Engaging The Contemporary: Aesthetics across intellectual currents

Ahead of the fifth edition of its annual international conference, co-organiser Kurt Borg explains why ‘Reconfiguring the Aesthetic’ was chosen as the theme of this year’s Engaging the Contemporary event

Painting by ‘atanasis’ (Shutterstock)
Painting by ‘atanasis’ (Shutterstock)

Given that the event has now hit the half-decade mark, could you give us a potted history of Engaging the Contemporary, and how its aims and dynamics have evolved over these five years?

The Engaging the Contemporary series, organised by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Malta, started with a seminar in 2014 on the philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida on the (thirtieth and tenth respectively) anniversary of their death. The seminar was intended to get scholars together to discuss the work of Foucault and Derrida, especially extensions and uses of their work beyond its original confines.

A year later, the seminar focused on the work of another two great contemporary philosophers, Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Rancière, whose work on politics, aesthetics and history is very influential. That year’s seminar also attracted the attention of scholars outside the University of Malta who came to Malta to deliver research papers. As a result of these international collaborations, future editions of the seminar became international conferences.

For example, in 2016, the conference considered Speculative Realism, a relatively new philosophical ‘movement’, in relation to Phenomenology. Last year resulted in the greatest Engaging the Contemporary conference in terms of size with over 40 speakers from around 30 different universities delivering papers on issues in contemporary political philosophy and social theory.

What we achieved last year was a culmination of the aims that shaped all Engaging the Contemporary editions, namely an attempt to engage with the latest developments in the field of philosophy, and to analyse these concerns while keeping in mind contemporary times. Contrary to many misconceptions of philosophy, we firmly believe that philosophy doesn’t happen in a vacuum but within historical and social contexts to which philosophical ideas react and give new meanings. It is these aims which motivate this year’s conference.

Defining hardcore ‘art punk’ band Crass at the Cleatormoor Civic Hall, UK, May 3, 1984. Lasse Ullvén (University of Malta) will be delivering a paper on the (Anti)Aesthetics of Punk at ‘Engaging the Contemporary’. Photo by Trunt (Wikimedia Commons)
Defining hardcore ‘art punk’ band Crass at the Cleatormoor Civic Hall, UK, May 3, 1984. Lasse Ullvén (University of Malta) will be delivering a paper on the (Anti)Aesthetics of Punk at ‘Engaging the Contemporary’. Photo by Trunt (Wikimedia Commons)

What kind of contribution do you hope the conference can have on the intellectual culture in and around the University of Malta? Would you say the international dimension is crucial to this?

It’s not easy to ‘measure’ the contribution of such an event. Primarily, Engaging the Contemporary is an academic conference that valorizes the coming together of academics and graduate students to present academically rigorous papers about topics they are researching. But, while true, that is a very boring way of putting it! We’re fond of the term “engaging” in our conference series. Thus, rather than limit itself to a number of experts in the field, we want to provide a space for people to come together and, through their research, engage with salient features of contemporary culture.

This is not just academic work for its own sake. We are interested in how philosophical ideas old and new can speak to the contemporary, and in how philosophy can shed new light on old problems. Moreover, we seek to do this by opening up the conference to discourses from other disciplines. Academic conferences can be very insulated and restrictive. Engaging the Contemporary challenges this tendency by, while rooting itself in philosophy, recognising that philosophical debates have to be understood in dialogue with other disciplines. For example, this year, on the theme of aesthetics and art, we will have papers from philosophy researchers, but also from perspectives of cognitive science, politics, urban studies, gender studies, musicians, literary theory, and disability studies.

This is a very positive feature of the conference. We cannot expect to truly engage the contemporary if we do not adopt a multi-faceted approach to theoretical problems.

So, a contribution of this conference is that it brings together scholars from the University of Malta and beyond in the spirit of genuine inter-disciplinarity. The international dimension surely helps in this regard: speakers from other universities and other countries bring with them different geographical and cultural influences which further illuminate the conference themes. Moreover, the conference enables new research ties and connections to be made.

Conference co-organiser Kurt Borg
Conference co-organiser Kurt Borg

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Reconfiguring the Aesthetic’. How would you say this theme coheres and builds on previous editions of the conference, and why did you think it is a particularly relevant (if not urgent) topic for this year?

Whereas previous editions of the conference focused on specific philosophers or philosophical movements, this year we are foregrounding a broad branch of philosophy – aesthetics and the philosophy of art – and then let the different philosophical, theoretical and disciplinary viewpoints engage with it.

The over-arching concern is how philosophy and academia can engage with the contemporary, and ask questions such as: What is going on around us today? How have we come to this? What tools do we have at our disposal to engage with these questions? Where can matters change and how? How can academic research inform such debates? These are key questions with which we have engaged every year.

This year, we are asking these questions in terms of aesthetics and art to see how we can and do think about art and artistic practices, what philosophical questions are raised or answered through art, and the role of art in society.

We felt that the theme of art and aesthetics is a particularly relevant topic for this year. Aesthetics and art have a long history in philosophy and outside of philosophy. Different thinkers have grappled with questions such as: what is beauty, or, are there limits to artistic expression?

Beyond that, this year we were interested in how the variety of media and emerging art forms raise specific questions on the notion of medium itself. We also pay attention to how such questions have to be understood in relation to other disciplines, such as cognitive science, psychology, sociology and urban theorists. Moreover, we are also interested in the connection between aesthetics, politics and culture.

The last point is particularly relevant in light of Valletta being the European Capital of Culture this year. We firmly believe that the location in which philosophical thinking takes place informs the practice of philosophy. We cannot properly speak of critical theory if it does not take into account the happenings around it.

This year has seen various, often spirited, debates on V18.

What does it mean for a city to be a capital of culture? What remains of the possibility of subversive art in view of state co-option? What can be said about the politics of memorials and memorialisation? How do capitalist and neoliberal cultures impact artistic practices? What, after all, is art today? This year’s conference is, implicitly and in some form, a contribution to this debate.

The programme certainly promises a wide array of speakers with varied interests – was having an ‘eclectic’ mix of speakers always on the agenda, or do you hope the event will still have some intellectual through-lines, and why?

Yes, having a wide array of varied interests represented in the conference is something we’re particularly keen about. Whereas some of the papers will be more strictly philosophical insofar as they deal with questions of aesthetics in philosophers such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Rancière, and Immanuel Kant among others, other papers will be more ‘applied’ insofar as they deal with questions of aesthetics and the city, gender and aesthetics, disability and aesthetics, aesthetics and film, and other intersections.

While the academic discipline that keeps the conference together is clearly philosophy, we intentionally try to blend different disciplines together. Or, rather, we understand philosophy to be an activity that necessarily exceeds its disciplinary boundaries.

Without wanting to sound romantic about it, we want to practise a more ancient understanding of philosophy where knowledge is not as fragmented and divided into specialised disciplines, each marked by their technical jargon. Universities thrive on having knowledge neatly divided into different and clearly demarcated pigeonholes.

While respecting intellectual rigour, we want to embrace true diversity in academia. Inter-disciplinarity shouldn’t be just a buzzword but a regular practice in universities, and this conference is a contribution to this healthy and dynamic academic practice. The conference theme is a springboard to thinking the present and engaging the contemporary.

Engaging the Contemporary will be taking place on November 1 and 2 at the Valletta Campus of the University of Malta. For more information on the programme and to register for the conference, log on to um.edu.mt/events/etc2018

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