Speculation as method in the environmental humanities

8 December 2023
In response to our recent workshop on the place of speculation and speculative writing in environmental humanities research, SEI researcher Myles Oakey offers a reflection with the collective contributions of visiting guests and participants.

By Myles Oakey, PhD Candidate, School of Humanities

In thinking through the most urgent environmental questions, humanities scholars are often working at the edges of multiple disciplines and in some cases the limits of knowledge: What if? Would it be the case? Could this be true? In other words, they are caught up in the work of speculation.

To speculate, is “To engage in thought or reflection, especially of a conjectural or theoretical nature, on or upon a subject” (OED). In a broad sense, speculation runs through just about any form of academic theorising across the humanities and natural sciences. Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, there is often a good deal of speculation involved as we cultivate attention toward a topic of interest. In taking speculation as the subject, though, methods of speculative thinking and writing may take a variety of forms that could be vital for the kinds of storytelling needed in a time of environmental crises and extinctions.

The Speculation as Method in the Environmental Humanities workshop explored the place of speculation and speculative writing through a series conversations between established scholars and postgraduate students. The opportunity for the workshop took place in the context of visiting international scholars Hugo Reinert, Anna-Katharina Laboissiere, and Rachel Douglas-Jones, alongside Australian scholars, Matthew Chrulew, and Thom van Dooren.  

The workshop opened by bringing into conversation two authors and their texts: Hugo Reinert’s journal article The Care of Migrants and Matthew Chrulew’s speculative fiction Future Perfect, that each in their own speculative modes, explore the extinction of the critically endangered Fennoscandian lessor white-fronted goose. The conversation between the authors as well as their texts set the grounds for a broader discussion with participants exploring the different ways of doing speculation, the politics and ethics of speculative writing, and the potential limits or pitfalls of speculating at the edges of knowledge.

In exploring the opportunities that speculation might offer, it seems that speculative methods in the humanities may challenge not only which art forms we take up but also the way in which our ideas may be expressed. Within an academic text, speculation may be a matter of slowing down with a particular set of questions, exploring the consequences of those particular ways of thinking, and perhaps offering ways of doings things differently. Yet in other cases, what could be a book length project may also take the form of a mock playscript, a fake keynote, a book review for a non-existent text, or a short story. It’s not that these forms of creative writing are necessary for speculative thinking, but rather open toward the possibility for speculation in different modes. In this sense, as offered by one of our visiting scholars, we might think of speculation as occurring at different scales of smaller or greater leaps.

Yet, for those working in the context of environmental crises and extinctions, in whatever art forms we choose to take up, it seems that speculation will be vital for imagining what kinds of worlds might be possible. And so as we speculate, we should also ask, what might it mean to speculate well?

With this in mind, and taking up our own speculative thinking and writing, scholars and postgraduate students were invited to bring a speculative lens to a chosen object, some of which were brought into the space: the drumming stick of a palm cockatoo, macro photography of ants, a sample of rare-earth minerals, illustrations of crows, birdsong recordings, a collection of beloved texts, and a sculpture. While it’s not known where these speculations will lead just yet, our workshop ended by offering an open set of questions that might help guide them, and so perhaps your own work, too.

Who is your audience?

What can speculation do for my analysis?

What is the place of speculation in my discipline?

What forms might speculation take?

What does it mean to speculation well?

How can storytelling be one of careful speculation?

Note: The ideas on speculation within this piece are those of workshop participants and not the author's own.

Chrulew, M. (2017). Future Perfect. Ecopunk! Speculative tales of radical futures. L. Grzyb and C. Sparks. Perth, Ticonderoga Publications. 

Reinert, H. (2013). "The Care of Migrants: Telemetry and the Fragile Wild." Environmental Humanities 3(1): 1-24.

Myles Oakey is a settler living and working on the unceded land of the Dharug and  Gundungurra people. He is a PhD candidate and sessional academic in the School of Humanities and Research Assistant for the Biocultural Diversities team at the Sydney Environment Institute (SEI). His research is situated in the broad field of the environmental humanities, but emerges at the intersection of environmental anthropology, science and technology studies, philosophical ethology, and extinction studies. His research thesis is focused on the conservation efforts for the regent honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia), a critically endangered songbird endemic to the southeast of Australia.

Header image: Catherine Avak via Unsplash

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