Middlebury archives

The Axinn Center for the Humanities supports a yearly Humanities Faculty Research Seminar focused on a particular theme.

The seminar is designed to support faculty as they pursue their research projects and to create collaboration and community around those projects.

With input from the participants, the seminar leader develops a rough outline of thematic connections to explore in relation to the theme, along with a short bibliography. Seminar participants each work on a piece of scholarship connected to the chosen theme—an article, book chapter, or other defined scholarly product.

The seminar convenes at least monthly, following an agreed-upon schedule of readings and/or short presentations along with discussion. Participants then present their work in a panel presentation or series of talks either in the spring of their seminar year or during the following fall.

Seminars 2022-2023: Toxicity and Translation Studies

'Toxicity' Seminar Participants

James Calvin Davis

George Adams Ellis Prof of Liberal Arts; Professor of Religion

Moral Imagination and the Liberal Arts

This project considers imagination as an ethical concept, a social virtue, and an essential “learning objective” of the liberal arts. As a virtue, moral imagination is the intellectual capacity that allows us to see (albeit imperfectly) from perspectives not our own, to understand convictions we ourselves do not prioritize, and to appreciate experiences we have not had. Moral imagination enables us to critically reshape our understanding of history, while envisioning futures that differ substantially from the present or past. By contrast, the failures of virtuous imagination—and the triumph of hegemonic imagination in creating cultural interpretations of reality that reinforce privilege—help to explain much of the social toxicity in which the US is embroiled at present, particularly around issues of race, class, religion, and gender identity.

In this essay, I develop the concept of moral imagination as virtue, in conversation with the ethical writings of womanist (Black feminist) theologian Emilie Townes. I then argue for why moral imagination is integral to the social contribution of the liberal arts. Moral imagination depends upon other skills we more routinely associate with the liberal arts, namely critical thinking and creativity, but it also reminds us that the social endgame of the liberal arts goes beyond the critical and deconstructive. It empowers some of the other public-oriented capacities we consider important to the liberal arts, like multidisciplinary understanding, intellectual curiosity, empathic other-regard, cultural humility, and historical perspective. Properly understood, moral imagination equips individuals and communities to build connections with other people, communities, and moments across substantial difference.

Finally, to demonstrate its importance as an antidote to social toxicity, I will briefly discuss the relevance of moral imagination to current public debates around critical theory education, political tribalism, and ecological crisis.

Luis Castaneda

Associate Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies

In his 2009 essay “Héroes sin atributos. Figuras de autor en la literatura argentina” (“Heroes without Attributes. Authorial Figures in Argentine Literature”), Julio Premat argues that the creation of an authorial self is a central pursuit for any writer. Authorial selves frame literary oeuvres and give them meaning. These selves can be defined as phantasmatic entities created by authors and readers as characters that emerge from works of fiction and paratexts. Premat proposes to search for traces of the author in such entities after the monolithic Author’s death, in a critical project that dovetails with Jane Gallop’s in her book “The Deaths of the Author: Writing and Reading in Time” (2011). Gallop proposes a ‘friendly’ return of the author after the turmoil of the 1960s (spearheaded by Barthes and Foucault). This is my theoretical framework for engaging the multiple authorial figures that appear in the novel “Mona” (2019) by Argentine writer Pola Oloixarac, a satiric take on authorial fictions. In this text a young Peruvian female writer travels to a literary festival which becomes a showcase for various and contrasting ways of displaying an authorial identity in the contemporary Latin American literary field. Oloixarac’s critique of globalization and commodification is coupled with a critique of toxic masculinity as it is deployed by most of the writers attending the festival. In my project I study how toxicity is intertwined with the construction of hegemonic masculine authorial figures in the contemporary Latin American literary field as depicted in Mona. Oloixarac’s novel is interesting and new in the regional context because it is one of the first novels written by a woman to employ humor as a tool of critique. 

Elsa Barraza Mendoza

Assistant Professor of History

Patricia Saldarriaga

Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies

Toxicity and the Making of a Monster

I am currently working on a book project (in co-authorship with Emy Manini) titled Monsters vs. Patriarchy: The Rise of the Scapegoat in Global Cinema. During the course of these semesters, I will be working on two chapters: “Canibalia,” and “The End of Anthropos.” While the first chapter studies the gory way cannibalism has been used as a colonial tool to perpetuate oppression of female subjects, the second one studies shapeshifters and interspecies monsters.

A theoretical perspective on toxicity will enhance the way issues of race, gender/body, affects, and the environment can be treated in relation to monstrosity.

The making of a monster, from the very beginning, as pointed out by Antonio Negri, is linked to the notion of eugenics. What constitutes monstrosity, in many cases, has to do with a kind of deviation from what is considered normal. Exploring the connection between eugenics and toxicity in racialized bodies would allow me to explain why Latino bodies are considered monsters that need to be sterilized and eliminated in movies such as Madres (Ryan Zaragoza, 2021). Eugenics, on the other hand, has always been linked to the environment, especially through the notion of deep ecology that popularized during the Nazi regime. In the very same movie Madres, people believe that infertility is linked to chemicals in the environment. However, as explained at the end of the movie, doctors are performing sterilization on unsuspecting Latina women, as the women themselves, and their fertility, are what is perceived to be toxic to white society. Lines between environmental toxicity and eugenics in this and other movies are almost imperceptible. I would like to learn how to express this connection with a more targeted theoretical foundation.  What we try to do in the book is point out parallels to historical and current events on different political and philosophical levels. In that sense, the movie resembles what happened in ICE camps with Latinas, Blacks and Indigenous women during the Trump administration. I also would like to focus on the pathologization of the body and explore the connections between toxicity and the making of the monstrous body. Can menstruation, (and its counterparts of menopause and aging), be considered a toxic fluid that determines the rejection of menstruating women in many societies? How is it that we have culturally construed menstruation as a toxic component of feminine bodies? How is it that new female monsters can resemantize menstruation?

To sum up, I believe that my participation in the seminar on toxicity would provide me with the theoretical knowledge needed to enhance my definition of monstrosity throughout the book. Precisely because the book focuses on female bodies that have been turned into monsters within a heteropatriarchal society, it would be of great help to delve into theories of toxicity that apply to issues of race, gender, the environment, medicine, and others. Listening to my colleagues will also give me a better idea of how this notion can be applied within the humanities. In the long run, my participation in the seminar will also improve my teaching. Courses like span0489 “Making Monsters” (cross listed with GSFS) or my summer course titled “Political Monsters in Cinema from Latin America and Spain” could very well benefit from my knowledge on toxicity.

Jacob Tropp

John Spencer Professor of African Studies

“Transnational Networks of Nuclear Suffering: Solidarities between Diné (Navajo) and Japanese Activists in the Late 1970s and Early 1980s”

Project abstract:  The toxic impacts of uranium mining on the Diné (Navajo) peoples of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah in the late 20th century – from high cancer rates among Diné mineworkers and their families to the contamination of local reservation resources – have now become well known in both scholarly and popular accounts.  Yet much less understood is how these experiences were significant on a global stage.  In my ongoing work on this topic, I have investigated how Diné activists strategically utilized various opportunities in the late 1970s and early 1980s to globalize their toxic predicaments, connecting their local problems with those of other marginalized groups similarly contending with settler colonial legacies and the expansive power of multinational uranium corporations (specifically, Aboriginal communities in Australia’s Northern Territory and Namibians opposing apartheid South African control).  My project for this year’s “Toxicity” Research Seminar explores another particularly revealing and previously unrecognized dimension of Diné transnational networking in these years: the development of solidarities with Japanese activists from a variety of environmental, antinuclear, and peace movements.  At rallies, workshops, and conferences across the U.S. and Japan – from the Navajo Reservation to Nagasaki – Diné and Japanese activists found common ground in their shared histories of nuclear suffering, past and present.  Moreover, through these exchanges, Diné participants’ personal accounts of uranium mining’s toxic toll had a transformative effect on many Japanese activists’ understanding of the nature and scope of global nuclear problems.  On one level, these dialogues helped foster a growing awareness within Japanese antinuclear and peace organizations of the need to expand activist efforts beyond conventional concerns over bombs and energy production, to confront all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle and their toxic impacts – from uranium mining on indigenous lands in North America to nuclear waste dumping’s effects on Pacific Islanders.  At the same time, Diné activists utilized their access to Japanese international networks and platforms to highlight how the nuclear suffering they and other Native American communities endured was intimately tied to deeper questions of indigenous sovereignty and survival.

'Translation Studies' Seminar Participants

Karin Hanta

Director of the Feminist Resource Center at Chellis House

Renee Jourdenais

Professor TESOL/TFL

The development of professional identity: A case study of translators and interpreters in training

This project explores the ways in which novice interpreters and translators come to perceive and integrate their professional identities during the course of their MA studies. Of particular interest are the ways in which authentic learning activities, such as those provided in the interpretation and translation practica, help the students connect classroom learning with professional practice and see themselves as engaged, knowledgeable professionals. While there has been considerable research done in recent decades on the definition of skills required for the interpreting and translation professions, there is very little research on the development of interpreting and translation professionals.

During the past academic year, a colleague (at San Francisco State University) and I collected weekly journals and monthly interview data from four interpreting students at the Institute as they engaged in their final year of study and participated in interpreting events in the local community through their Interpretation Practicum. We are currently following three of these students as they begin their first year (post-MA) of their professional careers.  During this academic year, we will be engaging translation students in a similar way: meeting with final semester students as they enroll in their Translation Practicum, in order to see the ways in which they perceive of and engage in the translation profession.  We’ll also be inviting the incoming translation & interpretation students to participate with the hopes of following their development during the course of their two-year MA program.  

Rebecca Mitchell

Associate Professor of History

Stefano Mula

Professor of Italian

Marybeth Nevins

Associate Professor of Anthropology

Jennifer Ortegren

Assistant Professor of Religion

Fernando Rocha

Associate Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies

2021-22 Seminar Participants

James Berg, Seminar Leader

Associate Professor of English and American Literatures

 I am working on a book, The Character of Shakespeare’s Plays, an archeology of the concept of literary and dramatic “character” exploring the foundations of our culture’s identification of “humanity” with reading and signification. For centuries, critics have admired Shakespeare’s “characters,” as in fictional human beings.  Strictly speaking, however, to explore literary “character” in Shakespearean terms is to explore the pre-history of this term that we now use to label fictional human beings.  In Shakespeare’s time, the term “character” meant not “fictional human being” but “signifying mark,” “figure,” or “reading material,” and was only beginning to converge with the Aristotelian term ēthos as applied, in a moral context, to persons in fiction. What does it mean that we use a term Shakespeare himself would have taken to designate “reading material” to designate “fictional human being”? 
Our doing so might seem to suggest that fictional human beings should be taken as mere signifiers, fragments of text whose very being is subordinate to what they signify, and to the real human readers to whom they signify.  Yet modern, novelistic aesthetics regard the ideal literary character as the opposite of this—as one who, through “complexity” and “depth,” transcends the servile status of allegorical figure, eliciting empathy, like real, human readers.  Shakespeare’s plays, I propose, reveal an assumption that modern, novelistic aesthetics conceal but still often harbor: the paradoxical notion that any complete human being—fictional or real—is, ultimately, mere figure, mere instrument of signification, mere “character.” In Shakespeare, dramatis personae such as Hamlet, Ophelia, Lear, and Othello do often seem to be readers of character, not character to be read. But then, as in a Möbius strip, reader and reading material are not separate: Shakespeare’s plays reveal that human beings become the reading material that they are by virtue of a performative process of reading itself, which not only informs but also forms them, and finds expression in their action. Though character is subordinate to readers of character, the very process of reading character is a process of becoming character. The dramatis personae who seem “alive,” like real human beings, are, in Shakespearean terms, actually character-in-the-making.  This Shakespearean way of understanding the range of the human (from reader to reading material) informs our attitudes not only towards iterary character but also towards ourselves, with our conceptions of race, gender, and property. It prompts questions as to whether a different kind of aspiration—something other than human as reader or reading material—might be possible or desirable.

Axinn Center 314

Raquel Albarran

Assistant Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies

Translation and Social Change

I am working on a Spanish translation of We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice (2020) by the visionary activist, doula, facilitator, and somatic practitioner adrienne maree brown. In this work, brown envisions abolitionist futures beyond the poisons of supremacy and cancel culture. This exercise is further connected to a new 400-level translation course titled “Spanish for Social Change.” Ideally, both the personal and student-centered exercises in translation I engage in during my fellowship year will continue to transform my scholarly work at the service of diverse, intersecting communities committed to the just transformation of our societies.

Voter Hall 207

Carrie Anderson

Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture

Finding the ‘human’ in the Digital Humanities: Art History and the Dutch Colonial Archive

The Dutch East and West India Trading Companies are known for their bureaucratic scrupulousness, having left copious records of their administrative activities in former colonies across the globe. This penchant for archival diligence is most conspicuous in records of the commodities trade, for which prices, measurements, and quantities of tradable goods like textiles, beads, weapons, tools, and enslaved human beings were carefully and callously calculated. There is a danger, however, in enlisting these archival data in the service of historical positivism, for it perpetuates the excision of human agency that underpins the Dutch imperialist agenda in two critical ways. First, it normalizes the semantics of data collection imposed by predominantly white European men, in which value is assigned according to observable physical characteristics problematically presumed to be neutral. Second, these archival records belie the sociability of humans and commodities, relationships that are bound by highly charged inequities of power, but also independent systems of meaning operating beyond the purview of Company officials. In the wake of the Digital Turn, it is imperative that the structural inequities of power engrained in colonial archives are not reified and perpetuated in the emerging digital cultural archive.

The scholarship target for this proposal is an article that will draft a set of best practices for working on data-driven digital humanities projects that draw from colonial archives. In addition to the article, the research completed during the seminar will contribute to the development of a new course called “Art, Racism & the Digital Humanities,” which will have both a critical and a practical component.

Mahaney Arts Center 117
Office Hours:
Fall Term 2022-Mondays 10:30 a.m. -12:00 p.m., Tuesdays 1:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m., and by appointment

Kristin Bright

Assistant Professor of Anthropology

The Roaring Twenties: Sexual Expression at the Edge of the Human

This project asks about the turbulences and possibilities entailed in GenZ sexual expression in the 2020s. It is rooted in an ethnographic study we are carrying out with Vermont high school nurses and educators about student health in pandemic times, but it attempts to explore contemporary (post pandemic) sexualities more broadly. What are the implications of emerging uses and contexts of sex for how we understand its role in constituting “the human”? How are lives and bodies entailed in technologies (pills, condoms, phones), socialities (hookups, peer groups), and collective moments (coronavirus, BLM, #MeToo) that seek to enable or foster sexual liberation? In this project, I ask about the limits of humanist understandings of liberation that start from the position of individual agency and move straight, like Cupid’s arrow, into the rights of persons. How do GenZ uses of sexting and other practices or objects travel in transductive ways, as queer animacies (Chen 2012; Ahmed 2019), reshaping possibilities for resistance to neoliberal biopolitics. This project attempts to draw method into theory, by carrying out a multimodal study of health data (Guttmacher, Outright, Planned Parenthood) informed by interview data and analyses of social and other media. Alongside my colleagues in this seminar, I hope to use this project to draw new attention to the ways “folded” combinations of things, whether theory or method or language, can resist commonsense orderings of the world.

Munroe Hall 103

Justin Doran

Assistant Professor of Religion

Prophet Sharing: Political Prophecy across Post-Secular Media

My project for the Axinn Center’s Humanities Faculty Research Seminar is an exploration of how the affective economy (Ahmed, 2004) of political prophecies—religious and secular—creates visceral, human experiences for their participants. The American news media have reported that a major motivating factor in the Jan. 6 insurrection was QAnon’s prophecy of a coming “storm” that would sweep away the enemies of Donald Trump. But there were also many prophecies that preceded QAnon and were vital components of the conservative, Christian coalition that elected Trump in 2016. These prophecies are portrayed as distinctively religious, while QAnon remains secular and therefore a problem of “misinformation” or the lack of regulation in the digital social media. In particular, I’m interested in how the emotional charge of prophecy’s narrative structure orients humans in the stream of historical time, and how that enlivens (that is, makes live) beliefs about an imminent future, catastrophic or triumphant.

Munroe Hall 216

Irina Feldman

Associate Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies

My project centers on two 20th century intellectuals from the Andean region: José María Arguedas, a Peruvian writer mostly known for his powerful fiction, whose writings deal with the question of possibility for the Indians to become citizens of a modern postcolonial nation; and Fausto Reinaga, a Bolivian intellectual, considered to be a central ideologue of the Indianist ideas and social movements that they inspire. For both, the question of What is Human? is at the heart of their inquiry and political proposals. Arguedas and Reinaga are acutely aware that since the arrival of conquistadors to the Americas, the question of humanity of the Indians has been at the center of the colonizer’s discourse on the Indians’ servitude. These colonial constructs have not gone away with the formal arrival of Independence to the countries like Peru or Bolivia, in the beginning of the 19th century. To respond to this reality, Reinaga takes on Socrates, Descartes, Hegel and Kant (and other exponents of the Western tradition) and argues that their concepts of temporality and human subjectivity provided the necessary epistemic scaffolding for slavery. Arguedas struggles to deploy in his writings an indigenous worldview, which conceives of the categories of human, animal, and nature in a way very different from that determined by the Cartesian Cogito.  I study the alternative mode of humanity in connection with animal, nature, and the universe as it is expressed in the oeuvre of these two important writers, whose writings inform, until today, social struggles of the indigenous peoples in the Andean region.

Voter 204

Linsey Sainte-Claire

Asst Professor of French & Francophone Studies

The Black slave as/at the antithesis of reason in French colonies

My project looks at how Black slaves were represented in the colonial imagination in French colonies from the end of the end 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century. I contend that, through derogatory discourses closely linked to a rhetoric of/from madness, travelers and settlers erected an inhuman image of the Black slave as a bête bête (an idiotic beast/brute) in order to justify and preserve their socio-political and economic power.
Using Michel Foucault’s quadruple system of exclusion (“Madness and Society” (1970)), I show how colonists actively excluded slaves from the economic production (fruit of their own [slave’s] labor) ; the reproduction of society (family and sexuality) by disrupting filiation ; language (speech) by depriving them of a voice; and ludic activities (games and festivals) by legally forbidding slaves’ gatherings, rendering slaves the madmen (or rather mad beasts) of the colonial era.
By closely analyzing French travel narratives (proto-literary texts), French racial taxonomy (pseudoscience), and the edict of 1685 of Louis the 14th, known as the Code Noir (legal document ruling the order of the colonies) I intend to illustrate how Black slaves were biologically, intellectually and legally deprived of their humanity and the irrationality of such accounts.

Le Chateau 114

Seminar 2021-2022: What is Human?

Axinn Center for the Humanities
Axinn Center at Starr Library
Middlebury, VT 05753