Our first event of the term at the Centre for Modern & Contemporary History is upon us! All welcome and details are below.
The Confidence Game of the Chicago School
Prof Matt Houlbrook
It is easy to find the confidence trickster anywhere, if you are looking closely enough. The global networks of trade and empire along which people and goods moved from the sixteenth century, the expanding cities of the modern United States, and the turmoil of revolution and civil war in the new Soviet Union: in each of these contexts the trickster was identified as characteristic or archetypal. Mobility and anonymity provided opportunities for personal reinvention and social advancement. They also allowed fakes and frauds to flourish, created intense anxieties about the difficulties of trusting those one met, and ensured social interactions and commercial exchange were haunted by the possibility of deceit. Britain’s bogus honorable and Weimar Germany’s hochstapler; Herman Melville’s Confidence-Man; Al-Hasan al-Wazzan and Martin Guerre; Felix Krull and Ostap Bender; Netley Lucas. The paradox of the trickster was that they seemed both universal and exemplary of their time and place. What, then, should we do with these elusive figures as historians?
Of Spongers, Sharpers, and Cannibal Eunuchs: Swindle Story Collections around the World
Prof. Christopher Rea
(University of British Columbia)
Why do collections of swindle stories appear at certain times and places? In China, for example, the swindle story has experienced bursts of popularity during the late Ming, the early Republican era, the early Mao era, and during the last 20 years. And comparable works exist around the world. What, for example, do Zhang Yingyu’s Book of Swindles (Ming China, 1617), Richard King’s The New Cheats of London Exposed (Georgian England, 1792), and P.T. Barnum’s The Humbugs of the World (Reconstruction-era United States, 1867) have in common—and how do they differ? Swindle stories, clearly, serve a double purpose: they teach techniques for navigating perilous social environments, and they entertain. But their authors tend to frame these narratives within a questionable claim: that ours is an age of unprecedented peril. Focusing on the example of China, this talk will highlight one thread running through literary history: connoisseurship of the swindler’s ingenuity.
‘All That Is Solid Melts into Air’: Modernity and the proliferation of liminality.
Dr. Lucie Ryzova
Tricksters are creatures of liminality. I will first broaden our discussion by looking at the nexus of modernity and liminality. Modernity is a historical condition in which transition becomes permanentized. The acceleration of time, shrinking of space, mass-mediated popular culture and unprecedented social mobility all worked to normalize fluidity and bring about new configurations of personhood. ‘Becoming another’ became a reality for many, and a fantasy for many more. Novel cultural practices and forms emerged that allowed for a ritualised consumption of this permanent flux and where liminality and enchantment could be safely indulged. I will use as example the photographer’s studio, a place of modern magic where anyone could momentarily transform the self into another. Secondly, I will present some thoughts on whether late modernity, specifically the current crisis of capitalism, creates the conditions in which trickster figures proliferate. Here I will propose to understand late capitalism through another archetypal figure of liminality, notably that of a vampire.