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The threat of biological catastropheâ€”including that by AIDS, ebola, irreversible global warming,
avian influenza, and species extinctionâ€”may seem the specific and daunting provenance of late
20th- and early 21st â€“century life, but it has in fact been a crucial part of history since ancient
times. It is important to remember, for instance, that starting in the 14th century and extending
well into the 18th, the bubonic plague (as the Black Death) ultimately took the lives of at least
35% of the entire population in Europe, as well as nearly that much in central Asia, killing an
estimated total of 75 million people. Given these numbers, it could be argued that premodern
and early modern cultures had even more at stake in articulating the role of plagueâ€”not to
mention the related phenomena of cholera, syphilis, small pox, the so-called English Sweating
Sickness, or extensive urban infestations, which are only a few of the shockwaves that preceded
our own anxiety about spectacular biological disaster. This symposium therefore proposes
rethinking the connections among recent models, representations, or biocultures of biological
threat and their counterparts in the pre- and early modern eras.
A focus on the â€œrhetoricsâ€ of plague highlights the ways in which biological danger becomes
conceptually organized, ethically ordered, or socio-politically oriented by the discourses that
represent it. It can also underscore the crossing or hybridization of discourses, such as the ways
in which early views of medical pandemic, in the absence of a theory of germ contagion, could
be linked to models of ecological or environmental dysfunction, or the manner in which disease
of the body natural could metaphorize the maladies of the body politic. Furthermore, in
addition to accounting for the interrelated scientific, literary, or philosophical conventions
invoked by such discourses, it is important to acknowledge that, like the biological volatility they
describe, discourses about plague can undergo their own kind of exponential proliferation,
producing a potential plague of rhetorics. While such discourses may have predominantly
originated in the metropolitan centers of Europe, there is also the need to account for their
transformation or mutation when applied in non-Western or colonial contexts, as well as for the
emergence of counter-discourses from non-European sourcesâ€”such as China or the Middle East
â€”that may have challenged European models of pandemic explanation, particularly as they have
undergirded imperial ambitions.
The University at Albany, SUNY, calls for proposals that forge connections between 21st-century
contexts and pre- and early modern periods (up to ca.1820) as a way to foster fruitful
conversations across disciplinary, national, ethnic, geographical, and historical boundaries.
Papers may take up recent work on biohazards, for example, to rethink responses to plague in
early periods; conversely, papers may consider what early manifestations of and responses to
plague tell us about current pandemic episodes, whether real or imagined, including biohazard
as political trope. We welcome approaches from the sciences, social sciences, arts, and
humanities and encourage cross-cultural and transhistorical work; papers focusing on biohazard
discourses prior to the nineteenth century are particularly desirable. We encourage contributions
from graduate students or nonacademics who may be working in areas such as the history of
medicine, healthcare, and ecological analysis.
All participants in the symposium will have the opportunity to submit expanded versions of their
presentations for consideration as part of a special journal issue planned for publication. More
details will soon appear on the symposium website.
More information about the symposium can be found at a link at the Albany Department of
English website: http://www.albany.edu/english.
Paper proposals (1-2 pages) should be sent to Professor Helene Scheck, hscheck_at_albany.com, or
Professor Richard Barney, rbarney_at_albany.edu, no later than December 10, 2008.
â€¢ Kathleen Biddick, Professor, Temple University, on plague, sovereignty, and 21st-century
â€¢ Graham Hammill, Associate Professor, University of Buffalo, on the biopolitics of disease
during the 17th century
â€¢ Robert Markley, Professor and Romano Professorial Scholar, University of Illinois,
Champagne-Urbana, on ecological disaster and disease in 18th-century Britain
Topics to be considered at the symposium include:
â€¢ How recent logics of epidemic, trauma, virology, or retrovirology find application to or
analogues in earlier historical patterns or discourses; how recent logics continue to rely on
and/or transform older models of plague, contamination, or disease.
â€¢ The aesthetics of infection; the poetics of contagion.
â€¢ The multiplicity of diseases as generator for â€œplagues of rhetoricâ€â€”uncontrolled proliferation
of competing definitions, descriptions, or discourses; or, in turn, the disseminating tendencies of
scientific discourse as an engine for an exponential explosion of apparent symptoms, biological
entities, ecological effects.
â€¢ The investment of medical or ecological models of pandemic thinking in juridical, legal,
political, literary, social, educational, or other pre- and early modern domains.
â€¢ The role of pandemic rhetoric in the management of early modern colonial enterprise or
imperial conquest; the relevance of similar biological discourses in postcolonial or recently
â€¢ The function of counter-discourses of pandemic that emerged from non-Western sourcesâ€”
China, the Middle East, the South Pacific, etc.â€”in response to European scientific, political, or
â€¢ The insertion of theological, political, or sociological methodologies into scientific efforts to
diagnose massive medical or ecological dysfunction.
â€¢ Philosophy and/as pandemic.
â€¢ The animalâ€”e.g., the bird or rodentâ€”as liminal figure of pandemic transportation or
translation: as biological â€œotherâ€ and/or as ambiguous representative of anthropomorphized
â€¢ The transformation of authoritative theological or moral paradigms by emerging scientific
analyses of pandemic or contagion.
â€¢ The scientific empiricism of spiritual/moral depravity; the spiritualization of scientifically
observed biological threat.
â€¢ The literature of pandemic (e.g., Bocaccioâ€™s Decameron, Defoeâ€™s Journal of the Plague Year);
the literary as pandemic (e.g., romance, the novel, â€œscribbling women,â€ Gothicism).
â€¢ â€œModernityâ€â€”pre-, early, or post- â€”as vital historical threshold or suspect analytical crux
for narrating the development of plague rhetorics.
â€¢ The interpenetration of biology and cultureâ€”termed â€œbiocultureâ€ in a recent special issue of
New Literary History (38.3 [Summer 2007])â€”as a peculiarly postmodern feature of
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