Conference: Resource Imaginaries

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Resource Imaginaries

Vienna, Nov. 28/29, 2019

Hosts: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Eva Horn, Univ.-Prof. Dr. Anna Echterhölter


Resources present a peculiar way of thinking about matter. Essentially, any kind of raw material – from water and wood to precious ores, crude oil, or rare earths – can be transformed into a resource through a sequence of material, epistemic, and economic processes. In order to turn specific material into a resource, certain operations have to be carried out, such as tracking and extraction, measuring and evaluation, purification and processing, and eventually pricing. However, for any of these to take place, there needs to be demand – a socio-cultural or technological function has to be attributed to it. Thus, resources are the result of a process of ‘economisation’. This function – the creation of demand and subsequently certain forms of distribution (e.g., markets) – does not only depend on the exigencies of certain technologies (such as the steam engine’s demand for coal) or economies (such as the demand for gold and silver for the creation of money). It also hinges on narratives and imaginations revolving around these materials, their sources, qualities and uses. Some of these narratives dream up far-flung mythical worlds where precious materials can be found, harvested or appropriated (from enchanted mountains or islands to the American gold rush or the planet Pandora in the movie Avatar); others tell tales about how best to behave when dealing with these materials. While pre-modern cultures tend to treat nature as a coherent system of symbols, specific materials are singled out through certain narratives and thereby become ‘resources’. In the modern age, resource imaginary often draws on the material’s scarcity – greed or profligacy is punished, frugality is rewarded. Sometimes, however, certain resources give rise to ideas of endless growth and an ideology of ‘cornucopianism’ (Jonsson).


Resources are thus surrounded by certain kinds of knowledge but also by stories and fantasies about how to keep or make them available. The first treatise on sustainability was in fact a treatise on how to manage forests efficiently (Carl von Carlowitz), and the heyday of coal mining was haunted by fears of exhaustion (Jevons). The Malthusian specter of a catastrophic disproportion between resources and demand continues to haunt a modern economy based on the assumption of perpetual growth. While modern ideas of progress and growth are based on the faith in endless supply, we would like to ask how this cornucopian thought can be challenged and reformulated for our present.


As a disruption of basic ecological parameters, the Anthropocene calls for a re-thinking of our dependency on, and usage of, certain finite materials and substances. We need to take into account the side-effects and hidden costs of their extraction. This is not just an economic operation but calls for epistemological and also aesthetic processes: How can these hidden costs and unforeseen side-effects be made visible and palpable? What forms would be appropriate to represent them? We need to question the very notion of ‘resource’ as a way of appropriating materials by exploiting ‘cheap nature’ while externalizing the ecological costs of this process (Moore). Can we re-think material without falling into the trap of ‘cheap nature’? How can we account for the finitude of different materials? What is the temporality of resource exploitation and exhaustion? What alternative frameworks might help us to cultivate and manage the materials we depend on?


The conference invites case studies from antiquity to the present. We would like to address resources not as a given form of material but as the product of an epistemic and discursive process which must be analyzed within a given cultural and historical context. How are certain goods and materials transformed into ‘resources’? What are the narratives and forms of knowledge revolving around finding, obtaining, marketing them? What is their ideological and epistemic framework? What are the hidden costs involved in the process of turning matter into resources?



  • Prof. Andrea Westermann (History of Science, GHI West, Berkeley)
  • Prof. Fredrik Albritton Jonsson (History, Chicago)
  • Prof. Christophe Bonneuil (History of Science, Centre Alexandre Koyré, Paris) 
  • Dr. Benjamin Steininger (MPI Berlin, Wien)
  • Dr. Franz Mauelshagen (Environmental History, History of Science, Duisburg), 
  • Univ.-Prof. Dr. Michael Jursa (Assyrology, Vienna)
  • Univ.-Prof. Dr. Stephan Müller (German Studies/Medieval Studies, Vienna)
  • Prof. Dr. Gisela Hürlimann (History of Technology, ETH Zürich)
  • Prof. Stephanie LeMenager (English, Univ. of Oregon, Eugene)
  • Prof. Dr. Astrid Lembke (Medievealist, Berlin)
  • Julia Nordblad, PhD (History of Science, Uppsala)
  • Prof. Karen Pinkus (Italian and Comparative Literature, Cornell) 



The Anthropocene: Challenging the Disciplines, April 8 (Workshop)

Originally coined by the natural sciences, the concept of the Anthropocene is rapidly gaining traction in the humanities and social sciences. It has unleashed an array of debates as well as critical disciplinary self-reflection in many academic fields. The Anthropocene calls for new forms of dialogue across disciplinary and epistemological boundaries. Exposing the inadequacy of certain traditional disciplinary distinctions, the Anthropocene has also forged unprecedented forms of cooperation and alliances between the disciplines. But what should be the basis of this new dialogue?  We believe that such a dialogue will have to go not only beyond the confines of our respective disciplines but also beyond traditional ideas of inter- and trans-disciplinarity.


Our workshop will address these questions regarding the re-thinking of academic disciplines in the light of the Anthropocene.


·         What are the concepts we have in common (such as, e.g., “epochs”, “nature”)? How do their differing definitions in each respective field relate to one another?

·         How does the concept of the Anthropocene transform the various disciplines? While the humanities and social sciences have always seen themselves as “critical”, i.e. involved in the political and cultural debates of their times, can there be such a thing as “critical natural sciences”?

·         How might the differences in temporal and spatial scale in the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences be integrated epistemologically?

·         Is there any prospect of a “Big History” – geological, anthropological and cultural – in which very different fields of knowledge and different methodological cultures combined to yield a unity of knowledge attuned to the Anthropocene? What might the conceptual constraints and barriers for such a consilience be?


The workshop will bring together academics from different fields and disciplines whose research interests converge around the concept of the Anthropocene. We invite each participant to give a 10-minute, programmatic statement on the questions raised above.

Workshop: Poetiken des Anthropozäns, April 9