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* researcher in infrastructure futures and theory (University of Sheffield, UK)
* science fiction author and literary critic
* writer, theorist, critical futurist
* dishevelled mountebank

velcro-city.co.uk

orcid.org/0000-0002-3555-843X

www.sheffield.ac.uk/usp/researchschool/students/paulraven

 

Story of cities: what will our growing megacities really look like? | Cities | The Guardian

The mainstreaming of urban design fictions continues apace.

For the moment, we remain largely wedded to superficial visual futures. The likelihood is that the prevailing chrome and chlorophyll vision of architects and urbanists will become as much an enticing, but outdated, fashion as the Raygun Gothic of The Jetsons or the cyberpunk of Blade Runner. Rather than a sudden leap into dazzling space age-style cityscapes, innovations will unfold in real-time – and so too will catastrophes. The very enormity of what cities face seems beyond the realms of believability, and encourages postponement and denial.

[...]

Terreform One’s ideas and designs might seem wildly visionary on first glance but looking closer, they go beyond speculative concepts into proposing functioning models. “What we do is create very detailed fictive scenarios that don’t promise the future will end up this way, but rather we think about what the inherent issues are and bring these to the foreground and talk in a logical way how cities might respond.”

 

Legible Policy [Superflux]

"We strongly believe that there is a clear need for safe spaces, both physical and conceptual, where future policies can be openly extrapolated and their implications considered. An environment is needed where alternate future visions and aspirations of citizens could be expressed without the constraints of existing socio-political, economic and legal conditions that can bind them to present day lived realities. When people envision such futures it becomes easier to also envision and understand their consequences. Furthermore, they feel encouraged to create and share their aspirations, as well as their doubts around particular policies.

The practice of envisioning futures via speculative design can be a powerful tool, particularly worth considering in this context. Presented through visual aids, the proposed policy becomes a drawing board where relevant stakeholders and citizens can annotate their own suggestions through pictures, words, photographs and much more. It becomes a vehicle for creating an open and editable policy for the future, paving the way for an iterative approach to participatory governance, where policies can be publicly versioned through collaborative visioning."

 

Call for Blog Posts: Fiction and Sociology | Blog | The Sociological Review

This special section of The Sociological Review’s website invites short blog posts (1500 words or less) reflecting on these trends. This could include questions such as the following: 

  • Is the value of fiction for sociology simply a matter of finding new ways to write about existing research? Or can fiction inform the research process itself? 
  • What are the risks involved in writing in a fictional mode about research? Is there a possibility we undermine the value of sociological research? 
  • Is the promise of sociological fiction simply a matter of accessibility or is it something more? 
  • Is there an important distinction to be drawn between writing sociological fiction and being a sociologist who writes fiction?
  • How can fiction be used, as Bourdieu put it, to give “symbolic force, by way of artistic form, to critical ideas and analyses”?  

Interesting opportunity for people working the fiction/futures coalface. Thanks to @hautepop for the heads-up.

 

Raven, PG (2015) - Imagining the Impossible: The Shifting Role of Utopian Thought in Civic Planning, Science Fiction, and Futures Studies

An essay for the Journal of Futures Studies, and an iteration of the talk I gave at Future Everything 2014.

 

How to Be an Anticapitalist Today by Erik Olin Wright | Jacobin Magazine

There is thus an inherent tension between the real and the utopian. It is precisely this tension which the idea of a “real utopia” is meant to capture. The point is to sustain our deepest aspirations for a just and humane world that does not exist while also engaging in the practical task of building real-world alternatives that can be constructed in the world as it is that also prefigure the world as it could be and which help move us in that direction.

Real utopias thus transform the no-where of utopia into the now-here of creating emancipatory alternatives of the world as it could be in the world as it is.

 

Cram (2015): "Becoming Jane: The making and unmaking of Hanford’s nuclear body."

"... building the nuclear body has ultimately meant first defining life [as being, in essence, a young white able-bodied American male], and then defining the conditions in which that life should be considered liveable." (p.802)

In this paper, Cram performs a critical archaeology of the nuclear body: "a statistically calculated human template" (p.798) used to assess the risk of radiogenic illness as a result of exposure to radioactive materials. Cram begins with the Atomic Bomb Survivor Study, through which the US government sought to exploit the "scarce and precious intellectual resource" (in their own words) represented by the hibakushas -- "the exposed ones", the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; she then moves on to discuss Standard Man, later renamed Reference Man, created by the International Committee on Radiation Protection  (ICRP) to be the "official body through which such information [as gathered from studying the hibakushas] could be applied and understood" (p.800)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reference Man was not only male but young, Caucasian and able-bodied, and assumed to partake in "Western European or North American [...] habit and custom". Realising that not all people exposed to radiation quite fit the template, but unwilling or unable to develop a standardised female model, policy-makers generally utilise a tweaked model in which "they simply give Reference Man breasts, ovaries and a uterus -- creating a hermaphroditic human in order to 'solve' the problem of radioactive gender inequality" (p.801). Racial differences are similarly magicked away through the power of statistics, producing impossible "placeless bodies" -- figures without a ground, characters without a context.

"The notion that Reference Man's hermaphroditic trasnformation equalizes gender inequality in risk calculation ignores the appropriative character of his statistical sex change." (p.801)

Cram then goes on to discuss the role of the nuclear body in shaping the political and technical aspects of the remediation of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- land which was ceded to a number of native American tribes in 1855, but which also played host to a significant chunk of the US government's nuclear weapons program, with predictable results. The treaty entitles the indigenous population to "full access" to the land -- but the nuclear body as currently constructed makes physiological and behavioural assumptions which do not match the indigenous population and the lifestyles they wish to engage in. What this means in practice is that the "end point" of the remediation process will be defined at least in part with reference to a model of exposure risk that doesn't tally with the population whose risk is being assessed. As a result, indiginous institutions have developed their own model, based more closely on the sorts of behaviour they consider to be normal for their lifeways, only to be told that their model of "physiologically impossible"... which, while arguably true, is certainly just as true of Reference Man.

Cram's point is that the nuclear body plays an active role in remdiation projects such as that of Hannford "by fashioning subjects that can survive in the post-nuclear future. In identifying who can inhabit remediated space, cleanup renegotiates the relationship between safety, security, and the contamination it leaves behind." (pp.806-7) In other words, as part of a remediation process, models such as Reference Man inform not only the environmental standards to which a space will he held, but also the physiological standards and behaviours expected of those whose lifestyles might be safely accomodated by said space.

"... it is this simplicity -- this abstraction from the lived experience of exposure -- that makes the nuclear body politically useful. Nuclear standards must make radiogenic injury generalizable, translating from diverse and often incomplete sources into explicit statements of cause and effect. Indeed, building the nuclear body has required untangling exposure-related illnesses from the social and spatial relations that give them meaning. [...] policies that rely heavily upon biological parameters in determinign risk, ignore and thus reproduce the greater structural inequalities of exposure-related illness." (p.802)

So, while the notion of the nuclear body as a historical ontology appears to be novel, this is the sort of paper that anyone familiar with the canonical riffs of STS will recognise: technoscientific standards and statistics erasing difference. (And those familiar with the secrets of east Prussian forestry will recognise yet another manifestation of "seeing like a state".) This is a particularly interesting case due to the paradoxical and mutual physiological impossibilities of both Reference Man and the alternatives proposed by the indigenous peoples themselves; neither side in the process recognises the other's model, even as both seek to refine their models further.

This paper has particular interest to me because there's potential for tektology here: it's not that huge a metaphorical leap to see Reference Man et al as fictional characters, as is highlighted by the brief narrative describing "Jane" in the paper's introduction. The physiology and presumed behaviour patterns of these characters generate a "story" when they're introduced into a storyworld which includes parameters for radiation exposure risk; their experience is completely determined by their constitution (both literal and figurative). This in turn isn't unlike the notion of the "thin character" from modernist literary theory: the thin character isn't quite a stereotype, but is something approaching one, and while that works well for certain narrative forms (episodic forms in particular -- such as the sit-com, where the narrative arc of each episode is of a renormalisation of the characters to their stock state and circumstance), but really badly for forms where mimesis (which we might describe as a degree of fidelity to reality, or at least to broadly-held conceptions of reality) is a requirement. And more importantly, Reference Man is repeatedly introduced into narratives of futurity, which -- as I have argued elsewhere -- are a metagenre of narrative forms concerned with depicting futures, including not only science fictions, foresight scenarios and design fictions, but also forecasts and models. (A narrative does not have to be verbal: an annual profit forecast graph is as much a narrative of futurity as an H G Wells novel.)

So while I'm not certain what I can immediately do with the notion of the nuclear body (and the broader type of fictionalised subject-construction which it figures), it definitely feels like another tool for talking about the ways in which technoscience shapes narratives of futurity -- not just formally and structurally, but in terms of whose future it is that gets depicted.

 

Raven, P G & Elahi, S (2015). "The New Narrative: Applying narratology to the shaping of futures outputs."

From the abstract:

Both scenario development and design practices incorporate elements of storytelling, but this use remains undertheorised. This paper will draw upon literary theory, film theory and science fiction criticism to develop an analytical model of narrative structure and rhetorics which speaks to the concerns of scenario developers and designers when engaged in shaping the final outputs or deliverables of a futures project.

After highlighting the differing role of telos in art and futures and defining the metacategory of “narratives of futurity”, this paper then defines the terms “story”, “narrative”, “narrator” and “world” in the literary context. It then shows how those concepts map onto futures practice, before going into detail regarding the variety of narrative strategies available across a range of different forms and media, and the qualitative effects that they can reproduce in audiences. There follows the construction of a 2 × 2 matrix based on the critical concepts of narrative mode and narrative logic, within which narratives of futurity might be usefully catalogued and compared, and from which certain broad conclusions may be reached as regards the relation between choice of medium and rhetorical effect. The implications of this analysis are explored in detail.

This paper, part of a Special Issue of the journal Futures on "Scenarios & Design", is among the outputs of 2014's Oxford Futures Forum on the same theme, to which I was privileged to be invited. Many thanks to my co-author Shirin Elahi (of Normann Partners), and to the many people who contributed ideas on the day.

(Thanks to the generosity of the EPSRC, which supports my PhD research, this paper is free for anyone to download under a Creative Commons license.)