Rivers (just like seas or mountains) have always been a determining component of spaces. They serve as natural boundaries, form the character of a landscape and shape the image of entire regions. Rivers therefore play a very important role in the perception of a geographical area. Accordingly, their location and course are described, measured and mapped in great detail. As natural entities, they confront people with dangers (e.g. floods), the risks of which are minimised by human interventions in nature (e.g. dams, canals, straightening). Conversely, humans also make use of the natural potential of river basins (e.g. hydropower, agriculture). However, rivers are not only the passive object of the scientific-technical control of nature, rather they are themselves actively involved in the constitution of spaces. If one understands rivers as independent actors within the framework of a network theory, the question arises as to which dynamics they cause. In economic terms, rivers serve as important transport and traffic routes. They are lifelines of the economy that contribute to the interconnectedness of economic areas. As transportation routes, rivers entail a multitude of legal discourses that in turn generate new dynamics by stimulating (supra-)state legislation from which new institutions emerge. In political terms, rivers are often contested borders or sites of armed conflict. Sometimes they become a projection screen for national discourses that form long-lasting enmities (e.g. Rhine, Oder-Neisse). At the same time, however, they also constitute spaces of contact in which cultural transfer and exchange take place. River spaces are thus exemplary spaces of demarcation and interconnection. As such, they contribute decisively to the formation of spatial cultures or the emergence of cultural spaces (e.g. Danube, Rhine, Oder, Rhône, Tiber, Ebro). It is no coincidence that since antiquity (Heraclitus) the river has been regarded as a symbol par excellence of identity problems. For rivers constitute spaces with considerable inertia, which remain constant precisely because they are always in motion. The paradoxical relationship between constancy and change is also suitable for aesthetic discourses. Mythologically, the river is marked as a metaphorical threshold or place of transition (e.g. Lethe, Rubicon). From the point of view of the Bible, it is a symbol of purification and healing (e.g. Jordan). River symbols are also frequently found in sagas, fairy tales and legends (e.g. Lorely). In general, river spaces seem to be particularly connectable to an imagology of water. Rivers also play a role in the emergence of cultural techniques (e.g. bathing, swimming, washing, cures) as well as artistic and discursive practices (e.g. Rhine Romanticism). Artistic practices in particular are frequently associated with sections of rivers that serve as junction points for transfers between individual regions (e.g. fords, confluences). Often these spaces form their own “cultural landscapes” (Kulturlandschaft) after only a short time, i.e. spatial units that have certain characteristics or develop recognisable “styles” (as opposed to short-term fashions). Significantly, places of knowledge (e.g. libraries, monasteries, convents) in the Middle Ages preferentially settled along such stretches of rivers whose favourable factors also helped to spread artistic practices.
Possible topics or questions for the contributions could include:
- How can river spaces with their specific characteristics and interconnections be described across (national) borders?
- How can the river and its associated elements (stream, source, estuary, flow, etc.) be operationalised for an analysis of spatial cultures / cultural spaces?
- What role do rivers play in the constitution of spaces? What cultural efforts are needed to constitute rivers as spatial units?
- To what extent do rivers guide perceptions of geographical spaces and what factors contribute to changing perceptions of space?
- What kind of economic, political, aesthetic and artistic-discursive dynamics emerge along river courses?
The conference is organised by the research network Fluid Spaces at the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf. The participating disciplines include the Institute of History, Medieval German Studies, Romance Studies and Art History.
Contributions from disciplines other than those mentioned are explicitly welcome.
The conference begins on Wednesday, May 11th, 2022, and ends on Friday, May 13th, 2022. It will take place at the Haus der Universität Düsseldorf, Schadowplatz 14, 40212 Düsseldorf. Conference participants are requested to be present on all three days of the event. Costs for accommodation and travel will be reimbursed. Other fees cannot be paid.
Please send your abstracts (max. 2500 characters) to Fluide.Raeume@hhu.de by July 31st, 2021.