Faculty Working Group – Breakfast Meeting
To Face the Fossil
Paul K. Saint-Amour, Walter H. and Leonore C. Professor in the Humanities, University of Pennsylvania
Emmanuel Levinas, theorist of the face-to-face as the central ethical encounter, famously said “I don’t know if a snake has a face.” If not even a snake is possessed of ethical faciality, what about the fossil of a snake? Or the fossil of a trilobite? Yet as little as one might imagine being in a face-to-face ethical encounter with the permineralized remains of a millennia-dead member of an extinct species of Arthropod, such encounters have happened. This talk explores two such encounters in nineteenth-century Britain, one in a painting by a minor Pre-Raphaelite named William Dyce, the other in an early Thomas Hardy novel. How, I’ll ask, might fossils not only open a portal to deep time but also prompt, in the beholder, a profound ethical disorientation in the present?
Paul K. Saint-Amour is Walter H. and Leonore C. Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature. He wrote The Copywrights: Intellectual Property and the Literary Imagination (2003), which won the MLA Prize for a First Book. He edited the collection Modernism and Copyright (2011) and co-edits, with Jessica Berman, the Modernist Latitudes series at Columbia University Press. His latest book, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form(2015), won the Modernist Studies Book Prize and the MLA’s Matei Calinescu Award. His teaching and scholarship are now taking up questions of conflict, temporality, and scale in the environmental humanities.