Seminar Topic for 2005-06: "Powers of Wonder"

The Center for Humanities and the Arts (CHA) is pleased to announce its theme for the 2005-2006 academic year, "Powers of Wonder."  In conjunction with this theme, CHA will conduct a year-long faculty and graduate student seminar, host a series of lectures and public performances, and hold a Spring Colloquium.  We invite all members of the CU community to join in a broad, interdisciplinary conversation focused on the nature of wonder and its peculiar hold on our imaginations.

CHA solicits proposals for the following:

Guest Speakers, Artists, Performers: CHA is interested in hearing from the CU community about distinguished visitors who would contribute to an exploration of our theme.  In addition, we solicit nominations (including self-nominations) of faculty at CU; one of our colleagues will be selected by CHA's Program Committee to join our distinguished guests as part of this series.  We envision a series involving 5 to 6 speakers, artists, and/or performers.  Please send suggestions to CHA Acting Director, Christopher Braider, at

Courses: CHA is interested in learning about courses at all levels (graduate and undergraduate, freshman and honors seminars) that would incorporate some aspect of the theme.  Our hope is to encourage active participation in CHA events and to engage the whole campus in a reflection on the theme in conjunction with the Lecture Series and Spring Colloquium.  We also hope that the early announcement of next year's theme will help interested faculty devise new courses or revise existing courses with that theme in mind. Please send course information to

CHA Fellowships: Four faculty members and four graduate students will be selected as CHA Fellows for 2005-2006.  The fellows will meet together in a year-long seminar and present the results of their work in a Spring 2006 Colloquium.  Fellows will receive support for their participation in the seminar and colloquium.  These funds will afford a two-course release for the year plus $1000 in research funding for faculty participants, and will provide $6000 in support for graduate student fellows.  Funding for the seminar is provided by the Office of the Provost and the Graduate School.

Applications to participate in the CHA seminar should include a statement of the candidate's research or creative interests and an account of how the candidate feels these interests would contribute to interdisciplinary discussions of our theme.  Applications should also include a current CV and a sample of the candidate's work.  Applicants should be prepared to arrange their schedules to meet regularly with the seminar; while adjustments may be made once fellows are selected, the seminar's normal meeting time is Wednesdays 3:00-5:00.  Faculty should also include a cover sheet indicating name, position, department, and project title; this sheet should include the following statement signed by the faculty member's chair/dean: "I understand that, if the applicant receives a CHA Seminar Fellowship, he/she will be released from two courses during the 2005-2006 academic year."

The deadline for submissions is Friday, January 14, 2005 at 12:00 noon.

Applications and inquiries should be addressed to:

Christopher Braider, Acting Director
Center for Humanities and the Arts
280 UCB / Macky 201
Tel: (303)492-1931 / Fax: (303)735-2624

To help members of the campus community to decide how they might participate in CHA's exploration of the theme, "Powers of Wonder," we offer the following thoughts on some of the many directions in which the topic might lead:

Feelings of wonder have deep roots and deep associations, and oscillate unpredictably between the poles of exaltation and fright, reverence and abjection, exhilaration and awe.  Many, often contradictory things inspire it -- supreme excellence, terrifying power, breath-taking beauty, or the unutterably strange, unaccountable, and mysterious.  The word itself has become ubiquitous: in advertising and religion, poetry and propaganda, travel writing and the everyday idiom of commonplace praise, it attaches itself to almost anything, giving us the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Hitler's "wonder weapons," the "signs and wonders" of divine providence, Wonder Woman, the Wunderkind, and even Wonder Bread.  But how is wonder to be not simply felt, but understood?  How do we define it?  What are its sources? What uses does it serve?  What needs does it both signal and fulfill?

Concepts of "wonder" lie along a continuum that reflects an underlying ambiguity and ambivalence.  At one end of the continuum, wonder is what Mary Campbell calls a "cognitive emotion": the amazed discovery of things new and astounding serves as a spur to curiosity and thought, promoting search for the knowledge needed to explain what at first seems inexplicable.  At the other end, however, if also somehow by the same token, wonder is the name we give to gaping ignorance, the "savage" state of wide-eyed superstitious awe from which knowledge rescues us.  It is thus at once the beginning of wisdom and its opposite, the stimulating expression of a stupid astonishment we learn to overcome.  Similarly, we associate wonder with childhood and with a youthful capacity (the "capacity," precisely, "for wonder") whose inevitable passing we regret since it bespeaks a freshness of feeling and an enlarged perception, an innocence, an excitement, and a source of love and joy we lose as we grow older, more experienced, and, as a result, more fixed and limited in our notions of what is real and possible and true.  Wonder thereby becomes a theme of nostalgia, a longing for a condition we ultimately leave behind.  Or again, even as it appears to be characteristically accompanied by feelings of awe and fear that betoken powers that seem to be all the more vast and irresistible for surpassing comprehension, wonder inspires a sense of belonging -- of inhabiting a world that, as mighty and enigmatic as it may feel, is nonetheless meant for us.  Whence, in the minds of believers, the role wonder plays in so-called "proofs from design": seen with wondering eyes, the majesty of creation exhibited, for instance, by the stupendous spectacle of the starry "heavens" at night seems to demand (and thus prove) the existence of a wise, all-powerful, and benevolent Creator.  Newton himself was not immune to this feeling even as he devised the mathematical laws of motion that would eventually tame it.  And yet tame it Newton's laws of motion did, if only for those capable of grasping the machinery to which mathematics showed "the heavens" to be subject.

CHA invites the CU community to wonder about wonder.  Is wonder the "objective correlative" of something real in the world, or is it merely an artifact of human states of mind -- of ignorance and faith, of fear and nostalgia? What does it say about us that we should have emotions of wonder and, further, experience our capacity for wonder as a gift we are sorry to lose?  What is the "capacity for wonder," and how does it relate to other powers (of thought, feeling, imagination, creativity) for which it often serves as a proxy?  Has wonder been appropriated to political ends and, if so, how and to what effect?  How does wonder work in different cultures and in different epochs?  Is wonder gendered?  What does it mean at different stages of life -- in a child just beginning the world and in an aged person preparing to leave it?  Is wonder genuinely possible in the modern (or post-modern) societies that science, technology, and commodity capital have made?  How does wonder relate to t!  hose other, more critical moods (skepticism, cynicism, irony, suspicion) that seem to have driven it from the field of respectable intellectual and artistic pursuit?  And what, finally, might the persistence of wonder, at least as the theme of nostalgia and regret, say about the role of feeling more generally as both a need and an epistemological value?

To help members of the community formulate ideas, we offer the following examples of possible themes:

  • theories of wonder (philosophical, sociological, natural, aesthetic)
  • wonder and the art of collecting (Wunderkammern, "cabinets of curiosities," ancient thaumatologies)
  • wonder as a "cognitive emotion" and an instrument of knowledge
  • wonder and science or wonder or science?
  • marvels, miracles, and the powers of illusion and faith
  • wonder and "surprises of the soul" ("love at first sight," e.g., or conversion experiences)
  • ethnographies of the strange and the stranger
  • wonder and the unknown / wonder and unknowing
  • wonder and its cognates: the sublime, terror, horror, the fantastic, the grotesque
  • wonder and the supernatural / wonder and the sacred
  • wonder and enchantment in a "disenchanted" world
  • the antinomies of wonder, or the dialectic of skepticism and regret
  • wonder and pleasure / wonder and desire
  • the politics of wonder from Renaissance "mysteries of State" to Rumsfeld's "shock and awe"

"Powers of Wonder" Colloquium March 9-10, 2006 Center for British and Irish Studies (5th floor of Norlin Library) University of Colorado at Boulder

9:00 Opening of the Colloquium: Jeffrey N. Cox, Director, CHA
Welcome: Stein Sture, Interim Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Chancellor for Research

9:15 Panel 1: Exploring Wonder from Ancient Sites to Modern Cities, from Wonder Cabinets to the Cinema
Chair: Elspeth Dusinberre (University of Colorado at Boulder)
Terry Wilfong (University of Michigan), "Wonders in the Service of Power in Ancient Egypt: Incidents from a Desert Expedition, circa 1990 BCE"
Eric White (CU-Boulder), " 'Phantasmagoria' and the Psychic Life of the City"
Melinda Barlow (CU-Boulder), "Curiosa in Motion: From Wonder Cabinets to Celluloid Reliquaries"

11:00 Panel 2: Wondering/Wandering in Academia
Chair: Merrill Lessley (CU-Boulder)
Erik Ellis (CU-Boulder), "Ambivalence in Wonderland: Reclaiming the Essay in Academia"
Rebekah West (Naropa University), "Wonder Virgins: Sharing Walls"
Rebecca Theobald (CU-Boulder), "Grounding Wonder: Scholars Crossing Boundaries in Search of Enlightenment and Remuneration"

2:00 Panel 3: Seeing Wonder in Paintings and Photographs
Chair: Karen Jacobs (CU-Boulder)
Elizabeth Young (Mt. Holyoke College), "Wondering and Mourning: Edwin Romanzo Elmer, Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture, and Contemporary Feminist Criticism"
Jesse Stommel (CU-Boulder), "Camera Mortua: Reflections on Photography, the Other, and Zombification"

3:30 Panel 4: Natural Wonders and the Wonders of Science
Chair: Ann Lovett, Cox Family Visiting Scholar/Artist (SUNY-New Paltz)
Sarah Krakoff (CU-Boulder), "Wonder, Wilderness, Consumption and Redemption"
Jason Hanna (CU-Boulder), "Wonder, Science, and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature"

5:00   First Keynote Address:Tobin Siebers (University of Michigan), "Diswonder: Disability Aesthetics and the Built Environment"
Introduction: Christopher Braider (CU-Boulder)

7:30 Pendulum New Music, featuring prize-winning faculty and students from the CU College of Music: Hsing-ay Hsu, artistic administrator, and coach Steven Snethkamp, production manager

9:00 Panel 5: Early Modern Wonder
Chair: Scott Bruce (CU-Boulder)
Suzanne Magnanini (CU-Boulder), "Weeding Wonder in the Ogre's Garden: Fairy Tales and the New Science in Seventeenth-Century Italy"
Patricia Marchesi (CU-Boulder), "'What means this show?': magic, wonder, and spectacle in early modern English drama"
Walter Stephens (Johns Hopkins U), "Wondrously Unreadable: How European Scholars Imagined Lost Libraries and Primordial Encyclopedias, 1300-1800"

11:00 Second Keynote Address: Charles Altieri (U of California at Berkeley), "Modernist Wonder and the Dynamics of Exclamation"
Introduction: Katherine Eggert (CU-Boulder)

2:00 Panel 6: Wonderful Philosophy
Chair: Graham Oddie (CU-Boulder)
Sheridan Hough (College of Charleston) "Faith's Knowledge and Finitude's Wonder: Kierkegaard on Infinite Abundance"
Dorothea Olkowski (CU-Colorado Springs), "'Kore: Young Virgin, Pupil of the Eye': The Image of Philosophy"

4:00 Third Keynote Address: Ingrid Rowland (American Academy in Rome), "Wonderment for Idiots in Baroque Rome"
Introduction: Vernon Minor (CU-Boulder)