Caitlin DeSilvey’s Proposition (and its discontents)

Caitlin DeSilvey’s Proposition (and its discontents)
Published: Apr 25, 2017
The proposition of Caitlin DeSilvey's new book Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving is, writes Brian Fawcett, "on the surface, simple: we ought to stop treating the physical heritage of history with an exclusively preservation focus, and add in an 'evolutionary' element . . ." What Fawcett is curious about is how this addition gets done, and what happens — in the relatively new field of cultural geography — when the process gets personal.

Caitlin DeSilvey, Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, 2017

pb, 220 pages, $27.00 (USD)

Table of Contents

1  Postpreservation: Looking Past Loss
2  Memory’s Ecologies: Curating Mutability in Montana
3  When Story Meets the Storm: Unsafe Harbor
4  Orderly Decay: Philosophies of Nonintervention
5  A Positive Passivity: Entropic Gardens
6  Boundary Work: On Expertise and Ambiguity
7  Palliative Curation: The Death of a Lighthouse
8  Beyond Saving: Care without Conservation


You get the sense quite quickly that it would be fascinating to spend a morning with Caitlin DeSilvey going through a neglected industrial building or some other ostensibly uninteresting structure on the verge of collapse. She’s the author of Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Savingand an associate professor of cultural geography at the University of Exeter, and, as such, is a trained and articulate observer, architecturally and otherwise literate, with an unusually sharp eye for the subtleties of decay and physical degradation. She would take you deep into the invasive abilities of roots and vines, the chemistry of oxidating metal and wood, and you would never again be able to not see that plantain growing out of a nail hole halfway up the side of a building.

But then the afternoon would arrive, and you’d find your eyes beginning to glaze over. Or maybe it’s just my eyes.

Others might think about the vicissitudes of capitalism, and the way it has burned through an outrageous portion of the planet’s resources since 1750.

By mid-afternoon I would have DeSilvey’s ruin restored to its original use — in my imagination — and it would be crawling with people: a quarry-driller breaking large chunks of granite onto ill-designed trolleys that might at any moment roll out of control, crush a labourer and orphan his — what? five or six — children to a London workhouse. Meanwhile, a horse and carriage might pull up at the entrance to the building, a man dressed in distinguishably fine clothing might walk among the workers, as if he were of another species, and then haughtily depart along a cobbled road that silted over and returned to coastal salt-resistant grasses a second later.

Others might find themselves thinking about the vicissitudes of capitalism, and the way it has burned through an outrageous portion of the planet’s resources since 1750, reflecting — sadly or angrily — that what we are now calling the Anthropocene Era is less than a blink of the eye in scale of cosmological time. Or they might be looking at the ruin with an eye to redeveloping it as condos. 

DeSilvey’s proposition in Curated Decay is, on the surface, simple: we ought to stop treating the physical heritage of history with an exclusively preservation focus, and add in an “evolutionary” element in which some cultural artifacts and sites of heritage value are left to disintegrate as educative illustrations of how time and nature have their own powers — and to remind us that the Anthropocene is not a one-way street to prosperity and other short-lived glories. This makes sense if only because museum space is limited, and the global supply of formaldehyde isn’t infinite.

Carl Sauer (1889-1975) — referred to as the father of cultural geography, partly due to an influential paper he published in 1925, ‘The Morphology of Landscape’ — also wrote on the origin and spread of food crops and domesticated animals. 

To her simple proposition DeSilvey adds two hundred pages of anecdotes and argument. Much of the former is convincingly crafted autoethography, along with the rhetorical reconstruction of existing practice you’d expect from a trained scientist ambitious to change public practices that are flawed enough that they’re probably destined to crash-and-burn if left unaltered.

It’s easy to hope that she and her evidently-numerous and like-minded colleagues will prevail, and that our museums and cultural preservation apparatuses get onside.

That said, there’s more going on in this slim volume than a genial academic dilation upon points of ultimately minor common sense. At another level this book is an attempt to effect change by intellectual stealth — specifically by imposing a nomenclature by developing an argument so indirectly and artfully that its structure seems at once intellectually innocuous and inconsequential.

It isn’t. The unusual vocabulary under construction in this book, and I suspect, throughout Caitlin DeSilvey’s application of cultural geography, is deliberate, and, part of something larger and less sanguine than she is. It’s no accident that evocative but intellectually opaque vocabulary litters her text, often as leading chapter headings: 'orderly decay’, ‘positive passivity’, ‘palliative curation’, ‘attentive storytelling’ — not to mention the book title itself, ‘Curated Decay’. 

DeSilvey rather proudly cites a ‘writer friend’ as suggesting that what she’s engaged in is either “an incredibly old theme or an incredibly new one.” The reality, I’m afraid, is that it’s a lot more than that. DeSilvey’s project is actually an incredibly patient one, designed not so much to posit an argument based on evidence or logic as to establish a vocabulary that will eventually determine, epistemologically and rhetorically, what can be thought and said on the subject. It’s worth noting that this was the heavy-handed cultural and intellectual tactic of Marxist thought in the last century, and that the tactic didn’t crawl away and die after the collapse of the Soviet empire and Marxism’s discrediting as an empirical description of world realities. In the West, the tactic went to university and got itself on tenure track.

Cultural geography became a 'thing' in academic discourse only in the late 1970s, as a response to the hard science prejudice that then dominated the social sciences.

As it happens, the presence of autoethnography within any discursive document is usually a marker of something considerably more ambitious and Bolshevik. In most contemporary texts, autoethnographic narrative is the ‘charming’ element that masks an encompassing ‘theory’ (a term that you can read accurately as ‘ideology’) of human culture that is aimed at arresting and reversing the trajectory that late capitalist Western societies all have in common. It does so by seeking to take over the epistemological apparatuses by which people recognize and manipulate private and public reality. That theory and its framework may or may not be named. Sometimes it’s called post-structuralism, sometimes it’s called post-colonialism.

All of these theories/ideologies seem to share the conviction that what matters more than culture and its effects on human polity is our 'feelings' about that culture and our private connection to its artifactual reality. There’s a near-palpable sense in this kind of discourse that everyone is in a condition of stress about our rapidly-degrading human and natural environments; that PTSD is imminent; and that a profound shift in cultural activities from expression to therapy is either invisibly in progress or urgently required.

I have no argument with the premise these 'isms' work from, even though I don’t much like where they take us. The trajectory of late capitalism is that of the unrestricted exploitation of the physical resources of the planet for the short-term benefit of its human population, and especially its wealthy human population. As such, it is likely to result in the irreversible ecological poisoning and impoverishment of the planet within a century; and, ultimately, the destruction of all but a tiny minority of its human population. Everyone knows this, right? And everyone disagrees about how to deal with it. Personally, I can’t figure out what can be done that won’t abrogate the natural rights of every being on the planet, and which won’t undermine the democratic institutions that keep totalitarianism at bay.

As you read this book you might find yourself wondering what 'cultural geography' is. According to Wikipedia, cultural geography is a sub-field within the academic discipline of human geography. Human geography is the branch of geography dealing with how human activity affects or is influenced by the earth's surface. Cultural geography is, then, the study of cultural products and norms and their variations across and relations to spaces and places.

Storm damage at the Battery Weed seawall, Staten Island, New York. ‘Given the Battery’s sturdy construction . . . it is also possible to leave it as is, and dedicate it as a monument to measure and teach sea level rise.’

That sounds straightforward enough, but on closer examination some odd roots trail from it. Cultural geography became a ‘thing’ in academic discourse only in the late 1970s, as a response to the hard science prejudice that then dominated the social sciences. It sought, at first, merely to draw the humanities into the discourse: specifically, literary practices and authorial technologies. The extent to which it succeeded explains DeSilvey’s unusual discursive style, which derives its torque from autoethnographic techniques pioneered by Karl G. Heider in Ethnographic Film (1976), but was most loquaciously articulated by Heewon Chiang’s 2007 Autoethnography as Method, a 230-page volume of slightly seedy academic origin (signaled by the $200 price for the hardcover edition that hints that the university in question didn’t, or couldn’t, subsidize the publication).

Autoethnography, if you’re interested, is described by Chiang, quoting someone else, as “autobiographies that self-consciously explore the interplay of the introspective, personally engaged self with cultural descriptions mediated through language, history, and ethnographic explanation.” Wikipedia is a little less obtuse about it, defining autoethnography as “a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore their personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.”

“Qualitative research,” if you didn’t catch it, is a recent academic device designed to make an end-run around the rules of legal evidence and the procedures of empirical confirmation. It has become commonly used inside less-than-top-rated universities where the rules of entrepreneurship (i.e., if you can get away with it, go for it!) that are popular within the schools of management excellence have gained equal status to traditional intellectual procedures.

Amongst literary people, autoethnography is called ‘Creative Non-Fiction’, and it is fraught with similar authentication difficulties — eased partially by not having to operate within Western civilization’s rules of evidence. Even then, skeptics call it literature-as-therapy. Autoethnography is currently popular in feminist therapy, and is central to the cultural reorientations being attempted by postcolonialism and its overly simple conflation of democracy with capitalism.

The ideological core of autoethnography is the now-familiar assumption that all humanism ought to be denounced as radical humanism. That’s a notion that is hard to argue against even when it plays directly to the demoralizing strain of species self-loathing that anti-centrist and environmental discourse has descended to. Humanism has in fact been taken hostage by capitalism’s plutocrats in the traditional public arenas and bank rotundas, and by the non-denominational radical self-determination movement in most other avenues of public and personal life, both in the mainstream and at the margins. Every sensible person knows that we’ve got our heads up our own cultural and political asses, and that if we can’t extract them soon, there will be no future.

The only people who seem able to come up with an alternative are a now-sizeable minority of university-based activists, intellectuals and ideologists.

There’s no right side to be on in this, by the way, and it might be the case that the only sane response is to admit that there are no easy answers — and to stop looking for them. We really are selfishly destroying ourselves and everything else with (in no particular order) the economic, social, interpersonal, ethnic, ecological, biological and microbiological life practices that no government or non-cracked think-tank can see a practical alternative to. The only people who seem able to come up with an alternative are a now-sizeable minority of university-based activists, intellectuals and ideologists. It is a minority Caitlin DeSilvey is part of, whether she acknowledges it, or even understands it.

That said, I’m not sure any argument — or systematic solution — authenticated by the intellectually flimsy testaments of autoethnography isn’t automatically disqualified by not admitting to its self-serving subjectivity. As one of my scientist friends is fond of pointing out, anecdotes are not data, and emotional sincerity, however well expressed, doesn’t permit bypassing either the rules of legal evidence or those of scientific enquiry. 

A DeSilvey co-authored paper, 'Reckoning with Ruins', speculates on the surge of academic interest in ruins and derelict spaces.

The knowledge base and the scholarship range Caitlin DeSilvey displays in Curated Decay, meanwhile, is curiously shallow and heteroclite. Aside from referencing the expected — Michael Pollan's Second Nature and Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory — along with the interestingly unorthodox — Robert Smithson, the minimalist creator of the Spirit Jetty in Utah, among the originators of artspeak — the majority of sources DeSilvey quotes appear to be her contemporaries within the same or closely related fields. While the footnoting seems thorough, the book offers no bibliography, instead providing a rather silly list of poets and the texts she has inscribed to head her chapters: Sappho, T.S. Eliot, William Stafford, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, and so on. As someone who was trained in the study of poetry, its use as rhetorical confirmation is at least specious, if not intellectually insulting. Poetry ain’t versified philosophy, and it sure as hell isn’t empirical evidence.

As for Curated Decay, well, it’s sensible and right-minded, and it's pretty good writing. But that’s not enough.


BRIAN FAWCETT is a writer and cultural analyst. Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked as an urban planner. In 2001, he co-founded the website, which is described as 'a news service' and to which he is a regular contributor. He is the author of more than twenty books in fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Virtual Clearcut: Or, the Way Things Are in My Hometown won the 2003 Pearson Prize for Canadian non-fiction. He lives in Toronto.


'CURATED RUINS'. Photo series by Tim Wilson.








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