Discussions of “Dirt” as a Concept

What comes to mind when considering dirt as both a physical object and abstract idea? Dirt is a constant that we encounter everyday, yet seemingly fail to realize the symbolic nature and effect dirt and filth can have on societies and cultures.

The Center for Humanities lecture series this semester, “Dirt,” explores this concept both symbolically and politically, through the intersectional lens of topics of waste, filth, toxicity and contamination. “How might a subversive poetics of dirt reframe its symbolic potential, its capacity for instilling, but also for troubling, normative social, cultural, and aesthetic hierarchies?” (Natasha Korda). This is one of many questions “Dirt” will address. See below for the series schedule!

Histories of Dirt in Lagos: Oct. 12, 2020

Focusing on popular perceptions of waste in Lagos, Nigeria, this lecture examines the ways ‘dirt’ signifies politically through complex cultural networks in urban West Africa, and the ways urban identities and relationships may be marked and transformed over time by categories denoting dirt. The lecture will discuss the rich layers of historical signification that often attach to everyday sanitary practices like defecation or sweeping, and it will argue that attention to these practices can open up local histories that are useful if we wish to situate global public health and sanitary discourses. Examples from Lagos are used to show how colonial public health strategies from the early twentieth century have changed over the decades and taken on cultural value in music and popular discourse, becoming available, in dynamic ways, as symbols with resonance among the public in the contemporary city.

Speaker: Stephanie Newell, Yale University

Antropogenic Forms in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being: Oct. 19, 2020

This talk considers how Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being responds to some of the conceptual challenges of the Anthropocene, drawing together human and non-human time scales in both theme and form. The novel creates meaningful Transpacific and transhistorical entanglements through images of oceanic gyres, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, World War II, and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, while also drawing on narrative’s most fundamental resource, the story-discourse relation.

Speaker: Amy Tang, Wesleyan University

Trashy Encounters: Modernity, the Great Pacific Garbage Gyre, and Indigenous Futures: Oct. 26, 2020

Beginning with Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (2006) and Wu Ming-yi’s Man with the Compound Eye (2011), two contemporary novels that represent Indigenous people’s relation with trash and especially marine plastic, this talk reflects on both figures’ relations with modernity. Indigeneity and plastic waste are frequently characterized with temporal polarity: while indigenous peoples are romanticized as the organic — but already faded — origin of humanity, the haunting indestructibility of plastic waste looms in human imaginations of the future. As such, modern ecological cultures frequently position the two in opposition, pushing each further into the temporal past and future and out of view of modernity’s progress.

The talk interrogates the idealogical underpinnings of this assumption, reconsiders Indigenous peoples’ encounters with modernity’s material refuse, and delineates what this rethinking may tell us about Indigenous futurities.

Speaker: YU-Ting Huang, Wesleyan University

Getting Our Hands Dirty: Manual Labor Schools, Abolition, and the Empire of Benevolence: Nov. 9, 2020

The term “Benevolent Empire” describes a constellation of Protestant evangelical missionaries, educators, and social reformers who coalesced and established institutions during the early nineteenth century. While the self-styled “benevolent” reformers sprang from transatlantic networks linking New England to the United Kingdom, their empire would encompass the globe.

While many involved in the Benevolent Empire hailed from universities and educational institutions that trained students for a life of the mind, the movement also begat new institutions that combined a liberal arts education with an equal emphasis on manual labor. Each became training grounds for radical abolitionism and a few practiced egalitarian ideals towards racial and gender equity.

How did a profound belief in the dignity and moral value of manual labor shape these ideologies? What might we, in the present, recover from this tradition? And why did training the “head, heart and hand” eventually become a method for labor subordination, racial segregation, and social control after emancipation?

Speaker: Khalil Johnson, Wesleyan University

“Bob Did Bad Things”: Indigenous Lives as Dirt and as Ephemera in the Early 20th Century U.S.: Nov. 16, 2020

When analyzing the contested relationships between U.S. settler society and Indigenous peoples, we must always begin with the threateningly dangerous question: What does it mean that the U.S. has built on Indian land?

Indigenous survival has long been viewed as a dangerous threat to U.S. claims to its national land base and thus its national identity. As theorized by the settler logic of elimination, Indigenous lives must be erased — they are by definition ephemeral even as select traces/ephemera have been retained in settler archives.

Building on settler notions of (contaminated, dangerous) dirt that must be eliminated or controlled versus (nurturing) soil that must be claimed, this talk examines the archival traces of the childhood lives of Tsianina Lomawaima’s father Curtis and his brother Bob at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, a federal off-reservation boarding school. Curtis survived but Bob did not. Family memory as well as Indigenous-Black-White racial entanglements come into play in understanding their lives. In the end, the school (and other) authorities decided that Curtis was promising “soil,” but that Bob was unworthy “dirt.”

Speaker: Tsianina Lomawaima, Arizona State University

Projected Resonances: Intersections of Sound, Performance, and Tourism Underground at Mammoth Cave: Nov. 23, 2020

What expectations do we bring to an acoustic space? And, what may sound reveal about our cultural imaginations of how spaces may behave? Projected Resonances Creatively engages with these questions by focusing on Mammoth Cave and its intertwined histories of musical performance and tourism.

The presentation-performance draws together a series of field recordings and archival materials as a series of overlapping audio streams and textures. Many of these streams will feature recent site-specific recordings realized with the SPLICE Ensamble inside Mammoth Cave made possible by the National Park Service.

Speaker: Paula Matthusen, Wesleyan University

It is important to note that all events will take place via Zoom. Please visit the Center for Humanities page for more details.




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Wesleyan University Arts and Humanities Division

Wesleyan University Arts and Humanities Division

Welcome to Wesleyan University’s Arts and Humanities news! Covering a variety of disciplines, there’s something for everyone. Find what interests you!

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