Purging Spectacles (MSA 14)

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Modernist Studies Association Conference, Las Vegas (October 18-21, 2012)

As historians, philosophers, and literary critics have not failed to notice, the Soviet archival resources to which we have gained access over the past fifteen years concerning the Moscow Show trials and the purges throughout the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s will likely occupy an entire generation of scholars trying to make sense not only of the planning, implementation, and effects of the Great Terror but also of how it was that so many of those persecuted and killed confessed to the (in many cases) unbelievable charges levied against them. In addition to being a terrible historical catastrophe and conundrum, however, the purge years in the Soviet Union were also sedulously transformed by Party organizations and media outlets into a sublime and ominous spectacle for communists, fellow-travelers, and liberals throughout the world, leading Karl Schlögel in Terror und Traum: Moskau 1937 (2008) to call 1937 Moscow "a showplace of European history. Moscow is not situated just anywhere but at a breaking point of European civilization. The deaths of 1937 are the contemporaries of a transnational 'century of extremes.' That is why 1937 Moscow is a part of the self-understanding of what the 20th century was for Europe."

This panel invites papers that situate the events of the Great Terror in terms of the early twentieth-century self-understanding of internationalism and cosmopolitanism more generally. Of particular interest are arguments and research that focus on the comparative literary and cultural reception of (and reactions to) the Great Terror as news of it disseminated throughout the world in the late 1930s. In this vein, some questions worth asking might be:

  • In what ways did the Moscow Show Trials and purges inflect, inform, or damage conceptions not only of international community but also of intellectual labor and of the intellectual as such?
  • What are we to make of the cussed and seemingly universal impulse among interpreters of the Great Terror (from the 1930s up to today) to describe it in terms of literary genres (the show trials and purges as tragedies, as melodramas, as detective novels, as Jacobean revenge dramas, etc.)? Is a genre theory of the Great Terror predicable at this time, and if not, then why does it so insistently seem to call for one?
  • How useful are Guy Debord's formulations of the society of the spectacle for a re-conceptualization of the possibilities (or lack thereof) for revolutionary political agency outside the Soviet Union in the late 1930s? Did the Great Terror open up spaces in which non-totalitarian spectacles (briefly) emerged? Alternatively, how did it attune intellectuals, writers, critics, and workers to moments of disjunction between what is and what is possible within the spectacle?

Please send a 300-word abstract and 2-to-3-sentence professional bio to Erik Bachman at both ebachman@ucsc.edu and embachman@gmail.com by March 30, 2012 (UCSC is migrating its email services over the next few months, so to ensure that I receive your abstract and bio please send them to both of the email addresses listed).

For conference information, please visit http://msa.press.jhu.edu/conferences/msa14/.