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Distinguished Lectures

“No maxim seems as successful today as Timothy Leary's “Think for yourself and question authority.” Once a countercultural mantra, it has become the rallying cry of libertarians and anarchists, ecological activists and anti-vaxxers, whistleblowers and conspiracy theorists alike. Around the world, collective resistance to authority has animated protests as politically diverse as the Hong Kong yellow umbrella movement, the Spanish indignados and French gilets jaunes (yellow vests), Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, the German Querdenker (contrarian thinkers), and the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.  At the same time, authoritarianism is a growing worldwide threat—one that often thrives, paradoxically, on anti-authoritarian suspicion and rhetoric. What accounts for the widespread distrust of political, scientific, journalistic, and academic authority today?  What is its relation to rising authoritarianism and to earlier contests of authority? From Homer’s depiction of mutinous Greek warriors in the Iliad, through midcentury studies of “the authoritarian personality,” to contemporary worries about the power of algorithms to shape public knowledge, the humanities have explored the problems that arise when high-stakes claims to power and authority collide. While social progress often requires the questioning of authority, a reflexive and unthinking rejection of authority can undermine the institutions of knowledge, law, and culture that make social life possible.

The 2022-2023 Altman Program invites the Miami University community to explore the political, historical, aesthetic, and affective dimensions of authority and dissent. What is authority exactly? What is its relation to political power, law, expertise, rhetoric, and charisma?  What constitutes ethical resistance to authority, and what modes of dissent are effective? And how, finally, do we separate the reasonable suspicion of power from the nihilistic assumption that all authority is inherently corrupt, oppressive, and dispensable?

In the fall of 2022, we will offer the course "Contesting Authority" which is part of the "Topics in Critical Humanities" series. The course is connected to the Altman Program 2022-23 Contesting Authority and its events. This 3 credit hour course is offered on Monday and Wednesdays. The course numbers are HUM 490A (CRN 80674) and HUM 590A (CRN 80673). This special course will take up texts, theories, and histories of protest in its various forms, violent and non-violent, as well as the dynamics by which authority and authorities are constituted and challenged. Team-taught by professor Steven Conn and professor Joseph O'Neil, the course will examine in particular the connections between movements and discourses in the United States and Europe while considering how relationships with regional and imperial peripheries (colonialism, African slavery and emancipation, immigration) constitute the terms of that comparison.