Critical Orwell: an online conference

Tuesday 12 April (00:00) - Thursday 14 April 2022 (00:00)
Picture of George Orwell which appears in an old accreditation for the British National Union of Journalists

The theme of Critical Orwell: an online conference is how Orwell is critical and in crisis: how Orwell’s views and work matter; how Orwell operated as a judge and fault-finder, and occasionally as a pessimist; and how Orwell is a figure whose prejudices raise important questions about his canonical status in Anglo-American culture and beyond. How and why is Orwell critical now?

Keynote speakers

Professor Priya Satia

Professor Priya Satia, Stanford University - 'Orwell and Empire'

This talk traces the evolution of Orwell's thought in an era of imperialism and anti-colonialism. Through an examination of Orwell's writing on empire, it traces the limits of his political imagination: the disabling assumption that struggles are the route to rather than the very experience of liberation. His socialist commitments and determination to divest himself of inherited prejudice did not free Orwell from the instrumental political logic of liberalism--the ideology that underwrote empire.

Please note you can choose to register and attend this talk specifically here, as well as accessing it as part of the conference programme.

Dr Lisa Mullen, University of Cambridge

Dr Lisa Mullen, University of Cambridge - 'Orwell and the Politics of Feeling'

In his 1946 essay on censorship, ‘The Prevention of Literature’, Orwell explicitly links sensory experience with truth, arguing that ‘freedom of the intellect means the freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings.’ This declaration embraces the ambiguity inherent in the word ‘feelings’; it is not clear whether Orwell means to refer to emotions or sensations, nor, arguably, is the distinction particularly meaningful as far as his argument is concerned. In either sense of the word, feelings provide access to something pre-ideological and irreducible; the body, as the conduit of affective and perceptual reality, becomes for Orwell the only reliable barometer of political validity. 

Not that this is a comfortable way of being in the world; in fact, it makes him sick. Throughout his work, bodies are compromised and traduced by bad politics and bad feelings, from his earliest exposés of the individual lives of the poorest in society, to his final attempts to grapple with the biggest political questions of the twentieth century. I am interested in how Orwell’s attention to the intransigent materiality of the body inflected the diagnostic and forensic mechanisms of his political epistemology, and this talk will examine this relationship by considering several species of Orwellian feeling: sentimentality; disgust; shame; aesthetic delight. Bad feeling, for Orwell, was never a transient aberration to be remedied and obliterated, but a meaningful moment of friction and entanglement with reality. I argue that it is by paying attention to his language of feeling that we can best understand his politics: his nauseated recoil from both fascism and colonialism, and, finally, the shreds of hope which attached him bodily to a sense of shared humanity and the redemptive textures of the natural world.

A portrait of Dr Emily BloomDr. Emily Bloom, Sarah Lawrence College - 'The Liar's School: George Orwell's BBC Curriculum'

After resigning from the BBC, George Orwell referred to his time as a producer for the Eastern Service during the Second World War as “two wasted years.” This dire self-assessment of his BBC career has left a prevailing impression that Orwell’s broadcasting involved the needless compromise of his artistic and political values. Later representations of mass media in his fiction, most notably his characterization of 1984’s all-encompassing Ministry of Truth, suggest that Auntie Beeb may have shared more than a family resemblance to Big Brother. However, recent critics have suggested a revisionist approach to Orwell’s BBC career, focusing more on continuities between his prodigious radio writing and the postwar literature that would make him famous. In this talk, I propose going even further back to understand Orwell’s initial optimism about radio and to identify when that optimism faltered. Before beginning his job creating English-language broadcasts for Indian listeners, Orwell took a two-week induction course held at Bedford College called “General Broadcasting Techniques.” One classmate, the literary critic William Empson, referred to the course as “the liar’s school.” But Orwell maintained, despite his growing disillusionment with the BBC, that the anti-fascist propaganda he was learning to produce was fundamentally truthful unlike the deliberate falsehoods he found in Nazi propaganda. By looking at both the curriculum of the induction course and the work that Orwell and his classmates went on to do for the BBC, a picture emerges of those features that Orwell found most promising in radio: its potential for collaboration and its innovative use of serial formats. In this talk, I argue that the collective ethos and serial temporality of broadcasting energized Orwell and led him to create work that is distinctive within his corpus for its multivocality and its decentralized point of view. By studying Orwell’s BBC curriculum, we can learn what he did (and did not) carry with him into his future work on the air and on the page.

Jean SeatonProfessor Jean Seaton, University of Westminster - ‘George Orwell and Fear in 2022’

Orwell was a maestro of fears. He wrote about and experienced a kind of awkward over-supply of fears and terrors both individual and collective. It was partly that he lived through frightening times, that ominously gathered and bloomed over many years. Being right about what was going wrong was no protection. Creeping dread was just where a sentient, alert person on the left might dwell, then. He put himself quite consciously in danger, was familiar with violence. Then, there were insecurities—he never knew he was a real success,  he courted marginality. He lived a precarious life—not that it ever seemed to bother him, he chose it in some ways. He was dogged by ill health from childhood. He—we can only surmise—understood the fear of death rather well and worked through terrible illness. Animal Farm, The Lion and the Unicorn, Nineteen Eighty-Four … many of the essays (but little of the Diary)—all depend on dread. He manipulates fear in his public work and is unsentimental and un-anguished in private. But above all he was terrified of the substitution of reality by illusion. The struggle to see what is in front of our noses is more challenging than ever. How should we use fear?

Conference programme

The conference programme is now downloadable in PDF format here. Below is the list of accepted papers that will form part of the programme:

  • Ayres, Jackson, Texas A&M University – San Antonio, USA, Big Brother, Big Tech: Doctorow’s Little Brother and Huber’s Orwell’s Revenge
  • Barry, Peter Brian, Saginaw Valley State University, USA, Orwell the Erudite: George Orwell's Continued Interest in Philosophy
  • Basfar, Rana, Umm Al-Qura University, Saudi Arabia, Orwellian Dystopia and Human Rights Issues in Wasini AL-Araj’s 2084: The Story of the Last Arab (2015)
  • Bluemel, Kristin, Monmouth University, USA, Critically Ill: George Orwell, Tragic Biography, and the Crisis of Endings
  • Bunce, Robin, University of Cambridge, UK, Televising the Future: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) at the BBC
  • Gallen, Niall, University of Birmingham, UK, No Angst, only Choice: George Orwell in Jake Chapman's 2+2=5
  • Hosseini, Mir Ali, University of Freiburg, Germany, Orwell, Humanism, and the Essay Form
  • Keeble, Richard, University of Lincoln, UK, Secrets and Hidden Gems: Malcolm Muggeridge and his Mishandling of Orwell’s Posthumous Reputation
  • Kerr, Douglas, University of Hong Kong, HK, Orwell and the Anglo-Indians
  • Knight, Liam, University of Birmingham, UK, ‘The Principles of Newspeak’: George Orwell’s Critical Endotext
  • Marks, Peter, University of Sydney, Australia, George Orwell in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism
  • Mishra, Astik, Mahatma Gandhi Central University, India, The Relevance of George Orwell's Ideas in the Promotion of Global Citizenship Education
  • Murphy, Jaron, University of Bournemouth, UK, Why Orwell Still Matters: The Trust Crisis in Journalism in the Digital Age 
  • Ogden, Daniel, Uppsala University, Sweden, George Orwell: Champion of the Downtrodden and Internationalist
  • Satta, Mark, Wayne State University, USA, Philosophical Orwell: Benefits and Challenges of Studying Orwell in Academic Philosophy
  • Scholz, Selina-Marie & Geoff Rodoreda, University of Stuttgart, Germany, Lured and Lost in the Labyrinths of Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • Shin, Kunio, University of Tokyo, Japan, Orwell’s (Post-)Imperial Ecology
  • Smith, Neil, Independent Scholar, UK, Orwell’s Conspiracy of Silence
  • Tavares, Débora, University of São Paulo, Brazil, Orwell and Class Struggle in The Road to Wigan Pier
  • Teotia, Ishaan, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, India, Orwell and the Notion of Irresponsibility
  • Tripathi, Ameya, Columbia University, USA, Orwell, Wittgenstein, and the Newspeak Dictionary