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Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945; e-mail:

Presidential Lectures series begins new year

In pinstripe suits, elegant silks and casual cardigans they have come to talk about beauty and imagination, cultural divides and worldviews.

Bulgarian artist, Nigerian playwright, American biologist, French philosopher, Argentine critic, Russian champion ­ their nationalities are as diverse as the disciplines they represent.

What the 15 speakers in the Presidential Lectures and Symposia in the Humanities and Arts have shared to date is a concern for the future of the social and aesthetic values that constitute the humanities.

Funded by the President's Office, the series is designed to bring distinguished scholars and artists to campus. It is part of President Gerhard Casper's plan to strengthen and revitalize the humanities and arts by exploring new roles and relationships for the disciplines on the brink of the 21st century.

"If it was felt that universities and the world at large . . . gave the arts and humanities their due, there would be no need for presidential lecturers," Princeton philosopher Alexander Nehamas noted last March in the talk he gave. "This series is a compromise, a mutual accommodation, an effort to show that Stanford is taking the arts and humanities seriously by offering them an opportunity to show Stanford why it should."

Lecture series director Hans Ulrich "Sepp" Gumbrecht, the Albert Guerard Professor of Literature in the departments of French and Italian and of comparative literature, accepts that "show me" challenge.

"Even our critics would agree that we've had some good fireworks so far," he says.

Gumbrecht says that the lecture series was intentionally "designed to be glitzy in order to attract big audiences." The size of the audience, he adds, helps to "build powerful arguments for having visiting professors and perhaps for having more endowed professorships in the humanities."

A self-described "Teutonic German," Gumbrecht says he originally thought he could steer the panel discussions that followed each lecture into epistemological conversations about the future of the humanities.

"But that just didn't work," he acknowledges. "So now discussions are happening in a more freewheeling way and people are asking the questions they really want to ask. I've been learning to let go and see what happens."

While the focus is distinctively artistic for the Autumn Quarter lectures (see accompanying box for schedule), the speakers no doubt will bring the same passion to their presentations that marked the launch of the series in March 1998.

Environmental artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, declined to wrap Hoover Tower but did set a precedent for overcrowding in Annenberg Auditorium with the first presidential lecture. After likening his use of actual fabric to representations of fabric that have appeared in stone, marble and wood for thousands of years, Christo spoke about the reality of the "moment" and the "present" ­ themes that would be repeated by subsequent speakers.

Peter Eisenman, an innovative architect of large-scale housing and urban design projects, spoke about the "energy of the moment" and suggested that people in today's media-saturated society have forgotten how to experience and appreciate the present: "What matters is that there are moments in time which can live in the present, carried through literature, through art, through film and also through architecture."

Karl Heinz Bohrer, a German cultural critic and writer on aesthetics and literary imagination, similarly lamented the artist's "loss of presence" in today's society.

At least four lecturers drew on their own experiences to talk about the power of the unexpected and the human imagination.

Argentine critic Beatriz Sarlo recounted the "miracle" that took place when she read William Blake's The Tiger as an undergraduate and "found what I was looking for: something completely foreign to my world and to my knowledge."

French playwright and philosopher Hélène Cixous lobbied for an acknowledgement of the university as a site where undergraduates could "learn how to not know."

"Students are a people living, dreaming, brilliant, with fragile skin," she said. "As a people, they have the power of poetical playfulness and a freedom of language that escapes them when they are isolated."

Philosopher Nehamas defended "the pursuit of beauty" as a cornerstone of teaching the humanities, and suggested that beauty could be perceived as "a guess, a suspicion, a dim awareness that there is more in [a] work that it would be valuable to learn."

World chess champion Garry Kasparov argued that sports are a unique venue for studying human responses in extreme conditions and referred to the chess games he played against the IBM supercomputer named Deep Blue.

"What we were witnessing was some sort of artificial intelligence," he said about those matches. Only in chess, he added, does one find "this very thin and subtle balance between creativity and calculation."

Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, cultural critic Harold Bloom and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka addressed both the essence and the future of the humanities in their talks.

Touching on the connections between the arts and the historical circumstances of their creation and reception, Jameson argued that the humanities of the future will require that "vestiges of the past be swept away or at least recognized and identified for what they are."

Bloom lobbied for clearing the mind of "academic cant" and urged listeners to dig deeply in their own reading of humanistic texts in order "not to believe, not to accept, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads."

In his impassioned plea for opening up the traditional canon to include diverse, non-Western literary traditions, Soyinka suggested that "the humanities must speak across borders and cultures" and noted that "literature will always scale the boundaries that ideologues and nationalists erect."

Diversity of worldviews in the humanities also were championed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Stefan Maul.

Gates, professor of humanities and chair of Afro-American studies at Harvard University, spoke about the need to continue affirmative action policies while warning listeners about "the dangers of collective-identity politics."

German Assyriologist Maul argued that the study of foreign cultures has become increasingly important and "precious" today.

"This kind of study can provide us access to different worldviews, bringing to mind that ours is not the only one and not eternally true."

If the aesthetic scope of the lecture series could be read in two representative talks, those given by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and French philosopher Jacques Derrida were illuminating.

Gould, a geologist and prolific essayist, painted the connections between art, history and science with brief portraits of Michelangelo and Edgar Allen Poe, both of whom were fascinated by the beauty and structure of fossil seashells.

Derrida spoke at length and somewhat playfully about . . . the "perhaps"? Or was it the "as if"?

Defining a university as both an "invisible force" and a "place of critical resistance," Derrida defended the profession of faith and the profession of a professor, arguing that "to promise, to pledge, not simply to teach philosophy, but to give oneself over to philosophy, is to bear witness."

As expectations build for the Autumn Quarter talks that will begin on Oct. 18, Gumbrecht and other faculty members in the arts and humanities are reflecting on the achievements of the lecture series and also examining the shortcomings.

Gumbrecht wrote on the website that launched the lectures ( that the talks were intended to generate "much needed clarification" about the current state and future shape of the humanities. The question that needed to be answered, he said, was why "the humanities and arts should continue as a quantitatively and financially significant component of higher education."

The invitation to join an online debate about the future of the humanities in higher education ended with this injunction: "This investigation is neither meant to be an exercise in pessimism and skepticism nor to presage a down-sizing of the Humanities and Arts at Stanford. Rather, we hope to thoroughly examine the historical reasons and contemporary implications for this institutional and intellectual crisis of legitimization."

Four quarters into the lecture series, some of the kinks still are being worked out and complaints persist about the overcrowding that has occurred when big-name speakers have been scheduled for relatively small rooms. The audiences that turned out to hear Gould and Kasparov, for example, far exceeded the capacity of the venue at the Science and Engineering Quad Teaching Center, which seats only 400.

But beyond the logistics, broader concerns center on whether the lectures have responded in a satisfying or conclusive way to the questions they are intended to address.

Paul Kiparsky, professor of linguistics and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences, speaks for many faculty interviewed for this article when he says, "I think the whole series has covered an amazing range of themes."

At the same time, Kiparsky notes that the lectures have highlighted the sharp differences in conceptualization that characterize various branches of the humanities. He cites the talk given by Maul, whom he introduced last May, and the lectures delivered by several philosophers and literary critics.

"Someone like Maul believes there is a truth that can be discovered by philological and archaeological research," Kiparsky says of the German scholar who draws on archaeology, history, sociology, geography, anthropology and philology to decipher cuneiform inscriptions. "And it is quite possible that next year archaeologists will dig up something that will refute or confirm what he is proposing."

But other lectures, Kiparsky says, "seemed to be basically presentations of a certain ideological position." With those speakers, "it is not clear how you could ever discover whether what they were saying was true or false."

For Harry Elam, who holds the Christensen Professorship as director of Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM), answers to the big questions about the future of the humanities were "much more implicit than explicit."

The talks Elam attended ­ by Cixous, Gates, Jameson, Nehamas and Soyinka ­ "ranged from popular concerns to cultural concerns," says the associate professor of drama. "By the directions they took, you could get some ideas about where the humanities are headed."

Many faculty members say they increasingly see the lecture series as a resource for students, and Elam arranged for Bloom to speak with freshmen in one IHUM section. Playwrights Cixous and Soyinka also talked informally with faculty and students in the drama department during their campus visits.

Paul Robinson, professor of history and the Richard W. Lyman Professor in the Humanities, takes a similar long-range view of the lectures, which he sees as launching a "seeding process" that will encourage students to take more humanities courses and that may even inspire topics for senior honors essays.

Last winter quarter Robinson discovered that more than half of the undergraduates he was teaching were attending the lectures.

"Given the general sense that our students are excessively pre-professional, I think it's something new in Stanford history that large numbers of undergraduates are coming out to listen to very difficult, philosophically inclined talks by humanistic intellectuals," he says. "It's kind of a revolutionary development."

Although the students "complained legitimately" about the difficulty of understanding such speakers as Jameson and Derrida, they nevertheless did their best to follow and digest the talks, Robinson says.

"Modern, contemporary thought is at a very difficult place, and they were prepared to work very hard intellectually to approach it."

As a single answer to questions about the future of the humanities, the presidential lectures "would not be satisfactory," Robinson adds.

"But I see the lectures and a series of permanent appointments, particularly of Richard Rorty in comparative literature, as contributing to a new kind of legitimacy that says it's now OK for students to be openly interested in large philosophical issues."

Herbert Lindenberger, professor of English and of comparative literature and the Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities, says he is "very appreciative" of the lectures as an indication of Casper's efforts to "right what he must perceive as a situation in which Stanford is known as a high-tech place."

But Lindenberger notes that many of the speakers are "celebrities" who command high speaking fees, and he argues that "throwing money" at visitors is not the most effective way to strengthen the humanities on campus.

"Serious argumentation about the future of the humanities does not take place in a showbiz atmosphere," he says.

Instead, Lindenberger says, it would be more helpful to students if "serious thinkers" were brought to campus for a quarter, provided with housing and a "good salary," and asked to teach one graduate seminar and one undergraduate lecture course.

Lindenberger also is concerned that some of the speakers in the lecture series may have peaked years ago.

"Once you reach celebrity status, you are near the end of your career and you may have done your most important work 20 or 30 years ago," he says. "I'm 70 myself, and I don't think there's any way to predict the future of the humanities when you're dealing with people at that stage."


By Diane Manuel

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