Wrecked plans, imagined futures and the history of unreality

UB professor awarded NEH stipend to investigate rare manuscripts in agriculture, engineering and urban planning.

Release Date: July 27, 2015 This content is archived.

Dave Alff.

Dave Alff

“That’s one of the most powerful things that the humanities can do. We can take concepts that are so embedded within our daily practice that we lose track of the fact that they have a history.”
Dave Alff, assistant professor of English
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – In the late 17th century, a fanciful British reformer thought that hunger could be abolished if Parliament enacted a law requiring all landowners to plant fruit trees.

Though the elaborately outlined idea didn’t go anywhere, Dave Alff, an assistant professor of English, is nevertheless going to England, where the idea was proposed, to further explore similar projects articulated in manuscripts, patent applications and proposal documents that sought to advance British society in the 1600s and 1700s.

With a recently awarded summer stipend fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Alff plans on visiting sites overseas that include the National Archives in Kew, the British Library, the Cambridgeshire Records Office and Nottingham University.

The documents housed in these collections will allow him to finish research tasks and sharpen the completed manuscript for his book in progress, "The Wreckage of Intentions: Projects in British Culture, 1660-1730.”  

For Alff, the project is “a proposal for action and the possibility of action itself.”

The concept has become so ubiquitous that its original story is rarely considered.

“That’s one of the most powerful things that the humanities can do. We can take concepts that are so embedded within our daily practice that we lose track of the fact that they have a history,” says Alff. “Humanists can reveal these histories and foreground their aesthetic, literary and artistic importance.”

Alff’s research focus on late 17th and early 18th century England puts his examination of projects directly over a time of great artistic expression and economic expansion. While the term easily predates the 1600s, projects developed an authority and use in the public discourse in the latter half of that century that has never been surrendered.

The development of projects as a maturing human concept in the late 17th century coincides with a time in British history when writers inspired creative thought as they began to imagine England anew just as the arrival of financial innovations, like a centralized bank and the emergence of a nascent stock market, brought new possibilities to make money – and lose it.

Color illustration of an African civet cat.

Novelist Daniel Defoe’s project involving African civets seems misguided and difficult to effectively market by contemporary standards, as the video, above, explains further.


“Most of what I’m calling projects in this period, these old schemes that I’m investigating didn’t come to anything. The majority were flops,” he says.

But these documents have a utility that’s found in the creative expression of their authors that can ventilate an understanding and appreciation of what was going on in that period.

The documents, in fact, are not always the austere historical equivalents to the proposal documents of today. Some interlay lines of verse in the midst of the proposal, a kind of cultural appeal to readers of the period that fascinates Alff.

Nor do the documents serve as progress narratives that take readers toward some destination. These project narratives, and their attempts to manipulate the future, instead invite consideration of possible realities.

“You can see the proposals are always about constructing futures and imagining a world in which they can be fulfilled,” says Alff. “When we look at a past that’s full of these unrealized visions we get a much more consuming history that shows the many different directions that society could have gone, even if it didn’t.

“We see the past through these documents as a set of lived experiences in which the future was uncertain. Projects can make us aware of that in a bracing way.”

But projects are not defined by their outcome and not everything Alff has uncovered lives as an unrealized dream or a miserable failure.

The drainage of the lowland marshes in east England known as the Fens, which began the late 17th century, turned nearly a million acres of wetlands into farmlands. But Alff says the project, which wasn’t finished until the early 19th century, did not have an even trajectory.

“This was a stumbling, staggering process that involved years of political conflict, engineering failures, riots and discord and relapse.”

The period is still rife with illuminating yet silent failures that otherwise might never have found a voice without Alff’s research. Historians generally aren’t very interested in ventures whose memory ripples through little more than the aging paper on which they were conceived. And people that come from a literary or English perspective, meantime, wouldn’t necessarily read these project proposals because of a perceived lack of artistic or literary merit. But Alff brings both a literary background to the subject, along with his interest in the historical ramifications of old ideas.

“What happens if we closely read these documents? What happens if we apply them to the methodologies that we would normally bring to bear on novels, plays and poetry?” Alff asks.  “What I’ve always loved about literary studies is that it provides a set methodological tools for thinking about culture:  close reading of text, thinking extremely closely about how a certain syntax, vocabulary, phrase or allusion makes certain possibilities available for readers. Literary studies allow me to scrutinize small passages of text for the possibilities they conjured and not just the realities they brought into being.”

That he’s involved in a project about projects is a bit of metatheatre not lost on Alff.

“I call the book a project,” he says. “It’s impossible to think of going about a large cultural investigation without thinking of it as a project, a plan for action; the possibility of action itself. As it’s currently a manuscript under consideration, I’m very keyed into its own future.”

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