Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Presentation without Representation: Religion, Literature, and Acting in the Abyss

Dr Saundra Morris, Dr. Carol White.

Drawing upon the epistemological insights of such poststructuralist philosophers of religion as Mark C. Taylor and Sharon Welch, we emphasize that when one asks about “thinking the shape of the future and the human” -- what this conference describes itself as doing -- one is compelled first to ask which human, in non-essentialized ways. We thus consider how we might interrogate the complex issue of who actually acts, and how one acts when one considers “humanity” and “subjectivity” as traces or shards, continually divided, alienated from themselves, always already split, never wholly grasped. In opposition to the substantial, naming, autonomous, self modeled on full presence, we posit images of the human constituted instead by its relations. Here, subjectivity is not comprised of isolated monads, but is inevitably reciprocally related -- situated amid multiple, fluid relations.
We then consider intersections between religious ethical mandates and aesthetic ones. To do that, we emphasize the importance of what we term a “politically ethical aesthetic” as it appears in the work of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. We emphasize that the conjunction of social/political justice and literary and natural beauty are at the heart of the texts of Thoreau and Emerson. We challenge readers to imagine our postmodern condition as leading us to understand ourselves as inevitably but also happily contingent, relational, and non-universalized subjects. Emerson and Thoreau’s texts, we maintain, demand beautiful politics (of justice and love) and of our aesthetics, ethical praxis.
Finally, we consider how we might, through our language and praxis, participate in the creation of more benevolent, just, and interconnected definitions of humanity and subjectivity. We suggest that the conception of a dispossessed subjectivity actually helps to dismantle the entire foundation of the economy of domination. The need to exclude the other or to protect the isolated self, we suggest, is diminished once one acknowledges the complex reciprocity of subjectivities or traces. We thus conclude by seeking ways a politically ethical aesthetic might inflect how we think about both philosophy of religion and literary studies in the twenty-first century, and about what calls to praxis such a mandate involves.


Dr Saundra Morris  (United States)
Associate Professor of English
Senior Fellow Social Justice College
Bucknell University

Saundra Morris is co-editor (with Joel Porte, Cornell University) of the Norton Critical Edition Emerson’s Prose and Poetry (2001) and The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1999), and has published essays for these and other publications. She has also held an appointment as the Stanley J. Kahrl Visiting Fellow in Literary Manuscripts at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. She is currently working on a book on Emerson’s poetry. Professor Morris’s areas of teaching specialization include American Romanticism, American poetry, theories of poetics, and social justice (race, class, gender, and sexual orientation).

Dr. Carol White  (United States)
Associate professor
Religion Department and Comparative Humanities Program
Bucknell University

  • Philosophy of religion
  • Literary studies
  • Contingent
  • Relational
  • Subjects
  • Politically ethical aesthetic
  • Destabilized and specified “human"
Person as Subject
  • Henry David Thoreau Ralph Waldo Emerson Mark C. Taylor Sharon Welch

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)