An interdisciplinary Conference organized by the University of Chicago together with the Mellon and Endeavour Fellows for 2010-2013
University of Chicago Center, Paris, December 5-7, 2013
The project of Europe, we are being told, is about unity in diversity, about the whole being more than the sum of its parts, about the mutually beneficial cohabitation of neighbors with a long record of bloody antagonism. Historically, the supranational political form in Europe that has functioned as an alternative to the nation has been empire. In fact, the first references to “Europe” date back to the reign of Charlemagne. The term quickly disappeared, to be replaced by Christendom, but empire remained as a constant temptation and alternative to single, national states. One immediately thinks of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Third Reich. On the borders of Europe, Peter the Great’s empire was based on a European model of enlightenment, and it is significant that the French Revolution, often considered the founding moment of modern European nation-states, quickly metastasized into the Napoleonic Empire.
The new Europe is thus navigating a difficult course in attempting to weld a union that is neither nation-state nor empire, and a union with a complex relationship between regional and local concerns. In order to interpret this change in European self-perception and in the perceptions of Europe for peoples around the world, the concept of empire remains relevant if applied with one’s eye on its paradoxical dimension. Having long been a playground for struggles between indigenous imperial powers—and more recently both a pawn and a player, albeit a secondary one, in the duel of two superpowers during the Cold War—the European continent has undergone a political metamorphosis. It has now become the seat of a European Union (EU) that tends to present itself as a “soft-power,” acting as broker rather than interventionist in global security issues, although some of its members still entertain specific global alliances. The EU commitment to the rule of law, social justice, human rights, pluralist values, and international peace is the yardstick against which to measure progress in the 21st century, and to pace the deconstructionist critique of post-modernism and a relativist view of the world.
Still, for some, the EU appears to be the project of triumphant neoliberalism, which abolishes politics and cajoles human agency into the straightjacket of technocracy and an instrumental view of law providing non-restrained economic competition and international security. Its relationship with Russia is one of interdependence but not of harmony, and that with the United States one of mutually significant yet highly distinctive others. Although the historical overseas empires are largely dismantled, the impetus of European “civilization” seems to have survived the infernal ruptures this civilization has produced, while maintaining its core position in the world system. Internally, the European integration project aims to appease the long-lasting rifts between peoples, nation-states, and belief systems, by embracing them in a supranational community intended to bring prosperity and security to all Europeans. This at times dialectical, at times contradictory, tension between the historical drive for hegemony and the pragmatic utopia of wealth and freedom—between the supranational unity of a global actor and a longue durée of inner antagonisms—makes Europe a paradoxical empire.
This conference will gauge the imaginary spaces and historical identities of this paradoxical empire, mapping out the tropes—in the philosophical, literary, and general meanings of the term—in which Europe takes its shape. The strategy of approaching Europe as a “topical dialectic” of dynamic, incessantly negotiated meaning requires the cultural dimension of empire to be understood as broader than the archive of representations, encompassing multiple processes: the movements of ideas, objects, and iconographies—of diplomats and historians, of soldiers and artists—over the edges of empires both within Europe and beyond. It scrutinizes processes of transfer and translation that occur as people, ideas, and the claim for power shift across diverse boundaries. Scholars of literature and language; of political, social, economic, cultural, and art history; of film and urban studies; and of musicology will focus both on historical developments and current trends. In five interdisciplinary panels, they will analyze history, politics, and literary and other cultural production as ways of constructing Europe’s dynamic boundaries and inner distinctions in a constant process of polycentric negotiation and re-signification. Spanning from the 18th to the 21st century, these perspectives highlight the inner frictions within an emerging European polity and its outreach to the world, the fashioning of European identity, the blossoming of the European imaginaire, the burdens of European memory, and, finally, the merging of these traditions into what might become a highly heterogeneous, unique, global power.
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