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Discussion to generate 'questions, curiosities' about responsibility

October 22, 2008

The event title is intriguing – “Responsible? Schwarzeneggar, Libraries, Slaves, Insurance, Melville.”  The discussion is multi-faceted – arising primarily from the work of keynote speaker Eric Wertheimer in the cultural history of American insurance.

The presentation and a reception immediately following are scheduled Tuesday, Oct. 28, at Arizona State University’s West campus, the University Center Building (UCB) 240.  “Responsible?” takes place from 6-7:15 p.m., while the reception is scheduled from 7:15-8:30 p.m. It is free to the public.

Presented by Barrett, The Honors College, “Responsible?” speculates about the roles of academia, corporate America, and the political state in the work of public memory, according to Wertheimer, a professor of English and American studies in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

“Insurance, both as a historical and representational artifact, and as an object of historical research, teaches us how slippery the idea of responsibility can be,” says Wertheimer, whose 2006 book, “Underwriting: the Poetics of Insurance in America, 1722-1872 (Stanford University),” explores the cultural history of insurance in this country through the writings of five American authors of the 18th and 19th centuries – Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, Noah Webster, Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  “The history of insurance demonstrates that responsibility’s sources are tough to exhume and hard to disentangle; whatever its genesis and current incarnation, responsibility is difficult to fulfill.” 

The presentation’s intriguing title comes from the multi-faceted approach to the single topic of insurance.

“I draw on a diverse set of explanatory flashpoints,” says Wertheimer.  “I will be discussing the etymology of the word ‘whereas,’ as well as California’s recent attempt to hold present-day insurance companies accountable for their predecessors’ involvement in insuring slave cargoes, the suspicions of corporate archivists, and the fiction of Herman Melville.

“I argue that responsibility’s elusiveness is a product of the tensions built into the figure of the ‘socialized individual,’ whose every decision involves calculations and calibrations related to the various and obsessive measurements of inward gain and outward protection.”

In addition to “Underwriting,” Wertheimer authored “Imagined Empires: Incas, Aztecs, and the New World of American Literature,” (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and has published numerous articles on topics in early and nineteenth century American literature in American Literature, Early American Literature, Nineteenth Century Literature, and Arizona Quarterly. Wertheimer’s teaching and research interests encompass early- and nineteenth-century American literature and culture, cultural and literary theory, popular political discourses, new media, and poetry.

For additional information about “Responsible?” contact Barrett, The Honors College at (602) 543-3410.