace, “has no history.” Each of these moments reveals the intensity of political commitment, and the depth of vision, involved in studying the Indian past. This project will attempt to answer where such scholarship might go in the future.

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Hidden Abodes of the “Great Acceleration”: Fossil Metabolism, Infrastructure, and the Climate/Nature Crisis

Detail of a U.S. military map charting the international movement of iron and steel.

Hidden Abodes of the “Great Acceleration”: Fossil Metabolism, Infrastructure, and the Climate/Nature Crisis

Widely advocated by proponents of the Anthropocene, the Great Acceleration thesis posits that the decisive inflection point for today’s climate crises occurred during the postwar golden age of capitalism (1947-1974). This project will elaborate an alternative account of the contemporary climate and nature emergencies, devoting particular attention to the “hidden abodes” of the Great Acceleration—veiled yet essential dynamics associated with the construction of large-scale infrastructural systems to extract and exploit natural resources.

During the last decade, the concept of the Anthropocene has been widely adopted throughout the social sciences and humanities to capture the role of societal processes in the transformation of the earth system and in the genesis of contemporary planetary environmental emergencies, including global heating, biodiversity loss, and ocean acidification, among others. While questions of periodization remain intensely contested in the Anthropocene literature, considerable emphasis has been placed on the “Great Acceleration,” a period of dramatically intensified energy and resource use after World War II that has also witnessed a massive escalation of global carbon emissions, pollution, deforestation, species extinctions, and other leading indicators of planetary environmental disorder.

Building upon the research team members’ previous and ongoing work in several interconnected fields of critical environmental studies related to these themes and extending it through a two-year collaborative initiative in intensive dialogue with other scholars working in parallel directions, this project seeks to develop an alternative analysis of the Great Acceleration as a conjuncture of geohistorical transformation and environmental crisis intensification. This entails, first, developing a systematic critique of the Great Acceleration narrative due to its problematic conceptualization and periodization of historical and contemporary socioenvironmental change. Second, our work will elaborate an alternative account of the historical genealogy, infrastructural anatomy, and metabolic underpinnings of today’s socioecological tipping points in the planetary biosphere.

Our investigations will explore what we will term the “hidden abodes” of the Great Acceleration—veiled yet essential historical-geographical dynamics associated with capitalism’s relentless appropriation of unpaid reproductive and regenerative work to support the profit-driven, productivity-oriented, and infrastructurally intensive dynamic of accumulation. These hidden abodes of appropriation are constitutive of capital’s constantly intensifying yet chronically unstable metabolism of labor, energy, food, and raw materials; they underpin each wave of productivity growth, embodied in the expansion of fixed capital outlays, during the geohistory of capitalism. Against this theoretical background, which is largely derived from co-applicant Jason W. Moore’s approach to capitalist world-ecology and the Capitalocene, our project aims to investigate the historically and geographically specific dynamics of appropriation and capitalization, closely associated with the generalization of a fossil-fuel based metabolic regime and large-scale, planet-encompassing infrastructural systems, during the post-1870s period up through the present. We hypothesize that the latter laid the foundations for the consequent Great Acceleration of the so-called “Golden Age” of postwar capitalist expansion, and thus have also figured crucially in the climate and nature emergencies of our time.

Through discussions and investigations among the core team members, a series of internal seminars and workshops with several scholars who are developing closely allied research agendas, and a concluding public symposium, this project will illuminate the dramatic global socioenvironmental transformations of the last half-century in a longue durée geohistorical context. We also aim to develop a useful theoretical and historical perspective from which to decipher the cascading climate and nature emergencies of the early twenty-first century and the prospects for counteracting them in ways that support social and environmental justice, and the flourishing of both human and non-human life.

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