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D U K E - S T A N F O R D
P H I L O S O P H Y & L I T E R A T U R E  G R A D U A T E  C O N F E R E C E
M A Y  8 - 9 , 2 0 2 0
S T A N F O R D  U N I V E R S I T Y
K E Y N O T E S P E A K E R S :
C A R O L I N E  L E V I N E ( C O R N E L L ) / J A N  Z W I C K Y ( V I C T O R I A )

I N  &  O U T  O F  C O N T E X T

In “What is New Formalism?,” a state-of-the-discipline essay published in PMLA in 2007, Marjorie Levinson retraces the decades-long debate between formalism and  historicism. Her overview presents a microcosm of literary studies by showing the  different methods, values, and aims that guide our ideas and practices. She cites  a diverse set of ambitions in the field: to defend the literary, to sustain our sense  of shared humanness, to awaken our somatic self awareness, to stimulate our  sense of wonder, to help us realize the non-centrality of the subject-position, to  reassert the artwork’s critical and self-critical agency, to unveil the text as a  projection of ideology, to denounce aesthetic mystification. To this list we could  add more, such as exploring the mechanisms of private and public memory and  redressing historical wrongs.

What all these programs for literary studies have in common is their reliance on a  certain interpretive use of context. The occasional virulence of the quarrel  between formalism and historicism suggests that there are words, on the one  hand; a non-verbal reality, on the other; and in-between, the scholar’s capacity to  tell them apart. In reality, the recent proliferation of literary methodologies  (distant reading, surface reading, reparative reading, formative reading, the new  formalism at the center of Levinson’s piece...) shows that the parsing out of texts  and contexts, of the verbal and the non-verbal, of forms and history is informed, if  not dictated, by interpretive decisions from beginning to end. While this fact may  not entirely dissolve the oppositions mentioned above, it does require an  acknowledgement. What we mean by context shapes the contours of our objects  of study, delineates what they can or cannot do, and what we can do with them as  scholars, teachers, private individuals, and citizens. Hence the ethical and political  pressures to put contexts to good use or to ban them from our readings.

The epistemological centrality of context extends beyond literary disciplines. In  addition to designating the circumstances of production and reception of a textual  artifact, context also refers to a broader structure in terms of which the conditions  of meaning can be identified and understood. Jeff Speaks writes for the Stanford  Encyclopedia of Philosophy that “questions about context-sensitivity are  important, not just for semantics, but for many areas of philosophy. And that is  because some of the terms thought to be context-sensitive are terms which play a  central role in describing the subject matter of other areas of philosophy.”  Philosophers have appealed to context to supply the conditions of possibility of  meaningfulness, be it the meaningfulness of a word within a sentence (Frege), of  an intentional action embedded in the chain of thoughts and motion (Anscombe),  or of sensory stimulation within the habits of an organism (Merleau-Ponty). Now  more than ever, philosophers like Richard Moran, Robert Brandom, Michael  Strevens, and Sally Haslanger demonstrate a turn towards context to understand  their objects of investigation such as knowledge, belief systems, scientific facts, responsibility, and emancipation.

Debates in literary studies and philosophy home in on the constructive power of  contexts. But literature and the arts have been exploiting the subversive and  critical power of their neutralization and replacement for over a century. From the  artist’s perspective, contexts are as essential as they are fungible, dispensable.  Decontextualization and recontextualization have become creative acts in their  own right. Montage in film and literature, collage in the visual arts, sampling in  music, and related forms such as palimpsests and pastiches all experiment with
the malleability of contexts. Once sampled in a rap track the sound of jazz may  not connote free expression, but the existence of an alternative cultural archive.  Ready-mades are unthinkable without the conviction that contexts can and should  be substituted.

This conference asks what can we do and what ought we to do with contexts in our disciplines, in art, and in life? We invite papers presenting methodological reflections on these issues, as well as interventions about cultural productions that engage formally or thematically with context and its many negations. The conference is open to graduate students in all literary, philosophical, and artistic disciplines. It also welcomes participants from media and cultural studies and from interdisciplinary programs. Possible fields of inquiry include, but are not limited to:


Please submit a 250-word abstract by February 10, 2020 to [log in to unmask] with a short bio, all in one Word document. Applicants will hear from the organizers by mid-February. Presentations are expected to last 20 minutes and be delivered in person. The conference will be  held on May 8-9, 2020 at Stanford University. Limited funds are available to help presenters with their travel and lodging expenses. If you think  you need assistance, please state so on your application. This will not impact the evaluation of your application, nor is funding guaranteed should you be accepted.

Inquiries should be directed to [log in to unmask].

******************* The German Studies Call for Papers List Editor: Sean Franzel Assistant Editor: Olaf Schmidt Sponsored by the University of Missouri Info available at: https://grs.missouri.edu/german/resources