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Genre, Affect and Authority in Early Modern Europe

Gentre, Affect and Authority in Early Modern Europe



11 -12 July 2013

School of Culture and Communication, The University of Melbourne

Conference Website for further information


This conference explores the struggle for political authority in early modern Europe through the creation and development of such influential media as public pamphleteering, anonymous libels and permanent popular playhouses. From the Protestant Revolution to the Glorious Revolution, the terms and technologies of political struggle are radically transformed, from late medieval disputes to recognisably modern debates. Recent scholarship has returned to the proliferation and cross-grafting of genres in early modern Europe, re-examining the very familiar (for example, Elizabethan-Jacobean tragedy and comedy), as well as the lesser-known (for example, the heroic drama of the Restoration stage). Such studies have shown how these genres emerge as partial responses to contemporaneous political, religious and media developments. Hence we see real political struggles for domination taken up as generic forces; for instance, in the anonymous libels of the period. We also see the five-act structure of new drama as not only a revivification of classical modes, but as tied to the efficient stage-management of permanent playhouses; for instance, as in the mnemotechnics and directions of Shakespeare plays. These new genres do not only emerge as symbolic responses to real political problems, but become forces of problem-creation in their own right. In doing so, they provoke, channel and modify affect, often even being directed towards the confection and control of certain emotions. The problem of authority - of symbolic authority, of authorization, of authorship - thereby receives a new and decisive impetus in early modern Europe. This conference will examine the relationships between genre, affect and authority in their historical context, as well as the continuing import that these early modern developments have for us today.

Keynote Speakers

Ian Donaldson
Emeritus Professor, School of Culture and Communication, The Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne

Title: Finding it all ridiculous: Subverting genre in early modern England

Each of the major literary genres in early modern England is precariously sustained through a web of conventions that an unfriendly critic, or a radical innovator, might choose to portray as ridiculous. Ridiculing the conventions - mocking the basic terms upon which a literary work is conceived, elaborated, and enjoyed - may often serve to discredit one form of writing and open the way for another. Yet at times this tactic backfires, and the ridiculer himself may appear ridiculous. This paper will look at the way in which two genres in particular were subjected to ridicule in early modern England: romantic comedy and heroic tragedy; focusing in particular on the strategies employed by two writers ambitious to challenge literary authority: Ben Jonson and Henry Fielding.

James Simpson
Donald P. and Katherine B. Loker Professor of English, Chair Department of English, Harvard University

Title: Taking Liberties: The Singularization of Liberty in Early English Modernity

We all stand by the promise of Liberty. Just as Liberty liberates us from oppressive pasts, so too, however, can actions justified by appeals to Liberty provoke oppressions of their own. In this lecture I look to Liberty's revolutionary genealogy, and in particular to her singularization. I trace the crucial shift from liberties to Liberty in early modern England, and see that our singularization of Liberty is premised on the revived notion of slavery. The seventeenth-century English revolutionary and poet John Milton will serve as the most revealing and conflicted instance of the shift from plural liberties to singular Liberty.

For any enquiries please contact:
Dr. Justin Clemens : (clemens@unimelb.edu.au) or
Anna Cordner: (cordnera@unimelb.edu.au )

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