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[Extended Deadline] Modernity, Ideology, and the Novel - June 15, 2012
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Modern Horizons Journal
In collaboration with the Institute for the Humanities at Simon Fraser University, Modern Horizons’ second annual conference will take place in Vancouver, BC from October 25th to 27th at SFU’s Harbour Centre. We invite abstracts for 20-minute presentations that explore the theme of ‘Modernity, Ideology, and the Novel.’
Although since its emergence as a dominant genre in the 18th and 19th centuries the novel has held an important place in artistic expression and the cultural landscape, with the huge political upheavals and cultural disintegration of the 20th century, the novel has come to be recognised as perhaps the most significant literary art form to measure and critique the ongoing and increasingly fundamentalist tendencies of modern political, religious, and cultural thought. In contrast, while popular and academic theory has addressed and engaged with political, religious, and cultural realities, they have often assumed a reactive stance, and have tended to slip into ideological frameworks. Ideology, on this ground, must be understood in terms of dogma: that is, as a spotlight that touches an aspect of life (whether political, religious, or cultural) but which leaves the fullness of everyday life unaddressed. Unlike a tradition of thought—a landscape of meaning with a capacity for newness and difference—an ideological approach to human existence frames ideas within a closed and preconceived system of meaning. This approach is not only problematic in its practical manifestations—as Nietzsche states, a system of thought is always already inadequate in the face of life—but it also does not allow for a theoretical space in which to engage with the rich possibilities that lie outside ideological thinking. As limited as ideological thinking is, however, many dismissals or attempts to critique ideology unfortunately partake of the same closed and prejudicial way of thinking. Indeed, the impulse toward ideology may be inherent in any theoretical mode of thought which neglects the particular and the concrete.
In the art of the novel, however, we have a tradition of representation and presentation of human reality that lies over against ideology and abstract theory. We understand the art of the novel to be a prosaic exploration of the edifying and idolatrous aspects of culture and thought (whether political, religious, or philosophical); on this ground, the novel is seen in stark contrast to the abstract dimensions of theory. Indeed, we hold that the treatment of ideas and tradition in novels is part of an essentially different mode of engagement than that of theory. For while theory tends toward abstraction, the novel cannot forget the concrete; and while theory may obscure difference by way of general insight, the novel remains, with its emphasis on the particular, an antidote to (ideological) systems of thought, whatever their content. Therefore, the novel provides an essential critique of theory and ideology while it approaches everyday human life and meaning in a manner akin to the impulses of a ‘modern’ way of thinking, a thinking that is understood as an open and attentive stance toward the concrete and the particular.
If ideological and dogmatic forms of thought struggle to apprehend the realities of existence, the novel, with its emphasis on particular stories and concrete situations, inherently resists both absolute meaning and the idolatrous temptations of ideology which obscure or frame reality rather than clarify it. This resistance has been recognised and articulated by many theorists of the novel. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s essays on the novel for example, novelistic discourse is provisional and open-ended, offering realities that are ‘internally persuasive’ rather than authoritative and determined externally; and Georg Lukács connects the novel to the loss of a sense of totality in the modern world and speaks of the transcendental homelessness of the modern subject. For Hermann Broch, the novel is genuine insofar as it clarifies and offers insight into the theological and cultural grounds of everyday life. In a similar vein, René Girard understands the art of the novel to be an exploration of the mimetic tradition founded on theological insights and their adaptation or rejection. Walter Benjamin, in contrasting the impersonal basis and abstract reception of the novel, recognised that the novel was important for understanding modern forms of experience. Finally, Milan Kundera sees the novel as an essential measure for and critique of the worst forms of modern theoretical abstraction and reduction of meaningful experience and expressions of cultural realities.
Novelists, too, have depicted and critiqued religious, political, and philosophical ideology. Some major contributions to this novelistic discourse include Fyodor Dostoevsky, who gave his characters theological and philosophical insights and worked out their limits in his dialogical prose, as well as Thomas Mann, who elaborated on the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, creating what he considered his masterpiece—a novel of profound depth and length. On the other hand, Salman Rushdie acquired a death sentence for his ironic treatment of Islam in The Satanic Verses, and Nikos Kazantzakis measured his distance from Christianity in his novels on the lives of St Francis of Assisi and of Christ. While DH Lawrence held the novel and its particular presentation of life over against the ‘winding sheets of abstraction,’ Marcel Proust examined the place of memory and culture in the making of modern identity. Franz Kafka illuminated the individual’s confrontation with the law and provided a defense of the individual over against the dark systems of modernity, while Gustave Flaubert critiqued the received ideas central to so much of modernity and represented the vicissitudes of the difficult transition from provincial life to that of the big city. And while Louis-Ferdinand Céline explored ideas of freedom in regards to the individual living the concrete realities of existence (freedoms that all too often clash with the way modern culture and ideology are played out), Bohumil Hrabal used earthy humour to soberly confront the implications of existence in the shadow of political regimes. Finally, a novelist such as Witold Gombrowicz, in political exile, contested the pieties of the displaced through his thorough rejection of both the real and potential ideological idolatries of the insulted and the injured.
With these ideas in mind, we invite abstracts of 500 words or full papers (taking not more than 20 minutes) on the central questions of modernity, ideology, and the novel.
Possible topics may include but are not limited to:
- epistemology in/and the novel
To be considered for the conference travel award, full papers are required.
Please submit your abstracts or full papers to email@example.com by 15 June, 2012.