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Genealogies of Memory: Pandemics, famines and industrial disasters of the 20th and 21st centuries | Conference


Anthropology Art history Communication studies Cultural studies Ethnology Film studies Gender studies History International relations Jewish studies Linguistics Literary studies Media studies Other Philosophy Political science Religious studies Slavic studies Sociology Theatre studies Translation studies


Memory Memory studies


How individuals cope with the memory of traumatic large-scale events (such as wars, famines, pandemics, natural or industrial disasters) is of great interest to social sciences such as psychology, psychotraumatology or sociology. Since the Great War and what was then described as ’shell shock’, i.e. an individual’s bodily response to trauma – better known today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – the study of trauma has developed significantly. But how are the memory and reality of dramatic past events experienced and worked through at a collective level, including those that are direct consequences of armed conflicts or violent revolutions? 

The repression, silencing and forgetting of unpredictable yet present threats was part of the phenomenon of tabooisation in pre-industrial societies, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out years ago. It is aimed at protecting communities and societies from excessive fear and chaos (disorder) resulting from the unpredictability of the world. In the 21st century, societies with highly specialised medical and technological knowledge ceded responsibility for managing the safety (and health) of the population to the state (biopolitics) in situations of large-scale disasters and pandemic phenomena – as we have seen in 2020 – and have repeatedly proved almost completely helpless at the level of social practice. 

Yet epidemics and pandemics such as the medieval plague, eighteenth-century smallpox, twentieth-century polio, tuberculosis or AIDS are experiences embedded in the collective memory of many generations worldwide. Similarly, famines, whether caused by armed conflicts (as after the Great War), natural disasters or by oppressive state policy (e.g. Holodomor) – have been, at the level of everyday life, particular generational and collective experiences.

Do protective (security) strategies generated by the experience or, on the contrary, the defence mechanisms created (such as denial, forgetting or tabooisation) also influence our contemporary memory of these events and historical phenomena? Might they also be the main explanation why in Central Europe – in contrast to Western Europe and North America – it is so difficult to find memorials to the victims of the Great Influenza pandemic or polio? 

Why do the societies of most post-communist countries, which in the second half of the 20th century were an area of regular regional – though concealed in public discourse (censorship) – industrial catastrophes resulting in ecological degradation perceive today the problems of contemporary environmental threats and global warming in such an ambivalent way? 

Why do many narratives concerning these past phenomena still divide European societies (an excellent example of which is the Chernobyl disaster, which in popular memory, if only due to film productions, is still identified with a massive biological calamity, while in expert discourses, years later, the threat was assessed as minimal)? 

The aim of the conference – carried out as part of the 13th edition of the Genealogies of Memory project – will be an attempt at drawing attention to the discourses of memory and non-remembrance of large-scale natural and human induced disasters in 20th-century Europe. We want to bring to the fore the perspective of diverse social actors – both individual and collective, thus thematising the presence of such events in both individual (family), regional and collective memory, for which an important area of expression were changing public narratives (of both authoritarian and communist, as well as democratic governments of 20th-century Europe) as well as popular ones, present particularly in cultural texts (film, literature, etc.). We are also interested in reflecting on the presence of this issue in the contemporary public space – material and artistic (monuments, memorials, exhibitions, etc.) as well as discursive. 

To what extent is/has been the memory of these population-threatening phenomena influenced by the political and social transformations of the 20th century in East-Central Europe? And how does this region differ from Western European countries? – this is also one of the important questions we will try to answer. 

In the discussions, we would like to focus on four main areas of selected aspects of 20th-century natural and man-made disasters: 

Epidemics: Spanish flu in East-Central Europe and other inter-war and post-war epidemics of infectious diseases (polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis and other ‘social diseases’, AIDS) and contemporary discourses of memory and their visual and textual representations. 

Famines – crop failures – food rationing – memory/commemoration of victims and humanitarian aid, food distribution and class/social inequalities, nationalisms/imperialism – how does the memory of famines and food crises in East-Central and Western Europe function – in grassroots (private, family) and public memory. 

Human-induced industrial disasters – ecology – fear versus ideology of progress – modernity (industrialisation) – communist censorship vs. discourses of memory – industrial disasters in people’s democracies vs. practices of tabooing (and censorship); environmental activism in East Central Europe (especially in anti-communist opposition circles vs. contemporary memory and public discussions of environmental threats). 

Practices of constructing memory of man-made/natural disasters – changing memories, shifting agencies, human and non-human aspects of memory (as objects, industrial landscapes, etc.), 20th century memory patterns vs. the discourse of the Anthropocene, the discourse of the apocalypse and the future of memory. 

However, we are also open to other approaches to the above-described issues, going beyond the framework outlined here. 

The conference language is English. The organisers provide accommodation for the participants. There is no conference fee. 

The conference will take place in Warsaw on 22-24 Novemver 2023 in a hybrid format with possible online participation. 

Further details

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