20/09/2019 – CFP: Troubling Usurpations: Imposture in the literature, cinema and the arts of the English-speaking world

 “Troubling Usurpations: Imposture in the literature, cinema and the arts of the English-speaking world”

19-20 March 2020

University of Toulouse Jean Jaurès, France


Please send 400-500-word proposals, in English or French, along with a short bio-bibliographical note, to: usurpationtoulouseconference@gmail.com by 20 September 2019.

Please note that panel proposals (3-4 papers) are welcome.

This international conference aims to question the representations of usurpation and imposture in the literature, cinema and the arts of the English-speaking world, from the Renaissance to the present day. 

As Roland Gori argues, impostors are powerful tools to reveal how a given culture and period works: indeed usurpers will mimic the rituals, signs and masks through which power, authority and even identities are usually established in a given society, so that the impostor’s unruly or irregular use of such codes is a way of highlighting them. Impostors reveal established definitions of authority, their underlying principles and concealed contradictions: as a liberal vision of individual freedom expands across the English-speaking world, as the individual per se is increasingly seen as the “author” of his or her own life, narratives centered on forged identities bring to light the limits of individualism (e.g. James Gatz in The Great Gatsby). In gothic fiction, both the usurpers bent on overthrowing legitimate leaders and the Promethean or Epimethean figures who seem to usurp a position of divine power – from Manfred to Victor Frankenstein – tend to disclose theological as well as political issues. In sensation fiction, identity theft – whether through bigamy or assumed identities (Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret; Mrs Henry Wood, East Lynne) – lays bare the contradictions of marriage law in the Victorian era.

In anonymous, impersonal places where social control has loosened its grip, usurpation is in full bloom. In Samuel Clemens’s and Herman Melville’s works, the Mississippi river in the middle of the nineteenth century is an in-between zone where any stranger may appear as a potential usurper of someone else’s identity (Melville, The Confidence Man; Clemens, Huckleberry Finn). In periods of fast-growing urbanization, large cities become labyrinthine, anonymous spaces where various forgeries may be given free play:  the upwardly mobile trajectory of the upstart, racial passing in the United States, cross-dressing, all seem to point to ambiguous quests for emancipation which blur the conventional boundary between conformism and the transgression of accepted norms.

When represented on screen, many forms of usurpation tend to disrupt preconceived ideas about collective or individual identity (linked to race, gender, or to the human as opposed to the non-human or trans-human); these troubling usurpations question any firm distinction between different facets of the self  or the frontier between the self and one’s social personae (Mad MenVertigoThe Talented Mr. RipleyReady Player One). When masks, avatars or doubles do embody a definite part of the self, it is not always easy to draw the line between the “genuine” identity and the “fabricated” one. When new channels and modes of communication are seen to thrive, notably on social media, the theme of usurpation in literature and the visual arts keeps drawing our attention toward a persistent problem: do usurpations point to an inherently theatrical character of social life which should be embraced as an inevitable, and even enjoyable, aspect of human existence (as can be seen in virtual communities where “catfishing” is an aspect of social life) or do they point to a philosophical and political aporia, to the lack of any firm foundation for any social contract?

When texts, plays or films represent unsettling modes of usurpation, those fictions also call for a critical debate on what constitutes an authoritative position. How is identity theft repressed or punished? Who is supposed to put the usurper back in his or her place? And may the authority of the avenging or righteous figure be considered as yet another form of power abuse?

Usurpation may also be tackled from a semiotic angle when the usurper seems to be nothing but a persona, a “sheer” signifier with no substantial signified, coming across psychologically as devoid of any inner life and being reduced, therefore, to his or her surface appearance. We also invite reflections on the metafictional, poetic and aesthetic dimensions of imposture in particular works of fiction, when the impersonator may be seen as symbolising the powers of fiction itself, notably in the case of unreliable narrators.

We welcome any study of the following topics (please note that the list is indicative and by no means comprehensive):

– Representations of legitimate and illegitimate rulers, usurpers of political or religious authority, the virtuous, educational use of mimicry and imposture;

-Representations of upstarts, cross-dressers, bigamists, racial passing, medical doctors and simulators, usurped professional, sexual, or national identities in biographies/autobiographies/ biopics/ artistic performances;

  • – New forms of the performance of identity in contemporary media: the use and misuse of avatars;
  • – Usurpation, social control and social unrest;
  • – Counterfeited signs, counterfeited evidence: semiotic, legal, medical perspectives on the illegitimate or irregular use of signs;
  • – Imposture and metafiction; illusionism, realism and trompe-l’œil in literature, the cinema and the arts;
  • – Usurpers in spy fiction, in detective fiction, in satirical texts, films or cartoons;
  • – Psychoanalytical and/or philosophical perspectives on imposture; imposture and ontological or political dead-ends

Calls for papers – Conferences taking place in March 2020


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