Rousseau exhibit to focus on dignity of the human person

Author: Joanna Basile

Julia Douthwaite

Julia Douthwaite, professor of French in the University of Notre Dame’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, is organizing a series of events to honor Swiss philosopher and writer Jean–Jacques Rousseau’s 300th birthday and stimulate a cross–disciplinary discussion on social justice and human dignity.

The project, called “Rousseau 2012: On the Road to DIGNITY,” will be part of the curriculum for more than a dozen courses throughout the College of Arts and Letters and the Law School and will feature both guest lectures and an Amnesty International photography exhibit on poverty and human rights that includes portraits from Mexico, Egypt, Nigeria, India and Macedonia.

Douthwaite says she and a student chanced upon the exhibit, called “DIGNITÉ,” on its opening day during a research trip to Paris in 2010. “We were captivated by the images, the stories on the walls,” she says.

Knowing that others at Notre Dame would find the collection just as moving, Douthwaite approached the curator and the photographers who were at the opening and convinced them to make the Snite Museum of Art the exhibit’s first stop in the United States.

“Since finishing my recent book project on revolutionary France,” she says, “I’ve been thinking a lot about human rights: the origin of the concept, its progress and obstacles. And so gradually, I realized that I had a concept: Rousseau, pioneer of humanitarian thought, would marry ‘DIGNITÉ’ and the 2012 tricentennial.”

Jean–Jacques Rousseau

Visiting lecturers for the series include Professor Christie McDonald from Harvard University, who will focus on Rousseau and gender studies; Professor Christopher Kelly from Boston College, who will discuss political theory of “On the Social Contract”; Professor Jason Neidleman from University of LaVerne, who will lecture on Rousseau and religious liberty; and Professor Serge Margel from L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris, who will talk about Rousseau and moral philosophy. Two of the “DIGNITÉ” photographers have also been invited to speak about photojournalism and global political activism: Johann Rousselot (India) and Philippe Brault (Egypt).

According to Douthwaite, faculty throughout the University are planning to incorporate the exhibit into classes they will teach in spring. Those participating are from the College of Arts and Letters’ Program of Liberal Studies, Ph.D. in Literature Program, and departments of American studies, Romance languages and literatures, English, political science and history, as well as faculty from the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Law School’s Center for Civil and Human Rights.

“The demonstrable commitment to social justice and poverty studies at Notre Dame make this kind of work take flight here,” she says.

Lea Malewitz, Lauren Wester, and Julia Douthwaite

During summer 2011, Douthwaite worked with two French students, Lea Malewitz and Lauren Wester, to prepare the exhibit with colleagues in Notre Dame’s Snite Museum of Art and translate into English the original French exhibit catalogue, Dignité: Droits humains et pauvreté.

Douthwaite and the students also selected excerpts from Rousseau’s texts and paired them with images from the exhibit to create study guides for students and the faculty who plan to incorporate discussions of the project into their curricula.

“The study guides do not aim to canonize Rousseau,” Douthwaite says. “On the contrary, we aim to put Rousseau’s work and thought into a dialectical kind of questioning with recent thinkers in political science, gender studies, and religious history.”

Douthwaite says including students in her work through projects such as this is a priority for her as both a scholar and a teacher. “The collaboration we have undertaken this summer has been energizing and, I think, has opened the students’ eyes to some new avenues for professional development where they will be able to use their expertise in the future.”

Diana Matthias and Lea Malewitz help prepare the DIGNITY exhibit

Malewitz, a senior double majoring in French and Arabic studies, says her work on the project was an invaluable educational experience that helped her fine-tune her language skills.

“This was the first time I had ever done any translating,” she says. “Usually in language classes, we focus on producing our own language. I found this project enhanced my vocabulary both in words I had never seen before and in thinking about the shades of meaning of words I already know. The challenge of conveying exactly what the author meant was really enriching.”

The students have also been able to get involved in other aspects of the exhibit, from choosing the artwork and texts that will be displayed to designing the layout of the room, says Wester, a 2011 Notre Dame graduate who completed her undergraduate degree in French and psychology and is now working toward a master’s in French at the University.

Lauren Wester

Wester says she was particularly eager to get involved with the project because it built on her previous humanitarian work as a volunteer document translator for francophone refugees at Freedom House in Detroit.

“First of all, I hope that visitors learn to appreciate their own living conditions after viewing the miserable situations that the people in ‘DIGNITÉ’ are subjected to,” Wester says. “Secondly, I’d like people to recognize that these terrible conditions still exist throughout the world. Making the Notre Dame and South Bend community aware of these injustices is one of the most important things this exhibit can do.”

In addition to conveying a powerful message about human rights and Rousseau’s work, the project demonstrates how relevant French studies are in today’s world, Douthwaite says.

“With our linguistic expertise, the students and I have provided valuable assistance to Amnesty International in France,” she says. “With our historical and literary abilities, we also have been able to conceptualize linkages between past and present—between Rousseau’s prescience in ‘The Discourse on the Origins of Inequality’ and today’s urgent call for a more just economy.”

DIGNITY will be on display in the Snite Museum from Jan. 15 until March 11. The exhibit—along with the translated document Douthwaite, Wester and Malewitz created—will then move on to Chicago.

“As the DIGNITY exhibit launches its American tour,” Douthwaite says, “it is gratifying to know that our catalogue, and the memory of the leadership role of Notre Dame students and faculty, will go along with it.”


Originally published by Joanna Basile at on December 01, 2011.