The Ph.D. Program in History

at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York


01-07 Call for Papers- Private Languages in the Early Modern Era at Princeton University

The closing date for submissions is February 7th 2014.

According to some scholarly accounts, early modern societies would have been structured by a tense division between an “authentic public sphere” (Habermas) alongside a “private life” (Chartier), before the eventual collapse of this distinction at the turn of the French Revolution (Koselleck). However, this conventional divide between public and private life comes under question by those whose work challenges the private realm as a privileged methodological concept, if not questions the very possibility of such a category altogether, such as Michel Foucault’s suggestion that conceptions of privacy, interiority, and subjectivity are shaped by norms and power, or Ludwig Wittgenstein’s claim that “private languages” are impossible.

The critical interrogation of privacy is of course not recent, for the early modern era confronted the problem of privacy for a number of social, political, and cultural reasons. As some scholars observe, the Renaissance in Europe is a period during which many —whether it be the “Coquillars” thieves of Dijon France or the anonymous writers of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii— strove to create cryptic languages, private idioms, jargons, and obscure tongues that would allow those in-group users to communicate amongst themselves free of detection (Heller-Roazen).

From yet another angle, Jacques Rancière points out that the Aristotelian divide between comic and tragic genres —a distinction which held sway over early-modern sensibilities and theories of literature— also reflects a political division between those who own language (rights-bearing citizens) and those who are merely subjected to language (slaves, children, women, outsiders). This reveals yet another problem of privacy in the early modern era: namely that of gender and genre. For it is perhaps no coincidence that those considered to wield no explicit public power — for example, early modern “women writers”— were usually consigned to take up the so-called lower genres – i.e. the comic, the burlesque, novels, fairy tales – rather than the elevated genres of poetry and tragedy which treated the “grand” subjects of history and politics. One look at Furetière’s dictionary, for example, shows that “women,” “the elderly,” and “children” are distinctly predestined to less serious, “private” matters, in both life and writing, insofar as they lack any explicit “public” influence (Merlin-Kajman). In these terms, it would seem that norms of privacy are also implicated in shaping writerly sensibilities throughout the early modern era.

These are but some of the literary-historical and philosophical dimensions reflected in discussions of the private. How do we reconsider the public and the private in the wake of 20th-century and contemporary problematizations of the private? And how do early modern representations and theories of privacy resist contemporary conceptions and attitudes regarding privacy? Can privacy remain a fruitful conceptual category when considering the early modern era?
The Committee for the Renaissance and Early Modern Studies 2014 graduate conference welcomes interdisciplinary reflections on the private languages in the context of the early modern period. A list of possible topics includes:
representations of private bonds: friendship, parenthood, motherhood, etc…

  •  Gendered sensibilities and literature
  • Early modern, modern, and post-modern theories of privacy
  • Representations of childhood
  • Comic literature, notions of comic
  • Memoirs, letter-writing
  • Literary noble genres/lower genres: history, politics, tragedy/ memoirs, novels, novellas, comedy
  • Notions of subjectivity
  • Jargons, secret languages
  • Psychoanalytic conceptions of privacy


The conference will take place on April 18th 2014 at Princeton University.

Proposals of no more than 350 words, together with the name and institutional affiliation of the speaker, should be sent to

The closing date for submissions is February 7th 2014.