Whose Universal? There is a fundamental paradox at the heart of modernity. A conference on humanist ideals and colonial reality
Whereas the modern revolutions claim to have fought to eliminate distinctions of class, caste, rank, or status, modernity is also the epoch that instituted the concept of racial difference. This set of mutually inconsistent claims—all human beings are equal; some human beings can be "justly owned"—is usually brushed aside as the death throes of a premodern order. But race and racism, unlike xenophobia or sectarianism, are "distinctly modern ideas" (Race and Racism in Modern Philosophy, Andrew Valls, ed., Ithaca, 2005, 1). Racism is not a deviation from the Enlightenment’s universalist ideals; it is backed into its cultural technologies.
Whose Universal? contends that, without the will to confront the structuring role of race in Western epistemology, appeals to universal values and principles like “all lives matter,” their structural inconsistencies only allowing for a partial or distorted critique of capitalism, will continue to open an equivocal space in which public discourse can be inflected in the direction of fascism.
The conference will follow two entangled threads. War Economies explores the imbrication of war, colonial frontiers, and indebtment, in order to illuminate the collusion between sovereign power and monopoly capitalism. The aim of Aesthetic Currencies is to remove the sublime, and adjacent, aesthetic categories like the exotic or the grotesque from their pristine post-Enlightenment lineage—a history of aesthetic ideas that purport to exist without any messy ground-level entanglements at sites of imperial extraction or expansion—and to examine the disturbing conflation of embodied and encultured experience that the dis- course of philosophical aesthetics engenders.
Whose Universal? is the fourth iteration of a series of conferences devoted to theorizing the poorly understood connection between settler colonialism and fascism, as well as the different facets of what social theorist Nikhil Pal Singh termed "the afterlife of fascism," and the structures of affect they engender. Past issues of the series took place at La Colonie, Paris (The White West I and The White West II) and at Kunsthalle Wien (The White West III).
This conference is part of the discursive program of the 12th Berlin Biennale. Taking the restitution debate as a starting point, it explores how colonialism and imperialism continue to operate in the present.