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Sawyer Seminar at the University of Chicago, 2011-2012
Around 1948: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Global Transformation

This Seminar is sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

square Archive
Visit the project's archive here. This archive includes audio-recordings of events, along with the year's program, information about speakers, and related courses.

square News Articles
For news articles about this Sawyer Seminar, please see:
- UChicago News (10/13/11)
- UChicago Tableau (Spring 2012)

Project Description

I.  Introduction

Between 1944 and 1947, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer produced the two foundational versions of their Dialektik der Aufklarung.  Declaring enlightenment, rationality, even history itself to be mythologies, this manifesto has been read by subsequent generations of readers as announcing the end of Europe and thence of certain familiar “civilizational” priorities and assumptions.  At the time there were many who echoed, in varying registers, the mood of this volume.  In 1947 Jean Paul Sartre’s Qu’est-ce que la littérature? captured the crisis of the times in a section “The situation of the writer in 1947,” a circumstance he describes as rife with uncertainty and contradiction: both great promise and great hopelessness.  If apt in their diagnosis of the world that had all but been lost, none of these writers could have foreseen the epochal changes round the corner.  In a relatively short span of time, from 1947 to 1949, a wide array of nation-states and other institutions would assume new forms, most immediately in response to the aftermath of the Second World War but also in relation to the unfinished business of the decades that preceded it.

The aim of our Sawyer Seminar is to look at this remarkable historical moment across a range of international locations and from the point of view of several disciplines.  One premise of the seminar is that few moments in world history have had such far-reaching impact, temporally and geographically, in terms of intellectual developments and lived experience.  A second premise is that these developments both merit extensive study in themselves and reward comparative study in relation to one another.  Like a few other dates in the modern period – 1848, 1968 and 1989 – the year 1948 stands for an abbreviated passage of time that bears importance and potency for many diverse locations, movements, peoples, and fields.  Yet unlike these other moments, 1948 has not been the subject of sustained scrutiny.  A final premise is that the study can provide important clues to understanding the direction the world has taken since or, indeed, which direction it might have taken had certain paths been rejected, some options chosen over others. 

The significance of the seminar consists in the effort to identify, clarify, and compare the shape and form of the novel alignments and institutions to emerge in the wake of 1948.  Its originality we believe to be methodological and historiographical as much as historical, and consisting of the view that too intense a preoccupation with “scenes of consolidation” – the path of Cold War history – has seriously limited our ability to ask fresh questions and ascertain contingencies that have gone unremarked.  For some in the social sciences and humanities, such an investigation holds the value of better understanding what happened; for others, it opens paths of the imagination, alternate ways of envisioning post-war politics and artistic practice.

II.  Themes and Approaches

Much of the political world in which we live took shape around 1948; for worse or for better, this shape might have been otherwise.  Thinking synthetically and transnationally about this new world has been hampered in several ways pertinent to this seminar.  While we conventionally understand disciplines to be constituted by their objects, we think less often and less well about how disciplines are constituted by their moments.  For instance, when area studies programs were later consolidated and formalized under the security imperatives of the post-Sputnik era, the moments of destruction and consolidation central to this seminar were parceled out into fields of expertise that rarely intersected.  State formation and dissolution around the globe has tended to appear within national frames, and the internationalist logic of the immediate postwar moment has too often dropped away. The possibly similar (or provocatively different) rhetorics of founding or aesthetics of promise in, for instance, ventures as different as Israel and China, seem unrelated, despite their proximity in time.  We are aiming for both synthetic and synchronic analyses, which allow us to put seemingly unlike developments in the same field of inquiry. We also wish to avoid the grip of a Cold War teleology – to take seriously the absence of a cold war logic, which was only emergent in 1948. Without this powerful frame, which has already constrained the study of late 20th-century U.S. culture, different paradigms, different events can stand at the center of inquiry.  We think this will tell us not only about the paths not taken but also about the events themselves and the aesthetic and rhetorical possibilities that disappeared from view – as well as those that took hold.  Such an approach requires us to draw on the expertise of scholars from around the university and the world.

Significance and Originality of the central questions to be asked
The transformations under consideration in the seminar will be both political and cultural.  In the realm of politics, the period witnessed Indian independence and partition; the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the Irish Republic, and the states of Vietnam and Israel; the displacement and exodus of the Palestinian Arabs; the Berlin Crisis; the Communist coup in the Czech Republic; and the beginnings of apartheid in South Africa.  Other departures failed – according to the common retrospective assessment – to ameliorate the precarious and violent scene of the previous century’s global politics.  All but lost from view now are the motivations behind the birth of the non-aligned movement with Nehru’s Asian Relations Conference of March 1947, to be fully articulated at the Bandung conference of 1955.  Also unevenly realized over the next half century would be the aspirations of the two U.N. documents of global ethics issued in 1948: the Human Rights Declaration and the Genocide Convention.

The United States inevitably looms large in the attempt to come to terms with the changes under review.  It was, for example, the site of the new United Nations.  Global political restructuring registered in the United States as both diplomatic engagement and social change.  Refugees and exiles poured in, and Americans struggled to understand the new world order even as their political leaders worked to shape its terms to the nation’s own interest.  Domestically, the expansive cosmopolitanism of the war years, grounded in broad-based support for a war that was fought for the immediate interests of non-Americans, continued to offer political space for some historic reforms.  A strong challenge, for example, to an intransigent racial caste system came with President Truman’s desegregation of the military in 1948.  But at the same time, a spirit of reaction was developing.  Its clearest expression was the intensifying work of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, a precursor to the full-blooded pursuit of the Communist threat undertaken slightly later by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

There were also profound changes in culture, both within countries and around the world.  Even as the new world was taking shape, media were developing to represent it to itself, and this too is an important part of what we will address.  In many countries, these representations were entangled with post-war propaganda – most obviously in the recovering cultural institutions of the nascent Soviet bloc.  But also in the United States, the relations of what Horkheimer and Adorno in 1944 famously called “the culture industry” had come out of the government’s massive utilization of the popular media to undergird the war effort.  The culture industry underwent a profound change around 1948 with the so-called “Paramount decree” – the U.S Supreme Court’s ruling against Hollywood producers – and the ensuing collapse of the studio system.The shift in balance from films to television (with the major networks established in 1947 and 1948) as the epicenter of the popular imagination would entirely refigure the cultural landscape of the United States and generate global repercussions as well.  Less visible from this time is the contrast of the Bombay film industry, already producing over 200 films a year by the end of the 30s and due to enter its “golden age” between the late 1940s and 1960s.  

A critical and powerful development within the history of international cinema also dates from 1947-49.  Italian Neo-Realism emerged as a revolutionary style, one strongly marked by the politics and landscapes of devastated Europe.  In 1947, Roberto Rossellini shifted locations from Rome to Berlin to produce his film about a child in the ruins of Berlin, “Germany Year Zero.”  In 1948, Vittorio de Sica took up Rossellini’s stylistic devices and themes with “The Bicycle Thief.”  Italian Neo-Realism would pose a challenge to the so-called classical narrative style of Hollywood and introduce the first of the many “new waves” that rolled across cinema into the 21st Century.  Film thus exemplifies the generativity of cosmopolitanism in this period: the enormous hunger of artists across borders for new aesthetic styles and practices, the active and vibrant transnational exchanges, the emergence of new communities of cultural producers, and the circulation of new aesthetic commodities.

In 1948 this cosmopolitanism also had its dark side, its roots in loss, anguish, and dislocation.  What we call a traumatic cosmopolitanism becomes readily visible when we remember that many of these new communities of writers and artists were formed in the exigencies of displacement, expulsion, self-chosen exile, and bitter political choice.  Under such pressures, the meaning of writing itself was drastically changing.  In Western Europe, intellectuals implicitly contended with Adorno’s 1942 decree: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The decimations of the Holocaust – the murder of a major segment of the European intelligentsia – were only beginning to be recognized as a crisis of representation.  Confronting the unprecedented in the camps as well as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced excoriating conditions for new representational strategies across the arts.

The war left huge, unresolved questions about individual writers, in terms of both the collaboration and outright support some gave to fascism and the quiescence of many others.  New conflicts emerged over the part that intellectuals and artists would play in the post-war order.  The situation of intellectuals was different in every country, but over all there was a sense of a caesura, a point of no return.  In Eastern Europe events moved rapidly, as Communist regimes initially flattered writers and artists and then, with the imposition of a strong party line from Moscow, bore down with party discipline on every level of thought and cultural production.  Where Communist parties were strong in the West, conflicts likewise broke out.  The terms of the historical moment were up for grabs, with arguments about the recent past very much in play. Were the Communist parties, many with moral authority drawn from their centrality to the Resistance, still to be supported despite their ties to Moscow?  Were liberal democrats “social fascists” subservient to the emergence of a new system of domination?  Was the Marshall Plan an American imperialist assault?  A glittering galaxy of writers, artists, and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic – liberals and democratic leftists – sought a third way between the Communists and the Right that championed artistic freedom and democratic values even as they spurned the reimposition of social inequality.  Out of these circles came dazzling work by Hannah Arendt, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Ignazio Silone, Reinhold Niebuhr, Irving Howe, Sidney Hook, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Celan, Octavio Paz, W.H. Auden, Richard Wright, Arthur Miller, and Nicola Chiarmonte, to name a few.

In this ferment there also appeared on the scene the new literatures and manifestos of decolonization, which straddled the multiple divisions of the Cold War and the pull of nationalist and religious fundamentalisms to espouse a new humanism and cosmopolitanism for a damaged world.  In 1945, just back from the fighting at Colmar, the young Frantz Fanon worked from Martinique for his ally Aimé Césaire in his parliamentary campaign for election to the first National Assembly of the Fourth Republic.  By 1952 his Black Skin, White Masks would demand redress for the ravages of imperialism, thus supplementing the writings of his mentor Cesaire, whose first independent publication Cahier d'un retour au pays natal appeared in 1947.  Much of this literature (we might also gesture here to the later work of Albert Memmi) evolved out of collaboration and conversation with European intellectuals, especially Sartre and Camus.  In similar register the writers of Indian decolonization, Raja Rao, Mulk Raj Anand, Arvind Desani, among many others, forged crucial if sometimes fraught links with British socialists and writers, whilst several Pakistani intellectuals, Faiz Ahmad Faiz being preeminent amongst many, drew on an alternative communist internationalism, editing small journals with collaborators in Moscow, London, and Beirut.

These disparate moments in culture, society, and politics, we suggest, amounted to a historical turning point, a fundamental transformation the effects of which remain central to our understandings of citizenship, art, and obligation to this day.  A detailed, interdisciplinary exploration of the convergences has yet to be attempted.  While the originality of the project makes it daunting, its sheer breadth also promises great dividends.  Generally, the immediate post-war years are neglected as a distinct historical moment, falling awkwardly between the end of one period (1939-45) and the beginning of another (1950-60).  A complex conjuncture is passed over, to be replaced by a narrative that, without any consideration of alternative paths, turns these years simply into a run-up to the Cold War.  Our approach is different: we seek to reveal and analyze little-noticed (or undiscovered) connections and exchanges between events and developments that are proximate in time.

III.  Plan for the Seminar, 2011-12

Autumn Quarter: Crisis of Representation
Both aesthetic and political, the culture of representation encompasses formal experiments across the arts and their institutions and political innovations across institutions seeking to represent new subjects and concerns.  We will look at the rhetoric and aesthetics of the post-war devastation and post-war amelioration:
•  documents: constitutions, declarations, manifestos
•  cultural texts of all kinds: films, paintings, essays, poems, music
•  structures of cultural production

Winter Quarter: Traumatic cosmopolitanism
To both deepen and broaden the meaning of cosmopolitanism, we will place the study of small communities of elective affiliation in dialogue with large-scale movements of people both voluntary and coerced.  We will think through:
•  the refugee problem in its many manifestations world-wide
•  efforts to create social bonds and intimacy, including new forms of sexual, artistic, and political affiliations
•  mobilization and demobilization of troops from the colonial world to the battlefields of Europe and back again

Spring Quarter: Recuperating the aspirational
In an era notable for its pessimism and rejection of utopian thinking, there were projects that succeeded.  Even those that did not were motivated by strong ideals.  Yet those ideals contained both constructive visions and the legacy of loss.  We will consider these projects at their inception on their own terms and in relation to other such idealisms:

•  emergence of new nation-states
•  the politics of non-alignment
•  socialist experiments
•  new internationalisms, for example, pan-Africanism

For more information, please write to

The Franke Institute for the Humanities | 1100 East 57th Street, JRL S-118 | Chicago, Illinois 60637 | 773-702-8274