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Imagining and Transforming the Underground: Towards a Cultural History of the Mine / Imaginaire et transformations du souterrain: vers une histoire culturelle de la mine

June 5, 2017
York University (Toronto)


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From carceral underworld to proletarian vanguard, the unique status of the mine as a site of labour and social upheaval transcends centuries and cultures. Whether directed towards the extraction of precious metals for growing Nation States, or coal for the surging energy demands of the Industrial Age, the mine has always been a space of political and social significance. Not only miners and engineers, but writers, philosophers and artists, have all contributed to the history of the mine as an eminently cultural space. Over the long term, profound transformations are visible, from the social structures of slavery and imprisonment to the recognition of labour rights and our own impact on the environment. As the techniques of energy production have changed, how do the discourses around mining relate to the current debates around pipelines, fracking and corporate social responsibility?

 Indeed, the mine is a space that concentrates humanity’s struggle and will to exploit. In its early days, mineralogy was an imperfect science, rife with myth, supernatural entities and amateur methods of extraction. Mines were part of the “secrets of nature”, both physically dangerous for the labourers below and morally dangerous for the societies above. In more modern times, industrialisation meant the expansion of mining and the rationalisation of exploitation practices. Mining adds an engineering of social hierarchies to our already fraught relationship with the environment. Complicated interactions between communities, landowners, mining companies and the State emerge, including paternalist practices, from housing to urban development and education. How is the mine imagined as a space of social and political relationships? What were the narratives that contributed to the reimagining of the mine as a space of innovation, transformation and empowerment?

This one-day interdisciplinary conference seeks to uncover the rich depictions of mining and uncover its historical imaginings in the early modern to contemporary worlds, charting how mines evolved from bullionism and industrialisation to the mining ventures in the developing world. 

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