Post-Empire Imaginaries?

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Post-Empire Imaginaries? 23rd Annual GNEL/ASNEL Conference, University of Bern, 18-20 May 2012.

The 23rd annual conference of GNEL/ASNEL, the Association for the Study of the New Literatures in English, from May 18-20 proved once more to be the main venue for postcolonial studies of a broad disciplinary and interdisciplinary variety in the German-speaking academic community. For the first time in the history of the association, the conference was held in Switzerland, at the University of Bern. The truly impressive organization by the conveners Virginia Richter (Chair of Modern English Literature) and Barbara Buchenau (Professor of Postcolonial Literary and Cultural Studies) and their team, headed by Daniella Gati and Marijke Denger-Kahler, made the meeting a full success. With 146 participants from 20 different countries and 68 presentations including three keynote lectures, 55 papers, posters as well as panel discussions, the sessions offered a wide range of angles from which to consider the conference theme "Post-Empire Imaginaries? Anglophone Literature, History and the Demise of Empires." As noted by ASNEL President Mark Stein (Chair of English, Postcolonial and Media Studies at Westfalische Wilhelms-University Munster) in the welcome address, not often has the term literature actually been placed in ASNEL conference titles. Together with the programmatic focus on empires in the plural, this was seen as indicative of the widening set of disciplinary contexts and the multidisciplinary methodologies that have become necessary to unpack the complexities of the cultural, academic and critical work being done in the name of Anglophone Literature(s). The question mark in the title in many ways structured the event and ran through several strands of debate within and across the keynote lectures and the ensuing discussions.

When Donna Landry (Director of Research at the School of English, University of Kent at Canterbury) opened the comparative trajectory by way of "PostOttoman Rifts in Time: Postimperial, Postcolonial, Oppositional?," she also set the tone for the 'question mode' regarding the 'postimperial' which continued to run through many of the subsequent presentations. The "Ottomanised point of view" shifted the angle from London, Paris or New York to Istanbul. By example of the Evliya Celebi Way Project and its historical re-enactment promoting cultural reconnections, the keynote emphasized the need for a comparative approach to imperialisms and for a mutual interrogation of the 'postimperial' and the 'postcolonial' in oppositional scholarly agendas trying to untangle the paradoxical yearning for both Empire and its demise.

Alfred Hiatt (Reader in Medieval Literature and Culture, Queen Mary, University of London) gave the second day's keynote lecture on "Maps of Empires Past." Hiatt used the conjunction of the terms 'post-empire' and 'imaginaries' to show how maps that emerge in vastly different context historicize spatial representations of empire and how they comment on the 'afterlives' of empires through both visual and verbal means. A contemporary reworking of a medieval map demonstrated how religious references and narratives become pluralized and reinterpret the world image conveyed therein. Thus, multiple temporalities emerged as a second aspect of inquiries into the 'postimperial', emphasizing future trajectories rather than suggesting historical closure.

The third day's keynote lecture by Laura Ann Stoler (Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, New York) addressed "Concept Work: On Recrafting Post-Empire Histories," the conference's third major trajectory. The conceptual vocabulary and interpretive categories used to trace "the occluded genealogies of imperial effects," Stoler suggested, reveal the necessity of methodological renovations for the study of colonial histories in order to "capture the uneven, recursive qualities of the visions and practices that imperial formations have animated" and that pervade the present's "logos and pathos of empire. …