Benjamin VanWagoner

Ph.D. Candidate, Columbia University / Early Modern Drama

Early Modern Futures

A Conference at Columbia University       /      April 24th, 2014 

In conjunction with the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Early Modern Seminar

Butler Library, Columbia University

Butler Library, Columbia University

This year’s conference asks: how did early modern writers envision the future? Scholarship of early modern literature has paid ample attention to the many ways in which time was perceived and conceived, but frequently emphasizes retrospective forms of historical thinking, such as memory and nostalgia. Early Modern Futures seeks to spark a conversation about the many ways in which early modern literature also thought about where things were headed. How did beliefs about future events (from the eschatological to the economic to the genealogical) shape people’s actions in the present? How did early modernity understand the past in relation to the future? Moreover, how was prospective historical thinking practiced through various textual and literary forms? That is, how did records, scripts, manuals, genres, or editions represent the future or anticipate their own reception? How do the modes of early modern prospection--as suggested by terms like prophecy, speculation, and progression--point to different theorizations of futurity? How does present scholarship receive and use the past’s ideas about the future? This conference aims to establish early modernity’s uniquely literary means for projecting its future, and through this to advance scholarly debates about the role and forms of historicism in early modern culture.


Apocalypse Agriculture and the Collective Action Problem in Piers Plowman

Mediating the Sacred and Secular, University of Michigan       /       Feb. 20, 2014

Law Library, University of Michigan

Law Library, University of Michigan

Piers Plowman figures the cultivated plot—and the broader English agricultural system—as a productive space for secular and spiritual overlap. According to scholarly commonplace, agriculture merely forms an ostensible social framework for Langland’s incomplete poetics of apocalypse. Such theological-allegorical readings of the poem are unimpeachable in their own right, but they neglect the formal elements of the poem which allow it function as a pragmatic lesson on collective action subsistence farming in the long run. By my reading, some elements of Langland’s poem mesh secular and spiritual to make collective action plausible and spiritually tangible as an economically rational agricultural exhortation.


Ghost Ships: Concealing Maritime Communities on Shakespeare's Stage

NeMLA 46th Annual Convention, Toronto Ontario         /        Apr. 30th, 2014

On the early modern stage, the ship at sea is a site of urban disappearance continually in process.  For the witches in Macbeth, a ship repeatedly figures a paradoxical presence-that-is-also-vanishing: “Shall he dwindle, peak and pine: / Though his bark cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tost.” A ship wreathed in a tempest, as Shakespeare’s play of that name makes clear, is one on which community hierarchy is ever clearer and ever more meaningless: “Let’s all sink with the king.” Shakespeare’s sea and the ships that sail it, this paper argues, make tangible the erosion of urban order by staging maritime communities which figure their own disappearance.

Navigation, Anonymous, c. 1590 - c. 1596     -   Rijksmuseum

Navigation, Anonymous, c. 1590 - c. 1596     -   Rijksmuseum