Monthly Archives: March 2014

Ómós Áite – Lifeworlds: Space, Place and Irish Culture International Conference.

This extraordinary and very illuminating event – which has effectively run over four days – finished with a Lifeworlds / Corp_Real roundtable discussion yesterday afternoon. (Corp_Real is a partner symposium to Lifeworlds, and is run in association with Galway Dance Days 2014, which is curated by Dr Ríonach Ní Néill, Galway Dancer in Residence, 2010 – 2014). It was somehow the perfect indicative event, moving across an unbelievably packed spectrum of topics and registers of concern in the space of little over an hour. One issue it raised very clearly was the increasing complexity and ambiguity of the already problematic relationships between the State, legislature, and industry, the cultural and pedagogic role of a third level educational institution like NUI, Galway, and the fluctuating networked meshes of citizen individuals who actively co-produce both culture and education. To map those complexities and ambiguities would require a book’s worth of thinking  in itself. Not least because the Ireland in which Justice Minister Alan Shatter could continue to resist the setting up of a new Garda oversight body at last week’s Cabinet meeting (even after the Garda Commissioner’s resignation and the emergence of the Garda-taping scandal), and where a Judge calls a politician revealing cronyism and corruption ‘a bitch’ for doing so, is clearly one struggling to deal with the full grubby panoply of contemporary civil evils – greed, an overweening and unjustifiable sense of entitlement among the elite, contempt for the process of law, and so much else besides. Not that this is any different, in essence, from the UK. One thing that was very clear, however, was that Ómós Áite (the Space/Place Research Network run by Nessa Cronin and Tim Collins) from within the Centre for Irish Studies, is symbolically very well-placed in a small, cramped suburban house right on the edge of the campus at NUI, Galway.

I’ve attended twenty-one papers or presentations, and talked with both a host of new acquaintances and with old friends. Among all these conversationalists have been Tom Ward, who is actively involved in the politics of cutting his own turf in Kilsallagh bog and more generally, Pauline O’Connell, Cathy Fitzgerald, Deirdre O’Mahony, Ailbhe Murphy, and many of Tim Collins and Nessa Cronin’s academic and creative colleagues associated with NGI, Galway. Also various members of the X-PO Mapping Group, Killinaboy, County Clare; Mná Fiontracha, Árainn, Contae na Gaillimhe; and Tom Varley of Slógadh Eachtaí/Aughty Gathering, Counties Clare and Galway, (not Mike O’Doherty as I first wrote, my apologies to them both) the last of whom spoke eloquently about their application of the ideas of Paulo Freire. And all this since after lunch on Thursday!

So I’m not even going to begin to try and summarize what I’ve learned to date. What is helpful to me, however, is that not only was my paper well-received on Saturday, but informal exchanges with Deirdre Ní Chonghaile – who has become my touchstone for the existence of a polyverse of lifeworlds here – and others suggests that the thinking it was starting to articulate “has legs”.

It’s already clear that what I proposed in relation to the multiple lifeworlds of Ffion Jones – I suggested a minimum of four: that of an upland tenent farmer, that of a rural working mother; that of a performance artist, and that of an academic scholar – has resonances here. (The hecklers who humorously suggested that this was just ‘being a woman’, had a point but may have missed mine). This is to say I am meeting many people here who, like Ffion, are clearly aware of living in a polyverse – a constellation of lifeworlds in which each is both relatively self-contained and over-lapping and mutually interdependent. Interestingly, just as I described her lifeworld as a farmer as ‘marginal’ in a number of senses so, in altogether different registers, those of many of my new acquaintances. Economically they too are juggling creative and academic work in the context of multiple allegiances and responsibilities, all in circumstances that are often based on short-term contracts or similar, require a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, and in the long term look barely viable.

However, as with Ffion and against these notions of ‘marginality’, here it’s necessary to place a rich Irish-language context that includes traditional music and dance that honours and validates valued lifeworlds and taskscapes. Again, as with Ffion, it’s necessary to ask to what extent these cultural traditions will enable people here to manage and sustain their particular polyverse in the face of increasing reduction of all possibilities to those of economic survival, but it certainly raises the important issue of language and rural cultural traditions as factors in lifeworld translation.


Ward’s Hotel: an experience of ‘local’ music, song and dance in Galway

Yesterday I moved into one half of an office on the top floor of the James Hardiman Library at NUI, Galway, and began work. The other half of the office has a long-term resident – Dr Deirdre Ní Chonghaile. Deirdre is an Irish Research Council PostDoctoral Fellow with the Moore Institute & Irish Department who is aiming to publish an edition of songs composed in the Aran Islands. She is also and more importantly, at least from my point of view, an extraordinary fiddle player. You can hear her playing at . She was not in the office yesterday so I left her my card and a brief note signalling my arrival.

At the end of the day, during which I caught up with Dr Nessa Cronin, I got back to my hotel and checked my e-mail. I found a very brief message from Deirdre telling me that she would be playing that evening at Ward’s Hotel. I decided I’d go hear her. It turned out to be a highly memorable evening. Not only some two hours of wonderful playing and some singing and dance – according to a musician and one of my newly-made friends quite the best playing in the city –  but, through the discussion with four friendly fellow-listeners, a tentative insight into the context of ‘vernacular’ Irish musical culture.

My four companions – I was invited to join their table as soon as they gathered I was there for the music rather than the drink – all knew each other from an Irish language group they’d just come from. Two are musicians (one combining it with translation), one I had met very briefly that morning (she works at NUI in the office next to mine), and the fourth,  Alacoque, a professional carer for disabled children and, as I was to discover, an occasional but passionate exponent of a form of dance that bore about the same relationship to the competition ‘Irish dancing’ I’m familiar with from television as a Scottish wild cat does to our own Prentice. (She’d brought her dancing shoes and, about two thirds of the way through the evening, put them on and suddenly performed a wildly energetic, intricate dance that had a quite extraordinary intensity. I had assumed she’d been doing it all her life but, when I asked her, she told me she’d only been doing it about a year).

I can’t even to begin to reproduce here the extended five way conversation that wove in and out of the gaps in the evening’s music and, just occasionally, continued over it. But the nub and gist of it for me was that what I was experiencing was both something really special – a very gifted ensemble of about a dozen musicians and a singer all performing at a very high standard – and, at one and the same time, something also utterly commonplace. As the oldest of my four companions informed me, what I was hearing was not ‘flash music played in the pub for the tourists’, nor even the evening’s ‘entertainment’ (the rest of the bar clearly took the gathered musicians for granted and remained steadfastly indifferent throughout the evening). What I was hearing was music played in an informal public place by a group of talented people for the shared pleasure involved. And we could listen or not, as we pleased.

It was clear I had arrived in quite another place.



The Para-Institution seminar, Galway

Last night, after checking into my hotel in Galway, I went to a talk by the Egyptian curator and writer Bassam el Baroni, organised by Megs Morley as part of her Para-Institution programme here. I was at least thirty minutes late and so missed both her introduction and the early part of Bassam el Baroni’s talk but, despite a certain resultant disorientation on my part, the evening was certainly not without interest.

My difficulty in finding a point of entry into such events now is, in its simplest terms, quite simply a growing conceptual distance from, and loss of an empathetic frame of reference for, the world of art and curation as manifest at An Taibhdhearc Theatre last night. Put bluntly, I find it harder and harder to bridge that world’s concerns and those that have been preoccupying me for the last few years. Which is not to say that there was no sense of my being able to find points of shared understanding with what el Baroni was saying. I could. But an underlying problem remands. This is largely one of mono-perspectives as I see them.

Everything I heard said last night, I think without exception, was framed explicitly or tacitly by a particular and inclusive notion of ‘the political’ as filtered through certain kinds of philosophical debate on one hand and recent events in the Middle east on the other. Ultimately everything was in consequence seen as recuperated into a hegemonic mono-verse labelled ‘neoliberalism’. Even within its own frame of reference, I find this problematic. As has been pointed out to me in a variety of contexts, this term is frequently used to cover situations – for example the Tory attack on Higher Education (which I have heard a senior professor of politics at Bristol University compare to a Stalinist five-year plan) – that are frankly framed by  what should more accurately be labelled ‘totalitarian interventions’. (That is to say it is not driven by ‘market forces’ but by a full-scale ideological intervention on behalf of a particular politics). As I see it it’s important to see and speak about such differences so that people have an opportunity to understand what is being done and, where possible, act on that understanding.

The result of a blanket labelling of every aspect of contemporary life as subject to a ‘static’ neoliberal regime (as el Baroni sees it), is to flatten the world still further, and so risk passing over the opportunity to identify and work with productive differences where they exist. As I made clear in a talk given in Cornwall recently, I am all for certain forms of respectful resignation in the face of circumstances we cannot change – the inevitable death of those we love being the paradigmatic case –  but never at the expense of paying close attention to what is actually happening in the world.

Obviously much of what el Baroni was saying was framed by the recent political situation in Egypt, something about which – my friends Ronnie and Yvonne’s experience living there notwithstanding – I am simply not qualified to properly understand, let alone comment on. Be that as it may, the idea that we are now ‘stuck’ in a neoliberal political framework ‘world without end’, and so had better just accept that and live with it seems to me to border on the simplistic. Both ecological anarchism and animism suggest other, productive, alternatives. Neoliberal economics and politics – the foundation stones of possessive individualism – could not be worse equipped to address the environmental shift to a world in which ‘extreme events’ – climate related or otherwise – will rapidly become the norm. This will be as true in Egypt as in Ireland, although the specific consequences will obviously be very different. It seems to me – and this is obviously an opinion based on a very partial understanding of the position presented – that the various realities of our situation (namely of life within a polyverse) are rather better understood by people like the editors of Atlas: Geography, Architecture and Change in an Interdependent World (Renata Tyszczuk, Joe Smith, Nigel Clarke and Melissa Butcher) than by those who are still trying to operate according to the realpolitik of a conventional identity like ‘art curator’.

That said, el Baroni’s exposition of the distinction between cultural and academic positions based on a professionalisation of antagonism on one hand, and the playing out of vernacular antagonisms on the street on the other, was well made. I can’t help thinking that, had he been able to speak less from his investment as a successful professional curator (a position he clearly understands is itself inevitably embedded in a position he both acknowledges and critiques), he and I would have had a good deal of common ground to discuss. But that other ‘speaking’ would probably have been of little or no interest to an audience who had come to hear a successful curator talk about ‘Art’ and ‘Politics’.       



‘Translation’ and ‘Communities of Transverse Action’

This morning my wife Natalie Boulton and I performed a familiar Sunday morning ritual – we went down to the harbor in Bristol and had bacon and egg sandwiches at Brunel’s Buttery before walking together round the harbor. It’s a good way to have a change of scene, get some light, air, and exercise – it was freezing cold today – and, above all, to catch up with each other as we walk and talk without distraction.

Natalie is just back from the USA, where she was attending a conference at Stanford Medical School at which the short, thirty minute  version of her film Voices From The Shadows, which she made with our son Josh, was launched. (It’s intended to be part of an educational pack for training medical students). As she was telling me about the conversations she’d had and the contacts she’d made I remembered why I’d seen her work as so central to the position I tried to set out in my last talk for PLaCE before I retired.  It seems worthwhile revising some of what I said then as a way of auditing where that work finds itself almost a year later.

I said then that at the heart of my vision of PLaCE’s work had been the creation of a community of transverse action and made clear that ‘community’ here is not seen – to quote the artist Pauline O’Connell – as “a permanent entity; not … a noun, not a permanent construct describing a grouping, sharing, being in common, and so on. But, rather … a verb, a doing word, brought into action only on occasion, a deliberate act of union of ‘I’s’”. Among other things, then, I saw community here as an antidote to the dominant culture of possessive individualism. I took the term ‘transverse’ from Felix Guattari’s book The Three Ecologies. As I understand it this refers to a working or cutting across of existing social presuppositions, assumptions, and hierarchies and the disciplinary, professional, and other structures built upon and sustaining them. Which is exactly what Natalie – artist, housewife, mother, and career turned ME activist and filmmaker – has been doing in Stanford. That’s to say she was making unconventional and unexpected connections without suppressing differences – a practice we both associate with our enjoyment of collage as a creative approach. I think the ability to engage in this transverse activity is closely related to Geraldine Finn’s understanding that we are always “both more and less than the categories that name and divide us“. Lastly, action here is used in the sense proposed by the philosopher Hannah Arendt, as the vital act of keeping-open human horizons. For Arendt action manifests both: the capability to initiate – to begin something new, to undertake the unexpected and a commitment to plurality; that is to the presence and acknowledgment of others. These two qualities give action its social value and meaning. Action then is the enactment of the mycelial mesh of relationships between material environments, social relations, and the inter-subjectivities that animates the ecology of becoming. I am currently trying to think this through as a fourth ecology – particularly in terms of the work (verb) of art.

Now as then PLaCE International tries to serve as a portal into a community of transverse action that addresses both the overlapping institutional domains of culture and education and very specific social and ecological concerns. As a living entity this community flickers in and out of being, so it’s largely invisible to the hierarchies that dominate both academic and cultural life. That is both it’s strength and, in these difficult economic times, a possible but inevitable weakness. I’m no longer certain that the large networks I’ve been helping to co-ordinate are the best way to sustain a community of transverse action, but will keep an open mind on that until I’ve talked to people in Ireland and had a chance to think some of my current concerns through in more detail.

But to summarise: the particular community of transverse action that I have done all I can to help create and support is still drawn from multiple groups – of artist/researcher/teachers and their students; of ordinary, extraordinary, citizens who are able to live in a polyverse; and of activists addressing social abuse and injustice; and from various combinations of these. What matters above all is that communities of transverse action, like Mary McLeod, are ways of finding the skills and courage necessary to “sing across thresholds”. ( “She was first forbidden to sing her songs outdoors, and later they were forbidden indoors too. Consequently, Màiri was to be found singing while standing in doorways: in short, across thresholds”). Some of their work is equivalent to keening, some to praise singing, some to flyting – a sophisticated poetic form of insult traditionally used by bards. (It was probably her flytings that earned Mary her posthumous reputation for sexual impropriety and even witchcraft). As creative life changes in response to the normative pressure of institutions, we have to find new ways to work so as not to be trapped in the thickening carapace of ‘culture’. We have to allow ourselves to spend time ‘going feral’, inhabiting the liminal spaces-between that are, for that very reason, also the spaces of being-as-becoming. PLaCE’s work as an ‘academic’ research centre has in part been subversive, to unravel some of the presuppositions that dominate education in our increasingly exploited, fragmented, and embattled world. Unless people like myself do that work – people who have been privileged enough to have access to cultural skills and intellectual capital – those who most need the resources necessary to human wellbeing – material, educational, cultural and spiritual – will become less and less able to access those resources.

Using Guattari’s notion of three ecologies – of environment, society, and self – I am still thinking about a fourth ecology – a form of communicative, joined-up educational action that engages and ferments transformative mutations across and between the other three. As anyone who follows my thoughts on this web site will be aware, I’ve started to see this in terms of translation.

Michael Ondaatje’s book ‘Anil’s Ghost’



I have just finished reading Michael Ondaatje’s extraordinary book Anil’s Ghost.

Reading this richly detailed and deeply sobering book would have touched me in any circumstance. However it had a particular resonance for me because there was a talented and socially engaged Sri Lankan fashion student in the last MA by Project cohort that I taught at UWE. Although I knew something of the situation in her home country, and learned a good deal more from working with her, my admiration for the project she had set herself has now grown considerably. And of course I wish I had read Ondaatje’s book before I found myself teaching her; not least because I would certainly have learned so much more from that experience if I had. What lies behind that wish feeds into my current concern with ‘translation’ between lifeworlds and is, of course, also what animates the confluence of education and creative work at their best.

As soon as I’d finished reading Anil’s Ghost I began to wonder whether it was simply ‘about’ people framed by the particular and horrifying situation in Sri Lanka or, rather, whether it also holds up a mirror to the world in which we all live now; one in which the management and conduct of ‘war’ – in all its various and innumerable forms – is the central means by which global capitalism is able to ensure its domination of all our lives. Above all, the ever-intensifying war waged by by the super-rich – and indeed by all those who are willing to happily sacrifice everything and anything to maintain or increase their own wealth and status. The environment, the health service, national economies, the future of the young, sick and disabled – all unable to fend fully for themselves in a game that’s been stacked against them – all so that a selfish and powerful minority can continue their fanatical devotion to the cult of possessive individualism. And at the heart of that cult is the imposition of fear – whether it’s spread by the various terrible means that Ondaatje sets out so carefully and unsensationally, or infinitely more trivial yet none the less effective means. Those promoted by the owners and editors of the media of the supposedly ‘democratic’ West to help sell political ideologies and to keep us addicted to the psychic anaesthetic provided by frantic consumption and all its related addictions, for example.

At the risk of appearing to trivialise what Ondaatje sets out for us about Sri Lanka, I have to say I found numerous resonances between the worlds of his three main characters – a forensic anthropologist, an archeologist and a doctor – and the current state of education, media, the arts and medical research that concern my immediate family. In each of those worlds we now see a situation in which the ‘top dogs’ are hell-bent on increasing their hold on the power invested in the status quo and, as I’ve said, at any cost. So there is a massive resistance to urgently needed change and an implicit (and frequently not so implicit) embargo on promoting the vital shifts in understanding and the translation that could transect the dominant intellectual, cultural and social structures on which that status quo depends.

And what still really astonishes and sometimes angers me in all this is that academics, who after all are supposedly committed vocationally both to education and to self-reflexivity – continue to accept this without any serious protest. This leads to a situation in which, according to the Times Higher Education journal, Steve West (vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England at which I still work and am also a Visiting Research Fellow) was recently happy to accept a pay package that rose by £52, 434 to £314, 632 – including a £24,158 performance bonus. (OK, not yet on a par with Tony Blair or the banking elite, but clearly heading that way and quite obscene given the state of the ‘foot soldiers’ working in Higher Education). This is the case when, at the same time, those who act as external examiners for doctoral work are effectively paid less than the minimum wage for doing so. (It’s called an honorarium and no, this work is not part of what they are contracted to do and will, in most cases, largely be done in their own time).

To me this situation perfectly illustrates the deep-seated contempt with which those who ‘govern’ (as governors), manage and publicly speak for, education at the highest level now regard perhaps the most demanding aspect of educational work that an academic can do – namely conduct the highest form of academic examination. As such I see it as indicative of their attitude to their employees as a whole.

What has this to do with Anil’s Ghost? A great deal, I would suggest. The appalling situation in Sri Lanka that provides the context for the novel was and is only possible because of the callous and absolute contempt for the lives and suffering of others that underpins possessive individualism in its fundamentalist form. That contempt is in part imposed from above by entrenched intellectual, cultural and social hierarchies, and by the dominant political ideology; but it’s also absorbed from ordinary citizens in everyday life – from our mundane social exchanges and interactions, from our parents and peers, but also, manifestly and centrally, through education. Even under the attempts to impose an increasingly totalitarian regime enacted by a rabid ideologue like Michael Gove, it is still those who work in Higher Education who shape values through teaching. So what does it signal to our students that academics by and large simply accept  the types of situation outlined above in silence?

And yes I’m all too well aware that this is not a simple black and white issue of good and evil; that it’s much more complicated than that. We now live in ‘impossible’ times and are, in consequence, constantly faced with ‘impossible’ choices. But why don’t we face and articulate this situation for what it is – including it’s impact on education? Because we’re afraid to do so of course. And that is precisely why Anil’s Ghost has so much to say to us.


Haunted Landscapes: Nature, Super-Nature & the Environment

I’ve just returned from a conference called Haunted Landscapes: Nature, Super-Nature & the Environment at Falmouth University. I went partly to give a paper (see abstract below) that would allow me to test out thinking I’ve been doing around issues relating to animism and our need to recognise that we live in a polyverse (a constellation of worlds) rather than a universe, and partly in the hope of catching up with friends and colleagues.

An unexpected and very real pleasure was to see Dr Adeline Johns-Putra, who has moved from Exeter to Surrey University since I last saw her. Among her various roles Adeline is the Chair of asle-uki The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (UK & Ireland), which was founded in 1998 and gave its support to the conference. One of the many interesting aspects of the way the conference was put together was the weight given to visual art and the inclusion of two artists’ panels (which in turn included two colleagues it was very good to see – Anne Robinson (from LAND2), and Gina Wall (from PLaCE, Scotland). This approach gave added weight to a very interesting inter-disciplinary (indeed almost multi-constituency) exchange. Having spent some time talking to Adeline I’m very much hoping that LAND2 and asle-uki can work together at some point in the future which, if her initial discussions with Judy Tucker are anything to go by, could happen in the not too distant future.

I’m also particularly pleased to have met Dr Ruth Hehold, who organised the conference, and Mike Tresidder, who teaches Cornish and works for the Cornish Language Partnership/Keskowethyans an Taves Kernewek . Mike gave a fascinating paper on the history and particularities of the Cornish Language and, talking to him later, I found he was able to give me a number of helpful insights about the relationship between Cornish and other Brythonic-derived languages and the different cultural roles they play in the modern regions/nations where they’re now spoken. This provided further food for thought in relation to my recent exchanges around the Cliff McLucas seminar in Aberystwyth.

I found myself presenting as part of a panel called Poetics alongside the poet Alyson Hallet, who’d been a visiting speaker for PLaCE at UWE back in December 2010. This was very fortunate for me because her powerful, moving and highly poetic paper – Hearing Voices That Are Not There – broke much of the ground I then tried to cover from another angle. Her web site – – is well worth a visit.    


Since 1999 I have been ‘deep mapping’ the traces, locations, and implications of a quasi-pagan, ‘animist’ mentalité that permeates the oldest Borders ballads, sometimes called the ‘supernatural ballads’ (of which Thomas Rhymer and Tam Linn are probably the best known). My concern has however been primarily with the possible implications of that tradition – when seen through the creative lens of testimonial imagination – for the development of contemporary cultural praxis. This in many ways parallels Felix Guattari’s promotion of ‘ecosophy’ – namely of a practical, transversal thinking that works at and across the intersections of environment, society, and that confluence of persona and forces we call ‘the self’.

In this illustrated presentation I will draw on my own research, creative work,  and texts such as Emma Wilby’s The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland (Sussex Academic Press, 2010), to connect ecosophical thinking both with a tradition of vernacular singing and those elements of my work inspired by that tradition.

My aim in doing so is to illuminate an ecological praxis that acknowledged the centrality of continual flow, flux, or translation of energy and matter across the semi-permeable borders that differentiated one region, society, or person from another. From this perspective physical locations – landscapes – are indeed best understood as: “a polyrhythmic composition of processes whose pulse varies from the erratic flutter of leaves to the measured drift and clash of tectonic plates” (Ingold 2000: 201). It then follows that the environment of living beings as ‘landscape’ becomes: “a tangle of interlaced trails, continually raveling here and unraveling there” (Ingold 2011: 71), in much the same way as the traditional song landscapes of the ‘supernatural’ ballads heard through time.

Cliff McLucas in Terschelling

In continuing to  think through what might be learned from Cliff McLucas’ work – particularly in terms of my own interest in the future trajectory of deep mapping in an ecological context – it seems clear that it’s necessary to see how his project with Joop Mulder on Terschelling developed after his death. (I obviously have in mind here some of the points he makes in Ten Things I Can Say About These Deep Maps). I heard from Joop today that he is still working on the project – now called Sense of Place – and he has very kindly said he will send me information when he’s finished his current stint ‘on the road’.

As it happens I am due to go to Terschelling in June to speak at an event dealing with rising sea levels and the role creative activity might play in helping to reframe environmental change in relation to social resilience. So I’m taking Joop’s kind response as a good omen in relation to my current attempts to pull together a number of possibly related hunches – and they are nothing more than that at this stage – about relationships between what I think Cliff McLucas was advocating through his deep mapping projects and the notions of ‘translation’ I’m trying to develop in advance of my time at NUI in Galway. Hopefully by the time I get to Holland – and maybe even manage to meet with Joop in person – I’ll be clearer about how all these threads do or do not interweave.

Certainly at present I seem to have nothing but a scattering of hunches that are slowly being fleshed out in various clusterings of ideas. These may or may not converge. The first cluster will get an airing in Falmouth on Saturday. I’m presenting a paper called ‘Grounding Ecosophy: Reviewing Guattari’s “ecosophy” and Tim Ingold’s “animist meshscape” through the uncanny lens of the “supernatural Border ballads and the visions of Isobel Gowdie’ at the Haunted Landscapes event. This is my first public attempt to present the thinking I’ve been doing around Tim Ingold and Felix Guattari’s Neo-animism and is an attempt to move my understanding of the necessary shift from uni- to poly- versal thinking along the lines implicitly in Guattari’s notion of ecosophy on a bit.

Hopefully I’ll soon have something worthwhile to add to this site out of this work.

A response to ‘Cliff McLucas in the C21st’

The text below is a response to my previous text from Margaret Ames, a lecturer in the Department of Theatre Film & Television Studies at Aberystwyth who knew Cliff McLucas and attended the event to which that post refers. Her research includes: Devising Theatre, particularly in a Welsh cultural context, and disability and performance. She is director/producer for Cyrff Ystwyth Dance Company, who participate in long term practice based research projects, and is co-Investigator with Central School of Speech and Drama University of London on an AHRC funded project. ‘Challenging ‘Liquid’ Place’.

I am putting her response up here – with her permission – because it seems to me to exemplify and clarify, in a highly specific instance, our collective need to keep in mind Paul Ricoeur’s insistence on the importance of what he calls “the model of translation”. This can be found in a short paper titled Reflections on a new ethos for Europe (in Richard Kearney (ed) Paul Ricoeur The Hermeneutics of Action (SAGE 1996). (I should perhaps add that I understand ‘translation’ in relation to different languages – that is literally – but also in the sense of mediating between mentalities and lifeworlds).

Margaret writes:

“First. Thank you. I do not feel let down in any way and I was left with a profound sense of gratitude for all the careful presentations and offerings throughout the day. What you said at the end hit the nail on the head and as everyone agreed – it was a kind of mission impossible in any case, to sum up after the panel. What you have written in your blog extends my thinking further and reminds me of the necessity to ‘let go’ and to develop more nuanced understandings of how others come to these debates/places. None of this is mine, all of it we share. I use the forward slash here as an awkward attempt to refer to the lived experience of contestation within location.”

“For me the entire event was moving as I understood the intellectual endeavour being engaged by all concerned. Future possibilities seemed to abound and I carry the energy of that right now as I write this.”

“I want though to pick up on a couple of points you make – partly from a personal view as ‘I was there’ in the 80s and partly because, although Rhys is a fantastic simultaneous translator, I don’t know how he really coped with the speed and  passion of the discussion!!”

“So….for me the panel discussion took me right back to my very early twenties for as Catrin said, in the house where we lived and the Barn centre, such arguments happened morning noon and night. This was my political context and was profoundly formational. Clifford was always contributing/central to the debates and he challenged me to step up, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem as he phrased it one evening. I was aware of the generation gap as well as the perceptual and experiential gaps, but I was excited to hear the debates again in public.”

“But the main thing I want to pick up is that I don’t think the marginality is rural alone, I think it is more specific and more wide ranging in terms of identity. I take Euros’ position here and understand his insistence on the word for ‘culture’ – diwylliant as absolutely key. Somewhere in the root of this word is the notion of de-wilding which is there in the English word too I think. But within the definition of the word there is an implicit set of practices. These are about inclusion, sharing, dependency and definitely not about exclusivity, an ‘us and them’ arrangement. And most importantly – it is not about cultural product, of theatre, art, anything at all except the practice of living together here. There are other words he could have used which explain this more clearly – such as the word that I think translates as ‘colleague’ – cydymaith means the one who travels with me. Rural or urban, for there is a Welsh urban context too, the prefix ‘Cym’ and ‘cyd’ signals togetherness – negotiated and contested but together.”

“However….if you travel all the time with people who resist your vocabularies, structures and descriptions as you go along – in order to stay in step with them, to keep up….you cease to speak…..for fear… of loss…how can you cope with this journey alone? You change your language because you know they never will.”

“So… the language is of critical importance and is a means of inclusion rather than exclusivity. It is this I think that many people cannot accommodate. I don’t see the panel expressing nostalgia – I do see them struggling to understand Euros’ radical proposal that the ‘culture’ is more important and that the culture is the people – us – all of us. I have never felt any parochialism in these debates about identity – more a kind of desperate terror of the silence of finding yourself alone. I will always remember Clifford and Catrin talking about the horror of being the last surviving speaker of your language – who would you tell that to in a way that could be felt/understood? Who would you tell your dreams to?”

“And this leads me back to a notion of utopia. Yes – I think that this notion of travelling together is a utopia – but this morning the shop 2 miles down from me opened again – its been closed for over a year. It was decorated with flags and daffodils. They had made cakes and welsh cakes and tea and coffee for anyone who wanted. Mary-Anne bought duck eggs for no reason other than they were there!! Welsh was the language this morning, some without it did the swim in the rhythms and the expletives and the cadences  – we gathered before going on our way for the day. A tiny moment of a utopia  – inclusions and beginnings”.

Cliff McLucas in the C21st?

Yesterday I attended an event in Aberystwyth – see This was organised by Rowan O’Neill and Anwen Jones, and entitled Revisiting The Memory of Cliff McLucas. I had signed up early on, pleased to have a chance to celebrate McLucas’ work on deep mapping and acknowledge my own debt to him. Also to see friends and support Rowan who, through her PhD, has done so much to ensure that informed debate around his work continues. A few days before the event she contacted me and asked if I would act as an informal respondent to the day. “I’m thinking it would be interesting to hear your thoughts … in relation to your own deep mapping work and the inspiration you’ve previously drawn from this aspect of Cliff’s work. … it might be a nice opportunity to bring worlds together”. I agreed, perhaps without sufficiently thinking through what I was signing myself up for.

What follows here is in a sense almost an apology. Although I did speak at the end of the day, I did not say what I wanted to say about what Rowan and others have been doing, about my own debt to McLucas’ work, or about how I see the value of that work now. Apology may be too strong a word, but I have an obscure feeling that I have somehow let Cliff McLucas down and, more significantly, have let down those who value his work for its humanity and for its almost prophetic qualities. I certainly don’t feel I made the most of an ‘opportunity to bring worlds together’, in part because I’m not entirely sure that that was what many of the people at the event really wanted.

Why I feel all this is difficult to articulate, but obviously I’ll try.

First, some context. Dr Cathy Turner started the day with a sensitive, well-researched, and often poetic meditation on the McLucas archive and its resonances – both with regard to the man and to questions thrown up for us today by his work. Among these was the notion of the possibly utopian aspect of his work, which Margaret Ames picked up at the end of the session. I had intended to return to this issue at the end of the day, positing the Irish philosopher’s Richard Kearney’s notion of the productive tension between testimonial, utopian, and empathetic imagination as possibly a more useful way of thinking about Cliff’s work than one derived from the usual suspects among continental philosophers. I didn’t because by the time I was due to speak, I was unclear as to how such an issue sat with the preoccupations that had surfaced during the afternoon.

Unclear, that is, as to whether I was attending what seemed to have turned into a reunion of a generation of Welsh language and cultural activists whose heyday was the 1980s (and that just happened to include Cliff McLucas), or to celebrate the achievements of a man whose work and critical solicitude extended well beyond the specific Welsh context in which it was forged and tempered? I had been told by several people that the McLucas archive was a hot ‘political’ issue within the institution and in Wales. I was now beginning to see why.

The introductions to the new McLucas web site, to the archive in the National Library of Wales, and to MabLab where each, in their different ways, informative and thought-provoking.  My own problems as respondent began with the panel in the afternoon. Let me be clear. Some of what was said by panelists was both pertinent and appropriate to a day dedicated, as I had understood it, to revisiting the memory of Cliff McLucas. But of course that phrase is itself somewhat deceptive. I had chosen to take it as emphasising the importance of McLucas’ work and how what he had achieved in the past might be carried forward. But for some others it seemed that what was most important was the act of revisiting a shared past, one in which he had played a sometimes more, sometimes (I sensed) less, important role. Much of the discussion between panel members revolved around issues of the Welsh language and relations to cultural authority – understandably given the cultural situation in Wales at that time. I’ve some familiarity with these debates – as any English person who has worked with Welsh artists and academics must be – and am by no means insensitive to the very real and longstanding problems involved or the continuing issues in a ‘post-colonial’ era. I am also deeply sympathetic to (and a little envious of) those whose language – unlike standard English – allows them to speak the land and their lived taskscape with precision and sensitivity, as Welsh clearly does.

But I have to admit that as the panel session – conducted in Welsh and simultaneously translated – went on I felt increasingly uncomfortable and, to a degree, irritated. In part this was because I could sense the growing inattention of the students in front of me as one of their elders repeated, for the third or fourth time, just how difficult the 1980s had been. But aren’t we here, I found myself thinking, precisely to enthuse those students’ generation with what had made McLucas such a valuable figure to us, rather than tell them what a tough time we had? (And, like Eddie Ladd, I think things are harder now than they were then, since the issues are more complex and far less black and white). The moment I realised I was in real trouble as a respondent came when one panel member told us he would demonstrate that McLucas was (in his words) “no saint”. It seems McLucas had told him at one point he might best solve his problems as as a Welsh-speaking English person living in Wales by simply getting out of “this fucked-up little country”. No saint indeed! I have no idea how that ‘revelation’ of McLucas’ lack of ‘saintliness’ was received by an overwhelmingly Welsh audience – there was certainly no audible sharp intake of collective breath –  but, because the complexities and frustrations that revelation articulated resonated with issues that Rowan had raised about those who are hybrids within the Welsh context, the issues of context and categorisation suddenly came to seem central. Central, but also highly contentious.

What is important to me personally about Cliff McLucas, as I tried to make clear when I did speak, is that he was a man who embodied Geraldine Finn’s insight that: “we are always both more and less than the categories that name and define us”. Including, of course, the categories of nationality and linguistic ability or (in my own case) lack of it. In the self-filmed footage of Cliff explaining his deep mapping work in California, what comes over is his openness (perfectly captured in his brief remarks about his music tastes); his desire to share and involve; his concern that his work should serve the needs of others. And it was very clear from at least two speakers that he was, as a result, an outstanding mentor.

Any of us with some professional awareness of his lifework already knew of his extraordinary breadth of vision and his practical ability, in many registers, to get that vision out into the world. So for me it was the insights into his more personal qualities, his ability to hold at one and the same time an imaginative sense of “the smell on a man’s breath” and the historical and conceptual “strangeness” of his ideas, that struck me – and, as part and parcel of that, his openness, his capability as a mentor. That, for me, was what was most valuable in the day.

So why didn’t I say all this as a respondent. One answer is that I could see no way of doing so adequately without giving offence. To put it bluntly, we all now live in “fucked-up” countries – their size is largely irrelevant – as a result of weight of global capitalism, impending ecological meltdown, and the internalisation of the culture of possessive individualism upon which capitalism depends psycho-socially. The nostalgia (as I see it) of many of the panel for a world in which the Welsh language could be taken as the central issue for their community seemed to me almost counter to everything I admire about Cliff McLucas. I am sure he had his failings, but nostalgia, parochialism, and the particular self-regard of artist/activists that so neatly models possessive individualism for the advertising industry were clearly not among them. Anyway, mindful of being a guest in Wales and at an institution in which its language is central – both facts reinforced by the bi-lingual nature of the event – I felt unable even to appear to question the terms on which that hospitality had been extended. However, and this is the crux of my own discomfort, I also think that there was something cowardly in my reducing all the above responses to the day to the brief generalisations that I ended up presenting.

A second answer is that I would liked to have said that we genuinely only re-member the dead by incorporating what was best in their lives into our own values, practices and understanding. That’s a big ask, because it means that we have to have the humility and generosity to make space within ourselves in order for them to have a place there. For me that’s what the transmission of culture in its best sense is about. That’s a hard thing to say to a room full of people (most of them strangers) at the best of times, particularly since I’m aware that it can all too easily be interpreted as some kind of personal rebuke.

So what do I think is Cliff McLucas’ value to the C21st? On yesterday’s showing I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question on behalf of any constituency other than myself. However, in my personal view he is a key figure in that – through his exploration of notions of deep mapping – he provides us with an orientation from which to rethink issues of connectivity. By this I mean the dynamic, complex, and unstable web of relationships between humans, non-humans, and the particular spaces and places they inhabit and engage with on a daily basis. Such inhabitation and engagement occurs in a multi-dimensional mesh of physical, psycho-social and non-human geographies that extend well beyond any particular cartographic site, region or even nation. They take, and make, place in a polyverse that is tensioned somewhere between Doreen Massey’s understanding of space as “a simultaneity of stories-so-far” and Tim Ingold’s notion of a ‘meshscape’. More particularly, and in terms of my own interests, he offers an alternative way of engaging with the ‘placing’ of marginal rural communities that’s capable of generating the the critical solicitude necessary to engage with the dynamic psycho-social tensions engendered by their marginality. This, as I see it, is informed by a version of Kenneth Frampton’s Critical Regionalism as re-calibrated through Felix Guattari’s ecosophy. Two tensions are central here. One is between the rural as ‘landscape’ – fundamentally an ‘aesthetic’ presupposition in which land is always seen at a distance and from an ‘edge’, looking inwards – and the other as a working ‘taskscape’ in Tim Ingold’s sense. One experienced from the position of a moving and unstable position within that taskscape. The other tension is between a pragmatic commitment to communitarianism and the dominant culture of ‘possessive individualism’.

Cliff McLucas remains central to my interest, and in my view a globally important figure, to the degree to which working through these tensions might help us re-frame more extensive socio-environmental issues.