Humanities for Humans: An Interview With Irene Kacandes

Increasingly heated debates around hot-button issues are deepening rifts across society. Dr. Irene Kacandes wants to change the conversation. We talked with the Dartmouth professor about a new lecture series supported by the Walter de Gruyter Foundation that brings together humanities scholars and the broader public to defuse the polarizing issues of our time.

Over the last few years, the misuse of contested terms such as “critical race theory” and “white privilege” have exacerbated social rifts – especially since these terms are often misunderstood or not clearly defined in the first place. What’s to be done? Can we counteract polarization by creating a better understanding of these concepts? Perhaps the answers lurk behind the doors of a historic townhouse at 1014 Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Founded in 2017 upon the initiative of the German Federal Foreign Office and the Goethe-Institut, the non-profit organization 1014 – space for ideas aims to facilitate transatlantic relationships through talks, performances, and exhibitions. Their latest venture is the conversation series “Humanities for Humans,” presented in collaboration with the Walter de Gruyter Foundation. In eight virtual and in-person events over two years, renowned scholars from a variety of disciplines and from both sides of the Atlantic will take a deeper look at the polarizing issues of our era.

According to Dr. Irene Kacandes, Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College and curator of the series, the lectures aim to bring out the “human” in the humanities and to contribute to a level-headed debate among the general public. In the run-up to the first event on September 27, De Gruyter’s director of communications Dr. Pablo Dominguez Andersen spoke to Irene about the origins of the series, the vital role of the humanities in times of crisis, and her plans for the future.

The conversation is available as a video, podcast, and transcript (see below).


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Pablo Dominguez: Welcome, Irene. Thanks for joining us. We’re excited about this opportunity to speak about “Humanities for Humans.” I’m curious to hear, how did the idea for this event series come about? Can you give us a little bit of background on that?

Irene Kacandes: Sure. I was approached by De Gruyter first and specifically [Vice President Publishing, Humanities & Social Sciences] Manuela Gerlof, with whom I’ve worked for a long time because of a series that I do on interdisciplinary German cultural studies. She had been approached by the De Gruyter Stiftung to get involved in a project they hoped to launch that would feature the humanities. The original idea that she brought to me was for some kind of book prize, but really a high-end event that would try to find the best scholars in the humanities possible and give them a very nice reward. She was wondering what I thought of that, and I thought a book prize is always a wonderful thing to win, but there are, in fact, a lot of book prizes. And I wondered, would it be possible to feature the humanities in a way that was going beyond just one single event or one single person and one single person’s accomplishments? Could it really be a dialogue between whoever was involved on the official end and some kind of broader audience?

I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few years about the way concepts that have come out of the humanities have been misunderstood by the general public all over the place, not just in the United States, also in Germany. If you think about something like “performance” – what does that really mean when you say “the performative” as opposed to “performance”? What does “performing gender” mean? That was a whole area that I thought a lot of people misunderstood. The most dramatic event prior to me making this suggestion had been the explosion in the United States of a ridiculous controversy, because so misunderstood, of what “critical race theory” means. Critical race theory was such a specific thing that was being taught at such a high level in the United States. All of a sudden, there were these individuals who were convinced that their first graders, their third graders, their very young children, were being indoctrinated into something that had this awful name: “critical race theory.” So, what I proposed was, why don’t we try to take some of those terms, get some real experts on them, experts who are interested in talking to the general public?

I immediately started to get excited about the idea when I realized another organization I was involved with, 1014 Space for Ideas, which is located in New York City, has already been running different kinds of lecture series. I asked first De Gruyter, but then them: Would you be interested in cooperating? And they said yes. There was a certain amount of back and forth between me and the two representatives of the two organizations and the idea just really took off. The specific title, “Humanities for Humans,” came for me partly because for many years I’ve been involved in conversations where people say, “We don’t even know what the humanities are. What does that mean?” So, I wanted to put that word “human” right in there because that’s what’s so critical about it. It has something to say.

PD: Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute and ask: Why the humanities specifically? One could say that we are facing these pressing issues such as climate change or the COVID pandemic at the moment, and a lot of science communication at the moment is focused on hard sciences, and there’s probably reasons for that. Why would you say the humanities matter specifically at this moment? What can they offer?

“I think ultimately we’ll never tackle problems like climate change unless we understand human nature.”

IK: That’s a very important set of questions that you’re asking. Your example is very telling for me, though, because I think climate change is precisely something that has to be understood in an interdisciplinary way. It’s not just the science of what is causing the atmosphere to heat up or what is causing the trees to start to die or the change in weather patterns. It also has to do with human behavior. I think that the humanities are involved precisely with the issue of human behavior and what happens when humans interact with the environment, with other kinds of natural elements, with each other. That’s why subjects that are taught under the rubric of the humanities are so important to me personally, because I think ultimately we’ll never tackle problems like climate change unless we understand human nature. The past, for example, has things to teach us about human nature. Whether it’s history or literature, which is so rich with examples of how humans behave, or sociology or psychology – fields that often get grouped in this larger sense of humanity have a lot to teach us about.

How do we need to address our messages, to stick with the example of climate change, so that people actually do something? When do people change their behavior? This is an absolutely excellent reason why we need humanities right now, which is not to say we don’t need the natural sciences or mathematics or any of those other fields that tend to get grouped together. Those can’t be left out of the discussion. But my own observation is, with the exception of certain types of people, for example climate deniers, the broad swathes of the population do actually hear from scientists quite often. Scientists do get a lot of different venues to talk, whereas humanity scholars tend not to have very many venues to interact with the general public. They’re not interviewed very often in newspapers. They’re glad to be interviewed, [like me] right now. It doesn’t happen to me every day. Whereas some of my colleagues in the sciences… I have a friend who’s a very illustrious physicist, he’s interviewed all the time. So, it just seemed to me that that was another reason to give play to the humanities as opposed to the sciences.

PD: Let’s talk a little bit more about the series and what people can expect from it. You mentioned these hot button concepts that are debated in a very controversial manner, and critical race theory is one primary example. What are other terms and concepts that the series is going to be talking about?

IK: We have two programs that are already set that I’m very excited about. The first one, which will launch the series, is called “Racism and Fascism: A Love Story.” That’s the title of a book that Michael Hanchard, a political scientist, is working on right now as we speak. He’ll be one of the featured speakers, as will be historian Dagmar Herzog. The idea here is that racism and fascism are intimately connected and often back each other up in very insidious kinds of ways. We’ll be looking both at historical examples how the German fascists, the Nazis, used race in terms of a tool to carry out their plans, as well as much more recent incarnations. For example, the fact that when Trump presented himself as a candidate, many people said, “Wow, he’s a real Hitler,” or some people said, “He’s a real Mussolini.” Was that appropriate then? Is it appropriate now to call him and those who follow him “fascist”? To what extent? To what not?

What we’ve seen even more recently, very disturbingly, is the head of the Russian Federation making the claim that there are “fascists” running Ukraine and that those “fascists” want to invade Russia, so they’ll invade there first. What does it mean that this for some people old vocabulary was seemingly pulled out of nowhere? We know that in Russia it has a very powerful valence precisely because the historical precedent has not been forgotten. The idea of racism being involved, many people know that the Nazis believed that the Aryans were the superior race and that especially Jews were a separate race, and they were very inferior. Also, that people of African descent were inferior, people of Slavic descent were inferior. There were multiple racisms going on for the Nazis. In the United States, we’ve seen racism itself become understood in new ways in the last years. And we want to understand what it means when people say, for example, “systemic racism” – a concept I think has been very misunderstood. Can you claim to not be a racist but be completely unaware of how systemic racism functions and in fact is giving you privileges because your skin is not dark?

“My big hope is that the conversation will be powerful enough and clear enough that schoolteachers might want to use segments of it in their classrooms.”

These are some of the concepts we’ll unfold in that conversation. It will be held on Fifth Avenue [1014] in a beautiful building that’s owned by 1014 – that’s how they got their name. That building right now is limited to a relatively small audience. There will be about 75 people allowed to come. We’re hoping they’ll come from a range of age groups and backgrounds, et cetera. It’s certainly not aimed at people like myself and other professors. The event will be recorded and put online so that anybody can look it up. My big hope is that the conversation will be powerful enough and clear enough that schoolteachers might want to use segments of it in their classrooms, or just individuals who are taking a course like the one I teach on Nazis and neo-Nazis. I hope those teachers might assign listening to it with some questions to their students. We hope that it will have not only a long afterlife, but also a broad audience once it’s online.

There is another program that is already set for the spring, and that is more about what do we do in the aftermath of violence and of racism. It’s called “Repair, Reparation and Refusal.” So, three R-words that are being used a lot right now in terms of especially African American but also other communities of color. Talking back to the majority population, how do we repair the damage that was done to all kinds of communities because of the Covid 19 pandemic? How do we discuss whether someone or a group is owed reparations, whether that’s on an individual level because someone has been harmed by the police, or whether it’s on a community level because of the ongoing consequences of colonialism and racism? And then the idea of refusal, which is, I would say, a particularly misunderstood concept, where communities of color have said, “We’re not going to engage in that conversation with you. We’re refusing to have that conversation.” We have two very different experts, wonderful people, also stars in the humanities: Marianne Hirsch, who teaches at Columbia University, and Hortense Spillers, who is just retiring right now from Vanderbilt University. They will be having that conversation with each other. There will be a moderator that’s going to be me for these first conversations, and we definitely hope to have Q &  A.

We’re also planning two events in the course of the next twelve months online, and that’s when we’re hoping to get a particularly large audience for the first event. Then it would continue its afterlife. But it’s a very new project and so there are lots of little details that we’re still trying to figure out. For example, I want very much to get a mix of people, including young people, into the room when we do have it in person.

PD: And there are going to be eight events in total?

IK: Eight in total. The two organizations have decided to fund this project for two years. There’s a small board of academic experts that’s advising me. I didn’t want to put too much programming in place before the board got a chance to really get involved. We also want some feedback on how these first events go. I’m soliciting opinions right now on what the most urgent topics are. But just to give you some more ideas: We are thinking about one on critical race theory. We’re thinking about one on saving or supporting democracy. We’re thinking about one on fake news and misinformation. We’re thinking about one on freedom of speech. This also has come into the news very powerfully because of the attack on Salman Rushdie recently. But it’s an important older issue that’s been around with us for a while. Speaking of older issues, we’re thinking about a session on antisemitism. What does that mean? Now? How is it that this particular form of hatred has persisted in so many places for so many millennia? There are plenty of topics, and the key will be to hit on the right topics. They have to be planned in advance, obviously. But can we get the topics that people really are interested in thinking about right now? I hope I’ve gotten that right for these first two and I’m going to do my best to keep it going.

PD: Sounds fascinating, we’re all looking forward to that! Thanks Irene, for speaking to us. The first event is on September 27, we’ll make sure to post a link to the event so everyone can find out the details.

“Words have the power to change things.”

IK: Could I just mention one more thing? Sometimes, words have a power to change things. That’s the whole idea of the performative that I mentioned towards the beginning of our conversation. There is a small hope I have that just hearing the title “Humanities for Humans” might get people thinking. Even if they’re not able to participate in an event, what did they think to themselves, or say to their friends, when hearing the phrase, “Humanities for Humans”? If any conversations get launched along those lines, I’ll be very pleased, and I think it would be a positive result for this.


Learn more about 1014 – space for ideas and the event series “Humanities for Humans” here:

Humanities for Humans banner

[Title image by Patrick Robert Doyle via Unsplash]

Irene Kacandes

Dr. Irene Kacandes is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College and curator of the event series “Humanities for Humans.”

Pablo Dominguez Andersen

Dr. Pablo Dominguez Andersen, historian and cultural scientist, heads De Gruyter's corporate communications as Director Communications. (Photo: © Nils Bornemann)

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