Finding Your Place in Society

Dec 10, 2015

Earlier this week, Executive Director Aaron Levy of Slought was invited to address graduating students in the humanities at York College of Pennsylvania. In his speech, he addressed the importance of the humanities, and talked about how and why the students should keep the humanities alive after their undergraduate studies end. "What can you do with the educational experiences you have just had? Why do they matter? What is the relationship of the humanities to civic life and public culture more generally?" These are some of the questions with which he began. A transcript of his remarks follows.

Aaron Levy, PhD, MPhil was the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Slought (2002-2022), a...

Dear Students,

I am truly honored to have the opportunity to address you, and I am delighted to be here today to celebrate your achievements.

Over the last few months I have been working on a project about a philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who travels to Moscow in 1926. Though he did not speak the Russian language or understand the codes and culture of Moscow, he nevertheless manages to produce an extraordinary portrait of a society that is in a state of upheaval and revolution. More than just an intellectual project, Benjamin's diary documents an individual who is struggling to find a place in society, to live and survive in a fluctuating and precarious social moment that offers no stability or safety, save through conformity.

I want to begin by evoking Benjamin's time in Moscow because I think that he is a paradigmatic example of an individual for whom the humanities constitute not just an intellectual pursuit, but also a resource for surviving life's challenges. The humanities enable him to understand the society in which he lives, and to construct the society in which he wishes to live.

I work each day with individuals who are each, in their different ways, trying to survive. Some are trying to survive economically, others socially, others politically, and others intellectually. Some are young adults who are struggling to overcome profound vulnerability in their lives yet find dignity in thinking and creating with others. Others are students who are the first to go to college and understand the transformative power of knowledge, all the while sitting alongside students of great privilege for whom the opportunity to be in the classroom comes without sacrifice. Others are adults committed to actively thinking and discussing and working with others alongside their responsibilities to their family and professions. I also work each day with artists, scholars, activists and others who are trying to articulate uncomfortable truths about society, working within structures and institutions that are dismissive of these truths and the urgencies of which they speak.

What all these individuals have in common is that they live or work on what we at Slought Foundation call the linear mile. The linear mile is a term we have developed as a spatial and psychological tool to refer to a 10-block distance of the city. On one side of the mile is a university; on the other, an inner city.

The division between the university and the inner city is a natural and almost unconscious condition. It mirrors the way in which inequality and segregation in our society has become a norm. Although the individuals I have mentioned above all live or work on this mile, they have never met and probably never would. Stratified and segregated by race and class and conceptions of knowledge, they do not interact or even know how to communicate with each other. They do not appear to know of each other, or even to need each other.


What are we to make of this individual, institutional and societal division? What is so pernicious about this division is that it is not simply something external to us, as if it were someone else's problem, one that we can afford to ignore. This division is something that we internalize and that interpolates our own subjectivity. This is to say, we do not just live in a divided society, we are ourselves also divided from within.

It is hard to sometimes recognize this division within ourselves, though we can of course see this in our society, which often exhibits a lack of respect and compassion for those who lead precarious lives. Our political landscape is divided, our disciplines are divided, and nearly all the institutions we live, work and move through in our lives are divided, to the point that they cannot communicate with one another. In my line of work, for example, there is an unspeakable gulf between the cultural organization, the social service organization, and the academic organization, although they all ought to be deeply aligned.

As you conclude your undergraduate years, I think it's essential that you think about your role and agency in this landscape of division. You are each in the paradoxical position of having extraordinary opportunities ahead of you to address these divisions, and at the same time you are all part of social systems that will at times prevent you from doing so.

One of the most amazing things about this moment in your lives is that your sense of self is not fixed and is not immutable. It is the consequence of the experiences you will construct for yourself and the people with whom you will associate. The question that you need to thus ask yourself is not whether but how and when you will participate in the civic life of your society -- in the minutes, months and years ahead.

In this regard, I'd like to invoke a speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave fifty years ago that is deeply relevant to our discussion. He delivered it in Philadelphia in 1965 on the linear mile, just a few blocks away from Slought, to a crowd gathering to protest segregation. "Now is the time to make real the problems of democracy," he declared. "Don't wait until next week to get in this struggle." [...] A tiny little minute, just sixty seconds in it—a tiny little minute, just sixty seconds in it, but eternity is in it.


Last year we organized a program with the scholar Danielle Allen revisiting her seminal book Talking to Strangers, where she suggests that you ought to think of yourself as having the agency to institute new relations, new perspectives and possibilities. In the process, you can transform not just yourselves but also the societies of which you are a part.

"A shift in how people interact," she writes, "will inevitably also transform their institutions, just as when the snail changes direction, its shell turns too. I ask all citizens to see themselves as founders of institutions, to whatever degree they interact regularly within institutions (churches, schools, universities, businesses, and bureaucracies) that have reach enough to affect the shape of life in their surrounding communities. If a citizen sees the institutions of which he or she is already a part as a medium in which to exemplify the citizenship of trust-building, institutional reform will already be underway."

When I graduated from college, I didn't have a clue about what I wanted to do or where life would take me. I self-identified as a intellectual, in the sense that Antonio Gramsci invokes in the Prison Notebooks in the 1930s, when he refers to everyone as an intellectual, regardless of social or professional standing - but I didn't know how to act on that and what do with that sense of conviction or identity, in the absence of a support structure.

More than anything, I was acutely aware of living in a city and a society where it was not possible to have the conversations I felt it was urgent and imperative to engage in. For me, this was not just an intellectual problem, but also a social and political problem. To not be able to talk about what is important to you can be stifling. To not have people to talk about what you feel is important can also be incredibly isolating.

Together with my colleagues -- our only resource was the social relations we had at the time -- we created the organization that I direct today in response. In the years ahead, you will each create your own organizations, whether literally or metaphorically. I am not here to tell you what these institutions will look like, or the path that you will take in creating them, or to tell you that they will be easy to create. But I am confident that you will each find you own path and play your own part in engaging this complex and unequal society in which we live.


In her book Create Dangerously, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat builds upon a lecture of the same name by Albert Camus from 1957 at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. Danticat addresses the importance of creating dangerously, and of taking risks and seeking out uncomfortable positions. She argues that artists, scholars like us, but also anyone committed to a vibrant civil society, needs to think and create and act dangerously. in her book she movingly explains how her family, along with many others in Haiti during the dictatorship, risked everything by reading and discussing illicit literature. Doing so enabled them to survive by providing them with hope and imagination but also an indirect form of communication in an incredibly dark and repressive moment in their lives.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with two of the fellows at Slought about this very topic. One wondered whether she should take a public position on a topic that she felt strongly about, outside of the private deliberations we were having at our organization. Her concern was that she might complicate her future job prospects, if someone were to read or interpret her position as polemical or polarizing. Putting herself out there was a scary proposition, because she felt that it would inhibit the few opportunities she might have in the first place to advance in her field and to earn a living in the process.

I responded by asking her a series of questions concerning what would be lost through her continued silence, and how things can be expected to change in the absence of her speaking up. I also suggested that society is always in transformation, and her speaking up might in fact transform not just the society in which she lives but the opportunities available to her for the better. Finally, I asked her why she thought speaking up was inevitably polarizing and had to be perceived or constructed that way. Would it not be possible to address a difficult topic in a generative way? I think this is precisely what the humanities equip us to recognize the importance of and to also undertake.

We each need to find new ways to engage those around us in difficult conversations. When we look back on this moment in our lives years from now, will you be able to say that you spoke up for the progressive causes and urgencies of our time?

In York, or wherever your life will take you next, what are the issues that are impossible to talk about? How will you make it possible to talk about them and to engage them?


As you think back upon this week and all that you have learned and experienced in your years at York, I encourage you to think of them as offering you a toolkit of instructions, a manual of techniques and new modes of living that can help you navigate the challenges and opportunities ahead.

I started this talk by invoking Benjamin's trip to Moscow in the 1920s and his struggle to survive in a cold universe. For Benjamin, writing was his way of speaking up in society. Today, students and young adults are taking to the streets in every city of this country and around the globe. They are challenging institutions, governments and civil society to do better. I am excited for what each of you will do next. I hope that you will create dangerously. This is the only way in which the humanities will continue to survive.

-- Aaron Levy