Being Human in Conversation: On Politics and Plagues

Being Human in Conversation: On Politics and Plagues

Being Human in Conversation: On Politics and Plagues

How can the humanities help us to make sense of this new world we’ve found ourselves in? On 21 May we held our first online event – a timely discussion of pandemics, politics and literature.

You can catch up with a recording of this event below. For privacy reasons the Q&A section of the event has been omitted from the recording.


Being Human festival director Professor Sarah Churchwell, Dr Kate Kirkpatrick and Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge came together to discuss how postwar writers and thinkers who lived through fascism likened it to plagues and funguses that spread virally. As we are all forced to think about infection, viruses, and contamination, what lessons can be learned from writers such as Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt, who first understood that propaganda, fake news, and misinformation are also contagious infections that transmit opportunistically? As people turn to literature and philosophy to understand the crises that confront us, do books like Camus’s The Plague and Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism offer useful lessons, confuse the issue, or distract us from political action?

This event was held in association with the Institute of English Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.


  • Professor Sarah Churchwell is Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities and Professorial Fellow in American literature at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, where she directs the Being Human festival, the UK’s national festival of the humanities. Her most recent book is Behold, America: The Entangled History of America First and the American Dream.
  • Dr Kate Kirkpatrick is Fellow in Philosophy and Christian Ethics at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. She has written widely on French existentialists including (most recently) a biography of Simone de Beauvoir:  Becoming Beauvoir: A Life. 
  • Lyndsey Stonebridge is Professor of Humanities and Human Rights at the University of Birmingham. Her recent books include The Judicial Imagination: Writing after Nuremberg and Placeless People: Rights, Writing, and Refugees. She is currently writing a book on the relevance of Hannah Arendt for today, Thinking Like Hannah Arendt, for Jonathan Cape.

Reading list and referenced texts

  • Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
  • Albert Camus, La Peste (The Plague)
  • Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina
  • Simone de Beauvoir, The Blood of Others
  • Simone de Beauvoir, All Men are Mortal
  • Simone de Beauvoir, Useless Mouths (a play)
  • Katherine Anne Porter, Pale Horse, Pale Rider
  • Edgar Allan Poe, The Masque of the Red Death
  • Lyndsey Stonebridge, Placeless People
  • Kate Kirkpatrick, Becoming Beauvoir: A Life
  • Sarah Churchwell, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream
  • Lyndsey Stonebridge ‘What Hannah Arendt can teach us about work in the time of Covid-19