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Seminar series explores the ethics of reading

Wednesdays, Feb. 3 to April 28, 2010, 4:30 to 6 p.m. 301 Marx Hall

Close reading, such as carefully unpacking the import of words in a poem, is the backbone of literary study. A new seminar series allows Princeton community members to apply this practice to a range of texts in law and the humanities while exploring its ethical implications.

Titled "The Ethics of Reading and the Cultures of Professionalism," the three-year seminar series is intended for scholars, students and local community members especially interested in the relation of the humanities to law and to professional training. The series is designed for participants to examine how different interpretations can arise and how reading itself can be understood as an ethical task.

The public session of the seminars is from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, Feb. 3 to April 28, in 301 Marx Hall. It will be followed by a session open only to graduate students and approved undergraduates enrolled for credit. Students enroll for each course of interest to them by semester; they do not enroll in the full series.

Peter Brooks and Bernadette Meyler

Peter Brooks (left), an eminent scholar of literature and law, leads "The Ethics of Reading and the Cultures of Professionalism" reading series with Bernadette Meyler, an associate professor of law at Cornell University who is the inaugural Mellon/LAPA Fellow in Law and Humanities at Princeton. (Photo: Brian Wilson)

The series was launched in spring 2009 by Peter Brooks, a scholar of literature and law, with the topic “Reading Law Reading.” For the current semester, the topic is religion, under the title "Church State Scripture."

The series is sponsored by the University Center for Human Values, the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program in Law and Public Affairs (LAPA), and is funded by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award.

Brooks joined the Princeton faculty in 2008 after nearly four decades at Yale University, where he was the Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature and the founding director of the Whitney Humanities Center. He also has taught at the law schools at Yale and the University of Virginia. At Princeton, Brooks is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholar in the University Center for Human Values and the Department of Comparative Literature.

Through the series, Brooks is offering a hands-on forum for "the dialogue or exchange of understandings about what a text means" and to develop, in a group setting, the skills of close reading when faced with texts from disciplines outside literary study.

"If you are a good critical reader of any text, you could become a good critical reader of all texts, as long as you've mastered the medium in which it is being presented," said Brooks.

While noting that Princeton does not have professional schools, Brooks said that "Princeton is very committed to the liberal arts and the close reading aesthetic" and that the "study of what we are doing and learning when we attend closely to textual language is a form of knowledge crucially important in the world now."

For Brooks, reading is an ethical undertaking because texts must be examined rigorously in order to be interpreted fully. "Being honest about what we mean is at the basis of everything," he said.

In fact, the idea for the series emerged from a question of integrity. Pointing to the Bush administration's "torture memos," Brooks said he was outraged by what he understood to be a "twisted and far-fetched interpretation" of the Geneva Conventions, as incorporated into U.S. law, regarding the interrogation of detainees.

"I began to ask myself if we in the interpretive humanities do in fact have something to teach to the professions and to professional schools," he said. "My working hypothesis is that we are trained ideally with a strict fidelity to the text."

It is this attentiveness to the text that Brooks is bringing to the seminar series. For "Church State Scripture," Brooks said participants will grapple with key questions such as "how do you read law in scripture and law derived from religion?

"In some cases it seems very obvious that there are sacred texts that are nothing but law," he said. "In other cases the law is derived from sacred texts. I'm interested in law with a capital 'L' as a system within which we live and the relation of that to religion."

Joining Brooks in leading the series is Bernadette Meyler, an associate professor of law at Cornell University who is the inaugural Mellon/LAPA Fellow in Law and Humanities at Princeton for 2009-10.

"I am excited to explore the manifold Islamic, Christian and Judaic traditions of interpretations while keeping in mind various approaches to legal texts," said Meyler. "I think we will discover a host of similarities between religious and legal interpretation and a set of subterranean — or perhaps more overt — influences that the practice of reading religious texts have had on legal interpretation."

Before each session, seminar participants are expected to read the assigned texts in preparation for a close reading of key passages as a group. The discussion is aided by the guidance of one or more guests well versed in the texts under review. Following the open exchange, the session is then confined to the enrolled students for presentations.

The readings for "Church State Scripture" include the Hebrew Bible, Gospels and Quran, and the traditions of interpretations and laws associated with them. It also will explore the relations between church and state in U.S. history and examine classic court cases to do with the interpretation of sacred symbols, such as wearing the veil in school or displaying the Ten Commandments in an Alabama courthouse. Literary and other texts are on the reading list as well, such as William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” and Sigmund Freud’s “Moses and Monotheism.” It also includes visual texts, notably Jaques Rivette's film version of Denis Diderot's "The Nun" and Alfred Hitchcock's "I Confess."

The roster of guests complement the range of texts. For example, on Feb. 17, Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion, will be participating in a session that focuses on readings of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, the sixth book of the New Testament. This will be followed by readings of the work of contemporary philosophers who have been reinterpreting Paul, specifically Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben.

Other seminar leaders include visitors from Yale and several law schools; and Princeton faculty members Eric Gregory and Leora Batnitsky, professors of religion; Jeff Dolven, an associate professor of English; Natasha Lee, an assistant professor of French and Italian; Aron Zysow, a senior research scholar in Near Eastern studies; and Mairaj Syed and Amin Venjara, both doctoral candidates in religion.

Venjara, who will discuss readings from the Quran, said that "as a student of Islam, I think the comparative lens of the seminar will not only highlight shared concerns, but also bring distinct strategies and approaches from each religious tradition into relief."

In spring 2011, Brooks anticipates exploring as a part of the series law in relation to psychology, psychoanalysis and concepts of human agency. The series will conclude with a major conference in the 2011-12 academic year and a publication.

More information about "The Ethics of Reading" and this semester's reading list is available on the seminar series website.

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