Over 100 students, faculty and visitors crammed into a dark and faintly grim Ulrich Recital Hall in Tawes Hall Thursday night to digest a lecture by a man who seemed all too familiar with darkness, insanity and their treacherous combination.
Each year, the English department chooses an expert in any branch of the humanities to lead the annual Petrou series, the most prestigious seminar that the department offers during the year. This year’s speaker gave the audience a dark visual treat.
William J. Thomas Mitchell led this year’s annual Petrou lecture, “Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media, and Visual Culture.” Mitchell’s career as an author and distinguished professor of English and art history at the University of Chicago has made him one of today’s foremost theorists of visual culture.
One of Mitchell’s pervasive themes throughout the lecture was simply that everyone has the ability to go insane at some point, whether it be for a brief period or long-term.
“We all experience madness all the time,” Mitchell said, discussing madness’ universality in cinema. “It is continually experienced all of the time, even if it is just for a moment.”
Madness comes in a wide range, from the two extremes of hyper visible — on the surface and in plain sight — and invisible, according to Mitchell. But the evolution of contemporary media is making insanity increasingly difficult to label.
“A day will come very soon when we do not know what madness is,” he said.
Movies that focus on power struggles stemming from class, gender, sex or even species are often the ones that prominently display madness. These themes are becoming more present in modern cinema, Mitchell said. Think of films like “Shutter Island,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“Madness, insanity and all of its forms are products of power relations,” he said. “Movies plunge us into the darkness while bringing insanity into the bright light.”
With an event involving popular movies, dramatic themes like madness and a pizza reception afterward, it’s easy to attract students from outside the English department.
“I really like the old classic movies from the 1970s and 80s,” said freshman government and politics major Quinn Koches. “It’s interesting to go deeper into movies from an academic perspective.”