Discourse meets environment

by Johan Schimanski (University of Tromsø)
and Ulrike Spring (Sogn og Fjordane University College)

The ”Northern Nations, Northern Natures” workshop struck a good balance between researchers with central competence in environmental history and voices from the outside. Perhaps any seminar focusing on a specific field, such as environmental history, needs ways of telling how the concerns of the field might function in other contexts. Environmental history has not been a central concern to our own work on the political and cultural reception of a polar expedition in the 1870s, but it was for us an enriching experience to see how our approach might contain aspects relevant to environmental history, contribute to the lively discussion at an inspiring workshop, and learn from the competences in environmental history present there. As Tina Adcock said, summing up: Environmental history can be a wide tent.

Our work in Arctic history and literature has focused on one particular expedition, the Austro-Hungarian Arctic Expedition (1872-1874). At the outset, a modern understanding of the human environment may seem at a far remove from heroic age exploration, with its attitude that
nature was to be conquered and in this case that 67 polar bears had to be shot, skinned and eaten. Environmentalism (i.e. nature conservation or ethical attitudes to animals) is not however the same as environmental history. The expedition had strong scientific interests in the environment (especially in meteorology and polar ice conditions) and interacted in a major way with the environmental conditions of the Arctic. Even more importantly for our approach is that that the discourse of the expedition can tell us how Europeans in the 1870s perceived and defined notions of environment and nature.

Reflecting on this, it seemed to us that an especially relevant and fruitful way of discussing how the Arctic was perceived as a natural opposite or ”other” to European civilization would be the work we had been doing on how the borders of the Arctic were demarcated in narratives about the expedition.

The borders of the Arctic cannot be defined in any definite way; they are continually marked, negotiated and shifted according to the relevant historical context or approach. The two important questions for us have been where they are located in the context of our expedition and what forms they take. Also these are questions without immediately given answers, as there are no maps where these borders are marked out or texts where they are described directly in our material. Our job has been to tease them out of the narratives and images created in connection with the expedition. And this work cannot result either in simple answers, as it appears that the borders of the Arctic take on many different forms and locations.

Perhaps most interesting in connection with the contemporary images of the Arctic as a natural ”other” in our material is that the symbolic opposition between “wilderness” and “civilization”, or “nature” and “culture”, is both constantly repositioned and connected to other symbolic
oppositions such as those between ”known” and ”unknown”. Moreover, the oppositions are often mixed, as when the Arctic is portrayed as a domestic space in the more comic and satirical representations of the expedition.

Preparing our presentation at a seminar on the environmental history of the North has shown us new aspects to our material to do with aesthetic categories like the sublime, and nuanced the contrapuntal, transnational forms our research takes as the borders between the North Pole and Vienna prove difficult to place. The discussion at the seminar brought into play indigenous modernities, mineral identities, mediatory boxes, bottled icebergs, red herrings, banal militarization, anticipatory geographies, pioneering nations, the suburban Arctic and history-less places. Together these concepts showed us an even greater variation in the situatedness of discourses of nature, science, indigeneity and the Arctic than we might have imagined: As Tina said, a mosaic telling us what might be possible. The workshop demonstrated to us the need for impulses from environmental history in the further development of the Arctic Modernities project we are both involved in. As ”discursive historians” we need to be reminded that the environment (in this case especially climate, weather, animal populations, ice conditions, etc.) is an important element in the assemblage which constitutes the Arctic mediascape. All the more reason to value the postdisciplinary exchanges which such seminars provide.