A Norwegian looking forward to her position as ASU Project Humanities Visiting Scholar

Kathrine Skretting

I can hardly express my joy at being invited to ASU for the academic year 2013/14. Having worked as a dean for seven years now, it is time to become a professor again, and ASU seems to me the best place to be in this respect. Why? The Humanities are experiencing what some might call a crisis. I prefer to think of this movement as a movement of change. Here, for instance, at the Faculty of Humanities at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, we are recruiting fewer students that we did some seven years ago. This means that our budgets are cut. Our sister faculties in Scandinavia have seen the same developments coming to them. Within the humanities, we need to consider a new idea of what we are here for and what we deliver, to our students as well as to society.  When I planned my sabbatical, I looked for a faculty of humanities that seemed to meet with the challenges that humanities are facing in an open and active manner, for instance by collaborating with other disciplines as well as with industry and others parts of society in many different ways. Humanities at ASU seems innovative and I like the way Project Humanities addresses educational needs of the students as well as of society.  There is something about the ASU spirit that is refreshing and, I think, promising when it comes to bringing humanities safely into the 21st century. I look forward to learning more about and being part of Humanities at ASU.

One of the important strategies for the humanities, I think, is to demonstrate our relevance to society. Or, maybe “relevance” is not the right concept, maybe it is about social responsibility. We should be conscious about what kind of social responsibility we want to take on, and then communicate it openly to society. The Norwegian society was struck by terror on July 22nd last year, for the first time since World War II. This had tremendous impact. Primarily, of course, on the 77 victims who died and their families, and also on those who had their lives turned upside down by serious injuries. But the whole Norwegian society had to consider again who we are and what kind of nation we live in. We had to ask ourselves how on earth this thing could happen. The identity we used to think of as ours has to do with living in a tiny, rich country on the outskirts of the world. We see ourselves as a peace loving, homogenous nation, where life moves on slowly and safely, and hardly anything of importance ever takes place. This picture is now being re-examined.

 Identity, history, culture, religion, ethics, and symbols are subjects that are studied within the humanities. Thus, our researchers have participated and delivered perspectives in the post terror discussions in Norway.  One of our professors of religion has examined the darker corners of the internet, where rightwing conspiracy theories develop. In the Department of history, professors have compared Breivik’s fascism with older types.  Now, as the trial is going on, discussions in the press have focused on Breivik’s mental health.  Is he mad? How mad is he? The first psychiatric report stated that he was too mentally ill for punishment. The second found severe problems in his personality, He lacks empathy and he is utterly narcissistic, for instance, but he is normal enough for ordinary punishment, and the court would be wrong to conclude on custody and put him away in a mental hospital.

Whether Breivik is mad or not, most of us still feel his acts of terror are beyond understanding. What can we do with things that the cognitive dimension of the mind cannot grasp alone? We turn to art. Our master’s study program in drama/theatre has a course in documentary theatre. The department usually collaborates with a department of health for this, but this spring their teacher required the students to make plays connected to July 22nd. The students found the task too difficult. The actual incidents where too close in time, wounds still seemed to bleed. The drama students were to work with what may well be summed up as the most pregnant incident of their time.  The collective title they found for the project,”…and I wasn’t even there”, established some distance, and, after a long and difficult process, on the exam date in March, five plays were presented. Two of them, ”Revenge and Hope” and “Tales from a Bus,” were graded a clear and brilliant “A.” Each play lasted for 15-20 minutes. We decided to show them to a larger audience, in town, outside of campus. I will tell you about one of these plays.

Carl Anders Hollender, Revenge and Hope. April 23, 2012, Trondheim (photo. Gunnar Fretheim)

It is probably not easy to see in the photo, but the student is holding a glass jar with a large white piece of fabric in it. This fabric symbolizes the white cloth that covered Quisling’s face before he was shot for his crimes during World War II, in 1946 in Oslo, Norway. A few death penalties were executed here after WW2, and never since have death penalties been in use in Norway. That is why the white cloth is stored away in the jar. But the actor finds it difficult to understand that, as in Breivik’s case, the killing of 77 people should not qualify for the death penalty.

The white cloth comes into play. It is made of silk, and it is huge.  It is easily moved by the actor, he waves it, turns it around, and the way the white silk interacts with scenic lights is poetic and expressive. To me, the white silk’s symbolic meaning is expanded. It also comes to represent strong emotions of hatred and revenge.  The actor’s monologue also speaks of anger created by the terror acts. But the play ends with him putting the white cloth back into the jar, while he addresses the final question to the audience: “If he should die, we would have to judge him. We would have to be the killers. Do we want that?”

I tell you this because I am proud that we decided to show these plays to larger audience, while Breivik is at court, and the victims’ families have their wounds opened again. Norwegian identity is shaking. Questions on who we are and where we should go from here are posed.  Norwegian newspapers are filled with reports from the courtroom, and commentators are trying to understand the terror incident. Master's students of drama at our faculty used aesthetical expressions to represent feelings and thoughts, hopes and worries that have followed the terror of July 22nd. Artistic expressions can engage the whole mind of the audience, the emotional as well as the cognitive parts. To many of us, the cruelty of Breivik’s acts seems beyond understanding. But comfort is needed and impressions to reflect upon are welcome.

The humanities have many important roles to play in society. Judging from here, from my position as a Norwegian humanities dean, at a time humanities seem to be in decline, we should actively turn to society and participate in debates on societal development in many different ways, using different media. Every society needs to reflect upon values, on who we are and what we want to become. We, researchers and students of humanities can find important means for giving valuable contributions to such debates precisely in the humanities’ fields of study.

- Katherine Skretting, Former Dean of Humanities and Professor of Film & Media Studies, Norwegian University of Science & Technology