[UPDATE - date change] Objects of Modernity

full name / name of organization: 
Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, University of Birmingham, UK
contact email: 

Objects of Modernity (23-24 June 2014)

Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity, University of Birmingham, 23-24 June 2014

Confirmed Keynote: Dr Ulrika Maude (University of Bristol)

What were the objects that shaped modernity? How did they function? Who created them, used them and represented their significance?

This two-day conference, held in conjunction with the 'Centre for the Study of Cultural Modernity' at the University of Birmingham, seeks to bring together researchers from a range of disciplines in order to reflect upon, and begin to sketch out, a cultural history of modernity by way of its objects. This burgeoning field of study, which encompasses scholarship on material cultures, the history of technology, social theory and psychoanalysis and which has been pioneered by the 'cultural phenomenology' of Steven Connor and the 'thing theory' of Bill Brown amongst others, has spawned new, interdisciplinary research from literary critics, art historians, philosophers, sociologists and cultural historians. Yet this work has often not been drawn together in such a way as to reflect upon its specific significance as a subject of study or its relevance for more traditional forms of historical analysis. Answering the question of how a particular object should be read entails an assumption about its readable qualities and interpretive value. Reflecting upon the key interpretive tools that allow objects to become meaningful in this way will therefore be a fundamental component of the conference and, while the nature of the final panels cannot be predicted in detail, it is envisaged that several methodological or thematic strands will run throughout. These will include, but are not limited to:

• The Phenomenal. How do 'the things themselves' of phenomenology shape our being-in-the-world? How do they throw us into a world of cultural practices that make our experience precisely what it is?
• The Phantasmagoric. How do objects both display and hide their inherent traits? How do they circulate? Who possesses them?
• Obsolescence and Waste. What happens when apparently 'modern' objects become obsolete? What kind of an object is rubbish?
• The Materiality of Art. What kind of object is the book, painting or sculpture? How does its 'thingness' mediate the experience of art?
• Subject and Object. In what ways are human bodies (or their parts) objects? How have technological innovations altered bodies and subjectivities? Are objects invested with human traits?

The approach of this conference is therefore both thematic and methodological rather than period specific. However, it is also true that the range of questions referred to above can be most effectively addressed when given some limited terms of reference. As such 'Objects of Modernity' will be concentrated upon the period 1850-1950 – though the organizers would welcome abstracts dealing with matters from either just before or just after this rough dating.

Running in conjunction with this conference there will be a closely related networking event which will provide an opportunity for Early Career Researchers from both the HE and Heritage sectors to pursue the practical use of objects in current scholarship. The aim of this event is to help unlock some of the resources, archives and collections of objects, things and artefacts of the industrial and post-industrial heritage of the UK to Early Career Researchers, and to help forge new professional, cross-disciplinary connections that will shape a growing and fertile field of study in the coming years. All those who present at the 'Objects of Modernity' conference will be welcomed to this networking event also.


Interested applicants should submit a 500 word abstract, together with a brief biography, to r.ferguson@bham.ac.uk by 14 April 2014. The topic is of clear relevance to scholars in a number of disciplines including literary studies, history, the history of art, sociology etc. and the organizers are keen to hear from those working in these and related areas.