George Orwell Conference, University of Lille III (19-20 March 2010):
“Orwell, a political conscience of the 20th century”
Sixty years after Orwell’s death, and beyond the simple act of commemoration, the question of Orwell’s legacy remains as topical as ever: indeed, although sometimes dismissed as a second-rate writer by some literature specialists, Orwell is still repeatedly invoked, conjured up, and celebrated, sometimes in an exaggerated way. This is all the more surprising as Orwell did not experience the cold war (or very little of it), nor did he witness post cold-war neo-liberal globalisation. Part of the explanation may well be that words and phrases such as newspeak or Big Brother have, for better or worse, acquired a certain kudos in the media.
More generally, Orwell symbolises the independently-minded left-wing intellectual, illustrated by his involvement in the Spanish civil war; he also typifies a reluctance to think dogmatically, which for him induces one to celebrate or turn a blind eye to both right- and left-wing totalitarianisms. This is probably why left-wing journalists or scholars continuously summon up Orwell, in order to promote some form of political soul-searching. In this respect, Nick Cohen’s essay What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way (London, Fourth Estate, 2007) is exemplary.
Beyond any naïve pigeon-holing, Orwellian ambiguity needs to be studied further: the ambiguity of Orwell’s self-proclaimed status as a “Tory anarchist”, or of the man who praised Friedrich von Hayek’s essay The Road to Serfdom (1944).
In Britain, France and Belgium, there is real enthusiasm about Orwell, which is illustrated by a certain number of publications. Yet, in France, apart from the translation of Bernard Crick’s biography and essays by Jacques Dewitte, Jean-Claude Michéa and Simon Leys, work on Orwell has been rather sporadic. One of our ambitions is to contribute to the vast debate on the British thinker.
The conference is primarily a British studies conference. However, many universal themes deserve closer scrutiny: these, in Orwell’s writings, were directly inspired by the advent of fascism, the loss of influence of colonial powers, and of course the run-up to World War II. For all these reasons the conference will be of interest to British studies specialists, but also to historians, specialists of British literature and scholars working in political philosophy.
While the list is not exhaustive, suggestions for papers dealing with any of the following themes will be welcome:
• Orwell’s view of colonialism, and of the totalitarian states in the 1930s ;
• The threat of war, in the 1930s and post-1945 (the nuclear peril) ;
• The conditions under which a decent society may emerge and Orwell’s concept of “common decency”;
• The evolution of class consciousness and class thinking in Britain ;
• English (and British) national identity, the North-South divide ;
• Orwell’s view of industrial horror and the ecological conclusions this awareness elicits ;
• Orwell’s work on the language of the Establishment, on political propaganda as a potent instrument to manipulate the masses ;
• Orwell’s distrust of the very concept of the “intellectual”, which is at a remove from “the ordinary man” whom he praises; the connections between this and his reconciliation of freedom and socialism; the move away from ideological dogmatism;
• How Orwell has been read, or instrumentalised, in history: from the “American reading” of Orwell –exclusively anti-communist– to the Commonwealth reading (where the anti-colonial dimension prevails); from Eastern European countries (he was translated into Polish and Ukrainian at an early stage) to the way some British conservatives (John Major) have tried to use Orwell.
• Lastly, how Orwell has been read by other writers (Philip Larkin, Anthony Burgess...).
This scientific committee for the conference is comprised of: Robert Colls (University of Leicester), Cornelius Crowley (Paris X), Olivier Esteves (Lille III), Trevor Harris (Tours), Gilbert Millat (Lille III), John Newsinger (Bath Spa), Philippe Vervaecke (Lille III).
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