WhenTuesday 11 May 2021
3.00 - 4.00pm
School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry
Published 10 March 2021
Dr Fiona Allon and Dr Scott Webster question the unnatural formation of “natural disasters” and the ensuing destruction of homes.
On Fire: Cultural Approaches to Domicide and Australia’s Fire Regimes
The housing destroyed in recent bushfires is almost always described by the media not as the loss of houses but rather the loss of “homes”. “Home” is an evocative, polysemic concept and hence one mobilised by different political agendas. Reflecting colonial ideas of progress and civilisation, the individual free-standing dwelling was explicitly conceived of as a place “where the modern defeats the natural” (Schlunke 2016: 219), a trope that persists into the present as “the Australian Dream”. Domestication of land similarly was regarded as a means whereby the strange was kept at bay. But how does this imagined geography respond to “strange weather”: the extreme weather events of climate emergency.
On 8 November 2019, the first day of the bushfire crisis that would subsequently be called “Black Summer”, Fiona Lee’s family home on the NSW coast burned to the ground. After hearing politicians repeatedly say that “now is not the time to talk about climate change”, Lee staged a protest, depositing the ashes of her house outside the NSW Parliament building. If a house’s ashes can become the symbolic remains of life and dwelling, does this mean that the home destroyed by bushfire is also a representative site of “domicide”, the deliberate destruction of home? This paper explores the way in which bushfires challenge our theoretical framework for comprehending home destruction. Porteous and Smith (2001) insist that “deliberate intent” is essential for domicide to take place; it is not the outcome of “natural disasters”. Yet the very idea of “natural disaster” remains inadequate as a term of description for the entanglements of the human and natural that are at the heart of a changing climate and its consequences. If time permits, the paper will also consider some of the new relationships between real estate, finance and climate risk management. The financial and real-estate matrix driving the “suburbanisation of increasingly inflammable wildlands” (Davis 2017) is also ironically the source of novel forms of insurance finance for responding to the climate change that is increasingly regarded as just another risk to be “managed”.
Fiona Allon is based in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her research areas include home and housing, water and waste, and the politics of everyday environmentalism. She is the author of Renovation Nation: Our Obsession with Home (UNSW Press) and Home Economics: Speculating on Everyday Life (forthcoming with Duke University Press). Together with her GCS colleagues Ruth Barcan and Karma Eddison-Cogan, she has recently edited The Temporalities of Waste: Out of Sight, Out of Time (Routledge).
Scott Webster was recently awarded his PhD with the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. His research explores the ‘killing of memory’ (or memoricide) as a phenomenon and argues that, beyond its emblematic imagery as part of conflict in Bosnia, Israel and Syria, it also has normalised, everyday dimensions. Scott also has a longstanding interest in the destruction of home (‘domicide’) and is currently researching how human/nature entanglements complicate our theoretical frameworks for understanding home loss.
Thom van Dooren (Chair) is Associate Professor and Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2017-2021) in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. His research and writing focus on some of the many philosophical, ethical, cultural, and political issues that arise in the context of species extinctions and human entanglements with threatened species and places. He is the author of The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds (Columbia, 2019), and co-editor of Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations (Columbia, 2017).
About the series
The Living with Bushfire: Emerging Research Seminar Series brings together researchers from around the University of Sydney and beyond to explore diverse approaches to the topic of bushfire from the humanities and social sciences. The series seeks to offer an informal space to share emerging research with interested colleagues in order to gain feedback and to inform collaborative conversations.