Chris Barrett (Louisiana State University)

Headshot of the speaker, Chris Barrett, standing in front of a tree
Wed May 25th 2022, 12:00 - 1:15pm

")Butterflies( and Other Parentheses"

Chris Barrett is Associate Professor of English at Louisiana State University, where she joined the faculty in 2012 after completing her doctoral degree in English at Harvard University. Her research and teaching interests include early modern English literature, especially Spenser and Milton; lyric and epic poetry; critical animal studies; ecocriticism, ecomaterialism, and object oriented ontologies; and geocritical approaches to literature. Her published works--recognized by a Rainmaker Award in 2018--include the book Early Modern English Literature and the Poetics of Cartographic Anxiety (Oxford University Press, 2018), as well as articles and essays on Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, butterflies, whales, fire, knock-knock jokes, maps, ether, and forests. She is currently at work on two book projects: one about early modern trees, and one about the poetics of the obvious. Her research has been supported by the Council on Research, the Newberry Library, the Folger Library, Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Collection, and the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Since 2013, Dr. Barrett has been the faculty adviser to Spectrum, LSU's largest LGBTQIA+ student organization. Additionally, Barrett has been the recipient of several teaching awards, including the inaugural Outstanding Professor Award from the LSU Student Government (2018), the Tiger Athletic Foundation President’s Award (2017), the Tiger Athletic Foundation Undergraduate Teaching Award (2014), and the English Graduate Student Association Graduate Faculty Award (2014).


The parentheses, whose curved typographical form evokes the shape of a butterfly’s wings, exist in early modern literature as both rhetorical device and punctuation, and their uses are first codified in English during the sixteenth century.  A means of preserving that which is remarkable while simultaneously flagging its inconsequence, the parentheses offer a kind of thematic hospitality, a willingness to shelter in a text that which could be, but is not, discarded.  A register of meaning that does not matter, the parentheses welcome improbable guests and invite them to persist in the text. 

This talk asks whether this conception of parenthetical hospitality might open new interpretive possibilities for early modern literary study, and takes as its specimen case Edmund Spenser’s poetic representations of butterflies, creatures often understood as effectively parenthetical to their own ecosystems. Looking at Spenser’s brief mock epic “Muiopotmos” (1591), I propose a reading practice that accounts for the tendency of butterflies in early modern literature to flit complicatedly between being rivetingly essential and being gorgeously unnecessary—or, in other words, their tendency to be parenthetical.  Drawing on the many valences of parentheses, I posit a lepidopteran practice of reading parenthetically, one that holds in tension, as Spenser’s poem does, that which means and that which matters in literary work.