full name / name of organization:
University of Leiden (Netherlands) & University of Bonn (Germany)
Barbarism Revisited: New Perspectives on an Old Concept
Organizing Institutions: Leiden University (Netherlands) & The University of Bonn (Germany)
Date: May 31-June 1, 2012
Organizers: Prof. Dr. Christian Moser (Bonn) & Dr. Maria Boletsi (Leiden)
The notion of “barbarism” and the figure of the “barbarian” have captivated the Western imagination and been a constant part of our vocabulary since Greek antiquity. In the age-old opposition between civilized and barbarian, the “barbarian” supports the superiority of those who assume the status of the “civilized.” “Barbarism” reinforces the discourse of “civilization” by functioning as its negative offshoot and antipode. Today, both terms figure prominently in political rhetoric, the media, historiography, and everyday speech, and their use carries an air of self-evidence: there appears to be a silent consensus on what barbarism means or who a barbarian is. However, while the persistence of the civilization/barbarism opposition in the discursive construction we call “Western history” indicates the overwhelming power and violence of this binary mode of thinking, the “barbarian” also carries different stories.
In history, there have been many reversals of the hierarchy between civilized and barbarian, as well as instances of critique and renegotiation of the concept of barbarism. From the Cynic philosophers of the Hellenistic era to Enlightenment thinkers, the “civilized” have often been projected as more corrupt and barbaric than those others, on which the label “barbarian” is conferred. In eighteenth century evolutionary models, “barbarism” does not only mark the “natural Other” of culture or civilization, but is also employed as a third term that both mediates and imperils the transition between nature and culture. Barbarism often functions as an ambiguous term that irritates clear-cut conceptions of time (cultural evolution) and of space (geopolitics). Furthermore, attempts to recast the “barbarian” in positive terms, as a force of invigoration and renewal of a decaying civilization, can be found in the writings of philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, as well as in the works of Dadaists and surrealists. Finally, contemporary critical theorists (e.g. Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) have reconceptualized barbarism as a discursive challenge to predominant modes of exercising political power.
The word “barbarian” is etymologically linked with incomprehensibility, stuttering, and mis- or non-communication. In ancient Greek, the word βάρβαρος imitates the unintelligible mumblings of the language of foreigners, sounding like “bar bar.” If the foreign sound of the other is dismissed as noise (“bar bar”), then the word “barbarian” tries to signify and capture the unsignifiable, the unintelligible, the unknowable. However, the mumbling of the barbarian—the confused speech, the stuttering, the noise—can also interrupt the workings of our language and interrogate the discursive frameworks of the “civilized self.” Barbarism and the barbarian can unsettle the supposedly harmonious, elevated speech of the “civilized” by confronting it with its own cacophonies and foreign elements – its own “barbarisms.” Thus, barbarism oscillates between two main functions. On the one hand, it reinforces the discourse of civilization that needs it as its antipode. On the other hand, barbarism also nurtures an insurgent potential, through which it can interrupt the workings of the discourse of culture or civilization.
In this conference, we wish to bring together a wide range of perspectives on barbarism and the figure of the barbarian, in order to reclaim the complexity and versatility of these notions, revisit their genealogy, chart their diverse meanings and uses in history and in the present, and tease out their critical thrust. The scope of this conference is simultaneously broad and very specific: we wish to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogues on the “barbarian,” while putting the emphasis on the specificity of this category, as it intersects, overlaps, or clashes with other categories of otherness. By zooming in on the barbarian, we wish to follow its travels across historical periods, cultural contexts, discourses, genres, media, and disciplinary fields; follow the cultural and political implications of its various uses and abuses; place “barbarism” or the “barbarian” in unfamiliar discursive constellations; interrogate the binary opposition in which these concepts are implicated; and discuss new meanings and creative uses of the “barbarian” today.
In this spirit, we invite scholars to submit proposals for papers, in which they lay out their research and ideas on barbarism and barbarians. The conference will provide a platform for comparative encounters, which will illuminate barbarism and the barbarian from diverse angles. Among the questions this conference wishes to address are the following:
What surprising insights can we gain by retracing the uses of barbarism in history? What could be the implications of revisiting barbarism and its genealogy for our contemporary cultural and social realities? What strategies can we develop to counter the violent effects of this category? Can the concept contribute to, and critically intervene in, current debates on globalization, postnationalism, multiculturalism, post-sovereignty, and communication models?
How do subjects that are labeled as “barbarians” “hijack” the trope of the barbarian from dominant discourses and use it in their own subversive and critical projects? How can we listen to the “noise” of “barbarian” others, allowing it to take effect in our own languages? On which conditions can exchanges with “barbarian” others take place?
How does the figure of the barbarian operate in literature, art, and popular culture? How does it function in language but also in other media? Can barbarism intervene in our discursive frameworks and inspire new modes of knowing and theorizing, as well as alternative (inter)disciplinary practices and methodologies that can help us rethink our roles as scholars?
Possible themes for papers include (but are not limited to):
- The history of the idea of barbarism and the concept’s genealogy
- Critical reflections on the contemporary rhetoric on barbarians, barbarism, and civilization
- The operations of barbarism or figures of barbarians across media, genres, disciplines
- Comparative approaches to the barbarian in different cultures
- Reappropriations of the trope of the “barbarian” from outside or from the margins of the West
- Affirmative resignifications of the barbarian and their implications
- Strategies for reconceptualizing barbarism and countering its violence
- The functions and critical potential of linguistic barbarisms (foreignisms, solecisms, mistakes in language, violations of grammatical rules and conventions etc.)
- “Barbarian” methodologies and modes of theorizing
- “Barbarian” concepts of space and “barbarian” geopolitics
- “Barbarian” modes of political and juridical thought: barbarism and revolution, barbarism and fascism, barbarism and anarchism
We welcome proposals from a wide range of disciplines, including (but not limited to) literary studies, history, philosophy, cultural studies, film and media studies, art history, visual studies, gender studies, anthropology, sociology, and political science.
Abstracts of 250-300 words should be submitted electronically to the conference organizers, Prof. dr. Christian Moser & Dr. Maria Boletsi, to the following address:
The deadline for submission of abstracts for papers is April 15, 2011.
The conference language will be English.
Selected papers from the conference will be published in a volume on barbarism, to be edited by the organizers.