Culture Adores a Vacuum

One of the greatest privileges of being a junior fellow at the Institute of Historical Research is meeting the other junior fellows once a week for an informal seminar series. Some of the best papers I saw last year were at this seminar, with presenters talking about a fascinating range of topics, from tattooing and circumcision in the middle ages, through slavery and colonial Burma, to the surveillance state in twentieth-century Britain (check out a full list of projects by junior fellows here:

I know some researchers see seminars as a time drain, and it is true that it is frustrating to sit through bad presentations. But I like seminars in general, and this one in particular, for two reasons.

First, there is nothing like the feeling of realizing that someone has interested you in a topic that looks uninteresting on paper. I’m thinking especially of the really excellent presentations by the medievalists at this seminar (Carolyn Twomey on the material culture of baptism (@Carolyngian) and Ian Stone on the strange character of Arnold fitz Thedmar, not to mention Kevin Lewis’s work on body modification mentioned above).

And second, broad seminars are often one of the best places to make thematic connections across periods and geographies and discover people asking similar questions about different materials. At the IHR this year this was particularly brought home to me as a number of the junior fellows were interested in questions of ‘empty space’. Jennifer Keating talked of the construction of emptiness in (imperial) Russian Central Asia, while Courtney Campbell (@CJCampbell123) discussed the paradoxical emptiness of the Brazilian Northwest. Listening to these talks, I could see resonances with my own interests in how an ‘empty’ region – the moorlands of Gascony – was filled with meaning by an imperial state in the nineteenth century.

These kinds of conversations don’t end in the seminar room. They don’t even end in the pub afterwards. In this case, they have led to a one-day conference in April, with a keynote lecture by Matt Houlbrook from the University of Birmingham (@TricksterPrince).

I’ve reproduced the CFP, which is open until 1st February, below. (The original – with Jennifer’s rather beautiful picture of the camel on the steppes – can be found here Send us a proposal and join in the conversation!

“If nature abhors a vacuum, cultural attitudes to emptiness are more complex. Vacant places have been constructed and sustained by a variety of actors, from colonial powers to cartographers, city planners to scientists. This one day colloquium asks how and why empty spaces have been important to travelers, empires, anthropologists, artists, archivists, photographers, and the historians who study them. How is emptiness made? What tools, materials, and agents does it involve, and what cultural, physical, and natural work goes into maintaining nothingness? Have empty spaces been particularly important at specific points in history? What cross-cultural continuities are there in how they have been made and understood? How have historians perceived and created ‘gaps in the literature’? What ideological functions does emptiness serve?

We invite proposals that consider the construction and maintenance of any kind of ‘empty space’ in history. These might include, but are not limited to:






The heavens

Deep space

Textual absences

Missing archives

We encourage proposals that interpret both physical and metaphorical spaces.

Dr. Matt Houlbrook (Birmingham) will give a plenary lecture on historians and empty spaces.

300 word proposals for 20 minute papers should be sent with a one page CV attached to Courtney Campbell, Allegra Giovine, Jennifer Keating, and Will Pooley at by 1st February 2015.

Please note that small bursaries to support conference travel for postgraduate students are available from the Historical Geography Research Group. Please indicate if you would like to be considered for this support in your submission.

Supported by the Institute of Historical Research, the Historical Geography Research Group, the Department of History of Vanderbilt University and the School of Slavonic & East European Studies, UCL.”

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