CFP: [International] "Democracy in Our Time: The Past and Future of the Enlightenment"

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Sura P. Rath
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Forum on Contemporary Theory

11th International Conference
Theme: “Democracy in Our Time: The Past and Future of the Enlightenment”
18 – 21 December, 2008
Venue: Diamond Hotel, Varanasi

The eleventh International Conference of the Forum on Contemporary Theory
will be held in Varanasi from the 18th to 21st December, 2008 in
collaboration with the Department of English, Banaras Hindu University.

To some extent, the hope is to take stock of our understanding of
democracy as it has been theorized in the last many decades, but the
larger aspiration of this conference is to go from there to address the
subject of democracy from a number of angles that tend not to surface in
any conspicuous way in routine discussions of the subject.

On the face of it, there is some reason to be skeptical about whether
standard liberal democratic theory in the orthodox tradition of the
Enlightenment has the resources to cope with the remarkable developments
in politics and culture since the rise of identity politics, the
pervasive and persistent impress of religion in politics, the
unrestrained and unilateral actions of the only superpower remaining in
the world, the manifestly undemocratic tendencies within polities around
the world, and the rampant and rapacious sway of finance capital and
corporate impunity which brooks no constraint upon itself. Liberal
democratic doctrine has been salutary in stressing human rights and
freedoms and democratic procedures but to a considerable extent these are
formal rather than substantive claims and the question to investigate is
the extent to which its theories have the conceptual ingredients to make
these claims more substantive.

This conference seeks to diagnose these limitations and think towards
deeper and more philosophical answers to the questions that liberal
theory has hitherto addressed merely on the surface. We would like to
ask what forms of disenchantment ordinary people have experienced,
perhaps even from as long ago as the late seventeenth century when
conceptions of nature and matter began to be conceived in terms that made
a society geared to profit and private gain the central goals of human
flourishing. How does such a diagnosis explain some of the rise of
identity politics and the deeply felt conservative religiosity of recent
times in many parts of the world? How and why does the liberal and
progressive contempt towards such a politics and religiosity betray an
undemocratic attitude? How can we find secular forms of enchantment for
our own times and in doing so develop traditions of the more radical
elements of the Enlightenment which were very early on thwarted by
liberal orthodoxies?

How does that tradition of the radical Enlightenment grow historically
out of remarkable antecedents in social thought and literature and
philosophy ranging from the unorthodox philosophical and political ideas
of seventeenth century radical sects as well as scientific dissenters in
England, to Spinoza, to the Romanticism of Blake and Shelley and some of
the German Idealists and work its way through one strand in the so-called
early Marx (though we believe this was a strand in all of Marx’s writing
and the distinction between early and late Marx is an invention of
Althusser’s) as well as the various anarchist philosophies of Bakunin
and others right down to the critical theories of the Frankfurt school
and the libertarian humanism of a figure like Chomsky; and even more
important for our seminar, what affinities does it have with bhakti and
sufi traditions in India and, as has been suggested in some recent
writing, what affinities does this tradition in the West going back to
the seventeenth century radical sectaries in England have to the local
forms of a rooted radical philosophical politics and political morality
in Gandhi?

Quite apart from this intellectual history of the subject, one specific
issue that we would like to fasten on in the context of this critical
scrutiny and effort at expansion of Enlightenment ideas is this: liberal
theory has functioned within a framework of the orthodox Enlightenment in
which the values of liberty (autonomy) and equality find themselves in a
tension that seems to have no end. That framework does not obviously seem
to have the conceptual resources to bring the tension to any satisfying
resolution. So, one large intellectual effort on the part of the
conference will therefore be to try and identify the philosophical
resources to say that there is no way to understand the value of equality
without seeing it as essential to autonomy itself, that is to say
essential to self-realization and therefore to an unalienated life, a
life without the disenchantment we have lived with in our social lives
for so long. Without these philosophical resources, for example, Isaiah
Berlin’s anxieties about the notion of ‘positive liberty’ seem both
natural and justified leaving no plausible notion of liberty or freedom
that is not negative, formal or procedural. But our question is: might
we rethink the frameworks of the orthodox enlightenment’s thinking about
liberty towards a more substantial notion of democracy in which such
anxieties as Berlin’s do not emerge as natural and compulsory.

The conference should like to first formulate some of these large
questions briefly raised in this short proposal in more detail and with
more break down, and then make a preliminary honorable stab at answering
them in some detail. We will proceed both historically and analytically
towards these intellectual goals, inviting philosophers, historians,
literary scholars and social scientists with broad interests in situating
political themes in the theory of value, mind, and culture.

We shall have a session each on:
a) Philosophical Aspects of Democracy
b) The Intellectual History of Democracy in the West and in India
c) Democracy and Culture: Indian Traditions (includes specialists from
literature, music,the visual arts, and cinema)
d) Democracy and Culture (Western Traditions)
e) The Political Sociology of Democracy
f) Religion, Secularism, and Democracy
g) Democracy and Identity Politics

Special Session
In conformity with our earlier practice, a plenary session on a regional
text will be one of the special features of the conference schedule.
This year’s choice for the panel is Srilal Shukla’s Hindi novel Raag
Darbari (1968), translated into English by Gillian Wright (Penguin Books
India, 1992). Raag Darbari is a hilarious novel about a fictional village
in northern India, set in the first decade of Independent India, and
tells the story of corruption as it has spread by a democratic process
through the capillaries of village administration epitomized by such
institutions as panchayats, colleges, and co-operative unions. With lots
of humor and satire Shukla has brought to our purview the way the system
of Nehruvian democracy has been inverted by the village administration at
the very moment when India was trying to lay the foundation of a new
system of government after its independence with lots of hope and

Submission Deadline
500-word abstract or proposal is due by August 1, 2008. It should be
mailed as an email attachment to Professor Akeel Bilgrami, the Convener
of the Conference. Complete papers should be limited to 12 pages
(approximately 20 minutes of reading time). A longer version may be
submitted for possible publication in the Journal of Contemporary Thought
or in the conference volume brought out by the Forum. The completed
paper should reach the Convener of the Conference by October 30, 2008.

Conference Volume
Select papers from the conference and from those submitted in response to
the “Call for Papers” will be included in the conference volume, which
will be ready for formal release at the 2009 conference of the Forum.
Completed papers should reach us as email attachments by the end of June

Registration Deadline
The last date for receiving the registration fee is August 1, 2008.
However, we encourage participants to register early so that their
accommodation at the Hotel Diamond is assured. All participants need to
be pre-registered. The registration fee is non-refundable. Each
participant will be sharing his/her room with another participant, as
there are no rooms with single beds in the Hotel.

Participant from India (member of the Forum) Rs. 4000/
Participant from India (non-member) Rs. 6000/
Overseas Participant (non-SAARC countries) US $ 300/
Overseas Participant (SAARC countries) US $ 150/
Local Participant (member of the Forum) Rs. 1500/
Local Participant (non-member) Rs. 3000/
Student Participant (from BHU) Rs. 500/
The registration fee from the outstation participant will cover room and
board from the afternoon of the 17th December to the morning of the 22nd
December, and cost of the conference volume dedicated to the tenth
international conference held in Goa. The fee from the local participant
will cover lunch, conference tea and the cost of the conference volume.
The participants should arrive in the afternoon of December 17th and stay
on until the morning of December 22. The conference will begin at about 9
am on the 19th and will be over at about 6 pm on the 21st December.

Sightseeing Tour
December 18 is reserved for local sightseeing which would include visits
to the ghats on the river Ganges and Saranath where Buddha gave his first
sermon after attaining enlightenment. Those who wish to avail themselves
of this tour will have to pay an extra amount to be determined by the
local hosts.

For further information any of the following may be contacted:

Prafulla C. Kar
Director, Centre for Contemporary Theory, Baroda
0265-6622512; 0265-2338067

Akeel Bilgrami
Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy
And Committee on Global Thought
And Director, Heyman Centre for the Humanities
Columbia University
2960 Broadway, Mail Code 5730
New York NY 10027; Tel: 212 854 1277, Fax: 212 662 7289

Sura P Rath
Professor of English
Central washington University
Ellensburg, WA 98926

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Received on Thu Feb 07 2008 - 13:48:18 EST

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