Seven Modes of Uncertainty: Townsend Book Chat with Namwali Serpell

Lecture | February 22 | 12-1 p.m. | Stephens Hall, Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall

 Townsend Center for the Humanities

Associate Professor of English Namwali Serpell’s research interests include the relationship between aesthetic reception, affect, and ethics in contemporary fiction and film.
Two ideas often taken for granted are, literature is rife with uncertainty and literature is good for us. But what is the relationship between literature’s capacity to unsettle, perplex, and bewilder us, and literature’s ethical value? To revive this question, Serpell proposes a return to William Empson’s groundbreaking work, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), which contends that literary uncertainty is crucial to ethics because it pushes us beyond the limits of our own experience.
Taking as case studies experimental novels by Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, Bret Easton Ellis, Ian McEwan, Elliot Perlman, Tom McCarthy, and Jonathan Safran Foer, Serpell suggests that literary uncertainty emerges from the reader’s shifting responses to structures of conflicting information.
To explain how these structures produce uncertainty, Serpell borrows from cognitive psychology the concept of affordance, which describes an object’s or environment’s potential uses and offers a new phenomenology of how we read uncertainty now.

After an introduction by Katie Fleishman (Ph.D. Candidate, English), Serpell will speak briefly about her book and then open the floor for discussion.

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 All Audiences