Director’s Letter, to the class of 2020

June 2016

Dear Students of Language and Thinking,

Welcome to the Language and Thinking program. I want to briefly introduce you to some of the work that we will be doing in August and tell you what you need to do to get ready for it.

This year we will be considering a difficult question. What needs to be the case for things to be otherwise?

You might begin your preparation for August by getting a notebook and writing that question out. Then, you might go on to think about the question in writing for a few minutes. What is this question really asking? How might you rephrase it? Look again at the individual words and the distinct parts of the question. In your rephrasing of it, did you leave anything out or add anything new? If you know another language, try translating the original question. In your rephrasing or your translation, how did the question change? Write about this too.

Throughout our work together in August, we will find this question emerging across texts, disciplines, genres, and art forms. We will read Gertrude Stein on how the arts became otherwise after World War I, and James Gleick on what needed to be the case for chaos theory to emerge in modern physics. We will hear James Baldwin, Etel Adnan, and Ursula Le Guin make the case for migration and exile, and we will argue about revolutions (and their preludes) with Thomas Kuhn, Edmund Burke, Euripides, and Karl Marx. We will hear live performances of music composed by Giacomo Puccini and think through the differences between hearing music, reading about it, and performing it. Our work will take us to poetry readings, film screenings, and philosophy lectures. We will gather around modern sculptures at the Hessel Museum and upon wooded trails alongside the Hudson River. We will write about all of this, as well – sometimes alone, sometimes together, and always in conversation.

The second thing you need to do before arriving in August is to purchase and read two books, Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (see the information below.)

In Radical Hope, philosopher Jonathan Lear thinks about the extraordinary pressures besieging the Crow people and their chief, Plenty Coups. Confronting the imminent loss of their world, Plenty Coups and the Crow found that the larger meanings that made their lives possible no longer made concrete, practical sense. Even the most ordinary activities like hunting, cooking, and childrearing were abruptly and profoundly thrown into question, as the Crow’s nomadic life suddenly became impossible to defend. Lear calls this the problem of “radical hope.” How do we create and enact hope for the future when the future in question is so unknown, so totally “otherwise” to our sense of the here-and-now? This same question emerges in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Early in her poem, Rankine tells a story about Serena Williams playing at the US Open, where Williams suddenly confronts a new and unreal set of rules, and improvises some defiant changes of her own in response. There are games being played on the court here, but they are far removed from the rules of tennis. Rankine’s applause for Serena Williams echoes Lear’s questions about hope and the Crow. In very different ways, both Lear and Rankine evoke a creative hope for the future, a hope that is at once palpably rooted in the practical present and yet utterly and unknowably different from it.

There are many other points of contact between Lear and Rankine. The third way to prepare for August is to write about some of them. As you read Lear and Rankine, use that same notebook (where you wrote out our question) to record your own questions, thoughts, and impressions about the texts. Try re-stating Lear’s arguments in your own words. You might also think about the role of dreams in Lear’s book, or you might write about the importance of the Chickadee for philosophy. As for Citizen, try reading Rankine’s verse out loud. Think about how it sounds. You should pay close attention to the images in the book too. Write out what you take Rankine’s arguments to be, and compose a few thoughts of your own in response to them. You might even imagine what a dialogue between Lear and Rankine might look like.

I look forward to meeting you in August. Welcome to Bard!

Sincerely,
William Dixon Ph.D.
Director, Language and Thinking

Summer Reading Assignment

The required readings are:

– Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation
(ISBN-13: 978-0-674-02746-6 or ISBN: 0-674-02746-9)

– Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
(ISBN: 978-1555976903 or ISBN: 1555976905)

Both books should be read in their entirety. Rely on the ISBN numbers when purchasing the books.