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The Will before Psychoanalysis

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Organizer: Andrea Gadberry

Co-Organizer: Gerard Passannante

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Long before the emergence of a conceptual vocabulary that named the unconscious and its wishes—that adumbrated a modern subject’s desires, repetitions, and obsessions—there was a robust conversation about the faculty of the will: its powers, its vulnerabilities, their sources, and their bearing on experience. This seminar investigates willed and unwilled experiences across habits of feeling, vicissitudes in thought, and activities of the soul in literary and philosophical works prior to the advent of psychoanalysis.

How did pre- and early modern writers explain, justify, and conceptualize what we might identify today as apparently conscious decisions or choices, on the one hand, and as involuntary experiences of compulsion, obsession, and addiction, on the other? How did they rationalize and represent the mental experience of causality in religious, medical, and/or mechanical terms? What ideas of the subject emerge when such explanations conflict with, modify, or confuse each other? In what sense might willing or desire be understood as a kind of “force”—and how might we understand that force in connection to the other forces that bear upon the will, sometimes invisibly? When are justifications of the will or its wavering “symptoms” of desire, and how are these justifications shaped by and reflective of ideology? How did material histories, including lived experiences of gender, race, sexuality, and class, contribute to representations of the will’s power and its limits? How might more abstract psychologies and philosophies of the will, as well as the emergence of a secular language of desire and pathology, acknowledge, engage, or repress such histories?

Following Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s provocative claim that “So long as ‘free will’ has been hypostatized and charged with ethical value, for just so long has an equally hypostatized ‘compulsion’ had to be available as a counterstructure always internal to it, always requiring to be ejected from it,” we invite papers that examine these issues in materials that predate the emergence of psychoanalysis. How might such materials help us understand modern and more recent theoretical work on desire and its disavowals? We are interested in work from a wide range of geographies and theoretical orientations as we explore the intersection of cogitation and desire, self-possession and its absence, the feeling of (external and internal) necessity, and the workings of the will with and without a science of the soul.

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