‘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 http://voicesfromtheshadowsfilm.co.uk, 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.