Report on Thinking Through Loss

Katherine Jones (Modern British Studies) reports on Thinking Through Loss, a cross-disciplinary workshop organised by BRIHC in advance of Understanding Material Loss conference.

Thinking Through Loss

Workshop organiser and leader Kate Smith introduced material loss as an analytical framework, inviting scholars working within different fields to comment on how ‘loss’ can be explored. Asserting the poignancy of this discussion, Smith makes claim to the themes relevance as we are currently going through a period of loss; climate change, water, destruction brought on by human conflict, all in the in the era known as Anthropocene. How people respond to loss in the past was the main focus of this workshop. Smith states her broad interest in the relationship ‘between people and things’ - how people draw meaning from the material world - inspired her to explore this new analytical framework which has encouraged her to ask what happens when these ‘things’ are lost?         

Kate situates her personal interest within the new Materialist movement that has emerged within the last five years, informed by a growing interest in how objects relate to one another rather than how humans relate to objects. This departure is further influenced by the ‘Anthropology of Absence’, founded by a group of Danish anthropologists who argues that things that are absent are just as meaningful as when they are present. She goes on herself to argue that loss is culturally and historically contingent, which is illustrated through the diverse talks given by the five members of the panel. The aim of the workshop was to start the conversation of what this is and what it might mean in other disciplines outside of history and areas outside of her own specialism - Smith is a historian of the eighteenth-century, before handing over to the panel of speakers.

The first speaker, Henry Chapman from the school of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, discussed intentional and unintentional loss. Much of the organic materials used in prehistory have rotted and thus been lost over time, whereas other objects, he references a chariot, and other grave goods have been deliberately dismantled and deliberately placed in someone’s grave.

The second speaker, John Carman from the Ironbridge Institute for Cultural Heritage, focused his talk around the dichotomy between destruction and creation, arguing that to destroy something is also a creative urge.

Francesca Dell’Acqua from the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies was the third speaker. She discussed the loss (or lack) of surviving material objects from the Seventh century. She argues that in order to understand things that are lost and in the absence of sources, one should look outwards to other periods and other disciplines to fill in the gaps. (Methodological)

The fourth speaker was Maxim Bolt, from the school of Anthropology and African Studies, who discussed his research undertaken and his time spent on the South African/Zimbabwean border. He spoke of the loss experienced by civilians during and after the Zimbabwean crisis and displacement this caused. He argues that material objects, such as grade certificates and photo albums take on new meanings – they simultaneously help to stabilize the displaced subjects current experience whilst also representing a ‘loss’ of their previous lives.

The fifth and final speaker, also from the school of Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology was Mantha Zarmakoupi, who discussed how the reception of ancient Greek cities were used in twentieth century urban town planning and how “lost” cities can solve problems of housing in this period.

Kate then invited questions from the audience to the panel. Discussion picked up on the possibility that loss may be a modern obsession. This concept was opened up at the end of the talks in the form of informal discussion where the audience and panel alike were invited to share their views. The rhetoric of loss was also discussed, alongside the relationship between loss and value and the idea that loss can be celebrated.

This discussion panel was organised in preparation for the Understanding Material Loss conference, supported by BRIHC, which will be held across two days in February 2017 which will continue this vibrant discussion, opening it up to scholars from other institutions, both home and international.