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Erotic Entanglements: Forms and Structures of Desire in Premodern Persian Literature

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Organizer: Matthew Miller

Co-Organizer: Jane Mikkelson

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     Few concepts have dominated premodern Persian literature as much as love, eros, lust, passion, commitment - the many ideas and ideals of desire. Discourses on desire are spread across the generic spectrum. Legal theorists attempted to police the boundaries of its licit bodily actualization. Philosophers and theologians contemplated its metaphysical role and cosmological significance. Poets brought these theoretical treatments to life in their rich imaginal interpretations. And Sufis brought together amatory poetry and ritualized meditation on physical beauty (e.g., shāhid-bāzī) to form what we may even call a new mode of piety (rāh-i ‘ishq)—a “sacred eroticim” (to adopt Bataille’s term). This proliferation of discourses on desire is by no means uniform. While operating with certain shared assumptions, each of these discursive communities is internally diverse and often in conflict with others over issues as basic as the definitions, boundaries, and permissibility of different types of desire (e.g., shahvat, havā’, ‘ishq, mahabbat/hubb). 

      This seminar will explore these points of convergence and divergence, bringing to light possible approaches to recovering and analysing the many ways in which desire is defined, represented, structured, contested, and policed throughout the wide range of genres and systems of thought with which it is entangled. We will address such questions as: What are the genealogies of the central terms for desire in Persian, and how has this lexicon been established, defended, and contested? How does desire function as a structuring principle for thinking in literature? What are some of the methods, strategies, and benefits of centering the relationship between systematic thought and desire in what Angus Fletcher has called “noetics,” the critical study of thought as it unfolds within imaginative literature? If philosophical and theological theories of desire are embodied in ritual practices, literature, and everyday life, how are we to reconstruct these theories? How does desire define, inhabit, structure, inflect, and/or overlap with systems of thought – systems like theology, philosophy, theories of literature, hermeneutics, and practices of the self? What is the role of genre in the way in which different forms of desire are conceptualized and imagined? How do later audiences interpret, represent, transform, and/or obscure previous theoretical or literary “discourses” on desire? In what ways are discussions of desire inflected by gender?

Seminar participants will also be encouraged to articulate how their studies may impact larger theoretical debates in gender, sexuality, literary, and/or religious studies—especially if their conclusions call into question the dominant Euro-American perspectives in any of these fields.


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