Rhetorics of the Plague

The University at Albany’s

Department of English
College of Arts and Sciences


Rhetorics of Plague:

Early / Modern Trajectories of Biohazard

February 26-27, 2009University at Albany
The Standish Room, Science Library Building
for details, time-table of events & locations click here.

Keynote Speakers:

Kathleen Biddick, Temple University

Graham Hammill, University at Buffalo

John Kelly, Visiting Writer

Robert Markley, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign


on Friday from 12:30-1:30 p.m. there will be


in the Standish Room:

“Contaminations”—A Performance Piece

With Pierre Joris, Tomás Urayoán Noel, Michael Peters, Chris Rizzo, Jackie Roberts


* * *

The threat of biological catastrophe—including that by AIDS, ebola, avian influenza, and species extinction—may seem the specific and daunting provenance of late 20th- and early 21st –century life, but it has in fact been a crucial part of history since ancient times.  It is important to remember, for instance, that starting in the 14th century and extending well into the 18th, the bubonic plague (as the Black Death) ultimately took the lives of at least 35% of the entire population in Europe, as well as nearly that much in central Asia, killing an estimated total of 75 million people.  Given these numbers, it could be argued that premodern and early modern cultures had even more at stake in articulating the role of plague—not to mention the related phenomena of cholera, syphilis, small pox, the so-called English Sweating Sickness, or extensive urban infestations, which are only a few of the shockwaves that preceded our own anxiety about spectacular biological disaster.  This symposium therefore proposes rethinking the connections among recent models, representations, or biocultures of biological threat and their counterparts in the pre- and early modern eras.

A focus on the “rhetorics” of plague highlights the ways in which biological danger becomes conceptually organized, ethically ordered, or socio-politically oriented by the discourses that represent it.  It also underscores the crossing or hybridization of discourses, such as the ways in which early views of medical pandemic, in the absence of a theory of germ contagion, could be linked to models of ecological or environmental dysfunction, or the manner in which disease of the body natural could metaphorize the maladies of the body politic.  Furthermore, in addition to accounting for the interrelated scientific, literary, or philosophical conventions invoked by such discourses, it is important to acknowledge that, like the biological volatility they describe, discourses about plague can undergo their own kind of exponential proliferation, producing a potential plague of rhetorics.  While such discourses may have predominantly originated in the metropolitan centers of Europe, there is also the need to account for their transformation or mutation when applied in non-Western or colonial contexts, as well as for the emergence of counter-discourses from non-European sources—such as China or the Middle East—that may have challenged European models of pandemic explanation, particularly as they have undergirded imperial ambitions.

(Visited 91 times, 1 visits today)

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *