Though COVID-19 makes it impossible to gather together in person this fall, we can gather virtually to discuss recent faculty work on literature. This discussion series is intended for any students, staff or faculty interested in the work of the department. Participants will generally be asked to read a short text beforehand; at the discussion, the faculty member whose work is featured will provide some short opening comments, and then the rest of the meeting will be devoted to discussion.
Demographic Approaches to Early Modern Literary History
November 6, 2020
12:00 - 1:15 pm
I'd like to use this lunchtime event to describe and solicit advice about a project I'm just beginning: an attempt to set the literary history of early-modern England in demographic context by creating a prosopography of writers. Prosopography, that is, collective biography, is a technique that seeks to discover and describe the characteristics of a particular group. Prosopographies can take a variety of forms, but what I'm interested in doing in this project is tracking major life events and social categories, including life expectancy, marriage and procreation, class, birthplace and place or places of residence, religion, sex, and a few others. This project is still in the data collection phase -- itself as much a qualitative as quantitative endeavor -- which I'm working on with the invaluable help of Jane Harwell.
Because this project hasn't yet led to any articles, I'm distributing an earlier paper, "Love Poetry and Periodization," which sparked my interest in demographic analyses of literary history and led me to think there would be value in taking a prosopographic approach. In this paper, I make a case for interpreting changing erotic values in Renaissance love poetry in relation to the shift in the marriage rate in sixteenth and seventeenth century England. I hope this can be the starting point for a conversation about demography and literary history, sociological approaches to the author, the problems of literary and historical categorization and category formation, and any other fundamental questions of literary scholarship we can address in 75 minutes.
To sign up for this discussion with Julianne Werlin, please click here.
January 29, 2021
12:00 - 1:15 pm
(Details coming soon)
To sign up for this discussion with Joseph Winters, please click here.
Previous Faculty Works Discussion:
Transgression and Redemption in American Fiction
What difference might long-time immersion in The Godfather and Blue Velvet, Fiedler and Sedgwick, Sinatra and Holiday make to an understanding of American fiction, particularly as it has unfolded in the Duke classroom? In “Had There Been a Papist,” Prof. Ferraro returns to the most influential and persistent scene of Protestant instruction in U.S. literature, readdressing its vaunted interplay of sex, violence, and sanctity. In so doing, he reveals an open secret that implicates almost all of America’s most revered modern novels for being in fact what they have always been: namely, martyr tales of forbidden love, transgressive and redemptive.
On Tact In Dark Times
Tact is often considered a luxury of social interaction: commendable, but not required, a form of close attention to the particulars of a situation and the feelings of another person. Philosopher David Heyd situates it between moral virtues, which concern themselves with fundamental human interests and rights, and social etiquette, which is cultural and underwrites the aesthetic of everyday life. One may think of Queen Victoria drinking rose water from her finger bowl, to put at ease her guest, the Afrikaner president Paul Kruger, who had committed the "mistake" first; or of a person swiftly apologizing “Pardon, Monsieur,” after inadvertently opening a bathroom door onto the privacy of a lady.
Over the past century, however, the historical moments when tact emerged as an ideal on the horizon of sociability were times when life had been cheapened through the valuation of some existences at the expense of others, when the world was split into “friends” and “enemies,” when humanity itself was threatened by war, pernicious ideologies, or violence in the bloody aftermath of revolutions. The thinkers I will briefly revisit in this talk—Roland Barthes, Theodor Adorno, Natalia Ginzburg, and Helmuth Plessner—found that their historical circumstances were so inimical to human flourishing as to make the idea of sensitivity to human individuality look like an escapist fantasy. And yet, it was precisely its remoteness, the danger of its falling into oblivion, that demanded its eloquent affirmation. Interestingly, these thinkers suggested that tact was part of an education for grown-ups, and that its natural domain was the humanities.
What exactly is tact, and what is its place in our highly polarized society? How is tact different from political correctness, or from a “woke” attitude? Can one be tactful when one is in a position or situation of inferiority? Can one be tactful all the time? What alternatives might we have?