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CALL. 03.02.2017: Trifling Matters: Nugatory Poetics and Comic Seriousness - Exeter (England)


FECHA LÍMITE/DEADLINE/SCADENZA: 22/01/2017 [deadline extended]: 03/02/2017


LUGAR/LOCATION/LUOGO: University of Exeter (Exeter, England)


INFO: - -


The defence of a comment that causes injury or offence with the response "it's just a joke" is commonplace and widespread. In a sense, it is derived from, or a development of, the plea made in antiquity towards the freedom of speech granted at certain religious festivals (i.e. παρρησία or licentia). How problematic, however, are such claims? Is a joke really ever just a joke? Part of the difficulty lies in the traditionally marginal position of genres that employ jokes and humour. Whether categorized asnugae or παίγνια (with its associations of inconsequential play), ancient authors had a set of terms that could be used to sideline a work as bad or "non-serious", or define their own work as reveling in such an estimation. Most strikingly of all, these texts can even use their inherent self-deprecation to insist (however paradoxically) a level of (self-)importance and relevance at the expense of traditional Great Works.

Our conference seeks to explore this innate tension within nugatory works in Graeco-Roman literature and their reception, and to examine what it means to write (and read) the comic seriously. So when Catullus, Martial, or Persius (for instance) describe their work as little more than trifling matters, are they actually signaling that trifling matters, that the nugatory somehow bears significance? Similarly, when Dicaeopolis claims that even comedy knows what is just (τὸ γὰρ δίκαιον οἶδε καὶ τρυγῳδία – Ar.Ach. 500), how paradoxical is this statement meant to appear and why? Scholars have long grappled with questions of "comic seriousness", with the frequent use of inverted commas marking our concerns at fulling committing to the idea that the comic can be serious at all. We aim to use a theoretically informed approach to humour and the construction of meaning to examine the broader concerns of nugatory literature across the full geographic and temporal range of our discipline. In particular, we seek to establish how trifling literature promotes itself, reveling in its own perceived frivolity, and how the comic reconstructs our view of the serious.

Those interested in the conference are encouraged to submit abstracts for thirty minute papers on, but not limited to, the following topics:

- The Nature of the Nugatory. What makes a text nugatory, and who makes that value judgement (is it the author, or someone else)? How do nugae destabilize the serious? Does destabilizing serious texts make nugatory texts unserious? Are nugatory poetics ‘bad’ poetry? With which techniques do nugatory texts revel in their own trifling nature?

- Generic and Political Contexts of nugae. How do nugatory texts subvert and reinforce the literary canon? How far does undermining textual authority interact with systems of political authority? Do nugatory poetics transcend cultural boundaries, or do certain socio-political atmospheres encourage them? How far do nugatory texts react to and reinforce narratives of political/generic decline, and should such narratives be avoided? Do nugatory texts encourage freedom of speech (simplicitas, parrhēsia)?

- Responses to the Nugatory. How does the concept of the nugatory develop, both over the course of classical antiquity and beyond it? How do nugatory and non-nugatory texts interact, if at all? How dependent are ‘serious’genres like history and tragedy upon the nugatory? How has scholarship reacted to the nugatory?

Abstracts of up to 400 words are encouraged from academics and postgraduate researchers working on any aspect of the nugatory. Please send an anonymous abstract for your proposed paper as a PDF document to triflingmatters2017@gmail.comby the 22nd January 2017. For further information please contact the organizers: Sam Hayes ( and Paul Martin (

Triflers are most certainly welcome.

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