Undead Texts are books once assigned on every reading list, cited in countless books and articles, endlessly discussed and debated. Although the authors of these works wore their learning lightly, the Undead Texts were intellectually ambitious and formidably erudite, drawing on a range of references that defied boundaries among disciplines, genres, epochs, and languages. Those qualities made them vulnerable to specialist rebuttals; almost every claim they made has been queried, criticized, or refuted by subsequent scholarship. No accredited academic still believes them. Yet these texts refuse to die. They have never been out of print, continue to be translated into multiple languages, and still appear on many undergraduate syllabi—sometimes assigned by the very scholars who made their reputations by challenging these works. In the current age of disciplinary definitions of scholarship, these scholarly but anti-disciplinary books have much to teach the very disciplines that scorn them.
Undead Texts and the Disciplines That Love to Hate Them
Lorraine Daston is director emerita at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and visiting professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. She has published widely on the history of probability, wonders, observation, objectivity, and scientific archives. Her latest book is Against Nature (2019).
Sharon Marcus is Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is a founder and editor in chief of Public Books and the author of Apartment Stories (1999). Her work on gender and sexuality includes the articles “Fighting Bodies, Fighting Words: A Theory and Politics of Rape Prevention” (1992) and “Queer Theory for Everyone” (2005) and the book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007). Her most recent book is The Drama of Celebrity (2019).
Lorraine Daston, Sharon Marcus; Undead Texts and the Disciplines That Love to Hate Them. Public Culture 1 May 2020; 32 (2 (91)): 349–354. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-8090110
Download citation file: