Imagining Chaos: States of Emergency in Law and Fiction December. December 8-9 2011

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University of Copenhagen
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In recent years, the collapse of legal structures has been a prominent theme in legal studies as well as in cultural studies. Until now, however, there have been few attempts to unite the legal and the cultural studies approach to the state of emergency – and none on the field of disaster research.

The legal and the cultural studies approaches to the state of emergency converge on the level of social imaginaries rather than that of academic vocabularies. We suggest the concept of social imaginary – partly overlapping with the concepts of ideology, myth, phantasm, political theology etc. – as a name for the repertoire of cognitive schemes that structure our perception of and orientation in a given social order. In the case of the state of emergency, the underlying cultural assumptions about order and disorder, about security and violence, about predictability and contingency are vital to any assessment of the quantity and quality of the disaster.

However, the social imagination of disaster is not homogenous. At the one end of the spectrum, 'exceptionalists' perceive the state of emergency as a total breakdown of the social order; at the other end pole, 'non-exceptionalists' imagine the same kind of human tumult as a peripheral phenomenon only lightly touching a resilient social order. The task of the conference Imagining Chaos: States of Emergency in Law and Fiction is to explore how law and fiction negotiate the various ways of conceiving disorder on the following three levels:

Subject: How is the individual depicted in legal and cultural representations of disaster? Do we imagine extreme and deviant forms of behaviour on the part of the individual as 'natural' consequences of a disastrous context of action, or do we, rather, picture individual actions as basically predictable and trustworthy even under hazardous circumstances?

Society: How is social life represented in disaster law and disaster fiction? Do we imagine disasters as causing a violent and chaotic state of nature, a lawless void in which violence and contingency reign, or do we, rather, conceive the social order as a continuum in which social norms are adapted to the circumstances rather than simply suspended?

Nature: How is nature pictured in the legal and cultural imagination of disaster? Do we understand natural disasters as basically indeterminate events disrupting the routine functioning of the laws of nature, or do we envision a basically predictable and manageable world in which disasters can be predicted – and hence prevented – if only our knowledge about the world is increased?

The conference is interdisciplinary in its essence. Not only does it bring together papers from different academic disciplines (legal studies, cultural studies, sociology, political science, etc.), the individual papers themselves will also make an attempt at crossing the borders between law and fiction in order to explore the deep grammar of disaster imagination.

Keynote speakers:
Lisa Grow Sun. Associate Professor of Law at Brigham Young University (BYU), Utah, US

Eyal Weizman. Architect and Director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, UK

Leonard Feldman. Associate Professor of Political Theory at Hunter College, The City University of New York, US

Manfred Schneider. Professor of Literature and Aesthetics at the German Institute, Ruhr University, GE

Oren Gross. Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for International Legal & Security Studies, University of Minnesota Law School, US

Jörg Trempler. Associate professor of Art History at University of Greifswald, GE

Gerrit Jasper Schenk. Professor of History in the Middle Ages, Darmstadt University of Technology, GE

For participation, please send an abstract (200-300 words) and a brief CV to the conference secretary, Andreas Graae, Paper presentations will be scheduled to 20 minutes.

Conference contacts: Professor, Dr. Henrik Palmer Olsen, Faculty of Law ( and Associate Professor Isak Winkel Holm, Faculty of Humanities (

The conference will take place at the Department of Law, University of Copenhagen, and is organized by the Faculty of Law and Faculty of Humanities in conjunction and is supported by the European Science Foundation.

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