Fordham University Press launched the centennial anniversary of its founding with an event showcasing its recent authors and drawing an audience of scholars, lay people, students and staff, at the Lincoln Center campus on Feb 2. Fordham University Press is one of the nation’s elite academic presses, and the oldest press at an American Catholic university.
The daylong conference featured an ambitious roster of internationally renowned scholars in panel discussions organized around the theme of “Living Together: Love, Religion and Politics for the 21st Century.” Headlining the event were philosopher and activist Judith Butler, Ph.D., author of Giving an Account of Oneself (Fordham University Press, 2005) and the Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley; and Jean-Luc Marion, Ph.D., author of Prolegomena to Charity (Fordham University Press, 2002) and professor of philosophy at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and John Nuveen Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at the University of Chicago. Butler’s presentation drew a standing-room-only audience.
“The Press has been, for 100 years, a most important part of the University’s mission,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, in his welcoming remarks. “The year 1907 was an important year in the life of Fordham. It was the year that the University became a university, by charter from the regents of the State of New York. The founding of the Press was part of the maturing process; Fordham really put its stamp on intellectual life in America.”
Robert Oppedisano, director of the Press, said that the title of the conference “aptly identifies the themes running through the Press’s books” and described the Press as one of the “proud publishers in the humanities during what one can only charitably describe as challenging times.”
Helen Tartar, editorial director of the Press, said the title “Living Together” was borrowed from the last lecture delivered in the U.S. by the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and that the “21st Century” focuses on “the future of scholarly questions, on what the Press’s books might chart out for future endeavor.”
The Press, which will publish approximately 45 titles this year, has annual sales close to a million dollars and 500 titles in print. It is one of the smaller university presses in the nation, offering a mix of scholarly works and general-interest titles. Its areas of specialization include philosophy, literary studies, religion and other areas of the humanities and social sciences, and it has developed a “niche” readership in books on the New York metropolitan region, military history and transportation history.
In 2003, in an attempt to broaden its reach, the press hired Tartar, former humanities acquisitions editor at Stanford University Press, as its editorial director. Oppedisano became director in 2004. Oppedisano aims to increase the number of titles to 50 per year and to make further inroads into top scholarly and general-interest markets. The Feb. 2 conference, Tartar said, was “a gambit to put Fordham in a major intellectual position in the humanities.”
“The University has been extremely supportive; we have a real mandate to bring in scholars,” Oppedisano said. “A forum like this couldn’t have been done five years ago, when we didn’t have investment in this kind of scholarship, and other larger presses would have had these authors, instead of Fordham.”
Butler, a renowned theorist of power, gender, sexuality and identity, gave the conference’s keynote speech, “On Accounting For Primo Levi.” Other events included panels on topics in recently published Press books, including Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, edited by Hent de Vries, Ph.D., of The Johns Hopkins University and Lawrence E. Sullivan, Ph.D., of the University of Notre Dame. A panel on “The Phenomenon of Love,” featuring Marion, drew a sizeable audience. Marion and his respondents, Christina M. Gschwandtner, Ph.D., of the University of Scranton, and Merold Westphal, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at Fordham, explored the questions of selfless love, kenotic love and the existence of a heavenly eros. Westphal suggested that there were three types of love: impersonal sexual, truly personal sexual, and genuinely interpersonal (but not sexual).
Tartar described the conference as a mix between a standard academic conference and a book celebration, and called it “an intellectual feast.”
“The speakers clearly went out of their way to link their presentations to the topics,” she said, adding that the event, which drew audience members from Princeton University, New York University, Columbia University, Yeshiva University and as far away as Indiana University, helped stake out Fordham’s place on the intellectual map of the city.
Fordham University Press is one of approximately 100 university presses in the nation, said Oppedisano, all of which face new obstacles due to market forces, and the onset of digital publishing. Although scholarly books offer the cutting edge in new thought, sales can be as few as 300 copies per title.
“As people move through the academy, and are required to publish to get hired or to get tenure, if they are writing on specialized topics, they can have difficulty finding a publisher because what you can sell today is so small,” he said. “On the other hand, we think there will be more opportunity in the future because digital publishing has the potential to make things globally available at a lower cost.”
Plans are underway to install an exhibit on the history of the press in the summer, which will remain up through the balance of the centennial. Oppedisano said the Press is planning a second, smaller conference later in the year, targeting graduate students and faculty, on writing and publishing scholarship in today’s market.
The Press’s contemporary best seller is Hardy Hanson and Gerald Quinn’s Greek: An Intensive Course, published in 1992, now a standard text for teaching ancient Greek. It accounts for between 5 and 10 percent of the Press’s annual sales. The second-best seller is by Jacques Derrida and Jack Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, outlining the central themes of Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction in an accessible style.
Additional Press titles featured in panel discussions were Crossover Queries: Dwelling with Negatives, Embodying Philosophy’s Others, by Edith Wyschogrod, Ph.D., of Rice University; Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination, by Elliot R. Wolfson, Ph.D., of New York University (Winner of the 2005 National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship); Toward a Theology of Eros: Transfiguring Passion at the Limits of Discipline, edited by Virginia Burrus, Ph.D., and Catherine Keller, Ph.D., both of Drew University; Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, by Teodolinda Barolini, Ph.D., of Columbia University; and The Geoffrey Hartman Reader, edited by Geoffrey Hartman, Ph.D., and Daniel T. O’Hara, Ph.D. (Winner of the 2006 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin).