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Wesleyan University | Center for the Humanities

Revolutions: Material Forms, Mobile Futures
Monday Night Lecture Series | Spring 2020

Biotranscendentalism: Emerson's New Picture of Life

Biotranscendentalism: Emerson’s New Picture of Life

Ryan Fics • Wesleyan University

March 2 @ 6 P.M.
Daniel Family Commons, Usdan University Center

This talk explores Ralph Waldo Emerson’s use of biological figures in his essays, speeches, and journals. In doing so, it attempts to demonstrate that his use of such figures as embryos and reticular formations are inseparable from his preoccupation with the central political issues of his time. Referring to what is incalculable and uncontrollable, embryos often appear as another word for chance and time in Emerson’s work. What this reading of Emerson offers, then, is an attempt to recover a discourse on chance from Emerson’s work for the purpose of keeping open the possibility of reading him outside the essentially historicist schemas that he not only sought to disrupt during his time, but that continue to govern the way he is discussed today. By paying close attention to the ways in which the biological figures of his rhetoric (which often seem to have nothing to do with politics and identity) are themselves traversed by the language of race, destiny, revolution, and the meaning of representation, this talk claims that Emerson’s use of biology is both symptomatic and critical of the governing grammar through which the political culture of his time thought about race and slavery. While it has often been argued that Emerson retreats from the problems of slavery via his appeal to what he calls “Universal Being” or the “Over-Soul,” through a closer look at the ways he mobilizes and modifies the language of biology, this talk will (re)present a different side of Emersonian transcendentalism that may allow us to read his supposedly skeptical and irresponsibly complicit appeal to the domain of spirit as an effort to reimagine a new picture of life that disrupts the dogmatic determinism that sought to legitimize slavery.

All lectures begin at 6 p.m. and are held in the Daniel Family Commons (located in the Usdan University Center) unless otherwise noted.

Revolutions: Material Forms, Mobile Futures
View Spring 2020 Lecture List

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