21st Century Theories of Literature: Ethics, Tropes, and Attunement

6th-8th April, 2017
University of Warwick

Organisers: Andrea Selleri, Giulia Zanfabro, Marianna Ginocchietti, Alex Underwood


This conference developed and expanded the themes of its 2014 predecessors “21st-Century Theories of Literature: Essence, Fiction, Value”. Once again, the general objective was to discuss a series of widely appealing questions on the theory of literature in such a way as to create the conditions for a meaningful discussion between different disciplines, foremost among them literary studies and the philosophy of literature.

The conference was attended by over fifty delegates from countries including Australia, Israel, Italy, the United States, and many more, and ranging from postgraduate to professorial level. We welcomed scholars from a variety of literary and philosophical backgrounds, from analytic aestheticians to historians of literature to philosophers in the Continental tradition, and the proceedings were conducted with a view to maximising the effectiveness of and removing any foreseeable obstacles to cross-disciplinary communication.

The proceedings featured six keynote sessions, a poetry reading, twenty-four talks organised around the three broad themes of ‘ethics’, ‘tropes’ and ‘attunement’, and a final roundtable discussion on the benefits and difficulties of interdisciplinary interaction between the two fields.

The opening reception featured three spoken poetry performances on themes related to philosophy from award-winning writers Lou Sarabadzić and Tania Ganitsky, alongside translator Martin Schauss. Sarabadzić read some of her poems on themes such as identity and rationality, before regaling us with a poetic re-elaboration of our own call for papers. Ganitsky began with a reading of some of her poems, some from her collection Dos Cuerpos Menos, some unpublished, followed by the English translation produced by Schauss and a short discussion of the philosophical and personal ramifications of the translation process itself.

Friday morning began with six talks across two panels. One panel focused on such ethical topics as the relation of ethics to literary character and subjectivity, the relation of literary history and politics, and the possibility of forming ethical positions from literary narratives. The other panel featured three talks on, respectively, the possibility of fully representing tragedy and violence in the novel, Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia as an example of a narrative of care, and with the limitations of Derrida’s concept of limitrophy to understand the complex limits between human and animals.

This was followed by our first double keynote session, which hinged on the theme of ‘ethics’. Derek Attridge (York) delivered a talk entitled ‘Ethics, Reason, and the Conversion Experience’, which considered its topic with particular reference to the writings of J.M. Coetzee, contrasting the philosophical underpinnings of the idea of conversion to the more traditional conception of ethics as an argument-based endeavour. The second keynote speech by Constantine Sandis (Hertfordshire), ‘Neglect in Action & Action in Neglect: Ian McEwan’s The Children Act’ dealt with omissions and refrainings in McEwan’s novel. Omissions and refrainings are often seen as cases of absence of action, but Sandis suggested that we would do better to understand them as necessary aspects of a unified whole.

After lunch we continued with another pair of parallel sessions. One of them focused on the ethical significance of literary works’ detailed engagement with reality in the face of painful large-scale situations such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Holocaust and colonial oppression. The other session was structured around the theme of ‘attunement’, and featured talks on Cavell, Svevo, and Collingwood.

The academic side of the proceedings for the day was closed by a second double keynote session, on ‘tropes’, in which Anthony Ossa-Richardson (Southampton) asked ‘Is Ambiguity a Trope?’. This talk involved a foray into the history of ideas which examined the varying conceptions of ambiguity in different historical contexts. The philosophical side of the session was provided by Catherine Wearing (Wellesley College), whose talk Finding Meaning in Metaphor questioned the status of the thoughts which metaphor provokes, how we arrive at them, and how they are related to a metaphor’s more imagistic effect.

Saturday began with two more parallel sessions of three talks each. One panel developed the running theme of “ethics”, probably the most heavily represented in the conference, by tackling such subjects as poetic justice, the cultivation of loving attention and Iris Murdoch’s ideas on literature’s moral potential. The other parallel session tackled the structure of address in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the relationship between Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay’s novel Trumpet and the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy, and Chilean writer Juan Luis Martínez’s philosophical poetry as a ‘machine’ producing performative experimental writing.

Our final keynote session tackled the theme of “attunement”. Maximilian de Gaynesford (Reading) presented his case for a greater interaction between scholars interested in poetry and analytic aestheticians wishing to gain a richer understanding of the relationship between theorisation and real-world examples. Antonio Iannarone (Princeton), stood in for Claudia Brodsky (Princeton) to deliver her talk “Standing… a Chance”.

The afternoon was devoted to the final parallel session and a roundtable. One panel session was mainly concerned with the work of Samuel Beckett: the first talk focused on Beckett’s humour, the second attuned the work of Heidegger with Beckett’s, and the third asked what philosophy can tell us about modernism. The other panel session involved papers on the literary affiliations of a variety of philosophers including Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. The roundtable discussion featured all participants and attendees, and revolved around the complex nature of the interrelation not only of philosophy and literature, but between the various sub-fields which have developed within each.

Overall, the event allowed an enormous variety of perspectives to be heard on issues which concern all those working in these two branches of the humanities, and to develop many new conversations across a barrier that, we hope, is becoming a little less barrier-like also thanks to our collective efforts. The generous support of the British Society of Aesthetics, compounded with a smaller grant from Warwick’s Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts, allowed us to cover travel and accommodation expenses for our six keynote speakers, to provide travel bursaries for ten participants, most of them postgraduates or coming from abroad, and to partly cover other scattered expenses related to practical aspects of the organisation such as catering. We followed the BPA/SWIP guidelines as far as possible, so that the gender ratio of the conference participants was close to 50:50. Special thanks go to Eileen John, who helped us with several aspects of the organisation, and to Maria-Silvia Cohut, who agreed to deliver the paper of a participant who could not make it to the conference due to a cancelled flight. Plans for a publication or series of publications arising from the conference are being considered, and in any case we look forward to developing the new relationships and ideas that resulted from these two intense days.