May 15-16, 2017

Senate House, University of London

World Literatures and the New Totalitarianism

May 15-16, 2017.
The Torrington Room, Senate House, University of London
Malet St, London WC1E 7HU
Attendance is free but limited. Please register here.

A forum for scholars to discuss the role of art, literature, and the humanities in addressing recent shifts in global politics.

At the beginning of 2017, we find ourselves a dangerous juncture: The last several years have witnessed the victories of Donald Trump in the US, the Brexit camp in the UK, far right candidates in Scandinavia and Poland, and strong showings by Marine Le Pen in France and the far right in Austria. Neo-Nazi movements in Greece, the Balkans, and even the US are in recrudescence. Russia’s plutocracy continues to concentrate power. Anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish discourses are on the rise throughout the West. The teleological narrative many have been telling ourselves in Europe, England, and America—of progressive cosmopolitanism, tolerance, relatively open borders, of urbanity in every sense of the word—has been challenged by the return of anti-Semitism, racism, ethno-nationalism, and anti-intellectualism.

What we are facing, in other words, is the specter of a new totalitarianism very much like its predecessor. The new totalitarianism is a form of social organization, global in scope yet nationalist in articulation, populist in orientation yet elitist in practice, local in its appeals yet power-consolidating in practice, and profoundly hostile to the cultural and social milieu that have nurtured art, literature, and critique since the end of War II. But the new totalitarianism is also amplified by technologies once understood as democratizing: the internet, social media, and the proliferation of popular news sources. And it is bolstered by the dominance of neoliberalism—an economic ideology once touted as a vehicle for global democracy.

How have scholars, writers, artists, and intellectuals responded to this new articulation of a familiar form of social power? Are these responses effective, much less sufficient? What is the role of the humanities in resisting totalizing forces? How do we engage with new media—as powerful a revolutionary ideal as those Walter Benjamin celebrated at his own encounter with totalitarianism, yet as reactionary in practice as he feared? What, as a not-unproblematic revolutionary put it a century ago, is to be done?

Questions, comments, queries, please contact the organizers at:

Zoë Roth (Durham University),
Jonathan Freedman (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor),

This event is generously supported by the Institute for Modern Languages Research, the School of Advanced Study, and Durham University.