Ground Stories

The 2012 Weissbourd Annual Conference
Presented by Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts
The University of Chicago
Franke Institute for the Humanities
May 18-19, 2012


Our theme focuses on groundedness, a quality located in the stratigraphy – both real and imagined – beneath a variety of structures, concepts, and institutions. One dimension of the theme considers ground as itself a political and historical variable. How did ground emerge as a definite material through fields such as geology and archaeology? How do peoples today identify an underground stratum as the “first story” of their local residency, often to exclude co-occupants or to delegitimize competing narratives? Who decides what counts as the “ground story” of a given institutional architecture, the entrance and exit for locals and visitors alike, the level that replicates its perimeter upward? What arbitrations appear or intensify when we stand our ground, loose ground, break ground, dig in? And when do we know that the ground beneath us is shaking – or giving way?

We also consider “grounding” as that with which claims are credentialized and certified. In the moment they are grounded, propositions reckon with protocols of falsification and become candidates for sanction. What tacit contingencies – historical, legal, political, poetic, economic – govern this moment of grounding across disciplines and eras? When do we sense that we’ve hit pay dirt, fathomed an idea, or run aground? How do images or texts come to be touted as “fertile ground” in philosophy, religion, law and science? What stories do we tell at and about grounding moments that fix canons and provide bedrock upon which subsequent evaluation rests?

The objective of this conference is not to judge competing claims over what counts as the first stratum of particular theories, nations or disciplines, but rather to call new attention to those very competitions and the narratives that inform their adjudication. The Society especially encourages work that critically reflects on “archaeologies of knowledge” and other “excavatory” habits of thought, as metapractices that have become common ground in many scholarly areas in recent decades, as well as new work on stratigraphic ways of understanding political and social disputes. Ground Stories seeks to provide fresh ground to rethink the quarrying of truths in fields ranging from history, politics and economics to literary studies, critical theory, the sciences and beyond.

Our keynote address will be given by Martin Jay, Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his works are: The Dialectical Imagination (l973 and l996), Marxism and Totality (l984), Adorno (l984), Permanent Exiles (l985), Fin-de-Siècle Socialism (l989), Force Fields (l993), Downcast Eyes (l993), Cultural Semantics (l998), Refractions of Violence (2003), Songs of Experience (2004), The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying In Politics (2010) and Essays from the Edge (2011).

The title of Prof. Jay’s address is “Ungrounded: Max Horkheimer and the Founding of the Frankfurt School.”

Speaking in response to Martin Jay will be Moishe Postone, author of Time, Labor and Social Domination (1993), Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of Modern History and Co-Director of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory.


This conference, co-sponsored by the Franke Institute for the Humanities, is made possible through the generous support of the Bernard Weissbourd Memorial Fund.