1:00 pm to 5:15 pm (Fri., 2/27)
9:00 am to 5:30 pm (Sat., 2/28)
Nancy Armstrong (English, Duke University)
Timothy Campbell (Italian Studies, Cornell University)
Ian Duncan (English, University of California, Berkeley)
Amanda Jo Goldstein (English, Cornell University)
Warren Montag (Literature, Occidental College)
Robert Mitchell (English, Duke University)
In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault explains how the redefinition of life in terms of “biology” around 1800 not only implied that human beings were immersed in the natural world but also made that world of living beings intelligible in a radically new way. One could no longer look at living beings as instances of ideal forms or species; rather they had to be understood as participants in dynamic temporal processes. This amounted to a shift from concepts of stable form to concepts of dynamic formation, and from being to becoming. But Foucault’s account of “the biological turn” goes only so far in explaining why literate people agreed to imagine their world in these terms, especially since these terms were decidedly hostile to all the assumptions wrapped up in the concept of human exceptionalism.
Our shared premise is that if the biological sciences altered the terms for understanding life, then literature gave vitality to that theory by making nature newly intelligible as it expanded the human sensorium to accommodate these new terms, showed exactly how they modified human exceptionalism, and questioned whether it was valid, much less a good idea to do so.