In January 2018, the Humanities Center announced the topic for its 2018-2019 Altman Program: “Truth and Lies.” The program will be led by Professors Theresa Kulbaga and Emily Zakin. Kulbaga, associate professor of English, and affiliate of American Studies & Women’s Studies programs, studies autobiography and memoir, documentary film, and creative nonfiction writing, Zakin, chair and professor of Philosophy, works on nineteenth and twentieth-century continental philosophy, psychoanalysis, and feminist theory.
I had the chance to sit down with both Altman Fellows to talk about their goals for the program, which range from involving students to organizing important discussions on campus and even beyond the university. Both were quick to stress that the program is not about finding “the answers” to questions of truth but rather about highlighting the complexities of truth and falsehood. “The goals of this Altman Program” Kulbaga explains, “is not to tell people what truth is. This is something that philosophers and everyone else has been trying to do for forever, and it’s a little presumptuous to assume that you can just lay it out like that. Rather, our role is just to open a more complex and sophisticated conversation. This is something that a university can do for its citizenry that is important.” Zakin agrees. “We’ll be trying to think about why questions of truth are important in terms of making political judgements, in terms of sustaining the kind of reality that democratic practice needs, in terms of sustaining social bonds, interpersonal bonds and social reality, and in terms of establishing a relationship to yourself.”
The Altman Program allows faculty members to lead inquiry among not only fellow faculty members but also students, community members, and visiting scholars. Kulbaga and Zakin hope that the program will help disrupt some widely held ideas about truth and reach a broad audience with questions that are fundamental to human existence.
“I hope this program contributes ultimately to making the world more socially just,” says Kulbaga. “If we think of truth as a singular thing then we erase a lot of people’s experiences. One reason that I’m so obsessed with memoir and autobiography is because they push back against that. I think that you can see that in the #MeToo movement, in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, in some of our contemporary social justice movements. We really need to think about who is deemed a truth-teller and who is characterized as always already lying .”
Zakin sees truth and lies as essential everyday concerns that are not always recognized or understood. “These are really fundamental questions that as a human being you have to ask,” she notes. “You could pull someone off the street and truth would have a role in their lives. Lying would have a role in their lives. These are things are already active in people, but people are not exactly aware about how they're active. So this program could prompt people to say, ‘Oh yeah! The truth actually matters to me.’"
Submitted by Abby Culpepper, Humanities Center Student Assistant