'A fearful sense': Ruskin's pathetic fallacy and the non-human world


A two-day international conference to take place on two consecutive days at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford, and The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, on 22 and 23 June 2017.

  • Day 1: Thursday 22 June, taking place at the Rothermere American Institute, Oxford. Free to all, but advance booking required. Please note that each day requires a separate booking.
  • Day 2: Friday 23 June, taking place at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Free to all, but advance booking required. Please note that each day requires a separate booking.

When John Ruskin met Ralph Waldo Emerson in Oxford in May 1873, he thought the American a puzzle, writing that he 'had a fearful sense of the whole being of him as a gentle cloud – intangible'. Envisaging Emerson as non-human, Ruskin reversed what he elsewhere cautioned poets against. In an 1856 essay in Modern Painters III, Ruskin warned against assigning human qualities to the non-human world. In framing a critique of what he called 'the pathetic fallacy', Ruskin was striving to preserve for humans a domain of their own. He was also arguably attempting to guarantee that the non-human world should receive the equal portion of good that is its due.

Ruskin's decree has new force in the context of recent theories of the Anthropocene, object-oriented ontology and humanity's impact on the non-human world. It also speaks to a rising interest in literary and art historical scholarly traditions of 'reading' and 'description'. How can we best describe the non-human world? We know that it is not us, but the way we observe and account for it is so clearly human. Do we need to retain the distinction between human and non-human in order to do justice to both sides? Or is the distinction itself the main problem? This two-day colloquium contemplates Ruskin’s significance for the transatlantic visual arts and literature, the arts of reading and description, and the fates of the human and non-human worlds.

Speakers include

Laura Marcus: Oxford
Branka Arsić: Columbia
Lloyd Pratt: Oxford
David Russell: Oxford
David Peters Corbett: The Courtauld Institute of Art
Stephen Best: UC Berkeley
John Plotz: Brandeis
Elisa Tamarkin: UC Berkeley
Helen Small: Oxford

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