"Is Coronavirus China's Chernobyl?" Historical and Public Discourse about Hidden Phenomena/ Enemies

Course Level: 
Course Open to: 
Students on-site
Remote students
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Course Description: 

The seminar is intended to provide a methodological toolkit based on theoretical considerations for how to deal with different sources, accounts and discourses within ongoing events with imperceptible hazards. The historical analysis is challenged nowadays by conflicting journalistic accounts, political misrepresentations of issues, mis-appropriations or denouncements of scientific accounts and even by the fictional versions from the part of entertainment industries that seem to competitively engage in investigations about the contested issues in the past. The problematic of the class will be the relationship between an event and its representations within different media and discourses.

The seminar will loosely be based on the case study of the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl Power Plant from April 1986 and the seemingly comparable global event of the Covid-19 crisis in order to address questions about the very legitimacy of making analogies between different catastrophes and about the usefulness and adequate use of historical models and methods in understanding complex issues with lethal consequences. Both case studies are chosen not only for their health, political, environmental and economic actuality, but also because of their peculiarity as disasters with non-easily detectable consequences and causes. The seminar will therefore concentrate more on the meta-narrative patterns and the correlated methodological approaches around socially “invisible” events/ contaminants rather than on nuclear or epidemiological histories per se. 

Borderline phenomena such as the imperceptible hazards will help articulate larger questions about the sometimes taken for granted ‘transparency’ of things and - consequently -  about the role of socially constructed categories and discourses in apprehending different objects. It will also expose the strained relationships between politics, society and science due to the conceptual challenges in the administrative and the lay articulation of imperceptible dangers, eventually leading to systemic changes (or not). As a future mediator between different fields, the public historian will therefore learn more about the very assumptions and significance of different mediatory practices, increasingly asked for nowadays. The seminar will therefore provide insights into possible trans-disciplinary  methodological perspectives coming from anthropology, epistemology, history of science and history of knowledge which have even merged recently in order to equip [public] historians with the critical tools to assess complex issues situated at the frontiers of humanistic and scientific knowledge. More specifically, the seminar will familiarize students with catastrophic epistemology, actor-network theory, styles of reasoning and archival ethnography. The public historian will hopefully contribute to enlarging the conditions for public discussion and therefore help affected populations to be risk-conscious.

Learning Outcomes: 

-the students will learn how to apply historical theories and archival methods to consequentialist disruptive phenomena which are hard to circumscribe/ seen/ assess

-they will acquire basic knowledge about epidemiological/ toxic phenomena and the common challenges they create(d) for the historical and public discourses

-the students will acquire critical knowledge with regards the prerequisites of communicating scientific issues with systemic consequences to broader audiences


Class participation: 33% for the final grade.

Blog posts: 33%

Essay/ syllabus: 33%.