Conference to be held at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany

Since the turn of the century, empire as a concept, an object of research and a target of political critique has experienced a dramatic renaissance—“empire” seems to be expanding, as it is wont to do. It has inspired Marxist manifestoes (Hardt and Negri 2000; Harvey 2003), reanimated postcolonial critique (Mehta 1999; Stoler 2016), and fueled  innovative imperial histories (Barkey 2008; Judson 2016; Kivelson and Suny 2016; Daughton 2006). In the vexatious time of Brexit, apologies for imperialism have also increased in frequency and volume  (Ferguson 2018). In short, “empire” is a predominant political fantasy of our day and age. With this backdrop in mind, we invite proposals for our interdisciplinary, exploratory conference, Striking Back? On Imperial Fantasies and Fantasies of Empire. We seek contributions from political theorists, anthropologists, historians, sociologists, and sundry interrogators of colonialism and imperialism that speak to two broad questions and themes. First, how are we to understand imperial fantasies as inherent to the political formations of empires, both in the present and in the past? Secondly, what political, social and semiotic lives are lived by fantasies of empire?

On a conceptual plane, we aspire to mediate productively between the two dominant currents of theorization about fantasy: the Marxian and the psychoanalytic. From Marx and his legatees, we take the fundamental lesson that, in the time of capital, commodity fetishism, and the relations of production they entail, the real is itself fantastical.” (Miéville 2002: 42). From Freud, Lacan, and their interpreters, we inherit a notion of fantasy as inherent to the making and breaking of realities. Rather than an escape from reality or a supplement to the real, fantasy, as Lauren Berlant has mused, animates “the unconscious continuities we project that allow us to trust the world enough to test it and change ourselves“ (Manning and Berlant 2018). In this spirit, we heed China Miéville’s call for a “notion of fantasy as embedding potential transformation and emancipation in human thinking” (2002: 46). Furthermore, we contend that this project entails explicit attention to the constitutive doubleness of fantasy as a mode of power and as a genre of speculation about this power. 

Concomitantly, we also aim to shed new light on empire as a persistent theme in the literary and filmic genre of fantasy. From H. G. Wells’ marauding Martians to the Death Star’s depredations, works of science fiction and fantasy have thematised imperialism with incisive verve. Two general questions follow: What can we learn about the means and ends of imperial power from fictional fantasies about empire(s)? and, How are the genres of fantasy and science fiction themselves entangled with imperialist projects and worldviews? 

Finally, we also seek submissions that explicitly draw out the relationships between imperial fantasies and other, competing and converging fantasies of the political. How do imperial fantasies and nationalist fantasies conflict and collaborate? What fantasies undergird the resurgence of toxic populism and its affects, and how do they relate to empire? How often is “empire” in the eye of the beholder, as easily clothed in the costumes of a neofascist as a neoliberal? Who is wearing empire’s new clothes (Murphy 2018)?

Our conference will convene at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, in Göttingen, Germany, on 12-13 September 2019. Conference participants will be provided with lodging and will be reimbursed for their travel (up to 350 € within Europe and € 800 for intercontinental travel). Please send abstracts of 250 words, along with a brief academic biography, to Marina Cziesielsky at [email protected]by 1 May 2019. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you should have further questions. Further information is available at

Works Cited

  • Barkey, Karen. 2008. Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Daughton, J.P. 2006. An Empire Divided: Religion, Republicanism, and the Making of French Colonialism, 1880-1914. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Ferguson, Niall. 2018. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. Updated Edition. London: Penguin Books.
  • Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Harvey, David. 2003. The New Imperialism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Judson, Pieter. 2016. The Habsburg Empire: A New History. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Kivelson, Valerie A. and Ronald Grigor Suny. 2016. Russia’s Empires. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Manning, Nicholas and Lauren Berlant. 2018 “‘Intensity is a signal, not a truth’: An interview with Lauren Berlant.” Revue Française d’Études Américaines 2018/1 (154): 113-120. Available online at
  • Mehta, Uday Singh. 1999. Liberalism and Empire.A Study in Nineteenth Century Political Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Miéville, China. 2002. “Editorial Introduction to Symposium: Marxism and Fantasy.” Historical Materialism, vol. 10 (4): 39-49.
  • Murphy, Philip. 2018. The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth. London: Hurst.
  • Stoler, Laura Ann. 2016. DuressImperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.