Experimental Histories Activity

Last week I attended an “Experimental Histories” workshop at the University of Tasmania, led by Katrina Schlunke and Penny Edmonds. We were given several quotes beforehand, and asked to respond to these, with reference to our own work. While I am not an historian, the workshop was useful for networking – I met another scholar who does Arctic work – and for appreciating other ways of looking at the world. I was also asked “how would the glaciers like to advertise themselves?” which is a very different way of looking at my subject material. These are my thoughts from before the workshop:

…the task of an experimental historiographical practice is to ‘systematically defamiliarise and displace historical objects’ in a manner which encourages us to imagine, engage with, and make sense of the past anew.  – stephen muecke

…It is designed to let you wonder about some of the everyday experiences that have been overlooked in our conventional histories. For example, you might like to imagine how you could tell a history of Australian laughter. Or of Sydney sighs, groans or moans. Limps. Grunts. Agreements. Gestures of hello. Gestures of dismissal, seduction or shame. – ross gibson

The historical objects that I deal with are advertisements. Advertisements frame the world – and in my case, Antarctica – in ways that were common at the time they were created. As Judith Williamson puts it, they “feed off the iconography of the present, at the same time as perpetuating it.” As such, advertisements offer an entry point to explore the ways Antarctica has been imagined and valued at different points over the past 100 years, and in different national contexts.

If the task of an experimental historiographical practice is to “systematically defamiliarise and displace historical objects” in a manner which encourages us to imagine, engage with, and make sense of the past anew (Mueke), then advertisements are ideal objects to consider. They come out of a specific cultural context and are designed to have a fleeting life, so they act like snapshots of the values and society they came out of. By displacing these objects and comparing them to others from other times, themes (at times conflicting) emerge, meaning that it is possible to see the imagined places of Antarctica in a far more complete way than would be possible when dealing with just one or two objects.


Life Magazine 2 Feb 1962

One particular advertisement comes to mind when considering the question of how we imagine, engage with, and make sense of the past. The 1962 two-page spread shows the icy face of the (Arctic) Taku glacier, with icy peaks taking up the top three quarters of the image. I often cover the text at the bottom of the advertisement, and ask my students in the Antarctic Studies course what they think the message will be – the answer is invariably related to protection of the environment.

In fact, the original advertisement was for humble energy, and ran with the tagline “Each day Humble supplies enough energy to melt 7 million tons of glacier!” Displacing the historical object by removing the text and date, then asking students to fill in the blanks, is one way of revealing current day attitudes and associations with such imagery. It’s a useful activity too, because the original text – when revealed – shows clearly how the connotations of icy imagery can change drastically over the course of just a few decades. Are glaciers (North or South) something to protect, or something to melt for human benefit? Advertisements allow access to the value systems of earlier times, and bringing them out of their original contexts can also help to reveal the dominant values that abound today, in the slice of world we currently live in.

Returning to Antarctica, it is useful to take the images from everyday advertisements, and compare these to other ways of thinking about the ice. The history of glaciers is usually thought about in scientific terms, with ice cores used to date the layers of ice and snow, and bubbles of trapped gas used to reconstruct past atmospheres. How could you tell a history of the ice that takes into account the scales of its journey – millimetres at a time, over wide expanses of continent? What would that sound like, not at the glacier terminus, where cracking and booming and groaning are commonplace, but deep within the inland ice itself?

Such questions are similar to Ross Gibson’s suggested history of Sydney sighs. These are not the sorts of questions that are addressed in advertisements, precisely because they are too experimental. Advertisements tap into ideas that are already in circulation, and rely on the viewer quickly making the intended connections. Contrasting the dominant readings found in advertisements (Antarctica as a place to be conquered by heroes, to be protected, or that poses a threat because of melting ice) with other ways of looking and thinking may be one way to defamiliarise imagined versions of Antarctica, and to open the door for explorations of alternative conceptions of the place.

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