CFP: Facts, Legends and Power – How Fictional Hero(in)es Emerge

MLA (Modern Language Association) Convention
New York
January 4 - 7, 2018
Stichtag: 15.03.2017

This is a call for papers for a special session at the annual MLA convention to take place in New York, Jan 4 – 7, 2018.

The word hero is of Greek origin, in which mythology it referred to those who were favored by the gods or had “godlike” qualities. The Oxford English Dictionary describes heroes as “men of superhuman strength, courage, or ability.” The emphasis here is on super, an adjective that suggests heroism which goes beyond what human beings are expected to do.

In literature and arts, superheroes answer to various calls for action. Some seem to conform to Nietzsche’s belief that the existentialist void in the modern world caused by weakening of the concept of God should be filled by the übermensch, a superior, transcendent human being. Other heroes play to Thomas Carlyle’s conviction that “all religions stand upon” the worship of heroes. After all, the central example of the hero(ine) motif in Western culture is the story of Jesus Christ.

Regardless of their origin, heroes usually begin life as normal people, but through some extraordinary gift, they are able to begin on and succeed at the journey upon which they will prove their heroism. Even though Hegel might have been correct when he defined the “heroic age” and “heroic circumstance” as belonging truly to the classic era, and, as A.W. Schlegel suggested, the heroic period finally ended with the Nibelungen, in fact every era, every human society needs such heroes, as our response to them satisfies a basic human impulse. We need, apparently, the inspiration and motivation derived from believing there are heroes in the world to whose example we may aspire.

Although the concepts hero and heroism have long been associated with men because of the popular focus on physical courage and strength, female literary heroes have been around since antiquity. Heroines such as the ancient Greek Antigone, Sita from the Indian epic Ramayana, Chinese Hua Mulan or the modern English Jane Eyre have set examples of great moral courage to be honored with as much fervor.

While modern American popular culture abounds in superheroes, it is not exceptional in this respect. Hanuman, an extremely prolific superhero of India and SE Asia, is an outstanding example of a literary character bridging genres, languages, and cultures, as he supposedly partly inspired the creation of the Chinese monkey hero – Sun Wukong.

Many modern heroes have evolved from actual historical figures, and their fictionalization becomes excellent material for literary studies. Two such examples from Chinese cinema are Wong Fei-hung or Huang Feihong (1847 – 1924), a Chinese martial artist, physician, and folk hero, who became the subject of more than a hundred martial arts films and television series, and the more recent Ip Man or Yip Man (1893 – 1972).

Emergence of these superheroes naturally opens a question of power relations in the larger scheme of things. Since hero(in)es will evoke in the listener or reader a sense of belonging and provide a source of inspiration, their popularity in modern age is often related to ideologies such as nationalism that foster the proliferation and reevaluation of a specific character.

This MLA special session proposes to examine these and other pertinent questions related to the emergence of superheroes in folklore, the epic, performative art and film. Particularly welcome are papers exploring South and East Asian fictional heroes.

Topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • real-world heroes in the news and biographies vs. their fictional representation
  • literary and/or rhetorical techniques that underlie constructions of heroic characters
  • the relationship between religion, spirituality and/or consciousness and heroism;
  • East/West cultural perspectives on heroism;
  • gender and heroism
  • heroism and hero archetypes in the popular media, new media (e.g. social media and blogs), gaming, digital humanities, creative arts etc. contributing to new narrative constructions of the phenomenon
  • impact of depictions of hero(in)es/heroic behavior on audiences
  • anti-heroes in media and popular culture
  • heroism and imperialism

Papers are being sought from researchers and postgraduate students across the humanities, psychology, social sciences and sciences, and especially other emerging fields which combine creative, multiple disciplinary and cutting-edge epistemologies. Interested participants should provide their short CV and a 250-word abstract to the special session convener Mr. Radovan Škultéty at by 15 March 2017.

Note: The MLA annual convention is the largest and most important conference of the year for scholars of languages and literature in North America. Language departments of many universities and colleges interview candidates for teaching positions at the convention. It is a great chance to present yourself and arrange for a job interview so it is particularly interesting for PhD. students in the last year of their program. For more information on the MLA annual convention and the arrangement of special sessions including calls for papers, please, visit

Contact Info:
Radovan Škultéty, special session convener
Tatung University (Taipei) lecturer
National Taiwan University, Dept. of Foreign Languages and Literatures, PhD. candidate

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