Conference Call for Papers

Understanding Material Loss Across Time and Space Conference

17-18 February 2017, University of Birmingham

Understanding Material Loss intends to examine the usefulness of ‘loss’ as an analytical framework across different disciplines and subfields, but principally within historical studies. Loss and absence are slowly being recognized as significant factors in historical processes, particularly in relation to the material world. Archaeologists, anthropologists, philosophers, literary scholars, sociologists and historians have increasingly come to understand the material world as an active and shaping force. Nevertheless, while significant, such studies have consistently privileged material presence as the basis for understanding how and why the material world has played an increasingly important role in the lives of humans. In contrast, Understanding Material Loss suggests that instances of absence, as much as presence, provide important means of understanding how and why the material world has shaped human life and historical processes.

Speculative and exploratory in nature, 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 historians 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 historical processes? The conference will bring together a range of scholars in an effort more to begin to explore and frame a problem, than provide definitive answers.

Confirmed keynote speakers include:

  • Professor Pamela Smith, History, Columbia
  • Simon Werrett, Science and Technology Studies, UCL
  • Professor Maya Jasanoff, History, Harvard
  • Professor Jonathan Lamb, English, Vanderbilt
  • Professor Anthony Bale, English and Humanities, Birkbeck
  • Astrid Swenson, Politics and History, Brunel

Understanding Material Loss seeks to uncover the multiple practices and institutions that emerged in response to different forms of material loss in the past and asks, how has loss shaped (and been shaped by) processes of acquisition, possession, stability, abundance and permanence? By doing so it seeks to gauge the extent to which ‘loss’ can be used as an organizing framework of study across different disciplines and subfields. Understanding Material Loss seeks papers from across a variety of time periods and geographies. Although open and speculative in nature, this conference will focus on three broad topics within the wider rubric of loss, in order to facilitate meaningful conversations and exchanges.

Using Materials

  • How has the ‘loss’ of particular materials affected scientific practice, manufacturing, architectural design or development in the past?
  • How have humans responded to the partial loss or decay of materials?
  • How have ‘lost’ skills or knowledge affected the use of materials?
  • How have humans re-appropriated or recycled seemingly damaged or obsolete materials?

Possessing Objects

  • How have humans sought to maintain and mark the ownership of objects?
  • How has the loss of possessions and property affected human mobility and constructions of identity?
  • How have communities historically responded to the loss of particular objects? When and why have they sought to stave off the loss of things?
  • Where, when and how have cultures of repair flourished?
  • How has the loss of possessions and property (or the potential for loss) affected processes of production, consumption or financial stability?

Inhabiting Sites and Spaces

  • When and why have particular sites or buildings been understood as destroyed or obsolete?
  • How have past societies responded to the loss of particular sites?
  • When and how have landscapes been actively purged of symbols and sites?
  • How have past societies worked to rebuild or reclaim particular sites?
  • What strategies did past societies develop to ensure the resilience of certain structures?

Please send proposals (250 words max per paper) for papers and panels to conference organizer Kate Smith (k.smith@bham.ac.uk) by Friday 14 October 2016. Papers should not exceed 20 minutes. Roundtable panels featuring 5-6 papers of 10 minutes each or other innovative formats are encouraged.

Thanks to Past & Present and the University of Birmingham for their generous support for the conference.