We are the stories we tell. A variety of narratives—journalistic, artistic, and scholarly— compete to explain our cultural circumstances and to ground individual experiences within a collective reality, from the news site to the novel, from political rhetoric to religious doctrine. Yet as storytelling platforms have multiplied, audiences have fragmented, and agreement on the significance of any single narrative is increasingly difficult to achieve. The distinction famously attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”—seems to be breaking down. The media circulation that the historian Benedict Anderson postulated as uniting citizens in “imagined communities” now seems equally capable of dividing them. We seek an interdisciplinary, humanistic conversation about how contemporary narratives of identity and experience, belonging and exclusion, are fostered or censored; how criteria of truth, feeling, or opinion are harnessed to assert a narrative’s importance; and how social and cultural institutions mediate the circulation of these narratives.
Creative productions, social organization, the making of canons and the making of nations, editing, and sculpting all require inclusions and exclusions. As boundaries blur or move, new inclusions and exclusions follow—a dynamic with ideological, political, aesthetic, and/or social implications. The 2016-2017 Northeastern Humanities Center fellows present projects that are concerned with framing devices, borders and boundaries, marginalization, fences, and gatekeeping; or: strategies for delimiting units of meaning, models and metaphors, histories of exclusions and remediation, or issues such as literacy, citizenship, disability rights, evolutions of curricula, or particular cases for new inclusions in classical canons. What is in and who is out evolves: from schools to country clubs, from texts to communities to nation states, from disciplines to syllabi to fashion. Who decides, how does change happen, and with what consequences?
The appearance of design—fine detail, intricate patterning, and evidence of planning—is ubiquitous in nature and culture. The 2015-2016 Northeastern Humanities Center fellows presented projects that are concerned with aspects of design —ornamentation, utility, aesthetics, creativity, emotion, rationality, and intention— as well as projects that theorize and question principles of design. Among the questions members considered were: Is design approached differently in different contexts: for example, the design of objects and physical structures, of experiments, of organizational structures, of public policies, or works of art? How should we design for change? What makes for good design? Is absence of design possible? How is design linked to unintended consequences? What is gained from reflecting on design?
The 2014-15 theme recognized wide-ranging and deeply resonant interdisciplinary conversations about “space and place,” from history to politics and from literature to architecture, including digital humanities’ embrace of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), mapping projects in biology and textual studies, and the recently coined “geo-Humanities” that critically engages with art and history in relation to geography. From the micro-design of the spaces we inhabit to the urgent environmental concerns of the planet, from local social networks to global economics, from urbanization to globalization, spatial thinking has come to inform a startling array of disciplines. Scholars working in their diverse fields and periods considered how space and place informed their research and practice.
The 2013-14 theme of “viral culture” names modes of circulation and transmission of information, ideas, and biota across time and space. The Humanities Center thinks of “viral culture” as a way to engage an array of important and emergent contemporary phenomena- related to areas as diverse as social networks, the internet, new media, public health, sexuality, marketing, and globalization. Viral culture has roots, as well, in fields as diverse as the history of public health, economics, literature, transportation, and print culture. With this theme, scholars working in diverse fields and periods will consider the ways in which the viral transmission of memes, diseases, electronic signals, print texts-of varied forms of culture-inform new research.