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

Thursday, November 1, 2018 - 9:00am
Butler Library, 5th floor, room 523
Event Category: 

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

Columbia University, New York City, November 1-2 (Thursday/Friday), 2018

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, M H. Abrams' The Mirror and the Lamp (1953), Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953) and Ian Watts’s The Rise of the Novel (1957); 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).

These were ambitious and erudite books that 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 into various languages, and appear on the syllabi of undergraduate classes -- not infrequently assigned by the very scholars who made their reputations challenging these works. They persist because no new narrative of comparative sweep and power has replaced them, and because pedagogy thrives on grand narratives. But these texts are not yet classics; instead, they dwell in the twilight zone between primary and secondary sources, not yet considered keys to a bygone era, but distinctly dated.

This conference is devoted to these texts in diverse disciplines across the human sciences. We would like each participant to nominate an undead text for consideration and then to work with other participants to assemble a canon of the undead that might serve as the basis for a syllabus for a course in the history of the humanities and social sciences since World War II.



Brooke Holmes (Princeton)

Text: Bruno Snell, The Discovery of Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought (German 1946; English trans. 1953)

Media Studies

Stephen Best (Berkeley)

Text: Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (1982)


James Conant (University of Chicago)

Text: C. I. Lewis’s Mind and the World Order: Outline of a Theory of Knowledge (1929)

Political/cultural history

Manu Goswami

Text: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983)

Intellectual History

Joel Isaac (Cambridge University)

Text: Suzanne Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason (1941)

French and Francophone Studies

Laurent Dubois (Duke University)

Text: Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944)

Gender Studies:

Sharon Marcus (Columbia University)

Text: Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (French 1949; English trans. 1953)

American and Latin American Studies

Kristen Gruesz (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Text: Edmundo O’Gorman, The Invention of America (1958)


Shamus Khan (Columbia University)

Text: Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959)

History of Science

Lorraine Daston (MPIWG/University of Chicago)

Text: Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)

Caitlin Zaloom (New York University)

Text: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (1966)

History of Religion

Laurie Patton (Middlebury College)

Text: Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (1957)

English Literature and Literary Theory

Caroline Levine (Cornell University)

Text: Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (1977)

Linguistics and Literature

Richard So (McGill University)

Text: Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics”