LSA professor to examine the early history of ‘normality’


Trained as a Shakespearean, Valerie J. Traub has moved in recent years toward thinking about how we know what we think we know about sex and gender in the early modern period.

Traub, the Adrienne Rich Distinguished University Professor of English and Women’s Studies, currently is working to understand and delineate the historical emergence of the concept of “normality.”

Photo of Valerie Traub
Valerie Traub

A Distinguished University Professorship is the highest professorial honor bestowed on U-M faculty. Traub also is the Frederick G.L. Huetwell Professor of English and Women’s Studies, and professor of English language and literature and women’s studies in LSA.

In her upcoming Distinguished University Professor lecture, “Mapping Normality in the Early Modern West,” Traub will explore the novel strategies European cartographers developed in the 16th and early 17th centuries to represent the diversity of human bodies.

By tracking the implicit classification systems of these strategies, Traub will speculate on their impact on the development of the idea of “the normal.”

The talk will take place at 4 p.m. today (Oct. 29) in Rackham Amphitheatre. The lecture and the reception that follows are free and open to the public.

In her talk, Traub will describe how European representations of the human body on maps from the mid-16th to the late-17th century offer a “genealogy” of the concept of the “normal.”

Together with other “scientific” discourses, such as natural history and anatomy, early-modern cartography participated in a historic shift in the evaluation of human life — from a medieval style of reasoning, governed by appeals to nature, to a modern style of reasoning based on norms. This “genealogy” provides a nuanced framework for discussions of self and other that have characterized contemporary scholarship on early modern race, empire and sexuality.

Traub is the author of three monographs and several collections about gender and sexuality in the 16th and 17th centuries. Her work encompasses the fields of literary criticism, cultural history, and feminist and queer theory.

In her most recent book, “Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns,” Traub questions what we know about early modern sex; how we know it; and how, when and why sex becomes history.

Traub named her professorship for the renowned American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, one of the 20th century’s most influential authors, best known for her provocative explorations of identity, sexuality and politics. Traub cites Rich’s work as foundational in her own career as a feminist literary critic.

Rich won the National Book Award in 1973 for her collection of politically engaged poems from the Vietnam War period, “Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972,” and earned both critics and admirers with her 1976 essay collection, “Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Institution and Experience.”

“Hers was a courageous voice that didn’t shy away from controversy,” Traub said.

Traub holds a Bachelor of Arts in American studies and women’s studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

In addition to the Distinguished University Professorship, she has been honored as a fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Huntington Library, the Newberry Library and the Folger Library.

Her 2015 book, “Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns,” was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the Best Book Award for 2015 from the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women. Traub edited the “2016 Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race.”

She is a past chair of LSA’s Department of Women’s Studies.


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