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Interdisciplinary Conference on “Disaster Knowledge”
November 3 – November 5 EDT
Disastrous events such as sudden volcano eruptions, the insidious extinction of species, unexpected industrial disasters, predictable financial or political-social crises cause the collapse of patterns and structures of human action and interpretation. The expectancy of disasters threatens the existing order of things and confront the present with a radically uncertain future. But it also challenges the scientific knowledge, institutionalized in universities, scientific societies, and academies since the early modern period, and its claim of validity. But it also concerns questions of representability and imaginability. Here, aesthetic concepts and artistic processes are key, even though – in the face of disaster – they can also meet their limits or expand them towards the hitherto unthinkable. The conference will investigate how disasters and the expectancy of disasters have changed and are still changing the orders of knowledge, how they are dealt with aesthetically, narrated in literature and how they are fuelled, perpetuated, or overcome by narration.
Etymologically, the notion “catastrophy” connects the idea of falling or tumbling (κατά, “downwards”) with the idea of turning around (στροφή). In this way, it can be linked to metaphors which are crucial for the description of scientific “turns,” from Descartes’ “tabula rasa” to “paradigm shifts” that scholars refer to in the proclamation of new orders of knowledge. Such disruptions of knowledge can be welcomed as a long overdue supersession of traditional worldviews, but they can also be met with severe resistance or provoke hesitant skepticism. Disruptions can be caused by external events, like the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that shook the Enlightenment’s optimistic view of human progress, but they can also be a reaction to internal crises of epistemic orders. In both cases, they bring dramatic humiliations of collective world views in their wake.
Against this background, the conference’s focus lies primarily on the affective dimensions of disasters: moments of shock, disturbance, and horror that correspond to the suddenness of the event, as well as moments of profound bewilderment, wonder, curiosity and doubt that are connected to the temporality within which science and art come to terms with disasters.
This conference is organized by the interdisciplinary Sinergia research project, The Power of Wonder: The Instrumentalization of Admiration, Astonishment and Surprise in Discourses of Knowledge, Power and Art, led by Mireille Schnyder (University of Zurich), Nicola Gess (University of Basel), Ulrich Bröckling (University of Freiburg) und Hugues Marchal (University of Basel).
The conference is planned to take place at the University of Zurich, subject to circumstances relating to the Covid-19 pandemic. Should these circumstances prevent holding the conference live, it will take place in a digital format. The date of the conference is confirmed and immovable though due to it being the final event of the Sinergia research project, The Power of Wonder.
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