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Rethinking Description in the Long 18th Century

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Organizer: Cynthia Vialle-Giancotti

Co-Organizer: Alexander Sherman

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Description has long been considered little more than a prolix rhetorical device: confused with ekphrasis, deprived of an autonomous status, it has been the subaltern of “narrative”. Yet descriptive practices were widespread in the early modern and Enlightenment periods, which harbor a rich, contradictory archive of descriptions. From the baroque descriptions of French 17th-century novels to the spartan worlds of early English novels, the descriptive drawings of microscopic objects to the totalizing encyclopedic project to describe the planet, description was a central representational issue. 

In recent decades, early modern and Enlightenment scholars have revealed the contribution made by description, not only as a tool for disseminating science and travels, but also as an active participant in the process of knowledge-making. Works such as John Bender and Michael Marrinan’s Regimes of Description, Joanna Stalnaker’s The Unfinished Enlightenment, Cynthia Wall’s The Prose of Things, and Christoph Schöch’s La Description Double, to name only a few, have attended to the specificity of description in different genres, media, and contexts. But much remains to be said about the interrelations of description’s modes. In The Science of Describing, for example, Brian Ogilvie has shown not only the centrality of description in establishing botany as a science, but also pointed to the interconnections and interdependence of descriptive practices across the Republic of Letters in the Renaissance. We continue to wonder about the networks of descriptive practices across changing forms of knowledge and representation in the long 18th century and about how studying description might change the way we think about these periods’ legacies. 

We would like to build on recent scholarship to inaugurate a more sustained comparative analysis of description as a cultural practice, hoping to turn this seminar into a synthetic discussion of description. We thus welcome both papers that are explicitly comparative--across languages, periods, contexts, genres, media--and those that focus on a specific instance of description, with the goal of putting that text in conversation with others.

Specific topics might include: the coherence of “Enlightenment description” as a concept; narrative uses of description; descriptions of bodies and objects; gendered representations; description and science; description as a colonial technology; description’s relationship to spatial extension, especially in travel and maritime literature; the relationship of 18th-century description to earlier and later periods; description in relation to changing social practices; the stability of description across contexts; broader histories and geographies of description; common ground between written description and other media; comparing receptions of description; studies of lists.

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