Spectacles of Decline: A Symposium on the Waning British Empire

Call for Papers

The Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago is soliciting papers for an interdisciplinary symposium to be convened remotely in March 2021. The symposium will address the aesthetics of waning empire in the British Commonwealth, developed in the nexus between cultural production, exhibition, and public spectacle, as it both shores up British exceptionalism and integrates, even accelerates, the process of decline. Focused on the final century and a half of the British Empire, from the emergent internal tensions of the mid 19th century to postwar decolonization, the symposium invites papers that investigate the ways in which ideas of imperial decline—as fantasy, specter, or ideal—were mobilized, taken up, and reckoned with in cultural and aesthetic works from across the Commonwealth.  This topic is historically capacious, politically urgent, and designed to foster conversations between disciplines. During the ongoing pandemic, the questions that we raise are attended by another set of questions about what intellectual dialogue is, and has the potential to be, online. To account for everyone’s remote schedules and time-zone differences, we will be limiting our programming to three hours per day. Each day will consist of a panel of speakers followed by a keynote, guided digital curation, AMA, or roundtable. We look forward to offering a diverse program of keynote events, including scheduled presentations by Professors Hazel Carby, Santanu Das, and Jed Esty, alongside four-person roundtable discussions. 

The period of accelerating territorial and bureaucratic expansion popularly known as Britain’s “Imperial Century” (1815-1914) is marked from its outset by events that precipitated the Empire’s eventual demise—from the abolition of slavery in 1833 to the nationwide Indian Rebellion of 1857. Much British art of the 19th and 20th centuries registers anxiety about the possibility of political and cultural decline. In the 19th century, for instance, the embrace of decay characterized the Decadence of the fin-de-siecle, while an anticipatory inkling of imperial decline was a defining feature of early-mid 20th-century British writing (by Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Evelyn Waugh, and so on). Similarly complex, yet often more resolutely political, anticipations of the end of the British Empire were recorded in the anti-colonial literature of the early 20th century (CLR James, Mulk Raj Anand, Sarojini Naidu) as well as in the postcolonial arts and literatures from the decades after WWII (Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, among many others).  

Focused on the slow burn of decline, we wish to foreground the representational modes, affects, and rhetorics specific to the experience of a downfall whose process can often feel so gradual as to seem barely perceptible. These can include paranoia, reactionary satire, and nostalgia, of course, as well as more positive anticipatory and speculative modes of thinking, and even embracing of, the eventual end of the British-administered world. This symposium asks how the aesthetic and perceptual reactions specific to decline manifest in the cultural production of Britain’s late imperial period, but also in contemporary forms of discourse around the present and future of the Commonwealth. Our conference is set against the twofold background of Brexit—with its related current of a nostalgic British nationalism that clings to fantasies of empire—and the reassertion of longstanding narratives of Western cultural decay in far-right rhetorics across Britain and Europe. Some questions that animate our plans for this conference thus include: why, how, and to what end do we choose to recognize political and cultural decline? How does imperialist power remain operative (aesthetically) after the loss of direct action on colonized peoples? What precedents for contemporary narratives of the decline of the West exist in the literature of and about the British Empire? And in what ways do narratives of the end of the British Empire obscure the ongoingness of British Imperialism, both in the UK and in former British colonies whose subjects continue to be integral to the work of Empire, even as they are blamed for its decline? Possible topics include:

  • Loss and compensation/reparations: is lost empire represented as aesthetic gain? What are the implications of this attempted reversal? And how do these calculations differ between places, peoples, and times?

  • Wartime, the Home Front, and Blitz literature

  • The experience of war and parallel catastrophes—both sudden and ongoing, unforeseeable and manufactured—in the British colonies (e.g. the Bengal Famine)

  • Articulations of African-diasporic identities and experiences, whether within metropolitan Britain or across British-colonized territories

  • Topics pertaining to the formation of Black British identity and experience: processes of decolonization in Africa and the Caribbean, mass migration in the 20th century, Windrush and its legacies, etc. 

  • Ongoing colonial experience in the British overseas territories: Bermuda, the Virgin Islands, Montserrat, Anguilla, and others (as well as topics related 20th-century disputes over such territories: Gibraltar, The Falklands/Las Malvinas, etc.).

  • Practices and pedagogies for decolonizing imperialist aesthetics

  • Queer approaches to decline, temporality, and futurity in British and Commonwealth art

  • Vernacular languages, curricula, canon-formation, and their interactions with Empire and decolonization

  • Ecological scarcity and disaster

  • Failing nations, nation-building, resurgent nationalisms, and concepts of world, earth, or planet

  • Connections between Empire and humanism, or the possibility of  new humanisms “made to the measure of the world” (Césaire)

  • Parallels between narratives of decline in the late British Empire and the contemporary USA.

We realize that this list is incomplete, and we welcome proposals for academic, para-academic, creative, and performance pieces from anyone whose work has a stake in the many layered, intersecting, yet often conflicting political and cultural histories of Britain in the 20th & 21st centuries. In addition to presentations on literary topics, we invite interdisciplinary presentations that address diverse mediations of, and responses to, the idea of imperial decline—such as the pageantry of the 1924-5 Empire Exhibition, or the 1946 Britain Can Make It Exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

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