Undead Texts: Grand Narratives and the History of the Human Sciences

November 1, 2018–November 2, 2018
All Day
Columbia University
Butler Library, Fifth Floor, Room 523
New York, NY 10027
Undead Texts: Grand Narratives and the History of the Human Sciences

Organizers: Sharon Marcus (Columbia University) and Lorraine Daston (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin/ University of Chicago)


They are the undead texts. Once they bestrode disciplines like colossi: assigned on every reading list, cited in almost every book and article, endlessly discussed and debated. They were often the only college texts students could recall decades after graduation; they recruited a whole generation of scholars to their respective fields. Most were composed between 1920 and 1970: in literary studies, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953); in the history and philosophy of science, Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962); in anthropology, Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Tabu (1966); in sociology, Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956); in gender studies, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.

These ambitious and erudite books covered many centuries and languages. They set forth big ideas and strong narratives. Those qualities made them vulnerable to specialist rebuttals; there is probably not a single claim in any of these texts that subsequent scholarship has not queried, criticized, or refuted. Yet no alternative has replaced them; instead, a multitude of more focused monographs must be assigned to cover the same territory. No accredited scholar still believes them, but no one escapes the spell they once cast.

These texts refuse to die. They have never been out of print, continue to be translated, and still appear on the syllabi of undergraduate classes — not infrequently assigned by the very scholars who made their reputations challenging them.

This conference will ask why. What qualities do these undead texts have in common? What accounts for their undying appeal? And what can these time capsules from another era illuminate about how we teach and pursue the human sciences today?



Thursday, November 1


9:00 am: Coffee


9:30 am: Welcome and introduction: Sharon Marcus and Lorraine Daston


9:45 am: Lorraine Daston (MPIWG/University of Chicago)
Text: Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)


10:30 am: Caitlin Zaloom (New York University)
Text: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)


11:15 am: Break


11:45 am: Richard So (McGill University)
Text: Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics” (1960)


12:30 pm: Lunch


2:00 pm: Brooke Holmes (Princeton)
Text: Bruno Snell, The Discovery of Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought (German 1946; English trans. 1953)


2:45 pm: Shamus Khan (Columbia University)
Text: Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)


3:30 pm: Break


4:00 pm: Caroline Levine (Cornell University)
Text: Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (1977)


7:00 pm: Dinner for speakers, details to be announced


Friday, November 2


9:30 am: Coffee


10:00 am: Sharon Marcus (Columbia University)
Text: Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (French 1949; English trans. 1953)


10:45 am: Laurie Patton (Middlebury College)
Text: Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (1957)


11:30 am: Break


11:45 am:  Stephen Best (Berkeley)
Text: Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982)


12:30 pm: Lunch


2:00 pm: Joel Isaac (Cambridge University)
Text: Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason (1941)


2:45 pm: Manu Goswami (New York University)
Text: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983)


3:30 pm: Break


4:00 pm: Kirsten Silva Gruesz (University of California, Santa Cruz)
Text: Edmundo O’Gorman, The Invention of America (1958)


4:45 pm: Closing discussion


End of conference c. 5:30 pm


Co-sponsored by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin and Columbia University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature, Department of Sociology, The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities, and Public Books.