Exploring Self and Community in Dark Times

Painting of a man standing on rocks looking at waves
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

Universities are communities. Their scholars, students and staff work together to create and communicate knowledge, and that purpose is made only more essential during times of crisis. Though much of the discussion about COVID-19 has focused on health care and policy, these times also highlight the relevance of rigorous, critical humanistic thinking.

With the Duke community scattered across the globe, yet connecting in new ways through digital platforms, Exploring Self and Community in Dark Times is a series of short, online talks to stimulate debate about the implications of COVID-19 and its impacts on self and community.  It also offers a timely point of entry for curious students into the Humanities at Duke. We invite first- and second-year Duke students to join us for one or more of the intellectual discussions detailed below!

Each session will begin with a 15–20 minute presentation on a text, image, film extract or piece of music that will be distribute beforehand, and subsequent discussion will explore conceptions of self and community. The hour-long sessions - which are not for credit - will take place via Zoom and will be capped at 16 participants.

Registration is required. All sessions will begin at 7 p.m. (ET).

Upcoming Schedule

February 1: All the World is a Narrow Bridge

Laura Lieber, Professor of Religious Studies, German Studies, and Classical Studies

“The whole world, all of it, is a narrow bridge; the essential thing is not to be afraid.”  This saying, attributed to the 18th century Polish Jewish mystic, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, was set to music in the 20th century by Yemenite-Israeli singer Ofra Haza.  In 2008, Haza’s song was a centerpiece of the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival, bringing Rabbi Nachman’s lyrics full circle, back to Poland, in the shadow of Auschwitz.  In our conversation, we will consider the interplay of danger, risk, and courage in this saying, how others have found meaning in its evocative imagery, and why it can help us navigate the challenges of our present moment.

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February 15: The Way Should Not Be Easy

Saskia Cornes, Assistant Professor of the Practice in the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute

This session offers an introduction to the work of poetry and the poetry of work. We’ll read some of Virgil’s Georgics, written in 29 BCE, and think together about how the poem's engagement with the non-human world – through farming and gardening – provides tools for living in dark times, both then and now.

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March 8: I, Too, Sing America: How Poets Help Us Think About Race

Tsitsi Jaji, Associate Professor of English

More about this session and a registration link will be shared in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!


March 22: I Eat, Therefore I Am: East Asian Food Cultures

Eileen Cheng-yin Chow, Lecturing Fellow in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies

Join a conversation about the myriad ways in which we talk about and around food and culture, especially as it pertains to Asian foodways – what are some frameworks for talking about food, and the geographic/political/cultural complexities of drawing boundaries around a term such as “East Asia”? Topics might include migration (of specific foods and crops and spices as well as of peoples), cuisine, and empire; issues of authenticity and hybridity (Chinatown chop-suey); virtual consumption (mukbang videos) and virtual labor (Animal Crossing); history as periods of famine and plenitude and lack; food as danger in times of contagion (“bat soup”) and the ethics of consumption in times of crisis.

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April 5: Visions of Community & Racism (via Italy)

Saskia Ziolkowski, Assistant Professor of Romance Studies

Igiaba Scego’s “Sausages” (“Salsicce,” 2003) is a prize-winning, 12-page story about a woman who considers how eating sausage would affect her identities, as Italian, Somali, Sunni, and Black. We will discuss the historical, literary, and cultural contexts for the narrator’s struggles to investigate the complexity of belonging in modern Italy. One guiding question will be how this literary expression of an Italian experience can challenge American views of identity and belonging.

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April 19: Getting Beyond the Problematic Ideas of "Success" and "Leadership"

Omid Safi, Professor in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies

Universities, particularly elite universities like Duke, brand ourselves as places where students learn to become “Leaders” and should strive for achieving “Success.”  In this conversation, I would like for us to imagine something different: what if we were to think of success as a communal, not individual, experience?  What if we think that none of us can do well until we all do well?  In this session I will ask students to imagine what it might be to live a joyful life, a purpose-filled life, a satisfied and satisfying life that gets us beyond the model of individual, linear, résumé-building notions of “success.”

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Past Events

September 7: Religion and Humor in the Time of Pandemic

David Morgan, Professor of Religious Studies and Art, Art History & Visual Studies

This discussion will examine visual memes circulating on social media that present religious subjects in humorous and satirical ways. The pandemic has challenged the conventional use of space and human interaction, which has posed significant problems with the practice of religious ritual. Humor has become a way of recognizing this, thinking about its implications, and working around the limits imposed by social distancing. Watch the presentation.

September 21:  Exploring the Solitude of Others

Kata Gellen, Associate Professor of German Studies

We all experience isolation and loneliness at times, perhaps more so in the age of coronavirus lockdowns and social media obsession, but we don't often consider the solitude of others. Why do some people choose to be alone? Why do others avoid it? There are obvious downsides to isolation, such as loneliness and depression, but what are the possible benefits? This session will explore what we can discover, as a community of learners, from the solitude of others—in particular, the solitude of a fictional character: Franz Kafka’s eccentric, paranoid underground creature, the protagonist in his short story “The Burrow” (1923). We will ask why the burrower chooses solitude, why he suffers from this choice, and the futility of his search for complete safety in total isolation. Watch the presentation.

October 12:  Montaigne’s Essay “On Repentance"

John Martin, Professor of History

Montaigne was a great explorer of the self. Living in a challenging time – France was ravaged by the wars of religion – he made himself the object of his studies and, in doing so, created one of the great works of western literature: The Essays. We will examine a short excerpt from his essay "On Repentance" as a jumping-off point for thinking about how selves are made in our own time. Watch the presentation.

October 26: Is Aggression Inevitable?  Some Freudian Themes of Self and Society

Nima Bassiri, Assistant Professor of Literature

This session will explore the themes of violence, aggression, and human nature through the lens of Sigmund Freud’s classic text, Civilization and its Discontents (1930). The session will introduce some crucial tenets of Freud’s psychological theories while also exploring broader debates on the nature of subjectivity, community, and the potential antagonisms between self and society. The text will also serve as a platform to consider contemporary discussions on racism, structural injustices, and political violence. Watch the presentation.

November 9: On Tact in Dark Times

Corina Stan, Associate Professor of English

Tact is often considered a quaint little virtue: nice to have, commendable but not required. Yet over the past century, philosophers thought about tact as crucial when humanity was threatened by war, pernicious ideologies, or violence in the bloody aftermath of revolutions. So what is the place of tact in our polarized society? How is it different from political correctness, or from a “woke” attitude? Can one be tactful when one is in a position or situation of inferiority? Can one be tactful all the time? What alternatives might we have?