The Natural History of Memory explores the ways that environments register and mediate the memories of catastrophe and injustice. Moving beyond Walter Benjamin’s conception of natural history as the naturalization of the course of historical events and their representation in teleological fashion, the project examines the manifold imbrications of landscape and the lived experience of violence over time. While memory studies typically positions historical sites and landscapes as the places where past catastrophes unfolded, this project understands these environments as the very media through which these disasters took place, lent agency and co-opted by the perpetrators of those events, thereby enabling their occurrence. Challenging the construction of ‘nature’ as a passive canvas for the inscription and organization of history, this research seeks to develop an environmental literacy for reading (or reconstructing) memory where landscapes and experiences have become indistinct.
Examining the palimpsestic construction of the environment through diverse social, political, juridical, economic, and cultural interventions, this project unsettles the artificial separation of ‘natural’ and ‘human’ disaster in academic, media and political discourse. In so doing, our research underscores how the narratives of the public sphere simultaneously elide recognition of the ecological impact of human activity – the way in which landscapes are made injurious and traumatizing – and negate the human cost of environmental collapse. Such occlusions attempt to mask the economic and political concerns that structure the (ecological, regional, and racial) hierarchies of life that define contemporary relations. Denaturalizing such processes, this project seeks to identify new paradigms of representation able to recognize and remember the utilization of environments in forms of violence that uphold these categories through the inextricable exploitation of natural and human ‘resources’.
In pursuit of these ends, the Natural History of Memory will provide a meta-concept for the pursuit of complementary strands of research across diverse cultural, historical, medial, and disciplinary contexts. Together, these branches examine how the material remnants of disaster may acquire political and ethical capital when remediated in various cultural forms (as memorials, in museums, literary texts, cinema, photography) or reinterpreted across disparate fields of academic study. Fostering institutional connections at local, national, and international levels, this network will produce a series of collaborations, publications, and events that investigate the theoretical and practical implications raised by acknowledging the mutuality of nature, culture, and destruction. Drawing on the specialisms of the network partners, these outcomes will develop emergent discourses in environmental science, memory studies, politics, genocide studies, legal studies, history and literary criticism to consolidate an original research platform able to illuminate the influence of environmental agency upon catastrophic events and their remembrance.