Temporality and Natural History


Panel organizer: Timothy Sweet, Department of English, West Virginia University  tsweet@wvu.edu

Foucault claims that, until very late in the eighteenth century, it was “impossible for natural history to conceive of the history of nature” (Order of Things 5.vi).  Accordingly, natural history and associated genres such as the promotional tract or the manners-and-customs account conventionally rendered their objects in a timeless present.  Temporality, in this paradigm, functioned only to name discrete states of the taxonomic grid and identify its gaps.  Foucault posits an epistemic break at the turn of the nineteenth century, in which historicity is inserted into the conceptualization of living beings, thus producing the category of Life and the questions of its maintenance and conditions of existence.  This panel provides a forum in which to reconsider whether deployments of temporality in early American natural histories and associated genres accord with this epistemic break—and whether such a notion of an epistemic break is useful for literary-historical analysis.  Thus the panel also hopes to provide a meta-level of temporal analysis by reflecting on changes in the genre of natural history. 


Please send 250-word paper abstracts to Timothy Sweet at tsweet@wvu.edu by Friday, September 7, 2012.