The AHRC Stories of Change project is now well underway with October 1st marking the official start date of ‘Future Works’. This strand of the project is in partnership with the University of Sheffield’s School of Architecture where Masters students will be exploring the energy strategy for a community-share owned factory in Sheffield, Portland Works. Exciting, interdisciplinary times ahead! For further information follow this link to our blog: https://storiesfutureworks.wordpress.com.
Following our successful application to the GW4 Initiator Fund, the first GW4 Environmental Humanities Group meeting will take place at the University of Exeter’s Streatham Campus on the 1st and 2nd December. This network will bring together colleagues from GW4 universities (Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter) working on similar issues, from different disciplinary backgrounds, who often have little opportunity to speak to one another.
The first workshop responds to the urgent need to develop new ways of addressing the challenge of climate and environmental change by communicating and harnessing research in individual humanities disciplines on sustainability, place and cultural memory. The concept of place has generated rich scholarly engagement on a range of issues including emotional attachment, memory, identity, belonging, resilience, social cohesion, as well as the effects of mobility, displacement, and inequality. Less work has been done to probe either the temporal dynamics of being in and out of place, or the role of memory in constructing personal and collective senses of the ecological past over time and place. It is our contention that more needs to be done to explore place, as both concept and practice, as a point of connectivity between communities with different histories, cultural beliefs, values and memories. Participants will be invited to consider their theoretical, methodological and the practical application of their work in order to produce a coherent and practicable set of research questions.
The second meeting Future Connections, will bring members together to reflect upon the previous days discussions and to identify the key areas we might pursue in building a lasting collaborative research community that will bridge our disciplines and institutions, and nurture the next generation of researchers.
The core applicants met at the CEAH launch in September 2013. They are Peter Coates (Bristol), Ria Dunkley (Cardiff), Axel Goodbody (Bath), and Nicola Whyte (Exeter).
The Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network and the Ancestral Time Project are organising a symposium on Feeling the Anthropocene: Air, Rock, Flesh to be held the University of Edinburgh on Friday 28th November 2014. For further details please follow this link:
This short piece, soon to be published on the History from Below online symposium but written with CEAH in mind, offers an overview of my thoughts on landscape and position in the field. Admittedly it is a bit longer than originally intended! For those who can be bothered to wade through it, I would be extremely interested to hear your thoughts/comments.
The field of landscape history and archaeology in Britain is a divided one. Fault lines separate proponents of the traditional, ‘empirical school’ from those who advocate more theoretically informed landscape research. I want to argue that this division is unhelpful for not only does it reduce interpretation to a set of binaries (objective/subjective, physical/cognitive, economic/symbolic), it also detracts from the importance of landscape research in addressing current concerns about environmental change and sustainability, and how research can engage people outside the university. In this brief piece I want to advocate an interdisciplinary approach to ‘history from below’ from a landscape perspective, which takes on board recent theoretical scholarship but retains empirical research at its core.
Following the influential work of W.G. Hoskins, traditional approaches to landscape promote the practice of reading the landscape, achieved through spatial analysis, deciphering chronological sequences and tracking the long-term impact of human activity on the landscape, activities that were in turn shaped by particular environmental conditions. In highlighting ongoing processes of adaptation and change such studies have been recognised for their valuable contribution to current debates on environmental issues. It is widely accepted that we need to take stock of past actions in order to make informed decisions and choices about future landscape preservation and resource management. But much of this work, particularly on the early modern and post medieval landscape, has prioritised economic explanations for change while neglecting to consider how decisions were made for a number of complex and contingent reasons and purposes. Embedded in social, cultural and political relations, decisions often had unintended consequences in altering the environment. Too often it seems the people are left out unless they were the elite individuals responsible for the wholesale transformation of the landscape.
The term ‘landscape’ itself originated in the seventeenth century as a particular way of seeing the world among elites. Wealthy landowners imagined and transformed their landscapes, designing them to be viewed as a work of art, to be looked upon like one would a painting. Research in the late 1980s and 90s emphasised interpretation and introduced the notion that the wealthy were themselves engaged in ‘reading the landscape’.1 This work was important for making explicit the connections between landscape, ideology and power. Yet, in terms of understanding the relationship between people in the past and the material worlds they inhabited, this approach is too narrowly conceived. It prioritizes the perspectives of the elite and perpetuates the notion that the landscape was viewed as a surface upon which a particular set of cultural and political values were drawn to the exclusion of all other viewpoints. This is in more ways than one a top-down approach. Barbara Bender compares traditional writing of landscape history to a process of colonisation; both rely upon technologies of appropriation and control, such as map-making, and have the ability to distance and objectify. She offers a critique of Western elitist notions of landscape as a static scene onto which an ‘imposing/imposed viewpoint’ is drawn.2
In recent years, landscape historians and archaeologists have developed more theoretically informed approaches that place emphasis on interpretation, subjectivity and multivocality. Phenomenological scholarship, and theories of inhabitation and dwelling, have proven to be fruitful for scholars working on prehistoric and contemporary modern periods, not only in investigating the ways people perceived the landscape in the past, but also in recognising at a personal level their subjective positioning as researchers and writers.3 Much exciting and innovative research has sought to recover everyday lived experiences and the complex, contradictory, messy processes that have shaped landscapes in the past. These approaches while varied cohere around the central premise that landscapes are created through human engagement, through movement embodied practices and day-to-day experiences; they are not created from some external vantage point. Importantly they create space for alternative experiences among the marginalised and dispossessed, the rootless and unsettled, those whose histories, memories and perceptions of landscape fit uncomfortably within the grand narrative of progress, improvement and technological change. Surprisingly this work has been slow to gain ground in studies of landscape in the early modern period. Yet, it offers a useful point of departure for thinking through the experiences and meanings of landscape ‘from below’.
In my work on early modern court deposition evidence, I have found the experiential and subjective ‘turn’ in landscape studies particularly rewarding for offering new insights and ways of interpreting the oral testimonies given by men and women of non-elite status. While they are not to be taken at face value, and of course we cannot enter into the minds of people living in the past, these contemporary accounts of land and resources nonetheless offer valuable insights into the ways people interwove their own life-histories into a social narrative of landscape and place. They reveal for example relational networks of landmarks, names and places, as well as the material and cognitive boundaries that demarcated the ways people moved across the land. An important contextual framework is provided by understanding custom, knowledge practices, the rhythms of everyday life, movement, boundedness, spaces and places. Deposition evidence can reveal alternative, perhaps counter narratives of landscape and often oppositional viewpoints to that of the landed elites. But crucially they also reveal that alterations, interventions in the landscape were made not for purely economic reasons but rather a range of decisions stemming from socio-political and cultural relations from within the neighbourhood.
Dialogue and debate about different methodological and theoretical approaches needs to take place if we are to realise the full potential and possibilities of interdisciplinary studies that speak to pressing modern concerns about environmental change. This requires the cross-fertilization of historical, literary and social science research with arts practice. But even within our own disciplines, greater attention needs to be paid to talking across conventional boundaries of research practice. In history, for example, studies of environment and landscape are often considered separate from social history. As I have mentioned environmental and landscape history often omit people. By contrast social historians have been concerned with class, race and gender, elucidating the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people, everyday experience and practices that are by their very nature multivocal, complex, contradictory and unequal. Indeed, landscapes are not only differently experienced, their value is measured differently. Today value accords to a set of criteria implemented by institutional and funding bodies, the heritage sector and conservation groups, whose various preservation initiatives often serve only to reinforce the culture/nature dichotomy. Landscapes are appropriated for different ends; they are inherently political. There is an important intervention to be made in current historical research, in terms of both academic debate and public engagement, through the history of everyday life and reclaiming landscape history as peoples’ history.
Finally, to highlight just a few inspiring cross-disciplinary studies. Anne Whiston Sprin (landscape architect) talks vividly and eloquently about the need for all of us to learn the language of landscape if we are to act responsibly to safeguard the future environment. She argues that disciplinary fragmentation has led to a lack of understanding of landscape as a continuous whole. In her words: ‘Absent, false, or partial readings lead to inarticulate expression’.4 Phenomenology has influenced other studies. Alex Loftus, (geographer) has recently argued that everyday subjectivity needs to be placed at the heart of debate, for it opens up potential for a revolutionary environmental politics.5 This, he argues, can be achieved by developing the Marxist theory of praxis – the critique of everyday practices – an understanding of ‘sensory engagement’ and, drawing on Gramsci and Levebvre, a realisation of the potential invested in the moment, leading to change in the world. In these works the everyday experiential, cultural and social landscape (Loftus doesn’t use this term preferring instead ‘socio-natural’, which I interpret as landscape) is foregrounded alongside an understanding of the politics of moving through and negotiating everyday landscapes. While Dolores Hayden (architecture and urbanism) seeks to connect marginalised individuals and ethnic groups through engagement with the history of their everyday landscapes. Her work further raises questions of rootedness and rootlessness, memory and identity given expression in marginal spaces and places. Integrated studies of landscape and social history, reveal plurality of meaning and experience, as well as highlighting political tensions and conflict across the long duree. Such cross-disciplinary, deeply contextualised studies, can foreground the constraints and inefficiencies of institutional governance and policy, ‘top-down’ interventions in managing resources and heritage sites.6
Having introduced this admittedly eclectic range of works, I hope to show that there remains a strong need for historical investigations into the meanings and experiences of landscape from below. In writing landscape and environmental history, linear narratives of progress and improvement, transformation and revolution have tended to take precedence over micro-historical analyses of the everyday, quotidian, and small-scale political transformations of spaces and places within everyday landscapes. As such these narratives of change disconnect and alienate people from the past. A great number of writers from the broad field of landscape studies have impressed upon their readership the interconnections between landscape, place, memory, identity, and notion that landscapes are not neutral but are contested and unequal. There is great potential for thinking about the dynamic, unstable, evolving relations between people and everyday landscapes across time and space, through which we may engage the public with the everyday historic landscape in more creative ways.
1 D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels (eds.) The Iconography of Landscape (1988)
2 B. Bender and M. Winer, (eds.) Contested Landscapes, Movement, Exile and Place (2001)
3 See for example, C. Tilley A Phenomenology of Landscape: Paths, Places and Monuments (1994)
4 A. Spirn, The Language of Landscape (1998), p. 22
5 A. Loftus, Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology (2012)
6 C. Rogers, E Straughton, A. Winchester, M. Pieraccini, Contested Commonland (2011); B. Bender, Stonehenge: Making Space (1999)
The Centre for Environmental Arts and Humanities (CEAH) creates opportunities for shared investigation of the complex relationship between the environment and the human imagination.
The Centre nurtures existing research and provides support for collaborations within and beyond the arts and humanities, and with external organisations and international partners. Our work contributes to contemporary thinking about environment and sustainability by historicising and contextualising the terms of environmental debate and ecological citizenship. This work is crucial in an era of urgent environmental problems, where an awareness of experiences and perspectives in the historical past has the potential to shape present understanding and influence political discourse. The work of the Centre promotes research and discussion concerning historical and cultural narratives of ‘nature’ and natural resources, with particular attention to the way forms of artistic and cultural representation — including literary texts, maps, images, crafts and film — generate and perpetuate popular ideas and beliefs about nature and the environment.
Recent CEAH activities include involvement in the 2012 Creative Coast Forum (in partnership with the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site), collaborative meetings with faculty at the University of Utah regarding their Environmental Humanities graduate programme, and participation in several AHRC research networks (including one on Early Modern Discourses of Environmental Change and Sustainability).
In April 2013 the CEAH hosted a conference on ‘Medieval Perceptions of Landscape: How did people in Medieval Cornwall perceive their environment?’ This was a joint meeting organised by the Landscape Research Group (LRG), the Medieval Settlement Research Group (MSRG) and the CEAH.
The Centre also publishes a book series, in partnership with Uniformbooks. The titles in the series are intellectually accessible and conceptually provocative, intended to share cutting-edge research in environmental humanities research with a wide audience of academics, practitioners and interested publics. The first publication in the series, Anticipatory History, considers how the stories we tell about ecological and landscape histories can help shape our perceptions of plausible environmental futures.