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Speaking Truth for Power: Writing, Reality, and the State in Medieval and Early Modern Islamic Literature and Criticism

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Organizer: Rob Ames

Co-Organizer: Paul Anderson

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This seminar aims to interrogate the relationship between power, the act of writing, and the representation of reality within pre-modern Islamic literatures (broadly conceived as writing produced prior to 1800 CE in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other languages of the Islamic world). We hope to pursue a variety of questions related to texts’ claims regarding their own ability to speak the truth, judgments of literature’s truth value in second-order criticism, and the boundaries of “the literary” as a category. These lines of questioning include:

What differences existed in the levels of favor afforded different genres of writing at different courts?

To what extent did this favor correlate with claims on behalf of those genres’ ability to represent the real?

How comparable were the assessments of the truth value of literary and non-literary writing?

Questions that could follow the first might include:

By what standards might we measure such favor?

If we are to assume that demand for literary production was driven largely by royal courts (as, for example, in the case of patron-client relations between royals and poets), in what ways might literature have either expressed or contested the power of royal courts?

What audiences outside of the court might we understand to have had sufficient influence to drive demand for literary production? How did these differ from court-favored genres, and in what ways may they have been understood to possess different capabilities to speak or represent truth?

Those that could follow the second may be:

What writing might audiences, courtly and otherwise, have regarded as especially capable of representing the real?

What were understood to be the legitimate use of literary devices? How closely, for example, was metaphor (majaz) expected to hew to reality (haqiqah)?

To what extent was the writing of history (ta’rikh) at pains to distinguish itself from more literary narrative forms like story-telling (naqqali) or epic poetry (hamasah)? What claims to truth did those and other literary genres make on their own behalf and in what terms did they make such claims? 

Those that could follow the third include:

How similar were the vocabularies of literary criticism and other prose genres? How, for example, was the majaz of literary theory related to the majaz of philosophy?

How might assessments of poetic language’s ability to “conjure” images and concepts be comparable to the claims about language and, specifically, written letters, in lettrism or occult philosophy?

In what ways might we be able to read apparently non-literary writing literarily, and what literary elements are most readily apparent in that writing? What might be the metaphorical content in pre-modern scientific or philosophical writing, for example?

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