States of Exceptionalism - Globalization, Difference, Power

States of Exceptionalism - Globalization, Difference, Power

International Graduate Centre for the Study of Culture (GCSC), Justus-Liebig University Giessen, Germany
From - Until
08.05.2014 - 09.05.2014
Ebbe Volquardsen

The term exceptionalism has become prominent in various political and academic debates within the past decade. With the conference States of Exceptionalism we are offering a forum to take a closer look at the term and to compare and discuss how it is conceptualized and utilized in different places and contexts. The conference is dedicated to an exploration of the notion of exceptionalism as a discursive tool to distinguish the self from not only an inferior but also from a coequal other. Thus, exceptionalism seems to gesture toward a peer relation within an imaginary on places, regions and nation states, not necessarily one of domination between colonial center and colonized periphery.

While the contemporary world is increasingly characterized by conflict and crisis, challenging imagined geographies and geopolitical patterns formerly regarded as stable, exceptional identity positions seem to gain ground. As the world becomes more homogeneous, there seems to emerge a growing need to construct the self as special, superior, unique and exceptional. Nations, countries, regions and cities as well as social groups claiming to be exceptional, obviously follow a mission. They use their alleged superiority, be it of an economic, a power-related or an imagined ethical and moral kind to supply “the more ordinary parts of the world” with strategies of good governance and exemplary models.

Presumably being the most prominent of its kind, the idea of American Exceptionalism is about pointing to how the United States are unlike other advanced democracies and thus are subject to different rules than other nations not needing to submit to diktats of the international community (Ceaser 2012). Also the societies of the Nordic countries, for a long time commended for their exemplary welfare state, regard themselves as exceptional, claiming a position as global peace brokers, enlightened altruists and humanitarian superpowers (Browning 2007). The image of the Nordics is one of the “good Westerners”, while South Africa’s self-fashioning as a rainbow nation shows the conflict laden continent an alleged way towards democracy and peace. Finally, Switzerland known for its neutrality and direct democracy seems to fill a comparable niche for the case of Europe. These examples show that exceptional self-conceptions are manifold and can be found globally. There are certainly more examples to be identified and discussed at the conference.

However, our intention with the conference is neither to verify nor to falsify whether Europe, the United States, South Africa, New York City or the South Sandwich Islands indeed are exceptional. We rather regard the exceptional proclamations as social constructions based on discursive mechanisms and narrative structures. At times nostalgic narratives about the “decline of exceptionalism” (Browning 2007) may be seen as an effect of the circumstance, that globalization strictly speaking handicaps the emergence of any actual exceptional position. As a matter of fact, choosing a comparative approach, already anticipates a deconstruction of the idea of exceptionalism itself.

James W. Ceaser (2012) has rightly pointed to the fact that the concept of exceptionalism may have become more popular in recent years, but at the same time still remains vague, blurred and lacks definition. This, however, makes the idea of exceptionalism, its functions and its uses an even more worthwhile issue to study. Thus, we seek papers from interdisciplinary perspectives and different fields within the humanities and social sciences and welcome both presentations based on particular cases, and papers making a broader analytical and theoretical contribution to a deeper understanding of what the self- conception of being special in a globalized world is about.

Papers might address the following questions:

- Which strategies are employed when constructing notions of exceptionalism and which roles do images, narratives and stereotypes play in these processes?

- In which regional, national or transnational contexts do we find notions of being exceptional?

- Who are the agents in the process of constructing exceptional images and what are their motivations?

- How do notions of exceptionalism serve as a tool for branding a nation, region or city and how are they utilized in marketing and public diplomacy?

- Which strategies are employed in order to solidify notions of exceptionalism to gain a status of superiority and to legitimize greater power politics?

- Which role do narratives about being exceptional play in the context of knowledge production and historiography?

- How are notions of exceptionalism represented and critically negotiated in literature, art and film?

- How are notions of exceptionalism employed and negotiated in an interplay with categories of difference?

Presentations should not exceed 20 minutes. Case studies could for example originate in the fields of global studies, political science, sociology, anthropology, history, literary studies, media studies, arts or area studies.

Please send abstracts of max. 250 words to the speakers of Research Area 7 (Global Studies and Politics of Space) at the GCSC until 2 December:

David Scheller:
Ebbe Volquardsen:


Contact (announcement)

Ebbe Volquardsen

Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen, GCSC, Alter Steinbacher Weg 38, 35394 Gießen