Responding to HTC Experiments

My colleague and friend David Gissen, an historian, has recently been in a bit of a tizzy (and I say that with all due respect; I get into my own tizzies and they’re useful) about the 2009 Archinect predictions. The thrust of his argument is that, no matter what experimental practices historians might engage in (be they of the visual or design sorts), they shall refrain from prediction. What that says about the rest of the academic community and other commentators is something he has refrained from offering as of yet. His writing on the matter has made me think quite a bit. For some background, see this post and this one. I’ll repost my comment here… after the jump.

Update #1: David has posted some really interesting thoughts in response to my comment. Check it out here. I’m not sure how he typed out such a quick and well-reasoned response.

Dear David,

I’ve been following your posts about predictive practices with great interest. I appreciate being a “favorite texty type,” even if perhaps prediction is frowned upon in this space. Your posts have inspired quite a bit of thinking, given your definitions of the role of the historian, about what these texts then say to other academics (i.e. social “scientists”, geographers, etc). I also must have some kind of an identity crisis, as should be expected. I mean, I was and in many ways still am an architect (and architects inherently imagine futures, which shouldn’t be confused with predicting them but certainly there is an element of that). I also write histories of places but I’m not nor would I ever call myself a historian. As a geographer (or at least a “candidate” to be one), should I repress desires to predict? In fact, don’t geographers need to predict in order to operate in society or, that is, in order to fulfill a social responsibility? Why would that not apply to historians also?

As far as I could tell, the writing above seems to implicate your colleagues within the history discipline, so I won’t assume that they should apply to geography (or anthropology, sociology, architecture…; some clarification in that regard would be certainly welcome). Nevertheless, I also think that once we start throwing up these disciplinary boundaries, then we might as well forget about experiments in any discipline. What else might experimental geography or experimental htc be if it doesn’t somehow borrow from others. (As an example, what else is Trevor Paglen’s own brand of geography if not some creative borrowing from traditions of landscape representation, ethnography, and performance).

What seems to be underneath my own identity issues here has to do with the idea of ’science’ in the social sciences, an issue that historians don’t need to worry about. While the historian can and, if you’re correct, maybe should refuse to engage in gazing into crystal balls, the rough idea of science is that there is some imagined future in which hypotheses are tested. An example from the phycial sciences is global warming. Scientists have made cautious predictions about it for a long time. Some in their own community go as far as to say that those predictions were even too cautious and have given too much ammo to the warming deniers. In other words, physical science maybe has made too cautious a prediction to actually impact the future in significant ways. Scientists are supposed to yoke closely to their evidence and that traditionally allows only a near-future prediction. But the unprecedented changes in our environment have perhaps forced physical scientists into another more theoretical practice as social agents for alternative futures. And maybe that’s something else that experimental historians can chew on when considering their role in the present.

About the image above:

kanarinka (Catherine D’Ignazio)
It Takes 154,000 Breaths to Evacuate Boston, 2007
(artist running evacuation route)

In other words, “artist running evacuation route”, a performative act that perhaps blends present action and prediction. link


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