Spectacles of Decline: A Symposium on the Waning British Empire

Spectacles of Decline

A Symposium on the Waning British Empire


The Symposium

Spectacles of Decline is an interdisciplinary, international symposium, to be convened remotely March 8-12, 2021. Its keynote events include a reading by Hazel Carby, an archival presentation by Santanu Das, a workshop by Jed Esty, and roundtables on knowledge construction and pathology. Its panels center on multiculturalism, intimacy, waste, nostalgia, and more.

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.

Featured Presentations

Hazel Carby

Charles C and Dorothea S Dilley Professor of African American Studies and American Studies, Emerita, Yale University

Reading from her recent book, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands. The reading is followed by a Q&A with Sarah Jessica Johnson and Kaneesha Parsard.

Santanu Das

Professor of Modern Literature and Culture, All Souls College, Oxford

Jed Esty

Vartan Gregorian Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania

Keynote Roundtables

Knowledge Construction Roundtable

Pathologizing Decline Roundtable

Asynchronous Activities

A film screening of Bhowani Junction (1956), with an introduction by Rochona Majumdar; a book raffle; #spectaclesofdecline, our symposium’s Twitter hashtag; and a virtual lobby in the symposium Slack channel.


Contact the Organizers

Chicago, IL (via Zoom)

Spectacles of Decline

A Symposium on the Waning British Empire

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