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Symbolic Animals: On Representation

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Organizer: Alya Ansari

Co-Organizer: Liam Kruger

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In a germinal essay of literary study, W.J.T. Mitchell observes that the human, “for many philosophers both ancient and modern, is the “representational animal,” homo symbolicum, the creature whose distinctive character is the creation and manipulation of signs—things that “stand for” or “take the place of” something else.” And in the twenty-first century, representation—in its aesthetic, cultural, semiotic, political, and myriad other contemporary dimensions—is strategically deployed for its presumptive ability to carry the burden of material disparities produced along intersecting lines of difference. Yet, the recruitment of representation based on a kind of identitarian affirmation—particularly in the service of political “parity”—seems to have effected what Nancy Fraser calls a “surface redistribution” of social, cultural, and political potentialities.



Was this inevitable?



This seminar revisits the concept of representation—whether through deeper engagement with the aesthetic traditions that underpin the logic of representation, or through clearer articulation of the relationships between different modes of representation as they appear to operate in the present—in order to better understand the role of representation in the critical and progressive agendas to which the concept is now primarily recruited.



We welcome papers and presentations that:



  • Consider representation as an aesthetic category alongside or against representation as the question of varied and proportional distribution;

  • Articulate the differing stakes of and strategies for the representation of identity across a range of modalities which include, but are not exhausted by race, nation, class, ethnicity, indigeneity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability;

  • Historicize the conceptual rise of representation and its attendant anthropocentrism;

  • Explore representation in its relationship to fictionality (representation and reference);

  • Figure the felicity conditions of representational acts;

  • Address representation at scale: world literature, minoritised literature, hegemonic literatures, and the uneven distribution of representative burden; 

  • (Re)consider distinctions between Darstellung, Erscheinung, and Vertretung;

  • Assess the parameters of under-representation and over-representation;

  • Distinguish between representational content and representational forms; 

  • Theorize emergent representative modes and politics;

  • Think beyond the success or failure of representation—is it possible to arrive at a generative account of what failed representations evince?

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