Forty-one years after being expelled from Czechoslovakia by the communist government, Andrew Lass—Professor of Anthropology on the Ford Foundation—will be honored in Prague with the Dagmar and Václav Havel Foundation VIZE 97 Prize. Since 1999, the award for lifetime achievement has been presented to distinguished scientists and thinkers whose work is concerned with unconventional ways of asking fundamental questions about cognition, being, and human existence.
Previous recipients of the VIZE 97 Prize include Umberto Eco, Robert Reich, and Julia Kristeva.
The award is presented annually on October 5, the birthday of Václav Havel—a playwright, dissident, and the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic. In addition to receiving the award, Lass will attend related events in Prague, including discussions with students and professors.
Lass, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts and began teaching at Mount Holyoke in 1981, is an authority on Czech culture, European ethnography, contemporary anthropological theory, the cultural dimensions of language and technology, and the anthropology of history. Born in New York, he grew up in Prague and studied ethnology, linguistics, and poetics—as well as Sanskrit—at Prague’s Charles University. An intellectual and an artist, Lass was a member of the city’s surrealist group. He wrote and published poetry in Czech, won acclaim as a photographer, befriended and filmed Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and participated in the Prague Spring of 1968.
In addition to writing essays, Lass is the author of several collections of poems. Mandala and The Game of the Blind Old Hag, written in Czech, were published in Prague in 1995, and his most recent volume is Throat Cuts and Sound Paintings.
A specialist on the anthropology of Central Europe, he has received close to $4 million in grants from the Andrew W. Mellon and Pew Charitable Trust Foundations to support his work with the Czech and Slovak Library Information Network (CASLIN)—a project helping to modernize the networking capabilities and computer technology of libraries throughout the Czech and Slovak Republics in the aftermath of communist rule.
At Mount Holyoke, Lass teaches a variety of courses on topics ranging from contemporary anthropological theory and linguistics to the anthropology of memory, history, and forgetting. In 2005, he received the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching, and in 2010, he was the recipient of an American Anthropological Association (AAA)/Oxford University Press Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Students consistently describe Lass's teaching as "brilliant" and "innovative." One student reviewer noted, "we leave class empowered with agency to listen and to think in an uncertain world."
“This prize is a richly deserved tribute to Professor Lass’s many and varied contributions to scholarship and the arts, and showcases the faculty excellence and versatility that resides at Mount Holyoke College,” says Dean of Faculty Sonya Stephens. “In all that he does, both here and internationally, he demonstrates extraordinary creativity, pioneering scholarship, and a commitment to sharing his ideas with others. We are delighted to join the Dagmar and Václav Havel Foundation in celebrating Andy’s achievements.”
Noting that Václav Havel, “the brilliant playwright, the tough prisoner of conscience, and the gentlest of all presidents … was a master of words,” Lass acknowledges “feeling befuddled” when trying to speak about being awarded the Havel Foundation VIZE 97 Prize.
"To be recognized for the many things you've done because you cared,” says Lass, “because they meant something to you, because you just couldn't do otherwise—the scholarship, the work to promote and protect libraries as well as progressive education, not to mention my 'secret' life as a poet and fine art photographer—in a country where you grew up but were not born and wanted, as a kid, to be accepted … resembles a kind of nightmare that turns into the sweetest dream that turns out to be true.”
• Among the media coverage of Lass's award is this article, in English, from the Prague Post.
—By Michelle Ducharme