VAN Details

Resource Imaginaries

28.11.2019 - 29.11.2019

Eva Horn, Anna Echterhölter

Date: 28.-29. November 2019

Location: Schreyvogelsaal, Universität Wien

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? 

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?

Organiser:
Vienna Anthropocene Network
Location:
Schreyvogelsaal, Universität Wien
RESOURCE Program
Seeing The Earth as an Industrialist: The Emergence of The Resource Concept in Western Modernity
Prof. Dr. Christophe Bonneuil (CNRS Paris)
Cornucopianism: a plea for a new subject of research
Prof. Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, PhD