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Cultures of Anxiety

June 8, 2017 - June 9, 2017
University of Bristol (UK)

United Kingdom

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Although it is notoriously difficult to define, anxiety has long been theorized in a variety of fields, from philosophy to psychology, theology to neuroscience. Since 1980, when DSM-III separated anxiety neurosis into ‘panic disorder’ and ‘generalized anxiety disorder’, our understanding of and response to anxiety has become ever more pathologized, and the list of symptoms and types of anxiety has changed and grown through DSM-IV (1994) and, most recently, DSM-V (2013). The National Institute of Mental Health in the USA estimates that 18% of the population have some form of anxiety disorder, with 3.1% affected by GAD, and others from panic disorder, PTSD, OCD, social anxiety disorder and phobias. In the UK, the Mental Health Foundation estimates that between 2% and 5% of British adults are affected by GAD, and that up to 30% of mental health cases in GP surgeries are anxiety related. Anxiety is frequently comorbid with depression, which leads to even higher figures.

While anxiety has existed for thousands of years, our understanding of it has developed markedly over the last half-century or so, especially since it has been seen as a symptom of particular cultural-historical contexts. Since W.H. Auden styled the post-war condition as the ‘age of anxiety’ in 1948, each successive generation has claimed it for the zeitgeist (the British Library’s database lists everything from Dunant and Porter’s The Age of Anxiety (1996), covering problems of the time such as environmental destruction, AIDS and family breakdown, to Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness: Parenting in the Age of Anxiety, from 2006). Most recently, there have been several reports in British newspapers about a new wave of anxiety (‘Britain’s silent epidemic’, The Guardian, 2013; ‘Anxiety: The epidemic sweeping through Generation Y’,Daily Telegraph, 2015). Much media analysis is inclined to attribute this ‘epidemic’ to the pressures of contemporary life, such as those theorized by popular writers Alain de Botton (Status Anxiety, 2004) and Oliver James (Affluenza, 2007), or to relate new waves of anxiety to specific socio-political contexts such as the financial crash. Simultaneously, there has been a noticeable publishing trend for anxiety memoirs that include medical and cultural histories, e.g. Patricia Pearson’s A Brief History of Anxiety (Yours and Mine) (2008). Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety (2014) and Eleanor Morgan’sAnxiety for Beginners (2016); there is even now an OUP Very Short Introduction (2012). Other noteworthy books have appeared in 2015, including prominent neuroscientist Joseph E. Le Doux’s Anxious: The Modern Mind in the Age of Anxiety, and Francis O’Gorman’s Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History.

The conference will respond to some of these most recent trends in the study of anxiety by considering how our evolving understanding of it as a cultural condition might affect the ways in which we represent, discuss, and deal with it.

Proposals for papers of 15-20 minutes are invited. Possible topics and approaches might include:

  • Anxiety in philosophy / the philosophy of anxiety (anxiety and ethics; anxiety and aesthetics; the phenomenology of anxiety; anxiety and agency etc.)
  • Literary anxiety / the literature of anxiety (poetic anxiety; anxiety and voice; anxiety and form; anxiety and gender / race / sexuality; ‘anxiety of influence’; literary histories of anxiety etc.)
  • Anxiety and education (anxiety and scholarship; anxiety in higher education; anxiety in the school etc.)
  • Anxiety in the media (depiction / representation / reporting of anxiety-related stories in print, broadcast and digital media; anxiety and social media; anxiety and information; celebrity culture and anxiety, or celebrity accounts of anxiety etc.)
  • Anxiety across cultures, societies and communities (culturally specific readings of anxiety; the demographics of anxiety etc.)
  • The politics of anxiety (anxiety and globalisation; anxiety and economics etc.)
  • Anxiety in music; anxious art; anxious architecture
  • Anxiety across time (etymologies of anxiety; historical understandings of the term etc.)
  • Therapy culture
  • Anxiety memoirs

We welcome proposals from established academics, early career researchers and PhD students. Abstracts of no more than 250 words, together with a brief biography of 3-4 lines, should be submitted to by January 31st, 2017. Successful applicants will be notified by mid February.

The conference is organised by Dr Andrew Blades, and is generously supported by BIRTHA (Bristol Institute of Research in the Humanities and Arts).

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