Colloquium: Milette Shamir

Date(s) - 02/22/2018
3:00 pm - 4:30 pm

4010 JFSB


The Humanities Center welcomes Milette Shamir, Department of English and American Studies at Tel Aviv University, as our Colloquium speaker on Thursday, February 22nd at 3:00 PM in 4010 JFSB.

Title: “Henry James and the Aesthetics of Dignity”

“Human dignity” scholarship (a booming industry over the past fifteen years) has so far concerned itself but little with either literary fiction or the nineteenth century. Tracing the foundations of human dignity to the enlightenment—especially to Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals–and focusing on dignity’s function as a keyword in 20th-century human-rights declarations and national constitutions (and now, increasingly, in US constitutional law), this scholarship has mostly been devoted to legal, ethical, and philosophical inquiries and advanced from the assumption that enlightenment dignity ideas (to borrow James Griffin’s words) “went into partial eclipse in the nineteenth century” before “it was brought back into full light” in the twentieth.

The project on which Dr. Shamir is currently embarking, however, is guided by the conviction, shared by other recent research, that nineteenth-century fiction has much to say about the elusive and multivalent concept that has become so dominant in legal and political theory today. Joseph Slaughter and Jeremy Waldron have each argued, for instance, that literary fiction has performed the necessary work of naturalizing and universalizing dignity to allow it to become “self evident” by the time of the U.N.’s Human Rights Declaration of 1948.  Shamir’s presentation will consider Henry James’ writing as especially revelatory of the process whereby dignity was expanded from social privilege to universal standard and recoded as innate worth. She speculates that the aesthetic conventions of James’ fiction contributed to the imagining of dignity as at once an internal and external quality, a value and a status, a moral principle and an aesthetic style.  These conventions help explain how a worth that we assume we “have” can simultaneously require dramatic demonstration and demand an exorbitant price.

Refreshments will be served.

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