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Thoreauvian Modernities

ENS de Lyon, 14-16 mai, 2009

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Organisateurs :

Avec la participation de l’École Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines (ENS de Lyon), l’université Lyon 2 (Conseil scientifique & faculté des langues), Institut des Amériques, CNRS (UMR 5611 LIRE), Conseil général du Rhône, Région Rhône-Alpes, Ville de Lyon, Ambassade des États-Unis.



Il s’agira pour les deux douzaines de chercheurs américains, européens et français qui présenteront des communications, de s’interroger sur les liens problématiques que Thoreau entretient avec la modernité de son époque, mais aussi celle des XXe et XXIe siècles.

La complexité de ses positions conduira à questionner la variété des facettes de sa pensée. Il est à la fois
– un grand prosateur de la « Renaissance américaine », aux formes innovantes ;
– un penseur politique qui s’est exprimé sur l’abolitionnisme, a proposé la « désobéissance civile » comme moyen d’action et appelé à une démocratie qui préserverait les droits de l’individu ;
– un critique véhément de la nouvelle économie de marché et du matérialisme américain ;
– un résistant à la tyrannie de l’opinion publique ;
– un amoureux de la nature en Nouvelle-Angleterre, mais aussi un naturaliste amateur fort réceptif à la théorie darwinienne de l’évolution, conscient de l’urgence des enjeux écologiques et précurseur de l’idée de protection de la nature.

English presentation

As one of the canonical authors of 19th century America, Thoreau has long been assumed to be an embodiment of the early literary modernity exemplified by the Transcendentalists. The overall purpose of this conference is to undertake a wide-ranging reconsideration of Thoreau’s relation to modernity—or, more pointedly, modernities : how do his thought and writings relate to both the literary, intellectual and political climate of his time, and to our own concerns in the 20th and 21st centuries ? Is Thoreau a literary modernist but an antimodern social thinker, for instance ? We would especially like to challenge the arguments that either univocally celebrate Thoreau as a forerunner of literary modernity, or vilify him as a prisoner to firmly entrenched racial and gender prejudices, and to assess Thoreau’s relation to modernity from an open perspective, so as to bring out as much of his complexity and continuing relevance as possible. Of course, raising the question of Thoreau’s relation to modernity will also lead to a consideration of his relation to postmodernity : to what extent is Thoreau amenable to postmodern readings ?

Considering Thoreauvian modernities will involve discussing such themes as Thoreau’s fascination for pre-modern worldviews, including mythologies, the proto-modernist dimension of his prose, and the various ways his works have been appropriated or rejected from diverse postmodernist perspectives. To this end, we hope to bring together scholars from a broad academic spectrum, from literary criticism to cultural studies, from history of science to political science. Close readings of Thoreau’s texts are particularly invited.

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to the following :

  • Was Thoreau decidedly antimodern, in the sense that modernity seemed to him to offer a vision not of hope but rather of economic, social and ecological disaster ? Is Thoreau’s critique of market economy a backward-looking, anxiety-ridden reaction to economic modernity, or a necessary counterweight to the all-encompassing rationalization of society generated by the industrial revolution ? Can his writings be regarded as a reflection of the cultural anxieties created by the « market revolution » and the « urban revolution » ? Was his main concern resistance to modernity’s policing and rationalization of difference, or a broader attempt at easing the tensions between the desire for individual self-fulfilment and the demands of a larger social order ? To what extent, or in what ways did Thoreau construct a modernity that could offer protection from the perceived threats of the modern ?
  • Regularly invoked by various social protesters throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, Thoreau’s notion of political resistance seems to emerge as one of his most decisive yet controversial contributions to modernity. While in the eyes of both many intellectuals of the antebellum period, and some contemporary campaigners and activists, the coercive actions of the state(s) were related to the prevalence of market interests, the parallels and differences call for closer scrutiny. To what extent did Thoreau resist the ideology of progress which was central to Manifest Destiny ? Was his political individualism a rejection of the characteristically modern notion of democratic representativity ?
  • From a more philosophical or epistemological perspective, we’d like to invite critical thinking about the way Thoreau suggests, anticipates or differs from central postmodernist tenets, such as openness, uncertainty, decentering and antiauthoritarianism. For instance, we may interrogate the ways in which Thoreau’s poetic language not only chose to resist rationalism as inherited from the Enlightenment, but captured or registered deep-seated instabilities or discrepancies.
  • Was Thoreau’s environmentalism modern or antimodern ?
  • Thoreau’s science was certainly placed at a turning point, when scientific pursuits increasingly became the preserve of professionals. Was Thoreau’s interest in science irremediably bound to boil down to old-fashioned amateurism, or did it harmonize with rising scientific concerns and expectations ?
  • Were his attitudes to race decidedly antimodern ? To what extent was Thoreau’s understanding of Indian cultures dominated by paradigms inherited from the Enlightenment ? How far did Thoreau move toward a genuine understanding of cultural difference ?


Thursday 14 May — Morning, ENS de Lyon

  • 11 h 30 Registration and Welcome
  • 12 h - 13 h 30 Lunch (ENS de Lyon)

Thursday 14 May — Afternoon, ENS de Lyon, Room F 08

  • 13 h 45 Welcome
  • 14 h Official Opening : Olivier Faron, Directeur de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences Humaines
  • 14 h 15 Opening Remarks : François Specq, Univ. of Lyon, ENS de Lyon
  • 14 h 20 Plenary Address : Laura Dassow Walls, University of South Carolina / Visiting Professor, ENS-LSH. "Walking West, Gazing East : Cosmopolitanism on the Shores of Cape Cod."

Chair : David Robinson

  • 15 h 00 • Dieter Schulz, Univ. of Heidelberg. "Knowledge, Faith, and the ‘Method’ of Thoreau’s Excursions."
  • 15 h 40 Coffee Break
  • 16 h • Henrik Otterberg, Univ. of Göteborg. "Character and Nature : Toward an Aristotelian Understanding of Thoreau’s Literary Portraits and Environmental Poetics."
  • 16 h 40 • Joseph Urbas, Univ. of Bordeaux 3. "’Being is the great explainer’ : Thoreau and the Ontological Turn in American Thought."
  • 17 h 20 • Isabelle Alfandary, Univ. of Lyon 2. "Thoreau and Nietzsche ?"
  • 19 h 00 Welcome Reception, Conseil Général du Rhône, Hôtel du Département (29-31 cours de la Liberté, 69483 Lyon — North Entrance, rue de Bonnel)

Friday 15 May — Morning, ENS-LSH, Room F 08

Chair : Dieter Schulz

  • 9 h • Kirsten Case, City University of New York. "Thoreau’s Radical Empiricism : The Kalendar, Pragmatism and Science."
  • 9 h 40 • François Specq, Univ. of Lyon, ENS-LSH. "In the Nature of Things ? The Poetics of Thoreau’s Journal and Postmodern Aesthetics."
  • 10 h 20 Coffee Break
  • 10 h 40 • William Rossi, University of Oregon. "Reading Thoreau’s Nonmodern Practice."
  • 11 h 20 • Michel Granger, Univ. of Lyon 2. "Antimodern Thoreau."
  • 12 h 15 - 13 h 45 Lunch (ENS-LSH)

Friday 15 May — Afternoon, ENS-LSH, Room F 08

Chair : Joel Myerson

  • 14 h • Randall Conrad, Boston. "An Infinite Road to the Golden Age : A Close Reading of Thoreau’s ‘Road – that old Carlisle one’ in the late Journal (24 Sept. 1859)."
  • 14 h 40 • David Dowling, Univ. of Iowa. "Henry Thoreau, Douglas Coupland and Postmodern Environmental Economics."
  • 15 h 20 • Jessie Bray Univ. of South Carolina. "’A more perfect Indian wisdom’ : Defying the Culture of Imperialism in Thoreau’s Indian Notebooks."
  • 16 h Coffee Break
  • 16 h 20 • Christian Maul, Univ. of Heidelberg. "Thoreau’s Concept of Individualism in the Light of Communitarian Theory."
  • 17 h • Steven Hartman, Univ. of Uppsala. "’In a way to kill old people’ : Thoreau, Progress and the 1960s Counterculture."
  • 17 h 40 • Yves Carlet, Univ. of Montpellier 3. "Life with Principle : Thoreau and Protest."
  • 20h Conference Dinner.

Saturday 16 May — Morning, Université Lyon 2, Amphithéâtre Laprade

  • 9 h Official Welcome : Nathalie Fournier, Vice-Présidente chargée de la recherche, Université Lyon 2.

Chair : William Rossi

  • 9 h 10 • Antonio Casado da Rocha, Univ. of San Sebastian. "A Subject for the Merest Prudence’ : Thoreau and Modern Medicine."
  • 9 h 50 • David Robinson, Oregon State University. "Thoreau, Natural History, and Modernity."
  • 10 h 30 Coffee Break
  • 10 h 50 • Tom Pughe, Univ. of Orléans. "’Brute Neighbors’ : Thoreau and Animality."
  • 11 h 30 • Michael Jonik, SUNY Albany. "’The maze of phenomena’- Thoreau’s Ecological Perception."
  • 12 h 15 - 13 h 45 Lunch

Saturday 16 May — Afternoon, Université Lyon 2, Amphithéâtre Laprade

Chair : Henrik Otterberg

  • 14 h • Ronald A. Bosco, SUNY Albany, and Joel Myerson, Univ. of South Carolina. "‘Making a World’ : Thoreau on Books and Reading."
  • 14 h 40 • Michel Imbert, Univ. of Paris 7. "’Tawny grammar,’ Words in the Wild ("Walking", Walden)."
  • 15 h 20 • Bruno Monfort, Univ. of Lille 3. "Archaic modernities : Nature, Science and Thoreau’s Work on Myth."
  • 16 h Informal Final Reception
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