1st UK-German Frontiers of Humanities Symposium 2019

Design of the Symposium


Ways of understanding the world within what has been labelled a ‘network society’ have recently undergone radical shifts. Rather than examining individual phenomena as distinct and stable entities in themselves, research has tended to understand events, structures, ideas, and experiences as nodes in complex systems of relations. No longer fixed by a permanent essence, ‘what something (or someone) is’ appears as the hybrid and temporary outcome of the interplay of various factors. As a result, scholarship in the humanities and social sciences has increasingly focused on the ties connecting individuals, groups, institutions, and other – human and nonhuman – entities. Yet as we have learned to analyse the webs of ties surrounding objects of study, we are also confronted with the moments of their rupture.

The character of such moments of rupture is extremely varied and still understudied. Their spectrum ranges from the severing of social relations to the alienation of personal or cultural identities, and from the fracturing of technical, economic or spatial structures to the dissolution of networks of information, finances or community. For all their diversity, however, moments of rupture share some common characteristics that render them an urgent object of study.

First, rupture restructures temporality. As moments of sudden division between periods of relative stability, they are characterized by a specific intensity of experience. As previously established realities are shattered, futurity is put into question and those directly or indirectly involved are forced to grapple with the uncertainty and contingency of a field in flux.

Second, rupture involves re-imagination. In opening up rifts, rupture also provides space for reinvention. When established structures and networks collapse, a reshuffling of positions and relations becomes necessary. In such situations, conflicting visions of a re-ordered future need to be considered and negotiated. Accordingly, these moments are crises not in the sense of cataclysm (although this is possible), but of critical points, deciding the direction of future developments.

Third, rupture provides an opportunity for understanding. Since every identity is tied up in complex systems of connections, their severing entails a process of disentanglement in which multiple sides need to reconfigure their perspectives on themselves and their place in the world. What is true for the people involved in such processes, also applies to scholarly perspectives. Fissures, fractures, and breaches can be understood as a methodological entry point, offering an opportunity for analysis into fundamental structures of reality that remain invisible as long as they are unproblematic.

The conference is centred around four disciplinary panels, highlighting various perspectives on the general theme.

Geography/Urban Studies panel:
Just-In-Case geographies. Navigating knowledges, agencies, and metabolisms of uncertain urban futures

Accelerating technological progress and ever-increasing knowledge production under conditions of globalization have fostered the belief of improving forecasting capabilities and the effectiveness of ‘just-in-time’ economics based on reliable global interconnectedness. At the same time, however, there is a growing cognizance that disruption, and related indeterminacy and contingency, are increasingly ubiquitous. From swift (geo)political change to unprecedented financial collapse, from refugee crises and humanitarian responses to accelerating climatic threats, to prolonged or ‘slow-burning’ conflict, these processes all come with actual or potential long-term disconnections and fractures, especially in cities, which are putting the ‘just-in-time efficiency model under stress.

The session explores “just in case” political and urban geographies as a counter-narrative to established discourses of risk calculus, technology-driven resilience, and short-term humanitarian emergency. It enquires how urban practices of ‘not knowing’ and ‘just in case’ measures absorb crisis into potential long-term re-invention beyond temporary adaptation. At the heart of the session lies the paradoxical claim that it is precisely by accepting a larger degree of imprecision in the future, that urban societies might be able to find longer-term and context-specific ways of dealing with contingency, fragility, uncertainty, and change.

The session contributions will explore societal and knowledge responses to moments of uncertainty triggered by actual present or protracting urban stress, or by perceived/ anticipated threats and crises including ecological collapse or geopolitical change, but also positive resolution of long-seated conflicts and consequent governmental and spatial change.

More widely, the session will ask: how does the incalculable and the uncertain conduce to creativity, experimentation and even more ordinary re-imagination of everyday life across urban contexts? Can ideas of “indeterminacy” and “contingency” help research everyday emancipatory tactics for dealing with urban uncertainty? What spatial knowledges are deployed by urban dwellers for whom uncertainty and potential rupture shape everyday life? What kind of spatial experience do ‘just-in-case’ atmospheres shape? How do human and nonhuman or natural actors assemble amidst uncertainty? By broadening our understanding of the spectrum of possible responses to uncertainty and rupture, the session aims to raise a debate on what knowledge is required to transition from reactive, just-in-time techno-managerial management of crisis towards more proactive, anticipatory, creative and contextual responses to contingency.

Literature panel:
Beyond Community? Cosmopolitanism in Contemporary British, Irish, and Anglophone Literature

If we have entered a ‘planetary phase of civilisation’ (Global Scenario Group) marked by increased global connectivity and a proliferation of ‘routes’ instead of ‘roots’ (James Clifford), it would seem a logical consequence to disrupt and discard sectional forms of community and morality for a more comprehensive, transcultural perspective. Contemporary thinkers like Kwame Anthony Appiah, Ulrich Beck or Paul Gilroy have proposed the notion of ‘cosmopolitanism’ to denominate such an inclusive concept of community, which places our common humanity above our citizenship of a particular polis or state. On the other hand, the resurgence of nationalism in many countries evinces a precarious need to reinstate borders, boundaries, and regional communities in an attempt to redraw the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This session will ask in what ways contemporary literature represents, engages with or critically responds to Martha Nussbaum’s argument about the role of literature as ‘a curriculum for world citizenship’. Its aim is to explore how literature pins the concept of cosmopolitanism against the notions of regional communities, borders, boundaries, and belonging.

Anthropology panel:
Difference and Rupture: race, gender, and inequality in contemporary anthropology data, theory, and practice

In a world of fast-paced technology, shifting aspirations, and dramatic movement through forced displacement and economic migration, difference and how to manage it is both a broad political question, and an issue for the most intimate of relationships. Questions of ‘difference’ in relation to community can no longer be parsed in terms of simple ‘them’ versus ‘us’ formations, as difference as a concept, as a ‘problem’ or, concomitantly, as something to celebrate has become so politically and conceptually mercurial. Difference speaks both to what is strange and what is intimate, it is present in the self, and in those we share our lives with. It is closer than ever to ‘home’. It potentiates for rupture as well as discovery, it generates fear and compassion in equal measure; in homes and families, in institutions, in spaces of work. Yet statements of difference and acts of ‘differentiation’ have always been entangled with questions of power. Who/what is ‘different’ and who/what is not? Who decides what difference is and is it possible to draw a difference without creating a hierarchy? Using ethnographic methods, anthropologists are uniquely placed to parse the politics of difference in contemporary worlds, observing its making and remaking of subjects, as well as its language of rupture and injury, compassion, and discovery. This session aims at bringing into dialogue diverse approaches to managing differences and positionalities ranging from migrant perspectives (e.g. “post-migrant” approaches) to political activisms, to critical public debates dominating the mass media over questions of race and gender in places of work.

History panel:
Disconnection – Reconnection? Imaginaries, Negotiations and Conflicts at Historical Junctures

Adding a historical dimension to the conference theme, this session focusses on moments when established connections fail or become undone. Building on diverse case studies of ties, networks and systems that break down, we interrogate the nature and historical significance of ‘in-between’ periods of transformation, which occur when established structures are disrupted and their renegotiation becomes necessary. Attention to moments of rupture helps illuminate how established structures function, offering new insight into processes which in their everyday operations are often taken for granted, making them all but invisible. At the same time, destabilization provides room for innovation. As a result, a focussed analysis of moments of disconnection allows us to ask new questions. How do actors cope with the uncertainty involved in these processes and what strategies do they develop to build new connections against a background of changing circumstances? How are competing visions of renewed and transformed links mediated, arranged and experienced? What are the costs and risks involved in such negotiations and under what circumstances might they be a basis for creative reimaginations of a reconnected future?


Stephanie Dill
Frontiers of Research
Program Coordinator
Alexander von Humboldt Foundation
Markgrafenstraße 37
10117 Berlin


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