Call for submissions: interdisciplinary special issue on ‘Difficulty’

Following preliminary discussions with the editors of a prominent journal of critical theory, we seek theoretically orientated submissions from a range of disciplines for a full proposal on the following topic, with a view to publication in early 2024:


This interdisciplinary special issue will explore how conceptions of difficulty determine the transmission and reception of knowledge across a range of contemporary domains — for example arts and culture, education, politics, or digital media —, as well as associated questions of access, equality, and participation.

Contemporary analyses of difficulty often stress its social and relational constructedness, thereby challenging its perceived inherence to topics, objects, or approaches. In a discussion of literary texts, for example, Diepeveen frames difficulty as a ‘reading process [that] manifests itself socially’ and highlights difficulty’s intimate connection to cultural elitism and social and educational hierarchies (2003). Constructivist appraisals of difficulty foreground questions about access, equality, and participation: who determines which materials, subjects, or debates are appropriate for whom, and according to which pedagogic, developmental, political, cultural, or ethical principles? Why are some subjects cast as too difficult for some readers or audiences? Conversely, which assumptions, attitudes, or investments underpin conceptions of ease or accessibility? A point of departure, here, might be the work of Jacques Rancière ([1987] 1991), which takes to task the explanatory authority of the teacher. His work would constitute one starting point for thinking about how difficulty, in a range of contexts, might be reframed from a fundamental idea of radical equality.

As well as eliciting reflection on the hierarchies and inequalities engendered by difficulty — either as property or construction —, we also encourage thinking around the productive forms of disturbance that difficulty can engender, its associated risks (e.g., boredom, disorientation, anxiety, failure, disengagement), as well as its (trans)formative capacities. What value might reconceptualisations of difficulty hold for the contemporary era? To what extent do conceptions of difficulty map on to shifting forms of knowledge consumption and transmission? How might they relate, for example, to analyses of (in)attention in the digital age (Citton [2014] 2017)? In the domain of education, theorists such as Gert Biesta have critiqued emphases on /facilitating /learning that serve to neutralise experiences of difficulty, challenge, or frustration. Relatedly, recent valorisations of ‘unlearning’ as an educational ethos can be seen to return difficulty and attendant forms of experience to the centre of the educational encounter (Seery and Dunne 2016).

Are difficulty’s disturbances to be feared, neutralised, or embraced? Which approaches — be they aesthetic, educational, technological, institutional, political, relational, or otherwise — might take account of the dislocation or disturbance that difficulty can provoke? How might conceptions of difficulty be used to theorise contemporary intersections between culture, ethics, and politics? For example, how might institutional and disciplinary approaches to decolonization be informed by thinking around difficulty? In relation to contemporary ethical and political imperatives, should difficulty be mediated or attenuated, or are its attendant effects – discomfort, unease, anxiety — not precisely to be encouraged? How in that case, might difficulty be granted its full ethical and political force?

We encourage, then, contributors to theorise difficulty as it relates to the unfamiliar, disorientating, or affectively or ethically charged; to propose transversal conceptualisations of difficulty in the present moment; to explore the cultivation of an ‘experimentalist’ mindset in the face of difficulty (Bowie [1978] 2008); to challenge its associated hierarchies of access and engagement. We are especially interested in theoretically orientated readings of difficulty pertaining to:

  • education/pedagogy
  • arts/culture/museums/heritage/curation/programming
  • digital/technological cultures
  • cultural competency/intercultural exchange/culture shock
  • literature/theory/textual practice

250-word proposals, accompanied by brief biographical details, should be emailed to Dr Richard Mason (Queen Mary University London) at (richard.mason /at/ by 30^th June 2022. It is anticipated that accepted submissions will be 6000 words in length and will be due in December 2022.


Bowie, Malcolm ([1978] 2008), /Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult /(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Citton, Yves ([2014] 2017), /The Ecology of Attention/, trans. by Barnaby Norman//(Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press).

Diepeveen, Leonard (2003), /The Difficulties of Modernism/ (New York: Routledge).

Rancière, Jacques ([1987] 1991), /The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation/, trans. by Kristin Ross (Stanford: Stanford University Press).