The Writer as Psychological Warrior, online conference (12-16 July 21; abstracts 19 Mar)

The Writer as Psychological Warrior: Intellectuals, Propaganda, and Modern Conflict

Online conference, hosted by Durham University12-16 July 2021

The tendency of the modern state is to wipe out the freedom of the intellect, and yet at the same time every state, especially under the pressure of war, finds itself more and more in need of an intelligentsia to do its publicity for it.
George Orwell, ‘Poetry and the Microphone’ (1943)


Writing in 1943, George Orwell reflected upon the challenges posed for both governments and intelligentsia by the rapid growth in wartime propaganda production. If the British government had begun the war ‘with the more or less openly declared intention of keeping the literary intelligentsia out of it […] after three years of war almost every writer, however undesirable his political history or opinions, has been sucked into the various Ministries or the BBC’. As Orwell recognised, the recruitment of cultural actors by government information and psychological warfare departments changed both spheres, since the ‘tone and even to some extent the content of official propaganda’ were ‘modified’ by the new entrants – a negotiation known all too well to Orwell himself due to his own role as a propagandist during the war.


At a moment when disinformation and ‘fake news’ are of pressing political concern, this conference aims to understand these debates as part of a longer history of propaganda across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, decades in which new military and media technologies raised political warfare to the status of the ‘Fourth Fighting Arm’ of the state and consequently made cultural figures integral actors in modern conflict. Organised by the Leverhulme Trust-funded project ‘The Political Warfare Executive, Covert Propaganda, and British Culture’, this event invites papers from a range of disciplines, periods of study, and global perspectives, with topics that might include:

  • Revaluation of writers and organisations in the light of new or overlooked propaganda archives
  • Study of the evolution of propaganda techniques and cultural modes between conflicts or between competing states
  • Narratives disseminated through historical disinformation campaigns: what traces of these remain in cultural discourse? How have they been contested or countered? How do they compare to contemporary narratives?
  • Cultural representations of propaganda service
  • The impact of technological change on the form, content, dissemination or influence of propaganda (radio/film/television/social media)
  • Life as a propagandist: how did intellectuals combine their official duties with their personal and cultural spheres? What forms of propaganda service have been marginalised or overlooked in archival records or later histories?
  • Material and visual culture of propaganda (leaflets/posters/ephemera)​

We invite proposals for papers of between 10-20 minutes. Due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic this event will take place entirely online: speakers will be asked to record their papers as sound files, to be circulated to conference participants in advance of online panel discussions.
We plan to produce an edited collection drawing on selected contributions to the event.
Please send proposals (max. 300 words) together with a short biographical note to Guy Woodward at guy.t.woodward@durham.ac.uk by 19 March 2021.