Director’s Letter2022 Letter will be available soon!
2017 Welcome letter to the class of 2021
Dear Students of Language and Thinking,
Welcome to Bard!
I write to tell you a bit about the work that we will be doing in the Language and Thinking Program in August and to briefly explain what you need to do to prepare for it.
This year in Language and Thinking we will be working together on a difficult question. What needs to be the case for things to be otherwise? The question is tricky, in part because it requires some interpretation. So, first, you might begin your preparation by finding a notebook or a pad of paper and writing the question out. Then, write in response to the question for about 5 to 10 minutes. What is this question really asking? Look at the individual words and phrases that compose the sentence. How do the different pieces of the question fit together? How might you rephrase or summarize the question, perhaps in two or three different ways? If you know another language, try out a translation or two of the question. In your rephrasings or translations, did you leave anything out or add in anything new? How did the language of the question change? Take another five minutes and write about this too.
Throughout our work together in August, we will find this question emerging (and changing) across texts, disciplines, conversations, genres, and art forms. We will read Gertrude Stein on how both war and the arts became otherwise during World War I, and Aristotle on how citizens need to live for cities to be noble. 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, Karl Marx, and Layli Long Soldier. We will hear music composed by Fryderyk Chopin amid the tumults of nineteenth century Europe, and think about the birth of photography at the Hessel Museum. Our work will take us to poetry readings, film screenings, dance workshops, and philosophy lectures. We will gather around the jagged rocks of the Parliament of Reality and upon the wooded trails of the Tivoli Bays. 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 (ISBN-13: 978-0-674-02746-6 or 0-674-02746-9)
- Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (ISBN: 978-1555976903 or 1555976905)
In Radical Hope, philosopher Jonathan Lear argues that there is something about the essentially social nature of human beings that makes us vulnerable to surprise ruptures in our shared forms of life. In other words, to live as a human being with others requires an ongoing feeling for who we are in a common historical world. Yet, there are moments when ruptures emerge so suddenly that our sense of historical time comes crashing to a stop, leaving us bereft, empty, and exposed. “After this, nothing happened,” in the haunting words of the great Crow chief Plenty Coups. 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 devastated sense of the here-and-now? Claudia Rankine offers one answer to Lear. Reflecting upon an incident at the 2006 World Cup, Rankine writes that even when the deepest parts of ourselves are touched by sudden violence, “[t]his endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm, a human identity, a human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.” As Rankine tells it, Zinedine Zidane passes through just such a moment, and improvises a courageous gesture of resistance – and radical hope – in response.
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 very much look forward to meeting you in August.
William Dixon Ph.D.
Director, The Language and Thinking Program, Bard College