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In my teaching, I try to give students a sense of what makes the eighteenth century exciting and relevant to our historical moment, but I also want them to see how deeply alien it was. This was a period whose technologies, belief systems, and social structures were completely unlike those that construct the modern world. Part of why I love teaching eighteenth century texts is because of that electric contact with a way of thinking that is so emphatically not our own.

~Lynn Festa

 

Lynn Festa

The most recent addition to the Department of English faculty is Associate Professor Lynn Festa, who arrived in January 2008 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Previous to that appointment, Festa had taught for a number of years at Harvard University.

Professor Festa is a specialist in eighteenth century British and French literature, best known for her book, Sentimental Figures of Empire in Eighteenth-Century Britain and France. In this widely-praised study, she traces two developments central to modern life, which appear to have little to do with each other: colonialism and imperialism, and the culture of humanitarian sensibility. The relationship between them, Festa shows, is complex and profound. As the autonomy of the individual gained increasing credence during this period, people's heightened sense of self also heightened their sense of others' identities.

The more distant the others, the more available individuals became for sympathetic identification, the kind of emotional and virtual knowledge that flourishes in the absence of actual contact. But identification could also create a crisis of identity, in which the borders between self and other seemed in danger of dissolution and in need of rigorous reinforcement. This ambivalent dynamic of a culture in the throes of modernization, torn between individual and society, is the dynamic of sentimentalism, and it suffused, although in different ways, all levels of life in eighteenth century France and Britain.

With originality, force, and based on the evidence of a very diverse range of writings, Professor Festa shows that empire was, of all institutions, perhaps the most subtly and thoroughly dependent on the sentimental dynamic. In both fiction and reality, sense merged with sensibility. Identification with the suffering of distant strangers bred the pleasures of a pity that fed off the suffering it deplored. The empathetic defense of the victim could induce self-defense against the victim responsible for creating that vulnerability. Rapacious exploitation and violent conquest abroad became softened into moving spectacles detached, by their very emotional power, from the squalor of actuality. Festa's expertise in both national cultures deepens the plausibility of her readings, which are trenchant without being reductive.

Festa arrives at Rutgers University having won numerous awards, among them the James L. Clifford Prize for the best article of the year awarded by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies; fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the National Humanities Center; two teaching prizes at Harvard University; and numerous fellowships from Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she completed her undergraduate and graduate studies in comparative literature. We are extremely pleased that Professor Festa has joined our department.  

 


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