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Insularity. Representations and Constructions of Small Worlds 

University of Malta

Department of German

Faculty of Arts 

21 - 23 November 2013 

The current discourse of globalisation may easily mask the fact that insular spaces still exist and are even multiplying. Growing poverty, limited migration and other forms of exclusion make insularity a highly topical issue despite the seeming interconnectedness among communities and nations. At the same time, in the cultural memory of various societies, the small world of the island is richly populated with fictions, myths, utopias, dystopias, images and metaphors. 

The Malta conference is planned to be both international and interdisciplinary. It is going to explore the multi-faceted aspects of real as well as imaginary forms of insularity. The philosophical dimensions of the concept will be discussed, as well as its political, economic and social implications. The conference will also seek to address the metaphorical sense of seclusion and isolation associated with insularity. Contributions across disciplinary boundaries will analyse discursive constructions of insularity in various fields such as sociology, political sciences, geography and linguistics, as well as in literary and filmic fiction.

The conference is being organised by the Department of German at the University of Malta and will also include a special focus on the theme of insularity in German-language literature. Even though German language literature is largely continental, it has often turned to insular spaces. The conference will therefore provide a unique perspective, from the island so to speak, on German language literature.

The following are possible topics for different sessions: 

Theoretical framework of insularity 
(Convener: Carola Hilmes)

John Donne’s verse ‘No man is an Island’ is paradigmatic of the metaphorical use of the island as the epitome of seclusion and isolation of the individual. Within philosophy, insularity is discussed in the context of social networking and ethics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy): insular forms of communication may lead to a fragmentation of discourse and to a promotion of isolated value-based groups with a tendency towards extremism.

On the other hand, withdrawal and solitude can be seen in their potential for undisturbed leisure and repose as a basis of creativity.

Within cultural theory insularity can be looked at from a postcolonial perspective. Beside the categories of race, class and gender, notions of periphery and centre, heterogeneity and homogeneity, hegemoniality and subversion as well as similarity and sameness can be considered as tools of analysis.

Insular Spaces: Insularity in Social Science 
(Convener: Katrin Dautel)

The geographical limitation and seclusion of the insular space may, on the one hand, offer a pleasant haven to travellers, but on the other hand it may create a feeling of isolation amongst its inhabitants. In the course of the spatial turn in cultural studies and social sciences during the last decades, a strong emphasis has been put on concepts of space. In this context, boundaries and thresholds are especially important as they are constitutive of the experience and understanding of space. The omnipresent boundaries, the spatial finitude of an island and the threshold of the sea, which can be crossed only with certain difficulties, bring along the peculiarities of life on an island. The spatial limitation and the more complicated exchange with other regions require particular ways of dealing with the available resources and they necessitate processes of adaptation both by visitors and by inhabitants. 

In the social sciences, insularity is often seen to create multiplier processes, to the extent that physical insularity can lead to relative scarcity in, for example, the exploitation of scarce economic resources; in the excessive exploitation of cultural artefacts by tourists; in the search by ‘outsiders’ for space where they can shed their inhibitions; and in the loss of linguistic distinctiveness of the natives as they are ‘invaded’ by a more dominant culture through the media, social networks, visitors etc. These are only three instances of multiplier insularity that often result from physical insularity. Interestingly though, small nation states like Malta have an equal voice in international unions like the EU despite their size, thus magnifying their relative global political relevance. This has consequences on the self-image of islanders, an aspect which social science has not yet given sufficient attention to.

Insularity in Island Myths, Utopian and Dystopian Islands 
(Convener: Kathrin Schoedel)

Islands serve as spaces for the projection of political and social utopias, paradigmatically represented by Plato’s Atlantis and Morus’s Utopia. Insular spaces are also the scene of more mundane dreams of escaping the pressures of the world of work, embodied, for instance, by the mega hotels in Las Vegas (Venturi, Brown, Izenour 1972; Müller, Dröge 2005). The ‘small world’ of the island, the microcosm, can be a (distorting) mirror or a counter-image of the ‘big world’. Mythical islands, as in Homer’s Odyssey, are inhabited by strange and fabulous creatures, such as the one-eyed Cyclopes or the Sirens with their captivating powers. As in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), insular worlds can also turn into dystopias or demonstrate the failure of utopian ideas. A gendered dystopia where the insular space is transferred to the desert can be identified in Angela Carter’s novel The Passion of New Eve (1977). A more recent example of an insular dystopia is the filmDie Wand (Julian Pölsler, 2012), based on a novel by Marlen Haushofer. 

In the context of the topographical turn in cultural and literary studies, a set of new concepts of space is offered: Foucault’s heterotopia, Augé’s non-places or Certeau’s constitution of space through movement, which can be a fruitful basis for the analysis of literary or filmic representations. 

Language islands
(Convener: Arndt Kremer)

Processes and phenomena of insularity and ‘islandisation’, often metaphorically connoted and used, can be examined from a linguistic point of view due to the fact that topographical-geographical borders sometimes coincide, or even are in conflict with, cultural and linguistic boundaries and vice verse. Language islands are relatively small, self contained minorities with a specific language or vernacular in a certain area or region which is located in, and often enclosed by, a bigger area, region or nation with a different, often dominating, language. The boundaries between the respective language islands are usually in a constant state of flux. They neither exist as autonomous nor as autarkic communities of speech and written language. On the contrary, they form part of a permanent process of interdependency and exchange with the language of the majority which often entails multilingualism. 

In general, issues and aspects of the study of language contact and of sociolinguistics such as language change, language death, bilingualism, diglossia, language identity and language prestige play an essential role for research on language islands. As language is closely linked to the cultural identity of individuals and collectives, language was, and remains, a prevailing means and target for policy. All too frequently, the fragile constellation of a minority language community existing within a major language community is shattered by a language policy which discriminates and fights the linguistic identity of the inhabitants of the language island. On the other hand, many nations and international confederations such as the European Union are willing to support minority languages and the idiomatic communication of language island communities with substantial funds. The question arises: is there a future for these small language islands such as the Irish speaking Gaeltacht in the Republic of Ireland or the Rhaeto-Romance speaking parts of Switzerland? Or will they soon have to vanish in times of globalization and the unilateral focus on one lingua franca? 

Conference language: English

Duration of the presentation during the conference: max. 20 minutes.

A publication of the conference contributions is planned. 

Last Updated: 12 April 2013

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