Our Hold on the World: Bodies in Community

What do we as members of a community owe each other? How do we balance our responsibilities to ourselves with our responsibilities to others? If we all seek to be part of a community where we trust and care for each other, why is this so elusive?

This seminar will examine these questions through the lens of that creation both endlessly fragile and resilient, the body. From birth to death it is our interface with the world and with our own deepest selves. For all of us, the body is constantly changing. How it works and what it looks like determine so much of our experience.

We’ll read modern British and American classics, including novels by Nobel Prize winners Kazuo Ishiguro (2017) and Toni Morrison (1993) and a short story by Flannery O’Connor. These works are peopled by characters whose bodies are especially vulnerable: the wounded, emotionally isolated Hulga of O’Connor’s “Good Country People”; an Alzheimer’s patient and her family in Martin Shoemaker’s “Today I Am Paul”; the students of Hailsham, a British boarding school with a troubling purpose, in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; and, in Morrison’s Beloved, a reconstituted community of free people who once suffered together as slaves. Through these works we’ll look at how and when bodily illness and vulnerability is thought of as a collective responsibility, and how and when it is conceived of as individual. We will also consider what it’s like when particular bodies end up carrying the burden of community-wide vulnerability or trauma. What are the powers and limits of community to help shoulder that burden? As advances in medical science and artificial intelligence change our sense of what a human body is, how will our relationships to our own communities shift?



Emanuelle Burton teaches and writes at the intersection of literature, ethics, and the history of ideas. She is the organizer of Transformations of Canon, which brings together experts in religion and fandom to think about narrative transformations of canonical texts, and she is working with computer scientists on a science fiction–based ethics curriculum. She is writing a book on Aristotelian moral development in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Books and Stories

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
(Vintage (US)/Random House (CA), 2006)
ISBN-13: 978-1400078776

Beloved by Toni Morrison
(Vintage (US)/Knopf Doubleday (CA), 2004)
ISBN-13: 978-1400033416

“Good Country People” by Flannery O’Connor
part of A Good Man Is Hard to Find
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 2013 or 1977)
ISBN-13: 978-0156364652

“Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker
Available on Clarkesworld Magazine

Participants are required to obtain the specified edition to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion. Details will be provided at registration.


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