CFP: Gratuitous Violence and Free Will in a Nihilistic Age (With a Subsection on J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace)

Submission deadline: June 15, 2019

Conference date(s):
September 19, 2019 - September 20, 2019

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Conference Venue:

Faculty for Human and Social Sciences , New University of Lisbon
Lisbon, Portugal

Topic areas


Keynote Speakers:

Gabriel Albiac (Universidad Complutense de Madrid)

David Attwell (University of York)

Luca Lupo (Università della Calabria)

Christopher Janaway (University of Southampton)

Call For Papers: Not always were philosophical debates on the nature of free will related to issues of violence or imbalanced action. Massive progress in industrialization and technology, however, aligned with an increasing secularism lashing Europe from the second half of the nineteenth-century onwards, opened the way for an intellectual debate on the existence of – or even the meaningfulness, and meaningful social reliance upon – any set of a-temporal values and norms.

In the high rank of intellectual discussion in the Old Continent, that skepticism came to be called ‘nihilism’. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we may think that such a threat to shared social values would end up in bouts of extreme violence, masterfully depicted in European Fiction and soon to creep to the level of international politics. In writing his major novels, for instance, Dostoyevsky was inspired by Russian terrorism. Dostoyevsky himself, together with Nietzsche, influenced the French writer André Gide, who introduced the concept of ‘gratuitous act’.

Furthermore, and conditioned by the events of the Second World War, Sartre and Camus pondered over the gratuitous and absurd nature of the human condition. Finally, this overall issue was taken up in Film (Robert Bresson, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Haneke), the Theatre (Patrick Hamilton), and the Novel (Truman Capote, Anthony Burgess, Bret Easton Ellis, J.M. Coetzee). 

In producing artistic masterpieces, these authors were raising questions such as: are so-called acts of gratuitous violence so much as gratuitous? Which are the reasons behind such acts? What does gratuitous violence tell us about the nature of human agency and selfhood?

We invite papers by PhD candidates, early career researchers or established academics. Expanded abstracts of around 400-500 words, plus a short bio-note, should be addressed to [email protected]  before June 15, 2019. Submissions can be made in English and Portuguese. Notification of Acceptance: July 1, 2019

We welcome papers dealing with the idea of ‘gratuitous violence’, both as depicted in modern fiction and in relation with such philosophical notions as free-will, human agency or the nature of the Self.

A thorough, but by no means exclusive, list of topics, include:

·         Gratuitous violence and free will

·         Gratuitous violence and human agency

·         Gratuitous violence and the nature of the Self

·         Nihilism, death of God and gratuitous violence

·         Moral/religious values and gratuitous violence

·         Possibility and meaning of acts of gratuitous violence

·         Difference between fictional and real acts of gratuitous violence

·         Social and/or political context of acts of gratuitous violence

·         A specific author’s approach to gratuitous violence

·         Existentialism and gratuitous violence

Furthermore, and on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the publication of Coetzee’s Disgrace, a specific section of the conference will be dedicated to the analysis of this work:

When Disgrace first appeared, in July 1999, it provoked a worldwide commotion. In the most prestigious counters of the global Republic of Letters, the novel was hailed by the enormous feat of having won Coetzee the second Booker Prize of his career (he had already been awarded the most distinguished literary prize in English in 1983, for The Life & Times of Michael K).

The great majority of political commentators, however, waved harsh critiques against the hopeless prospects of life for the white-community in Post-Apartheid South-Africa. Nelson Mandela had just stepped down as President, and the power-balance in the country was clearly shifting. Eventually, in 2000, a Human Rights Commission against Racism in the Media, chaired by a minister of the newly elected President, Thabo Mbeki, would formally charge the novel with racism. In 2003, Coetzee left South Africa for Australia.

But the book went on to generate what, in a barely disguised self-mocking remark from Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee termed ‘a small critical industry’. In a myriad of critical approaches, ranging from the socio-political to the purely aesthetic, and over these twenty years of reception, Disgrace gave rise to literally thousands of critical notes, encyclopedia entries, monographs, reading-guides, research-papers, media-reviews, etc.

Now that we have reached the twentieth anniversary of the publication of this millennial novel, the 2019 CultureLab annual meeting is seeking critical discussions grappling with the multilayered issues addressed in it.

Possible, but non-exclusive, topics of discussion include:

·         Veiled references to the Western literary and philosophical canon.

·         David Lurie’s Romantic affinities.

·         The fate of the post-colonial white in Africa.

·         The problem of confession in relation to Lurie’s public hearing.

·         The mix of crude violence and irony in the depiction of the attack in chapter 11.

·         Gender and social hierarchy in Post-Apartheid South-Africa.

·         The role played by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the shaping of the ‘new’ South Africa.

·         Lucy’s sacrifice.

·         The representation of a strong bond between Lurie and the animals throughout the story.

·         The idea of a synoptic (or incomplete) novel.

·         The shift in prose-style and thematic affinities in the Coetzean fictional universe since Disgrace.

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