“Beyond Truth: Fiction and (Dis)information in the Early Modern World” was held at New College, Oxford on 18-19 September 2018 . It was organized by Emma Claussen, Tom Goodwin, and Luca Zenobi (all of New College), and sponsored by the Past and Present Society, the Ludwig Humanities Fund at New College, Oxford, The Oxford Centre for Early Modern Studies, and the Royal Historical Society.
This interdisciplinary conference brought together scholars working in literary and historical disciplines to discuss questions related to concepts of ‘truth’, ‘falsehood’ and ‘fiction’ in the early modern world. Papers focussed on a wide range of geographical locations, including France, England, North America, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, China, West Africa, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain. Keynotes were given by Emily Butterworth (KCL), on ‘Rumour and Nouvelles in Sixteenth-Century France’, and Alejandra Dubcovsky (UC Riverside) on ‘Communication and Miscommunication in Colonial North America’. Many common threads and issues emerged over the course of the two days – most obviously, the power dynamics inherent to uses of fiction and (dis)information on both local and global scales. Imperial projections and acts of colonisation were central to the discussion, as were representations and contestations of gender. Some key issues for reflection included the temporality of fiction and fake news, and the aesthetic and affective dimensions of (dis)information. Attention was also drawn to the importance of the materiality of source texts and of their reception. A point raised by many speakers was about the agency of the disseminators of (fake) news. Questions were also asked about the role of readers and their ability to detect the true, the false, and the fictive. The conference organisers are now working on a publication based on a number of papers from the conference, with the aim of publishing in 2020.
A full report by the conference organisers, from which this summary was adapted, is available on Past & Present.