Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rhetorics of Plague: Early / Modern Trajectories of Biohazard CFP


Rhetorics of Plague: Early / Modern Trajectories of

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

Call for Proposals

The threat of biological catastrophe—including that by
AIDS, ebola, irreversible global warming, 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 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
sources—such as China or the Middle East—that may have
challenged European models of pandemic explanation,
particularly as they have undergirded imperial

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

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
• Robert Markley, Professor and Romano Professorial
Scholar, University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, on
ecological disaster and disease in 18th-century

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

• 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.


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