• Course Number: ENGL 197
  • Prerequisites:

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  • Quarter: Fall 2023

This seminar treats crisis as the historiographical name for moments in which a given status quo grows unstable of and threatens to dissolve the world, whether that world is imagined at the level of institutions, ideas, relationships, or individuals.  Arriving as the world ends, crises demand narrative and they engender frequently contradictory stories of supersession, birth, conservation, preservation, disappearance, messianic return, decay, loss, and renaissance.  In the face of crisis, these stories help us to understand an otherwise incomprehensible state of affairs but are themselves frequently afflicted by the uncertainty they struggle to resolve. Where Janet Roitman reminds us that the current rhetoric of crisis often presumes an “unspoken metaphysics” of history — that something has gone “wrong” in the unfolding of time but might go “right” instead — we will instead treats crisis as an occasion to witness the conflict between various regimes of explanation and practice, or within these regimes as a matter of internal contradiction or “exhaustion.”

Following from this account of crisis, we can identify several interrelated crises in England around the turn of the 17th century: the emergence of capitalism transforms relationships between human beings and the means of production; the Reformation transforms the relationship between people, the church(es), God, and the dead; increased urbanization transforms notions of labour, belonging, status, and “class”; claims of republican thought and “ancient liberty” begin to unsettle previously hegemonic accounts of sovereignty; the Little Ice Age inspires a “general crisis” in political legitimacy from Ireland to Japan (cf. Geoffrey Parker); the increasing institutionalization of scientific thought and the spread of materialist ideas throw “all in doubt” (to use Donne’s phrase); and so on.  All of these phenomena threaten a state of affairs that had seemed current and even “natural” in previous decades, and they provide an occasion to establish new norms which may — pace Raymond Williams — gradually ascend to prominence before growing being superseded themselves.

Crisis, as we’ll discuss, is also frequently characterized by a fraught temporality, tied to various models of history.  In this seminar, we will rely on familiar stories of teleological unfolding frequently identified as “modernization,” “secularization,” and “Enlightenment,” but will also explore various temporalities that identify loops, specters, premonitions, eruptions, and potential utopias in the historical record.  Crisis, in this sense, opens up both a variety of futures and a variety of pasts from which the present might imagine itself descended.  As often as the crisis leads to catastrophe — etymologically, καταστροϕή, the overturning and conclusion of a state of affairs —  it also opens the possibility of hope for futures that may be redeemed by lost pasts or novel futures.

This course deals with challenging material, and we will discuss matters such as suicide, misogyny, sexual violence, racism, and war.  Students will need to make their own decisions about whether they are willing to negotiate this material.  If you have any concerns about the material or requests for accommodations, I’m happy to discuss.


  • Schedule & Location
  • Day(s): tue thu
  • Time: 9:30 am–10:45 am
  • Location: SH 2617