Keynote and Closing Remarks:
Alastair Bonnett, ‘The problem of the past’
Progressive politics has often defined itself against the past. To be ‘forward looking’ has been cast as noble and muscular but being ‘backward looking’ seen as ‘misty eyed’ and feeble. Today these clichés are beginning to unravel. A new, less condensing, attitude to the past seems necessary. Greens, and environmentalists more generally, should be at the centre of the debate about the political role of memory and loss. This group - for years talked down to as nostalgically mourning the loss of a ‘balanced’ earth - has a vital role in explaining, as William Morris put it, that ‘the love of the past and the love of the day to be’ are interwoven.
Wendy Wheeler, ‘Culture is natural: biosemiotics, recycling, and the evolutionary structurations of biological and cultural change’
In the not too distant past, the word ‘radical’ implied a tearing up of the roots of the past in order to clear the ground for supposedly wholly new revolutionary practices. Ecological and evolutionary understandings of culture mean that this conception of change will no longer do; the past is never obliterated, only transformed. We must be able to account for continuities within change, system learning, and the repurposing and recycling of knowledge practices. But the understanding that culture is natural and evolutionary should not lead us to the mechanistic and reductionist accounts offered by sociobiology, or by the ‘just-so stories’ of evolutionary psychology. Biosemiotics gives us different tools for understanding the creative growth of dynamic and self-organising systems. Both nature and culture are full of meanings and purposes. Natural and cultural systems involve chance, creative responsiveness (at best) and formal constraints; they also involve interpretations and habits, even at the level of the cell, rather than simple deterministic mechanisms. Neither nihilistic convictions of meaninglessness nor utopian dreams of the mastery of nature will serve our growing understanding of the movements – genetic, epigenetic and cultural – between past, present and future. This talk will sketch out contemporary biosemiotic understandings of the structurations and patterns of change over time, as well as their philosophical and theoretical sources in the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, Jakob von Uexküll, Gregory Bateson, Tom Sebeok and Jesper Hoffmeyer, in order to clear a space for thinking about the multi-disciplinary implications of such views. These include, for example, living information and the reality of semiotic development as matter-dependent causal process which is itself relational and non-material; the developmental/evolutionary necessity of error and its pedagogical implications; freedom and creativity in individuals and systems, and the degenerative entropy of the modern disciplinary state.
Roundtable: ‘Austerity and sustainability’
Tim Cooper, ‘The limits of history in green imaginaries’
The attempt to appropriate historical narratives and popular memory for particular political objectives should be avoided. Rather than appealing to a desire to repeat idealised past moments, history should be seen as a ‘critical’ endeavour with ambitions to open up the space for radical alternatives to currently existing social organisation precisely by negating and refusing to repeat the past.
Victoria Johnson, ‘“Ration me up” and other nef projects’
James Piers Taylor, ‘Re-member, re-vision and re-claim: using archival film to facilitate local conversations about community resilience’
British non-fiction films of the first half of the 20th century display an apparently different country, one that is localised, less atomised, and more self-reliant. Propaganda films of the 1930s to 1950s, in particular, celebrate community and local resilience in a manner that appeals to the similar concerns of current social activists. What purpose might they serve now in kindling re-generative human habitats?
Panel: ‘Ecological history’
Vinita Damodaran, ‘“Primitive places” and “wild tribes”; colonial and indigenous understandings of nature in nineteenth century India’
The knowledges and institutions produced as a result of colonial environmental legislation encoded particular ideologies regarding the aesthetic valuing of natural landscapes and the placement of different indigenous people in a nature-culture continuum. The post colonial reincarnations of these ideas is also interesting and is indicative of the place of natural landscapes in postcolonial national iconographies. The particular significance of this paper is in its use of the legislative developments in natural heritage thinking to analyse broader colonial and post-colonial attitudes, ideologies and projects. As such, here we hope to make a significant contribution to literatures concerned with the culture of colonialism and with developing a broader critique that challenges earlier interpretations of colonialism as monolithically racist, exploitative and destructive and instead acknowledges that colonial ideologies may have been more variable, complex and ambivalent. The object is not to rehabilitate imperial efforts, so much as to examine how a seemingly benign scholarly appreciation of art, antiquities and indigenous cultures co-existed and articulated with the power imbalances of imperial domination.
Erin Gill, ‘“Lost” environmental histories: the stories we’ve forgotten’
One of the most significant weaknesses in the environment-related discussions – and outright disputes – that are taking place today within the UK is public ignorance about the historical context of each ‘issue’. My paper will look at several of the most contentious environmental topics of early twenty-first century Britain and ask what the public and our politicians have forgotten – or, perhaps, never fully understood - about their earlier history. I will argue that historical research has a crucial role to play in widening and deepening contemporary environmental discourse and, thus, indirectly in improving environmental governance at a national level.
Karin Jaschke, ‘Historiography as process: towards an ecological history of architecture’
The prominence given to historical projects at this year’s Venice Architectural Biennale suggests that there is a renewed belief that history can meaningfully contribute to contemporary debates. This paper discusses what architectural history’s role in the face of the present global-environmental crisis might be. It proposes that the broadly ecological models that have been developed as both realist ontologies (of material and living systems), human relations within those systems (political ecologies), and indeed human perception and experience (mental ecologies) may provide a useful framework for developing an ecological history of architecture. This would include the redefinition of the object of architectural history in relational terms – as vibrant matter, meshwork, process, and so on – and the deployment of a new kind of historiography: an operational history that is ‘processual’ or entwined with its object of study, rather than projective, and that enacts, rather than represents, an ecological model through its work.