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Fall 2015

Matter that Matters? Interrogating New Materialisms 


In the Fall of 2015, the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University will take up the theme of “Matter.”  Matter has long been an issue in the humanities, be it in the language of materialism, of material culture, of substance, or of science. For a long time, idealisms of all stripes have subordinated non-human matter to the ambitions and extensions of human thought. Materialisms, on the contrary, have traditionally seen matter itself as what matters: as what determines the shape and conditions of human life. More recent developments have sought to level down the cosmic hierarchies from theology to humanism by proffering a “flat ontology” wherein all matter “matters” equally. After decades of deconstructive undermining, reliance on the old Cartesian subject seems to finally have given way to a proliferation of often mutually incompatible post-Humanist theories whose desire to generate new forms of inquiry stem from a profound discontents with the Humanities and sciences having cultivated predominantly representational modes of knowledge. We see aspects of this in fields as diverse as material-culture studies, Animal(ity) Studies, Object-Oriented Ontology, commodity histories and various approaches to "things," and in Speculative Realism with its anti-Kantian pathos of knowing the thing-in-itself. Thus new emphases on the significance of substance and thingness -- and even the agency of matter as such -- have emerged across fields and disciplines. Of course, attention is also being drawn to the determination of what exactly matters and how to assess this. To put it simply, current contemporary thought insists that matter be given its due. Arguments within and across theoretical traditions seem to have converged, if only momentarily, on a vague but palpable sense that matter as such should be recognized: recognized as one subject recognizes another. It is not clear, however, whether the numerous articulations of this turn are working in tandem or at cross-purposes, how they can be mapped in relation to one another, or whether any of them manages to escape the subjectivist and hierarchical ontologies they criticize.

We seek to explore this convergence by bringing scholars from multiple fields and approaches into conversation around “matter.” We are interested in specific questions of method (for instance, modes of observing, measuring, speculating) as much as in meta-questions about the meaning and the consequences of this newly arisen fervor about matter. We invite applications from scholars, scientists, and artists whose work is concerned with old and new materialisms; we also encourage applications from scholars pursuing critiques of precisely these materialisms.


 Spring 2016


“Comparison” as a Mode of Inquiry in the Post-Comparative World

Comparison as a mode of scholarly inquiry has long been under question, be it as “cultural comparison” in the field of anthropology or the explicit nationalist frameworks of “comparative literature” and “comparative history.” Thus the turn to the transnational, the global or world, and even the local seems to imply that scholarship has entered a “post-comparative” phase. In the spring semester of 2016, we return to comparison as a mode of inquiry, a method, or an analytic. We seek to interrogate the utility of a comparative logic uncoupled from the previous paradigms. But we also intend to investigate the ways in which the logic of comparison or its suppositions—implicit or explicit—might still guide analysis in a “post-comparative” moment. 

Are comparisons a constitutive element of social order and of historical change? Have they always been so?  Since at least the sixteenth century, worldwide comparisons have been interpreted as a form of imagined relations that produce the "world as a whole" by comparing heterogenic, seemingly non-commensurable, and formerly separate cultures and regions. But has a sense of “the global” been shaped by comparative descriptions? Is “comparison” necessarily linked to an insufficiently defined notion of a larger “whole” that predetermines the comparative framework and the results of such an analysis? Should we think of the world as a bundle of constitutive parts or discrete zones of comparison?

We will explore comparison as a mode of observing, defining, and creating parts and wholes through different patterns, media, and standards. We are interested in the use of comparison in specific disciplinary fields and in regard to specific topics (world literature of travel and exploration, comparisons of cultures or cultural forms, metaphors of trans- or cross-, comparisons of national forms of capitalism, global wars, narratives of progress, crimes against humanity) but also at the meta-level of imagining how “comparison” undergirds questions of heterogeneity and particularity, convergence and disjuncture, difference and hierarchy, self and other, commensurability, as well as temporality