Equinoxes 2015: Pleasure and Pain


April 3-4, 2015   |  Brown University   |   Providence, Rhode Island

Keynote: Cary Howie
Associate Professor of Romance Studies, Cornell University

As culturally transcendent as pleasure and pain might seem, the discourse surrounding these two sensations can vary widely depending on socio-historical context. With Equinoxes 2015, we propose to investigate the heterogeneity of these prima facie universal experiences as they appear throughout the various periods and mediums of cultural production within the French-speaking world.

From the Classicist emphasis on "plaire et instruire" to the sensualist thought of Condillac, according to whom all knowledge originates with the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure, the production of meaning in French and Francophone culture has, from its earliest stages, been bound to a pleasure/pain dichotomy. Our exploration of these concepts will touch upon concerns that are 1) ontological, 2) ethical, and 3) aesthetic in nature. In the first place, our conference hopes to analyze the diverse ways French thinkers have defined these terms, asking: what constitutes pleasure and pain, and ought we indeed view these concepts as two distinct categories, or rather as sometimes indistinguishable states along a continuous spectrum? In the second place, we shall explore the circumstances under which French thinkers have attributed ethical significance to pleasure and pain, and to whom (or what) these circumstances apply. In the third place, we will ask: in what ways can language ever hope to do justice to the feelings of pain and pleasure? What techniques have French letters adopted to (re)produce these states (potentially in the face of censorship), and how do these techniques differ across more visual or aural art forms?

Equinoxes encourages proposals from a variety of disciplines (French & Francophone Studies, Comparative Literature, History, Philosophy, Postcolonial Studies, Art History, Media & Cultural Studies, etc.). Potential avenues of exploration may include, but are not limited to:

  • Depictions of pain and pleasure in various artistic media
  • Aesthetic theories on the portrayal of pleasure and pain
  • The pleasure in artistic consumption/production
  • Love, desire, and sexuality
  • Empathy, sympathy, pity
  • Legitimizations/utilizations of suffering (i.e. questions regarding capital punishment, torture, war, etc.)
  • Questions regarding the body
  • Human and animal rights
  • Religious suffering (expiation, martyrdom, asceticism, etc.)
  • Materialism
  • Definitions of happiness
  • Libertinism
  • Questions of censorship
  • Catharsis
  • Pedagogical dimension of pleasure and/or pain ("plaire et instruire")
  • Theories regarding the senses