Category Archives: Writing

Experts in their own tomorrows: Placemaking for participatory climate futures

I get published, y’know? Here’s one that didn’t get a mention when it first dropped, because… well, because January, to be honest.

Sadly I can’t just send you to read the thing directly, either—because the thing in question is a chapter in the new Routledge Handbook of Placemaking (edited by Cara Courage, with Tom Borrup, Maria Rosario Jackson, Kylie Legge, Anita Mckeown, Louise Platt, and Jason Schupbach) and Routledge Handbooks do not (to my knowledge) ever go open access. And I’m sure Routledge will take it on the chin if I use my academic freedom of expression to point out that their Handbooks are not cheap, either… though they do make up very nice promotional flyers, like this one below, and if you click through on this link (or the one above, or on the image of the flyer) and use the code SMA02 at checkout, you can get it at 20% off the list price.

It’s one chonky volume! Here’s the official marketing blurb:

This Handbook is the first to explore the field of placemaking in terms of the recent research, teaching and learning, and practice agenda for the next few years. Offering valuable theoretical and practical insights from the leading scholars and practitioners in the field, it provides cutting edge interdisciplinary research on the placemaking sector.

Placemaking has seen a paradigmatic shift in urban design, planning and policy to engage the community voice, This Handbook examines the development of placemaking, its emerging theories, and its future directions.

So perhaps your institution or organisation would be interested in making the investment? My guess is that, if you’re at all familiar with the term “placemaking” already, you might actually find this wide-ranging, critical and timely collection of essays to be of considerable utility and interest!* Perhaps you’re an academic in a discipline adjacent to planning, urbanism, or the more social/human ends of geography or sociology? Perhaps you work in local government, or in the consulting sector, around issues of redevelopment, social inclusion or neighbourhood identity? Or perhaps you’re involved in social practice arts, whether as a practitioner or a commissioner or a funder?

If you are any of those things, then the question of what placemaking is and has been, but also the question of what placemaking might yet be, is potentially relevant to you. Put it this way: I’m a scholar of climate futures and theorist of sociotechnical change, and what I learned about (and from) placemaking theory and practice truly revolutionised the way I think about my work—and indeed influenced the design of my current project.

(Admittedly the placemaking aspects of my current project are completely on hold due to prevailing pandemic suppression measures, but the point remains: if you’ve ever wondered what a collision between critical ethnography, action research, design futures interventions and contemporary arts practice might look like, then placemaking—and this book about it—can provide some answers.)

My chapter is titled “Experts in their own tomorrows: Placemaking for participatory climate futures”; given that abstracts don’t end up in this sort of handbook, I guess I can just share the one I wrote with you here, can’t I?

This chapter is concerned with the potential of placemaking for catalysing community adaptation to a climate-changed future, and with how researchers might support placemaking practitioners in that work.

The first section discusses the unfolding climate crisis as an urgent mandate for the reconfiguration of sociotechnical practices, and describes one way in which we might conceptualise and model those everyday activities in terms of their tangible and intangible elements.

The second section argues that placemaking might be seen as a methodology for extending that model into futurity, thus allowing for the extrapolative exploration of reconfigurations. This positions placemaking as a living laboratory for the participatory production of new practices, as well as for the reconstitution of the places in which those practices are situated.

The final section asks what might be offered to placemaking by researchers concerned with the sociotechnical transformations mandated by the climate crisis, whether in terms of theory or practice. What knowledges might we provide to make the consequences of a changing climate situated and legible for communities and placemaking practitioners? How might we better analyse and describe the relationships between the abstract of complex infrastructural systems and the concrete of local ways of life? And what arguments might we make to encourage placemaking, and integrate it into the greater project of adapting to the anthropocene?

But there’s much more than just my five-dollar-words malarkey in there; click on through for a look at the TOC and the structure. Seven sections! Forty-five chapters! The biggest names in social practice arts and scholarship! It’s a landmark publication, and I’m privileged and humbled to have been a part of it.

If you really can’t afford a copy—and hell knows I would sympathise with that—but you nonetheless think you’d like to read my chapter, and have a good professional and/or academic reason for doing so, well, drop me a line. Maybe we can work something out! But otherwise, please hassle your institutional or organisational library to order a copy; it ain’t cheap, but if you know the field, I dare say you’ll get the money’s worth. Plus it’s probably tax-deductible!

[ * — See, I could have been a copywriter. Maybe if I hadn’t gotten mixed up in this academic stuff? But I think copywriting is probably better off for my absence, on balance. As to whether the academy is better off for my presence, well, that hypothesis is still undergoing experimental evaluation… watch this space, wot? ]

Touring the carbon ruins: toward an ethics of speculative methods

In case you didn’t catch me trumpeting about in on the birdsite: I have a new paper (co-written with Johannes Stripple) at the journal Global Discourse. For those who don’t want to go for the full scholarly fandango, the GD people had me do a wee blog post for them on the topic of the Museum of Carbon Ruins, which is the case study for the paper.

The Museum of Carbon Ruins is… well, we’re still not sure how to categorise it, in truth. Is it an art intervention? An immersive research exhibit on decarbonisation? Climate change theatre? It’s all of these things, in a way – the common thread being the creation of a space of speculation about climate change, and how we might adapt to it.

The full paper is titled “Touring the carbon ruins: towards an ethics of speculative decarbonisation”, and it’s been made Open Access, so anyone and his uncle can just download it for free (thanks to the generosity of our funders &c &c). Why might you want to do so, you ask? Because, to the best of our knowledge, no one else has yet written a paper which confronts the ethics of a speculative climate futures intervention from the perspective of its creators/performers, and situates the work within what we describe as a dialectic of utopian modalities; regarding the latter, if you’ve been reading here for a while, you’ll recognise some thinking about the critical-utopian approach to futuring, which is yours truly bolting together ideas from science fiction studies, utopian studies, speculative design, and a few other places. Here’s the abstract:

For many years, questions about the future have been marginalised within the social sciences: asking how we might live in a post-fossil society, or what are the key decisions and events that could take us there, has been seen as outside of the disciplinary scope. In this paper – which takes as its point of departure the ‘speculative turn’ that is increasingly inspiring a range of works, from foresight scenarios to design fiction – we insist on the need to invent methods and practices which provide speculative spaces that allow such questions to be articulated. We use our own speculative initiative, ‘The Museum of Carbon Ruins’, to foreground a series of ethical questions that accompany such speculative endeavours, but which have so far been neglected in contemporary discussions. Working within a critical utopian modality, Carbon Ruins does not foreclose ethical possibilities, but allows citizens to grapple with, evaluate, amend and critique the post-fossil futures that official policy is striving towards.

Sounds like the real thing, dunnit? Advance warning, there’s—by necessity and, for me at least, delightfully—a looooot of theoretical stuff in there. If you’re simply curious about the Museum of Carbon Ruins itself, the best place to start is the project’s own website (which has lots of images of the exhibits, like the one that accompanies this post, plus the text of the original “guidebook”), perhaps accompanied by the essay mentioned at the top of this post (which explains in layman’s terms why we think this sort of work is valid and useful for working with climate futures).

Still curious? There’s more papers in the pipeline about the methodology of the Museum, so watch this space… but if you would like to ask questions at a somewhat less specialist/academic pitch, feel free to drop me a line (whether via this here blog’s contact page, or on the birdsite), and I’ll do my best to answer them.

subjective and iterative magratheanism / the whys and wherefores of worldbuilding

It’s always nice to get an insight into the creative process from an expert, and this short bit on worldbuilding by Paul McAuley is exactly that. Worldbuilding as a concept is having a bit of a moment, or so it feels, having jumped out of genre fiction theory and metastasised more widely, following in the wake of fantastika as a dominant mode of storytelling; video games have helped a lot, but it’s bigger than that, I suspect.

Anyway, that’s a discussion for another day—let’s look at what McAuley’s actually saying, here. As I understand both positions, this is less of a counter to Mike Harrison’s legendary salvo against the “clomping foot of nerdism” than a demonstration of the way in which a better—or perhaps better to say less generic—creator approaches the problem of worldbuilding, so as to avoid said clompiness. And that way is iterative and subjective:

Worldbuilding is hard only if you pay too much attention to it. Less is almost always better than more. Use details sparingly rather than to drown the reader in intricate descriptions and faux exotica; question your first and second thoughts; set out a few basic parameters, find your character and start the story rather than fleshing out every detail of the landscape, drawing maps, and preparing recipe cards and fashion plates before writing the first sentence. Wherever possible, scatter clues and trust the reader to put them together; give them the space to see the world for themselves rather than crowd out their imagination with elaborate and burdensome detail.

Now, the purposes to which people working in my field of endeavour are putting worldbuilding are rather different to the primarly entertainment-driven concerns of a novelist—but nonetheless, a lot of these suggestions still hold fairly well. With the Notterdam guide, for instance, the speculation had to be bounded by the goals of the Paris Accords because that was how the project of which it was a part was bounded; but even were that not the case, we’d have still needed some sort of bounding scenario to start from. Indeed, I’m in the process of contributing to the structure of a set of design research workshops to be (hopefully) staged later this year, and the same challenge applies: the parameters of the bounding are up to you, of course, and if you want them to be really way-out crazy, well, that’s fine, but you still need to have them, however far out they may be. Creation requires friction and limits, and that applies just as much to the notionally more realistic creative practices of engineering: as I put it many years ago, the valorisation of “thinking outside the box” is counterproductive, resulting in placeless technological utopias which can’t be reached.

Also of note above is McAuley’s injunction to trust the reader. This is probably what many writers mean when they trot out the (well-intentioned but nonetheless not-always-helpful) admonition “show, don’t tell”; while there are clearly people who greatly enjoy having a richly elaborated Tolkeinean world handed to them as a finished orrery, effective worldbuilding exploits both the innate human capacity for sense-making and a culturally inculcated capacity for extrapolating imaginary worlds from telling details. My argument here is that we’ve learned to do the latter in increasingly more sophisticated ways, and that fantastika across a variety of media has been the training ground for that skill. Furthermore, that skill is what my academic work hopes to operationalise in the service of sociotechnical reconfiguration: if we want to build a world in which we do things differently, we have to be able to imagine it first. And that’s my argument against the technological utopia, too: the technological utopia is all tell and no show, the clomping foot of the notionally-objective god’s-eye-view.

But the utility of story goes further than that. McAuley again:

Discovering details essential to the story as it rolls out gives space and flexibility to hint at the kind of random, illogical, crazy beauty of the actual world; the exclusionary scaffolds of rigid logic too often do not.

You can’t just deliver a future (or a past, or a secondary world) in one big package; rare is the person who will just sit down with an encyclopedia and read the whole thing end to end. A future is a world, a timespace, and the human way of relating to timespaces—not an entirely unproblematic one, historically speaking, but nonetheless—is exploration. Now, a novelist has the challenge of making a guided tour feel like exploration, because the novel—with the exception of some liminal high (post)modernist experiments with form—is a linear thing, a single route through the imagined world preprepared by the author. But what’s notable here is that, for McAuley at least (and I believe for many other writers of sf, though certainly not all of them), that preprepared route is prepared through the writer themselves exploring rather more spontaneously. As such, serendipity and the happy creative accident are important—you need the initial bounding parameters, as mentioned above, but the detail emerges from responses to that initial set of constraining parameters. The writer explores the possibility-space defined by the bounding parameters, and compiles from their meanderings what they hope will be an exciting tour.

Furthermore, those responses are generated through the drives and subjectivity of the characters of the story: the sense that it’s an exploration rather than a tour is formed by the world’s being filtered through the limited (i.e. non-omniscient) point-of-view of the character who, while they know some things about some parts of the world, doesn’t know everything about it, even though the author (by the end of the process, at least) does:

… because the novel is written in close third person, everything is filtered through the sensibility of the main character, focusing on things that he would think important or memorable or odd, evoking the mundane stuff of his life by allusion or by borrowing the perspectives of others.

This is why I think that using the narratological toolkits of fiction can be a more effective and appealing way of depicting futures than the future-tense-passive-voice mode of corporate and policy futuring: it exploits the human desire to explore a timespace from a relateable (if not necessarily human) positionality, and it does so with devices and strategies which have evolved to make the best use of that instinct.

Of course, there are issues of teleology and intentionality that complicate this comparison—and I dare say that many creative writers might see this as cheapening of the art, just as many more “rational” futures people might see it as frivolous and artsy dilettantism. (I’d be lying if I claimed I don’t have days where those doubts haunt me, too, from both directions.) But it seems clear that we are going to continue to collectively imagine and advocate and dispute futures, not least because we’ve been doing it for yonks—at least since the fall of eschatology as the primary relationship to futurity in the so-called West. And if we’re going to do it anyway, and if—as seems equally indisputable—some folk are going to step up with futures (whether political, sociotechnical or otherwise) that we don’t want, then we have to get good at presenting the ones we do want.

It’s a war of stories; perhaps it always has been. While there are certainly ways of prosecuting that clash of narratives which are morally repulsive and destructive—*gestures at, well, everything*—I have come to the conclusion that refusing to counter the darkness with some sort of light is to let the darkness triumph. Utopia as method, innit?

always primed with its own conditions of dissolution and abolishment

Interesting little essay here from one Duncan Stuart, a new name at Blue Labyrinths, which I will cite at length:

[Sylvain] Lazarus takes seriously the work of French historian Marc Bloch, who argues in his 1949 book The Historians Craft, that the past is given and the future contingent. Lazarus demonstrates that for Bloch the past and the present are fundamentally linked, and this linkage means that the present becomes a given as well. In doing so Bloch’s thought closes off the present from the possible. Yet to say that only the future contains the possible is in fact to say that the possible will never arrive. The future is always to come, and when it comes it is the present, which is then given as it is fundamentally linked with the past.

Lazarus finds no way through these problems as long as we maintain a conception of time. In order to preserve the idea of the possible for politics, he must either abolish time or make the present the realm of the possible. Yet if the present becomes the realm of the possible, then so too does the past and all three tenses of time – past, present, future – lose their analytic distinction. To attach the notion of the possible to the present, then, is to abolish time. Making room for the possible requires the abolishment of time itself.  

[…]

Literature too is about the possible. Not always and not necessarily. It does not always exploit this potential. Yet the ease with which literature does away with the conventions of time, the ease with which it demonstrates different forms of life and different worlds shows that more than being about unreality, being about the fictive, it is about the possible. It is about fashioning a different reality. Likewise, there is always the potential for politics and the abolition of time, but this does not necessarily happen. Reality, or at the very least political and social reality, is always primed with its own conditions of dissolution and abolishment.

To say that literature can abolish time because it is fictive is to say that it is fundamentally an exercise in daydreaming. To say that it can abolish time because it is concerned with the possible is to reimbue it with political and radical potential. If there is one thing I know about this world – past, future and present – it is that another world is possible.

I’m clipping this because it comes at an issue in which I’m interested—namely temporality and utopia—from a rather different theoretical point of origin. The argument excerpted above seemed to me to be something of a parallel to Genevieve Lively’s (2017) case for (post)modernist narratological strategies as a literary training ground for approaching futurity with a greater sense of the possible. Lively frames this idea within the anticipations/’futures literacy’ concept-bundle (with which I have some lingering issues, not all of which are purely scholarly in origin), and of course the enduring gotcha (which applies to most arguments about fictional forms as tools for futuring-with-publics) is that the readership for prose-fiction-as-entertainment is pretty small, and diminished still further once we factor in a tolerance for Joycean narratological trickery. However, applying those narrative strategies to other media and to other purposes, while far from suggesting a panacea, has surely got to be worth trying.

gastric culture / mundane noise horror

There are lots of reminiscent reflections (and some predictable bafflement) in this MeFi FPP-thread responding to the recent un-deletion of the KLF’s back-catalogue, almost thirty years after the event… but this one was an interesting enough image that I wanted to clip it for posterity (if only my own):

I sometimes wonder whether pop isn’t a kind of digestive fluid, which makes challenging lumps embedded in popular culture more easily ingestible by capitalism.

comment by Grangrusier [MeFi user]

Should be digestible, really, but the point is well made nonetheless. Also in that thread are links to various bits of online KLF and Discordian lore (including at least one OCR’d samizdat version of the infamous Manual, which I would have killed for a copy of back in the day), and to a recent interview with Bill Drummond that suggests the un-deletion may have been a matter of financial necessity, as the guy’s developing early-onset dementia.

(I presume that pretending that to be the case might be a prank too far even for Drummond, but I suppose we’d all be fools to totally rule it out, on the basis of prior activities.)

This was a timely but not entirely unexpected trip down memory lane for me. It’s not unexpected because, as both reader and writer, I’m well aware of the anniversary-driven nature of pop-culture reflection content, and been thinking for a few years that we were soon to hit a seam of retro content that coincides with my own cultural coming-to-awareness, namely the early 1990s. The KLF are a fine synecdoche for that, being that they were both highly visible to my peers at the time, and almost universally loathed by them in a way that was not the case with much of the supposedly more “alternative” or obscure stuff I started to listen to around the same time. (Admittedly that lack of contempt may have been born of literal ignorance, but still: the point is, I loved the KLF, my peers thought me an idiot and a naif for doing so, and I didn’t understand why, given that my love for, say, Daisy Chainsaw was blithely priced into what was perceived as my baseline cultural maladaptation.)

And it’s timely because I’ve been thinking for a while that I want to start writing about the music that shaped me—though less because I think I have anything to add to the critical consensus on the music itself, and more because I want to make sense of the person I became (or began to become?) during those years, as soundtracked by that music. Growing up in a household where music, or at least an engagement with music as something more than audio wallpaper, was not really A Thing, I started my proper journey into music rather late in life; I recognise the sense of blindly stumbling into something epochal going on in 1991, much like the author of this bit at Louder Than War, but he was eleven, and I was thirteen. Furthermore, I have come to realise in recent years that while music was hugely important to me in my adolescence, my engagement with it was a bit weird and different to that of my peers, for an assortment of reasons—predominantly economic, geographical and psychosocial, but coalescing around the central fact that I was “educated” in British public schools*—that I want to think and write my way into (and thus out of).

Of course, the one thing the world needs even less than my Very Clever Thoughts about Siamese Dream or the Judgement Night soundtrack is a self-indulgent and introspective memoir-through-music by a middle-aged minor academic trying to figure out the singularity of his likely-much-less-weird-than-he-thought-at-the-time cultural formation… and the one thing I need even less is yet another project that involves cranking out a word-count to a self-imposed deadline. But that is the pathology of the writer, right there… and what else is a blog for but to write for that small audience of maybe-no-more-than-one about the things that seem to need to be written about?

So, yeah—keep ’em peeled, because there may well be some autobiographical essays in the RSS pipeline in the weeks and months ahead. Not sure whether that’s a threat or a promise, to you or to me…

[ * – Note for non-British readers: in a classic case of British class divisions having markers which make little sense outside of said system of class, “public school” in Britain means the same as what “private school” means in most other places; meanwhile, what you might describe as “public schools” would instead be referred to as “state school”, or—if you were of a similar class strata to my parent—as “the local comprehensive”, a phrase to be freighted with a careful combination of contempt and condescension. ]