Sunday, November 02, 2008

Rhetorics of Plague: Early / Modern Trajectories of Biohazard

A Symposium
University at Albany, SUNY
February 26-27, 2009

Call for Proposals

The threat of biological catastrophe—including that by AIDS, ebola, avian influenza, and species extinction—may seem the specific and daunting provenance of late 20th- and early 21st –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 plague—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 “rhetorics” 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 also underscores 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 sources—such as China or the Middle East—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:

Paper proposals (1-2 pages) should be sent to Professor Helene Scheck,, or Professor Richard Barney,, by no later than December 10, 2008.

Plenary Speakers:

  • Kathleen Biddick, Professor, Temple University, on plague, sovereignty, and 21st-century political theory
  • Graham Hammill, Associate Professor, University of Buffalo, on the biopolitics of disease during the 17th century
  • 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:
  • 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.
  • The aesthetics of infection; the poetics of contagion.
  • The multiplicity of diseases as generator for “plagues of rhetoric”—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.
  • The investment of medical or ecological models of pandemic thinking in juridical, legal, political, literary, social, educational, or other pre- and early modern domains.
  • 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 globalized contexts.
  • The function of counter-discourses of pandemic that emerged from non-Western sources—China, the Middle East, the South Pacific, etc.—in response to European scientific, political, or colonial efforts.
  • The insertion of theological, political, or sociological methodologies into scientific efforts to diagnose massive medical or ecological dysfunction.
  • Philosophy and/as pandemic.
  • The animal—e.g., the bird or rodent—as liminal figure of pandemic transportation or translation: as biological “other” and/or as ambiguous representative of anthropomorphized nature.
  • The transformation of authoritative theological or moral paradigms by emerging scientific analyses of pandemic or contagion.
  • The scientific empiricism of spiritual/moral depravity; the spiritualization of scientifically observed biological threat.
  • The literature of pandemic (e.g., Bocaccio’s Decameron, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year); the literary as pandemic (e.g., romance, the novel, “scribbling women,” Gothicism).
    “Modernity”—pre-, early, or post- —as vital historical threshold or suspect analytical crux for narrating the development of plague rhetorics.
  • The interpenetration of biology and culture—termed “bioculture” in a recent special issue of New Literary History (38.3 [Summer 2007])—as a peculiarly postmodern feature of biological threat, or an emergent pattern in pre- and early modern contexts.