On Light in Dark Times: Art and Anthropology in Graphic Form

Everyone at UTP is eagerly anticipating the release of the latest installment in our ethnoGRAPHIC series, Light in Dark Times: The Human Search for Meaning, due for publication in September 2020. Written by Alisse Waterston and illustrated by Charlotte Corden, the book is an illustrated journey across time and space that provides a lifeline of hope during these difficult and uncertain times. In this post, Waterston discusses how the project came together and why the book is perfect for students seeking to understand the current world we live in. We’ve also included a discussion guide and drawing exercises at the bottom of the post.

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By Alisse Waterston

Some people say Light in Dark Times: The Human Search for Meaning is prescient. I say, as others have also, that the troubles of our world have been long in place. For anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom who is a comix character in the book, the concept of “global fractures” captures the fragility and unsustainability of the world in its political, economic, and social infrastructures, where no one is invulnerable to the quakes along the lines, now broken wide open. It has taken a series of political disasters, a worldwide pandemic, and a corrupt, global political-economic system to shatter the facades, and reveal what Hannah Arendt named “radical evil.”

Arendt is also a featured character in the graphic book that illustrator Charlotte Corden and I created to explore the catastrophes and moral disasters of the past and present, revealing issues that beg to be studied, understood, and confronted.

On the eve of the Second World War in 1939, the dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht wrote his famous poem “To Posterity” that opens with these lines:

Truly, I live in dark times!
…He who laughs
Has not yet received
The terrible news.

Terrible news abounds. The immediate conditions of the world are horrific and the short-term future is grim, although it is not without hope, as the Czech writer and politician Václav Havel understood it. “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” he wrote in 1986. “It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Inspired by Havel’s words, Light in Dark Times brings readers on a visually stunning and profound journey to explore the plights and possibilities for humankind. Along the way, readers join my character and Charlotte’s in our illustrated forms, as we encounter writers, philosophers, activists, and anthropologists of the past and present, some recognizable, others less famous: from Virginia Woolf and Vivian Gornick to Paul Farmer, Bryan Stevenson, Eduardo Galeano, and more.

We also meet Brecht.

This project, our collaboration, and the published book are unique in bringing together serious scholarship and serendipity with a deep commitment to move knowledge outside the narrow confines of the academy and deliver it to broad audiences. We designed this book for students of the world yearning to understand the darkness and what they – and we – may do to transform it in the interest of peace with justice.

Charlotte and I came together by accident, then felt our way through a process new to both of us that became an exceptional experiment in art, aesthetics, and anthropology. We believe we have elevated the graphic genre by presenting complex philosophical and political themes in a work that cuts through mass confusion resulting from purposeful, political obfuscation to identify precisely and accessibly issues of global significance, and to deliver this knowledge and these insights in a creative way. The result is a book that is beautiful to look at and to hold.

In this time when many look for a new future, our book is a call to unleash imagination – to envision and create an alternative world from the one in which we now dwell. In this aspect, Light in Dark Times is prescient, coming at a moment when people are ever more fearless in releasing imagination and taking action to bring about genuine structural transformation.

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Click here for Classroom/Book Club Discussion Guide.

Click here for Drawing Exercises

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Light in Dark Times: The Human Search for Meaning is due for release in September 2020. Interested in finding out more about the book? Click here to read an excerpt.