• Founded
  • Seminar Number

This interdisciplinary seminar hosts speakers ranging from established scholars to early-career researchers who present works-in-progress that explore and redefine eighteenth-century European culture. Our interests range from material culture to textual history, national traditions to colonial formations, historicist practice to theoretical investigation, and we therefore seek to query, expand, and innovate eighteenth-century studies. Like our guest speakers, our membership is drawn from a wide variety of institutions and disciplines: history, literature, philosophy, political science, music, history of science, and art, as well as national traditions. The Seminar’s offerings are varied in scope, and occasionally our Seminar hosts special events, such as a symposium on the intellectual origins of freedom of speech (2007, 2008) and a 50th anniversary retrospective of the Seminar (2014).  Recently our Seminar has hosted, in addition to full-length talks, roundtables on science studies (2011), comparative orientalisms (2011), the quantitative eighteenth century (2016), rediscovering race (2017), and human rights (2019).

Past Meetings

Professor Stephanie Insley Hershinow

Lilith Todd

Meeting Schedule

09/15/2022 Faculty House
5:00 PM
“The Road Back: The Revision and Republication of Black England."
Gretchen Gerzina,

10/20/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Jeremy Bentham on Queer Aesthetics
Carrie Shanafelt, Fairleigh Dickinson University


Over the course of his six-decade career as a legal theorist, Jeremy Bentham wrote hundreds of unpublished manuscript pages on the topic of sexual nonconformity. Around 1774, he theorized that same-sex intercourse is a matter of aesthetic difference and therefore not under the proper jurisdiction of the law except in situations of coercion or violence. By the 1810s, Bentham expanded his analysis of sexual nonconformity to epistemology, theology, literary criticism, and political theory, demonstrating that in each area, aesthetic disgust was used as a proxy for denying agency to sexual nonconformists, women, laborers, and colonized and enslaved persons. In this talk, Dr. Shanafelt argues that Bentham’s manuscripts on sexuality offer an important eighteenth-century precedent for identifying queer aesthetics as a necessary condition for widespread political liberation.

11/10/2022 Faculty House, Columbia University
7:00 PM
Sentiment Analysis and the Sentimental Novel
Andrew Franta, University of Utah


This essay asks what the emerging computational field of sentiment analysis can teach us about the sentimental novel. It argues that, despite humanistic skepticism about quantitative methods and sentiment analysis’s well-known limitations (in recognizing irony, for example), sentiment analysis can help us to better understand the sentimental novel and the form of the novel more broadly. The literary approach to computational analysis taken in this essay demonstrates the ability of sentiment analysis to link large-scale observations about text data to small-scale features of individual texts and reveals that the sentimental novel itself already constitutes an analytical tradition.

Sean Silver, Rutgers University

12/15/2022 Zoom
2:00 PM
Policing Male Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century Paris: An Interim Report on the Digital Liberal Arts (DLA) Project
Jeffrey Merrick, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


The police of Paris arrested thousands of men they generally called sodomites before and pederasts after 1750. Over the course of the eighteenth century different types of personnel produced different types of documents that provide different types of evidence about the subculture. More often than not the extant sources include first and last names (and sometimes nicknames), age, place of birth, occupation, and address, as well as details about sexual associates and activities and sometimes comments about identity and community.

Jennifer Golightly, Colorado College/University of Denver

Bryant “Tip” Ragan, Colorado College

01/19/2023 Faculty House / Columbia University
5:00 PM
Contextualizing Justice: John Locke & the Religious Debates over Slavery, Law, and Power in England and its Empire
Holly Brewer, University of Maryland


While Locke was briefly, at two separate points in his life, an administrator for Britain’s empire, his arguments and policy proposals usually lost, and dramatically so, at least until long after his death. My paper focuses on the origin and impact of Locke's last, and largely ignored work, which was explicitly religious. In the last two years of his life John Locke devoted himself to translating, interpreting, and contextualizing St. Paul’s Epistles from the Bible. Published after his death, in 1705, his 450-page treatise went through dozens of editions over the next century. It seems a puzzle: the preeminent theorist of reason and enlightenment devoted himself at the end to a painfully meticulous treatise on an obscure religious topic, one which became a runaway bestseller. He did so because justifications for both absolutism and slavery in Britain’s empire—especially and again under Queen Anne—relied on that section of the Bible. To decenter the powerful arguments he heard about the divine rights of kings and masters, his Two Treatises of Government was not enough: to paraphrase its 1689 preface “the principles of an advocate for slavery” were still “preached in every pulpit” in 1702. He sought to read St. Paul's words within a historical context, a context that delegitimized Paul’s strongest statements about the just powers of kings and masters, but that took such statements, and such ideas seriously. In the same way, scholars need to take Locke's last work seriously, and put him in the rich context of vibrant debates over slavery and absolutism in England’s seventeenth and early eighteenth century empire, debates that have echoes today. In a world where the king or queen was also personally in charge of both the slave trade and the Church of England, slavery and absolutism were intimately connected. Putting Locke’s ideas in context reveals not only his early cooperation with Charles II, but how his ideas developed over time into a multi-pronged critique of divine and hereditary right, whether of masters or kings. This paper builds on my article "Slavery, Sovereignty, and 'Inheritable Blood': Rethinking John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery" AHR 2017 which showed how and why Locke began to challenge absolutism and slavery, not only in theory but also as a practicing imperial official and politician. In the waning two years of his life, he turned to the Bible—then the ultimate source of hierarchy in church and state and even slavery—because he thought it most necessary to change the broader debates over justice. His last efforts had such a powerful impact-- that they precipitated a dramatic backlash.

02/13/2023 Zoom
12:00 PM
Making Empire: Needlework and the Atlantic World
Chloe Wigston Smith , University of York, UK


Making Empire: Needlework and the Atlantic World

This paper studies the entanglements between women's handicrafts and the Atlantic world. It looks at how maker's knowledge and material literacy intersected with broader political and cultural debates about saltwater slavery, abolition, and colonialism. The research for the paper draws on my current book project, which follows the Atlantic world imagery that found its way into the hands of women and girls in Britain and early America, in the objects they made, the books they held, and the stories they read. In focusing on the small, portable handicrafts of material and print culture, my paper studies a canvas relatively small in physical size and scale, but which brought the global into conversation with the domestic. The needleworks under discussion offer compelling evidence of the intricate and intimate relations between empire and manual, material work.

03/23/2023 Faculty House, Columbia University
5:00 PM
Kathleen Alves, Queensborough Community College

5:00 PM

Megan Peiser, Oakland University

Emily Spunaugle, Oakland University