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‘Totalitarianism and the Humanities’ focus of Trinity Long Room Hub’s Annual Humanities Horizons Lecture 2023

April 20, 2023 - “What do oppressive political cultures find so upsetting about books and reading?” asked Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge, Interdisciplinary Professor of Humanities and Human Rights at the University of Birmingham, as she delivered the 2023 Trinity Long Room Hub Annual Humanities Horizons Lecture on the subject of ‘Totalitarianism and the Humanities’ to a packed audience in Trinity’s Thomas Davis Theatre.

The Annual Humanities Horizons Lecture was established by the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute to provide an opportunity to reflect on and advocate for the disciplines of Arts and Humanities. As this year’s distinguished guest lecturer Professor Stonebridge – author of numerous books including the recent Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights (2020)-- described her honour at being invited to speak at the “prestigious” research institute.

Drawing in part from her forthcoming book We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience, which will be published by Jonathan Cape in January 2024,  she turned to the political philosopher’s writing on twentieth-century totalitarianism and the book which made Arendt an “academic celebrity” in the US, The Origins of Totalitarianism, to explore how humanities are back in the frontline of ideology and politics.   

There are no dangerous thoughts, thinking itself is dangerous.
Hannah Arendt

Professor Stonebridge opened by evoking Arendt through her famous 1958 quote: “There are no dangerous thoughts, thinking itself is dangerous.” Linking this sentiment to the “dark energies of the Troubles” she then turned to Anna Burns’ Booker prize-winning novel Milkman, set in Belfast in the 1970s, to suggest that a woman “thinking, walking, and reading” – as the book’s narrator does --could be seen as even more dangerous or “deviant”.

“In this evening’s talk, I want to take very seriously the proposition at the heart of both Anna Burns’ novel and Hannah Arendt’s work that there is something importantly anti-totalitarian about public reading and thinking”, Professor Stonebridge said, adding that “reading and thinking in public is also a way of describing some of the work we do in Humanities.”

Taking her understanding of totalitarianism from Arendt, who saw it as “not just a terrifying new form of absolutist Government, but above all else as an attack on human experience itself” she noted that “George Orwell understood this about totalitarianism too”, as she outlined the patterns that emerge in the policing of what defines the category of totalitarianism.

...there is something importantly anti-totalitarian about public reading and thinking...
Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge

Inviting the students of the future to look at the world from our present moment and to imagine a reading syllabus that speaks to our condition, Professor Stonebridge said that Milkman would certainly be on there as a testament to “the enduring power of art and literature to rile and defy totalitarian thinking.”

Leaving the audience with a line from Burns’ Middle Sister, she quoted: “Just because I’m outnumbered in my reading while walking, I said, doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

Previous speakers at the Annual Humanities Horizons Lecture have included Professor Homi K. Bhabha, Professor Anthea Butler, Professor Andrew Thompson CBE, Professor Joep Leerssen, Professor Geoffrey Crossick, and Professor Peter Strohschneider. For more information on this lecture series, see here.


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