Symposium on the Biological Turn in Literary Studies

Last month the Duke English Department and the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory hosted a symposium on “the biological turn in literary studies.” It was, from my perspective, an exciting and successful event, and will likely be of interest to many of us in the NGSC. It would be very difficult for me to do justice to the first-rate talks of the individual presenters in only a brief description; below I offer merely a round-up of the premises of the different talks, and I would encourage everyone to check out the linked videos for any (and all!) of those talks that catch your attention. My great thanks to Rob Mitchell and Nancy Armstrong for organizing the symposium, and to Davide Carozza and Stefan Waldschmidt for making the whole thing happen and for making the videos available to a wider public!

Friday’s event began with Warren Montag’s talk on the generative conflict within Locke’s political theorization of life, the fundamental “law of nature”—that of property—and the ownership of the body; and continued with Nancy Armstrong’s exposition of the structures of community in the early American novel and the figuration of the household as network hub rather than Lockean enclosure; Saturday began with Timothy Campbell’s nuanced effort to redirect our contemporary critical conversation about biopower away from a futurity inflected by fear and towards the alternative structural or narrative possibilities offered by comedy, gratitude, and Adorno’s notion of parataxis; continued with Rob Mitchell’s talk on how the increasingly complex character systems and the discursive expansion of free indirect discourse in 19th-century novels can be seen less as the result of a political imperative towards the expansion of a democratic political franchise, and more as an artifact of the logic of population’s differential description and regulation of human and non-human agents; Amanda Jo Goldstein’s fascinating talk on Herder, Erasmus Darwin, and the openness of the 18th-century biological and experimental physiological sciences to the logic of poetics; and concluded with Ian Duncan’s paper on the “Buffonian revolution” as precursor to the Foucault’s biological turn, and the epochal “conversion of the Enlightenment science of man into a conjectural philosophical anthropology, a natural history of man … [as] the human species.”

The original conference announcement–including the titles of each of the talks–is reprinted below. See the original site here: For a Youtube playlist including all talks and Q&A sessions, see:

The Biological Turn in Literary Studies

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault explains how the redefinition of life in terms of “biology” around 1800 not only implied that human beings were immersed in the natural world but also made that world of living beings intelligible in a radically new way. One could no longer look at living beings as instances of ideal forms or species; rather they had to be understood as participants in dynamic temporal processes. This amounted to a shift from concepts of stable form to concepts of dynamic formation, and from being to becoming. But Foucault’s account of “the biological turn” goes only so far in explaining why literate people agreed to imagine their world in these terms, especially since these terms were decidedly hostile to all the assumptions wrapped up in the concept of human exceptionalism.

Our shared premise is that if the biological sciences altered the terms for understanding life, then literature gave vitality to that theory by making nature newly intelligible as it expanded the human sensorium to accommodate these new terms, showed exactly how they modified human exceptionalism, and questioned whether it was valid, much less a good idea to do so.

Warren Montag (Literature, Occidental College), “‘The Common is of no Use’: Property and Life in Locke’s Second Treatise”

Nancy Armstrong (English, Duke University), “How American Novels Think in Biopolitical Terms”

Tim Campbell (Italian Studies, Cornell University), “Adorno’s Tatikos Technē: Parataxis, Gratitude, and Biopower”

Robert Mitchell (English, Duke University), “Biopolitics, Population, and the Nineteenth-Century Novel”

Amanda Jo Goldstein (English, Cornell University), “’We Want the Poetry of Life’: Physiology and Trope in Romantic Zoonomia”

Ian Duncan (English, University of California, Berkeley), “After Natural Man: Buffon, Rousseau, Kant, Herder”