Conference Report: Sensationalism and the Genealogy of Modernity (Tel Aviv, 18-20 December 2013)

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Guest post by Stefanie Lethbridge (English Department, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg)

This fantastic two-day conference at Tel Aviv University just before Christmas 2013 provided the time and space for an inspiring international exchange on the role of sensationalist print and performance culture in the genealogy of modernity. Established scholars and graduate students from all over the world – the USA, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, France and a strong contingent from Israel – ranged across a wide field from popular stage presentations to fiction and crime fiction, graphic illustrations, the popular press and painting. The phenomenon of sensationalism was approached from the perspectives of history, literary and cultural studies as well as philosophy (for details see the full programme [PDF]).

A number of contributions came from German scholars or scholars working in Germany: James M. Brophy (University of Delaware and American Academy in Berlin) teased out complex ironies in popular print culture with political resonances in early nineteenth-century Germany. Annemone Ligensa (Cologne University) outlined some of the differences between sensationalism in Germany and Britain around 1900. Stefanie Lethbridge (Freiburg University) followed the impact of clothing and fashion in the British sensation novel. Katharina Rein (Humboldt University, Berlin) disentangled some of the cultural and (gender-) political implications of magic performances with women ‘sawed in half’. Katharina Boyce-Jacino (visiting scholar at the Friedrich-Meineke Institute, Berlin) showed how sensation reached for the stars with her analysis of “astronomical spectacle” in the early planetarium. Walter Benjamin proved to be the ‘patron saint’ of the gathering – without direct prompting, most of the papers reached for connections with Benjamin’s theoretical pronouncements on modernity, the modern city and the sensational; a number of contributions focusing on Benjamin (and Baudelaire) sparked off spirited discussion.

Beautifully organized TelAvivSkyline1by Alberto Gabriele from Tel Aviv University, the conference turned into a gathering that proved immensely informative as convergences between sensationalism and modernity in different genres, nationalities and media began to take shape. Evening guided tours through (sensationally) beautiful Tel Aviv and Jaffa added to an atmosphere of exhilarating exploration and intercultural exchange. An expanded volume on the topic of the conference is scheduled to appear in 2015 (see CfP “Sensationalism and the Genealogy of Modernity” [PDF], deadline for 1000-1500 word abstracts: 1 March 2014).

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