Tag Archives: academia

A new narrative for narratives

A few days back a colleague linked me to this editorial at Nature about the use of full narrative forms in critical/speculative foresight work, which they link back to the establishing work of Brian David Johnson, who was at Intel at the time but now splits his labour between Arizona State U, consulting, and a fellowship with “a visionary innovation company that’s focused on growth”.

That latter vector of Johnson’s current employment probably sums up most of the issues I had with soi disant “science fiction prototyping” (SFP): it was framed quite explicitly as a product/service visioning process, was virtually devoid of methodology (let alone rigour), and made absolutely nothing of the critical potential of science fiction’s narrative toolkit. As such, it really didn’t stand too apart from long-established design paradigms, except for perhaps being a bit more honest about the “making stuff up and seeing where you might profitably take the ideas” aspect. My frustration with this rather shallow engagement with the potential of the narrative tools specific to science fiction has informed much of my academic work right from the start, arguably beginning with my first solo paper (Raven, 2014).

The Nature editorial largely rotates around a more recent paper in Futures (Merrie et al, 2018) in which the authors have taken the SFP idea and

… applied it to a topical environmental concern: the fate of the world’s oceans. The project paints four scenarios for 2050–70, each of which builds on current trends in oceans governance and the fishing industry, as well as ongoing development of marine science and technology. More-uncertain outcomes — the possible collapse of ice sheets and the formation of deep-sea dead zones as a result of onshore pollution — play out differently for better and worse.

In other words, they’ve balanced out the speculative/imaginative aspect of science fiction with the critical/contraPanglossian side — and it was extremely gratifying to find another of my papers (Raven & Elahi 2015) cited in their literature review, because frankly it’s felt like I’ve been beating my head against a brick wall on this stuff, at least as far as the mainstream futures scene is concerned (which, like BDJ’s employers, maintains an uncritical worship of the suitcase word “innovation”, and is focussed on delivering growth — or at least the immediately plausible prospect thereof — to corporate clients).

The Nature editorial continues:

Narrative has an important role in the communication of science, but can it also help in the pursuit of research? Purists may baulk, but stories already feature heavily, from the promised potential of work pitched in grant applications to the case studies of impact that funders increasingly ask for when projects finish. Climate-change science has long relied on emissions scenarios that diverge according to how future societies might behave. These rely not on extrapolation of current trends, but on imagined differences in, for example, whether nations come to cooperate or opt to pursue their own agendas. And climate-change policies are being planned on the basis of stories of future technology — carbon capture and negative-emissions equipment included — that many argue are pure fiction and will never materialize.

It’s a huge relief to see that said in such a well-known and well-read scientific organ, and not just for the sake of self-aggrandizement: I’ve been pushing those ideas for five or six years, but many others have been pushing them for at least twice as long, and it feels like all that effort might finally be paying off.

Solutionism, it turns out, is not exclusive to Silicon Valley — though I suspect that the Valley’s financial and political clout are complicit in its mainstreaming throughout the global policy scene, as well as the science and engineering ends of the academy (which, in the UK at least, have slowly been drawn into the gravity well of bloated full-service consultancy-and-outsourcing parasites like Carillion and its ilk). But also complicit are the Panglossian flatteries of corporate foresight consulting practices: after all, if you don’t tell them what they want to hear, you probably don’t get invited back to next year’s “visioning retreat”. It’s investor storytime all the way down.

But the cracks in that metanarrative are starting to show… which is all the more reason to keep chiseling.

One discipline seeps into another

Rejecting the traditional Marxist idea that the working classes were the seedbed of change, [Deleuze and Guattari] wanted a broader umbrella under which to unite all marginalised groups. They claimed that those oppressed by patriarchy (women), racism (people of colour) and heteronormativity (what we’d now call the LGBT community) were all suffering thanks to the same machinery of despotic and imperial capitalism. It’s only by bringing together these ‘minoritarians’ that an anti-capitalist revolution could succeed. Because the philosophical image of the individual is based on the apparently autonomous figure of the white male subject, it is through a process of ‘becoming-woman’, and of ‘becoming-minoritarian’, that the spectre of individuality can finally be banished.


Instead of treating different fields of enquiry as cut off from one another, Deleuze and Guattari tried to show where one discipline seeps into another, challenging the centrality of any one of them. Ultimately, they aimed to open thought onto its outside, pushing against the tendency for theoretical work to close in on itself.

Short-ish essay at Aeon. For all the word-salad spilled in the name of “interdisciplinarity”, the academy — or rather, more fairly, the bodies which govern the academy through the distribution of funding — are still pretty determined to prevent that seepage between silos; D&G’s work makes it easy to understand why that might be the case.

(Well, OK, not easy, because reading D&G isn’t easy… but nothing worth doing ever is.)

Moveable feast

So, Easter rolls around once more.

In recent years, Easter has become the pivot point of my annual circuit around the sun; Eastercon has a little to do with that, as does the standard 12-month rented housing contract. It’s probably amplified by the fact that I don’t celebrate Xmas or my birthday, too. Which isn’t to say I celebrate Easter, as such; I just tend to find myself looking around – in varying states of wonder and confusion – at the state of my life at this time of year.

Last Easter, for instance, I was making the move back to Velcro City from Stockport. The Easter before… well, we won’t rake over that again, though I made it to Eastercon that year, which probably went a fair way to helping me avoid some sort of full-scale nervous breakdown. (Not something Eastercon is regularly accused of, I’m willing to bet.)

So, what do I see from this year’s fulcrum? Looking backwards, I can make out the first half of my Masters: six hectic months of hard but thrilling work, running in parallel with me learning the ropes of my Research Assistant post. Before that, a long and lazy spring’n’summer in Velcro City, which took me back to its fractious bosom without so much as a “where you been, brah?” It was good, and just what I needed – a proper reboot, a return to familiarity and comfort after my long sabbatical on the banks of the Styx.

But I also feel like it cured me of something. By going back, I was able to leave again on my own terms, and for the right reasons. Stockport was grim because it felt like penance for my naivete and failure, and P-Town came to represent a normalisation point, a load-from-saved-game-and-start-again. I like to think I’m blitzing the level this time through, if only by comparison to last time.

Looking ahead (and ignoring, for the sake of convenience, the hand-in date for my spring semester assignments the week after next), it’s five months of dissertation, plus more infrastructure research for my patient employers at the Pennine Water Group. Come September or so, once I’ve handed my dissertation in, it’ll be time to move out of London. Where will I go? I’m not sure yet, to be honest, but I’ll need to start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

I also need to think about what comes next. If I do well enough in my Masters (and I have some hope that I might), then I might well apply to do a PhD. But in what, and with whom, and where? I have some ideas, but it’s all very nebulous at this point. I need to learn more about the upper echelons of academia before trying to make those decisions, I suspect. And I need to finish these assignments.

But first, it’s Eastercon – a long weekend of hanging out with friends, talking about books and writing, and boozy fun-times.

After that? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.