Letter from Faculty Director

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While I sit in relative safety working in my home in a Columbus suburb during the stay-at-home directive, COVID-19 has changed my life. My life has changed with new child and elder care concerns and fear for a member of my extended family with the virus in an intensive care unit in Manhattan, NY and for my mother living alone over 500 miles away. COVID-19 has heightened my concern for how my daughters must navigate their physical safety and emotional wellbeing as young Asian-American women growing up in the context of the coronavirus and the virus that is anti-Asian pathogen racism.

More generally, I have deep concerns about the social and economic risks that the pandemic has raised for the most vulnerable among the university community, including those with pre-existing health conditions, as well as international students, communities of color and staff, contingent faculty and contract workers. In addition, some of our LGBTQI students may have had to return to unwelcome and unsafe home environments.

As the leader of a cross-disciplinary initiative focused on the human dimensions of global challenges, more than ever I see the urgent need for integrated arts and humanities research to understand and endure this crisis. 

  • We cannot understand the consequences of the shortage of medical supplies and differential access to testing and healthcare without understanding the links among economic and human capital — including the attribution of human value to some communities and not others.
  • We cannot understand the economic, cultural, and social impacts of COVID-19 on indigenous communities and communities of color unless we understand the history of colonialism, slavery, white property rights, and housing segregation and dispossession.
  • We cannot understand discrimination and violence against Asians and Asian Americans within the present context without understanding the legacy of the US Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese American Internment Camps, or the negative impact of the model minority myth on perceptions of Asian-American activists countering these stereotypes.

What is the role of the arts and humanities in the midst of a pandemic?

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How might the Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme inspire and support integrated art and humanities research that advances public knowledge about and responses to COVID-19?

Cross-disciplinary research collaborations that integrate arts and humanities perspectives help us to better understand the history of racism and classism in western science and medicine, the logics of exclusion and contagion and the public consequences of misinformation.

We are accustomed to states of emergency. We are accustomed to humanitarian crises. But we are not bound to capitulate to the political failures and divisions that states of emergency and crises exacerbate. While the arts and humanities are clearly not immune to such crises, arts and humanities methods and practices are central to demystifying the logics and structural histories that underlie temporal emergencies. Crises pressure the public into reactive modes that often circumvent deliberation and critical analyses. Crises may pressure the public to recognize shared vulnerabilities and interdependencies, but recognition of these connections does not in and of itself dismantle hierarchies or social differentials.

Just as humanitarian responses are limited in their focus on short-term approaches, the COVID-19 pandemic, like all states of emergency, turns public attention away from what cultural anthropologist Veena Das has referred to as the violence of the ordinary. States of emergency reframe violence as exceptional.

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Attention to how catastrophe frameworks function as political and ethical covers for material conditions of precariousness and catastrophe capitalism as an economic driver of material profiteering raise the specter of further inequality.

The arts and humanities play a central role in helping individuals and communities create a sense of belonging during enforced states of social distancing. These cultural practices may not guarantee immunity to illness, but they are just as important to survive a pandemic as are medical interventions. Not only do the arts and humanities provide joy and establish community,  but they provide essential tools to better understand the human dimensions of crises such as the one we are now facing. From the creation of mutual aid networks and need lists to support friends and family to the virtualization of ritual gatherings like weddings and funerals to voices raised in solidarity on rooftops in Italy’s virus epicenter to noise salutations in New York recognizing the efforts of front line health care workers — cultural forms of expression enable us to nourish human connections in a time of deep human peril. 

It is incumbent upon us as arts and humanities scholars and practitioners to bring the insights and methods of our fields to facilitate the critical engagement with and new solutions to the challenges that COVID-19 has made excruciatingly visible, including the inability of families to publicly mourn the loss of loved ones. The arts and humanities provide indispensable tools to understand and give voice to the losses and trauma that contour the human experience.