CFP: Elements: Thinking Our Present Elementally (4S 2019)

Timothy Neale's picture

This year's Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) meeting in New Orleans, 4-7 September, falls the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements. We're marking the occasion with an open panel on elements and the elemental. Proposed papers are due to the submission portal by 1 February 2019. More info at 

Elements: Thinking Our Present Elementally
Convened by: Timothy Neale (Deakin University), Courtney Addison (Victoria University of Wellington), Thao Phan (University of Melbourne)

In recent years, humanities scholars, social scientists, and others outside the physical and material sciences have set upon debates about the existence of a geological 'age of the human,' or the Anthropocene, intent to show how scientists are themselves 'writing culture' in these debates. The Anthropocene is, as many have noted, 'a paradigm dressed as an epoch' (Baskin, 2015). At the same time, there has been a renewed interest in the humanities and social sciences in engaging with many of the same materials at the centre of scientific discussions about the Anthropocene: fossils, minerals, soil, coal , plants, water, and so on. This has involved rethinking the 'elemental' basis of our surrounds as composed, perhaps, out of 'elemental media' (Peters, 2015).

There are (roughly) three senses of the elemental. In the first sense, elements are discrete chemical entities, like those named and schematised in the Periodic Table of Elements which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Elemental are the metals and non-metals of specific atomic compositions and weights, arranged and combined in diverse forms. In the second sense, the elemental names the environmental milieu, or material substrate, in which we are irrevocably embedded, in which different forms of life are immersed, enveloped, and take shape. It is from this perspective that scholars have begun to write of technology and infrastructure as 'elemental'; as, to quote Edwards (2003), our 'naturalized background, as ordinary and unremarkable to us as trees, daylight, and dirt'. The third sense of the elemental is the ontological one, the philosophical correlate of the first. Here, the elemental is not a material resource or background, but is a claim about the conditions-of-possibility of being and matter themselves. For an elemental philosophy, there are forces or forms of matter from which every other material is derived; they are the condition and horizon of sensible involvement in the world (Engelmann and McCormack, 2018).

At once, the elemental situates us, embeds us, and is beyond us. This panel seeks contributions that explore the value (and limits) of thinking our present elementally.

References: Baskin J. (2015) Paradigm dressed as epoch: the ideology of the Anthropocene. Environmental Values 24(1): 9-29. Edwards PN. (2003) Infrastructure and modernity: Force, time, and social organization in the history of sociotechnical systems. In: Misa TJ, Brey P and Feenberg A (eds) Modernity and technology. Boston: MIT Press, 185-226. Engelmann, S and McCormack D. (2018) Elemental aesthetics: on artistic experiments with solar energy. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 108 (1):241-259. Peters JD. (2015) The marvelous clouds: toward a philosophy of elemental media, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dr Timothy Neale
Senior Research Fellow, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and
Globalisation , Deakin University