Crossing Borders:The Third Conference of the International Society for Heresy StudiesSuzanne Hobson Conference Organizer » ISHS: International Society for Heresy Studies



Crossing Borders:
The Third Conference of the International Society for Heresy Studies

Suzanne Hobson
Conference Organizer


The Third Conference of the International Society for Heresy Studies was organised in collaboration with the Queen Mary Centre for the Study of Literature and Religion and the Institute for English Studies at Senate House, London.8942_uol_ies_logo_AW_pos_CMYK This was the first time the conference had crossed the Atlantic and the occasion suggested the theme of the conference – Heresy and Borders. At a time when border controls are being tightened in Europe and the US, and against the background of the UK’s “hostile environment” for immigrants, it seemed important to ask what work the concept of ‘heresy’ might do as a means of rethinking physical and ideological boundaries.

Daniel Trilling, Editor for The New Humanist

Daniel Trilling, Editor for The New Humanist

Keynote addresses by Daniel Trilling and Anshuman Mondal looked in different ways at how legal and political systems intended to protect freedoms end up trapping the very people they were supposed to help. Trilling spoke about the research for his recent book, Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Polity, 2018), where he follows the ‘everyday’ lives of refugees caught up in the European migrant crisis. Mondal asked searching questions of a liberal tradition in political thought that by grounding religious freedoms on a concept of “core personhood” simply cannot think the way that a culture might be ascribed or, to quote Mondal, “socially constituted all the way down”. This has consequences, he argued, for the way in which we understand free speech and the offence caused by the exercise of supposedly ‘free’ speech to racist and harmful ends. The keynotes focused on contemporary crises in freedom of movement and freedom of speech, but there were also excellent papers focused on the same themes in the Early Modern period. Mike A. Zuber described the Moritz family who were forced to leave their native Germany as a result of Peter Moritz’s refusal to subscribe to any single Christian confession. Zuber spoke of the impact of these trials on the family as a whole and especially on Peter’s wife, Sophia Regina, who was obliged to “share her husband’s conviction” as well as his punishment. Emily Vine explored the re-emergence of anti-Semitic narratives of Jewish infanticide after 1656 when the Jewish community were readmitted to London. Vine used early modern maps of London to illustrate the proximity in which these different communities lived as well as the rigidity of the imagined and physical borders that grew up between them.

Anshuman Mondal, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of East Anglia, delivering his Keynote Address, ‘Hate Speech, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion’

Anshuman Mondal, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of East Anglia, delivering his Keynote Address, ‘Hate Speech, Free Speech and Freedom of Religion’

A Hyde Park Protest, 1867 (Source)

A Hyde Park Protest, 1867 ()

The location of the conference was pertinent to a number of other papers too. Senate House sits at the heart of Bloomsbury which has, since the nineteenth-century, been a centre of freethought and radical artistic and political expression. Matt Ingleby drew attention to the railings which make up the boundaries of many of the private garden squares in Bloomsbury. Although seeming to uphold a logic of exclusion, these railings have also been put to anarchist purposes as in the Hyde Park Railings Affair of 1866 when they were torn up and used as weapons against the police. Rob Dickens’s work in the nearby Swedenborg Society archives raised the possibility of a nascent orthodoxy even within this most unorthodox of London New Churches, while Karina Jakubowicz turned to Bloomsbury’s most famous resident, Virginia Woolf, finding suggestions of a Darwinian Eden in The Voyage Out.

Keynote speaker, Devorah Baum, author of Feeling Jewish and The Jewish Joke

Keynote speaker, Devorah Baum, author of Feeling Jewish and The Jewish Joke

The border-crossings suggested by the idea of heresy are not always physical or geographical; they might also be metaphorical, implying the passage from the orthodox to the unorthodox, the appropriate to the inappropriate, the sacred to the profane. Heresy in this mode is often understood as going too far or transgression of the proper limits. One of the themes that emerged strongly from the conference was the role of humour in testing and/or bypassing such limits as well as the dangers in assuming ‘heresy’ of this kind to be the proper and protected function of humour. Devorah Baum’s brilliantly composed and delivered keynote focused on the importance of the joke, and on the Jewish joke in particular, as a means of probing the borders of difference. On the same lines, Bernard Schweizer’s paper offered a new conceptual model for humour aiming to displace the moral judgement that seeks to discriminate between supposedly harmless and/or offensive forms of laughter.

Ulysses, James Joyce ()

The date of the conference – 15-16 June – was fortuitous, coinciding with Bloomsday and the international celebration of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Bloomsday provided the background for a panel on a novel that was banned for obscenity in 1921, and that is rich in references to particular Christian heresies. Alison Grace Myers gave a virtuoso reading of a tiny moment in Ulysses (Bloom’s throwing of crumbs into the river) to demonstrate the complex layering of Jewish and Christian religious rituals in the novel. Gregory Erickson’s paper took the twentieth-century ‘rediscovery’ of Gnosticism as a framework for understanding historiography in Ulysses, while Michael J. Abraham argued for a reading of the gender-crossing in Ulysses outside the dominant theoretical paradigm of gender performativity. Ulysses is perhaps the ur-text for those who would describe Modernist literature in general as ‘heretical’, a word applied loosely in this context to suggest a range of offences against tradition, propriety and the literary and political Establishment. Papers by Christos Hadjiyannis and Henry Mead served as reminders that the use of heresy and orthodoxy as terms of artistic and literary criticism began and took on particular political weight with modernists such as T.E. Hulme and T.S. Eliot. Their papers countered the tendency to separate the heretics (Joyce, Woolf) too rigidly from the orthodox (Eliot, Hulme, Wyndham Lewis) by pointing out that, as in other contexts, the boundaries between the two are unstable.

Heresy and Borders was a fully international event involving scholars from across Europe, the US and Asia, and, as with the previous ISHS conferences, showed the value of ‘heresy’ as point of intersection and conversation between leading scholars working in what might otherwise seem disparate disciplines and fields. But, staying with the theme of borders for a moment, it also seems necessary to acknowledge those who were missing from the event because they were unable to meet the increasingly stringent visa requirements for entry into the UK, or because of the prohibitive cost of travel especially for those on precarious contracts or who are based in countries with less generously funded higher education institutions than some. As many have argued, boundaries and borders of all kinds have proliferated over the last few decades and the difficulties of crossing them have grown. It has thus become increasingly important to make space for the discussion of issues around freedom of speech, representation and freedom of movement as these spaces have become increasingly hard to establish and defend. The forum provided by the ISHS is one such space and the challenge for future society members and conference organizers will be how to protect and expand it.

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