“Does the Cliff Have a Face?” Plenary Talk by Paul Saint-Amour

Thursday, April 25, 2019
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM (ET)
VCAM VCAM 201 Media Production/Object Study Classroom
Event Type
Fernandez, Noemi
Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities

“Does the Cliff Have a Face?” Plenary Talk by Paul Saint-Amour
Thursday, April 25, 2019
4:30 p.m. in VCAM 201 

Part of “At Home in the World: Perspectives Ancient and Modern on a Changing Nature” Symposium

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 embedded in a cliff? 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 begins with two such encounters in nineteenth-century Britain, one in William Dyce’s painting Pegwell Bay: A Recollection of October 5th, 1858 (1858-6), the other in Thomas Hardy’s early novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873). How, I’ll ask, might fossils not only open a portal to deep time but also prompt, in the beholder, a profound ethical and affective disorientation in the present? And how, broadening out to recent fiction by Ben Lerner and Richard Powers, might we understand the human history of seeing faces in vegetable, mineral, and elemental worlds as something other than rank anthropocentrism—as an attempt to enter into a circuit of recognition and obligation with the nonhuman, even with the inorganic?

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