'Around 1948' seminar to examine political and cultural landscape of postwar period

Certain years—1848, 1968, 1989—have a way of capturing the popular imagination. To many, they stand out as moments that shaped the course of history.

But the organizers of an upcoming conference at the University of Chicago believe there is another year that warrants equal scrutiny: 1948.

The political and cultural shifts of the immediate postwar period, they argue, have had a profound impact on the world today.

“[1948] doesn’t resonate yet—but we hope it will—as that kind of moment,” said Deborah Nelson, Associate Professor in English Language and Literature and Deputy Provost for Graduate Education.

“It’s not a heroic year,” added Leela Gandhi, Professor in English Language and Literature and the College. “It’s quite a traumatic year. But it’s transformative.”

Gandhi and Nelson, along with co-organizers Jim Chandler, the Barbara E. & Richard J. Franke Distinguished Service Professor of English Language and Literature; Christine Stansell, the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in History and the College; James Sparrow, Associate Professor in History and the College; and Lisa Wedeen, Professor in Political Science and the College, have planned a series of events that will explore the years preceding 1948, as well as its aftershocks.

“Around 1948: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Global Transformation,” will span the 2011-12 school year, and will feature conferences, readings and film screenings. “Around 1948” is a Sawyer Seminar sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

On Friday, Oct. 14 and Saturday, Oct. 15, the Franke Institute for the Humanities will host the first major conference of the “Around 1948” program. “Year Zero: The World Unmade, 1945” will examine a wide range of topics in the postwar period, including the transformation of the Middle East, Jewish displacement and postwar cinema. Speakers will include historians Rashid Khalidi and Mark Mazower and anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj.

By focusing on a particular moment in time rather than a single region, topic or disciplinary approach, Gandhi and Nelson said the seminar organizers hope to foster conversation among scholars with a variety of interests and backgrounds. The organizers have very different areas of expertise: Chandler, Gandhi and Nelson study literature; Stansell and Sparrow are historians; and Wedeen is a political scientist.

“Why can’t we share what we do, and think about our work in a collaborative framework? This seems like a really productive way to move our frames of inquiry,” Nelson said of their hopes for the seminar.

They were drawn to 1948 as a moment of crucial “what ifs” that shed new light on today’s conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The end of World War II and the ensuing demobilization and decolonization created a  “truly transnational world,” according to Gandhi. Yet that transnational world was soon divided. Between 1945 and 1948, contentious new boundaries were established in East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.

“It’s worth just imagining what would have happened if those partitions hadn’t happened,” Gandhi said. “These are questions we don’t even allow ourselves to think now, but at those moments it was a real option.”

“Returning to the uncertainty of that moment might be a helpful tack to take,” agreed Nelson.

The organizers hope to examine developments in arts and culture, as well as the political upheaval of the postwar period, Gandhi and Nelson said.

In addition to film screenings upcoming throughout the year, they have organized a Nov. 7 poetry reading, “1948: The Possibilities for Poetry,” featuring renowned poet Adam Zagajewski, the Ferdinand Schevill Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought.

From the rise of Italian neo-realist cinema to the anti-colonial writings of Frantz Fanon, the aesthetic, scholarly and cultural developments of the postwar period both fueled and challenged political transformation.

“You can’t separate out the experiments people were doing in thinking about how to envision, represent, reproduce the contemporary moment in all different forms [from] the larger political ideas or national debate,” Nelson said. “These arts practices were really germane.”

“Year Zero: The World Unmade, 1945” begins at 11:30 a.m. at the Franke Institute for the Humanities. For more information, visit http://franke.uchicago.edu/sawyernew-events.html.