On Wednesday, April 13, at 5 p.m. PDT, Jennifer Jahner, Caltech professor of English, will continue the 2021–22 Watson Lecture season with "The Rhetoric of Chance in Times of Pandemic."
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted not only our daily patterns of life but also our habitual ways of thinking about safety, uncertainty, and risk at the personal and collective scales, Jahner notes. While the science we bring to this pandemic is new, the arguments we bring to questions of public health and uncertainty have ancient roots. Jahner's talk will explore the long history of thinking about chance, from the goddess Fortune of ancient epic to the modern rhetoric of personal risk.
"I've been especially struck over the last two years of the pandemic with what felt to me, at least initially, as a kind of disconnect between what we would think of as the science of the pandemic and the rhetoric of safety, certainty, vaccination, and anti-vaccination. … We essentially are still living in a kind of dual probabilistic world. One [way of thinking] has been shaped by the advent of probability theory from the 17th century forward. And the other is this very long, ancient discourse of what is, in fact, trustworthy. What does expert opinion tell you to do, what are the forms of rhetorical deliberation that allow us to make public health decisions or that affect our own personal reactions to data?"
Jahner's research spans the long histories of rhetoric, law, and natural philosophy, focusing on the European Middle Ages and its role in shaping our still-evolving understanding of rights, evidence, perception, and proof.
"At the advanced level I teach Chaucer, and premodern gender and sexuality, and I teach a medieval romance class," Jahner said in a recent interview. "Over the course of the pandemic, I developed a class on poetry and the struggle for justice that's more contemporary in its focus. We looked at contemporary poetry, usually written within the last 10 to sometimes 50 years, that's really engaged in direct ways with political upheaval. That was a really exciting course to develop and teach with a group of students and myself who are very much contending with all of the political and social and pandemic-related difficulties of the last couple years."
Jahner's first book, Literature and Law in the Era of Magna Carta (Oxford University Press, 2019), examines the grammatical and rhetorical training that informed constitutional thought in England at the beginnings of statutory law. It explores how poetry offered to law and its practitioners a powerful set of tools for conjuring theories of community, belonging, obligation, and injury.
Her current book project, Arts of Conjecture: Experimental and Literary Method in Later Medieval England, traces the early history of the experiment across the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. The project explores the place of experiments in literary manuscript production and suggests that poetry offered another means of testing the boundaries of experiential observation and prediction.
"Part of what drew me to this kind of work," Jahner said, "is that it took something that I knew how to do and said, ‘You have to start over from scratch and figure out what it means to read and understand a literary text.' The fact is that in the periods I study, because we're pre-printing press, everything that it survives has been handwritten by somebody. So, every text survives in a slightly different way in each iteration. And I just found that so exciting."
The 2021–2022 Watson Lectures are free, open to the public, and presented virtually one Wednesday per month at 5 p.m. at caltech.edu/watson. This lecture will also be held in person and open to the public.
Since 1922, the Earnest C. Watson Lectures have brought Caltech's most innovative scientific research to the public. The series is named for Earnest C. Watson, a professor of physics at Caltech from 1919 until 1959. Spotlighting a small selection of the pioneering research Caltech's professors are currently conducting, the Watson Lectures are geared toward a general audience as part of the Institute's ongoing commitment to benefiting the local community through education and outreach.
The Watson Lectures are part of the Caltech Signature Lecture Series, which offers a deep dive into the groundbreaking research and scientific breakthroughs at Caltech and JPL. For information, please visit events.caltech.edu.
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