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Fantasies of Philology: Comparativism, Indo-Europeanism, and Cultural Production

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Organizer: Peter Asimov

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The complex root system of the Indo-European hypothesis or “Aryan myth” (Poliakov 1974)—a confluence of 19th-c. comparative philology, 18th-c. British imperial law, and 5th-c.-BCE Indian grammatical science—has been laid bare over generations of intellectual historiography (e.g., Olender 1989; Dharwadkar 1993; Pollock 1993; Trautmann 1997; Kaiwar 2003; Arvidsson 2006; Beneš 2008; Rabault-Feuerhahn 2008; Demoule 2014; Ahmed 2017…). Recent scholars have gone so far as to describe the “hegemony” that philology, its forms of knowledge, and its racialised identitarianism accrued within the European humanities by the twentieth century.


However, even as this history is fleshed out with increasing nuance—most recently in a 2019 special issue of Romantisme on “L’idée indo-européenne”—scarcer attention has been paid to how philology and Indo-Europeanism penetrated literature and the arts beyond the academy (and beyond the Third Reich). Just as IEism’s intellectual entanglement with philology laid authoritative epistemological foundations for diverse forms of ethnic nationalism and racism, constructions of IEism infiltrated artistic imaginaries, thereby reaching broader audiences in ways that may or may not have been intended or understood. How have scientifically obsolete fantasies of “proto-IE” patrimony nonetheless been preserved in modernist techniques?


This seminar invites scholars across literary, theatrical, musical, and visual arts/humanities to locate the imprint of philological comparativism and its fantasies of IE origins in 19th/20th-century cultural production, asking not only how these shaped artistic interests and priorities, but also how the comparative philological epistemology shaped formal techniques. Because of philology’s intendent processes of objectification and rationalisation, the hypothesis is that this imprint isn’t limited to the plane of orientalist, classicist, or nationalist representation, but that it is also embedded in abstracted forms and structures—poetic rhythms, musical tones, architectural shapes, danced gestures. Because of IEism’s supranational scope, submissions on wide-ranging national/linguistic spheres are encouraged—as are submissions concerning philologically mediated ethnic-national constructions modeled on IEism (e.g., Semitism, Turanism).


Topics may include:



  • Representations of IEism in literature/arts

  • Impact of IEism on orientalist or nationalist representation in comparative contexts

  • Epistemological relationship between philology and cultural production; imprint of comparative philology upon formal techniques

  • Comparative contingencies of IEism in national and/or colonial contexts of artistic production 

  • (Dis)entanglements between IEism, (anti)semitism, and scientific racism

  • (Dis)entanglements between IEism, colonialism, orientalism, and nationalism in cultural production

  • Interchange between philological and artistic methods

  • Resistance to IEism in literature/arts

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