To speak of identity at the beginning of the twenty-first century is necessarily to engage a paradox. The death of the self-conscious Cartesian subject heralded by the advent of twentieth-century postructuralism and the critique of essentialism came hand in hand with denials of any fixed or stable value to notions such as gender, race, or even human nature itself. Much of this critique capitalized on the ripe strata of earlier philosophical skepticism as to the possibility of circumscribing the human self within a definable horizon of expectations, a position going back to the thought of David Hume in the early days of the modern world as we know it. Yet, to look at the modern world as it nears the end of the second decade of the new century is to see these very same categories reemerge and not just shape the theoretical discourse of the human sciences but affect the lives of people across the globe. As new nationalisms rise, religious wars touch populations worldwide and racism still dominates much of identity politics, it is worth asking how to square theory with social reality to say something meaningful about the world around us and how it came to be what it is.
In Seeing Through Race, W.J.T. Mitchell provides a framework for reflection on the
nature of socio-cultural perception by arguing that race is “not merely a content to be mediated, an object to be represented visually and verbally, or a thing to be depicted in a likeness or image, but that race is itself a medium and an iconic form—not simply to be seen, but itself a framework for seeing through or (as Wittgenstein would put it) seeing as.” This conference aims to expand this perspective onto other historically essentialist notions such as gender, sex, age, class, nation, ethnicity and religion and to scrutinize the categories that have come to define identity throughout the history of Anglophone cultures, literatures, and in the English language. Suggesting that it is worthwhile to look at each of these concepts not as something to be studied but rather, as Mitchell has it, as “a frame, a window, a screen, or a lens” through which people have historically structured the world around them and endowed it with meaning, we thus hope to inquire not just into how language, literature and art reflect reality but also how they shape it. The thematic session suggestions listed below do not exhaust the topic and contributors are welcome to submit paper proposals on any historical or contemporary aspect of the construction of identity in the English-speaking world.