Fire : 2020 Comparative Literature Conference

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Hosted by

Centre for Comparative Literature


Date: 27 March, 2020
Keynote speaker: Thomas Lahusen, University of Toronto

Everywhere we look, it seems, we are reminded of the destructive power of fire — and yet, fire has creative associations as well as destructive ones. Fire is passion — either love or anger, lust or revenge. In 2019 we have seen fires across the world, from western Canada to the Amazon to Australia, from Yemen to Rojava to Bolivia. Activists call for all of us to address the devastating consequences of climate change, as rising temperatures accelerate the spread of deserts and render parts of the earth increasingly uninhabitable by humans simply by virtue of being too hot .4 In the Western tradition, Prometheus’s theft of fire is often taken to represent the birth of technology. Indigenous peoples in many parts of what are now known as the Americas and elsewhere, meanwhile, use controlled burning as a technique for sustainable ecosystem management.

The global rise of right-wing and fascist politics is a sobering reminder of how close we still are to the Holocaust — the all-burning. The ongoing violence of imperialist wars in the present reminds us of fires that have burned throughout history. Fire is also, however, associated with revolution — burning an old system to the ground to replace it with something new and more just. Fire propels a modernity that runs on fossil fuels, powering industry, illuminating cities, and driving many countries’ economies — including Canada’s. Gerard Manley Hopkins called fire “the sire of muse”,5 the source of poetic and literary inspiration. The phoenix dies in fire and is born again from the ashes. Fire is ambiguous: material and immaterial, dangerous and revolutionary — Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls sati, women’s self-immolation, “a violent aporia between subject and object status”6 that resists easy categorization.

Fire is a warning, an object of religious devotion, a command (“Fire!”), a classical element, an act of censorship, a mark of disaster and war — or of revolution. In organizing this conference we ask presenters to consider these various tongues of flame, smoke, and ash, fire in all its various aspects.

More details to follow.

For further information, please contact the Centre for Comparative Literature at (416) 813-4041.