Author Archives: Christine Boyle

Empires of Emptiness: What the past tells us about desert warfare in the Sahara – at a time when it is being fought

Dr Berny Sèbe
Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Post-Colonial Studies
Principal investigator of the ‘Outposts of Conquest’ project (

Empires of Emptiness: What the past tells us about desert warfare in the Sahara – at a time when it is being fought

When it comes to fighting jihadists in the desert, forget about the buzzwords now commonly associated with radical Islam elsewhere: social networks, internet recruitment or online propaganda. Of course, cybercafes are not entirely absent, even in the most remote oases, so cyber-recruitment and e-propaganda are not entirely irrelevant, but there are more important aspects to the picture to be taken into account when it comes to war in the desert.

The main courtyard of the fortress of Zirara, Algeria. Photo Yacine Ketfi.

At least, these are the preliminary conclusions of a research project I am leading at the University of Birmingham (in collaboration with Prof. Alexander Morrison, at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan), which examines strategies of colonial conquest and administration in arid environments, through the case-study of desert fortresses. Back in the nineteenth century, policy makers in London, Paris or Moscow faced questions and challenges which were not so dissimilar to those which are asked today when it comes to, let us say, Libya or Mali.

When French forces decided to renovate and expand in 2013 an old desert fortress in the barren sandy plains of Madama, in the far north-east of Niger, in an attempt to control human, trade and trafficking fluxes between the deeply unstable Southern Libya and the rest of the Saharo-Sahelian belt, they actually emulated what their predecessors had done a century before. The construction of fortified bases from which military power can be projected has been a regular feature of modern desert warfare, and even drones and supersonic fighter jets have not made this form of effective territorial control redundant.

The challenges any army trying to confront an ever-elusive enemy like jihadist fighters are reminiscent of those faced by nineteenth-century empire builders. How can vast and sparsely populated spaces be controlled effectively? How can potential allies be distinguished effectively from die-hard hostile forces? Which strategies will ensure that the arrival of a new player able to flex its muscles does not provide a massive recruitment boost to the opposing party? What is the most effective balance between mobility and brute sedentary force?

Views towards the palm grove from the fortress of Taghit, Algeria. Photo Yacine Ketfi.

This is where the past can teach present strategists a few lessons: not only in terms of where fortresses can be located effectively, but also how they are best used to enhance impact: as intelligence centres as much as logistical bases, and also as symbolic statements which foster local support. In a context where traditional values of sometimes violent masculinity prevail, airpower is often seen as a proof of weakness: it can only be chosen by those who seek to evade direct, virile confrontation. In the nineteenth century as much as today, fortresses assert a stern determination to act effectively on the ground, and guarantee and can generate further rallying.

Past experience also tells us that fortresses can only be effective if they are located at strategic places which cannot be easily avoided: they become more a statement of vanity if they can be easily bypassed. Tactful management of human relations is needed to ensure that they do not become the embodiment of a much-despised foreign presence. And crucially, they are effective only if they can operate as springboards from which military power is projected – with camel-mounted troops then, and all-terrain jeeps and lorries now.

The architectural structure of the Bordj of Erfoud East, Sahara. Photo Berny Sèbe.

More generally, the past tells us that the Sahara has its own socio-cultural dynamics based on centuries of subtle negotiations between various competing communities, and that this complex human fabric has to be understood if any form of durable settlement is to be found. Local susceptibilities are also best taken into account, to avoid antagonising those who have to be seen as partners rather than obstacles. This is the reason why collateral damage is all the more significant in such societies which have long-term memories. The way in which Sahara nomads in general have also tolerated or even supported the French presence after having resisted it in the first place, can also teach us a lot when it comes to devising strategies for long-term peace and stability in the region: local population need to be clearly the net beneficiaries of the return of peace, and take an active part in it. The Pax Gallica worked in the first half of the twentieth century because it was locally co-opted and offered prized rewards. In the twenty-first century, jihadist movements

Anyone reading Winston Churchill’s observations about the Afghans in his debut book The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1897) will be struck by how relevant some of his observations have remained. In spite of the staggering speed at which the world changes, it seems that the past can still teach us a lot, especially when looking at such specific environments like the Sahara or the Himalayas. It is probably not a coincidence if the French, who had the benefit of a century and a half of military operations in the Sahara, have been able, against all odds, to achieve in Northern Mali in less than a year what an international coalition led by the United States has been unable to get in Afghanistan in a decade.

The ‘Outposts of Conquest’ project (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) has given rise to an exhibition which is being shown until 16 December 2016:

Empires of Emptiness – Fortresses of the Sahara and the Steppe’, in the Footprint Gallery at Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge Gorge TF8 7LJ. Open everyday from 10am until 5pm.  Admission is free of charge.

The walls of the fortress of Turkestan, built by the Khanate of Kokand. Photo Berny Sèbe


Using Film to Examine Heritage, Identity and Global Citizenship: A Care for the Future follow-on project

Paul Cooke (University of Leeds) describes his film-education project ‘Using Film to Examine Heritage, Identity and Global Citizenship’: supporting the work of the Bautzen Memorial to Engage New Audiences’

Bautzen Project Trailer from Paul Cooke on Vimeo.

The project worked with the Bautzen Memorial in Germany – formerly the main prison of the East German Secret Police – and the community filmmaking group ‘Landesverband Kinder- und Jugendfilm Berlin’, in collaboration with the British Film Institute film academy, to co-produce a series of films that are to become part of the permanent exhibition at Bautzen and will also be submitted to young people’s film festivals across Europe. Working with a group of young people from the UK and both the former East and West German states, the films drew on the findings of our Care for the Future exploratory award Screening European Heritage. This project explored, amongst many case studies, the ways in which popular culture reflects the changing legacy of the GDR in contemporary Germany. The project team took these finding to the memorial, discussing them with our student participants, the memorial team and Manfred Mattias, a civil rights activist and former inmate in the prison during the 1970s. The students involved were then given training to make short films that allowed them to reflect creatively upon the lessons to be learnt from the GDR dictatorship for contemporary understandings of democracy, global citizenship and the competing ways that notions of ‘heritage’ relate to our sense of identity.

The project has produced a whole range of short films. The project trailer gives an overview of the work we undertook during our time in the prison. Other films will be appearing gradually on line. The first of these, which explores the relevance of GDR history to the present-day refugee crisis has been awarded a prize in the German national broadcaster Pro 7’s youth film festival SchoolsOn

Our main partner was the Bautzen Memorial. It is the aim of the Memorial to keep alive the memory of the crimes of the East German regime as a historical warning for contemporary society. Central to its strategy is to support the political education of young people, both across the former East and West German states and also within a European context. The Memorial is currently focussed on expanding its visitor demographic, which is predominantly East German. It was the aim of this project to support the Memorial in this endeavour, bringing together as participants East and West Germans. Moreover, through the inclusion of UK participants it was also envisaged that the project would help the Memorial to develop internationally-focussed, English language pedagogical material in order to enhance its offering for international visitors.

The project team and Bautzen Memorial also work with Landesverband Kinder- und Jugendfilm Berlin (kijufi), an educational filmmaking charity that aims to turn young people from passive consumers of audio-visual media into active and critical practitioners. The charity offers young people a professional introduction to basic filmmaking techniques and supports them in developing and realising their own projects in small groups. One of kijufi’s strategic aims is to prompt young people to ask questions about society and history by means of their audio-visual practice. The charity has a strong interest in creating such an engagement with the GDR past, a period of history which young people did not witness but which is crucial to understanding contemporary Germany and its role in Europe. Normally working within Berlin and its surrounding areas, the kijufi will benefit greatly from being able to extend its reach through cooperation with the Bautzen Memorial. Finally, the project worked with alumni from the British Film Institute Film Academy, in partnership with the media consultancy REEL Solutions, to provide international filmmaking experiences for young UK filmmakers.

Historians at the Festival of Nature, 12-14 June 2015

Cross-posted from The Power and the Water project website

In the second week of June, ‘The Power and the Water’ project ran its first ever stand at the Festival of Nature, Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. It was a first not only for the project but for the School of Humanities too, as it was the first time a non-science subject had been included in the University of Bristol tent.


FoN team

The Power and the Water Team, and 2nd Year Biology Student Volunteers, ready to engage with the public! Photo: Milica Prokic.

‘Hidden River Histories’ took the research that the Bristol-based team members are doing (Power and Water is a three-strand project with researchers at Nottingham and Cambridge Universities too) to create an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience. We knew that the Festival is a popular event for all ages and backgrounds. Established in 2003, it is the UK’s biggest free celebration of the natural world with two days of free interactive activities and live entertainment across Bristol’s Harbourside. We wanted to introduce the field of environmental history to Festival-goers, and specifically some key themes in our project: how the natural world is intertwined with the human; how past water and energy uses might inform current and future environmental values; and how local issues fit with global environmental change.

Public engagement

Talking about river waters and history with members of the public. Photo: Peter Coates.

Our stand could not be boring: we were representing History and the Humanities among a sea of Science stands! For the kids we knew would visit (Day 1 of FoN is Schools Day), we had to provide something interactive – something they could get their hands on. Luckily, in environmental history, we have no shortage of fascinating natural, and unnatural, items to work with. River waters from four ‘Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the often-forgotten Malago (Bedminster) bottled in clear glass took an idea that was originally inspired by a Canadian artwork[1] to become an interactive way of thinking about tides, water quality, rivers-as-ecologies, and a quick way of testing people’s knowledge about their local rivers. Kids shook up the river waters and urgh-ed at the murky Severn and Avon. But they were fascinated to see old photos of salmon fishing and a beached whale in the estuary (in 1885), and we were able to talk about how ‘brown’ is not always ‘bad’, and how, from a salmon’s perspective, a nicely tidal, turbid (unbarraged!) River Severn is exactly where you’d want to be. The ‘pure’ Frome, on the other hand, was the river that was so dirty in the 19th century that the city chose to bury it.

Bottle water

Bottled water from the Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the Malago. Photo: Milica Prokic.

The bottled rivers were a way-in to talking about Bristol’s watery past, but we also wanted to discuss Bristol’s water future, particularly with an issue that we’d observed on field trips down to the riverbank at Sea Mills (a suburb of Bristol). On the intertidal zone there, plastics are a huge problem, brought in on the tides. The issue of marine litter connects local environmentalism with a global plastics issue – the river banks of Sea Mills with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic trash

One item of plastic trash from the banks of the Severn. Photo: Milica Prokic

We collected a huge array of discarded plastic items one morning in May. Guided through Health and Safety requirements by the Centre for Public Engagement, we decided to bag the plastic items (in yes, more plastic – the irony was not lost) and create a Trash Table, in which the rubbish was laid bare for the public to see, pick up, question and discuss. It had something of a forensics scene about it, compounded by the presence of numerous, enigmatic, lost shoes. We’ve been discussing ‘future archaeology’ as an interesting methodology, and it provided us with our key question: what stories would future historians and archaeologists tell about us now, based on these non-degrading plastics? In addition to confronting the environmental impacts of consumer culture, visitors to the stand could engage in some informal, but not inconsequential, narrative building.

Eloise Govier

Artist Eloise Govier and her hi-vis installation, made from polystyrene found by the Avon. Photo: Milica Prokic.

Though an exercise in public engagement in itself, we were able to highlight other public engagement and knowledge-exchange initiatives we’ve been working on. Artist Eloise Govier has been collaborating with researcher Jill Payne on installations that encourage people to think about energy. Her high-vis block of polystyrene – sourced on our forage along the Avon – was a great talking point, likened to cheese, Spongebob Squarepants, fatbergs and a meteorite! Artists from the Bristol Folk House also contributed works, based on an outdoor workshop we ran at the Ship’s Graveyard on the River Severn at Purton. We made them into free postcards that included our project website and contact info, encouraging future communication. The watercolours updated our visual record of the river and helped us to think about how people see and value the River Severn today, and how this connects with – or departs from – traditions of viewing land- and waterscapes in Britain.


A 3-day presence at the Festival of Nature was the culmination of months of planning by me and Jill (Payne, researcher on Power and Water). We had our first meeting before Christmas, and plenty since! Was it worth the effort? Unreservedly, yes. In terms of disseminating our project research, FoN allowed us to communicate our work – and raise awareness of the vitality of environmental history at Bristol – to a huge number of interested citizens. We await attendance figures for this year but last year, over 4, 385 people attended the UoB tent. In 2013 it was 6, 284. This year the weather was good and there were queues to enter the UoB tent, so we are confident that attendance was a strong as ever.[2]

Drewitt at Stand

Naturalist and broadcaster Ed Drewitt drops by to say hello. Ed provided a wildlife commentary for our project boat trip down the Avon.

But public engagement of this kind goes way beyond sheer numbers. The process of planning the stand has been productive, helping us identify the themes in our work that hold interest (and are therefore useful for telling histories, in and beyond academia). The photo of the 69ft whale beached at Littleton-on-Severn was a side-story to my research, but people were fascinated by why and how this creature came to Bristol. A trip to Bristol City Museum to track down the bones is being arranged, and the animal inhabitants of the river will be more visible in my work as a result.

Moreover, good public engagement goes beyond disseminating research. They may be buzzwords in funded research, but ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘co-production of knowledge’ are very real benefits of engaging with groups and individuals beyond the academy. For a project like ours, which is interested in public environmental discourses and people’s relationships with place, talking with the public is a key source of information, and a way in which we can build research questions, identify key issues, and meet people who can aid our research. We learnt of more hidden rivers in Bristol, community action groups, and old records of the Severn Bore. We were also asked why we were not being more active on the issue of plastic waste, prompting us to reflect on the aims of the project, and the role of academics in communities where sometimes, actions speak louder than words. It was useful to recognize our strengths and limitations, as perceived publicly, and to articulate our key aim of providing sound research from which people can become informed, and motivated. Getting involved in an event such as Festival of Nature is a useful reminder that rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are the public too, offering a particular set of knowledge and skills but equally willing to learn from others.

As researchers funded by the public purse (through the UK Research Councils) the expectation that we take our work beyond the university is entirely reasonable. Public engagement is now built into funding applications, and the impact it can produce is a measurable output of research. Meaningful public engagement, based on principles of knowledge exchange and co-production, is a pathway to tangible impact, rather than a one-sided conversation. If we hope to achieve impact, that is, through our research change the way a group thinks or acts with regards to a particular issue or topic, then we must engage with the ‘group’; talk to them, identify key concerns, think about how our research can address issues and contribute to understanding and practice. The language of ‘impact’, public engagement and knowledge exchange, serves to reinforce the academic/public divide. The practice of such ideas, through events such as Festival of Nature, helps to overcome such distinctions. It’s also (whisper it) fun

The Power and the Water project would like to thank the Centre for Public Engagement (University of Bristol) for all their logistical and design support; the 2nd Year Biology volunteers that helped man the stand with enthusiasm; Eloise Govier, for the loan of her artwork and for helping on School Day; and Milica Prokic and Vesna Lukic, for filming, photographing, and mucking in over the FoN weekend.

[1] Emily Rose Michaud, ‘Taste the source (while supplies last) (2006-present)’ in Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis (eds), Thinking with water (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013), 133-38

[2] Thanks to Mireia Bes at the Centre for Public Engagement for attendance numbers.

The future of the past: Shining the light of history on the challenges facing principled humanitarian action

Prof Andrew Thompson, Cross-posted from Humanitarian Practice Network

Even as Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the movement’s Fundamental Principles, there is a palpable sense that they are at risk. Threatened not only by the resurgence of state sovereignty and proliferation of non-state armed groups, the very universality of the principles may be in question. As the twenty-first century draws on, are the principles of ‘impartiality’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘independence’ still fit for purpose as Western influence wanes and the nature of conflict itself rapidly evolves?

ICRC blog post ThompsonThe Red Cross’ principles have marinated in a century and a half of humanitarian history. That history matters. The past helps us to understand how different types of threat to humanitarian principles have emerged from different types of conflict and geopolitical environments. History also sheds light on how, despite such obstacles, the principles came to acquire the public prominence and moral authority they currently possess.

Where did the Fundamental Principles come from?

The principles were first articulated by the Swiss jurist and co-founder of the international Red Cross, Gustave Moynier. His four principles of the 1870s ‒ ‘centralisation’, ‘foresight’, ‘mutuality’ and ‘solidarity’ ‒ were more firmly focused around the role of the national societies and their relation to the ICRC and each other.

Right from the get-go, the idea of giving aid based purely on the needs of the suffering, irrespective of religious, ethnic or political affiliation, was built into the Geneva Conventions. Article 6 of the 1864 Convention stated that wounded or sick combatants would be collected and cared for regardless of nationality.

As late as the 1920s, Edmond Boissier, an ICRC Vice President, could still speak of ’universal charity’ as a defining characteristic of the Red Cross. Reference to this quality invoked an earlier age when philanthropy, charity and humanity were synonymous and intertwined with the life of the churches.

The privileged role of the ICRC in safeguarding, maintaining and disseminating the principles was highlighted in 1915 when the ICRC drew up its Statutes, in 1921 at the 10th International Conference in Geneva, and again in 1928 when new Statutes were adopted at the 13th Conference in The Hague. None of these statements specified what would happen if a national society departed from the principles. This omission was made all too apparent during the wars of decolonisation when relations between the national societies of Europe’s colonial powers and the ICRC were often fraught.

The thirteen ’Oxford Principles’, were framed after the Second World War and reaffirmed at the 18th International Conference in Toronto in 1952. ’Neutrality’ did not explicitly feature but promoting peace and the fight against epidemics were explicit objectives. There was also considerable emphasis on national societies being representative and democratically organised, which proved particularly problematic for the newly independent societies in Africa and Asia as they negotiated the end of empire.

A decade later Jean Pictet published his seminal study, Red Cross Principles (1956). Pictet’s seven Fundamental Principles included humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence and universality, but interestingly not today’s ’voluntary service’ or ’unity’ ‒ instead referring to ’equality’ and ’due proportion’. He also paired the Fundamental Principles with a wider set of ’Organic Principles’ which, in a gesture to Moynier, included both ’solidarity’ and ’foresight’.

How do the principles work in practice?

The principles have framed key debates about humanitarian aid for many of history’s most major and memorable conflicts. Looking back at the wars of decolonisation, such as Algeria and Kenya, did racial prejudice fuel the selective application of standards of humanity? In Biafra: in the face of mass starvation and great suffering, is neutrality tantamount to passivity; can it be morally justified? In Bosnia and Srebrenica, faced with forced displacement and the creation of UN safe-havens offering little real protection, did ostensibly independent aid agencies become passive participants in acts of ethnic cleansing? And finally, coming to the present day, has the integration of aid into military and security strategies – in Iraq and Afghanistan – made any claim to independent humanitarian action a myth?

As today’s ICRC President, Peter Maurer, recently argued, history is much more than a record of what happened in the past. It is a rich repository of experience for the humanitarian sector to draw on in the here-and-now, as they tackle crises in Syria, CAR and South Sudan. History also serves as a vantage point from which humanitarians can reflect on current challenges facing the principles – whether in Syria, South Sudan or the Central African Republic − and anticipate those that may emerge in the future.

When we delve back into a century and a half of the history of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, four salient features stand out:

  1. While individual principles have assumed a sharper and more settled definition, this is less true of the principles’ relation to each other. Some distinguish between the principle of humanity – as the ultimate humanitarian objective – and impartiality, neutrality and independence, as means to reach that objective. Others present humanity and impartiality as “substantive principles” and neutrality and independence as “field tested tools”. This is not mere semantics. The internal logic of the principles and how they’re prioritised is profoundly relevant to decision-making in the field.
  2. There is an unresolved – and perhaps unresolvable − tension between the universalism of the principles and the need to work within national frameworks of governments, donors and supporters. Although a challenge for the humanitarian sector in general, it is a particularly salient issue for the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Although a lasting arrangement may never be reached, in order to protect the principles, the absolute independence of the ICRC must be creatively and proactively balanced against the relative independence of the national societies, which act as “auxiliaries” of their respective governments.
  3. If history demonstrates nothing else it is the necessity of developing a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the political frameworks and processes into which humanitarians insert themselves. This is vital to how the ICRC and national societies relate to the communities in which they work and how the principles are operationalised. Without such understanding, humanitarian principles are much more easily side-lined or subverted, notwithstanding the best intentions of those who cherish and champion them.
  4. The Principles are an expression of the unity of the Movement, yet there is a necessary pragmatism to their implementation. The biggest challenge of all therefore may not be to preserve the Principles in a state of perfect purity, but to know when to compromise, how far to compromise, and what the effects of such compromises are. There is no denying that Fundamental Principles lend political legitimacy and moral authority to humanitarian action. But if the Principles are to be passed on to future generations, humanitarians must walk the tightrope between necessary compromise and co-operation with state and non-state armed groups – and becoming complicit with their agendas.

Andrew Thompson is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He is currently organising a conference with the International Committee of the Red Cross, “Connecting with the Past – the Fundamental Principles in Critical Historical Perspective”, to be held at the ICRC Humanitarium in Geneva on 16-17 September 2015.

Call for Papers: “From memories to the future”

The Italian Sociological Association (A.I.S.), the European Sociological Association (ESA) and the Department of Political Sciences, University of Naples Federico II, propose an international conference on the following topic:

From memories to the future
Collective memories and horizons of expectations
in contemporary Europe
Napoli – June 4/5, 2015

With the participation of:

  • Labex “Le passés dans le présent”, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre
  • Art & Humanities Research Council “Care for the Future”, University of Exeter
  • Department of Social Sciences, University “Federico II”, Naples
  • Department of Economics and Statistics, University “Federico II”, Naples
  • Department of Human and Social Sciences, University L’Orientale, Naples
  • Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Calabria, Rende

The official language of the conference will be English.

The conference will include both keynote speakers and authors of selected papers.

The list of keynote speakers includes: Barbara Adam (GB, Cardiff University), Marie-Claire Lavabre (France, CNRS), Giuliana Mandich (Italy, University of Cagliari), Anna Lisa Tota (Italy, University Roma Tre), John Urry (GB, Lancaster University).

Keynote speakers will participate in a plenary session; the papers presented will be selected according to the topics dealt with in parallel sessions. The number of sessions will be decided based on the papers received. The hosting Department will be responsible for managing and organizing conference materials.


The sociology of memory has developed considerably over the last few decades across Europe, in combination with other disciplines. In most European countries there have been studies on the collective memory, some of which investigate the memory of Europe as a whole. Several attempts have been made to try to systematically refine the theoretical and methodological approaches at stake. This scientific interest corresponds to the widespread – albeit conflicting – interests of various communities in their own memories.

This focus on the past is matched by equally strong concerns about the future. Concern with the future is to be found at the very beginning of the sociological tradition but, as the empirically problematic realm of the “not yet”, the future has always occupied a fluctuating position within sociology. While a “Sociology of the Future” emerged within the field of future studies at the end of the sixties (investigating probable, possible, and preferable futures), more recently the future as a cultural fact has gained attention. In this perspective the new sociologies of the future challenge the supremacy of predictions (mostly formulated in terms of economic issues) by exploring the plausibility of “what might be” within the framework of an “ethic of possibilities”.

Yet, the representation of the past and that of the future are intertwined: on one side, memories are influenced by the current interests and plans of individuals and groups; on the other, memories themselves affect the ways in which the future can be anticipated in the imagination and concretely shaped in action. This may be said at every level of social life: cultural, political, economic and technological.

There is a connection between the ways in which we represent our past and our horizons of expectations: the aim of the conference is to focus on such interdependence, hence opening new perspectives in the fields of sociology of memory and future studies. The investigation will be carried out both from a theoretical and an empirical point of view, through the analysis of specific cases and particularly considering how representations of the recent past merge with the expectations developed by the new generations in Europe.

The conference’s focuses on theoretical and empirical studies, but also extends to the public sphere of European society: it also aims to enhance citizens’ awareness of the various possible ways of processing the past and how these influence the conjectures, aspirations and fears that current policies and actions are based on. Exploring our societies’ past and new expectations, and the concrete ways we are now producing the future, provides a context for responsibility:  we will be the past of our posterity’s future.

Call for papers

As for the papers, both empirical research and theoretical surveys can be proposed. Since the selected topic is interdisciplinary by nature, contributions that elicit interaction between sociology and other disciplines will be welcomed.

The papers may focus on the following topics:

  • Memory studies and future studies in the history of the social sciences
  • Public memories and public representations of the future
  • Working through the past: cultural traumas and the future of societies
  • Representations of the past and the future and social conflicts
  • Social movements between memories and contested futures
  • Remembering utopias
  • The media imaginary and the future: hegemonic and counter-hegemonic narratives
  • Memories and futures in daily life
  • The extended present and short-term expectations
  • Gender differences in perspectives on the past and the future
  • Infra- and inter-generational dynamics concerning visions of the past and future
  • Memories and futures of immigrants in Europe
  • Postcolonial memories, postcolonial futures
  • Technologies, memories and social innovations

Extended abstracts (MAX 1.000 words) of the proposed papers may be submitted until March, 28, 2015, together with a short author CV (MAX 200 words), to the following addresses: and

A list of the papers admitted will be communicated on April 30, 2015.

Scientific committee:

  • Maria Carmela Agodi (Member of the AIS and ESA executive committees)
  • Paola Di Nicola (AIS President)
  • Ghislaine Glasson Deschaumes (Head of Project, labex “Le passés dans le présent”)
  • Mark D. Jacobs (Chair of ESA RN7 “Sociology of Culture”)
  • Paolo Jedlowski (AIS Vice-President)
  • Carmen Leccardi (ESA President)
  • Marita Rampazi (Chair of AIS Research Committees)
  • Andrew Thompson (Director of AHRC “Care for the Future”)
  • Anna Lisa Tota (Chair of AIS RS “Culture and Communication”)

Organizing Committee:

Maria Carmela Agodi, Giuseppe L. De Luca Picione, Paola De Vivo, Paolo Jedlowski, Monica Massari, Rossella Michienzi, Lello Savonardo.

Report on AHRC/LABEX Franco-British Research Workshop 1

Northcott 1Fondation Royaumont, Val d’Oise, France 16-17 January 2015

By Michael Northcott,

A Franco-British Research Workshop of grant holders from the AHRC’s Care for the Future grant call and LABEX’s (Laboratory of Excellence) grant call ‘Les passes dans le present: histoire, patrimoine, memoire’ was held at the former Cistercian Abbey of Royaumont 20 miles north of Paris in January 2015. The Abbey was built in the thirteenth century and patronised by Louis XIV. It is situated in a large walled enclosure of gardens, water features and stone buildings. Over the centuries the monks instituted some remarkable hydrological features. The abbey is situated between two lakes on raised ground Northcott labex 2and water from one lake flows through the Abbey grounds and buildings and out to the other lake, Along the way it was stone and sand filtered for drinking water, its flow was used for a mill, while separate channels combined with settlement pools and small weirs were used to separate and cleanse waste water. The resultant water use and supply was very advanced for its era while at the same time the channelling of water around the site considerably enhances the beauty of the buildings and grounds. I was reminded of the similar use of water in the Alhambra at Grenada and indeed the Abbey is an interesting example of Islamic influence on French ecclesiastical aesthetics. This influence is acknowledged in the commentaries provided by the Royaumont Foundation – who are the present owners of the Abbey – on the gardens in which it is pointed out that until 1100 monastic gardens were working gardens providing foodstuffs, herbal medicines and beverage related plants to the monasteries. Northcott labex 3But under Islamic influence the uses of gardens as places of contemplation, and for aesthetic appreciation, became more prominent and vestiges of this turn can be seen income of the restored gardens at Royaumont. The Abbey also had managed woodlands for fuel which can still be seen to the North of the present site.

The title of the workshop was ‘Delving back into the past to look into the present and future’ and the main aim was to explore interconnections between the AHRC Care for the Future and LABEX Pasts in the Present research calls. Both grant themes sponsor modes of representation of the past from interdisciplinary perspectives. A number of the presentations raised issues relevant to the AHRC Environment and Sustainability theme, and I will just highlight these. A fuller Northcott labex 4discussion of presentations is available in the blog by Lucy Veale at Sophie Richter-Devro, from the University of Exeter, in her presentation on her research into the oral history of Bedouin women in Palestine highlighted the difficulties of writing or documenting flexible, ever changing oral traditions, and the dangers of ‘freezing’ narratives and communities. Paulo Jedlowski, from the University of Calabria, in a philosophical presentation on ‘Memories of the Future’ drew on the work of Koselleck in examining portrayals of ‘future presents’ and ‘present futures’, for example in science fiction novels and films, and discussed how such past imagined futures might underwrite intergenerational connections. Intergenerational connections were also addressed by Richard Haynes, from the University of Stirling, whose presentation on sports heritage in Glasgow demonstrated the use of archival research, geo-referencing and mapping activities with school children to engage with communities across generations. The presentation of Carry van Lieshout from the University of Nottingham on the ‘The Power and the Water’ project linked historical with contemporary research around water management, access and the environment, and revealed conflicts and solutions of the past that may be useful today. Lucy Veale of the University of Nottingham gave a presentation on the Extreme weather project in which she highlighted the importance of archive, datasets, memory and narrative in framing present-day responses to extreme weather. Northcott labex 5Religious understandings of temporality, and specifically deep time, was tackled by Michael Northcott, of the University of Edinburgh, who described the way geological time – as invented by James Hutton and Charles Lyell -displaced human intergenerational history from earth or natural history, a displacement that the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene reverses in ways that are generative of cultural imaginaries of climate change and species extinction. A presentation by Carlos Lopez Galviz, School of Advanced Study, University of London, compared the nineteenth century development of the urbanscapes of London and Paris, and the role of futuristic imaginaries in their respective shaping. In a helpful summative comment Andrew Thompson observed the importance of recognising the multiplicity of imagined todays, tomorrows and yesterdays in our respective projects.

Northcott labex 6The joint workshop was an excellent example of Franco-British cooperation and a new initiative for AHRC and LABEX. Andrew Thompson and director of the LABEX theme, Marie-Claire Lavabre, in their concluding remarks also indicated their clear and joint intention to launch a joint funding call between AHRC and LABEX for research projects involving collaboration between researchers from the Care for the Future theme and the LABEX ‘Les Passes dans le present’ theme.


Between cultural and natural heritage

marianna-dudleyby Dr Marianna Dudley, University of Bristol. Cross-posted from The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures blog

Between cultural and natural heritage

Dudley 1 chateau

“Fairytale castle”, chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

Chenonceau is a chateau worthy of a fairytale princess. It has turrets and gardens and galleries – and a river running through it. Built between 1514 and 1522 on the site of an old mill, it became the home of Diane de Poitiers, mistress of King Henry II. Diane loved the chateau, and built the bridge over the river. On Henry’s death in 1559, his widow Catherine de Medici demanded that Diane exchange Chenonceau for her chateau Charmont. Catherine built the galleries upon Diane’s bridge, and ruled France as regent from the building. Renaissance intrigues, not fairytales, brought this building to life.

Foundation Royaumont, a former abbey. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

Foundation Royaumont, a former abbey. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

I was in France following an AHRC-Labex Franco-British workshop, where Care for the Future project members were brought together with French Labex counterparts, to discover each other’s research and discuss possibilities for future collaboration. The 2-day workshop was held in a former abbey transformed into a cultural centre – the Royaumont Foundation – to the north of Paris, a stunning setting for the ‘Delving Back into the Past to Look into the Present’ workshop.

The workshop was the result of an initiative by Andrew Thompson, director of the Care for the Future programme for the AHRC in Britain, and Ghislaine Glasson Deschaumes, director of Les Passés dans le présent (the Laboratoire d’excellence based at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Defense, France). The two funding schemes had such close themes – Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past, and The Past in the Present: History, Patrimony, Memory – as well as an emphasis on working with external heritage partners, and supporting early career researchers, that Andrew and Ghislaine have taken the opportunity to forge collaborative links between the two. Future funding will allow members of the two schemes to connect and apply for funding for joint research projects.

Carry van Lieshout and I were there to represent ‘The Power and the Water’, describe our research and be alert for potential links with French researchers present. My paper, ‘Between natural and cultural heritage, and human and natural archive’, discussed the importance of placing environments and natures at the heart of our understandings of heritage – as they have been historically, for example in the conservation movement in the UK and the global national park movement. It suggested that the language of heritage acquires new meaning when situated in a public sphere with many and multiple ties to place and nature – heritage breeds, heirloom vegetables, and keystone species are just some of the vocabulary used to add value to things by invoking heritage both cultural and natural. I suggested that, as historians and heritage professionals, we should be alert to the natural archive as a source and site for history, in addition to the cultural archive, and continue to place importance on landscapes, animals, ecosystems, natural cycles – and the histories and cultures they inform – in our discussions of heritage. In her paper ‘River or Ruin? Connecting Histories with Publics’, Carry explored how different valuations and understandings of an intermittent river and its heritage are playing out in the Peak district, and suggested that to widen our understanding (and expectations) of heritage-in-place to accommodate both natural and human interventions might allow contestations between past, present and future use to move forward.

Splendour of the interior of interior of Chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

Splendour of the interior of interior of Chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

After an intense two days of workshopping, I took some time to see more of French heritage in situ. Thus, I ended up at Chateau Chenonceau on a bitterly cold January morning, fully absorbed in the Renaissance splendor of the house, from the kitchens down below to the roaring fires that brought life (and much-needed warmth) to bed chambers and sitting rooms. This was cultural heritage at its best.

But then, in the gallery exhibition, a quote from Marguerite Yourcenar stopped me in my tracks, and brought the natural heritage of the chateau, somewhat hidden beneath the weight of tapestries and brocades and copper pans, back to the fore:

Let’s look at it from a new perspective, leaving aside these very well-known figures, these silhouettes on the magic lantern of French history… let’s think about the countless generation of birds that have flocked around these walls, the skillful architecture of their nests, the royal genealogies of animals in the forests and their dens or their unadorned shelters, their hidden life, their almost always-tragic death, so often at the hands of man.

Take another step along the paths: let’s dream about the great race of trees, with different species taking over in succession, compared to whose age four or five hundred years means nothing.

Another step further on, far from any human concerns, here is the water in the river, water that is both older and newer than any other form, and which has for centuries washed the cast offs of history. Visiting old residences can lead us to see things in a rather unexpected way. (Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (1962)

Yourcenar, the French writer and first woman to be inducted into the Académie Française (in 1981), looked beyond the materiality of the chateau to connect its history with that of the surrounding lands and waters that supported it, and suffered for it.[1] Her words spoke to me as an encouragement for environmental historians to raise the profile of the natural archive, and as a reminder that we are far from the only ones to seek and value natural heritage alongside other manifestations of history. I look forward to the opportunities that the initiative between AHRC and Labex presents for us to connect with French scholars with similar convictions and research interests. Sincere thanks to Andrew, Ghislaine, and the AHRC/Labex staff for bringing us all together, and starting conversations that are sure to develop.

[1] ‘Becoming the Emperor: How Marguerite Yourcenar reinvented the past’, The New Yorker (February 14, 2005)

ENTANGLED PASTS: 7 things you should know about the recent pasts of France and Britain, in the wake of the attack on CHARLIE HEBDO.

Prof Charles Forsdick (Leadership Fellow, AHRC Translating Cultures) and Prof Andrew Thompson (Leadership Fellow, AHRC Care for the Future)


1. Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of dissent in France. Its genealogy can be traced back to the satirical press at the time of the French Revolution. In February 2006, Charlie Hebdo shot to global prominence with its depictions of the prophet Mohammed. But since its launch, the anti-establishment magazine has had plenty of other targets in its sights. Hara Kiri, the publication banned in 1970 for its irreverent take on the death of Charles de Gaulle (and which Charlie Hebdo succeeded) was firmly opposed to French colonialism, particularly during the final stages of the Algerian War of Independence. And much of that French empire was of course in the Muslim world. Jean Cabut (known as ‘Cabu’), cartoonist and shareholder at Charlie Hebdo, a founder of Hara Kiri, and a victim of the 7 January 2015 shootings, linked his own politicization and pacifism to a period of conscription in Algeria in the 1950s. It was also while a conscript in Algeria that Wolinski, another victim of the killings, first came across an advert for Hara Kiri that attracted him to the publication. For more on the history of Charlie Hebdo and its predecessors, see the Exeter Centre for Imperial and Global History.

2. British and French laws on racial and religious discrimination differ in key respects. In Britain, legislation relating to incitement to hatred is applicable to all faiths and creeds and rooted in a multiculturalist tradition. In France, the situation is more complex. Although the offense of blasphemy was abolished during the Revolution, the penal code and press laws relating to freedom of expression still prohibit defamatory communication, or that which incites ethnic or religious discrimination. Legislation passed in France in the 1990s also outlaws declarations that seek to justify or deny crimes against humanity, most notably the Holocaust. In 2007, a French court cleared Charlie Hebdo and its director Philippe Val of defamation charges – filed by the Paris Mosque and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France – relating to the magazine’s re-publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that had originally appeared in a Danish newspaper. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, a number of people have been charged with and convicted for ‘defending terrorism’, under legislation that removes the focus from laws relating to freedom of the press to the criminal code. The tension between such convictions and the commitment to freedom of expression has not passed without comment.

3. Britain and France are still struggling to escape their colonial pasts. This is not only true of how parts of British and French society view immigrants but equally how many immigrants view them. The shanty towns which housed many Algerian immigrants in France after the Second World War were terrible places to live. They were regarded by the French authorities as a danger zones and colonial officials were brought back from North Africa to monitor the conditions affecting Algerian immigrants and the political threat they represented. The association of such precarious housing with marginalization continued until at least the 1970s, and some argue that the housing situation of several migrant communities in France still today reveals continuity between the post-war bidonvilles and the contemporary banlieues. Britain never developed the equivalent of shanty towns, although first generation immigrants from its former colonies struggled to gain access to social housing and often had to rent rooms in dilapidated properties in run-down inner city areas.

4. Despite the recent ramping up of political rhetoric on immigration it is worth reminding ourselves that politicians have not always pandered to public prejudices. Take the classic case in Britain. During the heightened racial tensions of the 1960s, Enoch Powell delivered his famous and inflammatory “Rivers of Blood” speech, a widely publicized attack on the levels of immigration which deliberately cast doubt on the capacity of immigrants to integrate. But at precisely the same time Britain’s first Minister of Immigration, Maurice Foley, was touring the country, warning of the dangers of the growth of extremism. Foley drew attention to the fact that in many parts of Britain immigrants had largely been ignored and abandoned. He called for a common humanity, especially greater respect for immigrant’s own traditions and culture. Similarly in France, two decades later in the 1980s amidst renewed controversy over immigration, the rise of the Front National was challenged by SOS-Racisme, an anti-racist group founded in 1984. Many SOS-Racisme activists have since become prominent if not uncontroversial PS politicians: Harlem Désir, for a time First Secretary, is currently the French Secretary of State for European Affairs; Malek Boutih, former president, is an MP. SOS-Racisme, although not escaping criticism for its Republican and assimilationist stance, has played a key role fighting racial discrimination. It regularly acts as plaintiff in discrimination trials and actively challenging prejudice in both social and legal spheres.

5. The dynamics of the debate about immigration in Britain and France share more in common than we care to admit. Debates regarding French republican identity and British multiculturalism relate to the political will to move beyond a rhetoric of integration to affect a genuine accommodation of migrant communities. In France, the rigidity of a centralized republican model that requires assimilation is countered by an alternative notion of a ‘république métissée’ [hybridized Republic] that maintains core values whilst accepting the necessity of adaptation to twenty-first century cultural shifts and population flows. In Britain, the multi-cultural model is increasingly discredited in the eyes of many because it is said to encourage cultural separation. Repeated calls for “core British values” are offered as an antidote. But when asked to define those values, there is perhaps some irony in the fact that “tolerance” is often top of the list. In Britain and France, some critics of current government policy discern a persistent structural racism with colonial roots.

6. The flashpoints between migrant communities and the rest of British or French society have changed considerably over the last half century. Inter-racial relationships and mixed-marriages were once of far greater concern. Today the markers of integration (or its perceived absence) are more likely to be Islamic customs and practices (codes of dress, treatment of women, religious imagery), attitudes to which may differ among Muslims as well as between the Muslim and non-Muslim parts of the population. In France, intermarriage was met with hostility in the earlier part of the twentieth century, especially after the First World War. Attitudes have since changed. The 1999 census suggests that 38% and 34% of male and female married immigrants, respectively, are intermarried (including around 30% of those of North African heritage). A recent study has indicated that despite perceptions of its active multiculturalism, Britain may in fact have less immigrant assimilation through marriage than is sometimes suggested. Britain has a lower number of mixed marriages than France: it was reported that 8.8% of British marriages include one foreign-born partner compared with 11.8% in France.

7. There are a lot of myths about immigrants not speaking the language of their host country that recent data dispels. The 2011 census in England and Wales has allowed detailed mapping of linguistic diversity – in particular the super-diversity associated with many urban wards. The census revealed that, of the 8% (4.2 million) of residents aged three years and above with a main language other than English, 79% (3.3 million) could speak English very well or well; only 0.3% of the population (138,000) cannot speak English, with the majority of these likely to be recent arrivals. Comparable data for France is not available as national statistics are not permitted to reflect markers of ethnic diversity. The 1999 census nevertheless posed questions to a sample of 380,000 adult respondents about their family situation, including one relating to the languages in which their parents spoke to them before the age of five. The results suggested that 940,000 people consider Arabic to be their mother tongue, but these figures do not capture actual language practice and only reflect the activity of those born before 1981. In both national contexts, it is clear that acquisition of English or French remains a key element of social cohesion, although, for differing reasons, multilingualism is still seen as more of an impediment than an asset.


AHRC Care for the Future and Translating Cultures, jointly with the Institute for Government, have just published a major report on the role of history in policy making.

Future Pasts? Sustainabilities in West Namibia

Professor Sian Sullivan, Bath Spa UniversitySian Sullivan
PI of Future Pasts
With Mike Hannis (BSU), Angela Impey (SOAS), Chris Low (BSU) and Rick Rohde (Edinburgh)

Perhaps inappropriately for a blog on ‘Debating Time’, I am late in submitting a post to introduce Future Pasts. My excuse is that the invitation to contribute a post was sent when I was living in west Namibia, some distance from internet access – at the settlement in this photo.

Sullivan 1

Please click on photos to enlarge

This is a place called !Nao-dais in Damara/≠Nū Khoen gowab (language), and Otjerate in oshiHerero. The family of Suro, the Damara woman with whom I have worked on and off for twenty years, have herded livestock at !Nao-dais for decades. Currently they are joined by a Himba pastoralist family from Kaokoveld to the north of this area, who inhabit the cluster of huts to the left of this image. These diverse Namibians are also being asked to vacate the(ir) land. A series of affidavits shared with me in October, associated with companies investing in wildlife tourism operations in the area, frames ‘sustainability’ in terms of a landscape aesthetic of ‘pristine, unspoilt wilderness’, marred visually and ecologically by the ‘eyesore’ of local people and their dwellings.

Scratch beneath the surface of one small place, then, and we find very different conceptions of what it means to live well within an environmental context, linked with differing views about what values should be transferred forwards to the future, and about how this might best be enacted. Juxtaposition of these and other cultures of sustainability in the west Namibian context provides the fulcrum around which the Future Pasts project pivots.

The full title of our project is Future Pasts in an Apocalyptic Moment: Green Performativities and Ecocultural Ethics in a Globalised African Landscape. In this introductory blog I will introduce our project and intentions by explaining the key terms of our title, beginning with the last term, which locates our project geographically.

A globalised African landscape

We are working in west Namibia, where three members of our team – myself, Rick Rohde and Chris Low – have conducted ethnographic research going back to the early 1990s. This is a dryland, postcolonial context that covers the contemporary administrative regions of Southern Kunene and Erongo. On the map, places in west Namibia that feature in our research include – from north to south – Sesfontein, Palmwag, Brandberg, Uis, Okombahe and Gobabeb.

Sullivan 2

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Although much of this west Namibian landscape is frequently imagined and marketed today as untouched or unspoilt, and thus as pristine wilderness, it has long been inhabited by diverse African cultures who have also been entangled with wide-ranging networks of trade and exchange. For more than two hundred years west Namibia has been entwined with specifically European and North American commodity markets and strategies of resource extractioninvolving the products of living entities such as whales, elephants, rhinos, and ostriches, as well as inorganic resources such as diamonds, copper and guano.[1] In other words, the context of our research has long-been a globalised African landscape: connected with and shaped by desires from afar, which have left their marks on places and peoples through colonialism and now through the application of a strongly neoliberal (i.e. market-oriented) developmental pathway.

An apocalyptic moment

Since gaining independence in 1990, Namibia has seen some new versions and intensifications of earlier market realities, now noticeably inflected by the imperative to be ‘green’. This imperative is linked with apocalyptic frames. As philosopher Slavoj Žižek has affirmed, ‘we live in apocalyptic times’[2], as the accelerating ecological alterations of the Anthropocene move us beyond known collective human experience[3].The apparent rush towards eco-catastrophe and its containment, however, is also a productive social milieu[4], populated by creative responses and diverse attempts at sustainability or ‘green’ solutions. Enduring fear that the landscape of west Namibia is on the brink of ecological collapse and catastrophe – through ‘desertification’, climate change and species extinction – creates specific apocalyptic frames that invite innovative sustainability interventions aimed at resolutions of environmental crisis.

Green performativities

These apocalyptic frames are stimulating a performative revisioning of economic activity as ‘green’, within dominant neoliberal ‘sustainable development’ formulations given new impetus as a globalising ‘Green Economy’.[5] Green economy solutions to environmental concerns embrace the modern linear, (frequently stagist),[6] developmental time of progress,[7] proposing sustainability interventions that suture economic and ecological trajectories to fit within a structuring discourse of ‘green economic growth’.

Using a combination of discourse analysis of policy texts[8] and interviews with key actors, we are exploring and theorising the constructions, rationalisations and performances of a series of market-based green performativities unfolding in the west Namibian context against an assumed universal background of homogenous, chronological time. These include: the commodification and repackaging of KhoeSan rock art heritage otherwise connected with the specific cultural ontologies of extant peoples[9]; animal trophy-hunting, or ‘killing for conservation’[10]; the commoditisation of ‘natural products’, or ‘selling nature to save it’[11]; and the proliferation of regional uranium mining activities construed as producing ‘green uranium’ as a low-carbon energy source, the direct impacts of which will be mitigated through a new conservation technology called biodiversity offsetting[12].

Ancestral times

These developmentalist green performativities jostle with a range of alternative understandings of environmental change and sustainability, held and practiced by local people with often rather different understandings of ecological and temporal dynamics, of the sources of agency, and of what practices constitute appropriate behaviours[13]. In examining these different understandings we seek to affirm that ‘difference can make a difference’[14], at the same time as recognising the attendant dangers of idealisation and romanticisation.

So for example, I have recently been working with older people in north-west Namibia to map places and cultural histories that have been erased from official discourses regarding land where they used to live, particularly in the Palmwag tourism concession area (see map). This area is frequently described as a ‘first class wilderness area’, but in fact was cleared of people only some decades ago.

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Going into the Palmwag landscape in October and November meant observing certain protocols, in particular around a practice known as tse-khom. This involves talking in the day-time to ancestors, in this case those buried at and associated with numerous places throughout the Concession and beyond. Tse-khom introduces travellers to the ancestors – or kai khoen, i.e. ‘big or old people’ as they are known. In tse khom ancestral agencies are requested to act in the present to open the road so that travellers can see the best way to go. They are asked to mediate the activities of potentially dangerous animals such as lions, who are viewed very much as other ensouled beings who assert their own agencies and intentionality. They are asked for guidance regarding the most appropriate ways to do things, practices that have eco-ethical effects. In tse-khom, the ancestors are souls whose ontological reality means that they can assert various kinds of agency in the present, sometimes over other kinds of agency, such as that of animals.

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In this case, Ruben Sanib (pictured here) of a ||Khao-a Dama lineage associated with the mountainous landscapes of west Namibia, included in tse-khom acknowledgement of a key ancestor hero known in this area as Haiseb, and featuring in broader KhoeSan folklore as Haitsi-Aibeb[15]. The Haitsi-Aibeb/Haiseb cluster of stories and practices are inscribed on the landscape through large cairns found throughout the drylands of south-west Africa, from the Cape in the south to Kunene Region in the north. The image below is of a Haiseb cairn located close to a series of places in the Upper Barab River where Ruben Sanib once lived.

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Haiseb/Haitsi-Aibeb cairns have featured in colonial records since the 1650s, interpreted, perhaps erroneously[16], as symbolically marking the graves of an always resurrecting Haitsi-Aibeb. As part of our intention to trace and theorise particular amodern conceptions and experiences of the west Namibia landscape we are triangulating several sources of information – colonial records, national monuments listings, databases of cairn sites, and ethnographic encounters with local people. Led by Chris Low, these data will be compiled into a region-wide Geographical Information System of Haiseb cairns and their meanings, both past and present.

Environmental change(s)

Developmentalist green economy approaches are also set within controversy regarding linear narratives and understandings of environmental change in west Namibia[17]. We seek to open up such narratives through analysing, extending and possibly exhibiting a series of repeat landscape images gathered by Rick Rohde. These bring archival images of specific scenes from the past together with repeat photographs of these same scenes in the present, thereby permitting sometimes surprising empirical (re)analyses of the materialities of environmental change at these sites[18]. The images below, for example, clearly illustrate processes of environmental change typically associated with pastoral grazing and socio-economic development in this arid savanna region.

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Narratives of impending ecological catastrophe characterise environmental discourse in Namibia. Future scenarios based on general and downscaled climate models under various future scenarios[19] have predicted increasing aridity and drought, leading to degradation, loss of productivity and biodiversity declines[20]. Today, this ‘future catastrophe anxiety’ posits an expansion of desert and arid shrubs into present grassland savannas and a reduction in net primary productivity and economic potential. Understanding the extent and cause of change based on observation and empirical (rather than modelled) evidence is necessary in order to detect and accurately identify trends and threshold events. The relative impacts of land-use and climate change will also be investigated. This aspect of Future Pasts is intended as a means of comparing narratives of future change with empirical evidence and to analyse any resulting disjunction in terms of a political ecology approach.

A developing element of Future Pasts is a collaboration between Rick Rohde and Angela Impey, and a long-term monitoring programme called FogLife, established recently by Gobabeb Research and Training Centre to measure how fog-dependent species of the Namib Desert are responding to global environmental change. This collaboration, entitled FogLife and Visual/Soundscapes: Exploring the past and future ecology of the Namib through photography and acoustics, will utilise archival photographs of the FogLife study area, some of which date from 1876, comparisons with contemporary repeat photographs taken by Rick Rohde (as illustrated in the paired images below), and repeat sound recordings, made by Angela Impey, in order to document changes over time in desert ecology.

Sullivan 7

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In this element of our project, then, +/- 50 repeat photos will form the basis for statistical analysis of historical vegetation change, with the results correlated with historical climatic variables to provide insights into the effects of climate change, anthropogenic impacts and ecological processes. Repeat soundscape recordings will be made annually for the next four years at selected sites within the Kuiseb, in order to gauge the effects of climate, disturbance and hydrological events on riverine biota. This draws on recent work in ‘soundscape ecology’ which emphasizes the ecological characteristics of sounds and their spatial-temporal patterns as they emerge from landscapes, focusing on the causes and consequences of, and interactions between biological (biophony), geophysical (geophony), and human-produced (anthrophony) sounds. Soundwalks with people residing close to the Kuiseb will enhance awareness and interpretation of environmental conditions and climate change[21], and responses from local residents to repeat photographs will elucidate local knowledge and the symbolic significance of the environment in daily life.

Hybrid analysis

As can be seen, we are applying a range of different methodological and disciplinary approaches to an interconnected series of environmental considerations and associated sustainabilities – hence the identification of our research as a hybrid analysis. Through this cross-disciplinary approach, we seek to fully address ‘environmental change’ and ‘sustainability’ as complex ‘wicked problems’ calling for transdisciplinary imagination[22]. Given our various disciplines, approaches and influences, a challenge is to create analytical and theoretical coherence through the juxtapositions of the different elements of our project.

One way through which we hope to pull these different empirical and theoretical threads together, is by drawing on Mike Hannis’ background in environmental ethics to flesh out what we are calling ecocultural ethics – i.e. an ethical approach that foregrounds cultural variability in ethical assumptions regarding human relationships with the nonhuman world.

Ecocultural ethics

We have coined the term ecocultural ethics because we are interested in the ethical assumptions that underlie different cultural attitudes to the nonhuman world[23]. In particular, and cognisant of producing a set of perhaps problematic dualisms, in Future Pasts we will be analysing and comparing two distinct tendencies in ecoethical framings, as represented by two different but geographically overlapping cultural contexts, or ‘ecocultures’[24].

The first is the complex of so-called ‘green economy’ policies and practices which loom large in our study area, as noted above. The second centres on indigenous, and particularly varied KhoeSan, attitudes to relationships between human and nonhuman spheres. This juxtaposition throws up several sets of theoretical questions, two of which we outline here.

First, there are questions of ethical theory, both descriptive and normative. Does the rise of calculative ‘green economy’ and ‘natural capital’ approaches to the nonhuman world mean that a utilitarian approach is becoming hegemonic in environmental decision-making? If so, why is it that calculative approaches may be considered less problematic in this context than in others (such as medical ethics)? Might it be more appropriate to link human and nonhuman flourishing by way of a eudaimonist environmental virtue ethics?[25] Are there overlaps between this kind of approach and the ways in which local stories and practices may connect the flourishing of humans and of nonhumans?

Secondly we will analyse differing concepts of sustainability and substitutability, particularly in relation to different imaginaries of what should be sustained into the future. How, for instance, might an understanding that all your ancestors are still present in the landscape affect how you interact with and value that landscape and the entities therein? To what extent might varied egalitarian principles of KhoeSan peoples reach out beyond the boundaries of the human?[26]

Future pasts

These considerations bring us back to the first term of our title, namely future pasts. Overall our project is inspired by a framing of environmental conservation – a domain of negotiated activity linked with notions of ‘sustainability’ – by philosophers Alan Holland and Kate Rawles, who articulate conservation as being ‘about negotiating the transition from past to future in such a way as to secure the transfer of maximum significance’.[27] In this definition, then, we already have an indication that:

  • what is of conservation significance needs to be negotiated between different parties;
  • that difference will make a difference in terms of what is considered to be significant, and how practical and policy choices are made regarding conservation;
  • and, thus, that the fields of conservation and sustainability, i.e. of ‘green’ choices, will be infused with antagonism regarding whose pasts, i.e. whose values and ontologies regarding nature-beyond-the-human, become transferred forwards towards the future.

‘Sustainability’ and ‘environmental change’ are infused with productive antagonisms regarding what constitutes the past, what to value and valorise and how, and what configurations of entities and relationships beyond-the-human are deemed possible and desirable in imaginings of ‘the future’. Future Pasts encapsulates these understandings.

Click here for notes and references.

Future Pasts is funded by the AHRC for 5 years from October 2013, and conducted under a research affiliation contract with the National Museum of Namibia. We are also working with Namibian production company Mamokobo Video and Research to generate filmed material to enhance public engagement with our research.

Contact: Sian Sullivan (PI);
Project website (under construction)
Twitter @Future_Pasts #FuturePasts

Delving back into the past to look into the present and future

by Dr Lucy Veale, University of Nottingham, cross-posted from the Weather Extremes project blog lucyveale

AHRC and LABEX – a new partnershipRoyaumont-1-420x210

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to represent the Weather Extremes team at a Franco-British Research Workshop organised by our funders AHRC, and LABEX (Laboratory of Excellence), a similar funder in France. The title of the workshop was ‘Delving back into the past to look into the present and future’ and the main aim was to explore connections between research funded under the AHRC’s Care for the Future theme and LABEX’s ‘Les passes dans le present: histoire, patrimoine, memoire.’ Both initiatives seek to explore representations of the past from multiple perspectives and disciplines, and have shared priorities and commitments. The programme from the event lists all of the talks and presenters but I thought I would use this blog post to summarise some of the research themes that were considered. If you attended please do add your thoughts or links to project websites etc, and please accept my apologies if I haven’t mentioned you in person.


The location for the 2-day workshop was the beautiful Royaumont Foundation, a former Cistercian abbey built between 1228 and 1235, located near Asnières-sur-Oise in Val-d’Oise, approximately 30 km north of Paris, France. The church of Royaumont (pictured below) was destroyed in 1792 when  the new owner of the Abbey, the Marquis of Travanet, used the stones to build workers’ quarters in the park after turning the Abbey into a cotton mill. At the beginning of the 20th century the Abbey was bought by the Goüin family, who established the Royaumont Foundation in 1964. The impressively restored Abbey is now a venue for a wide variety of cultural activities, particularly summer concerts, and events like the one I attended!

Franco-British conversationsRoyaumont-2-169x300

The first speakers drew on personal research experience to review the challenges and opportunities of working on Franco-British projects. Franck Collard spoke on assembling teams, and the requirements to acknowledge different ways of thinking about history. Herve Inglebert highlighted the problems of finding a genuinely shared approach, and the importance of taking seriously the different contexts and backgrounds that people have, the language(s) of publication, and translation requirements. Jacob Dahl and Bertrand Lafont drew on examples of historical French and British archaeologists of Mesopotamia to demonstrate how  rivalry between the two nations contributed to success. Berny Sebe also identified similar figures in the two countries, this time in relation to processes of decolonisation, and the new ways that imperial heroes are being used, and given a new lease of life in the former colonies. Jacob and Bertrand’s Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative raised some issues relating to our database of extreme weather, relating to access and digitisation, the use of specialised language, the loss of knowledge in information, and demonstrated how their publications hyperlink back to the source materials, maintaining that important connection. Later speakers also highlighted the changing needs and nature of research in the digital age, and the role of building datasets to answer new questions also came up in the final discussion. Jacob and Bertrand also spoke briefly about their investigations into the modern history of some of these ancient artefacts and the impact on understanding. Some of the documents that we’ve consulted I’m sure have been taken on interesting journeys before ending up in the archive, and it would be interesting to explore more, as well as considering the uses to which they have been put within the archive. Sophie Richter-Devro ‘s paper highlighted the difficulties of writing or documenting the flexible, ever changing oral traditions of the Naqab Bedouin women, and the dangers of ‘freezing’ narratives and communities. Our records of extreme weather have also inevitably lost something of the multi-sensory experience of weather in being written down, but some nevertheless retain genuine emotion. Paulo Jedlowski helpfully drew on the work of Koselleck in discussing ‘future presents’ and ‘present futures’, memories of the future, and imagined futures of the past that might be used to link generations. Our project title uses a Koselleck quotation ‘Spaces of Experience and Horizons of Expectation’ so Paulo’s talk inevitably got me thinking in more detail about what predictions, visions, or imaginations of the future, particularly future weather, our archival accounts contain…

The remainder of the talks detailed projects funded by AHRC or LABEX. I sadly wasn’t able to attend them all as they were structured in parallel sessions so can’t name all of the speakers but will draw out a few points of interest. Charlotta Hillerdal detailed the tricky terminology of archaeology (, whilst traceology on stone tools as revealed under the microscope was discussed by Isabelle Sidera. We are definitely dealing with traces that are left behind in relation to extreme weather events. Sarah Gensburger focussed on memory as a public issue, tracing memory policy in relation to specific organisations and political parties, whilst Arman Sarvarian considered apologies by the state, specifically their timing and language. Marianne Cojannot-Leblanc and Emmanuel Chateau demonstrated the importance of considering future uses of the digital resources in order to ensure future usage and to meet future need, with reference to the Paris Guides. Memory, and specifically intergenerational memory, was the subject of Richard Haynes’ project on sports heritage in Glasgow which successfully used archives, alongside geo-referencing and mapping activities with school children, to engage with communities across generations. Richard’s talk for me, also highlighted the important role that individual biographies and life stories can play in these historical projects – discovering more about the authors of our weather narratives definitely brings the stories to life, and other speakers brought up the possibility of place or building biographies. Another link was that sport, like weather, is something that most people have something to say about! Carry van Lieshout of ‘The Power and the Water’ project detailed the contribution that a historical study could make to contemporary issues around water management, access and the environment, showing conflicts and solutions of the past that may be useful today. Similarly we hope that be exploring perceptions of extreme weather in the past, and time and place specific vulnerabilities, that we could perhaps better understand contemporary impacts of and reactions to extreme weather, addressing themes like resilience and risk. In summing up the first day Andrew Thompson emphasised the multiplicity of todays, tomorrows and yesterdays that are possible. We have already found that our weather data is very messy, offering multiple narratives.

Jean Allain looked at anti-slavery of the past and present, emphasising the importance of definitions, and historical lessons to link the rich past to the present in order to shape the future. Baptiste Buob’s main concern in his film-making was representing the artisan – a violin maker – the influence that the presence of the film maker has, and also the invisible public. During the talk I remember thinking that I  could have watched much more of the fascinating film and fortunately it’s available here: Religious understandings of temporality, and specifically deep time, were tackled by Michael Northcott, and I really liked that he drew on figures like James Hutton and Charles Lyell in setting up his consideration of ‘deep time’. There are more parallels here with our weather narratives, and the often complicated interplay of religious and scientific understandings of particular events. Carl Lavery took us to Hashima Island in Japan, once the base for Mitsibushi and the most densely populated place in the world, closed and abandoned in 1974 as coal gave way to petroleum. Carl detailed a variety of strategies for soliciting memory, particularly ‘thinking like a ruin’. Carlos Lopez Galviz detailed a comparative history of London and Paris, considering the envisioning of the futures of both cities in the nineteenth century, and the paths not taken. Finally the insight that Sandra Kemp offered into the Royal Society soirees was fascinating, particularly the representations of the future that are emerging from the archive, the new inventions and ideas that were showcased at these multisensory events that offered equal promise for science and the arts – again a theme that I think our weather narratives speak too.


Royaumont Foundation

This partnership activity was a new initiative for AHRC and LABEX, but a successful and informative one, in a very pleasant location with lovely people and delicious food! As a team we look forward to exploring avenues for research within the partnership. We’d be very pleased to hear more from any of the other project teams that attended the event that can identify links with the work we’ve been doing, or from other research teams exploring extreme weather in France.