15th-16th October 2020 Online conference: Invisible Lives, Silent Voices In the British Literature, Arts and Culture of the 20th and 21st centuries Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3

Invisible Lives, Silent Voices

In the British Literature, Arts and Culture of the 20th and 21st centuries

Online conference

15th-16th October 2020


Conference update – Covid 19 situation

Due to the current sanitary crisis and the uncertainties hovering over the beginning of the next academic year, we have decided that the « Invisible Lives, Silent Voices » conference (15-16 October) will not take place in Montpellier as planned. However, we have decided to maintain it, as it will be replaced by one or two days of online conference, focusing on British literature and arts. Our guest speakers Guillaume Le Blanc and Esther Peeren will be delivering their keynote lectures as planned. The papers will then be submitted for a peer-reviewed publication.

If you are interested in participating in this new format (which has the added advantage of being completely free), the new deadline for sending your abstracts is June 15.



Professor Guillaume Le Blanc, Université Paris 7 – Paris Diderot

Dr. Esther Peeren, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA)

Conference organised by EMMA (Études Montpelliéraines du Monde Anglophone) with IHRIM (Institut de l’Histoire des Représentations et des Idées dans les Modernités)


In his ground-breaking work, L’invisibilité sociale, French philosopher Guillaume Le Blanc contends that ‘the different forms of invisibility are rooted in a monopoly of voice whose narrative effects strongly contribute to invisibilise certain lives. Invisibility is widened by the refraction of narratives which contributes to dehumanisation’ (41). Invisibility is the result of power dynamics wherein dominant ideologies, groups or individuals silence precarious and vulnerable ones to political, economic or social ends. The voices of the precarious, who remain ‘outside of power’ (Le Blanc) are undermined by that of the majority, and sink into deeper and deeper silence, resulting in social, political and even psychological dispossession. As Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou claim, ‘the logic of dispossession is interminably mapped onto our bodies, onto particular bodies-in-place, through normative matrices but also through situated practices of raciality, gender, sexuality, intimacy, able-bodiedness, economy, and citizenship’ (18). Normative discourses and practices thus give way to asymmetrical relationships which deny vulnerable populations the ability to speak up and fully exist. Figures of non-conformity such as minorities, immigrants, women, along with the disabled and the poor are all in dissonance with such oppressive and normative dynamics, raising the question of political and social representation in our contemporary societies – one that deserves to be addressed in light of recent events in the British Isles.

The political turmoil caused by the results of the Brexit referendum in June 2016 is one of many examples of the problematics of invisibility, as some members of the British society were not given proper representation in the referendum, while others who do not always have a say expressed their views. This conference will further the discussion on the divisions that are tearing the British Isles over Brexit, but it will also allow us to extend Esther Peeren’s work on Britain’s ‘living ghosts’, i.e.  ‘undocumented migrants, servants or domestic workers, mediums and missing persons. These groups were chosen because all are frequently – sometimes to the point of cliché – likened to ghosts or related figures, on the basis of their lack of social visibility, unobtrusiveness, enigmatic abilities or uncertain status between life and death’ (5). The in-between status of invisible lives and silent voices, who are neither fully integrated in society nor fully excluded from it, raises the question of the geography of the invisible which resonates in contemporary British literature, suggesting a possible repossession of lives and voices through fiction.

We will also have the opportunity to tackle the mental health struggles and psychological vulnerability of those who remain on the margins of society due to a physical or a mental condition or impairment, with their history of being subjected to social taboos. The private, emotional turmoil of mourning, for instance, was documented by theorists and psychoanalysts throughout the 20th century and well into the 21st century. As anthropologist and author Geoffrey Gorer wrote in 1965: ‘giving way to grief is stigmatized as morbid, unhealthy, demoralizing […] if one can deny one’s own grief, how much more easily can one deny the grief of others; and one possible outcome of the public denial of mourning is a great increase in public callousness’ (113). The silencing of mourners has evolved since the end of the 20th century, since some of them have regained public visibility, with the rise of the ‘grief memoir’ genre and the partial rehabilitation of ‘melancholia’. However, other invisible portions of society (for instance mental patients, be they institutionalised or not) remain largely ostracised. The process of claiming back their voices leads those silent and invisible lives to a tentative reconfiguration of their identities, as Vanessa Guignery argues: ‘by articulating their suffering, by speaking out and speaking back, the unsung and unheard fight to come to terms with the traumas they have experienced and to reconstitute a sense of self, identity, memory and history’ (6).

The aim of this conference is to address those processes of invisibilisation and silencing through multiple frameworks, methods and approaches: literature, cultural and visual studies, sociology and of course, philosophy. These invaluable sources will further our understanding of invisible lives and silent voices in the British Isles during the 20th and 21st century: what defines the processes of invisibilisation and silencing? Who decides who is to be visible or not? Can silence and invisibility be a conscious choice, an act of resistance? Is literature a way to give a new voice and a new visibility to the left-behinds? Or does it also fall prey to the power dynamics responsible for invisibility? These questions will guide our conference and will hopefully contribute to a better understanding of British society and culture in times of crises.

Possible topics include:

  •     Processes of invisibilisation and silencing
  •   Precarity and dispossession
  •   Vulnerability
  •     The representation of ethnic minorities
  •     The place of migrants and refugees in British literature / narratives of migration to the British Isles
  •     Feminine voices throughout 20th and 21st century Britain
  •     Brexlit
  •     Unheard nationalisms in arts/literature
  •     Class divides
  •     The representation of the poor
  •     Rhetoric of loss and mourning
  •   The invisibility of men’s grief or mental illness
  • Unrecognised cases of PTSD
  •     Living with the dead
  •     Illness, mental patients
  •     Repossession of voice through literature


Papers should be 20 minutes in duration (English only). Proposals should include a 300-word abstract, together with a title and a short biography. Please send your proposal by June 15, 2020 to the following addresses: alice.borrego@univ-montp3.fr, heloise.lecomte@ens-lyon.fr


Scientific committee:

Professor Christine Reynier, Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3

Professor Vanessa Guignery, ENS de Lyon

Professor Jean-Michel Ganteau, Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3

Professor Frédéric Regard, Université Paris IV Sorbonne


Selective bibliography

Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence. London : Verso, 2006. Butler, Judith and Athena Athanasiou. Dispossession: The Performative in the Political. Cambridge, Malden: Polity Press, 2013.

Couser, J. Thomas. Vulnerable Subjects: Ethics and Life Writing. Ithaca: NY: Cornell UP, 2004.

Ganteau, Jean-Michel. The Ethics and Aesthetics of Vulnerability in Contemporary British Fiction. London : Routledge, 2015.

Gorer, Geoffrey. Death, Grief, and Mourning in Contemporary Britain. Cresset Press, 1965.

Guignery, Vanessa (ed). Voices and Silence in the Contemporary Novel in English. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

Korte, Barbara and Frédéric Regard, eds. Narrating Poverty and Precarity in Britain. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 2014.

Le Blanc, Guillaume. Vies ordinaires, vies précaires. Paris: Seuil, 2007.

—. L’Invisibilité sociale. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2009.

Peeren, Esther. The Spectral Metaphor. Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

Ross, Stephen. « The Ghost of Ethics in the English Modernist Short Story. » Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines 42 (2012) : 7-20. Web. Consulté le 8 décembre 2018.

Roudaut, Karine. Ceux qui restent: une sociologie du deuil. Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2012.






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