Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past, Present, and Future (1880 – Present) – conference page

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 

The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

The fear of Civilization collapse is a thread that runs through much of the literature, cinema, and other media of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Whereas the Utopian moment is paradigmatically in the future, the Dystopic moment is paradigmatically in the past. Dark ages, political catastrophes, and apocalyptic ends haunt the modern. For the Western tradition, a key narrative is the ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’, but this is far from being the only catastrophic trope within modern and late-modern cultures. Twentieth-century ends of the world have ranged from alien invasion and self-destruction through to the misuse of technology or spectacular technological failure, extenuated class conflict, or an apathetic decline into barbarity or moral degeneration, alongside religious conflagration, environmental and climatic change. The sheer inventiveness of the manifold ways in which the world may be brought to an end encourages us to understand the apocalyptic urge as a central element within contemporary societies.

This workshop aims to investigate how and why the apocalyptic urge manifests itself in modern societies. We propose a multi-disciplinary approach to challenge methodological conventions and allow a triangulation of the emerging narrative within diering critical traditions. To this end, we invite contributions from across the arts, humanities and social sciences that address those.

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Introduction: Professor Richard Alston (RHUL) .

Why Civilizational Collapse?
Anyone who studies Roman history works in the shadow of civilizational collapse, be it the end of the Republic or the end of the Roman empire. The field of study centres on an absence, an ending of a world. But the ruins and ruination of Rome are not ‘distant’ from contemporary culture; they are continuously invoked and re-imagined. Further, although the ‘end’ dominates the historiography, there is little evidence that the prevalent decline (which in some accounts lasts seven centuries)  was felt in such ‘final’ terms by contemporaries. The cultural import of ‘the End’ needs explanation. I suggest three characteristics.
a.    Collapse is culturally pervasive: Jameson argues that the utopian urge can be seen in virtually all literary production, a view of what society could be and has not achieved. Conversely, one could argue that the dystopic is similarly present, a vision of the ‘bad’ that society could become.
b.    Collapse is temporal: The moment of civilizational collapse is a moment which is beyond time, when time must have a stop (Walter Benjamin) and thus outside the normal historical sequences. After the revolution, time may recommence, but the gap is pervasive because it is not within a temporal structure.
c.    Collapse is spatial: often located in the city, often seen from above, civilizational collapse is a feature of the mass society.
d.    Collapse is psychological: there is exhilaration in catastrophe, when disciplinary structures come to an end, and there is also opportunity. Particular forms of masculinity take to the road and heroism (once more) becomes possible.
This leads to three issues which we might address
i.    Is dystopia utopia’s evil twin?
ii.    What is the chronological relationship of dystopia (present, past, and future)?
iii.    Are dystopic visions inherently conservative?

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Professor Greg Claeys (RHUL)  - Utopia: A Return to Definition [AUDIO HERE]
questions .
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Dr Lindsay Allen (King’s College London) – Finding identity in ruins: post-war childrenís literature [AUDIO HERE]
Dr Phiroze Vasunia (Reading) Ends of Empires [ABSTRACT HERE]
questions .
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Professor Patrick Parrinder (Reading) Suburban Apocalypse (1880-1920) [AUDIO HERE]
Professor Richard Overy (Exeter) – Will Civilization Crash? British anxieties between the World Wars [AUDIO HERE]
questions .
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Professor Klaus Dodds (RHUL)  - Geographies of the end of the world: Hollywood and the contemporary disaster movie [AUDIO HERE]
Dr Joanna Paul (Liverpool) – A Vesuvian Apocalypse: Imagining the End of the World at Pompeii [AUDIO HERE]
questions .
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Professor Ahuvia Kahane (RHUL) – The Jewish Conception of Ruin [AUDIO HERE]
Dr Ika Willis (Bristol) - Apocalypse Then: Carl Schmitt and Civil War [AUDIO HERE]
questions .
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EVENT SUPPORTED BY:
Royal Holloway Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC),
Centre for the Reception of Greece and Rome (CRGR),
Institute of Classical Studies (SAS),
British Library.

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Ika Willis – Apocalypse Then: Carl Schmitt and Civil War

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 


The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

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Ika Willis: Apocalypse Then: Carl Schmitt and Civil War

The German political philosopher Carl Schmitt has recently enjoyed a surprising popularity, especially among philosophers of the left. This recuperation is particularly surprising given his historical position as philosopher and lawyer of Nazi Germany. The return to Schmitt is in part due to his rejection of liberal views of the state and his consideration of power in the formation of political bodies. Schmitt’s state was defined territorially as the region in which a particular zone of law applied: law defined territory. Belonging to a territory was a matter of defining who was an enemy. An enemy was a person whom was prepared to kill, and who was thus situated outside the protection of the law. But he also had a view of sovereignty as being vested in the body who or which was able to suspend law: sovereignty was thus the suspension of law, and this co-existed uneasily with the conception of territory. Civil war became the moment in which the law of the state was suspended in the rule of sovereignty. It was thus a calamitous moment (a civilizational suspension or collapse). Imaging that moment becomes possible in reading the first century CE poet Lucan. Lucan’s Civil War is apocalyptic in envisioning an end of the state and, indeed, an end of the universe in the civil war of 49 BCE. This resulted in the rule of the sovereign in which law was continuously and perpetually suspended. Notable in Lucan is the amalgamation of identities of the Caesars so that his Nero is also (Julius) Caesar. After the collapse is sovereign power.

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Ahuvia Kahane – The Jewish Ruin

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 


The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

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Ahuvia Kahane: The Jewish Ruin

There is a distinctive Jewish relationship to the ruin, different from that in Greek and Roman and modern cultures. Whereas in Classical cultures the ruin is a flat and lost place (Troy) barely discoverable, in Jewish thought the ruin is present. The ruin carries with it the memory of the violence of its destruction. But the memory of destruction on destruction becomes a way of constructing the past. Benjamin’s Angel of History looks back on history as ruin upon ruin, and destruction on destruction. But instead of this being a series of ends, it is a fundamental means in which Jewish time is constructed. Absence is central to the story of repeated ruination that is at the centre of Jewish time. In a continuous looking backwards through the sequences of destruction, the future is a forbidden object of speculation. Yet in the continuous process of ruination there is also a continuous prospect of the emergence of the messianic moment. Redemption is in the potential of destruction.

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Joanna Paul – Vesuvian Apocalypse

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 


The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

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Joanna Paul: Vesuvian Apocalypse

From the mid nineteenth century, and possibly early, the dead cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum had a powerful hold over Victorian imagination. Bulwer-Lytton’s (1834) Last Days of Pompeii was one of the most popular books of the nineteenth-century and its influence was felt not just in literary depictions of Pompeii but in history paintings derived from the novel. The scandalous society of Roman luxury was depicted in a strongly Christian moral schema and the eventual destruction of Pompeii became a moral/divine retribution in keeping with Biblical destructions of sinful communities. Leaping forward a century, the depiction of life under the Volcano loses some of its moralising strength. In Malcolm Lowry’s Pompeii, the city comes to stand for a sort of moral vacuum. The Classical paradigm is reduced by comparison with North-Western suburb life and the tour of Pompeii becomes a cultural pretence. Real life is lived away from the city in a rural (Canadian) arcadia. The city of culture is seen to be of little value. With Primo Levi, the volcano comes to be seen as a hostile environmental force that might sweep away not just civilization but the lives of children. The fragility of the environment becomes a comment on human atrocities, and perhaps also on the vanity of human endeavours, in a world of such possibilities of natural destruction. There is thus a shift from moral turpitude threatening the city to environmental crisis.

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Klaus Dodds – Geographies of the end of the world: Hollywood and the contemporary disaster movie

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 


The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

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Klaus Dodds:
Geographies of the end of the world: Hollywood and the contemporary disaster movie

Disaster movies have been a mainstay of cinema since the turn of the century, with Pompeii movies figuring significantly in the early history of cinema. Such films go through cycles of development, identifying apocalyptical threats from different sources. In recent films, the environmental disaster has figured significantly. Such depictions have a definite moral economy, and a definite geography, often based in a certain economic logic. Two key examples, The Day after Tomorrow and 2012 can be used to illustrate core features of the genre. Disasters often arise from remote places and strike at the heart of America, being particularly prone to attack cities, city-scapes and the most prominent and internationally recognised monuments. There may be technical reasons for this: a recognisable topography appeals to a wider audience; great cities provide a scale for disaster; filming might be easy in the city; but certain kinds of shots (the tsunami wave) become more powerful within a recognised grid plan city. Yet, the shift from a remote topography of original disaster to a familiar topography of actual disaster is replicated in a remote geography of redemption and resolution. The new community is built away from the city, sometimes in the verdant lands of the southern hemisphere. In the moral economy, the fractured family of the modern is repaired in the crisis; such a repair may stretch beyond the family to the community and the nation, but is strongly normative, heterosexual and reproductive, and sometimes national.

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Richard Overy – Will Civilization Crash?

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 


The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

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Richard Overy: Will Civilization Crash?

The period from 1918 to 1939 was marked by powerfully polarised visions of politics in society. By 1939, the war against fascism could be represented as a war in defence of civilization against a threat that might extinguish that civilization. The stakes of the war were enormous, far beyond the fate of the nation which appears to have animated German thinking about the war effort. The effects of such extremity were to make moral radical acts, such as the mass bombing campaigns, since they became justifiable if civilization was to be preserved. The crisis of civilization is reflected in numerous publications, lectures, and newspapers through the period. It was the major trope of sociological thought. Nevertheless, there are problems in this English obsession. Despite the 1929 crash, capitalism in Great Britain restored itself relatively quickly. The empire was not under any great threat. The origins of this are complex: they lie partly in the first world war, and the great losses that resulted. That war also showed the mechanisation of slaughter that was brought about by science. Scientific and political progressivism suffered in the experience of modern warfare, suggesting a civilization about to destroy itself. Images of ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ are common, and although civilization was in itself taken for granted, a fact which no-one needed to define, it was quite difficult to locate. The masses provided a threat to civilization. Similarly, environmental degradation threatened to break with the ‘natural’ conditions of man, worries expressed in eugenics, and furthermore there was the vision of future weapons capable of bringing vast destruction and ending the institutions of civilized and killing the civilized man alongside his more humble brethren.

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Patrick Parrinder – Suburban Apocalypse

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 


The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

 

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Patrick Parrinder: Suburban Apocalypse

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the spread of the cities into suburbia transformed the English landscape. This was viewed as a sociological transformation in which a new form of society and a new form of being developed, neither urban nor rural. This was treated with contempt by many writers, and opposed to traditional values of culture and society: in particular ‘England vs Suburbia’ emerged as a political position. Many of the anti-suburban writers, Lawrence, Gissing, Jeffries, Wells, emerged themselves from suburbs and took great delight in the denigration of those suburbs and in repeatedly imagining their destruction. In the various apocalyptic visions of Wells, for example, destruction was rained down on the suburbs. England’s alien invaders destroyed what was, in many views, already destroying England.

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Phiroze Vasunia – Ends of Empires

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 


The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

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Phiroze Vasunia: Ends of Empires (not recorded)

Empires hate nothing so much as contemplating their own ends, but such ends of empire bring their own temporality. There is a sense of inevitability about ends of empire which requires the observer to await the barbarian (as in Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarian) but the repressive measures to keep out the barbarian are such the individuals might be tempted to cross over and let the barbarian in. The trope of decline and fall established by Gibbon influenced American imperial discourses. Although there were hopes that the Republic might survive the entropy of empires, and the pecularity of America’s domestic empire encouraged a separation from the fate awaiting Rome, American decline and the restoration of the American landscape was often seen as inescapable. For the British, it was the Orient that threatened, with images of death and squalor. In Kipling, the great nightmare of the imperialist was that he might fall among the Indians, with no escape, no status by which he could be differentiated, and no historical escape. Fear of the infection of empire, becomes a fear of death and of mortality, a psychological as well as a political malaise.

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Lindsay Allen – Finding Identity in Ruins: Post-War Children’s literature

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 


The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

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Lindsay AllenFinding Identity in Ruins: Post-War Children’s literature

In the immediate post-war period, the ruin provided a scene in which the past was lost (and discovered) and in which identities could be found (once lost). In Nesbitt’s writings, the ruins of old London created a template of a shared history which stretched back to Rome and united an almost lost and disparate world in a recognition of a shared remote past (and one that had in itself fallen). Whereas London was destroyed, and the places and buildings were losing that identity, it was also exposing an archaeology of identity. But if that archaeology could not be read, children could find identity anew in playing among the ruins. This rediscovery of identity was clearly feature of the Narnia series, in which a return to and escape from the ruin was a common feature. In these moments, history was almost remembered and recovered, and identity revived. This was an identity which was remote from parental influences and sometimes alone, and thus apart from a civilization that functioned. The Child-Adult-Hero never quite grew up to accept the confines of time.

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Greg Claeys: Utopia: A question of definition

in Academic Service - Archive by on March 1st, 2011

Event date:1 March 2011 10.30 – 17.00
British Library
London Room MR4

 

 


The Humanities and Arts Research Centre (HARC) at
Royal Holloway University of London presents:

Civilizational Collapse: Dystopian Imaginings of the Past,
Present, and Future (1880 – Present)

 

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Greg Claeys: Utopia: A question of definition

There are considerable problems of definition around Utopia. A proper definition requires analytical purchase, and ‘utopian’ can become so broad a subject as to mean little more than thinking about a better world. Utopias operate in three fields: community, ideology and literature. In this context utopias have to be realisable, and thus the utopia must be socially realistic. This requires a vision of utopia which is not perfectionist: there must be room for change, development, disagreement. ‘Perfectabilist’ thinking is theological, and it is from perfectionist thinking that ‘anti-utopian’ literature tends to emerge. In the Babel of utopian thinking, one needs to recognise that utopia is not exclusively literary in that real utopianist communities have and are regularly developed. In Thomas More, a crucial question was that of scale, since scale brings a certain control, and that control allows one to reduce society to a human or natural scale. Dystopian systems tend to privilege the ‘totalising’ systems of the state and there emerges concentrations of power and scale: plutocracy especially is redolent of dystopia.

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