Societies often have ambiguous and even conflicting attitudes towards state institutions that fulfil normalising, reformatory, punitive or disciplinary functions. This unease is frequently represented in an ambivalence or a hostility not only towards those disciplined or incarcerated but also, and perhaps paradoxically, towards the agents of those institutions, e.g. state incarcerators, the police, interrogators, soldiers, counterterrorist agents, or staff in mental hospitals. These figures tend to be conceptualised and represented in simplistic and often reductively negative terms. This demonisation reflects an unease towards institutions that are understood to be at once socially and politically necessary and saturated with threatening potential.
Connected to this is a complex social attitude towards state violence. At the same time as societies sanction it, figures such as executioners, torturers, and concentration camp guards are frequently despised. For this reason, while severe state violence is sometimes deemed to have situational or conditional necessity, expedience, or legitimacy, it often must also seek to conceal or disguise its own extreme nature as violence. Much as those perpetrating acts of state-sanctioned violence are disavowed, the violence itself is also surrounded by an apparent uncomfortable double standard.
This conference aims to interrogate literary, filmic, popular cultural and artistic representations of the agents of those institutions, specifically in terms of guilt and culpability. Why, for example, can we observe a tendency to hold at a cautious distance the disciplining subject whilst accepting (or even celebrating) the institutions they represent as socially and politically necessary? Why, when the actions of such agents become extreme, transgressive or criminal, is there a tendency to pathologise such actions in terms of individual perversity – as the actions of ‘bad apples’ – and thereby transfer culpability from the institution to the individual subject, rather than explaining such actions in systemic, structural or institutional terms?
We invite papers that interrogate narrative negotiations of the tensions encountered by these figures and in these relationships; tensions between agency and victimhood, necessity and guilt, legitimate and abusive uses of power and violence. We may, for example, be overfamiliar with literary, filmic or popular cultural narratives of captivity that privilege the experience of incarceration or miscarriages of justice, in which the disciplining subject occupies a reified or stereotyped position; what representational potentials have remained underexplored in cultural or political discourses?
We also invite papers that theoretically and philosophically speculate on and conceptualise the controversial and liminal figure of the disciplining subject. How do we theorise the relationship between the disciplinary institution and those who staff it – those who are at once the agents of power and subject to its (often oppressive) institutional conditions? To what extent are such workers seen to ‘deserve’ their work, or regarded as contaminated by it? How much relevant purchase is exerted by existing categories such as the figure of the Third (e.g. Georg Simmel), the scapegoat (e.g. René Girard), or Zygmunt Bauman’s stranger, or are new categories needed for a more sustained and sophisticated understanding of these figures? How limited or convincing are such conceptualisations? What alternatives might we explore?
The conference will comprise two sections: on the morning of the first day, a round table discussion will take place regarding the theoretical conceptualisations of disciplinary agents. The respective papers will be distributed to delegates beforehand, so that participation can be maximised. The first afternoon and the full second day will feature panels of papers on representations of disciplining subjects in literature, the arts and popular culture.
Our temporal focus is mainly on the 20th and 21st Centuries, but we do not exclude proposals for papers on earlier periods. Themes for papers could include, but are not limited to, narrative representations of
• Agency and victimhood
• Ethical reflections on institutional and individual culpability
• Stereotypes/prejudices (and their deconstruction)
• Racial/ethnic/national inflections of ‘culpability’
• Women and normative masculinities
• Guilt, responsibility, deserved punitivity
• ‘Dirty work’
• ‘Clean’/non-scarring violence
• Legitimacy and the abuse of power
• State violence and its parameters
• Torturers, torture and abuse; the representation of torturers
• Trauma, testimony
• Colonial and neocolonial disciplinary configurations
• Authority, power, powerlessness
• Theoretical conceptualisations of disciplinary agents
The conference is organised by Alex Adams (Newcastle University) and Cornelia Wächter (University of Paderborn, Bielefeld University) in cooperation with the Institute of English Studies (University of London) and the Human Rights Consortium (University of London). Please email 200-300 word abstracts for 20 minute papers to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com by Sunday, 19th August 2012.
University of Paderborn
Department of English
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