November 2, 2012

Why are narratives so moral?

Why are narratives so moral? Fritz Breithaupt from the Germanic Studies department has organized a conference to address this complex question. 17 speakers, including professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students, will present their answers.

There will be two keynote speakers at this conference. One will open and the other will close. Both of these speakers are "really outstanding scholars who have made a name for themselves working on this topic,” said Breithaupt. 15 other locals were selected to present after a call for papers. The prompt asked people to simply submit a short answer to the question at hand: “Why are narratives so moral?” This question will be answered by people from many different disciplines and so will be approached from several different angles.

The topic is “incredibly rich and wide,” said Breithaupt. Presentations will consider evolutionary theories, why we developed the capability to tell stories, why it is good to have stories, how we use narratives as a way to evaluate ourselves, postmodern morality versus morality in previous generations, our impulses to assign "good" and "bad" to characters, and more.

Rather than come to an ultimate conclusion, the conference will provide 17 distinct conclusions. This is a funny conference in that it will allow the audience to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the presenter’s answer. Everyone in the audience will be provided with red and green Magic cards. If they agree with the presentation, they raise the green card at the end. If they disagree, they raise the red. “I expect to get a lot of red cards,” Breithaupt said. It will serve as a nice layer: assessing the good and bad of arguments about the good and bad in narratives.

“These are quick ideas that people will throw out,” Breithaupt said. “The audience will all consider the same question and should pick at least one idea to agree to. We hope for them to make sense of it and elaborate, to ask presenters a question, to expand the argument at the reception.”

Kevin Gardner, an undergraduate presenter, said that the conference should appeal to undergraduates because it “will bring professors from many disciplines to discuss one topic. An undergraduate who has been focusing on one area will learn from other departments.”

Hopefully audience members will come to their own conclusion about why narratives are so moral, if characters can exist outside the spectrum of good and bad. “I am one of the people who say characters cannot exist outside of that spectrum,” Breithaupt said. He believes that although the language we once used in terms of morality is disappearing and our perceptions of morality are fading, we cannot help but assess characters morally.

Of course people can disagree. Attendees are encouraged to question the ideas of the speakers, to decide for themselves. This conference will entertain multiple different perspectives and will hopefully shape many more.

For a schedule of the presentations and more information about the conference, see

Amber Hendricks
Themester 2012 intern

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