Academic Year/Topic

2020-21 | Naming the Natives: Subject Peoples as Seen by their Rulers in the Early American Empire, the Roman Empire, and the Present Moment

2019-20 | The Value of Consciousness and the Consciousness of Value
The ancients thought that of all the challenges to our understanding of the universe, three stand out as genuine mysteries: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is some of what there is alive? And why is some of what is alive conscious? Implicit in this agenda is a rudimentary hierarchy of beings, featuring two “quantum leaps.” First, live beings bring with them a special kind of value and significance, as compared to inanimate beings; the notion of “the sanctity of life,” which reappears in many moral traditions, may be taken to express this idea. Second, conscious beings bring with them a further, yet greater value and significance, as compared to mindless live beings — what we might call “the dignity of consciousness.” The purpose of this seminar is to explore both the underpinnings and consequences of this special value which consciousness injects into the world. Its organizing questions may be framed as follows: What is it about conscious awareness that bestows on its possessor this special kind of value? What exactly is the nature of the special value thus bestowed, and how is it distinguished from other types of moral status? In what ways, if any, does our conscious experience (in perception, emotion, and thought) of conscious beings disclose their distinctive value?

2018-19 | Waste: Histories and Futures
Waste is omnipresent. The more it surrounds and shapes the conditions of life and culture, the more urgently it solicits attention. Since the pioneering work of Mary Douglas, who understood waste as “matter out of place,” waste has been understood by a range of disciplines through ideas of materiality or the object. A set of linked terms—garbage, detritus, rubbish, and trash—have come to the fore as have analyses dominated by tools, commodities, and things. Even William Viney’s quite recent Waste: A Philosophy of Things, which considers new avenues of thought in the temporality of waste, focuses on the “thing”-ness of waste. Without excluding such approaches to the encroaching solidity of waste, this seminar approaches waste not merely as a noun but as a verb and thus as a process, a system of use, a nexus of interconnection, and a set of relations. Waste is not merely an assemblage of things to be analyzed but a set of activities and impulses. This seminar will gather thinkers across arts, architecture, humanities and social sciences to consider various rubrics of waste. Participants will take part in a series of intensive, thematic working groups culminating in a symposium and a multi-disciplinary, multi-authored open-access publication on histories and futures of waste.

2017-18 | Forgery and the Ancient: Art, Agency, Authorship
As an activity and a concept, forgery is immediately controversial. It calls to mind illegal, unethical, and dishonest practice, and it stirs debates over authenticity, value, authorship, and meaning. The growth of scholarship on forgery in recent decades means that a host of new questions can be applied to its study, a longstanding and crucial branch of humanistic research.

How, for example, can fresh perspectives on intentionality and meaning shift discourse on the perceived intellectual and financial value of a forged work of art? What might theories of culturally and historically determined authorship change about our understanding of the origin, creation, and function of a forged text? When is a perceived forgery not, in fact, a forgery – fraudulent, diminished, even tainted – and instead a creative act of impersonation?

This Rice Seminar will investigate these and other issues as they relate to the topic of forgery and the ancient. Scholarship on forgery touches nearly every age of history and every part of the globe, and it inevitably deals with the culture-period that the forgery references, the culture-period in which it is produced, and the culture-periods over which it is received. Consequently, the field is vast and requires an expertise that reaches across traditional scholarly boundaries of time, geography and field. We anticipate a Rice Seminar that is robustly interdisciplinary, bringing together art historians, literary critics and historians, working in a wide range of specializations.

A central part of this seminar is the role that notions of antiquity play in the drive to create, reproduce and pass works of art and text for ancient treasure and testimony. In different parts of the world, the antique begins and ends at different times, and it has diverse meanings for those who secretly recreate it. Consequently, the Seminar will cast a wide net, and it will have within its compass over three thousand years of ancient history on six continents. Furthermore, because the study of forgery necessarily involves the study of the reception of forgery, the Seminar will extend into the present. We expect that participants, invited lecturers, and Seminar conference papers will reach into times, places, and fields as diverse as Ancient Mediterranean artistic production, Medieval Christian, Chinese and Islamic manuscripts, pre-Columbian and modern Latin American art, Renaissance and Neo-Classical sculpture, museum and cultural heritage studies and more.

2016-17 | Chronotopic Imaginaries: The City in Signs, Signals, and Scripts
The ubiquity of today’s connectedness, in addition to the ongoing production, collection, and curation of massive amounts of data, has produced a new textual medium. Made of tweets, posts, messages, chats, etc. (all associated with time, date, and longitude and latitude), this new medium now flows through a pervasive network of computers, tablets, smartphones, PDAs, media players, and GPS navigation units. This “text” needs a new reader, one as critical and perceptive as previous semioticians who interpreted the signs and signals of often equally disruptive literary scripts. Unimaginable amounts of publicly accessible data reside on the databases of government agencies, corporations, and municipalities, from which a multitude of file formats can be downloaded, read, studied, and interpreted. It is perhaps due to this open access to digitally borne information about the cities we live in that Roland Barthes' maxim, "the city speaks to its inhabitants,” now operates at a much greater scale thanks to digital repositories that are, in fact, treasure troves for scholarly work. Humanists today face the unprecedented possibility of analyzing programming languages much as Ferdinand de Saussure once constructed a linguistic model made of signifiers and signifieds. Insights and solutions from multiple disciplines will inevitably be necessary in order to look at contemporary society and explore not only such phenomena as the “hyper-surveillance” of communication protocols, the “instantaneity” of transactions, the “immateriality” of production, or the “color” of profiling algorithms, but also more esoteric topics such as the “closetedness” of avatars, the “virility” of machines, the “coerciveness” of data validation functions, the “anonymity” of Anonymous, and the “reflexivity” of selfies—not to mention the style, syntax, and rhetoric of algorithmic bias in clouds made of zeros and ones.

2015-16 | After Biopolitics
Over the past twenty-five years, no paradigm has become more central to understanding our own moment than the paradigm of biopolitics—a fact that has, in turn, left hardly any discipline in the humanities and social sciences untouched. As Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze note in their recent definitive collection of essays,Biopolitics: A Reader, what we have witnessed in recent years is nothing less than a “biopolitical turn” in any number of fields. “In addition to bioethics, biotechnology, biopower, and biohistory--`bio-‘ terms that were all, in one way or another, already in circulation prior to the biopolitical turn—scholars now propose to study bioculture, biomedia, biolegitimacy, bioart, biocapital, biolabor, bioscience, bioeconomics, bioinformatics, biovalue, biodesire, biocomputing, biotheology, biosociety, and biocentrism, among others.”[i] The reasons for this “biopolitical turn” are not far to seek: neo-Malthusian angst regarding overpopulation and birth rates in the planet’s “undeveloped” regions, and depletion of the earth’s resources in the context of global warming in what we used to call the “first world”; seemingly endless debates over the political and economic complexities of healthcare, social security, lengthening retirement ages and dwindling personal savings rates; confrontations over abortion and immigration in which the concepts of “life” and “race” are never far from view, if often occulted; the unequal global distribution of access to medical care and medical technologies (manifested most clearly in the HIV/AIDs pandemic and its cultural expressions) at the very moment when pharmaceuticals and the pharmaceutical industries have never been more deeply woven into daily life in the developed west, or more profitable; the post-9/11 context of the “war on terror” and the ongoing, and increasingly pervasive, anxieties about security and borders resulting in the normalization of spaces and practices of juridical “exception” such as Guantanamo Bay, drone warfare, and electronic surveillance at a level heretofore unknown, all revolving around a logic of (auto)immunity whose biological underpinnings reach back to the very origins of the biopolitical in the concept of the “body politic.”[ii] Add to these an increasing awareness--in no small part under the pressure of global warming and the emergent paradigm of the “anthropocene”--of the plight of non-human life (whether in discussions of animal rights, factory farming, and the bioengineering of non-human creatures, or in the increasingly undeniable fact that we are living through the sixth largest extinction event in the history of the planet) and how deeply intricated it is with the plight of the human and its technology, and you have ample grounds to understand why “life” (in the broadest sense) has become the central object of politics over the past few decades.

2014-15 | Exchanges and Temporalities in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Victorianism
Over the past few years, the debate within the humanities about the problematic but seemingly inevitable practice of periodization has changed noticeably in tone. The conversation has moved from a wholesale rejection of those grammatically, epistemologically, and geographically unparallel terms – Enlightenment, Romantic, Victorian – to a critical re-appropriation of these categories as complex, multi-faceted, and taxonomically supple. Recent scholarship on the literature and culture of the (long) eighteenth and the (long) nineteenth centuries has reflected and contributed to this trend, and thus presents a compelling site for the discussion of this emerging shift. (The multi-institutional and interdisciplinary Re:Enlightenment Project is an example of the kind of work we have in mind.) Such work, influenced by critical theory and historiography, attempts to leave behind the simplistic credo that the rubrics of Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Victorianism are fixed and stable, and returns to these terms as productive avenues in capturing the complexity of these “periods” and their legacy. The 2014-15 Rice Seminar will extend this critical impulse over a yearlong residential research seminar focused on the relation between Britain and the rest of the world. We propose to understand Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Victorianism as emphatically heterogeneous rubrics, or interlocked yet internally contradictory terms, with specific aesthetic, literary, historical, and geographic valences. The seminar offers a chance to re-examine the claim of these terms to conceptual and historical specificity and to explore their power and their limitations.

2013-14 | Materialism and New Materialism Across the Disciplines
In recent years, fields as diverse as philosophy, political science, literature, feminist studies, science studies, classical studies, and intellectual history have collectively shown interest in what has been termed a “new materialism.” Defined chiefly in philosophical terms around the primacy of matter and its properties and actions (as opposed to the sense of materialism traditionally identified with Marxist economic determinism), the “new materialism” asks us to rethink certain long-held assumptions about the nature of the stuff of the universe. Across the disciplines within the humanities and beyond the question of materialism reveals an untapped common interest. The 2013-2014 Rice Seminar undertook a year-long inquiry into the “new materialism” in light of the history of science and philosophy. The group considered “new materialism” from the vantage of the longer sweep of discourse about materialism in the Western tradition, examining problems such as: physical mechanism in Descartes and Hobbes; Spinoza’s secular monism; Nietzsche’s naturalism; the physics of motion from classical atomism to quantum mechanics; the concept of self-organization in the biological sciences; feminist notions of embodiment; materialism and the problem of consciousness.

2012-13 | Human Trafficking - Past and Present: Crossing Disciplines, Crossing Borders
The twenty-first century has witnessed a global expansion of slavery and the slave trade. Long considered a relic of the past that had been dismantled during the emancipation period of the nineteenth century, coerced labor is spreading as part of the informal labor sector not only in economically depressed countries, but also in emerging industrialized economies and the most advanced industrialized and democratic societies. Recent scholarship has emphasized the protean nature of slavery up through the nineteenth century, as well as the new forms of bound labor that emerged in the twentieth. Processes of modern globalization have exacerbated this modern form of slavery and the attendant slave trading that is now most commonly referred to as human trafficking.