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CfP: Explosive Past, Radiant Future – an international colloquium, March 19-20, 2010

The Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto

Explosive Past, Radiant Future
an international colloquium, March 19-20, 2010

Keynote Lectures to be delivered by:

Svetlana Boym (Harvard University, USA)

Thomas Moylan (University of Limerick, Ireland)

The lingering spectre of the past and the beckoning formlessness of the future are the two highly charged images that act as the starting points of the 21st annual international colloquium at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto.  Negotiating the troubled terrain between them has been the work of cultural texts and an ongoing problem for cultural and literary criticism.  The struggle to establish a meaningful present, which incorporates the triumphs and horrors of historical memory and enables comprehensible directions toward the future, is a shared task of art, philosophy, religion and political thought, among other activities. We suggest that narration – in its various poetic modes – is nothing more than this struggle for meaning, occurring over a multiplicity of social and cultural spaces.  Likewise, we suggest that art, philosophy, political thought and religion, to the extent that they are concerned with the problems of meaning and temporality, may also be understood as narrative endeavours.  We seek papers from diverse disciplines that bring the problems of narration, thus defined, to the fore and offer innovative solutions to them.

The arts have offered us rich and enduring images embodying the complex antinomies of this struggle, from the time bomb ticking in a sardine can in Petersburg to the ghost of Sethe’s murdered baby in Beloved to Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus.  This painting is so eloquently described by Walter Benjamin as having its face turned to the past, wishing “to piece together what has been smashed,” but blown by a wind from Paradise “irresistibly into the future.”  We take seriously Benjamin’s subsequent suggestion that the dialectical object – the historical ruin, the aesthetic text, the political moment – contains the latent potential to “explode the continuum of history.”  We seek papers that interrogate the status of such objects and their relations to the problems of temporality in general, to current cultural and political situations, and to the ways we understand cultural and political situations of the past.

We also invite papers that consider the phenomenological and/or existential nature of time, its relation to the experiences of consciousness and the limitations (or impossibilities) of translating it into public language.  Such papers may follow Heidegger in the contention that the subjective experience of time – “the horizon of being” – shapes the contours of social and cultural “historical” realities; on the other hand, they may follow Freud in the counter-contention that the temporal imperatives of organized domination are introverted against the living memory of primordial, liberated time (situated in the unconscious).  It was perhaps Augustine who most clearly illuminated the phenomenological problem: “What is time?  If no one asks me, I know.  If I want to explain it to someone who asks, I do not know.”  We seek re-evaluations of the relationship of subjectivity to culture, mediated by the experience of time.

Suggested topics include (but are not limited to):

  • science fictions, possible worlds, and literary utopias/dystopias; utopian planning in art and politics; utopian philosophy; lived utopias/dystopias;
  • the status and temporality of memory, trauma and nostalgia, rooted in the present and directed toward both past and future;
  • the study of texts from various historical periods; the political and intellectual goals of revisiting older texts; the selection of historical texts and critical modes of approaching them from the present;
  • canonization/re-canonization/de-canonization and their relationship to temporality in general and their own historical moment (the problem of cultural history);
  • the emergence of “historical thought” within history itself, and related artistic, political and philosophical movements (i.e. “the rise of the novel”; “enlightenment” thought; new teleologies; the explosion of imperialism); alternative modes of temporality and historical thought within modernity;
  • revisionist approaches to history and historical thought based on subjective experience (i.e. women’s history, queer history, indigenous people’s history); the political projects and philosophical stakes of such revisions, and new directions for revisionism (i.e. moving beyond “herstory”; moving beyond the “outing” of history; moving beyond the postcolonial and “new” historicism);
  • the role of capitalism and its social/cultural logic in the narration of history and the possibilities of the present; the limits within capitalism of imagining alternative futures, and literary, philosophical, or political challenges to those limits;
  • the challenges of globalization and the crossing of political, social, cultural, and philosophical boundaries; the clashes and hybrids of opposing temporalities;
  • the role of technology and science in articulations of modernity, and the relationship of these spheres to literary forms, political agendas, and philosophical discourses.

Presentations should be limited to 20 minutes and should touch on the major theoretical, literary, or philosophical concerns of the colloquium.  We invite scholars from all disciplines within the humanities and social sciences.  We welcome graduate students, university faculty members and independent scholars alike as presenters (typically, we strive for a balance of graduate students and faculty/independent scholars).

Please submit an abstract of your proposed paper (no more than 350 words) to by September 30, 2009.  We also welcome the proposal of panels consisting of 3 papers that address a common set of concerns.  If proposing a panel, please submit a 250-word abstract describing the theme of the panel in addition to the standard abstract for each of the papers on the panel.  All abstracts will undergo a blind review selection process.  Selected participants will be notified by email by October 15, 2009.

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