Past Events

Group picture of the participants from the fact-checking hackathon
Fact-checking Hackathon 1024 576 Shauna Concannon

Fact-checking Hackathon

The Giving Voice to Digital Democracies is part of the Centre for the Humanities and Social Change, Cambridge, funded by the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation, and we started 2020 with a Fact-checking Hackathon on 10-12 January. The event took place at the Cambridge University Engineering Department. 

The project manager Marcus Tomalin welcomed attendees to the event before Mevan Babkar, head of automated fact checking at FullFact, gave an insightful talk about human-based fact-checking. She discussed the various ways in which information can be used and abused, and she explained FullFact’s fact-checking processes. It was particularly fascinating to hear about their work during the recent general election. 

James Thorne, a PhD student at the Department of Computer Science and Technology, talked about fact extraction and verification, and how approaches from Natural Language Processing can help. He also discussed the Fact Extraction and VERification (FEVER) shared-task (   

Jonty Page, a current 4th-year engineering student, gave an overview of an open source fact-checking system the participants could develop during the Hackathon, and he highlighted some potential challenges and topics they could explore. Given a claim to be fact-checked, the baseline system (i) retrieves Wikipedia pages relevant to the claim, (ii) selects particular sentences from those pages which relate to the claim, and (iii) classifies those sentences either as supporting or refuting the original claim, or else as providing too little information to either support or refute it. 

Creating an Interdisciplinary Environment 

The task of dealing with false claims automatically is necessarily an interdisciplinary task. The Hackathon created a collaborative environment for researchers from a variety of backgrounds. The weekend brought together people with expertise in areas including linguistics, psychology, sociology, education, criminology, mathematics, philosophy, critical thinking, natural language processing, computer science, and software engineering. Therefore, it was a profoundly interdisciplinary event. On the second day of the Hackathon, Dr Shauna Concannon ran some introductory sessions on Python for participants who wanted to learn more about coding, and especially using Python to analyse natural language. 

“This is my first hackathon and I’ve really enjoyed its interdisciplinary nature, it’s really welcoming, it’s really engaging, it’s open to newcomers.” 

Ideas & Projects 

The teams worked on different aspects of the fact-checking task, including developing new methods for retrieving relevant sentences and documents by integrating information contained in hyperlinks, identifying claims that required multiple pieces of evidence in order to be correctly classified; identifying problematical linguistic patterns (such as claims that required comparisons or which included temporal assertions or quotations), and developing new methods for evaluating conflicting evidence using a confidence scoring metric. 

“I came to the fact checking hackathon because I think it is a very important problem to work on. I learnt that automated fact checking is a very hard task that involves a number of different components.”  

The interdisciplinary interest that this event generated confirms the urgent need for inclusive and collaborative events that bridge the divide between technology, the humanities, and the social sciences.  

“It was a great opportunity to come together with people from different backgrounds, people who are doing mathematics, engineering, computer science, linguistics, criminology.” 


When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away? Compassion, Justification and Exculpation in Social Research 795 599 Federico Brandmayr

When Does Explaining Become Explaining Away? Compassion, Justification and Exculpation in Social Research

FIRST WORKSHOP – 27 September 2019

Organised by Federico Brandmayr and Anna Alexandrova

“Does understanding come at the price of undermining our capacity to judge, blame and punish? And should we conceive this as a price, as something that we should be worried about, or as something that we should welcome?”

The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1869) by Mihály Munkácsy (Wikimedia Commons).

The Expertise Under Pressure project hosted its first workshop on 27 September 2019 at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). The project is part of the Centre for the Humanities and Social Change, Cambridge, funded by the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation. The overarching goal of Expertise Under Pressure is to establish a broad framework for understanding what makes expertise authoritative, when experts overreach, and what realistic demands communities should place on experts.

The talks and discussions of this first workshop focused specifically on a charge frequently levelled against experts who study human culture and social behaviour, i.e. that their explanations can provide justifications or excuses for ill-intentioned people, and that decisionmakers making choices on the basis of their advice might neglect to punish and react effectively to harmful behaviours.

A good way to capture the theme of the workshop is a saying attributed to Germaine de Stael: “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner”, “to understand all is to forgive all”. Social scientists perhaps do not intend to understand all that there is, but they generally like the idea of increasing our understanding of the social world. By and large, historians, sociologists, political scientists and anthropologists, tend to show that the people they study do certain things not just because they want to do those things, but also because they are driven by various kinds of factors. And the more knowledge we have of these factors, the more choice, responsibility, and agency seem to fade away. This begs the question: does understanding come at the price of undermining our capacity to judge, blame, and punish? And should we conceive this as a price, as something that we should be worried about, or as something that we should welcome? And how should scientific disciplines, professional associations, and individual researchers deal with this issue in their daily practice and especially in their interventions in public debates and in policymaking contexts? Indeed, these issues essentially relate to the question of how social knowledge is produced and how it circulates outside academia, and notably how it is appropriated and misappropriated by different groups in the endless disputes that divide society and in which attributions of credit and blame are widespread.

The one-day event brought together researchers from various academic disciplines, looking at the exculpatory potential of social research. Here is what they came up with.

Livia Holden

Professor Livia Holden (University of Oxford) was the first speaker of the day. With a background in anthropology and socio-legal studies, Holden leads a European Research Council project titled Cultural Expertise in Europe: What is it useful for? The project looks at the role of anthropologists and other cultural experts in advising judges in court cases and policymakers in fields such as immigration law. In her talk, ‘Cultural Expertise and the Fear of Absolution’, she analysed the concept of cultural expertise and described the specific challenges cultural experts face, especially where anthropology enjoys little credit. Drawing on several examples, including her own experience as an expert witness in family law cases, she argued that experts oscillate between the fear of absolution, i.e. concerns of excusing harmful acts (such as genital mutilation) on the grounds that they are rooted in cultural traditions, and the fear of condemnation, i.e. concerns of being complicit with colonial rule and repressive criminal justice policies.

Jana Bacevic, Livia Holden, and Hadrien Malier

The following speaker was Hadrien Malier (École des hautes études en sciences sociales), a sociologist who studies policy measures aimed at nudging working-class people into adopting more ‘eco-friendly’ habits. His talk, ‘No (Sociological) Excuses for Not Going Green: Urban Poor Households and Climate Activism in France’, presented the results of an ethnography conducted in two low-income housing projects. The volunteers and activists that Malier followed in these neighbourhoods framed the protection of the environment as an individual and universally distributed moral obligation, independent of privilege, class and education. Climate activists, who are mostly middle-class and educated, recognise the social difference between them and the mostly poor people they try to nudge toward eco-friendly habits. But this difference is simply interpreted as proof that people with low income do not know or care enough about the environment. More relevant sociological insights on class differences, including well-supported claims according to which people with low income have a relatively light ecological footprint, are often seen as a bad excuse for acts that are detrimental to environment.

Nigel Pleasants

Dr Nigel Pleasants (University of Exeter) gave the next talk. Pleasants is a philosopher of social science who has written extensively on how sociological and historical knowledge influences our moral judgements. In his recent publications, he focused on various controversies related to historical explanations of the Holocaust. His talk, ‘Social Scientific Explanation and the Fact-Value Distinction’, explored and clarified the relation between excuse and justification. Excuses concern the responsibility of an actor in performing a certain action, while justifications refer to the moral status of an action (i.e. whether it is right or wrong) regardless of the responsibility of the actor that performs it. Drawing on scholarship on the Holocaust, he argued that while explanatory accounts from the social sciences are highly relevant to determine whether a certain act can be excused, the same cannot be said for whether a certain act is justified or not.

Marco Santoro and Nigel Pleasant

The morning session ended with a talk by Professor Marco Santoro (Università di Bologna): ‘Whose Sides (of the Field) Could We Be On? Situatedness, Perspectivism, and Credibility in Social Research’. Santoro is a sociologist who has written on such diverse topics as the notarial profession, popular music, the international circulation of social scientific ideas and the Sicilian mafia. His starting point was a personal experience in which his interpretation of the mafia was harshly criticised by a colleague. In his writings on the topic, he had argued that the mafia can be interpreted as a form of political organisation, a non-state political institution enjoying a certain legitimacy and providing protection and services to its constituency, in a region where poverty runs high and that many see as having been left behind by the Italian state. Those scholars who instead saw the mafia as functioning like a company, simply providing services (e.g. protection from violence) in exchange for money, considered his arguments tantamount to a justification of organised crime. This episode inspired Santoro’s forceful defence of a multi-perspectival approach, according to which we should broaden the range of interpretations of a single phenomenon while being aware that these perspectives are not morally and politically neutral. Some might put us in dangerous territory, but it is only by seriously advancing them that we can clarify our very moral ideals.

Federico Brandmayr

Opening the afternoon session, Dr Federico Brandmayr (University of Cambridge) reconstructed the debate on ‘sociological excuses’ that took place in France after the country was struck by several deadly terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016. In his talk, ‘The Political Epistemology of Explanation in Contemporary French Social Thought’, he showed that the very expression of sociological excuse has clear intellectual and political origins, rooted in US right-wing libertarianism, and argued that it is mainly used in France in relation to accounts of the urban lower class that emphasise poverty, unemployment and stigmatisation. Sociology as a discipline was at the centre of much controversy after the 2015 terrorist attacks, and sociologists reacted in three main ways: some denied the allegations, others reappropriated the derogatory label of excuse by giving it a positive meaning, while others accepted criticism and called for a reformation of sociology. Accordingly, Dr Brandmayr argued that French sociology should not be considered as a monolithic block that experiences attacks from political sectors, but rather as a heterogeneous complex of different epistemic communities.

Stephen Turner, Federico Brandmayr, and Stephen John

In a similar historical vein, Professor Stephen Turner (University of South Florida) gave a talk titled ‘Explaining Away Crime: The Race Narrative in American Sociology’. A renowned historian and philosopher of social science, he reconstructed the history of how social scientists have dealt with the fact that crime rates for Blacks in the US have always been higher than for other ethnic groups. Generally speaking, social scientists wanted to avoid racist accounts of this gap (like those based on a form of genetic predisposition of black people to commit crimes), but they also showed dissatisfaction with accounts that explained the gap by simply pointing to social factors such as poverty and discrimination. This is because of certain theoretical inconsistencies (such as the fact that black crime mainly targets black people, while one would assume that discrimination should cause Blacks to act violently against Whites), but also because it was seen as an excuse pointing to a deficiency in the agent and implying a form of inferiority. Spanning more than a century, Turner’s historical reconstruction identified three basic strategies US social scientists adopted to overcome this dilemma and delineated their ethical implications.

Finally, Gabriel Abend (Universität Luzern) took a more philosophical approach in a talk titled ‘Decisions, “Decisions”, and Moral Evaluation’. His talk built on a theoretical framework that he has recently developed in several publications, and which provides the foundation for the study of decisionism, i.e. the fact that people use decision (or choice) concepts and define certain things as decisions. Decisionism has clear moral and practical implications, as people are generally held accountable and subject to moral judgment when their acts are interpreted as decisions. Abend provided a striking list of examples from scientific journals in which the concept of decision was used to describe such unrelated things as bees’ foraging activities, saccadic eye movements and plant flowering. While these instances of decisionism offer plenty of material for the empirical sociologist, he raised concerns about the risk of conceptual stretching and advocated a responsible conceptual practice.

The workshop was a truly interdisciplinary inquiry, in the spirit of CRASSH. All interventions, whether their approach was philosophical, sociological, historical, or legal converged toward increasing our knowledge of the relationship between explaining and understanding on the one hand, and excusing and justifying on the other. Thanks to the lively and thorough responses given by an impressive battery of discussants (Dr Anna Alexandrova, Dr Jana Bacevic, Dr Cléo Chassonnery-Zaïgouche and Dr Stephen John), the talks were followed by fruitful exchanges. A special issue with the papers given in the workshop is in preparation and will be submitted soon to a prominent interdisciplinary journal.

Text by Federico Brandmayr

Pictures taken by Judith Weik

Luc Steels: The Role of Artificial Intelligence in a Changing Society 1024 576 Barbara Del Mercato

Luc Steels: The Role of Artificial Intelligence in a Changing Society

The Venice Center for the Humanities and Social Change presents:  Luc Steels, The Role of Artificial Intelligence in a Changing Society. With HSC Fellow Marco Marrone as discussant.

Venice, 13/02/2019 at 3.30 p.m.

Artificial Intelligence is in the news. Although the techniques, methods and software components of AI have been under development for decades, it is only recently that the deep potential of AI for transforming many aspects of society is beginning to be felt. This talk first clarifies what Artificial Intelligence is, including what its limits are. It then discusses various areas of activity where there is currently a very active exploration of AI, more specifically in media, work, science and the arts. I will also raise some questions in relation to the ethical and legal issues of AI.
Institute for Advanced Studies (ICREA), Barcelona
Visiting Professor at Ca’Foscari University of Venice
Marco Marrone is a post-doc Fellow of the Venice Center for the Humanities and Social Change
Aula Saraceno
Department of  Management Ca’ Foscari University of Venice
Fondamenta San Giobbe 703, Venice

The event is in English

Admission free

The Universal, the Individual, and the Novel: Hegel, Austen, and Ethical Formation 1024 649 Tom Carlson

The Universal, the Individual, and the Novel: Hegel, Austen, and Ethical Formation

February 22, 2019 at 10 a.m.

Robertson Gymnasium 1000A

The seminar will focus on Professor Lewis’s recent piece “The Universal, the Individual, and the Novel: Hegel, Austen, and Ethical Formation,” which itself constitutes work toward a larger book project. While much recent work in ethics has focused on a purported absence in modern ethical thought of practices for the formation of good character, that book will argue that practices of ethical formation have neither gone away nor ceased to be objects of concern. They have migrated to the margins in canonical modern thought; but even in the case of canonical modern thinkers, scrutiny reveals much more attention to practices of ethical formation than scholars typically appreciate. In the wake of the Reformation, these practices have largely become embedded in ordinary life. Accordingly, four sites have taken on particular significance: home, school, work, and church. Lewis’s project seeks to uncover and argue for the significance of oft-neglected treatments of ethical formation from a decisive moment in Western thought. In providing a more nuanced account of the history of modern ethics, he seeks to demonstrate what we can learn from these debates about the compatibility of a distinctly modern emphasis on freedom and close attention to the formation of character.


The Universal, the Individual and the Novel: Hegel, Austen and Ethical Formation,” in The Unique, the Singular and the Individual, ed. Ingolf U. Dalferth (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, Forthcoming).


G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §§ 142-160 and §§ 257-270.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park 

Essays by Professor Lewis available via email upon request:

“Feeling, Representation, and Practice in Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion.” In The Oxford Handbook of Hegel, ed. Dean Moyar (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 581-602.

“Beyond Love: Hegel on the Limits of Love in Modern Society.” Zeitschrift für neuere Theologiegeschichte/Journal for the History of Modern Theology 20:1 (2013): 3-20.

“Cultivating Our Intuitions: Hegel on Religion, Politics, and Public Discourse,” in Religion, Modernity, and Politics in Hegel (OUP, 2011).

Thomas A. Lewis is Professor of Religious Studies, as well as Co-Deputy Dean and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the Graduate School, at Brown University. He has taught previously at the University of Iowa and at Harvard University. He specializes in religious ethics and philosophy of religion in the modern West and has strong interests in methodology in the study of religion. His research examines conceptions of tradition, reason, and authority and their significance for ethical and political thought. His publications include Freedom and Tradition in Hegel: Reconsidering Anthropology, Ethics, and Religion (University of Notre Dame Press, 2005); Religion, Modernity, and Politics in Hegel (Oxford University Press, 2011); Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion–and Vice Versa (Oxford University Press, 2015); and articles on religion and politics, liberation theology, communitarianism, and comparative ethics.

The Cognitive Value of Love in Tolstoy’s Philosophy and Aesthetics 1024 576 Tom Carlson

The Cognitive Value of Love in Tolstoy’s Philosophy and Aesthetics

March 1, 2019 at 10 a.m.

Robertson Gymnasium 1000A

The cognitive value of love or the dynamic between love and knowledge for Tolstoy is not only a philosophical conundrum explored in the content of his works but a moral and epistemological configuration that directly affects his aesthetics: the overall form and genre of his works as well as particular narrative techniques employed in these works. As Tolstoy revises his philosophy of love, his aesthetics change accordingly. In this seminar discussion, we will trace this trajectory and uncover how Tolstoy’s quest for universal love leads him to a revision of human subjectivity, epistemology, morality and aesthetics.

The relationship between aesthetics and philosophy of love in Tolstoy remains a constant connection throughout his intellectual life. His belief in the centrality of love as the essence of humanity was a strong note of continuity on both sides of his famous conversion and spiritual crisis. His understanding of love, however, changed quite dramatically. Is love prerequisite for knowledge? Or is knowledge prerequisite for love? Does love present an epistemological obstacle or a miracle? Does it blind us or does it yield privileged knowledge? Or is love rather what results from knowledge and familiarity? As Tolstoy changes his answers to these questions and revises his philosophy of love, his aesthetics change accordingly.

Before the crisis, believing that love is prerequisite for knowledge and trying to follow the steps of Plato in the Symposium from the love of a particular person to universal love, Tolstoy repeatedly failed to arrive at the all-inclusive love he so longed for. There was always an excluded remainder. If the romanticization of family led him to nationalism (consider the end of War and Peace), romantic love led either to distractive passions, or, at best, to a family (Anna Karenina). The family as a model even when including the neighbor in its sphere of love, could not extend to a love of humanity as a whole. Tolstoy could not be comfortable with such vicious circularity.

Already in Anna Karenina Tolstoy begins to entertain another configuration: what if knowledge is prerequisite for love? This scenario runs into more problems: how much do we need to know about an object of love and how can this knowledge follow a developing subject? Moreover, how could we possibly love everyone? Once again, Tolstoy seems to be failing to logically secure the possibility of universal love. While trying to ‘fix’ these paradoxes Tolstoy revised his entire philosophy and aesthetics. After the crisis, he reversed the direction of Plato’s ‘Ladder’: we are now supposed to begin with the love of everything, which will logically imply the love of particular people as constituent parts. Tolstoy also comes up with a new conception of subjectivity, which follows his new philosophy of love: he claims that we are all the same underneath, thus can all be known and loved. This, in turn, changed which consciousnesses Tolstoy found necessary to represent: instead of depicting the consciousnesses of characters he loves in order to show their development, Tolstoy now depicts consciousnesses that fail to see his newly discovered truth and need to be taught the lesson. In other words, Tolstoy’s quest for universal love leads him not only to a rejection of the family as a main priority, but also to a revision of human subjectivity, epistemology, morality and aesthetics.


Leo Tolstoi, “Father Sergius” (1911).

Caryl Emerson, “Solov’ev, the Late Tolstoi, and the Early Bakhtin on the Problem of Shame and Love,” Slavic Review 50:3 (1991): 663-671.


Mikhail Bakhtin, Towards a Philosophy of the Act (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993).

Mikhail Bakhtin, “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity” in Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990).

Vladimir Solovyov, The Meaning of Love (1894).

Victoria Juharyan is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. Victoria completed her PhD in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University in 2018. She also holds an MA in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth Colleague and a BA in Literary Editing from St. Petersburg State University in Russia. Her research interests include the relationship between philosophy and literature, German Idealism and Russian Realism, 19th century Russian literature, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, aesthetics, philosophy of emotion and cognition in literature, the theory of the novel, Bakhtin, Russian theater, poetry and translation. In addition to completing a manuscript on Tolstoy’s philosophy of love titled The Cognitive Value of Love in Tolstoy: A Study in Aesthetics, Victoria is working on two other long term projects: one on Hegel’s influence on Russian Literature titled German Idealism and Russian Realism: Hegel’s Philosophy in Goncharov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, and the other on the 18th century Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda titled Hryhorii Skovoroda: Socrates in Russia.

A documentary by Nakul Singh Sawhney 500 300 Barbara Del Mercato

A documentary by Nakul Singh Sawhney

The Venice Center for the Humanities and Social Change presents the screening of the documentary “Muzaffarnagar eventually”, by Nakul Singh Sawhney. Followed by a discussion with the author and with Stefano Beggiora, Massimo Warglien, Andrea Drocco

Venice, 05/02/2019 at 5.15 p.m.

In September 2013, Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts of Western Uttar Pradesh, India, witnessed one of India’s worst ever anti-Muslim pogrom since Indian Independence. What triggered it, what happened?

‘Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai…’ (Muzaffarnagar eventually…) tries to find anwers by speaking to a cross-section of people. While looking at the immediate violence and its repercussions, it takes a journey around the many facets of the massacre. In the midst of gloom, the film narrates the tale of a continued and growing resistance.

A film by Nakul Singh Sawnhey, English subtitles, 130 mins., India 2015

CFZ, Zattere al Ponte Lungo, Dorsoduro 1392

Admission free
Documentary with English subtitles, discussion is in English

A Cartography of Love 974 660 Tom Carlson

A Cartography of Love

February 8, 2019 at 10 a.m.

Robertson Gymnasium 1000A

It is a common grievance among readers of the work of Martin Heidegger that the existential analytic of Daseinhe develops is problematically skewed towards the somber and the macabre. Nowhere is this clearer, so runs the complaint, than in the fundamental moods he chooses to explicitly thematize as revealing what it means for us to be – those of anxiety and boredom. Heidegger may nowhere suggest that these are the only fundamental moods that pertain to our existence, or that it is only through them that the way we are rooted in our world can be made transparent – but, the objection goes, an understanding of ourselves that de factomarginalizes warmer tones of affect such as awe, gratitude, and joy is not only lacking in anthropological fullness, but intrinsically flawed in its capturing of how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to our world.

In this seminar discussion, where we will build on our earlier discussions on mood and world-disclosure, we will confront this complaint by risking the opposite thesis: if love goes unmentioned in much of Heidegger’s work, this is not because of its absence but because, in its silent place at the heart of his questioning, it dare not openly speak its name. Taking our cue from Giorgio Agamben’s “The Passion of Facticity”, we seek to capture love not as one fundamental mood among others, but as the primary passion (Leidenschaft) that marks our existence.

We will then examine the ways in which three contemporary philosophers, building on Heidegger’s thought yet sharply critical of it, seek to articulate this idea of love as primary passion. For it is in reflecting on love that Jean-Luc Marion, Alain Badiou, and Giorgio Agamben, each in their own way, deploy a multifaceted criticism of Heidegger situated at the metaphysical, ethical, and political levels. Yet these levels are not always carefully distinguished from one another, nor is it clear that they couldbe so distinguished. In our discussion we will seek to chart the ways in which the question of love is central to the contemporary philosophical discussion of the concepts of the disclosure of truth, of the other, of ethical life, and of the possibility of politics.

The purpose of the cartography of love in the philosophical domain which we hope to provide is furthermore to serve the furthering of the systematic question in which way love is seen to operate. Is it possible, we will ask, to understand love as the passion that gives my existence its assurance in tying me to the irreducibly individual other – or is such a concept inherently quietistic, in denying love its social and political dimensions? Should love rather be thought primarily on the plane of wider social interaction? Is the sphere of politics one in which one could meaningfully speak of love, or is it a category mistake to import this affective dimension into a realm where conflict rather than harmony is a basic given, and the attempt to pass beyond conflict can only result in tyranny? The question to be addressed here is whether love is to be thought of as the movement of the coming of a new universal subject, ever to be re-established, or rather as the relentless embrace of the destitution of the subject, its emptying out and final non-coincidence with itself.


Giorgio Agamben, “The Passion of Facticity,” Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford, 1999), 185-204.

Climate of Doubt 500 280 Tom Carlson

Climate of Doubt

January 25, 2019 at 10 a.m.

Robertson Gymnasium 1000A

The persistence of climate change denial in spite of popular and scientific consensus of the human impact on global warming seems to dispute that such denialism is rooted exclusively in the misinformation of a deceived public. More often than not, climate change denial, according to the report by the American Psychological Association (2009), partakes in a “fiction,” i.e., in the invention of “other worlds” and “other people” as the sole beneficiary of climate catastrophe, leading us to wonder if denialism is not rather productive and generative, realizing itself as the obverse of a desperate hope: climate change is what happens to other peoples, in other places, and at other times; or that we can create an elsewhere where climate change is not happening; or the climate change only matters when it happens to us, inconsequential when it occurs elsewhere etc.

In Bruno Latour’s recent book, Down To Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, the fiction of an “elsewhere” is incorporated into a narrative about globalization that has left some of us in “exile” (“deprived of land”), while others (“the elites”) inhabit an abstract universality—a narrative about globalization in which the earth progressively disappears. In a poignant image of unworlding, Latour describes modern man as a subject without landscape, a subject who seems to have lost his footing in the world right under his feet (85). Indeed, all manner of denials (political, ecological, social), Latour argues, may be traced back to the fundamental denial of the originary entanglement of “human” and social history in geological history, in effect, denying that our actions have re-actions in the world, or put differently, that the world is capable of being affected. And yet, Latour reasons: “If the Terrestrial is no longer the framework for human action, it is because it participates in that action. Space is no longer that of the cartographers, with their latitudinal and longitudinal grids. Space has become agitated history in which we are participants among others, reacting to other reactions. It seems that we are landing in the thick of geohistory” (42).

This seminar invites explorations of the central concepts animating Latour’s writings such as (new) materialism; the Terrestrial (and the concept of nature that it is intended to “displace,” not to mention the assumptions behind the “displacement”); the “geosocial” and “object-oriented politics.” My own interest lies in formulating the specificity of climate change denial in relation to other philosophical modalities of negation, bad consciousness, skepticism, disavowal etc. My account seeks to resist the self-evident way denial appears even in Latour’s text as an error or a lack of truth that awaits correction. Instead, I am interested in the desires that generate or are generated by denial. In staying with the affective dimension of the problem, I also want to examine the role of the senses (of global “warming” or “cooling”; of the so-called sensible” effects of climate change; and not least, of the rhetoric of “common sense” which intimates the possibility both of consensus and/or a common sensibility) in climate change discourse.


Bruno Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2018).


Venice HSC Lecture Series: Edward Wilson-Lee and The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books 1024 576 Barbara Del Mercato

Venice HSC Lecture Series: Edward Wilson-Lee and The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

The Venice Center for the Humanities and Social Change in collaboration with Bollati Boringhieri presents Edward Wilson-Lee in conversation with Maria Del Valle Ojeda Calvo and Igiaba Scego about his latest book, The Catalogue of Shipwrecked books (published by William Collins in the U.K, Scribner in the U.S.A and recently in Italy by Bollati Boringhieri)

Venice, 24/01/2019 at 5.30 p.m.

THE CATALOGUE OF SHIPWRECKED BOOKS tells the scarcely believable––and wholly true––story of Christopher Columbus’ bastard son Hernando, who sought to equal and surpass his father’s achievements by creating a universal library that would harness the vast powers of the new printing presses and bring every book in the world together in his library in Seville. (…) But the library he produced was much more than just an information-crunching machine: it was an artefact moulded by his life and the age in which he lived. During his immensely eventful life (…) he also amassed the largest collection of printed images and of printed music of the age, started what was perhaps Europe’s first botanical garden, and created by far the greatest private library Europe had ever seen, dwarfing with its 15,000 books every other library of the day. This first major modern biography of Hernando––and the first of any kind available in English––tells an enthralling tale of the age of print and exploration, a tale with striking lessons for our own modern experiences of information revolution and Globalisation.

(More on Edward Wilson-Lee’s website)

Il catalogo dei libri naufragati, translated by Susanna Bourlot, Bollati Boringhieri 2019

CFZ, Zattere al Ponte Lungo, Dorsoduro 1392

Admission free
Event in English, with Italian translation

A review of the event (by Andrea Carboni, in Italian) here

“Religious Affections” and the Birth of Publicity in Modern America 1024 662 Tom Carlson

“Religious Affections” and the Birth of Publicity in Modern America

January 18, 2019 at 10 a.m.

Robertson Gymnasium 1000A

The public expression of anger and even hate that we witness in our time—stirred up on social media and at campaign rallies, and provoked by growing inequality in income and opportunity—raises anew an old question about the role of emotion in political life (as opposed to, say, ideals or material interests).

Before turning to technology or populism to explain this abrupt intrusion of the passions into politics, we might do well to consider the historic role of emotion in constituting political life. The conceptual bases of government may have originated in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but the robust character of public life in America was shaped by a sequence of religious revivals in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries.

The revival is derived from an element of Puritan political theology uniquely forged in seventeenth-century New England, and at the same time it marks, as the great historian Perry Miller observed many years ago, a break with that political theology by inaugurating a new kind of publicity. It names an arousal of the passions, often through the use of language, and targeted at the imagination, that creates the conditions for the ethical formation of a new moral order. Despite its origin in the theology of original sin, the revival was as much an aesthetic phenomenon as it was religious; and in the nineteenth century, it became allied to the unfurling horizon of technological progress and to the romantic emphasis on feeling over intellect.

In this seminar, we will examine the first revival, in Northampton in 1734, as it was described by Jonathan Edwards in an essay entitled, “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls.” Our discussion of the text will be framed by Miller’s historiography, which sought to trace the intellectual legacy of Puritanism in the formation of the American character (the hermeneutics of the physical universe, a distinctive style of writing, and the voluntarism of private initiative); and which saw in the “hysterical agonies of the Great Awakening” the seeds of modern America.



Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light” (1734).