Seminar: “From Life to Afterlives: Creative Re-presentation in the Premodern World"

Seminar Director: Alison Frazier, University of Texas, Austin

Across the pre-modern world, biography in all media focused largely on rulers, warrior heroes, and spiritual adepts. Such figures, historical or not, were understood to embody virtues worth preserving, admiring and, on occasion, imitating. Thus, the global phenomena of afterlives: creative re-presentations that aimed to secure the posthumous life, or life-effect, of the hero. The topic of afterlives encourages pursuit of a global and comparative pre-modernity that remains generously local, conceptually and theoretically astute, and disciplinarily diverse.

This seminar invites reflection on afterlives in their local and global contexts. Papers might focus on the historical artifacts themselves, their communities, their makers, or their users; trace sequential re-creations of artifacts in various media; theorize a global typology of the intersectionality or competing pressures expressed in local re-presentations. Contending as humans must with oblivion, the “Lives and Afterlives” seminar especially welcomes papers exploring pre-modern understandings as well as current theories of creation, communication, and reception.

The questions below aim to be suggestive, not limiting:

To preserve a memory entails intentional efforts: what socio-political structures lay behind the commemoration of royalty, warrior heroes, and spiritual adepts in the premodern world? In what circumstances might life-narratives move beyond the predictable mechanisms of elite imposition? How might gendered representations, for instance, have opened antinomian pathways? What were the circumstances and means of elite re-capture?

Public performance, spectacle, and ritual were typically part of the self-promotion and the later celebration of royalty, warrior heroes, and spiritual adepts. Such open-air theatricality—in many instances, predictably repeated—exposes the dilemma of the heroes’ multi-valence: when might celebrations be hi-jacked, re-directed, and turned to other local uses? 

Re-writing as a practice seems to encourage genre experimentation; the re-presentation of textual values in other media by definition opens the way for such experimentation. How might accounts that appear to foreground traditional representations also subvert them (and vice versa); to what extent does the change in genre promote subversion or hedge it off? How might we trace changes in audiences in concert with changes in authorship, whether anonymous, named, or pseudepigraphic? Might we be able to formulate historical hierarchies of re-presentations?

In their enclosed spaces, premodern classrooms often featured texts and exercises that explored the moral dilemmas of exemplary figures. This reliable braiding of education, exemplarity, and mimetic affect appears to be typical of global premodernity: is it in fact? Exemplarity in the classroom aimed to implant early lessons firmly. How might we trace and elaborate such cultural reproduction in re-writings?

This seminar seeks to represent a “global premodernity,” but the categories of analysis  pose obstacles. The “global” has neo-liberal implications, after all, and “premodernity” assumes a shared periodization. The focus on virtues similarly threatens to flatten analysis. What conceptual and theoretical stances might help us around, into, over, and through these challenges?

The seminar itself will be organized as a roundtable discussion at the 2019 Sewanee Medieval Colloquium, with papers pre-circulated. Applicants from all disciplines and geographical areas of study are warmly invited to participate. Please submit your abstract and CV by e-mail to medievalcolloquium@sewanee.edu by November 21, 2018, with the subject line, SEMINAR