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Evil

 

ORGANIZING FELLOWS:

Joel Westerdale
German Studies

Craig Davis
English Language & Literature, Medieval Studies


ORGANIZING FELLOWS:

Craig Davis
Craig Davis
English Language & Literature, Medieval Studies
Joel Westerdale
Joel Westerdale
German Studies
 

PROJECT DESCRIPTION:

What is “evil”? Philosophers and saints, politicians and scientists have long grappled with the concept of evil. Some locate its origin in sin, others in our genes. For some it arises from ignorance, for others from resentment, and still others doubt whether it even exists at all. It is a vexing concept, one that has always fascinated and repulsed. The notion of evil has played a formative role in the varied cultures around the world and has had a tangible impact on the way societies interact with one another.

Evil is a concept that has been subjected to widely varying interpretations and definitions. For example, for some, an uprising against an established regime is an evil act that throws society into chaos, but for others the same uprising constitutes an act of liberation from an oppressive, evil moral order. What is designated as evil by some may seem, from a different perspective, little more than a minor transgression of an apparently arbitrary code, an act that commands admiration rather than reproach. That which was once regarded as evil may cease to be denounced as time passes. The celebration of transgression in the wake of Nietzsche has thrived in recent decades, though such presumptuousness has a long list of fictional and historical forebears, including Giordano Bruno and Milton’s Lucifer. But how are such Faustian figures to be reconciled with the kind of evil that is considered unredeemable, the sort that challenges the very notion of comprehensibility? Why are some forms of evil considered “justifiable”? Should they be placed in the same category as genocide, rape, torture, and cruelty? How could the pursuit of forbidden knowledge be equated with the horrors of “man’s inhumanity to man”?

Evil has been identified, labeled, applied, vilified, celebrated and even turned into entertainment. Its influence extends in different manifestations and with varying definitions and degrees of intensity, across every epoch and nation throughout history, in every aspect of life and subject of study, from religion (as in Job’s questioning of God’s justice) to science (as in Oppenheimer’s criticism of the atomic bomb) to literature (as in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) to politics (as in the rhetoric of recent administrations). Its scope has been far reaching, touching directly or indirectly all manner of disciplines and discourses, influencing and being applied across a broad range of actions, philosophies and behaviors ranging from those considered little more than mischievous peccadilloes to ethnic cleansing. The concept of evil has been used to define what is acceptable and what is taboo, what is a culturally laudable norm and what is an abomination, what (or who) is humane or inhumane.

But who decides what is evil? How does the label “evil” itself function as a tool of power? How does it enable strategies of exclusion and justification while providing the security of moral absolutism? How are both the concept of evil and its uses as a label applied in different sizes and kinds of groups and systems? Does the designation of evil hold the same stigmatizing power in different cultures and across various historical periods? How do various cultures and individuals handle evil differently, and how is it represented in the cultural fabric, in the art, the painting, the literature, the music of a society? How are reactions to evil reflected in political, social, and economic systems and practices?

This project will bring together a diverse group of scholars to explore the concept of evil and the practices of its invocation and reception. The goal will be not so much to establish the nature of evil in the world, but to examine and try to determine the functions it serves in various discourses, systems, actions, and interactions. Each Fellow will bring to the group a set of questions or cases from within their particular discipline reflecting the many facets of evil as a subject of study. As we examine these distinct perspectives, we will also work within a collaborative framework that will afford us an opportunity to see beyond disciplinary horizons and to develop a genuinely cross-disciplinary engagement. Fellows may explore philosophical, religious, sociological, ethical, cultural, political, literary, artistic, scientific, or even linguistic questions about instances of evil or applications of it. Each will bring a unique perspective on the subject to the group. Anthropologist’s understanding of the term “evil,” for instance, will differ from that of a philosopher or from that of a bioengineer. Conjoining different perspectives from a diverse cross-section of disciplines promises to provide a provocative series of discussions and a thorough and multifaceted investigation of this concept.

 

 

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