by Rafico Ruiz
It was in its April, 2003, issue that Environmental History introduced its “Gallery” essay section. In the words of Adam Rome, the issue’s editor, the section was intended to “spark discussion about the wealth of visual materials in our field.” Over the past decade and counting, contributors have examined the 1977 Africa map sheets of the FAO/UNESCO Soil Map of the World, the icons of an “ecology of oil,” and Norman Rockwell’s painting Glen Canyon Dam, amongst a host of other visual media artefacts. While the case of Environmental History is of course only one amongst many, and I offer it here as more of an anecdotal trope of the appearance of “visuality” in the discipline’s mainstream (of publication), it does presuppose that considering media-related questions in environmental history that go beyond an illustrative function would seem to be a fundamental task at hand. If Gallery essays do not necessarily answer the question of what media environmental historians think through and with, they nonetheless signal a crucial awareness of the interpretive possibilities that past media artefacts present. Many of these interpretations, however, as the above cited examples illustrate, generally tend to focus on the representational “content” of the artefact under examination rather than the properties of the medium itself. What the discipline at large seems to often circumvent is a comprehensive approach to not only the conventional media that constitute both its objects of research and its means of dissemination and preservation, but also a set of analytical-interpretive lenses through which to apprehend its own, discipline-specific sense of mediation, or media-in-action. In part, my recent article in Acadiensis, “The Moving Image on the North Atlantic, 1930-1950: The Case of the Grenfell Mission,” is an attempt to address this gap and offer some strategies for future (environmental) historical scholarship.
The Labrador Institute, a research centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, holds a collection of never-released film footage belonging to the International Grenfell Association. Consisting of six distinct reels, the films amount to roughly two hours and thirty minutes of silent footage of northern Newfoundland and Labrador and the various mission works (buildings, ships, roads, etc.) as well as practices (plays, dog sled races, pageants, etc.) undertaken from the 1930s to the 1950s. As such, they offer a comprehensive if non-teleological and non-narrative portrait of Grenfell Mission medical cruises along the coast of Labrador, the arrival of the seasonal steamer in St. Anthony, and footage of mission orphans at play (running races, putting on pageants, etc.) that exemplify Dr. Grenfell’s “good works” in this part of the British colonial world. Overall, the footage is one of those difficult-to-place documentary artifacts that historians often come across: neither fully sanctioned by the institution that created it, yet part of its archival record. In other words, it is a body of evidence with an inchoate historicity that is nonetheless an image-based portrait of a particular environment undergoing multiple forms of human-induced and environmental change.
In my article, I attempt to map the relationship between moving images and the documentation of human and environmental changes on two interrelated levels. The first examines the relationship as a potential historiographical practice. That is, it mines the emergent relationship between historical and theoretical media scholarship and environmental history. This approach, in part, assumes that we can draw distinctions among diverse forms of inquiry for the purposes of comparison and mutual engagement. It also, in turn, raises the question as to why it is important to examine what media studies can contribute to and learn from environmental history, and vice versa. Overall, I propose that we think about such representations of environmental change as media environments that offer their own forms of artifactual legibility that can deepen our understanding of how such emergent sites of media historical scholarship come into being. The second level of analysis extends this characterization of the Grenfell Mission footage as a distinct media environment in order to devise ways of thinking about environmental historiography as a practice that incorporates what could be thought of as “media-specificity” into its modes of operation and argumentation.
Taken in broader disciplinary terms, it’s my hope that the article will continue to raise the question of the variable agencies at work in the actual production of environmental historical scholarship. The “human” and the “environment” are often the two prime agents of historicity, though, as Linda Nash notes, of late environmental historians have been ascribing a greater deal of autonomous agency to the environment. And yet, as Nash also acknowledges, following the work of Bruno Latour and Tim Ingold, understanding agency as a concept that goes beyond human intentionality or the natural in and of itself can lead to its being distributed across their nexus. Nash believes that environmental historians are ideally placed to perform this sort of scholarship, “to contribute to this rethinking and rewriting of agency because we study the interactions of humans and the non-human world in such detail.” For Nash, then, the task for environmental historians is to foreground agency in their historiographical practices. This foregrounding has important stakes. By questioning both human and environmental agency we avoid teleological readings of the human-ecology interface. That is, this questioning can start to destabilize one-dimensional narratives that focus either solely or in large part on human reason and technical expertise, and that ultimately “contribute to the separation between ideas and their objects.”  By folding agency into a single dispersed and expanded hermeneutic entity, our historiographical practices also have to respond in turn by devising more comprehensive media across which to apprehend it.
While the question of what forms of mediatic representation this interface can work at and through is one that is in formation, looking to the future for me brings to mind Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan (2013). Their documentary film, partly an extension of work undertaken at Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, makes present the world of a groundfish trawler sailing out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, by following this single boat and its crew. The viewer here is set adrift by location-specific cameras, and in the process becomes an extension of the chain of production and its worlds of violence, fish, wind, labour, and water. As perhaps befits representations for the emergent Anthropocene, it does not make for leisurely or staid viewing. The documentary acts as a visual funnel, pouring us down into the realities of the meeting point between humans and their North Atlantic environment. That it is a distinct and immersive media environment is precisely its authorial (and historiographical) point. The Grenfell Mission, through its own myriad media, from magic lantern slides to print publications, brought into being its own set of media environments that both represented and constituted concrete forms of environmental change in its North Atlantic sphere of influence. It’s my hope that this article generates further forays into other media environments, filmic or otherwise, in order to capture (and critique) the broadest spectrum of past, present, and future forms of environmental mediation.
Rafico Ruiz is the Roberta Bondar Postdoctoral Fellow in Northern and Polar Studies at Trent University, where he studies the relationships between mediation and social space – particularly in the Arctic and Subarctic – as well as the cultural geographies of natural resource engagements and the philosophical and political stakes of infrastructural and ecological systems.
- Linda Nash, “The Agency of Nature or the Nature of Agency?” in Environmental History 10, no. 1 (January 2005): 67-69.