State of Britain :

Representing / Writing Britain in the 20th and 21st Centuries


In book 1, chapter 1 of Past and Present (1843), Thomas Carlyle raised the “Condition of England question,” emphasizing the necessity to grasp the full measure of the contradictions of England’s new industrial prosperity. The expression took hold and was reappropriated by literary history through the “Condition of England novel” category. The ethical and aesthetic urge to reflect on the present has always been central to British art. Even as modernism was taking form, Forster was writing his own “State of England novel,” with Howards End. English late modernism was, to a great extent, characterized by a compulsion to turn once again to a confrontation with the reality of the here and now. In our more post-generic period, Zadie Smith herself was inspired by Forster and reappropriated Howards End in On Beauty (2005) and Martin Amis recently recycled the realistic injunction in a grimly satirical vein in Lionel Asbo: State of England (2011).

A similar inspiration has run through British 20th and 21st century visual culture, from Bill Brandt’s documentary work of the 30s, to Mike Leigh’s ground-breaking film Naked (1993), from Martin Parr’s ongoing visual archiving of Britain, to Mark Wallinger’s Turner Prize State Britain (2007). The recent success of the Tate Britain exhibition Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life (2013) shows how relevant the representation of the present has always been to British aesthetic identity.

More broadly, recent criticism has taken a renewed interest in art’s accountability to our sense of crisis and anxiety (see Contemporary Literature’s 2008 special issue : “Contemporary Literature and the State”), in the wake of pioneering studies such as Steven Connor’s 1995 The English Novel in History, 1950 to 1995.

“State of Britain: representing / writing Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries” will explore the critical agenda of British literature and art in their confrontation with the social and political fabric of the present. Moving beyond the dichotomy of the “documentary” and the “crystalline” (Murdoch: “Against Dryness”, 1961) that still survives, we will look into British culture’s capacity to reappropriate the modalities of “Condition of England” aesthetic production, to see how issues of national and aesthetic identity, of community fashioning and empowering are represented and conceptualized.

The conference may be the occasion to revisit the conflicted presence of realism in the Edwardian age, its relation to the “State of England novel” tradition, and its legacy in the late Modernist period. It may also be the occasion to focus on areas of British literature and of British visual culture hitherto under-researched: from the realistic turn of the 50s in the novel and in drama, to the political agenda of experimentation in the 60s, from British Pop art to the radical agenda of dance companies like Lloyd Newson’s DV8 (see their controversial take on British multiculturalism in their 2011 production Can We Talk About This?) or the resilience of the Forsterian “State of England” paradigm in the field of fiction. It may open onto explorations of works from artists who question the very category of Britishness, from the black artists of the 80s, to radical figurative artists, like Richard Hamilton, who, in his works on the Maze prison (see The Citizen, 1981-1983) resorts to a visual dialectics of abstraction and figuration to rethink the very categories regulating democracy.


Proposals may focus on a diverse array of media: fiction, but also poetry, theatre, visual arts, cinema, photography and range from the Edwardian age to the most recent literary and artistic productions so symptomatic of the increased globalization of the cultural scene (see the 2013 Booker prize shortlist).


Proposals (400 words) and a very succinct biographical note should be sent to the organizers before 30th April 2014.

Contact :