Modern Horizons Journal's 6th Annual Conference: "Nihilism... Utopianism"

October 28, 2016

Keynote Speakers: Ian Angus & Jerry Zaslove

Friday, October 28, 9:00AM–6:00PM, Room 7000, SFU Harbour Centre

Co-sponsored by Modern Horizons Journal, SFU's Institute for the Humanities, & BCIT Liberal Studies

On either side of life and underlying the meaningful forms we inhabit and live as individuals is – what? –something? –nothing? This basic and enduring question may be thickened for us through the temporal and metaphysical inquiries of nihilism and utopianism—intellectual and spiritual stances that critically engage with the ways we affirm or gainsay our familiar yet different worlds. Through a variety of papers and perspectives at our conference, we aim to address different positive and negative approaches to these two themes.

Nihilism may be construed as a casting (as with a fishing line, or by way of a sculptor’s tools) back to a place before form, from which one may reconsider and perhaps reconfigure the present. The powerful image of modern nihilism begins in the nineteenth century; named by Turgenev and examined by Dostoevsky and Nietzsche (among others), it was a literary inquiry into the political and theological grounds of recognisable cultural rebellion whose points of reference and limits linger in significant ways in our cultural-historical present. However, this ‘modern’ constellation of works and ideas is also determined for us by a long philosophical tradition—one that harkens back, in the West at least, to the Greeks who sought to make sense of order and chaos, and forward to Leibniz’s question (reiterated by Heidegger et. al.) of ‘why something rather than nothing?’ This fundamental question is shared in turn by the major world religions and their various accounts of cosmic and human genesis and telos. This multifaceted heritage of nihilism—the question of nothing—informs our contemporary scene and conditions our ideas of origins and ends, cultural continuity, sense and purpose of form, grounds of individual meaning in life, attitudes towards death, and the future of the environment.

On this ground, we are keen to open a dialogue on nihilism by addressing thinkers such as Emil Cioran and Julia Kristeva; writers from Diderot and Baudelaire to Beckett and Krasznahorkai; painters like Duchamp, Yves Klein, and Francis Bacon; artists such as Laurie Parsons and Marina Abramovic; composers from Beethoven to Messiaen, Shostakovich and John Cage; and filmmakers such as Straub-Huillet, Jacques Tati, Bela Tarr and Chantal Akerman; and the many others who strive to address, challenge, and renew our most basic assumptions about form and meaning and often do so through arguably nihilistic frameworks.

Utopianism, in contrast to nihilism, may be construed as a casting (as in fishing or sculpting) forward to a place beyond or after recognisable form, from which one may fulfill or supersede the present. Etymologically utopia means ‘no place’, and this original connotation of the fantastic has grown in strength historically as the term shifted from an ancient and post-Renaissance focus on physical space to something akin a ‘state of mind’—a private dreamland refuge from historical and personal horrors or vacuities realised in more modern art and consciousness. Interestingly enough, the relinquishing of the idea of finding a (physical) utopia involved in the internalisation of the idea brought about a troubling and often devastating urge to make a utopia in time and space—a concomitant externalisation of the idea that a place may exist where one’s particular vision of how the world ought to be becomes true. This form of utopia is found frequently in religious and political regimes or movements that justify inhumane actions (of disdain, marginalisation, exile, repression, murder, genocide, etc.) through reference to a promised paradisiacal state—a utopia—to become real here on earth or after life here ends. The terrible cast of this mindset was in turn addressed by writers (Orwell, Huxley, or even Houellebecq) of dystopian fiction who discerned only a derelict and stricken world at the heart of fantasy elevated over reality (in this way)—whether that fantasy took religious, political, racial, historical, or hypertrophic entertaining form, despite the fact that it could be prompted by feelings diversely understood as hope, love, desire, fear, malaise, despair, or boredom.

We might distil this critique to a simple question: why make an image of something different to reality at all? This question may touch the essence of all artistic making, but it must not be understood solely in the light of a negative sense of utopianism, which is only one aspect of the human imagination, and which could be considered alongside things like dream, nostalgia, satire, or grotesque realism. With these ideas in mind, we are interested in exploring authors and works like Plato and Augustine with their projected realms of justice; Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, Thomas More, Samuel Johnson, and other portrayals of utopia; the internal and external contradictions realised in writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Céline, Benjamin, and Bakhtin; scenes of happiness, joy, or bliss in filmmakers like Tarkovsky, and Tati, or in the products of people like Walt Disney, Tyler Perry or Adam Sandler; dimensions of euphony, consolation, and senses of perfection in composers like Monteverdi, Bach, or Bob Dylan; images of exotic paradise in painters like Gauguin or erotic paradise in others like Courbet; and projections of utopia in the different worlds of modern finance, power, fame or notoriety.

Finally, noting how easy it is to become wholly critical of notions of nihilism and utopianism, we want to stress that these two ideas are not merely forms of resignation, absence, or spiritual frustration; they may also be seen as ideals—absolutes, guiding ideas—which, rather than simply shut down the present, may offer new or different and potentially productive grounds for contemporary thought; both nihilism and utopianism may be considered as forms of resistance to a purported finality of meaning—of ultimate determination of a person’s or thing’s identity and purpose. This is to see in nihilism and utopianism a freeing element; to see them as conditions for saying something. To have this in mind is to admit that although by and large utopia is a transfiguration of form and nihilism a disfiguration of form, each term is rich enough in implication and application to warrant serious and sustained thought.


Friday, October 28th
Room 7000, SFU Harbour Centre, 515 West Hastings Street 

  • 9:00am–9:30am | Andrew Bingham, Welcome address and Conference Introduction
  • 9:30am–10:15am  | Aaron Eldridge, “The Ethos of Telos: Form-of-life, the Divine Image, and the Violence of Law in Brothers Karamazov” 
  • 10:15am–11:00am | Russell Stephens, “Charles Fourier’s Utopia as the Childhood of Modernism In Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project
  • 11:00am–11:15am | Break
  • 11:15am–12:00pm | Nicholas Hauck, “Decoding the Architecture of Art in Wajdi Mouawad’s Ciels” 
  • 12:00pm–1:15pm | Ian Angus, “Not Nothing Again!” 
  • 1:15pm–2:00pm | Lunch
  • 2:00pm–3:15pm | Jerry Zaslove, “The Nihilism Salon – From Stavrogin in The Possessed to Some Provisional Psychoanalytic Thoughts on Time, Language and the Search for Origins”: “A Creative Desire is a Destructive Desire” – Bakunin” 
  • 3:15pm–4:00pm | Andrew Bingham, “Papadiamantis' Story of Love Without Hope in the Shadow of the Holy Mountain”
  • 4:00–4:15pm | Break
  • 4:15pm–5:00pm | Michael Bourke, “Scientism and the Post-modern State”
  • 5:00pm–6:00pm | Discussion and Closing Remarks 

Keynote Speakers

Ian Angus received his Ph.D. (1980) from the Graduate Programme in Social and Political Thought at York University and is currently Professor of Humanities at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Recent books include Identity and Justice (2008) and The Undiscovered Country: Essays in Canadian Intellectual Culture (2013). Love the Questions: University Education and Enlightenment (2009) has been widely excerpted and reviewed on the Internet. He is currently writing a manuscript on Husserl and Marx.

Jerry Zaslove, Professor Emeritus, is the Simon's Chair in Graduate Liberal Studies at SFU who studied Comparative Literature at Western Reserve University and the University of Washington. He specializes in Comparative Literature and Social History of Art influenced but not limited by the traditions of the radical and individual implications of critical theory and the arts, European literature, psychoanalysis and aesthetics, anarchism.