Changing the Subject: Poesis, Praxis, and Theoria in the Humanities

April 22-23, 2006

For more than two thousand years, Aristotle's division of rational human activity into Labor, Action, and Contemplation has served to guide discussion about our work as writers, teachers, and scholars. The model has also been invoked recently to help maintain divisions and identities among the disciplines that make up the humanities. In the past century, Aristotle's model has been, like many cultural assumptions, held up to increasing scrutiny. Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, and Paolo Virno are only a few of the thinkers who have reconceived the boundaries among these categories, while movements as diverse as psychoanalysis, surrealism, and deconstruction have questioned the very foundation upon which these categories stand. The separations among the disciplines have undergone a similar challenge and reconfiguration. Writers such as Robert Scholes, Stanley Fish, bell hooks, Paulo Friere, John Guillory, and Bill Readings have examined the shifting ground of the humanities, not only re-imagining the topic of our study but also our reconceptualizing who we are as human subjects.

Perhaps these changes should not surprise us, for does not the impulse for the crossing of boundaries, for conversation rather than compartmentalization, lie at the very heart of literature? That is, has not literature always already had a tradition of crossing lines, and has not this quality served as a definition for the literary? Have not those boundaries, whether abstract, generic, or national, been at the subject of works ranging from Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko to the more recent by poet John Ashbery, and the novels of W. G. Sebald and J. M. Coetzee? And, furthermore, has not literature and the teaching of literature always had as its focus not merely the representation of our identity but very literally our conceiving of it?

What relevance, then, does the classical model have for us today? And what, if anything, might replace it? Possible topics on this theme include performance and criticism of boundary-crossing art, studies of the effect of mass-production and global economies on the work of art, discussions of the politics of teaching and the future of the university, and questions about the role of theory in today’s increasingly cross-disciplinary study.

Keynote Speaker: Robert Scholes will present a paper titled “Changing the Subject: Periodical Studies.” Professor Scholes is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and Emeritus Professor Emeritus of English, Comparative literature, and MCM at Brown University. He served as the 2004 President of the MLA and is currently Director of Modernist Journals Project. Without doubt, those of us in English studies have encountered at least one text by Robert Scholes. The Rise and Fall of English is a text we confront frequently as we negotiate our place in the academy. In our preparation as teachers, Textual Studies approaches issues about literary theory’s place in the classroom in terms of the theoretical and pragmatic. An preparation to be scholars, we see his engagement of critical theory and critical practice in several books such as Semiotics and Interpretation and Structuralism in Literature. In addition, Modernist scholars look to his work on the period in In Search of James Joyce and will be looking forward to the publication of Paradoxy of Modernism in 2006.