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Abstraction's Forms

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Organizer: Sam Fallon

Co-Organizer: Justin Sider

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Abstraction has long been a dirty word for literary critics, who tend to valorize the particular, the singular, the concrete. But criticism depends on general categories nonetheless, precisely because literature expresses itself through them. There are signs that literary studies is ready for a return to the question of abstraction, including the recent resurgence of interest in “form,” the ongoing debates over “scale,” and—most notably—the English Institute’s decision to make “Abstraction” the theme of its Fall 2019 meeting. What would a criticism that engages with abstraction and generalization, rather than avoiding or eliding them, look like? This seminar solicits papers that, in argument or approach, offer answers to this question, exploring modes of abstraction across theoretical schools, national cultures, and historical periods. What models for generalization and abstraction might we discover in different historical moments or cultural traditions? How do our critical categories in the present encounter and engage with alternative modes of abstraction (categories of genre, form, figure, etc.)? What relationship obtains between our critical abstractions and the particulars of the works we study? How are abstractions generated out of those particulars, and what utility can they have for literary study at large? Papers might directly address abstraction as a theoretical concern, or they might explore abstraction as an effect or condition of particular aesthetic modes (allegory), figures (metaphor), or genres (the lyric).

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