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International Conference
‘The Shaping Power of Risk: Literature, Culture, Environment’

February 24-26, 2012, University of Bayreuth

Keynote Speakers:
Prof. Dr. Ursula K. Heise (Stanford University)
Prof. Colin Milburn (University of California, Davis)
Dr. Bronislaw Szerszynski (Lancaster University)


Conference program


Since the 1980s, one of the most productively employed categories of social and cultural analysis has been the category of “risk.” Sociologists such as Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Niklas Luhmann have shown that various social, political, and cultural transformations in our period of late modernity can be understood as responses to risk perception, risk communication, and risk assessment. Similarly, cultural anthropologists in the tradition of Mary Douglas have identified the socio-cultural mechanisms and functions that are involved in the construction of risk. Only fairly recently, however, has risk become a theoretical lens and analytical category in the fields of literary and cultural studies – most significantly in the field of environmentally oriented literary and cultural studies.

While concepts of risk point toward a whole spectrum of notions that range from chance and probability to loss and threat, the culturally shaping power of current environmental risks has largely been the result of a concept of risk as threat: technologically induced, anthropogenic risks such as the nuclear risk, biochemical/toxic risks, the risk of global warming and climate change, and the risk of species extinction as well as non-anthropogenic risks such as earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanic eruptions have all figured as perceptual and cognitive schemata in situations that are characterized by the openness and uncertainty of the future. Risk must thus be distinguished from actual catastrophe: risk refers to the anticipation of catastrophe and to the possibility of detrimental future occurrences.

Based on the premise that due to their imaginative and formal/aesthetic range cultural artefacts such as literary texts, films, or video games participate in processes of risk communication in very specific ways, this conference intends to broaden our understanding of the culturally shaping power of risk by featuring keynote lectures and papers that investigate the participation of a variety of texts – texts coming in different media, but also texts emerging from different cultures – in the processes of environmental risk communication.

The conference will focus on three topic areas:

A Environmental risks and genre

The representation of risk often involves the employment of particular genres, genre conventions, modes of narration, and imagery. Papers in this topic area will explore the forms and functions of, for instance, genres such as environmental dystopias, eco- or medical thrillers, and legal drama, of narrative modes such as environmental apocalypticism, but also of genres or modes that have figured less prominently in the recent history of environmental risk representation.

B Environmental risks and the affective/emotional power of texts

Affect and emotion are of central importance to our enjoyment of all kinds of cultural products, be they poems, novels, blockbuster movies, or video games, and they also play a major role in our assessment of various risk scenarios. Their ability to engage audiences emotionally is one of the reasons why literary and filmic representations of risk sometimes interact in powerful ways with media reports on real-world events and scientific projections of possible future developments. Papers in this topic area will therefore examine the affective dimension of risk representation in literary and film texts and the way it opens up spaces for involvement in relation to the risks addressed.

C Environmental risks and the moral function of texts

With the identification of an environmental risk as a threat or danger in a text we automatically move within – culturally specific – realms of ethics and morality since this identification involves judgments about “goodness” or “badness,” about “right” and “wrong.” Literature and film offer indispensable, sometimes multi-layered sites of moral deliberation and can thus be regarded as specific modes of ethical inquiry. Papers in this topic area will thus address the environmental ethical dimension in literary and filmic risk narratives by, for instance, taking into account historically and culturally changing sets of ideas or conceptual frames that activate and strengthen particular values.


Prof. Dr. Sylvia Mayer

Chair Anglophone Literatures and Cultures / American Studies

The conference was sponsered by the Hans Böckler Foundation and the Bavarian American Academy.


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