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Humanities fellows explore political conflicts


February 16, 2009

ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research offers two related fellowship programs that encourage the cross-disciplinary activity necessary to address socially significant issues. Organized around an annual theme – this year it’s the humanities and political conflict – one program provides research funding for two ASU faculty teams, and the other supports two visiting fellows.

The ASU fellows program is open to tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the humanities. It brings together groups of up to three ASU scholars to pursue research and writing projects.

One of this year’s teams is preparing a documentary film project – “The Dawning of Liberty” – about the life and times of Padre Antonio José Martínez, a 19th century New Mexican. ASU fellows collaborating on this endeavor include Paul Espinosa, professor in the ASU Department of Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies; Daniel Cutrara, assistant professor in the film and media studies program; and Daniel Ramirez, assistant professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Martínez was one of the leading historical and intellectual figures in the American Southwest during the 19th century, living through a period of rapid transformation of the region. Like tens of thousands of other 19th century individuals who lived in what is now New Mexico, Martínez found himself caught between two worlds – the Mexican-Spanish culture that he had defended for most of his life and the Anglo-American culture that was taking over his native land through conquest. The team of fellows will study his life as a microcosm of clashing political interests and competing value systems that have shaped the history of the region. 

The other ASU fellows project is exploring the relationship among religion, politics and violence in the Middle East, with possible application to other contested regions. Two ASU faculty members are delving into the role of religion and holy sites as crucial socio-political forces and key components of many hotly contested political struggles around the world.  

The ASU fellows team includes Arieh Saposnik, assistant professor in the School of International Letters and Cultures, and Yoav Gortzak, assistant professor in the School of Government, Politics and Global Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Much of the current research on the relationship between religion and political conflict lacks integration across similar disciplines and is narrowly focused on one single aspect of the relationship, namely the role of religion as the root cause of violent political conflict.

This project will stretch the understating of religion and conflict as individual concepts as well as how they combine into a relationship. The research will combine a social science based approach of international relations and security studies with a humanistic perspective rooted in cultural history and the study of cultures.

“Both ASU fellows’ projects expand our understanding of the importance of humanities research to a topic not usually connected with such studies,” says Professor Sally Kitch, director of the Institute for Humanities Research. “The teams have found many areas of mutual interest, including the need to define religion, to understand the use of the Bible to promote violence, and to consider the importance of place and cultural memory in promoting both conflict and peace.”

In addition to the two ASU fellow teams, the institute is sponsoring two visiting fellows this spring. The visiting fellows program is open to scholars from other institutions of higher education in the U.S. and abroad. The visiting fellows spend the spring semester in residence to pursue research and collaborate with ASU faculty members, give seminars and public lectures on their research topics, and contribute to the enrichment of humanities scholarship at ASU.

One of this spring’s visiting fellows is Lawrence Bogad, an associate professor of performance studies at the University of California, Davis. He is examining performance art as an activist tactic. Bogad will study creative street theater and how it tries to be a voice for marginalized social movements. He is investigating the advantages and limitations of street theater as well as documenting how contemporary groups draw inspiration from techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience pioneered by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Bogad will comparatively critique three performance activist groups: the Clown Army, Oil Enforcement Agency and 1000 Coffins. All three groups use nonviolent street performance to spark political dialogue, because they lack the resources to hire lobbyists or buy commercial airtime, according to Bogad.

He is looking at whether these types of civil-disobedience performances surprise, entertain and provoke citizens, politicians and the media, or if they are an unwelcome and bizarre distraction. Bogad will position the performance tactics in the context of the historical passive resistance to give a more complete understanding of the role of performance in the history of social change in the United States.

The other visiting fellow is Gabriele Schwab, the Chancellor’s Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. Her fellowship project will merge the fields of literary studies, anthropology and trauma theory to study violent histories from the perspective of transgenerational trauma.

She will explore the role of literary texts and writing – including fiction, poetry, memoirs and creative nonfiction – from Jewish and German Holocaust literature and postcolonial literature from the U.S., New Zealand, Chile and Guatemala. She will cover diverse topics such as traumatic writing, memory, torture, rape and disappearances as well as emotions related to culture.

One way Schwab is integrating her fellowship with the campus community is by getting involved with the institute’s cluster on gender, language and visual culture in the 21st century comparative literature.

Schwab will give a public lecture in partnership with the cluster at 1 p.m. Feb. 20 in the Social Sciences Building, Room 109, on ASU’s Tempe campus. The title of her lecture is “The Shadow of Words: Literature’s Transformational Labor in Times of Global Distress.” The lecture is free and open to the public. More information at 480-965-7660.

“From their first day in the fellows seminar, our visitors have made significant contributions to our explorations of the humanities and political conflict,” says Kitch. “Their projects help us understand the relationship between violence and cultural and individual memory, the political conflicts that can emerge from debates about memory, and even the role of nonviolence in breeding violence.”

The Institute for Humanities Research in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is accepting applications for the 2009 fellows programs. The theme is utopias-dystopias and social transformation, and is designed for scholars whose research addresses the nature, value and meaning of utopias and dystopias for social transformation by crossing boundaries within the humanities.

The visiting fellows application deadline is March 2 and the ASU fellows application deadline is March 16. More information and applications at http://ihr.asu.edu or 480-965-3000.