by Kate Smith (Conference Organiser)
Past & Present is generously funding a conference on ‘Understanding Material Loss Across Time and Space’, which will take place at the University of Birmingham in February 2017 (registration is now open until 31st January 2017). Confirmed keynotes for the conference include, Prof. Pamela H. Smith, Dr. Simon Werrett, Prof. Maya Jasanoff, Prof. Jonathan Lamb, Prof. Anthony Bale and Dr. Astrid Swenson. In this blog post, the conference organizer Kate Smith reflects on how and why the conference emerged.
As with many conferences and research projects engaged with understanding the past, Understanding Material Loss principally emerged from events and processes at work in the present. With the financial crisis of 2008, the large-scale displacement and migration of peoples, fears around water, food and energy resource scarcity, as well as increasingly urgent discussions about climate change and the Anthropocene, the contemporary moment seems to be filled with loss. Yet despite growing concerns over loss in the present, our understanding of how and when loss has been recognized as such, how humans have responded to it in the past and how such responses have shaped historic processes, remains opaque. In response Understanding Material Loss will bring together scholars from a range of disciplines to begin the work of examining such questions.
An uneven understanding of the processes surrounding loss is perhaps most apparent in terms of material loss. Historical studies continue to include rich work shaped by the early embrace of material culture studies as it arose in anthropology, archaeology, art history and literary studies. Historians influenced by the material culture studies tradition continue the difficult and important work of unpicking how people in the past drew meaning from and embedded meaning in the material world.1 While such work continues the crucial task of deciphering identities, meaning making and value structures, it often depends on and looks to material presence. Historians seek to analyse objects, buildings, technologies, landscapes, and cityscapes at the point when they were there: in direct relation to, or under the possession of, someone.
Understanding Material Loss draws on this strand of historical enquiry, but rather than focusing on presence, it instead looks at absence. Scholars exploring the new sub-field of the anthropology of absence have asserted that ‘absence – even if absence is only perceived absence – may have just as much effect as material presence’.2 In response Understanding Material Loss asks how historical actors continued processes of meaning making dependent on objects when those objects were no longer present. It considers how and when such absence was recognized and when and how certain objects came to be deemed ‘lost’. It looks to see what responses might have been and how processes and practices emerged to deal with such losses.
At the same time, the conference also seeks to draw on a different material turn, which has emerged as a shaping force in historical studies in recent years and might be characterized as ‘new materialism’. This more recent material turn has been deeply influenced by political theorists, literary scholars and philosophers and in response to such work historians have sought to move away from objects (understood as physical entities, the parameters of whose existence are principally recognized through their relationship to people) to things (understood as physical entities that lead existences beyond the parameters recognized by people).3 The focus on things (be they dams, sewer systems, proteins or slime) has led historians to begin to analyze the multiple impacts that things have on and beyond those experienced by people.4
As such scholars have become attentive to the different existences and presences that physical entities are capable of having, tracking potential impacts and effects. Consequently, material presence and being is increasingly coming to the forefront of historical enquiry. In looking to presence and affect, scholars have been interested in what things do, rather than what they mean. How do they come to change and affect certain processes? How does a dam shape a river and thus other ecological processes? How might it affect the farming practices that can take place locally? Taking such work as significant for historical studies, Understanding Material Loss questions its premise and asks, what happens if rather than present such things become absent? How do human and non-human processes and practices change in response? How and when do humans recognize such loss? Do they recognize them as ‘loss’? Hence, Understanding Material Loss suggests that instances of absence, as much as presence, provide an important means of understanding how and why the material world has shaped human life and historical processes.
Speculative and exploratory in nature then, tentative and grasping, Understanding Material Loss asserts that in a period marked by ecological destruction, but also economic austerity, large scale migration and increasing resource scarcity, it is important that scholars work to better understand the ways in which humans have responded to material loss in the past and how such responses have shaped change. Understanding Material Loss asks: how have humans historically responded to material loss and how has this shaped major historical processes? The conference will bring together scholars from a range of disciplines in an effort more to begin to explore and frame a problem, than provide definitive answers.
If you are interested in putting together a proposal for a paper or panel for the conference, the Call for Papers is still open and will close on Friday 14 October. Further details about conference themes and issues, and the CfP can be found here.
Dr. Kate Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth Century History at the University of Birmingham.
Conference registration for full-time academics is £50 for the two days (including lunches, teas and coffees and a conference wine reception on the Friday evening). Due to generous support from Past & Present and University of Birmingham, registration for students, independent scholars, the unemployed and early career researchers on short-term contracts is free of charge. However, you must register for a place.
Registration will be open until 31 January 2017, places are limited so please do book early to avoid disappointment.
1For example see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001); Dorothy Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005); Ulinka Rublack, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
2 For example see Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001); Dorothy Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005); Ulinka Rublack, Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
3 See for example, Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, Critical Inquiry, 28:1 (2001), 1-22; Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago: Open Court, 2002); Graham Harman, Guerilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (Chicago: Open Court, 2004); Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010); Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
4 See for example, Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley, California and London: University of California Press, 2002); Tony Bennett and Patrick Joyce, Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn (London and New York: Routledge, 2010); Frank Trentmann, Empire of Things: How We Became a World of Consumers, from the Fifteenth Century to the Twenty-First (London: Allen Lane, 2016); Chris Otter, ‘The Technosphere: A New Concept for Urban Studies’, Urban History, (2016), 1-10.