Spectacles of Decline
A Symposium on the Waning British Empire
The symposium addresses the aesthetics of imperial decline in the former British Empire, developed in the nexus between cultural production, nationalist exhibition, and public spectacle. It focuses on the final century and a half of the British Empire, from the emergent internal tensions of the mid 19th century to postwar decolonization; and the representational modes, affects, and rhetorics specific to the experience of a downfall so gradual as to be almost imperceptible. The eponymous spectacles of decline include paranoia, reactionary satire, and nostalgia on the one hand, and anticipatory and speculative modes of thinking on the other.
Spectacles of Decline is set against the twofold background of Brexit—with its underlying current of a nostalgic British nationalism—and the reassertion of longstanding narratives of Western cultural decay in far-right rhetorics across Britain, Europe, and North America. Our interest in the cultural life of British-imperial decline also responds to the renewed prominence of discourses on the End of America: discourses that are similarly heterogeneous in their approaches to American-imperial decline. Central to these discourses are the decline of democracy, of civic consensus regarding matters of fact, of infrastructure and the welfare state; and, conversely, of white hegemony, institutional Christianity, and US exceptionalism.
Some questions that animate our conference include: why, how, and to what end do we choose to recognize political and cultural decline? How do the aesthetics of imperialist power remain operative after the loss of direct action on colonized peoples? And in what ways do narratives of the end of the British Empire obscure the ongoingness of British Imperialism, both in the United Kingdom and in the former British colonies? In the ongoing pandemic, these questions are attended by another set of questions about what intellectual dialogue is, and has the potential to be, online.