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The Philology of Affect: Comparative Perspectives

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Organizer: Claudio Sansone

Co-Organizer: Sophus Helle

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In the first of what we hope will be a series of world-philological seminars—bringing together experts working on disparate cultures and languages—we want to explore the relation between philology and affect. We want to better understand how philological tools can elucidate the premodern history of emotions, and conversely, how the study of affect can throw new light on philological practices.


The workings of philology are often described in affective terms, such as nostalgia, desire for the ancient texts, frustration at their cruxes, the dispassionate detachment of “positivist” philology, despair at the dwindling status of the field, a romantic attachment to ruins, and so on. Indeed, affect is baked into the very name of the field, as philology means roughly “an attachment (philia) to discourse (logos).” But philology is above all a social practice, which reshapes texts through often intimate encounters between dedicated readers, and like all things social, philology is suffused by emotions. We propose that an attention to affect as a form of social emotion can help us study the structures of philology.


At the same time, we believe that philological tools are a crucial and overlooked resource in the study of emotions. Just like philology itself, emotions unfold in a messy interstice between the cultural and the material, the linguistic and the manual, the social and the idiosyncratic, the political and the accidental. Philologists are adept at tracking the reoccurrence of a word across an often enormous corpus, revealing variations and patterns within key emotional terms like the Sanskrit rasa, Akkadian ramû, or indeed, the philia of philology. But philologists are equally skilled at listening to the silences in the text, to the emotions left unsaid and maybe unsayable in our sources, which can be brought to light only through the obsessive attention to detail that is the hallmark of philology.


Crucially, moments of affect can be recovered not just in the contents of ancient texts, but also in their formal construction and historical context: their engagement with other texts, which may display anything from flippancy to anxiety; their indebtedness or resistance to tradition; their unease about the social circumstances in which they were created; their optimistic or despairing outlook on their own future circulation; and so on. The emotions that play out on the level of form and function, rather than being depicted directly within the text, are likewise prime material for philological investigation.


We invite contributions on the relation between philology and affect from a variety of angles and in any cultural, historical, literary, and linguistic contexts, and across philological specializations—including Sinology, Indology, Assyriology, Egyptology, Classics; Biblical, Islamic, Hebrew, Japanese, and Medieval studies. 

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