Click on the heading below for a detailed description of current and past themes.
2020 (Winter): Human Nature
Human nature has a history. Presumptions about what humans are, what different kinds of humans can do, who gets to have “human nature,” and indeed whether there is even something that might be called human nature are fundamental to societies and cultures around the globe, past and present. Political institutions, economic organizations, social structures, and cultural productions routinely build in, and are built on, beliefs about human nature, beliefs that themselves vary widely across time and space. To some, “human nature” is an oxymoron, while to others humans are as natural as anything else. Furthermore, in the age of the Anthropocene, questions about humans in nature are more pressing than ever. This EIHS series of events invites us all to investigate the multiple understandings of human nature not only as a concept, but as part of the practice of life in all its aspects.
2019 (Fall): Historical Truths
Historical truths are rarely self-evident. Whose truths? Whose methods? Whose discipline? we are bound to ask. Historians also face persistent questions about sources and evidence, where both scarcity and abundance, and, indeed, silence pose their own problems about selection, reading, and interpretation. Truth claims in history have a precarious status, but not many historians are comfortable giving them up entirely. They arise from historians’ heterogeneous inquiries, investigations, practices, and narrations. By definition, they are open to revision. What is more, various scholarly, public, and other communities have a stake in debating what passes as historical knowledge. If the purpose of histories is to unlock aspects of the past for the benefit of the present and future, then our theme encourages us to discuss how precisely we can activate historical thinking in a variety of settings – and how we might react to the ways that historical thinking is appropriated by various publics
2019 (Winter): Anxious Agency
Agency counts among the weightiest, if not thorniest, categories of historical analysis. Yet all too often, we ascribe it summarily, as if to avoid its intricacies: A group, be it a social class, women, individuals, or even material objects, is said to possess agency tout court or not. As a result, the mechanisms, gradations, varieties, paradoxes, and limits of the agential terrain vanish from sight, though they are constitutive of the histories this concept allows us to narrate. Our theme seeks to uncover and underscore the complexity of agency, including our own agency as historians. In times of crises, when we are in demand as citizens, humans, and historians, this has a timely urgency.
2017-18 is different from previous years: For the first time since its inception, the institute is going themeless. Not having a theme will allow us to catch our breath, reflect on past themes, or cook up new ones. Themes have helped structure the institute’s activities in the past. Disrupting this standard in the present, if only for a year, offers everyone with a stake in doing history on campus the welcome opportunity (or so we hope) to imagine a future for EIHS.
2015-2017: Senses and Longings
The Eisenberg Institute proposes to explore perception and feeling in relation to the time-scapes of human experience. We aim to find a place in history for longings, i.e., yearnings for a state of affairs—perhaps lost to the past or beckoning as an imagined future—that differs from a given present.
The “affective turn” of the past twenty-odd years contends with a default assumption that human action is rational, the result of goal-oriented choices made by actors seeking the most effective means to their ends. Historians bring a rich perspective to this “turn.” We know that human action and decision arise in definite historical situations, brought to us by the senses; moreover, choices to act are frequently steeped in one or more emotions—hope, sorrow, love, resentment, desire, and more. Thus we see a complex of elements. The senses stir feeling; feelings can arouse or dull the senses. Both are contingent on time—through the education of the senses, for instance, and in the temporal dimensions of memory or anticipation that frequently constitute emotions. We propose to capture this complex of sense and feeling particularly in longings that imaginatively traverse long stretches of historical time.
Today the look forward is clouded by conditions of economic disorder, political violence, and environmental disaster, leading observers to recognize a “crisis of futurity” manifested in an inability to imagine better times to come, in mythic embroidery of old times, or in fear of bygone calamities returned to haunt the world. Such a crisis—a loss of fruitful longings—will be just one of the problems we hope to broach, as the Eisenberg Institute invites discussion of all these aspects of situations, from all periods and places: modes of perception (histories of the human senses), textures of emotional response, the profound temporality of experience, and the framing of long-range time-scapes looking toward past and future.
2013-2015: Materials of History
The raw “materials” of historical analysis are as fluid as history itself. New modes of historical questioning may focus on anything from music scores and digital media to staple crops, tsunamis, and AK47’s. The older bailiwicks of “material culture,” in other words, have radically expanded and proliferated to include virtually any physical or virtual object.
But it is not simply artifacts and source types that are at stake in historians’ renewed interests in the material. In recent years, the older “materialisms” of late twentieth century social, economic, and labor history have been stretched and revitalized, giving way to a series of intriguing (and still emerging) methodological mixtures. In current practice, “materialist” modes of analysis reference incomes and conditions, but also epidemics and emissions—or a vast corpus/network of images, texts, or goods. In other instances, the term points to innovative theories of causality; or new epistemological registers; or novel efforts to bridge an older set of methodological divides. The material, in short, is back. But it now operates according to a very different range of models and meanings than those that once dominated post-war social science.
Our new theme, “Materials of History,” aims to sort through and clarify this conceptual groundswell. Our program seeks to build upon past explorations of the material by stretching, reimagining, and diversifying them to account for the vastness of human experience in all its temporal and spatial dimensions. We anticipate surprising discoveries both in the content of material history and the methods of materialist inquiry. With our theme, we hope to showcase new historical approaches to the materiality of human lives as well as the remarkable range of evidentiary materials historians now employ. Our discussions will explore the material as a central category of historical research as well as a promising vehicle for historical pedagogy.
2011-2013: Taking Place: History and Spatial Imaginations
The dimensions of historical inquiry are as much spatial as temporal. The subjects of history
inhabit space and move across it; they shape space, and are shaped by it. It is hard to imagine
historical work that does not in some way contend with the dialectic of space and place—interrelated yet distinct concepts—whether in the territorial claims of nations, the making of cityscapes, the crossing of boundaries, the limits and possibilities imposed by mountains and oceans. Whether “chosen peoples” have the primary right to settle and rule in a given place and others are fated to migrate and live as exiles, refugees, or diasporas, both the settled and the mobile contend with their relationship to space. And yet, while disciplines from geography to anthropology long ago turned to thinking about space as both analytic and metaphor, historians’ contributions to this theoretical literature have thus far been muted.
"Taking Place: History and Spatial Imaginations" seeks to focus inquiry on space and place in
both history and historiography. Our theme seeks to bring temporality and context to questions of space and movement. We aim to do this by focusing on two analytical axes: mobility and scale. Mobility has been central to historical narratives, in the stories of travelers, traders, slaves, and diasporas, for example. And if mobility is in some ways about thinking laterally, scale allows us to think vertically: from the individual body to the global. Both scale and mobility challenge spatial concepts; they disrupt and support the immobile structures of history, society, and culture, forcing reconsiderations of the traditional places of historiography.
"Taking Place" therefore pushes us to articulate the centrality of space to the writing of history
with more clarity. Indeed, one goal is to show how the discursive spaces of historical narrative—the spatial imaginations of history itself—can be opened up to critical examination. The “spatial turn” surely started a vital conversation. But space—particularly in its relationship to mobility and scale—must be addressed with renewed vigor. We at the Eisenberg Institute hope to provide the space, as it were, for that conversation to take place.
2009-2011: Paucity and Plenty: Enactments and Expectations
As the global collapse of financial markets draws our attention to the stark contrasts between paucity and plenty across the world, it also renders visible the extent to which human actions, perceptions, and expectations shape these conditions. With this theme we aim to historicize scarcity and abundance, and to problematize their diverse historical expressions: economic, environmental, spatial, temporal, legal, social, cultural, and spiritual. We view this theme as timely, not only in the context of current events, but also as reflecting a productive epistemological and methodological moment in historical thinking. With this theme, we reconsider the tensions of poverty, deprivation, wealth, and excess—the preoccupations of an older economic and social history—aided by the questions, methods, and insights of the cultural and transnational historiographic turns. this theme presents an opportunity to explore new approaches to familiar historical questions, widening the terms of abundance and scarcity to encompass an examination of changing forms of material and immaterial production, environmental scarcity and engagement, disasters of famine and drought, and crises of bodies, health and medicine, along with the forms of social inequality and social movements they have produced.
The study of paucity and plenty can be pursued at different scales: within intimate domains, inside states or nations, or across larger geographically dispersed networks, including new forms of empire—each with its own unequal relations and distributions of resources, goods, value, and practices. Race, gender, class, age, and subject location are routinely enacted in the arrangements of paucity and plenty. Moral and religious belief systems engage with questions of accumulation and charity, economies of the afterlife, and their implications for the distribution of worldly goods. this theme also offers occasion to contemplate the role of the imaginary and the performative: displays of difference in wealth and status, the enactment of sumptuary laws, the meanings of decadence and indulgence, consumption and waste, specters of futures and pasts, and the enforcement of regimes of paucity within cultures of plenty.
2007-2009: Topographies of Violence
“Topographies of Violence” provides an opportunity to examine the ability of history, as a discipline, to contend with violence. Violence on a mass scale, whether a natural disaster, state-sponsored terror, or civil war, is sometimes viewed as non-narratable, as a “limit case” of history, while other instances suggest that history can represent violence, but can only do so in “fragments.” From this perspective, violence emerges as an interruption, an aberration, or fragment, in the larger stories of history. Yet violence is entwined not only in histories of wars, empires, and revolutionary transformations, but also in the anchoring of citizenship and the writing of law, in the fostering of collective memory and the politics of public commemoration. Its workings can be detected in the histories of everyday life, helping to constitute both constructively and destructively the realms of sexuality and gender, ethnicity and race. Violence can be visualized, etched in words, or materialized in practices. Violence has spatial dimensions: it helps contour physical landscapes, human relationships, individual bodies, even the understanding and application of the term “violence” itself. Violence also has aesthetic implications, for almost every act of art or artifice can be said, in a sense, to do violence to that which it transforms.
With this theme we seek neither to define “violence” nor to limit its possible meanings; rather, we intend to open this term for debate and to facilitate new discussion on both the empirical and methodological fronts. One goal is to interrogate when violence is; that is, to explore the politics implicit in describing certain actions as “violence” but not others, and to question the moral valence usually associated with the term “violence.” We anticipate our discussions of the “topographies of violence” to engage the narrative strategies historians have used to represent violence in/as history as well as the limits of such strategies. In doing so, we also hope to learn from the approaches of other disciplines – anthropology, for example – which have addressed the multifaceted, and often elusive, causes of violence, its phenomenology, and its impact on society. We see the potential for fruitful explorations of these questions in relation to our teaching, our research, and to the discipline of history more generally.