The Advisory Board sets annual themes for the Jackman Humanities Institute. Each theme guides the selection of Fellows, public conferences, seminars, and workshops for the coming year.
Current Theme 2023–2024: Absence
Absence takes many forms - absence as loss, abandonment, and omission; absence as exile, separation, and unbelonging; and, paradoxically, absence as boundless, infinite, and transcendent. Ways of knowing, communal memory, as well as personal and cultural identities are all shaped, challenged, and even denied by various types of absences. Voids, silences, privations, gaps and solitudes are forces in themselves. What is not there can be even more powerful than what is there. How does absence affect our views of and place in the world? What meaning can we make of those “blank void regions”? What happens when absence is present? How are today's technologies and our networked world challenging the binary distinction of presence and absence?
Undergrounds have figured powerfully in human histories and imaginations as places of alterity, concealment, exploration, and discovery; of fear, transition, transportation, and transmutation. They have also figured as spaces of hope, refuge, and fugitivity that weave them into radical traditions and visions of the future. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, through the Greek katabasis and Dante, to crime rings and chthonic gods, infrastructures and escape routes, DJs and the Dark Web: our languages are fascinated with depth. But our surface worlds depend crucially on subterranean networks of extraction, exploitation, and disposal. Now more than ever, we need to understand the place of underworlds in human pasts, presents, and futures. This JHI theme encourages proposals that examine what a descent into the underworlds might reveal.
2025–2026: Dystopia and Trust
A new millennium, rapid advances in science and technology, and a new determination to fight social injustice could have encouraged dreams of utopia. Instead, as though from the predictable plot of some pulp sci-fi or true crime story, they seem to have delivered a nightmarish dystopia. Easy information has given way to facile misinformation, the promise of solidarity to faction and polarization, democracy to authoritarianism, supremacism, and the kleptocracy of the 1%. People all over the world have lost trust, not only in many major institutions of societies, but also in each other. Are these trends reversible? Can widespread political and social trust be achieved, within and across societies? If not, with what consequence? If so, how should the subjective, social scientific, and philosophical dimensions of our dystopia be analyzed and re-imagined? What possible utopia has our dystopia, if it is one, betrayed?
From the labour of childbirth to the travail of making a living, human beings are labouring animals who derive meaning and experience meaninglessness in work. Historically, human creativity has long flourished both through and against labour-saving technologies. In a globalizing and climate-changing world, rising nationalist movements call for the fortification of borders that would stop seasonal flows of labour, while women call for pay equity and harassment-free workplaces to allow for the freedom to work in peace. In a world of increasingly precarious labour, thanks in part to automation, what does the future of work portend for both people and the planet? What forms of resistance are possible when workers face both the irrelevance of their labour and its exploitation?
Whether understood as light amusement or passionate pursuit, as pure enjoyment, sensual gratification, bliss or hedonism, pleasure may be the most agreeable motivator. Yet pleasure has been described as “curious and appalling,” one of modern civilization’s most deadly poisons. Through its diverse manifestations—as intellectual satisfaction and the pleasures of knowledge, across studies of media audiences, addiction, virtual sex—when, and how, has pleasure become divorced from ideology, politics, and power? Uneasiness concerning pleasure resonates readily with humanists’ tendencies to formulate our subjects of study as constellations of problems, but is there space in our discourses for unironic joy?
From political parties to literary coteries, from fan groups to sports teams, from terrorist organizations to online groups, our collectives, associations, and communities are multiform and complex. How do we band together and why? In teaming up, how does membership of a collective affect one’s own agency and standing – what do we lose, what do we gain? Can collectives truly be agents and how do group dynamics emerge? How do we balance the interests between collectives, of individuals and collectives, and of the individual within the collective?
How might the humanities contribute to the critical discourse on energy and climate? The energy crisis is no longer simply about limited supplies but now concerns the very nature and place of energy in human life and society. Strange weather as symptom of changing climate destabilizes our trust in and certainty of our home (i.e. our planet) and provokes fantasies of control and of chaos. How can we help frame questions of environmental degradation, scientific knowledge and its popularization, especially in their relation to social equity, and societal futures?
What does it mean to read—a face, a text, an object, another mind? Human beings use a variety of intuitive and deliberate techniques in an effort to gauge what others feel, want, mean, and know, a sort of ‘mindreading.’ But are the faces we see and voices we hear always representational? While face-to-face encounters have exceptional social significance, the ways in which people encounter each other on stage, in print, and on screens are not transparent. What access to other minds do the humanities afford, and how do the humanities connect to developments in cognitive science and neuroscience? How do notions about reading minds transform what we think we do in reading texts? What is it to recognize the face and to know the mind of another?
Performances of reconciliation and apology attempt to erase violence that is arguably indelible. What ideological and therapeutic work does reconciliation do, under whose authority, for whose benefit, and with what limits? What would it mean to acknowledge the role of shame? How might the work of truth and reconciliation commissions be compared to other ways of shifting relations from violence and violation to co-existence? How does the work of apology stabilize social identities, conditions, and relations and how do indelible traces of violence work for and against those conditions, identities and relations?
The modern experience of time is often characterized by its “increasing speed,” its linearity, and its emphasis on “now.” But time does not have to be regarded as the flight of an arrow, a race track, or a forking path. If we consider the body, the planet, or the longue durée of history, it becomes clear that rhythm, cycle, pace and temporality pervade the human condition, now as they have always done. Occurring at multiple scales (neuronal firing, diurnal habits, menses, calendars, life cycles, the rise and fall of civilizations), rhythm is concrete, existential, and profound. How do rhythm and cycle, rather than velocity, characterize human life? What are the politics of chronology? How can a deeper understanding of time, rhythm, and pace - from literary theorists, historians, phenomenologists, political scientists, and diverse other sectors of the academy - provide us with guidance in an increasingly frantic and fast-paced world?
Because words are the privileged medium of communication, things have long been characterized as mute. However, a focus on material culture has provided a particularly fruitful field of research in the humanities. Things bear affective, social, cultural, historical, religious, economic, and political meanings and relations. They can be traces of the past, commodities or gifts, symbols of the divine, tools, raw or natural materials, or works of art, furnishings or decorations, or merely be moved out of our way. They provide insights into how people make sense of experience and come together as societies. Whether as relics of ancient cultures or as contemporary commodities, things are at the heart of humanities disciplines. How can we make them talk? What do things tell us about societies and their histories?
A distinctive human quality is our sense of humour, and our attraction to play and to games. Play is central to such fields as literature, music, poetry, art, and film. Humour can, of course, be very serious: a powerful critique, a source of strength to survive, a tool for building solidarity, and a means of drawing and redrawing limits. But humour also poses a challenge to the serious. Today, when scholarship needs to justify itself and time is money, what room is left for play and humour? Can they be justified along functional and economic lines (e.g. play is the seedbed of the genuinely new) or must we resist justification in the name of play itself? What is an old joke worth? Games can be both competitive and collaborative, and play is structured by the virtual spaces games create. Playing games and studying games fosters new modes of knowledge. This theme will allow all disciplines, those that have long-recognized the aesthetic importance of humour and play and those that traditionally have not, to intersect with new thinking about games, and so explore a full range of serious (and sometimes funny) play.
What are the implications of knowing more than one language? From mythic reflections on the Tower of Babel through contemporary philosophical reflections on the question of translation, the multiplicity of languages has been an ongoing focus of inquiry. How is translation possible, both in the specific sense of translating speech or texts, but also in the larger sense of bringing meaning from one system to another, including from speech to writing? How do we conceive of languages of music, as well as song; icons and symbols as well as scripts? How best can we interpret the exchanges between languages in a world of multilingual interactions? In the ancient Near East, for example, a number of written bilingual texts sometimes reflect a local language and lingua franca, other times reflect a political orientation and appeasement or defiance. Translation between cultures and languages produce unintended results, often creating new originals. Amidst these multiple languages, what is the impact of the untranslatable?
Food is a basic human need. It shapes desires and yields many kinds of enjoyment. The humanities explore food from diverse perspectives seeing it both as an object produced and consumed and also as the means and symbol of our human relations. The diversity of what we eat (and don’t eat) and of how food is produced and shared shapes cultures, communities, nations, and empires. Refracted through literature, religion, and art, food is a central lens for exploring human history and the patterns of our interaction. Hunger, as an index of poverty and of environmental disaster, provides a reversed lens with which we can explore justice and ethics. How humans get what they eat, from near and far, is basic to ways of inhabiting places on the earth and relating to other species. From hunter-gatherers to communal gardens, feudal farming to agribusiness, food and the systems that provide it are matched by a diversity of the tables at which we eat - food for celebration, sustenance, display, competition, joy and sorrow.
The experience of dislocation prompts insight into how people and ideas inhabit space, and what happens as they move. Many experiences of uprooting and exile are unwelcome; arrivals in new locations often generate violence and intolerance. The arts and books, languages and stories of the old country often remain vital for immigrants, creating diasporic cultures of memory and need; at times the hybridity created in a new place is not a simple amalgam or a peaceful overwriting. Cities are the common site of exile and new creations, and in their architecture and overlapping communities of trade, worship, and education, cities provide an archival record of the disruptive encounters that result from dislocation. The task of humanities research is to engage these complex practices of memory, importation, colonization, and assimilation.
Human beings make worlds appear by imagining and "imaging" them; they display worlds to others in performances. This cross-cultural theme embraces the study not only of how images relate to the reality of the world, but also both as individuals and societies we generate images. The spectacle of performance, which was the origin of theory in the ancient Greek world, leads to many kinds of reflection, from performativity to epistemology, from theories of history to literary and aesthetic theory, from cultural criticism to paleography. It extends ultimately to examining the role of reflection (speculation) and criticism of images and their worlds.
Today humanists must contend with a fundamental question: Is the object of our scholarship - humanity - still a valid category? This question arises from pressures that challenge the distinctions that make us human beings. Some of these pressures arise from science, medicine, and technology: how are we to understand the distinction of being human when our physical activities can be recognized as part of animal biology, when our physical makeup is governed by the biochemistry of DNA, when our mental capacities are interwoven with those of computers and artificial intelligence? Can progress in medicine and technology replace the various functions that have historically and theoretically made the human distinct? Using various approaches to study the artistic and scholarly records of the past and present, humanities scholars explore these pressures.
Making sense of our world depends on the practice of narrating events. In both oral and written traditions, and ranging from the historian's monograph to the epic poem, a film, or a single painting, the activity of telling stories serves as a topic for diverse kinds of scholarly inquiry. Humanities research explores various modes of telling and the social, political and epistemological and ethical implications of how and why stories are told.