5:10 PM EDT, April 23, 2013
In announcing its fall programming theme, “Animal: What Makes Us Human,” the Chicago Humanities Festival provides one answer to the question that, for want of a question mark, it doesn't quite pose.
The desire and ability to stage an annual ideas festival certainly showcases defining human characteristics, as does imagining more than 100 programs around the idea of our animal natures, animals' animal natures and assorted other notions related to fauna.
“Animal” was attractive as a theme for the perennially popular, 23-year-old event because it provides a framework to “bring the latest thinking from the academic world to the larger public,” said Matti Bunzl, the festival's artistic director. “I thought, ‘Here's something we should all be paying attention to, the way our understanding of being human is transforming actively.”
Bunzl said some of the talks and events may well include nonhuman animals, but the goal is to keep the focus on our own species as a member of the animal kingdom. The festival's subtitle, in other words, is key.
The previous three themes have been “America,” “tech knowledge” and “The Body.” Bunzl liked “Animal,” he said, because, as a University of Illinois anthropologist, he's had a close view of a recent change in the academy:
“When I started about 20 years ago, if you were a humanist you did not think about animals. They were not central to what we did. Conversely, if you were a natural scientist you never thought about culture, literature, music.”
But in recent years, he said, that's been changing and the traditional boundaries have blurred. A prime example is the primatologist Frans de Waal, among those already booked to appear at the festival. De Waal, Bunzl said, studies chimpanzees and bonobos, our nearest living relatives, but with an eye, always, toward using them to learn about humans, to answer such questions as, “Are we by nature violent or cooperative?”
Among the other confirmed speakers (with many more to come): autism activist and animal scientist Temple Grandin, Rin Tin Tin biographer and chicken enthusiast Susan Orlean, the scholar of fairy tales Maria Tatar and “We the Animals” author Justin Torres.
“It's been really fun to program” the Animal theme, said Bunzl.
The festival will hold its now traditional Evanston day Oct. 13, Hyde Park day Oct. 20 and then run in Chicago from Nov. 1-10. Tickets go on sale to CHF members Sept. 3 and the general public Sept. firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @StevenKJohnson
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