- Call for Papers
Villains! Constructing Narratives of EvilInternational Conference 6-8 February 2019International Graduate Center for the Study of the Culture(Justus Liebig University,Gießen, Germany)
Villains are not always simply agents of evil. They can represent the moral decay of a society. They can attract unexpected sympathy as misunderstood products of trauma. As symbols of revenge, they can produce a sense of justice or of closure. As harbingers of change and revolution, they can open us up to feelings of hope. This conference will have a focus on villains from historical, religious and cultural perspectives. Rather than as a subservient Other of the hero, we would like to conceptualize the villain as its own archetype.
The difficulties to define villains, their relation to heroes, and the purpose of their construction, are already visible in antiquity. The word “hero” itself derives from the Greek word heros (ἥρως). A heros was venerated within the context of a cult, but was not necessarily a hero according to our modern understanding of the term. Instead, the heros could also be a villain: e.g. Eurystheus, the counterpart of the famous hero Herakles. This ambivalence persisted in history. For instance, some villains are despite their evil deeds still admired for certain elements of their character (e.g. Hannibal for his military genius). Furthermore, the villain was subject to transformation in relation to changes in societies and their underlying systems of norms and values (e.g. Prometheus, who was seen as an evildoer by Hesiod, but as a cultural hero by Aischylos). The rhetorical and philosophical exemplary traditions, on the other hand, offer more clear-cut definitions: i.e. villains are defined either by the absence of moral virtues or the presence of vices, often styled with topoi and stock characteristics. In these traditions, the aim of constructing narratives of evil was to learn from the evildoers’ vices.
Early Christians, too, strove to fight and oppose evil, by means of the thorough examination of its manifestations and appearances, such as demons, as well as the Devil himself. Demons already were part of the religious culture in antiquity (e.g. Xenocrates’ tripartite classification of gods, men and demons). In early Christianity, demonology and the linked rituals of exorcism were not a marginal phenomenon, but played a part in shaping Christian life, faith and power relations. Many Christian authors were engaged in demonologies (e.g. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas), constructing narratives of evil, its origins and its manifestations in their present world. The Devil as ultimate villain tempted souls while hiding behind many faces: e.g. traitors, evil magicians, heretics and corrupted people thirsty of power and earthly pleasures.
During Romanticism, the lack of mortal virtues was not necessarily a problem, due to an emphasis on the dynamics of the soul. Passion, inspiration and honesty were pivotal virtues. Villains therefore often no longer functioned primarily as warnings or reminders, but instead as tragic characters who remained faithful to themselves. Villains of Romanticism, even when they were radical (e.g. insane criminals, consumed by the flames of their desires), still deserved admiration for their struggles. Specific genres (e.g. the Schauerroman, Gothic fiction) developed in the mid-18th century, that showed a fascination with the dark passions of their protagonists.
Such attempts to romanticize the villain can also be detected in contemporary literature and culture: e.g. criminal masterminds, mysterious outlaws, mad scientists, maniacal supervillains. This fascination has frequently been addressed in academic research. Walter Benjamin was not the only one to notice the public’s general admiration for “great” criminals, figures who are remembered for defying the law (“Critique of Violence”, 1921, 281). Eric Hobsbawm devoted a full study on the positive evaluation of defiant figures, including sects, the mafia, and anarchist movements (Primitive Rebels, 1959). More recently, Samuel Weber has suggested that “the cult of the ‘outlaw’” is a result of villains often functioning as “antilegal, antistate, anticentralist agents and institutions, representing the individual and the local against the anonymous powers of the State, Big Business, and ‘the Law’ in general” (Theatricality as Medium, 2009, 121).
We invite proposals for papers pertaining (but not limited to) the following topics:
- villains of antiquity/the Middle Ages/modernity
- villains of war and terrorism
- constructing villains in popular culture, (modern) literature, theater and film
- visual representations of evil
- villains and gender
- villains and power
- non-personal villains (institutions, groups, etc.)
We encourage young scholars, PhD and MA students from myriad disciplines and fields within the Humanities and Social Sciences, including Memory Studies, Literary and Cultural Studies, and Religious Studies, to send in their abstracts (300 words max., and an additional short bio) for 15-20 minute presentations. Please send your abstracts to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 12 August 2018.
- Keynote Abstracts
“You are Bad Guy, but this does not mean you are bad guy”: Guilt, Culpability and the Office of the Villain
6 February 2019, 18:00
Dr Timothy D Peters, USC Law School, University of the Sunshine Coast
What is the role of the villain today? The dominance of the superhero genre in contemporary comics, television and film has focused on the superhero’s exceptionality, their need to challenge the law and operate beyond its limits in order to save it, to take down the villain and rescue the city, nation, world or galaxy. However, the supervillain’s disregard for the law, and for the lives and societies the law is designed to protect, is often presupposed. Whether it is with figures of pure evil and destruction (think the Joker in The Dark Knight, or Ronan in Guardians of the Galaxy), or those of necessary evil using terrifying means for a purportedly good end or justice (Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, Killmonger in Black Panther or Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins), the villain is often presented as both the narrative counterpoint of hero, but also the structural precondition for the heroic feats of the superhero on screen. This paper challenges such presentations of the villain by examining the way in which they are deliberately caricatured by a number of recent animated children’s films: Megamind, Wreck-it Ralph and the Despicable Me franchise. In the midst of their light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek probing of the tropes of the superhero genre, these films provide a systematic interrogation of the structural role of the villain. Rather than reproducing the gritty realism of either the DC or Marvel Universes on screen of recent years (which more and more focus on the flawed and dangerous psyches of the superheroes), these films render visible aspects of the villain themselves—and do so by considering the villain as a pre-figured role, an office that must be performed or a duty that must be fulfilled. What is significant here is the way in which this focus on the structural role of the villain itself challenges the traditional tropes of the villain. It calls into question their culpability and guilt at having been the cause of mass destruction, crime and villainy not in the usual stereotypes of being criminally insane or otherwise acting out their psychological traumas, but in terms of calling attention to the structure of their pre-figured role, understood in the paradigm of the office which, as Giorgio Agamben has demonstrated, encompasses a praxis that is wholly effective and operates independently of the qualities of the subject who carries it out. At one level the office has been that which protects the individual subject from the culpability of their actions, and yet analysing the villain in terms of the office reveals its connections to the paradigms of guilt and imputability that it makes operative. In the office ‘what a human does and what a human is enter into a zone of indistinction’—it is what it has to be and has to be what it is. And yet, these comic interrogations of the villain challenge this rendering together of what is and what has to be—with the villain rejecting their pre-defined role, claiming that they do not want to be the bad guy anymore…and yet, in the end returning to the mantle of the office it in a way that allows us to see more clearly the functions of duty and responsibility that operate explicitly in the attempts to render subjects culpable and guilty.
Dr Timothy D Peters is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the USC Law School, University of the Sunshine Coast, an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Law Futures Centre, Griffith University, President of the Law, Literature and the Humanities Association of Australasia and a member of the Arts Research in the Creative Humanities research concentration at USC. He holds an LLB, a Bachelor of Commerce and a PhD from Griffith University, where he was a lecturer from 2011-2017.
Tim’s research has two major focuses. The first examines the intersections of legal theory, theology and popular culture. He has published cultural legal readings of speculative fiction films such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Alex Proyas’ I, Robot, George Lucas’ Star Wars and Scott Beattie’s I, Frankenstein and is currently finalising a book manuscript for Edinburgh University Press entitled A Theological Jurisprudence of Popular Cinema: Superheroes, Science Fictions and Fantasies of Modern Law. His second research focus is on theories of the corporation and he is currently examining the history of the corporation from the perspective of political and economic theologies.
Tim was a Managing Editor of the Griffith Law Review (2012-2017) and Secretary of both the Law, Literature and Humanities Association of Australasia (2009-2016) and Law and Society Association of Australia and New Zealand (2006-2016). He is currently an editorial board member of the Griffith Law Review and the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law.
“…and all because of a woman!” Revenge and the Misogynist Dimensions of Villainy
7 February 2019, 13:45
Dr Sonja Schillings
What makes a woman a villain?
The term “villain” is intimately entangled with the notion of revenge. As a character type first associated with revenge tragedies, the (typically, male) villain is explicitly designed to inspire absolute moral outrage in the audience. The villain deserves not only punishment, but poetic justice.
In the case of male villains, the plot generally includes straightforward violence. The hero often personally kills the villain. In the case of female villains, poetic justice tends to be more complicated; only rarely is a woman slain for her wickedness in dramatic plots. Instead, plots often have her kill herself, or alternatively suffer social death and exile. She is not stopped in her tracks, like the male villain; she is instead transformed into a cautionary tale.
This talk is preoccupied with this “exemplary” dimension of female villainy, and most strongly focuses on instances of female villainy that do not require a specific, rounded, larger-than-life personality. The forms of villainy discussed here are cast as more generically female, and are frequently the cause of complex interrelations and interactions between men and women, male and female characters, dramatic narratives and audiences.
The female villainy discussed here is the result of a woman stepping out of a purely supporting or ornamental role. When she breaks up the band, refuses the “nice guy” in favor of the “bad guy”, or betrays the father of her children, she makes choices that seem mundane in comparison to the exalted wickedness of classic male villains. However, precisely such mundane instances of female choice have become one of the surest ways to inspire passionate and collective moral outrage in audiences today – up to the point of casting “such a woman” as the legitimate target of revenge.
The talk traces seemingly simple questions: What is so provocative about female choice that it can become the grounds for female villainy? Who or what is violated by her, and has to be avenged in response? And what might happen, exactly, if her villainous scheming succeeds?
Dr. Sonja Schillings is a researcher in American Studies who is currently affiliated with departments of English and American Studies at Justus-Liebig-University, Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt University of Berlin. She has published widely on piracy, representation and human dignity, Anglo-American literature, as well as strategies of the successful construction of legitimate violence in text. Her monograph Enemies of all: Fictions of Legitimate Violence was published with Dartmouth College Press/University Press of New England in 2017. She currently works on a larger project on human dignity and twentieth-century American literature.
'A Brief Inventory of Early Christian Adversaries and their Ethical and Epistemic Functions'
8 February 2019, 9:00
Dr. Blossom Stefaniw
Sometimes a different adversary means a different self and a different God. Depending on where the adversary is located and the size and impact attributed to the adversary, religious imaginaries will generate different ethical imperatives. That is the ethical function of adversary-talk. Discourse of the adversary also asserts itself as knowledge, and the way knowledge about the gravest threat to human flourishing is presented also shifts according to the type and location and size of the adversary under discussion. That is the epistemic function of adversary-talk.
This lecture surveys five early Christian texts to set out the broad variety of notions of the adversary in ascetic literature in the space of only about 150 years. Some Christian thinkers operate in a world of epic, while others operate on the basis of taxonomies. Some consider the adversary a minor internal fault, others an external malicious agent like a demon, and still others a perverse human being. If adversary-talk is a way of organizing the ethical world, this wide variety among early Christians would suggest that the type of adversary one imagines shapes the world you live in more than the religious community you attach yourself to.
Dr. Blossom Stefaniw is currently Heisenberg Fellow at the Martin Luther University of Halle. Previously she served as Junior Professor for Ethics in Antiquity and Christianity at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. She is the author of two monographs: Mind, Text and Commentary: Noetic Exegesis in Origen of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind and Evagrius Ponticus, and, appearing this month, Christian Reading: language, ethics and the order of things. She has also published numerous articles on ascetic reading practices and the ascetic imagination.
Where to Find Us
- Where to Find Us
Coming by airplane:
You can take the train from the Frankfurt airport train station to the main train station (Hauptbahnhof) in Frankfurt. From there take a regional train to Giessen (s.) and then a bus or train to the GCSC.
Find us by train:
From Giessen railway station: take regional train to "Giessen Licher Strasse" (s. http://www.bahn.de/p/view/index.shtml). Please take a look at the map below to find your way to the GCSC building from the station.
Find us by bus:
From Giessen railway station: bus route number 10 goes directly to Rathenaustraße (alternatively take the bus number 5 or 24 to Marktplatz and then change to line 801 or 802 to Rathenaustraße). When you arrive at Rathenaustraße, you will see the main buildings of the Philosophikum I.
Bus line number 2 in the direction of Eichendorffring stops at Graudenzer Straße.
Please take a look at this map to find your way to the GCSC building:
Here you will find the current route planner:
Or by car
If you are letting a route planner create the best route for you, or if you are using a GPS/Navigation system, simply enter the address: Alter Steinbacher Weg 38, 35394 Giessen.
Directions from the A5:
From the South:
Follow the A5 toward Kassel. Turn off the A5 at the junction Gambacher Kreuz toward Giessen and get on the A45. Turn onto the A485 toward Giessen. Get off the A485 at the junction Giessen-Schiffenberger Tal toward the university and get on Schiffenberger Weg. Stay on the Schiffenberger Weg and turn right at the Burger King onto Rathenaustraße. Follow until Alter Steinbacher Weg then turn left. Take the first left and you will be in the parking lot behind the university library. The GCSC building is now directly in front of you, and you will recognise it by its blue blinds between the windows.
From the North:
Take the A5 towards Frankfurt, Giessen. Change at the junction Reiscirchener Dreieck from the A5 to the A480 towards Dortmund, Giessen. At the Giessener Nordkreuz change to the A485 towards Giessen, Stadtmitte. Get off the A485 at the junction Giessen-Schiffenberger Tal and get onto Schiffenberger Weg. Stay on Schiffenberger Weg and turn right at the Burger King onto Rathenaustraße. Follow until Alter Steinbacher Weg then turn left. Take the first left and you will be in the parking lot behind the university library. The GCSC building is now directly in front of you, and you will recognise it by its blue blinds between the windows.