Unstable Narratives of the Sovereign Body from the Age of the Enlightenment to World War I

September 20, 2012 - September 21, 2012
Cambridge University

United Kingdom

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The mid- to late eighteenth century saw transformations in our conception of history, social and political systems, economic modes and cultural forms. In the West as well as in the wider world, developments in civil and commercial society were accompanied by - and propelled – intellectual conceptualisations of the self amongst familiar groups, of the individual within the state, of humans within nature, and of states in relation to one another. At the centre of these multi-fold transformations was the desire to control this change by creating a narrative which explained the past and the present and helped forecast the future. Nascent political and economic theories, budding philosophies of history, new religious forms and fresh social and legal systems were devised with the purpose of narrating progress and change and accounting for continuity in geographical and chronological spaces. The French Revolution and, perhaps more importantly, its aftermath, challenged the optimism of eighteenth-century systems by pointing to their flaws and instabilities. Major social, political and economic systems were created in the nineteenth century, all accompanied by strict philosophical – and often religious - understandings of human history. Attempting to counteract the instability of what became described as a “metaphysical Enlightenment project", nineteenth-century systems attempted to tie all the loose ends left by the previous century thinkers by creating grand narratives which could compellingly direct individual, group and state action. The new projects offered solutions for revolution and violence, political representation and liberty, social equality and harmony, as they promised peace as the end-result of their systematic endeavours. With the outbreak of World War I, the flaws of nineteenth-century projects became only too clear, and they too became historically dated and their contribution to the sovereign bodies came into question.

This colloquium aims to investigate the creation and development of unstable narratives of social, political, economic and intellectual history from 1740 to 1914. The objective is to examine how individual thinkers or groups of thinkers which can be aligned together conceived of their systems and tried to cater for variations in the course of human history through the creation of stable narratives.

Informal enquiries can be sent to Dr Isabel DiVanna ([email protected]).

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