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Spring 2018

Grand Narratives

In 1979 Jean-Francois Lyotard famously announced the end of the Grand Narrative ushering in a new epistemological frame based on fragmentation and difference.  The initial impetus of this movement was characterized by a turn to high theory but this eventually shifted toward an interest in returning to the "real", to the evidentiary, and to matters of fact.  More recently, and despite pretensions to divine a more immediate access to the subjects under investigation, this impulse has been characterized in the human sciences by a rhetoric of modesty quite removed from either the grand narratives or high theory of the prior movements.  And yet such modest proposals are now igniting a return to grand narrative be it in evolutionary theory, Big or Deep History, or the vast expanse of the digital humanities.  The counter or companion to this unlikely twinning is a resurgence of apologetic or unapologetic rhetorics of big theory or narrative/interpretation as either counterpoint or support.  In this semester, we will explore the relation of grand narratives, modest proposals, and meta-narratives over diverse periods and places bringing these to bear on our current moment.  

Fall 2018

Corporeal Techniques and Technologies

Techne, the ancient Greek term for art, artifice, craft, and skill, broadly designates systems, methods, practices and techniques of making or doing. Often translated as “know-how,” it locates knowledge production in corporeal techniques and technologies and helps us to think beyond cognitive, epistemological and disciplinary models grounded in mind-body dualisms. A wide range of scholarship across the disciplines deploys techne as a methodological tool to explore the cultural and historical manifestations, transformations and extensions of bodymind through techniques and technologies, including “techniques of the body” (Mauss), “habitus” (Bourdieu), the “history of manners” (Elias), “enskillment” (Ingold), ecological and technological “affordances” (Gibson), “bodily technologies” (Downey), the gendered and racialized body as a “cyborg” (Haraway) or “archive” (Fuentes), and “distributed cognitive ecologies” (Tribble) that extend across boundaries of brain, body, systems, instruments, objects, and material practices. This semester, we trace the past, present, and potential futures of our biotechnological age, and the new forms of post-human technicity prompting us to rethink the shifting boundaries of human and non-human embodiment, what counts as a “body,” how bodies make, move, act, feel, perceive, communicate, record, etc., as well as new forms of bodily inscription, modification, prosthesis, distribution and extension.

Spring 2019

Hyperbole: Sense, Sensation, Spectacle

Hyperbole—flagrant rhetorical exaggeration—was defined by the Roman philosopher Seneca as the affirmation of the incredible or false to arrive at the credible or true. Given the term’s etymology, which literally means “over-throwing” or throwing beyond, it should not be surprising that many have found in it a revolutionary potential. Aristotle associated hyperbolic vehemence with anger and youth. What are the advantages and disadvantages of overstatement versus understatement, immoderation versus moderation, in the search for truth? On the one hand, hyperbole has been viewed as a path or method to attain truth, as though overreaching were the only way to arrive at the facts of the matter. On the other hand, hyperbole often seems unreliable because one cannot always trust bodily sense and sensation, much less an immoderate speaker’s temper. When reaching toward the credible, hyperbole links itself with sense-as-truth, though perhaps a truth found at the level of sensation, of sense as embodiment or affect. When inflating toward the boastful, however, hyperbole collapses into spectacle. Across historical periods and discursive conditions, hyperbole has been characteristically split between—or articulated along the fissures that mark—these modalities of representation.

Is the problem with hyperbole in the world, in an incredible truth, or in us, in our recourse to outrageous styles of representation? This semester we will pursue the question of hyperbole, tracing sense, sensation and spectacle along the division between world and representation. We will examine its appearance in many guises, under the rubrics of camp, poetics, performance studies, popular culture, media theory, affect theory, genre studies, and beyond.  Over the course of the semester we aim to scrutinize a set of practices that have been and continue be used to pump up audiences, to diffuse tragedies into comedies, to skewer normativity, and to reach by overreaching what otherwise seems unreachable.