2016-2017 Critical Witness Sessions
Below are the descriptions for the Critical Witness sessions that took place during the 2016-2017 academic year. These include the title, author, and a brief description of the book selected along with the specific sections that were read.
October 19, 2016
Book: Cultural Graphology: Writing After Derrida
Author: Juliet Fleming
Sections Read: Introduction and Chapter Two
Brief Description: In this book, Juliet Fleming examines the print culture of early modern England, drastically unsettling some key assumptions of book history. Fleming shows that the single most important lesson to survive from Derrida’s early work is that we do not know what writing is. Channeling Derrida’s thought into places it has not been seen before, she examines printed errors, spaces, and ornaments (topics that have hitherto been marginal to our accounts of print culture) and excavates the long-forgotten reading practice of cutting printed books. Proposing radical deformations to the meanings of fundamental and apparently simple terms such as “error,” “letter,” “surface,” and “cut,” Fleming opens up exciting new pathways into our understanding of writing.
December 14, 2016
Book: Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England
Author: Katherine Eggert
Sections Read: Introduction, Chapter Five, and the Afterword
Brief Description: In this book, Eggert explores the crumbling state of learning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even as the shortcomings of Renaissance humanism became plain to see, many intellectuals of the age had little choice but to treat their familiar knowledge systems as though they still held. Humanism thus came to share the status of alchemy: a way of thinking simultaneously productive and suspect, reasonable and wrongheaded. Covering a wide range of authors and topics, Disknowledge is the first book to analyze how English Renaissance literature employed alchemy to probe the nature and limits of learning. The concept of disknowledge—willfully adhering to something we know is wrong—resonates across literary and cultural studies as an urgent issue of our own era.
February 8, 2017
Book: The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe
Author: Ayesha Ramachandran
Sections Read: Introduction and Chapter One
Brief Description: Ayesha Ramachandran’s The Worldmakers: Global Imagining in Early Modern Europe, which reconstructs the imaginative struggles of early modern artists, philosophers, and writers to make sense of something that we take for granted: the world, imagined as a whole. Once a new, exciting, and frightening concept, “the world” was transformed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But how could one envision something that no one had ever seen in its totality? The Worldmakers moves beyond histories of globalization to explore how “the world” itself—variously understood as an object of inquiry, a comprehensive category, and a system of order—was self-consciously shaped by human agents.
March 8, 2017
Book: Shakespeare's Binding Language
Author: John Kerrigan
Sections Read: Introduction and Chapter Six
Brief Description: Shakespeare’s Binding Language explores the significance in Shakespeare's plays of oaths, vows, contracts, pledges and the other utterances and acts by which characters commit themselves to the truth of things past, present, and to come. In early modern England, such binding language was everywhere. Oaths of office, marriage vows, legal bonds, and casual, everyday profanity gave shape and texture to life. The proper use of such language, and the extent of its power to bind, was argued over by lawyers, religious writers, and satirists, and these debates inform literature and drama. Shakespeare's Binding Language gives a freshly researched account of these contexts, but it is focused on the plays. What motives should we look for when characters asseverate or promise? How far is binding language self-persuasive or deceptive? When is it allowable to break a vow? How do oaths and promises structure an audience's expectations? Across the sweep of Shakespeare's career, from the early histories to the late romances, this book opens new perspectives on key dramatic moments and illuminates language and action. Each chapter gives an account of a play or group of plays, yet the study builds to a sustained investigation of some of the most important systems, institutions, and controversies in early modern England, and of the wiring of Shakespearean dramaturgy.
April 12, 2017
Book: Queer Philologies
Author: Jeffrey Masten
Sections Read: Chapter One and Chapter Two
Brief Description: Queer Philologies examines particular terms that illuminate the history of sexuality in Shakespeare's time and analyzes the methods we have used to study sex and gender in literary and cultural history. Building on the work of theorists and historians who have, following Foucault, investigated the importance of words like "homosexual," "sodomy," and "tribade" in a variety of cultures and historical periods, Masten argues that just as the history of sexuality requires the history of language, so too does philology, "the love of the word," require the analytical lens provided by the study of sexuality. Analyzing the continuities as well as differences between Shakespeare's language and our own, he offers up a queer lexicon in which the letter "Q" is perhaps the queerest character of all.