At the session on 20th January, I was delighted to introduce discussion on a paper in the ‘provocations’ section of Environmental Humanities journal – Mapping common ground (Bergthaller et al, 2014) – and the equally provocative introductory essay to the volume Anticipatory history (DeSilvey, Naylor & Sackett, 2011). A significant focus for me is the short entries in that book (some of which we circulated with the longer papers).
Anticipatory history and the complementary paper Making sense of transience (DeSilvey 2012) have informed my work in the context of coastal change and my writing. As a set of ideas, anticipatory history offers an experimental and exploratory approach to considering the future in place and how we relate to that in the present. An important aim is to question, even unsettle, the settled views we have of ‘the past’ and of the dominant versions of ‘the future’ that we desire or fear. We need to broaden our understanding of place and the processes which change it, rather than narrow our vision and prematurely define the scripts we want everyone to act from. As such, anticipatory history opens up space for multiple perspectives, taking the diversity of ‘place voices’ as our starting point – and the likely end point. It questions assumptions of permanence and certainty: the same but more so than the recent move beyond climate change scenarios that once presented simplistic ‘snap shot’ alternative futures requiring equal consideration but providing only modest practical help, to more probabilistic projections where we need to address our own ‘risk appetites’ for the futures we are prepared to make and to hand on. But where climate scenarios talk of probabilities, which most of us are ill-equipped to deal with, anticipatory history talks of plausabilities: what can we imagine, based on what we know of the present and the past? And, anyway, how much is ‘the’ past a product (or process) of imagination in the first place? We need to appeal to imagination as well as evidence in anticipating the range of plausible futures that climate and environmental change are carving out for us.
Some of the angles of imaginative attack that I see anticipatory history offering are:
Space for alternative storylines. For example, the use of reverse chronology approaches to a site, as with Mullion Harbour in Cornwall (DeSilvey, 2012), and the building of new narratives through hearing different ‘place voices’ at past points and imagining the futures that peoples then might have projected forward, and which we might now: “looking back to look forward.”
A fresh look at the language we use and the way we talk about change, place and our options. For example, the array of policy or expert jargon among the disciplines and professions often collide with each other and with public discussion. The everyday language we use to express and reinforce our sense of place, nature and culture is highly metaphorical; and our metaphors can carry different meanings and associations than those we imply. When we come together to share different perspectives on change, we may share an illusion of sharing the meanings of our words while in reality we are ‘talking past each other’. Maybe a room can be divided by a common language even without the open hostility we encounter when specialist jargons are heard as nonsensical words.
Opportunities for naming new names for unfamiliar or novel responses to environmental change. For example, coining a phrase such as “Palliative Curation” for the sensitive handling of the passing of a landscape or cultural artefact is a provocation to open ourselves up to a different view – or to a new argument entirely.
Conversations about change will always be difficult – very often turning and building on notions of loss, blame, guilt. When talk involves both the people who feel directly impacted by change or by the responses to it, and the experts and officials charged with deciding and delivering those responses, then conflict is highly likely – as many agencies have discovered and seem likely to keep discovering. And as we experience more of the impacts of a changing climate, we can expect more conflicts over the future of the places we or our neighbours attach our highest values to. We need ways to keep the conversations open and, it seems to me, engage our imaginations as well as our abilities to take on board evidence and argument.
With all this in mind, I was please to have Mapping common ground as our other main pre-reading. Some of the common ground with anticipatory history, for me, lies in the insistence that environmental crisis is as much cultural and social as it is physical, and that an adventurous approach can help us reach beyond the professional, academic and expert-public boundaries. Part of that adventure is the need to question our own ‘givens’ and to address the difficult ‘chokepoints’ along the borders. It also requires the skill of working across the boundaries, accepting what each party has to offer – which in the case of the humanities includes the ability to grapple with ambiguity. In the shuttling backwards and forwards between the whole and the parts, the past and the future, culture and nature (both our environment and ourselves as shaper and shaped), the aim is to help us to forge insights rather than (just) to formulate new knowledge.
Fiction is one way of engaging imaginations and building insights through conversation. Many of the same elements – plotting alternative storylines, challenging the language, and bringing new words and ideas to the fore – enliven fiction. Possibly, they can also enrich what we hold to be ‘the facts’. I’m hoping that bringing people together for participatory creative writing (or drawing, photography, craft or performance) workshops can create good conversations about change as well as good fictions.
DeSilvey, C., Naylor, S. & Sackett, C. (2011) Anticipatory history (Axminster, Uniform Books)
DeSilvey, C., (2012) Making sense of transience: an anticipatory history, Cultural Geograpies 19(1)