Meet the Center for Experimental Humanities at NYU

by Gina Elbert

The Center for Experimental Humanities sounds like it could be NYU’s secret laboratory for engineering absurdist, genetically modified creatures: interested in a cross between a duck and a rhino, anyone? In a way, it is, but rather than being a biology lab, it is a space for the hybridization of ideas and concepts. Its director, Professor Sukhdev Sandhu, was kind enough to answer some questions for me so as introduce English department students to its unique mission and events.

“CEH is for people who are bored with fields, who wish to jump over the hedge, who feel the language of disciplinarity feels like a prison sentence,” says Sandhu. “We’re interested in unlearning, ambiguity, DIY, opacity, living at the edge of one’s skin.” A look into Professor Sandhu’s own research history reflects this kind of approach: among the interests listed on the Center’s website are Sweden, off-kilter Englishness, topographics, cinematics, and the poetics and sociology of sport. This kind of interdisciplinary approach is appropriate for people who, like Professor Sandhu, like to “shed skins” like snakes and avoid the “rigor mortis” of being locked into a single field of study.

To that end, Center offers an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies, as well as a host of graduate courses that are just as diverse in their subjects as the fields of research listed above. “We offer classes on insomnia, nothingness, David Bowie, underworlds, the 1990s, John Berger. We have a distinguished visiting cat. We have posters and art pieces of Neu!, Bowie, Black Mask, Godard. Our speakers include alchemists, puppeteers, specialists on homunculi,” says Professor Sandhu. Among the courses being offered this spring are James Baldwin’s Impossible America, Memory Palaces: A Workshop in Experimental Fiction and Nonfiction, and Nothingness: Art, Literature, Sound, and Screen.

The Center sounds like an extension of the professor’s longstanding Colloquium for Unpopular Culture, which he describes as, “an ark, It doesn’t have a purpose, a goal, a set of outcomes. It began through boredom – and advocacy.” The colloquium’s mission may not be etched in stone – fitting for an organization intent on defying boundaries – but this modest description fails to mention just how much the Colloquium does. It holds events every semester, like “seances, singalongs, and post-lockup dancing.” More traditionally, it also hosts book talks and author events most recently “Style Is Our Status System, Our Guide to What Is Right in the World” with Paul Gorman, Janette Beckman, Dan Fox, Vivien Goldman, and Jennifer Kabat on February 7.

English department students may not be used to the Center for Experimental Humanities’ unconventional approach, but they would do well to explore its curriculum and perhaps attend an event or two. With required core courses on their plates, English majors often ask for more experimental classes and the Center and the Colloquium can deliver them. Who knows? Perhaps you will find yourself creating a genetically modified idea, too.

Image via University of Johannesburg