Debating and Depicting Callousness in Europe and America, ca. 1840 to the present
“[...] who was Mr. Bounderby?”, asked Charles Dickens rhetorically about one of his protagonists in his 1854 socio-critical novel Hard Times: “Why,”, he continued, “Mr. Bounderby was as near being Mr. Gradgrind’s bosom friend, as a man perfectly devoid of sentiment can approach that spiritual relationship towards another man perfectly devoid of sentiment.” Rich, loud, coarse, and uncaring, Bounderby and Gradgrind are stereotypical English mill owners of the 1850s. Dickens did not need to explain much more about these stereotypical employers, who were ignorant to the plight of their workers and for whom economic worth was strictly divested from moral and civic values – bar those that helped to increase their wealth. Dickens’ novel was a fictional contribution to the broader criticism of the emerging class of industrialists in Great Britain. Yet, in contrast to the negative depictions encountered in many novels, treatises, newspapers, and visual material, this group was rather heterogeneous. In fact, it had been a mill owner, Robert Owen, who, nearly half a century before Dickens’ story, had took it upon him to oppose his own class’s descent into emotional disinterestedness: lamenting that an unnatural and problematic desire for wealth and luxuries had “generated a disposition which strongly impels its possessors to sacrifice the best feelings of human nature to this love of accumulation” (Observations on the Effect of the Manufacturing System, 1815), Owen developed what is now known as one of the earliest examples of planned settlement and benevolent patriarchal social responsibility on the part of employers, the Scottish New Lanark cotton mills near Glasgow (a UNESCO world heritage site since 2001).
Owen’s philanthropic and utopian approach to society, through which he wished to improve the conditions of every man and woman while still trying to negotiate financial aspects, which were, after all, indispensable for any social welfare, was just one of many nineteenth-century instances of idealism clashing with and trying to soften callousness and insensitivity: whether in the economy, the slave trade, the military, the medical profession, and, to some extent, the church – the lack of feeling apparently present in various settings was extensively discussed and criticised. But what does unfeelingness – and its adjacent concepts such as callousness, insensitivity, cold-heartedness, uncaringness – actually mean in those contexts? Are people lacking or are they suppressing emotions? Is it a real feature, an expectation, or a typological structure by which – as in Dickens – an entire group is characterised? And is it believed to be inherent or acquired, and, importantly, can it be altered or unlearned?
This two-day conference, which will take place at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin from 6 to 7 December 2018, aims to address these questions from an interdisciplinary vantage point. It will explore the intersection between unfeelingness – alternately understood as acquired callousness or genuine indifference – as an inherent human characteristic and an external attribution in Europe and America from ca. 1840 to the present in historic sources and literary and visual culture. Therefore, aside from historic papers, proposals from neighbouring disciplines, such as cultural studies, art history, music history, or literary studies, which deal with different adaptions, variations, and representations of unfeelingness, are welcome. Possible approaches include, but are not limited to:
In what social settings did unfeelingness occur and which individuals or social groups were said to be particularly unfeeling? Who was encouraged and who was not allowed to be cold-hearted? What were the potential methods for learning or, conversely, overcoming unfeelingness?
When and in which circumstances was unfeelingness discussed? Did debates and representations undergo different stages, periods, or cycles and to what extent could they correlate with times of economic or social crises? What triggered the engagement with unfeelingness?
Can we discern structures or institutions, where feelings were explicitly, maybe forcefully, excluded? Which historic locations – companies, families, societies – provide examples of unfeelingness? What were the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions for their formation and why and how did they change their relationship to feelings in general?
How is unfeelingness represented and negotiated in historic sources and/or popular culture? Which different forms connected to unfeelingness – anaesthesia, Sachlichkeit, scientific objectivity and disinterestedness – emerge at that time? What role do different media (art, literature, photography, popular genres, film, etc.) play in enforcing, provoking, or vilifying unfeelingness?
We are looking forward to receiving abstracts (ca. 300 words) for papers not exceeding 20 minutes and a short academic bio by 17 September 2018. Contributors will be notified by 20 September 2018. Please direct your proposals and any enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Conference languages will be German and English. Papers in either German or English will be accepted and a working knowledge of both languages will be required.