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How to Do Theory with Examples

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Organizer: Dylan Furcall

Co-Organizer: Alexander Lin

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Is an example something one finds or something one makes?

We often take for granted that writers passively find examples out in the world to provide a persuasive concreteness where theory feels insufficient or to show the particular applications of generalizations. However, these examples may in fact constitute “ruthless abstraction[s] disguised as a humble turning to the world” (T.J. Clark) and actively made by the author, as duplicitous promises of immediate access to reality. This panel is interested in taking seriously the tension between the deployment and the avoidance of examples – the process, rather than the concept, of exemplification – as a crucial dilemma in literary and critical writing. 

We welcome papers on authors, artists, and works across all periods and cultures that grapple with examples as problems – texts and artworks that expose and examine the operations of exemplification in their own media and incites us to rethink the use of examples in our own methodologies as critics. 

Intellectual history provides a useful impetus to this project of thinking examples. Since Aristotle's Rhetoric designated examples as “useful for persuasion, although they do not really demonstrate anything,” philosophers have taken firm positions on their proper role. Some diminish the example as a mere means of persuasion ill-suited for the writing of critical, structural insight (Kant), whereas others privilege it as necessary for the teaching of and investigation into concepts (late Wittgenstein). 

Another, more direct invitation and provocation to this experiment is art historian T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death. In this book-length essay that works through conceptual problems via detail-examples mostly from a single painting, Clark contends that “giving an example (a compelling example) is a theoretical exercise in itself, and maybe the most difficult.” Bracketing content and interpretation as such and focusing rather on the rhetorical forms and contradictions whereby the work stages its own relation to reality via examples, Clark's work of criticism itself serves as an exemplar for an immanent critique of exemplification.

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to: 

What notions of materiality, concreteness, or abstraction do uses of examples presuppose or produce?
What are the politics of giving and accepting examples in literature and theory?
How can we reread critics and theorists through their exemplification practices?
How do examples function and change across cultural translation?
What can the example as such accomplish that other forms of discourse or rhetoric cannot? What are its unique dangers?
What notions elude exemplification (e.g., the sublime, historical catastrophe, desire)?

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