Environmental and Cultural Destruction in Imperial Spaces

Verena Zabel's picture
Call for Papers
April 17, 2023
Subject Fields: 
Colonial and Post-Colonial History / Studies, Environmental History / Studies, Humanities, World History / Studies, Cultural History / Studies

C a l l f o r P a p e r s

Second annual conference of the Research Group “Empires” (University of Freiburg)
Confirmed Keynote Speakers: Benno Weiner, Aondover Gabriel Gyegwe, Jennifer Keating
30 November – 2 December 2023, Freiburg, Germany

Empires can be guarantors of unity, stability, and peace. At the same time, they are often
embedded in a history of destruction of lives, habitats, and cultures. Imperial orders laid
waste to many previously autonomous polities and stable ecosystems, creating destruction
not only during their ‘rise’, but also through their efforts to maintain control, their demise,
and often long thereafter. This conference aims to shed light on destruction in imperial spaces
through the dual lens of environmental and cultural destruction. To better understand the
relationship between these forms of destruction and imperiality is one of the main goals of
the conference.

Empires have harmed culture and nature, bodies and minds, objects and peoples, material
and non-material heritages. The conference is thus based on a broad understanding of
destruction. It envelops a wide array of phenomena of damage and harm, both visible and
invisible, immediate and incipient, and of fleeting and lasting impact. Destruction can be a
show of force, an incidental by-product or a deliberate policy, ideologically motivated, a
result of institutional routines or simply of a lack of care. Destruction has a temporal as well
as a spatial dimension. Destructive events and processes can change conceptions of time,
memories of the past, and imaginations of the future. The spatial dimension includes the
destruction of imperial centres and peripheries as well as empires’ encroachment into
‘unknown’ lands, creating new frontiers and borderlands of destruction. Destruction does
not only emanate from the imperial centre, but might also emerge from co-opted local elites
or anti-imperial resistance.

Imperial subjugation of the ethnic ‘other’ often went hand in hand with the exploitation of
the environmental ‘other’. As the quest for resources was often accompanied by civilising
missions, imperial expansion has had both environmental and cultural dimensions. In fact,
research has long shown that nature and culture are not dichotomic but rather terms that
construct a supposed human difference. Moreover, studies on landscape development
explain how humans and environments interact. In this vein, the conference aims to explore
the specific dynamics of socio-cultural and environmental destruction, as well as to examine
how these two forms of destruction align, intersect, and influence each other in imperial

The overarching questions of the conference are:
• What is the relationship between destruction and imperiality?
• How can we understand environmental and cultural destruction as distinct, yet
interrelated phenomena?

We welcome applications focusing on a wide range of empires (modern/pre-modern/ancient,
maritime/land-based, pastoral/sedentary, authoritarian/democratic, capitalist/communist,
continental/over-sea) and exploring them from a variety of different – inter alia economic,
political, cultural, landscape – approaches, as well as focusing on different spatial and
temporal aspects of destruction.

Relevant topics might include, but are not limited to
destruction in warfare. Papers might interrogate how destruction was used and
justified against different kinds of opponents, why some imperial wars were more
destructive than others (and how to measure such destructiveness), and what traces
such wars have left on landscapes and cultures. They might also examine how
destruction is rationalised, in, for example, different phases of imperial expansion as
well as in anti-imperial resistance movements.
environmental and landscape destruction. Papers might address imperial
transformations of environments and landscapes, discourses of human-nature
relationships, the interdependence of technological and environmental
transformation. But it may also be worth interrogating what kind of ‘nature’ seemed
worth preserving and why some forms of environmental impact are regarded as
destruction while others are not.
cultural destruction. This might relate to the destruction of cultural landscapes,
historic places, monuments, and artefacts as well as intangible heritage such as
customs, beliefs, traditions, knowledge, concepts, and languages. Papers might probe
the specific settings in which the destruction of culture occurs and how the
destruction of material culture differs from that of immaterial culture. What influence
did post-imperial orders and empire-to-nation-state transitions have on cultures that
were considered peripheral and underdeveloped? Papers might also explore those
instances where efforts to ‘save’ cultures led to their destruction.
memory/visions of destruction. Ruins of architecture and landscapes keep the
memory of destruction alive. Papers might focus on whether and how different forms
of destruction are/were remembered differently as well as on how memory itself can
be destroyed. They might analyse the role that destruction plays in storytelling and
art, and explore how destruction is narrated, visualised, or made into sound and
aestheticized. How do artistic reflections on destruction change our perception and
memory of destruction? And what are visions of future destruction?

We welcome contributions from all the humanities and social sciences as well as hybrid
sciences such as geography. We especially encourage scholars in the early stages of their
career (PhD & Postdoc) to submit proposals. The conference will be held in hybrid format.

Interested applicants are invited to send a working title, an abstract of no more than 400
words, and a short biographical note to conference@grk2571.uni-freiburg.de by
17 March 2023. Please also indicate your preference for virtual or in-person participation.
Any further queries can be directed to the same address.

The accommodation in Freiburg will be covered by the Graduate School “Empires”. We will
also strive to at least partially reimburse presenters for their travelling expenses.
Presenters will be asked to provide a first draft of their paper at least two weeks prior to the
conference. After the conference, we intend to publish selected papers in an edited volume.

The conference is the second of a series of annual conferences organised by the DFG
Graduate School 2571 “Empires: Dynamic Transformation, Temporality and Postimperial
Orders” (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg). More information on the research group
can be found at: https://www.grk2571.uni-freiburg.de/events/annual-conference-2023

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