2019–20 Theme: "Post/Truth"
“What is truth?”
Pontius Pilate, c. 33 CE
“Truth isn’t truth.”
Rudolph Giuliani, August 19, 2018
It was the Oxford English Dictionary’s “word of the year” for 2016, Year Zero of the current U.S. Presidential Administration: post-truth or, as we’re styling it (for maximum flexibility and slipperiness and suggestiveness), post/truth. Tracing its current meaning back to 1992, the OED defines it this way: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
In its second year, The Humanities Studio at Pomona College will explore, through its Speakers Series, Fellows Seminar, and other campus programming, the various facets of our current post/truth (un-) reality. Members of the press are now denounced as “enemies of the people”; outright fabrications are described as “alternative facts”; Facebook, the world’s third most popular web site with more than 1.4 billion users, is flooded with fake news created in eastern European boiler rooms. Applications like FakeApp populate Reddit message boards like /r/deepfakes with forged-identity revenge porn; standards of evidence, across wide swaths of our public life, have been gutted. Indeed, the very truth status of the fact is under fire: science denial of many kinds, including climate denial and the anti-vaxxer movement, flourishes. And let’s not even start on all the varieties of confirmation bias fed by our news silos, including birtherism, Infowars, pizzagate, the deep state, false flag operations, crisis actors….
In 2019–20, the Humanities Studio will explore the post/truth phenomenon from a wide variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives. Humanities Studio Undergraduate and Faculty Fellows, together with the Studio Director, Postdoctoral Fellows, and a group of visiting speakers, writers, and thinkers, will take a long, hard look at post/truth—both truth and its denial and occlusions—to assess the hopes for restoring rational discourse about the most urgent problems facing us today.
Pomona College students and faculty: To get information on applying to be a 2019–20 Humanities Studio Fellow, email firstname.lastname@example.org
2018–19 Theme: “Fail Better”
In last year’s Phi Beta Kappa Presidential Address, “Fail Better,” late Pomona College English professor Arden Reed spoke of our tendency to sugarcoat experience, a predisposition “so ingrained that it’s hard to clear mental or emotional space that tolerates or accommodates failure.” A phrase famously uttered by Ed Harris in the 1995 movie Apollo 13 has become one of our era’s most ubiquitous and fatuous platitudes: “Failure is not an option.” Coming soon to a motivational poster near you.
Professor Reed, on the other hand, insisted that failure is not optional. He took the title for his address from Samuel Beckett’s late prose text, Worstword Ho (1983): “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” At the time of his death in 1989 Beckett had been failing spectacularly, dazzlingly, for more than five decades—a body of work in which, according to the Nobel Prize committee, “the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.” In the 1949 “Three Dialogues” (with Georges Duthuit), Beckett had embraced failure as both his artistic credo and highest aspiration: “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail … failure is his world….”
Failure is all around us, Reed insisted; what’s more (and more surprising), he suggested that “failures bind us to each other, make us into the human species that we are.” He continues:
Failure matters not because it prompts us to persevere or find a silver lining, but because it is the natural state of things. Failure is woven into the fabric of our existence—the underside of success, the yin to its yang. Eventually we all will fail; by embracing failure, we can learn about the true existential parameters of our existence.
The program for the inaugural year of the Humanities Studio at Pomona College is dedicated to the memory of Arthur M. Doyle and Fanny M. Doyle Professor of English Arden Reed. His career of nearly four decades at Pomona College as a devoted teacher and passionate, restless, boundary-crossing scholar was anything but a failure. But we will honor his memory by applying ourselves to the twin concepts of failure and its kissing cousin, error—seeking better to understand the uses of failure and the importance of error in the ecosystem of scholarly discovery. Together with the Studio Director, Faculty and Postdoctoral Fellows, and a group of visiting speakers, writers, and thinkers, Humanities Studio Undergraduate Fellows will take a deep dive into failure, to bring back the treasures only it has to offer.