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Nature(s): conception, life and representation, 18th-21st centuries

Nature(s) : concevoir, vivre, représenter (XVIIIe-XXIe siècle)

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Published on Tuesday, November 20, 2012


The international conference "Nature(s)" which will be held on June 6-8th, 2013 and will coincide with other cultural and scientific events in Nantes, "European Green Capital 2013", will further question what is really at stake when human beings consciously deal with nature and natural spaces especially in an urban context. How have writers, artists, painters or landscape planners been grappling with nature in a rapidly growing urban world over the centuries, to question the way human beings live but also dream their future?



Any reflection on nature, ecology, ecosystems, biodiversity or natural environments implies a reflection on the place and function of human beings in nature. And yet the latter is usually curtailed or biased. Human beings are part of nature and their surest instinct is indeed domination. The underlying question is therefore whether they allow some aspects of nature to evolve freely outside their power or influence, which would be a way of recognising man’s limitations and/or the role of the unconscious in their actions - nature and its free reins acting as a metaphor of men’s unconscious - or whether they acknowledge that such a thing as wild nature or untamed nature in the vicinity of humans is impossible, even more so in an urban context, and that they therefore need to admit that the notion of a free nature is a myth. Interestingly, reflections and discussions on the notions of place and landscape envision nature within a certain human frame, either the frame of memory or that of gaze. This framing could be compared to an intellectual or artistic taming of the wilder aspects of nature. In what proportions have men accepted nature to be wild or untamed over the centuries and how far have they gone in the belief that the constructions and landscapes they built were still nature at its most “natural”?

The forthcoming conference wishes to question more specifically the relationships between human beings and urban nature, in France, Britain and Ireland from the 18th century onwards, with a view to highlighting how consciously men and women have acknowledged the artificial and/or paradoxical notion of acting upon nature in those centuries, especially in an urban context and as shown in such varied fields as aesthetics, literature or landscape studies.

In October 2011, a first workshop gathered participants who discussed the complex relationships between nature and time from the 18th century until today. It opened with a reflection on ladies’ interest for geography and the connections with English postcolonial aspirations, went on with a presentation of the place of nature in Shelley’s antique ruins, followed by a reflection on the meaning of nature in Victorian times. This first workshop also questioned the ways in which William Trevor and Tom Stoppard, two contemporary authors from very different backgrounds, represented nature in their works.

In June 2012, a second workshop focused on the interplay between nature and urban life, from yesterday’s refined parks and gardens to today’s green corridors and cultivated former industrial lands. Those natural networks are an illustration of how public policies choose to promote biodiversity, in encouraging the fauna and flora to re-conquer man-dominated spaces, nest and take root in the nooks and crannies of urban fallow-lands. We also saw how, as early as the 18th and 19th centuries, the creation of the Champs-Elysées in Paris was the result of a reflection on the place of nature in the city. A contemporary French example was provided by the city of Nantes and how it has developed and managed its green and natural spaces over the past decades. This presentation was prolonged by a timeline that showed the specific context leading to the creation of public parks and gardens in Britain and specifically in London. While questioning the notion of an ecological urban management of London, it also addressed the links between health issues and the role played by public policies in the development of natural spaces in and around cities in the 21st century. So was the question of urban nature in the context of violence in the Northern Irish city of Belfast, as illustrated in Robert McLiam Wilson’s novel Eureka Street(1996).

And yet many questions have as yet not been broached upon, such as the question of ruins and ‘natural’ landscape cemeteries, even in cities. In the same vein, pre-colonial and pre-industrial forms of nature have often been presented in ways that often verge on caricature just as ‘civilized’ nature has often been opposed to ‘wild’ nature. What are the echoes or traces of these binary systems of thought in eco-criticism today? The 18th century pastoral versus georgic conception of English nature could be interpreted as foreshadowing the present-day interest in wild as opposed to cultivated nature. The nostalgia for wilderness, the need to master nature, as well as the constraints of modern urban life merge and ground themselves in the designing of  ‘gardens in movement’ or the planting of urban forests which echo the preoccupations of earlier urban planners or garden designers of centuries past. In the context of the present economic and financial crisis, what of the urban landscapes of unfinished construction sites in some parts of Europe? What of battlefields in former times of war? Has nature been left to re-conquer freely those spaces because nations at war or modern economies have been in a way vanquished?

Moreover, the relationship to nature is very much influenced by the way time is perceived. While human beings used to build their relationship to nature in the long run, nature is nowadays dominated by speed and an obsession with quick results. How can we understand and reconcile the double paradox of immediacy or even the ephemeral (garden festivals, installations, land art) on the one hand, with a genuine realisation of how urgent it is to address sustainable development issues? Today, the Web 2.0 revolution often reveals the different strata of history’s palimpsest and can turn so-called natural spaces into outdoor museums. This breakthrough in the relationship of human beings to natural spaces changes radically people’s relationships to space but also to time and to a sense of place. Also, despite more environmentally friendly methods of cultivation, is nature not too often considered as a background and an agreeable scenery for human beings to live in, rather than as an intrinsic part of our lives? What contradictions lie behind the terms themselves, used to describe nature, especially in an urban context? Are ‘eco-cities’, ‘friendly’ environments and methods, or ‘sustainable development’ and other such ‘eco’ or ‘green’ labels, nice and modern euphemisms hiding a far dire and gloomy reality? Or do they reveal a deep poetic need for men to preserve fallow or wastelands that could be interpreted as spaces of innovation and creativity, a way for human beings to dream their future?

Submission guidelines

Proposals of no more than 300 words for the 2013 Conference should be sent to the organizers, along with a short biography

 before December 20th, 2012.

The international conference ‘Nature(s)’ which will be held on June 6-8th, 2013.


Scientific committe

  • Pierre Carboni, Professeur de littérature, Université de Nantes
  • Sylvie Nail, Professeur de civilisation britannique, Université de Nantes
  • Marie Mianowski, Maître de conférences en littérature, Université de Nantes
  • Francine Barthe-Deloizy, Maître de conférences HDR en géographie, Université de Picardie
  • Jacques Carré, Professeur émérite de civilisation britannique, Université de Paris IV
  • Frédéric Ogée, Professeur de littérature, Université de Paris VII
  • Michel Racine, Architecte, Enseignant à l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure du Paysage de Versailles
  • Paul Volsik, Professeur émérite de littérature, Paris VII



  • Chemin de la Censive - Université de Nantes
    Nantes, France (44)


  • Thursday, December 20, 2012

Attached files


  • nature, représentations, enjeux


  • Noémie Gouy
    courriel : noemie [dot] gouy1 [at] univ-nantes [dot] fr

Information source

  • Noémie Gouy
    courriel : noemie [dot] gouy1 [at] univ-nantes [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Nature(s): conception, life and representation, 18th-21st centuries », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, November 20, 2012, https://calenda.org/227735

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