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Syracuse Symposium hosts yearlong Perpetual Peace Project

September 22, 2010

Rob Enslin
(315) 443-3403

The Syracuse University Humanities Center has announced the Perpetual Peace Project, a joint initiative with the Slought Foundation, the European Union National Institutes of Culture, International Peace Institute and United Nations University through 2011. The project is part of Syracuse Symposium, an annual intellectual and artistic festival whose theme this year is “Conflict: Peace and War,” and is organized and presented by the SU Humanities Center for The College of Arts and Sciences. For more information, contact (315) 443-7192, or visit

The Perpetual Peace Project encompasses a series of public dialogues about possibilities for international peace, based on Immanuel Kant’s landmark essay, “Toward Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” The project encompasses five curatorial initiatives: a feature documentary film and exhibition, both presented at Manhattan’s New Museum of Contemporary Art; a daylong symposium at United Nations Plaza; various workshops and seminars throughout the United States and Europe; and a republication of Kant’s landmark essay.

“The Perpetual Peace Project aspires, at its simplest, to begin a conversation between philosophers who engage with the idea of peace, between practitioners who participate directly in the world of geopolitical conflict, and between governing bodies that have the power to truly make peace a sustainable reality,” says Gregg Lambert, Dean’s Professor of the Humanities and director of the SU Humanities Center. “The conversation starts with a traditional definition of international peace as a relationship between states, while acknowledging contemporary realities of intra-state conflicts, issues of global governance and human security.”

More than two years in the making, the Perpetual Peace Project was conceived by Lambert, along with Aaron Levy, founding executive director and chief curator of the Slought Foundation; and Martin Rauchbauer, deputy director and head of the Department of Literature, Drama and Debates of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York. The objective of the initiatives is not to formulate public policy, says Lambert, but to create conditions in which a “peace movement” might occur among the various institutions in the initiative. Among the issues the project aims to address are “non-state actors” on the international scene, new concepts of asymmetric warfare and complex battlefields, post-9/11 security concerns, the fate of international norms governing war and peace, and the prospects for international community and world governance to reduce geopolitical conflict.

Central to the project is Kant’s essay, written on the occasion of the 1795 signing of the Treaty of Basel between Prussia and France. In his essay, the philosopher argues that neighboring nations are inherently hostile, so world peace can be achieved only through the creation of a “federation of free states.” “By espousing international laws and governing bodies, Kant effectively anticipates multilateral institutions like the United Nations and European Union,” notes Lambert, adding that one of the project’s goals is to produce a newly revised and updated version of Kant’s essay, aligned with “limitations and possibilities that define the contemporary world.” “Since Kant’s essay takes the form of an international treaty, each initiative is expected to rewrite a part of the original text. The result is a manifesto for a new world peace,” he says.

Curatorial Initiatives

Central to the Perpetual Peace Project are curatorial initiatives involving film, a symposium, an exhibition, a publication and various workshops and seminars. The Film Initiative encompasses a feature-length documentary in which an array of international experts—including philosophers Achille Mbembe, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Rosi Braidotti; sociologists Richard Sennet and Saskia Sassen; and the French ambassador to the United Nations, Gérard Araud—reflect on Kant’s essay in context of modern-day priorities and geopolitics conflicts. “Segments were filmed against backdrops resonating with themes invoked by their discourse, including monuments commemorating war, deprivation and collective memory, as well as institutional spaces of policy and international diplomacy,” says Lambert, the film’s executive producer. The documentary is the subject of a private screening on Wednesday, Oct. 6, at the New Museum (235 Bowery, New York). It is co-directed by Levy, Laura Hanna (Hidden Driver Productions), and Alexandra Lerman (ScribeMedia Art Culture).

The Symposium Initiative encompasses an invitation-only workshop at the International Peace Institute in November. The daylong program, “Sovereignty, Democracy, Human Rights: Dialogues on Perpetual Peace,” brings together policymakers, diplomats and scholars from around the world, including William C. Banks, SU’s Board of Advisors Distinguished Professor of Law, professor of public administration and director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism. The workshop intends to create a discursive space for discussing peace and international law. “At best, ‘peace’ is an abstract—a poorly defined word with many meanings and connotations. By agreeing on a common definition, we can use ‘peace’ to address a litany of issues, including intra-state conflicts, global governance and human security,” says Banks.

The Exhibition Initiative is part of a larger art show, “The Last Newspaper,” running Oct. 6-Jan. 9 at the New Museum. “We will reclaim the space of the museum for dialogue, interaction and reflection,” says Levy, adding that the exhibition will feature discrete viewing stations, textual displays and various seating arrangements throughout the building. Lambert says the Perpetual Peace component is not so much about highlighting an artistic practice, as it is about “framing the discourse” of how peace is understood and negotiated. The project component is co-organized by Levy and architect/designer Ken Saylor.

The Publication Initiative involves a special printing of Kant’s original essay, designed by Project Projects, New York. Reprinted in the French Fold tradition (i.e., two folds at right angles to each other) of Kant’s time, the book is interspersed with blank pages to be used for contemplation and contribution. “Our format acknowledges the rich history of political tracts, whose compact size and inexpensive production enables widespread distribution,” observes Lambert, who contributed a curatorial essay with Levy and Rauchbauer. The book is based on a landmark 1891 translation, and is co-published by the Slought Foundation and the SU Humanities Center.

The workshop and seminar initiatives provide intimate engagement with the project, its participants and the critical perspectives it engages. Free and open to the public, the workshops take place at a variety of locations around the world, including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and Governor’s Island in New York. (Preliminary workshops were held earlier this year at Villa Moynier, home of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in Switzerland.) In spring 2011, Lambert will teach a Syracuse Symposium Seminar titled “Perpetual Peace,” engaging undergraduates in the reflection of the project’s goals.

“By bringing together experts and students who trace their origins and identities to Kant’s essay, I like to think that the Perpetual Peace Project has, in a sense, already been a success. To be finally successful, however, it must take the form of a sustained dialogue that lasts long after our events are over,” says Lambert.

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