Guest lecture: Alex Murray

Murray Poster

On Thursday April 20th at 6.30pm the Modern and Contemporary Colloquium (MACC) will host its second guest speaker of the Spring 2017 semester, Dr. Alex Murray. The lecture will take place in Room 106 of the NYU Department of English at 244 Greene St. It is entitled ‘Decadent Lexicography’.

Click here for a link to Dr. Alex Murray’s bio and research interests at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is currently editing two books: Decadence: A Literary History (Cambridge University Press), and with Kate Hext Decadence in the Age of Modernism (Johns Hopkins University Press).

Wine and nibbles will be provided. If you have any questions about this event please email Richard Porteous (

About the lecture:

The term ‘decadence’ is notoriously difficult to define. Within literary studies it refers to a specific set of formal developments and thematic concerns that emerged in French literature of the Second Empire, and then in British literature of the 1880s and 1920s. Yet the same word has also circulated since the seventeenth century to express anxieties that a society, people or cultures are entering into a period of irrevocable decline. Over the course of the twentieth century its dominant use has become as a banal synonym for sex, luxury and excess, used to sell perfume, chocolate, or erotic novels. Critics of decadence regularly lament the sad state of affairs, and usually reach for the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the term. While that definition is routinely regarded as lacking the nuance to describe the flowering of the transgressive and experimental literature of the 1880s and 1890s, it is still invoked as some sort of lexicographic authority. The publication of the first two volumes of the OED (A-B, C-D, 1884-1894) were coterminous with the scandalous success of aestheticism and decadence, and Murray’s paper maps the politics of defining these and other affiliated terms in the period, arguing that the OED’s processes for defining these terms suggests a hostility to progressive art lurked behind the ‘objective’ facade of the OED’s methodology. The paper proposes that within the debates over the term ‘decadence’ in the period 1880-1920 we see its meaning shift from a moralizing critique of contemporary society to a complex synonym for the dynamic process of evolution, a meaning denied both by the OED’s definition of the word and by the historicizing practices of literary studies.

The image on the poster is an adaptation of a work by British book illustrator E.J. Sullivan (1869-1933). Thank you to Dr. Murray for the suggestion.


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