ProvAth Academy: Literature & the Other
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ProvAth Academy: Literature & the Other

ProvAth Academy: Literature & the Other

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The Providence Athenæum

251 Benefit Street

Providence, RI 02903

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We live at a time when fear of the Other stamps much of our politics (and nightmares): the threats of terrorism; the spectacle of old tribal hatreds and suspicions pitting one group against another, along racial and/or religious lines, whether it be Ferguson, Missouri or Sunni-Shia conflicts in the Middle East, or fears that our borders no longer protect us or keep us safe.

We know that History instructs us about such turmoil and dissension throughout the ages. So, too, does Literature. But whereas the historical record makes visible to us what actually happened, the literary depiction often has its sights on the psychological and ideological forces that both underlie and govern so much of our thinking and feeling, often without our being aware of it; art brings this occulted material to visibility, and it therefore both widens and deepens our optic on human behavior. At its most intense and intimate, literature helps us discover who we ourselves are, or might become. Could Othering be a strategic component of Identity itself?

In these four sessions, we will examine a series of texts drawn from the Renaissance to our own time (Shakespeare, Melville, Kafka, Coetzee). Each is the site of conflict, indeed internecine war. Each shines its beam on the roiling forces that seed prejudice and hatred, and each reminds us just how easy it is – and has been throughout history – to ‘exit the Human.’ Exiting the Human is no science fiction concept: it is the elemental – sometimes quotidian, sometimes invisible – violence done to Others when they are deemed no longer ‘human.’

Sessions

Saturday, February 4, 10am-12pm
Shakespeare’s Othello
We begin with a general discussion of the text with emphasis on modern concerns, such as city anarchy, racial and sexual violence, and especially Iago’s plot to turn Othello into the beast he becomes, which hinges on Othello’s latent insecurity as Moor-in-Venice – an insecurity Iago brilliantly understands and exploits to the hilt. Desdemona, too often seen as quasi-Victorian maiden, is a feisty woman who will not be trapped by the conventions of her day: she accepts only Othello but also her sexuality and freedom, and she dies for it. The ‘trip from Venice to Cypress’ will be looked at as the key figurative trajectory on show in the exact center of the play, Act III, Scene 3, for it shows us how Iago succeeds in ‘transforming’ Othello and riddling him with self-doubt. Finally, we will consider the question of self-knowledge, traditionally posited as tragic requirement, but arguable here. Does Othello take the measure of his actions? Do we?


Saturday, February 11, 10am-12pm
Melville’s “Benito Cereno”
“Benito Cereno” (1855) is arguably the most brilliant and under-recognized narrative about Race and role-playing in mid 19th century American literature; Melville’s enlists, as is typical of him, ‘innocence’ as his ‘lens’ for telling the who-dunnit story he has in mind (based on a real incident). Written before the Civil War, this story hinges on a view of both Africans and the debate on slavery in 1850s, with reference to other events and figures, including Toussaint l’Ouverture and Nat Turner. Like Moby Dick, “Cereno” is larded with factual, indeed documentary, information, yet it dazzles us even more because of its brilliant notion of ‘play-acting’ as the key to the text. Melville’s loaded triad of American captain, Spanish nobleman, and African slave complicates all notions of easy judgment. In the final analysis, this story is about the workings of power, and it illustrates the modern precept that subjectivity itself is ‘constructed.’


Saturday, February 18, 10am-12pm
Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and “In the Penal Colony”
The first story, about a man transformed into insect, is the canonical version of ‘othering,’ and it speaks to the frightening ease with which one can ‘exit the human’ (as Deleuze and Guattari put it); the myriad ways the story can be read: artist parable, Christ story, schlemiel, etc. We soon realize that there are many metamorphoses in play in this severe yet funny text, and it delivers an unforgettable picture of family relationships. The second story, less well known, is a grim but fascinating parable about the nature not only of justice and penal systems – a topic much on our minds today – but also about language and the body; it will be seen that the story has distinct religious overtones, and that it stages the most elemental drama in human experience: how we understand. Finally, we will recognize in both stories a radical view of knowing as metamorphosis: it is worth considering just how scary such a model might be.


Saturday, February 25, 10am-12pm
Coetzee’s Disgrace
It can be argued that Disgrace stands in relation to our time as King Lear does to its time. It contains a veritable Pandora’s box of topical issues: sexual abuse, racial abuse, violence of many stripes, the sins of Colonialism, and the ‘necessity of making friends with Death,’ as Freud memorably said of Lear. One’s view of this bristling text hinges a great deal on one’s age and gender, as anyone who has taught it has come to realize. Yet, the novel reaches even beyond its engagement with the colonialist legacies in Africa; as its title suggests, this story illustrates remarkable views of ‘grace’ and ‘disgrace’; finally, it is worth noting that Coetzee is a passionate ‘animal rights’ person, and that also shows in this spare narrative: borrowing again from Lear, Coetzee also testifies to the reality of ‘bare fork’d animals’ as ground zero, yet he does so in shockingly non-metaphoric ways; here might be the ethical payload of this novel.

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