Many have argued that the cultivation of a shared literary and moral imagination is vital in a flourishing democracy. And yet the study of literature, and the humanities at large, is no longer central in our educational institutions. While some blame pop-culture, a lack of funding, or technologies of distraction, others have looked within. In Lisa Ruddick’s groundbreaking essay, “When Nothing is Cool,” she argues that “decades of anti-humanist one-upmanship,” a general “thrill of destruction,” and a posture of radical critique, have resulted in a sweeping malaise of suspicion that now defines academic discourse. “Nothing in English is ‘cool,’” she says, but “on the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing.” Which begs the question, if nothing is cool, what can we celebrate, let alone enjoy?  

This question points to a culture of exhaustion that emerged simultaneously with the rise of postmodernism: Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, and Michel Foucault’s post-structuralist examinations of philosophy, history, and culture. In their wake, decades of academic research were built on critique for the sake of critique. But where postmodern critique was designed to undermine certain moral or cultural absolutes, today, critique itself has become its own absolute, and at times its own tyranny.  

In this one-day symposium, we will examine this landscape at the limits of hermeneutic suspicion, with the goal, as Ruddick suggests, of replenishing our intuitive reserves and our sense of a shared human journey. One path forward, according to philosopher Richard Kearney, would be to reimagine the sacred as a fundamental category of criticism, even for scholars and artists who do not think of themselves as explicitly religious. Looking to the work of 20th century atheists, agnostics, and apostates, like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust, Kearney illustrates how spiritual and moral impulses consistently inform the literary imagination. In a contemporary setting, the same impulses are voiced in the poetry of Fanny Howe, the late Mark Strand, and Adam Zagajewski, along with the novels of Elena Ferrante, Zadie Smith, George Saunders, and Michel Houellebecq.

On April 7, 2017, we warmly welcome both Ruddick and Kearney, along with literary critic Jon Baskin, poet G.C. Waldrep, and editor John Wilson, to help us reimagine the sacred, and the cool, and reconsider how the literary imagination trains us to live richer and more examined lives. 


9:30-10:00 am Guest Check-in & Coffee/Bakery

10:00-10:15 am Welcome & Opening Remarks

10:15-11:15 am Lisa Ruddick - Postmodern Critique and the Silencing of the Inner Teacher

11:15-11:30 am Break

11:30 am -12:30 pm Jon Baskin - Something Rather Than Nothing: From Critique to Commentary

12:30-1:30 pm Lunch Break (lunch provided onsite) 

1:45-2:45 pm G.C. Waldrep - On the Unveiling: Parable, Apocalypse, and Spiritual Practice

2:45-3:00 pm Break

3:00-4:15 pm All-speaker Forum/Panel, moderated by John Wilson

Evening Keynote: 

Free and open to the public. Register here.

6:30 pm Doors open for public lecture

7:00-8:30 pm Richard Kearney - Making With God: Anatheism, Imagination and the Sacred



Upper House

365 East Campus Mall, Suite 200 

Madison, WI 53715 



Conference Information

Robert L. Kehoe III

Writer-in-Residence & Program Curator at Upper House 

608.237.2929 ext. 105



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