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Past Activities

States of Exceptionalism : Globalization, Difference, Power

International Conference, 8–9 May 2014

The term exceptionalism has become prominent in various political and academic debates within the past decade. With the conference States of Exceptionalism we are offering a forum to take a closer look at the term and to compare and discuss how it is conceptualized and utilized in different places and contexts. The conference is dedicated to an exploration of the notion of exceptionalism as a discursive tool to distinguish the self from not only an inferior but also from a coequal other. Thus, exceptionalism seems to gesture toward a peer relation within an imaginary on places, regions and nation states, not necessarily one of domination between colonial center and colonized periphery.

While the contemporary world is increasingly characterized by conflict and crisis, challenging imagined geographies and geopolitical patterns formerly regarded as stable, exceptional identity positions seem to gain ground. As the world becomes more homogeneous, there seems to emerge a growing need to construct the self as special, superior, unique and exceptional. Nations, countries, regions and cities as well as social groups claiming to be exceptional, obviously follow a mission. They use their alleged superiority, be it of an economic, a power-related or an imagined ethical and moral kind to supply “the more ordinary parts of the world” with strategies of good governance and exemplary models. Presumably being the most prominent of its kind, the idea of American Exceptionalism is about pointing to how the United States are unlike other advanced democracies and thus are subject to different rules than other nations not needing to submit to diktats of the international community (Ceaser 2012). Also the societies of the Nordic countries, for a long time commended for their exemplary welfare state, regard themselves as exceptional, claiming a position as global peace brokers, enlightened altruists and humanitarian superpowers (Browning 2007). The image of the Nordics is one of the “good Westerners”, while South Africa’s self-fashioning as a rainbow nation shows the conflict laden continent an alleged way towards democracy and peace. Finally, Switzerland known for its neutrality and direct democracy seems to fill a comparable niche for the case of Europe.

These examples show that exceptional self-conceptions are manifold and can be found globally. There are certainly more examples to be identified and discussed at the conference. However, our intention with the conference is neither to verify nor to falsify whether Europe, the United States, South Africa, New York City or the South Sandwich Islandsindeed are exceptional. We rather regard the exceptional proclamations as social constructions based on discursive mechanisms and narrative structures. At times nostalgic narratives about the “decline of exceptionalism” (Browning 2007) may be seen as an effect of the circumstance, that globalization strictly speaking handicaps the emergence of any actual exceptional position. As a matter of fact, choosing a comparative approach, already anticipates a deconstruction of the idea of exceptionalism itself. James W. Ceaser (2012) has rightly pointed to the fact that the concept of exceptionalism may have become more popular in recent years, but at the same time still remains vague, blurred and lacks definition. This, however, makes the idea of exceptionalism, its functions and its uses an even more worthwhile issue to study. Thus, we seek papers from interdisciplinary perspectives and different fields within the humanities and social sciences and welcome both presentations based on particular cases, and papers making a broader analytical and theoretical contribution to a deeper understanding of what the self- conception of being special in a globalized world is about.

Keynote Speakers:

  • Prof. Dr. James Ceaser, University of Virginia (USA)
  • Dr. Ylva Habel, Södertörns Högskola (Sweden)
  • PD Dr. Gabriele Dietze, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (Germany)


Sensorial Encounters and Visualisations of Space

International Workshop, 28-29 May, 2015

Space is occupied “by sensory phenomena, including products of the imagination such as projects and projections, symbols and Utopias” (Lefebvre 1991:12). Relying on Lefebvre's point, this workshop considers that in a world increasingly globalised and characterised by a continuous flow of bodies, labour, commodities, goods and practices, “cross-cultural sensory encounters” (Low 2013) are essential. The global is no longer somewhere out there, but what counts is how closely connected entities are. By concentrating on socio-material functioning of networks, reference is not only made to the production of agency and power but also to notions of affect, emotion and senses as what holds it together or makes it fall apart (Thrift 2008). The attempt to understand the relation between emotion and making sense of place appears to be somewhat circular, as “emotions are understandable - ‘sensible’ - only in the context of particular places. Likewise, place must be felt to make sense” (Davids/Milligan 2004).

Sensorial encounters, in the broadest meaning, are thus little addressed in discussions deriving from studies on trans-local practices and socio-spatial interconnectedness, accordingly this workshop hopes to feed such thoughts by asking how bodies experience spaces and contribute to place-making processes, with reference to abstract accounts on cultural and social transformations. Herein, we support the stance of the scholars who criticize the ocularcentrist approach which indexes all the other sensory modalities to the visual (e.g. Classen 1997, Rose 2007) and of those who call the attention to the danger of imperialism of sight (Low 2009) or of “the tyranny of a visualist paradigm” (Pink 2006). This workshop seeks to grasp how we can access non-representational qualities of space/s embedded in processes of producing, consuming and circulating visual material (mainly photographs), while exploring ways in which we can benefit from the interplays between different sensory and aesthetic categories in processes of collecting data, producing content and communicating knowledge about space/s. The objective of this gathering has a threefold focus: epistemological, heuristic and thematic.

We aim to reassess traditional epistemologies by paying more attention to non-representational accounts of space and to its materiality which facilitate multiple sensorial experiences. This approach is meant to depart from antagonising the realm of the sensorial, affect or aesthetics from the one of reason and objectivity, by focusing on embodied experience and practice. Therefore, photographs are here understood as mediators between reason, intentionality, ideology on the one hand, and social activity and sensorial experience, on the other hand, all being deployed in space, constantly realising and reconceptualising it.

Taking a cue from Sarah Pink who maintains that “it is problematic to separate the visual from the other senses whether in terms of biological perception, cultural theory, ethnographic experience or local epistemologies” (Pink 2006) the workshop seeks to nurture discussions about the multiple sensory dimensions entailed in the process of researching. The image as a material artefact, the materiality of space and the technologies used in producing and communicating knowledge are three important elements that will be touched upon in connection to the scholars’, researchers’ and artists’ sensory experience with and within the field of interest. Attending these issues is also an attempt to provide possible answers to the question of how we contribute to processes of place-making by producing and circulating photographs/images. The praxis oriented session of the workshop will thus also encourage a reflection on processes of “collaborative knowledge production” (O’Neill & Hubbard 2010).

Departing from approaches which assume the binary global/local, this workshop seeks to encourage an analysis of how bodies experience spaces and constantly shape them by transcending the putative social, cultural, national, geographical boundaries or of any other kind. The aim is to tackle abstract accounts on cultural and social transformations (such as transnational identity processes, religious conflicts, macro-constructions such as the capitalist world system, negotiation of identities and places of belonging, urban policies, consumption, governance etc.) by looking at how visual material (mainly photographs) imagines, produces and circulates knowledge about these dynamics. Thus, categories of sensory, aesthetics and affect are essential here for grasping processes of place making and negotiations of space, experienced by both scholars (or researchers or artists) in their knowledge production attempts and people (individuals or communities) in their daily life experiences.

Invited Speaker:

  • Prof. Maggie O'Neill (Durham University)