Modernist Lives, Precarious Lives

full name / name of organization: 
Walt Hunter/ University of Virginia
contact email: 

Although much recent criticism in modernist studies has focused on the everyday and the ordinary, this panel proposes instead to look at the precarious. The term precarity has been heard more and more frequently in the disciplines of political philosophy, economics, anthropology, and critical theory, but it has only begun to make its way into literary studies. Current discussions of precarity are shaped by the work of Paulo Virno, who describes it as "the chronic instability of forms of life," and by Judith Butler, who conceives of precarity as a shared vulnerability on the basis of which we might found a tentative community. In Vies ordinaires, vies précaires (Ordinary Lives, Precarious Lives; Seuil, 2007), the French philosopher Guillaume le Blanc refers to precarity as the unraveling of the socially-constructed self, the "unmaking" of making. He raises the following question: "if precarity tends to disqualify ordinary lives, utterly destroying their creative capacities, could we not seek the elements that would reanimate these capacities by analyzing the counter-use of the voices of precarious lives?"
While the invisibility and social death of the precarious individual might seem like an odd fit for a conference whose theme is spectacle, the voices of precarity often arise in unexpectedly spectacular ways. Le Blanc analyzes the reappropriation of the acronym "CPE" ("contrat première embauche") by demonstrators protesting against a law, proposed by Dominique de Villepin in 2006, that would have permitted the firing of contracted employees without explanation. Changing CPE to "chômage, précarité, exclusion"—unemployment, precarity, exclusion—precarious workers engaged in an act not only of radical critique, but also of translation. This panel looks at how modernist artworks "translate" the voices of precarity. In doing so, these papers explore how the amelioration of precarious lives requires the exercise of creative powers in language. Topics might include the relationship between literature and capital; affects of precarity; new ontologies of the lyric; figures of the collective, the multitude, and the common(s) in fiction, poetry, drama, or film; the appropriation of traditional forms of narrative and poetry by colonial subjects; the ethics of vulnerability and the politics of care; the relationship between bare life and precarious life; poverty and representation.
Please send an abstract (250 words) and a short bio to Walt Hunter (weh5b@virginia) by April 1st.