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Poison and politics: toward a (pre-modern?) theory of community and communication

David Nirenberg, Institute for Advanced Study

September 20, 2022 · 4:30 pm7:00 pm · 219 Aaron Burr Hall

Program in Medieval Studies
Chalice of St. John
Chalice of St. John, Hans Memling, National Gallery of Art. (reverse), ca. 1470/5.

The first task in this talk will be to suggest, by drawing on linguistics, literary texts, myth and scripture, that in many pre-modern cultures poison, hypocrisy, politics, and communication were intimately related concepts. In these cultures, communication could be thought of as profoundly ambivalent, capable of both deceit and revelation. The dangers of this ambivalence were often imagined in terms of poison, and specialists in communicative action often represented as poisoners. Nirenberg will then focus on these dynamics in communicative acts claiming to establish or represent political order in the Middle Ages: on gifts and brides in Beowulf, on courtiers in Orderic Vitalis, John of Salisbury and Herbert of Bosham, on Italians in Webster’s Duchess of Malfi and Thomas Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveler. Finally, he will offer an example of how these pre-modern, pre-theoretical ways of imagining the dangers of communication and community became “critical theory” in modernity, using the example of Norbert Elias, and hinting at some implications for figurations of “being” and “seeming,” “transparency” and “conspiracy,” “hypocrisy” and “sincerity,” in our own hyper-mediatized present.

This talk will be held from 4:30 – 6:00 pm, followed by a Welcome Back Reception.

Please RSVP for this event here.

David Nirenberg (Institute for Advanced Study), IAS Director and Leon Levy Professor, is a historian and author, recognized for wide-ranging scholarship on the interaction of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. His research provides insight into discussions of racism, Anti-Semitism, and Christian-Muslim relations. At the University of Chicago, Nirenberg served as founding director of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, Dean of the Social Sciences, Executive Vice Provost, and Interim Dean of the Divinity School. Nirenberg is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Medieval Academy of America. His most recent book, co-authored with his father (Ricardo Nirenberg) is Uncountable: A Philosophical History of Number and Humanity from Antiquity to the Present, which seeks to understand the powers and limits of the sciences and the humanities. He is currently at work on a history of racial thought in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

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