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‘Storming Heaven’: Eric Lott’s 2011 Schocket Memorial Lecture

By Michael Samuels 09F

“This is very moving to me, and I’m very happy to be here to honor Eric Schocket, with whom I feel an unusual intellectual kinship,” began Eric Lott, professor of American and culture studies at the University of Virginia and author of The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual and Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.

He added: “I would have liked to have him as a UVA colleague. Hampshire got him instead.”

Professor Lott delivered the fourth Eric N. Schocket Memorial Lecture (1993) on April 21, 2011. He structured the introduction to his discussion of Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire performance between the Twin Towers as a dialogue with Schocket’s work around class and social stratification, noting an intention to give a lecture that would be relevant to Schocket.

The lecture explored Petit’s (illegal) transformation of the air between the tops of the Twin Towers into a performance space as a reaction to Haussmannization. Lott explained that Haussmannization was a process of city redesign that physically enforced class stratification and took the sense of ownership of urban zones away from their inhabitants. Citing the philosophy of the “Right to the City,” Lott argued that Petit’s stunt took back an area of Manhattan that had been Haussmannized and “stolen” from New Yorkers.

The lecture also included clips from Man on Wire, a 2008 documentary about Petit’s stunt, in which Hampshire College alum Shawn Dempewolff 99F plays one of Petit’s collaborators in dramatic reconstructions.

After watching one clip, in which Petit describes stepping off the high wire to be arrested by “an octopus” of police officers, Lott noted, “I think Eric Schocket would get the irony of calling the group of police an 'octopus'.”

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