Conference Abstract

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, reanimated postcolonial critique, and fuelled innovative imperial histories. In the vexatious time of Brexit, apologies for imperialism have also increased in frequency and volume. In short, “empire” is a predominant political fantasy of our day and age. How are we to understand imperial fantasies as inherent to the political formations of empires, both in the present and in the past? What political, social and semiotic lives are lived by fantasies of empire? With these questions in mind, we convene our exploratory conference, Striking Back? On Imperial Fantasies and 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 implies a “fantastical” relation to both social relations and the material world. From Freud, Lacan, and their interpreters, we inherit a notion of fantasy as inherent to the making and breaking of realities.

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 seek to 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?