Nowadays, we are constantly confronted with frantic reports on natural calamities. Major news outlets describe the potentially cataclysmic effects of the latest forest fires, floods, and storms – and due to the ongoing climate crisis, extreme weather events can be expected to have ever greater impacts on our lives. If we are left wondering how we should deal with these disasters, we should also acknowledge that natural calamities have always occurred and have affected human experience in myriad ways.
For many centuries, news about catastrophic events has been disseminated via media such as pamphlets, chronicles, poems, and prints. This conference seeks to address the cultural representations that reflected and shaped the ways in which people learned and thought about disasters that occurred either nearby or far away, both in time and space.
This conference welcomes contributions that engage with the cultural dimensions of disasters and reflect on representations of catastrophes in different media. In doing so, we offer a platform to scholars from various backgrounds to adopt multi- and interdisciplinary approaches to reconceptualising the broader socio-cultural consequences of disasters.
Without denying the very real and immediate impact that calamities have on people’s lives, we consider disasters to be as much cultural phenomena as natural events. The power of cultural discourses to shape the perception of disasters is therefore key to understanding their wider societal impact. Such representations are not only profoundly influenced by specific cultural habits and beliefs, but also by the media that communicate these events.
To foreground understudied areas of research, we want to turn away from disasters that humans deliberately inflicted upon each other. In other words, we are excluding calamities that were a direct result of warfare, genocide or terrorism. Instead, we will focus on unplanned catastrophes: those fateful moments when nature and culture clashed.
The period that we will be examining (c. 1500- 1900) is roughly demarcated by two media transformations: the introduction of the printing press on the one hand, and the invention of radio, television, and film on the other. This conference thus covers all the cultural manifestations of disasters in the intervening period, mediated, for example, by pamphlets, prints and newspapers, but also through letters and diaries.
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