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American Comparative Literature Association Conference

  • Utrecht Netherlands (map)

"From Socinian Divine Order to Bureaucratic Dread: The Afterlife of John Graunt in Leibniz, Defoe, and Kafka" on panel "Literatures of Heterodoxy and Cultural Change"

In times of crisis, obscure religious beliefs are often revived as technologies of cultural production. The Socinian Puritans in Early Modern England present one such case. Socinians held that truth was found by the use of critical reason alone, rather than clerical authority. The Christian calling was to assert God’s sovereignty by working to find the underlying order of things, reduced to core facts, to stave off the chaos of the world. John Graunt, Royal Society member and father of national statistics in Britain, grew up a Socinian during the mayhem of the English Civil War and experienced the traumatic Great Plague of 1666. To bring order to his unsettled time, Graunt organized plague death records into statistical tables and extrapolated timeless demographic principles from them in his seminal Bills of Mortality. Graunt’s legacy is twofold. Leibniz cites Graunt’s influence on his theories of bureaucratic state administration, whose recent afterlife in literary criticism includes media theorist Cornelia Vismann’s readings of Melville and Kafka. Graunt’s tables reappear as a literary device in Defoe’s 1722 novel Journal of the Plague Year. A Presbyterian dissenter suspicious of state administration as a threat to freedom of conscience, Defoe inverts Graunt’s intent, employing statistical tables to create a sense of inescapable dread. This use of Graunt’s work echoes in Kafka, too, in the hopelessness of facing a quasi-divine, inscrutable bureaucratic account of reality. (View the ACLA 2017 conference program)