We’ve just concluded the first meeting of our Minding the Modern reading group, having read the brief exordium in which Pfau lays out the broad arguments and stakes of the book. Attendance was good–more than I had expected–and we energetically discussed the exordium, from making sure that we understood Pfau’s terms and claims to speculating on their importance for the humanities at large, which Pfau explicitly underlines as a second concern for his book. Among other things, we talked about:
- Our understanding of nominalism and voluntarism, especially in the context of how, as Pfau argues, “theoretical inquiry and practical reason have terminally parted ways” (3).
- Different understandings of modernity, from Pfau’s own to others centered on ideology, economics, technology, historicity, etc.
- Pfau’s distinction between scientific and interpretive methods, especially in clarifying his understanding of empiricism as a “value-neutral” operation (4).
- Melancholy as either a “condition” of modernity or, by contrast, a willed or responsible act.
- The “subject” versus the “person,” the latter of which, David Ruderman recalled, Pfau favors as terminology.
- The close reading of Lorenzo Lotto’s Portrait of a Gentleman in his Study (above) as the opening move of Minding the Modern.
- How Pfau’s objective “to clarify the increasingly confused understanding of what role concepts play in humanistic inquiry, and what constitutes the ground or source of their authority” (4) rings in the context of professionalism, (inter)disciplinarity, and periodicity in literary studies.
All in all, we’re excited to get this adventure going. As our newest faculty member Jake Risinger proposed, we might also look to Pfau’s previous work on melancholy and moods to better understand how melancholy works in this diagnosis of modernity’s malaise. In closing, and in contradistinction to Pfau’s portrait of 16th century modernity, I offer the following portrait of 21st century modernity.