Category Archives: Writing

the most animal of all human abilities

It is perfectly possible, then, that far from being an exclusively human attribute, the narrative faculty is the most animal of human abilities, a product of one of the traits that humans indisputably share with animals and many other beings—attachments to place. Perhaps, then, storytelling, far from setting humans apart from animals, is actually the most important residue of our formerly wild selves. This would explain why stories, above all, are quintessentially the domain of human imaginative life in which nonhumans had voices, and where nonhuman agency was fully recognized and even celebrated. To make this leap may be difficult in other, more prosaic domains of thought, but it was by no means a stretch in the world of storytelling, where anything is possible.

The shrinking of the possibilities of this domain, and the consequent erasure of nonhuman voices from “serious” literature, has played no small part in creating that blindness to other beings that is so marked a feature of official modernity. It follows, then, that if those nonhuman voices are to be restored to their proper place, then it must be, in the first instance, through the medium of stories.

the reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea

Sara Hendren, ladies and gentlemen:

The opposite of jargon is not “plain language.” It is sparkling lucidity. Too many academics translate from theory to the everyday by employing a kind of verbal shrug — they say, Don’t be afraid of this fancy term here. It just means… [insert mealy-mouthed generalities]. The shrug is an attempt at intellectual democratization, I’m sure, but there’s no “just” about it. A thinker must actually go much more deeply toward the theoretical, turn its ideas like a jewel in her palm, slowly, with great understanding, to then lay out its provocations for the non-specialist reader. The reader can always handle the full complexity of the idea, no matter how abstract. Academics flatter themselves that they can speak “plainly,” but plainness is not the project.

I’m not going to claim I (yet) live up to the lucidity that Hendren is advocating, here, but I definitely recognise not only that “verbal shrugging” / “plain speaking”, but the incredible tacit pressure to conform with it.

(This is not a phenomenon unique to the academy, to be clear: the TEDification of complex topics is more widespread than that, and it most likely invaded academia from outside, along with all the other neoliberal guff.)

The challenge is compounded by the necessity of slowness to lucidity, as Hendren recommends. I’m currently working on a chapter for an edited volume in which I’ll (finally) get to formally publish some of my infrastructural theory, and even a generous wordcount (8000 words!) disappears quickly when you’re trying to talk at the theoretical level. But, as I have been advised by others: no one will fund you to be a theorist until you’ve already demonstrated that you are one (and even then it’s an uphill fight)… and so your early efforts are perforce a matter of hustling any opportunity to publish you can find, and making the best use of it you can.

On which note, I should probably get on with the work…

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?