Monthly Archives: February 2015

Reading ‘H is for Hawk’, attending to Kathleen Jamie


I’ve just finished reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and can’t help but wonder why I feel vaguely irritated by it. After all, much of what the reviews say about it is clearly true, and I can entirely see why it won a prize for non-fiction, since the writing is enviably good and the topic – her getting over her beloved father’s death by training a Goshawk – beyond reproach. So what’s my problem?

It’s less a problem, perhaps, than a matter of contingency and orientation – although I think both may have a wider resonance or I won’t be writing this here.

Some of the ‘lessons’ about wildness in the book are insights I have been fortunate to have rubbed up against from reading James Hillman’s writing over many years ago. That’s the contingency bit – I just happen to have spent years reading material that’s taken my view of the world to other places, an experience that for me personally gives this book a slightly old-fashioned feel. And perhaps this is amplified by the confessional self-absorption with a goshawk at the heart of the text, no matter that the author is only too well-aware of this. To call it a de-centred ode to possessive individualism dressed up as a meditation on nature and nature writing about hawks – almost half the book is a rumination on T H White, focused around his book The Goshawk – would be inaccurate, unjust, and a gross over-statement of what I’m groping for. But, none the less, there is something about the book that brings that thought to mind.

The real issue, however, is one of what I can only call orientation.

This book is, I am told on the flyleaf, by ‘a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, and affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Cambridge’. And, for all the ups and downs of the author’s personal life detailed in the book, that’s what it reads like. Helen Macdonald may distance herself from the traditional elite for whom hawking was a sign of belonging, but her book is saturated with her emersion in an elite world of another kind. I do not mean that as a judgement or criticism – it would be hypocritical if I did – simply as an observation as to why I find the whole story slightly hollow in its distance from the shared and mundane troubles and joys of ordinary lives and lifeworlds. A distance the author may be acknowledging when she writes of not having spoken to the working people for whom the landscape over which she hawks is an everyday taskscape.

‘Comparisons are odious’, we’re told, and maybe that’s true. But making careful discriminations between different orientations is, I hope, something else.

Two day before my sixty-fifth birthday my wife Natalie and I went to hear Kathleen Jamie not giving a lecture that was supposed to be on Poetry, the Land, and Nature. She had refused point blank to lecture, she told us. Instead she read some of her poems and prose for about twenty minutes and then very reticently answered questions, first from the Chair and then from the audience. Her reticence could easily have been profoundly irritating. Long leading questions designed to draw her out on fashionable ‘environmental’ and literary topics were briefly answered, politely punctured, or else deflected, all in a short sentence or two. But instead of irritating the audience her whole way of being with us in that wholly unnatural situation was a heartwarming, at times moving, demonstration of a poet insisting on putting her work first; of refusing to play the ‘literary celebrity’ game the Chair clearly believed we had come for.

Many things stay with me from that evening. The importance she attaches to attention in the everyday. The contrast between her innate reticence and her animation when speaking about the change in Scotland’s collective psyche in the run up to the referendum and her response to that as a poet. But what comes to mind now, in musing on H is for Hawk, is something she said in answer to a question about the insufficiency of the term ‘Nature’, its implicit division of life into contrary, antagonistic, categories.

“Looking up from dealing with the socks and you hear an oystercatcher – why should these things be separate?”

In the context of all she’d said earlier, those socks were resonant of the mundanity of domestic life and its inevitable restrictions – she’d spoken about how the care of her young children had kept her from travelling far, for example. Of course Kathleen Jamie is a highly regarded poet and non-fiction writer, a Professor of Poetry at Sterling University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in addition to her domestic roles. But in everything she said that evening there was a sense of a woman and a poet who is attentive to, and at home in, the mundane yet potentially wondrous place she happens to find herself inhabiting at any given moment – a place she evoked for us by recalling catching herself balanced between the necessary act of washing socks and the visceral thrill of unexpectedly hearing a distant oystercatcher’s cry through a half-open window.

And, for me personally, that is quite another, closer, deeper, sometimes wilder, darker, yet more resonant, place than anything in the lifeworld H is for Hawk so masterfully conjures into being.    



Troubling ‘epistemological/methodological’ waters? (part two)


7. Imaginal convergences (an evocative swerve)

(The essay of which this is the second part swerves slightly at this point).

I need to introduce the thinking of James Hillman and, more particularly, its possible convergence with Owain’s paper already quoted. (From where I stand Owain’s thinking is – at least potentially and as it relates to Guattari’s transversality – ‘fighting talk’). This swerve is closely related to a concern with the most academically neglected of Felix Guattari’s ‘three ecologies’ – the embattled ecology of a self, now inevitably located in relation to a culture of possessive individualism, but here specifically seen as more or less enmeshed in the professional worlds of the arts and academia.

Peaks and Vales, a talk given by the depth psychologist James Hillman and first published in 1996, helps place the frame of my cognitive dissonance in a ‘watery’ context. Hillman is concerned with distinctions between a ‘placed’ or ‘grounded’ imaging or imaginative thinking (vales), and what I’m going to call, following the feminist philosopher Geraldine Finn, ‘high altitude thinking’, which she defines as thinking: “forgetful of its contingent roots in particular persons, places, and times” (1996: 137) (peaks). I am going to suggest that this definition is also broadly analogous, at the level of praxis, to a distinction Owain makes between ‘grand theory’ and ‘small acts of intervention’ (2008: 1609).

Hillman wants to discriminate between high-altitude thought and low-lying, intra-psychic understanding; one happy to acknowledge its own contingencies and that “requires recognition of history, an archaeology of soul, a digging in ruins, a re-collecting”. (The parallels with deep mapping are clear here). ‘Vales’ are located by Hillman in such a way that “going up the mountain” – the privileging of high-altitude or ‘peak’ thinking as the authoritative, all-seeing mode of thought – “feels like a desertion” (1979: 62). (An observation that goes a long way to explain the very real anger many lay people feel when subjected to academic high theory). He goes on to elucidate the resonances of the word ‘vale’; ‘the vale of tears’, of emotion (even depression – the “lonesome valley, the valley of the shadow of death”), and so on. (ibid: 58).

The affective resonances of ‘vale’ have a great deal to do with water, with its always draining down to the lowest point, the resulting ‘swampy-ness’ (literal and metaphorical), with ebb and flow; with psychotherapeutic work analogous to ‘sewage treatment’, to the processing of the mess and muddiness of everyday life – its ”troubles, sorrow, and weeping”. Also, again, with water’s ‘sensuous matter’, its “sensuousness and depth”, its evoking dreams and delusions, to touch the Oceanic so as to animate our caring for the world “for better or worse”. All of which may well requires that ‘the Word’ of high altitude thinking be brought down to participate in its other, “in gossip and chatter” (ibid. 67).

Is this maybe relevant to new methods and methodologies in a ‘watery’ context?

Hillman asks that we address the increasingly stultifying legacy of a secularised binary system grounded in monotheism’s “verticalities of the spirit” (ibid: 68), in Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘arboreal thinking’. Unlike them, however, Hillman asks us to moisten the dryness of ‘vertical thinking’ rather than simply reject it, to bring it “down from the mountain … into the vale” (ibid: 69); to wade it out and down into the complexities of swampy, estuarine multiplicities, to submerge it there until it’s awash with the fluid paradoxes and ambiguous subjectivities of the everyday world as polyverse.

In short, from the ‘watery’ perspective I’m foregrounding here, our ‘academic distance’, ‘critical reflexivity’, and ‘objectivity’ all appear as something close to ‘desertion’, a retreat to the high ground away from the mycelial tangle of mangrove roots (which enable those trees to live in the liminal zone shared by both salt and fresh water), from the mess of everyday life awash with cognitive dissonances.

This might suggest that we should attend to the re-hydration of high-altitude thinking by immersing in everyday ‘depths’, in ‘Vales’.

  1. Second ‘provocation’: combative collaboration (the value of ‘hatred’) and moving on

James Hillman also reminds us that: “part of separating and drawing apart is the emotion of hatred” (not, of course, to be taken too literally), and I share something of his concern with: “speaking with hatred and urging strife, or eris or polemos, which Heraclitus, the first ancestor of psychology, has said is the father of all” (ibid: 57-8).

To clarify, I think it’s important to promote what, in the ‘Hard’ Sciences, is sometimes called ‘combative collaboration’, since genuine collaboration is constructively combative, energized by recognising and openly working through (again in both senses) differences and dissonances, rather than with assumed or imposed consensus. I see this approach to collaboration as a means to overcome the way we get stuck, fail to move on, continue to assume that it’s acceptable to internalize and work from, for example, the presuppositions of ‘life-as’ an ‘artist’, ‘social scientist’, or whatever.

As I’ve discussed at length elsewhere, we still struggle to acknowledge what the immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub argued so eloquently back in 1990. Namely that a preoccupation with the differences between the arts and sciences is a dangerous indulgence that we can no any longer afford because it blinds us to more important issues, not least the realities of power (2014: 47-8).

As the introductory quotation from Owain Jones implies, our epistemological crisis flows from a refusal to acknowledge that ecosystems in all registers are (almost always) open. They require a continual flow, flux, or translation of energy and matter across the semi-permeable borders that differentiate one discipline, bioregion, society, or persona (within the inter-subjective constellation of any self), from another. This is not of course to imply that we should now simply prioritise an amorphous fluidity over all requirements to differentiate. Early in his essay Holub usefully distinguishes, for example, the work of the scientist from that of the poet in terms of distinct framings of types of imaginative process. He argues that scientists must always assume the adequacy, however temporary, of their means; while artists must on the whole work with the “immanent inadequacy” of theirs (1990: 132).

Again, I think this may have methodological implications for what we’re trying to do.

That both modes of creativity can, in different circumstances, transversally ‘cut across’ meta-disciplinary boundaries supports Holub’s contention that it is ultimately unhelpful to place too much emphasis on the distinctions between the work of the artist (poet) and the social scientist (scientist) that he makes in the first part of his text. He goes on in the second part to relativize these distinctions, not least because he understands monolithic identification with ‘life as’ an ‘artist’ or a ‘scientist’ as unrealistic, even deluded. In actuality both ‘artists’ and ‘scientists’ spend considerable periods of time engaged in a multiplicity of other roles and actions unconnected to those activities. (Which is to say they inhabit, in the terms used here, an inclusive polyverse). Furthermore Holub observes that the work (verb) of science or art is, in actuality, located within a small, subtle, largely confined if at times pervasive, domain with regard to society as a whole and, as such, requires that we attend as much to their multiplicity of relations – to Hillman’s ‘Vale’ if you will – as to their exclusivity. In Holub’s view conventional disciplinary and professional understandings that fail to acknowledge this situation promote hubristic, exclusive, and cultish preoccupations and distort or marginalize more fundamental concerns in ways that facilitate the abuse of power by ever more powerful systems of management and manipulation.

  1. Third ‘provocation’: listening and citizenship

In the light of both Holub’s concerns indicated above and the insights of Heelas and Woodhead, I think it’s relevant to our project that currently orthodox evaluations of research in the Arts and Humanities has been shown to bear “no relation to how innovation and creativity occur” (Leach & Watson 2010: 7). Leach and Watson argue that the real value of such research lies in its being: “carried by and in persons” as “expertise, as confidence, as understanding and orientation to issues, problems, concerns and opportunities, as tools and abilities”; and that it is best seen as residing in “the notion of responsiveness” (ibid: 7). A responsiveness that supports and authorises those same qualities in others, and calls for a privileging of listening over speaking to which I will return later. All of which is best understood as the conversational “aspect of citizenship” that privileges those “spaces and opportunities for discussion, argument, critique, reflection’ in which “collaboration” becomes a basis “for evaluation” (ibid: 3).

I relate these observations directly to exchanges with staff from the Yorkshire Water Board, who were clearly consciously negotiating their own cognitive dissonances around managerially imposed responsibilities and expectations on one hand and a place-specific ‘becoming’ on the other. Our conversations, particularly informally over lunch, were for me a high point of the two-day event. They validated Leach and Watson’s observations and support Owain’s suggestion that we privilege “small acts of intervention” based on listening.

The importance of listening in this respect is set out by Gemma Corradi Fiumara in her The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening (1990), and relates to Holub’s concern that we be constantly mindful of the sites and dynamics of power. In this context I would stress her insights into: “the mechanism of ‘saying without listening’”, seen as having finally constituted itself as “a generalized form of domination and control” (1990:2); a situation she addresses in terms borrowed from Lakoff and Johnson and that highlights the nature of the metaphorical power embedded in language – in, for example, our concern to ‘win’ arguments as if they were wars (ibid: 108). Again, I take this to square with Owain’s insistence that we need to replace “established adversarial styles of academic argument with ‘a model of dialogical encounter’”, one predicated on the assumption that “the other has something to say to us and to contribute to our understanding” (Jones 2008: 1607) Consequently I would argue that Fiumara’s insights relate directly to our concerns with hydro-citizenship for reasons the following observation makes clear.

“To the extent that we cultivate an awareness of belonging to the biological history of the planet we might be able to develop the sort of openness that allows us to reconnect our biological and dialogical dimensions. Whenever our phylogenetic depth [I think here of Hillman’s ‘vale’] is not taken into sufficient account as an inseparable aspect of the human condition we are restricted to an ‘abstract’ sort of philosophical knowledge that does not measure up to the task of encompassing our own biological nature”(ibid. 184).

And that ‘nature’ is, it should not be necessary to say, where we are most intimately inseparable from all ‘watery matters’.

Again, I would link this, in terms of method, to Owain’s stressing (with Harrison 2002: 500), that his readers “‘to pay attention to whatever is taking place in front of them’”, an orientation that: “can be understood as a call to witness … to share and deeply empathize with pain and suffering – the negative (although it could be applied to joy and love) – the positive) and otherness, without fully knowing it”. And, in relation to research in the service of high-altitude thinking again, “Pause to think how often it is that understandings of and responses to current/historical events are not prompted by explanations or analysis but by witnessing of one kind or another” (Jones 2008: 1610).


Biggs, Iain (2014) ‘Beyond Aestheticism and Scientism: Notes towards an “ecosophical” praxis’ in Brett Wilson, Barbara Hawkins, and Stuart Sim (eds) Art, Science, and Cultural Understanding Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground

(2012) “The Southdean Project – essaying site as memory work” in Jones, Owain & Garde-Hansen, Joanne (eds.) Geography and Memory: Explorations in identity, place and becoming Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan.

(2010) ‘Essaying Place: Landscape, Music, and Memory (after Janet Wolff)’ in Johns-Putra, Adeline & Brace, Catherine (eds.) Process: Landscape and Text (Amsterdam & New York, Rodopi

Bishop, Claire (2013) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship London & New York: Verso.

Casey, Edward S. (1993) Getting Back into Place: Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Drucker, Joanna (2005) Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Finn, Geraldine (1996) Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International.

Fiumara, Gemma Corradi (1990) The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening London: Routledge.

Gibbons, Michael; Limoges, Camille; Nowotney, Helga; Schwartzman, Simon; Scott, Peter; and Trow, Martin (1994) The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies London SAGE Piublications.

Guattari, Felix. (2008) ‘The Three Ecologies’ in Pindar, Iain & Sutton, Paul (trans) Guattari: The Three Ecologies London & New York: Continuum.

Heelas, Paul and Woodhead, Linda (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: why religion is giving way to spirituality Oxford: Blackwell

Hillman, James (1976) ‘Peaks and Vales’ in Puer Papers on line at:

Holub, Miroslav (1990) The Dimensions of the Present and Other Essays (ed. Young, D) London: Faber.

Illich, Ivan et al, (2010) Disabling Professions (London: Marion Boyers)

Jones, Owain (2008) Stepping from the wreckage: Geography, pragmatism and anti-representational theory Geoforum, 39 (4). pp. 1600-1612.

Leach, James (2012) ‘Constituting aesthetics and utility: copyright, patent, and the purification of knowledge objects in an art and science collaboration’ in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2: (1): 247-268

(2011) ‘The Self of the Scientist, Material for the Artist: Emerging Distinctions in an Interdisciplinary Collaboration’ in Social Analysis vol 55:3, Winter 2011, pp. 143-163

Leach, James & Watson, Lee (2010) Enabling innovation: creative investments in arts and humanities research (accessed 30.03.2013).

Marris, Peter (1978) Loss and Change (revised ed) London & New York: Routledge.

Napier, A David (2003) The Age of Immunology: conceiving a future in an alienating world Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press

Platten, Bronwyn & Biggs, Iain (2014) ‘Engagement and Embodiment: A Body of Art in Healthcare’ in Wilson, Brett; Hawkins, Barbara, and Sim, Stuart, (eds) Art, Science, and Cultural Understanding Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground

Whatmore, Sarah J. & Landström, Catharina (2011) Flood apprentices: an exercise in making things public, Economy and Society, 40:4, 582-610,

Wilson, Brett; Hawkins, Barbara, & Sim, Stuart (eds.) (2014) Art, Science, and Cultural Understanding Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground


Troubling ‘epistemological/methodological’ waters? (part one)


Philosophy is not separated from, and experimentations can operate in and between, social science, natural science, poetry, art, politics and literature. The epistemological/methodological divides which currently isolate these approaches are seen as merely ‘institutional and pedagogical”.

Owain Jones – Stepping from the wreckage: Geography, pragmatism and anti-representational theory (2008:1609)  

 1. Introduction

On the 6th February, while waiting for a train at Leeds station, Owain Jones suggested it was time to start sharing our thinking related to hydro-citizenship. This essay responds to that suggestion by exploring ramifications of Owain’s assertion above as they relate to research around hydro-citizenship – including taking seriously the claim that we are trying to do something genuinely new.

In that context ‘inter’- and ‘trans’- disciplinary thinking are problematic, since they tacitly retain the presuppositions of ‘disciplinarity’ as foundational. As such they reinforce the unspoken assumption that knowledge, and so power, authority and all that flows from them, are ultimately inseparable from the specialist discourses and praxes of professional experts licenced to ‘speak’ authoritatively while laypeople listen. These assumptions – although increasingly eroded in certain quarters – are still foundational for academic orthodoxy and, as such, incompatible with the ecosophical thinking we now need to develop in line with Owain’s claim above.

This essay also takes seriously the supposition implicit in Owain’s text that we need to take notice of the relationship between violence and ‘law-making’ (as raised by Walter Benjamin). Not literally, however, but in terms of those ‘laws’ of disciplinarity that include and exclude particular forms and ways of knowing; as a “form of social control… of mind-control” that obliges “others to observe them and exclude[s] those who challenge them”; a process based on “a rigid hierarchy of authority and control, and [on the] corresponding rites of passage, initiation, and legitimation” (Finn 1996: 23). ‘Laws’ that also elevate academic, cultural, and professional activity over that of “peasants”, “farmers”, “herbalists”, “mothers”, and “working men”, despite the fact that these persons’ “practices are skilled, systematic, repeatable, teachable, informed by understanding, and productive of truths that are objective by anyone’s standards” (ibid: 24). So I’m suggesting that, notwithstanding the experimental constructivism promoted by the philosopher Isobel Stengers, or the ‘new’ “invention of a research apparatus – the ‘competency group’” – by Sarah Watmore and Catharina Landström (2011: 582), we remain in much same situation as that first critiqued by Ivan Illich et al in Disabling Professions in 1977. I’ve been responding to this situation at the level of praxis and by fostering ‘communities of transverse action’ (see, for example: and ) for some while. This essay follows that same trajectory.

 2. Essaying

 This essay is ‘polyvocal’, tries to evoke different and tensioned strands of the multi- or poly- verse in which we live. I‘ve suggested elsewhere that such “essaying” has, at the very least, the advantage of providing a means of interweaving the ‘poetry of values’ with useful analysis; of generating a multi- and in- disciplinary polyvocality (Biggs 2012, 2010). What follows is, however, grounded in academic writing (Biggs 2014), a forthcoming article for The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, and texts posted on my web site

 3. ‘Who’ researches?

If we take Owain’s statement above seriously we should, for reasons already indicated, be prepared to trouble any easy distinction between ‘profession knowledge’ and ‘lay understandings’.

Our everyday activity finds us moving between the many different, sometimes conflicted, even antagonistic, threads out of which our lifeworlds are woven. For some this weaving is almost wholly patterned on an existing status quo, for others less so. In the second case experience of the tensioning of our lifeworlds’ warps and wefts sharpens our awareness of their tense, many-stranded nature and its being: “comprised of multiple overlapping fields with various degrees of relational networks and points of contact with each other” (Wilson, Hawkins, & Sim 2014: 84). The lifeworld experienced as polyverse obliges us (and of course not only ‘as researchers’) to: “maintain a meaningful polyvocality in the face of monolithic notions of ‘truth’ or ‘reality’, particularly given the contemporary tendency to reduce all competing rationalities” – including the ‘critical rationality’ of the academy – “to that of the market” (ibid: xxiii).

No lifeworld is either self-contained or homogeneous. Each plays out in relation to others and finds its dynamic somewhere between the (relatively) open experiencing of a near-chaotic multiplicity of forces and events on one hand, and a very powerful ‘conservative impulse’ (Marris 1986) on the other. This is the impulse to manage multiplicities, complexities, and contradictions by referencing known, pre-given identity positions or shared narratives. These are referred to here as ‘life-as’. ‘Life- as’ is experienced as a ‘world-unto-itself’ or “in-itself [en-soi]” (Guattari 2008: 35); and is as far as possible structured according to a given, mono-ideational explanatory system internalised as foundational of self-identity. Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead speak of ’life-as’ “a dutiful wife, father, husband, strong leader, self-made man”, (2005: 3), but it can also refer to an internalisation of the given conventions of the professional artist, academic, postmaster, farmer, policy advisor, and so on. In each case the pre-existing assumptions of a ‘life-as’ are given priority over “‘subjective-life’ (life lived in deep connection with the unique experience of myself-in-relationship)”, and so over the disruptive possibilities of being-as-becoming (ibid: 3).

This differentiation can be related, in the field of geographical study, to that between ‘position’ and ‘place’ as understood by Edward S Casey, who claims that: “If a position is a fixed posit of an established culture, a place, despite its frequently settled appearance, is an essay in experimental living within a changing culture [emphasis mine]” (1993: 37). As already suggested, however, all lifeworlds oscillate between location and place in this sense and any research worth the name needs to take this into account.

That said, the growing culture of “regulation and control” in our society, which typically manifests itself through an oppressive “auditing, monitoring, inspecting”, etc., now puts increasing pressure on us to channel our time and energy “in highly regulated ways” (Hellas & Woodhead 2005: 128). This in turn increasingly generates a very effective, because apparently self-selected, ‘life-as’ dimension to significant aspects of our lifeworlds, reinforcing the hegemony of the ‘professional cartel’ identified by Illich (2010: 15). This cartel is, in consequence, able to maintain itself as an increasingly self-regulating and autonomous world.

These observations are intended to raise the question: ‘who’ precisely researches hydro-citizenship? But also ‘what’ range of skills, voices, understandings, presuppositions about authority, etc. does each constellated self (each constellated, polyvocal ‘who’) bring to that research?

 4. A context (‘The private is political’)

A David Napier writes:

“Now in our petri dish we see not only how static and complacent cells become at the centre of our ‘culture,’ but by contrast, how those at the periphery of the colony – where toxic wastes do not collect in high concentration – tend to have access to the nutrients of change and, therefore, to be the most vibrant. Remember, cell colonies are cultures that are engineered not only to promote certain types of growth but to limit others”. (2003: 12).

I found the recent Shipley National Team Meeting instructive and in some important respects empowering in the context of Napier’s analogy because the dynamics of our particular ‘colony’ are now clearer to me. I also found it troubling because it further exacerbated cognitive dissonances that I struggle with on an almost daily basis. While the circumstances that generate these dissonances are particular and personal, they point up larger issues pertinent to our collective work. These dissonances – which I would relate to what Owain (following Wittgenstein) calls “the ‘rough ground’ of the world” – open me, beyond any ‘life-as’ a professional artist, researcher, etc., to “a multiverse of forms of life and language (human and non-human) through which life/meaning is articulated” (Jones 2008: 1606). That’s to say they transversally disrupt that ‘life-as’.

This has enabled me to grasp why my (necessarily self-reflexive) professional work in the arts, research, and education is violently in tension with the contingencies of my family life. This tension, generative of the transversality vital to ecosophical thinking, troubles my identification with that work, particularly when I take it to be discreet, semi-autonomous, and somehow capable of facilitating “independent thought” and “alternative values” (Drucker, 2005: 17). This ‘troubling’ arises from the radically different and conflicting demands of arts praxis and academic research practices on the one hand (themselves by no means always compatible), and my responsibilities as a second career for my chronically sick daughter on the other.

As a result I understand that, whatever their (undeniably real) benefits, my professional activities are, in different ways and at different levels, enmeshed in some of the most cynical and self-serving aspects of the academic and cultural status quo and the ideological system that nurtures and sustains it. I’m also reminded on a regular basis that those values and that system, which make possible my various professional activities, also sustain and reward those persons and professions that neglect, humiliate, hurt (‘torture’ would on occasion be a more accurate word), and on occasion provoke the death of, people with whom my family have an intimate connection.

Let me explain.

After the hydro-citizenship groups had eaten together on Thursday evening (February 5th), I made a phone call home and learned that another of our circle of contacts had killed herself. She’d recently been assaulted by a family member and told she was going to be thrown out of the flat she shared with her parents. Her response to this violence –and to the protracted, callous, and wilful refusal to acknowledge, let alone help her address, the chronic nature of her long-term illness – was to quietly kill herself.

(To any reader wondering why he or she is being told this, given my ‘formal’ concern with hydro-citizenship, I will suggest this narrative is relevant because, as feminists have shown us, it is through studious reflection on the complexities of ‘the private’ that we can arrive at ‘the political’ in its most fundamental manifestations).

That suicide could have been my thirty-six year old daughter, who has suffered chronic Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) since she was thirteen. Some years ago our family made an award-winning film about the consequences of suffering long-term chronic ME, which we subsequently sub-titled in nine languages and distribute worldwide. As a result we became part of an international, fluctuating, fraught, and unstable ‘community of transverse action’ animated by a burning desire to do whatever we can to combat the ignorance, self-interest, and cruelty that leads to the suicide mentioned above. But this means that every few weeks we hear of another chronic ME sufferer being threatened with the withdrawal of Social Services support; with forcible hospitalisation; with being sectioned and locked in a psychiatric ward for refusing treatments that will only exacerbate the ME; with carers being jailed for providing treatments not sanctioned by the British Medical Association – all of which threats are regularly carried out. Or with another isolated, despairing, desperately sick person taking his or her own life.

This situation is of course profoundly distressing for anyone prepared to attend to it. But for me personally it also generates cognitive dissonances which make it hard to take research projects like our work on hydro-citizenship at face vale.

I will not detail the abuses, professional mind-sets, and institutional realpolitik involved in this (but see, for example, and Platten & Biggs 2014). I will simply say that, as a result, I’m highly sensitised to the larger implications of ‘socially engaged art’ still unconscious of its emersion in the culture of possessive individualism, to the toxicity of ‘Academic Capitalism’ and its research culture, to “the hyper-bureaucratisation of education in the Western hemisphere” (Bishop 2012: 268-271), and so on. So in addition to the discursive reflexivity of an artist and researcher, I’ve also developed a darkly visceral, almost savage, ‘worm’s-eye view’ of the professional worlds of which I remain a more or less ‘paid-up’ member.

I am uncomfortably aware that all this may be mistaken as my merely repeating an increasingly tired truism. Namely, that it is more and more difficult for those of us working professionally in institutionalised cultural and academic systems – those managed on the basis of an audit culture and its economic ‘bottom-line’ – to in any way mitigate the increasingly toxic effects of those networks of power and influence upon which academic research and cultural production are increasingly inseparable.

But, I suggest, a truism that, no matter how tired, none of us really wants to own – hence my reconfiguring it ‘otherwise’ here.

To raise this situation is not simply to risk depressing (and so no doubt alienating), the reader at both a personal and professional level. It can also be seen as potentially inciting what institutions increasingly see as ‘professionally inappropriate’ behaviour. Those who manage and curate our work now expect us to be at all times positive, upbeat even, regarding all aspects of our roles and situations. To conform, that is, to the norms of what Barbara Ehrenrich has termed ‘The Smile or Die Culture’. A culture wholehearted adopted by managerial and curatorial elites (and, more reluctantly, by those who must retain their favour) precisely to minimalize, even pathologize, the types of sustained personal, social and institutional critique that was traditionally an important aspect of intellectual and creative life. Strict conformity to this culture is increasingly an issue of economic survival for academics, a fact emphasized by the recent law case between Professor Thomas Docherty, author of Universities at War (2014), and the University of Warwick, and triggered by the professor’s alleged “ironic” comments and use of negative body language in the presence of his Head of Department (see

 5. A ‘dark’ paradox / empathetic imagination

I would, however, argue that my personal situation is (only) relevant to our research in that it illustrates a bitter if productive paradox.

Finding ways to negotiate our lived cognitive dissonances – to the extent, of course, that we are prepared to acknowledge and attend to them – is a constant spur to thinking through (in both senses of that phrase) the dilemmas, paradoxes, miseries, and ironies involved. This can then vitalise and inform transversal creative praxis, writing and research across all its ecosophical dimensions – both despite and because of the suffering that creates those dissonances.

Essays such as this one are problematic in the sense given by the old adage: ‘you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. Empathetic imagination, however one seeks to evoke it, is not something one can require of people. They find the capacity for it or they don’t. So the remainder of this essay will consist of nothing more than light ‘provocations’ and some imaginal evocation.

 6. First ‘provocation’

Owain observes that, for Richard Rorty: “solidarity is not built by making the other same, but by taking the precautionary ethical position of assuming the other can suffer and should be given the opportunity to recoil from that suffering as I would do” (2008: 1608). This might be linking to a discussion I had with Steve Bottoms and Paul Barrett, following Paul’s talk about neighbourhood engagement in Shipley. This touched on the very human pull towards getting involved in the issues and problems associated with particular individuals, together with the counter-pull to respect the demands of research, seen as precluding any such involvement. Unlike Paul (if I understood him correctly), I cannot accept that our research necessitates disengagement from the problems of specific individuals (although I acknowledge the need for a balancing of the ideal and the ‘pragmatics of the possible’, along lines analogous to Derrida’s views on hospitality).

I write this because, following Owain and drawing a personal commitment to the importance of testimonial imagination in deep mapping, I would want to stress the need to temper the “utopian impulse” implicit in many forms of research “with a profound sense of the tragic character of life and history”, one that “highlights the irreducible predicament of unique individuals who undergo dread, despair, disillusionment, disease, and death” and both ‘lay’ and “institutional forms of oppression” – including that tacitly executed by depersonalizing research processes – “that dehumanize people” (Jones 2008: 1609).

 (continued in part two) 




Deep mapping, conversation, and re-forging tools for thought

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Geraldine Finn reminds us that we’re “always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”. None-the-less we need categories to help us think. Deep mapping has been a valuable conceptual tool for me in this respect, albeit one I recently felt had been miss-used or blunted to the point of becoming almost meaningless. That, and more personal difficulties, prompted me to feel I should let go of it as a term. (I’ve noted the reasons in earlier blogs, so won’t go over my reasoning again here).

But I have now been movingly reminded that ‘deep mapping’ is, for me, rather more than just a useful (if slippery) concept. It’s also a shared praxis with a particular, albeit bifurcated and contested, history. At root the term names a shared and ongoing narrative, a story that many people have and are collectively making. One in which I’m still very much caught up. My friend and colleague Dr. Nessa Cronin, who works in the Centre for Irish Studies at NUI, Galway, has just reminded me of all this in the best possible way.

 Last year Nessa and I had shared thoughts about deep mapping when I was working at NUI, Galway, and we continued to do so by email after I’d left. She has recently completed work on a book chapter: ‘The Fineness of Things’: The Deep Mapping Projects of Tim Robinson’s Art and Writing, 1969 – 1972, and kindly sent me a draft to read. Given our exchanges I was curious to see what she’d written and was delighted by what I read. (The chapter will be published later this year by Manchester University Press in a book called: Unfolding the Landscape: Tim Robinson, Culture, and Environment, edited by Christine Cusick and Derek Gladwin. I’ll return to it again briefly later).

 However what I want to focus on here is not the virtues of that illuminating chapter about an exceptional man’s work, but rather my renewed sense of the whole mesh of exchanges that occasioned it and will now flow from it. Not simply for its own sake, but for what it reminds me about the real basis of shared scholarship and praxis. That mesh of exchanges includes those between Nessa, Tim Robinson himself, and his partner Mairéad; those between Nessa, myself and a host of other scholars and artists; but also, and critically, those between groups in communities in the west of Ireland, through Know your Place: A Community Mapping Workshop, run in conjunction with Lifeworlds: Space, Place and Irish Culture International Conference, Galway City Museum, 29th March 2014. This event, focused on devising a community-based mapping ‘toolkit’, centered on the mapping work and experience of the X-PO Mapping Group in Kilnaboy, County Clare, Mná Fiontracha Mapping Community Group in Árainn, and The Sliabh Aughty Community Group, with wider virtual communities, and with the workshop facilitators Dr. Ailbhe Murphy, Dr. Deirdre O’Mahony and Ms. Ann Lyons. All those exchanges will no doubt continue to contribute to this conversational weave, one in which deep mapping will be one, more or less useful, strand.

 It’s in this rich and particular context that Nessa wrote to me that she always tries to be mindful of the processes of thinking, reading, and writing as in many ways collaborative work. As she points out, this is the case even if the engagement is with thinkers long since died, yet still active in our thoughts and imaginings. Thinkers with whom we have imaginary conversations and debates around the key issues they thought and wrote about, just as we might with living thinkers. It is, she rightly insists, though all such conversations that our arguments “are tried, tested and forged over time”. Forged and, when they are chipped and blunted by careless or ignorant use, necessarily re-forged so as to help us to continue in our shared work. That’s one aspect of a community of scholar/teacher/practitioners – however on occasion fractious and divided – that helps to keep the purpose and value of listening and learning alive, despite all the dogmatic managerialism that is currently choking the vitality of our schools and universities.

 Cliff McLucas believed that deep mapping should be a conversation, and I now realize that it’s vitally important to hang onto that belief and, with it, to Nessa’s sense of the shared and ongoing nature of our conversational work. Questions of conceptual definition or miss-appropriation then become relatively minor and certainly secondary. At a difficult time in my life – not least because I’m about to turn sixty-five – I needed to be reminded that deep mapping is like a charged mycelial mesh, it’s energy flows where there are higher levels of conductivity to carry it’s charge, it jumps apparently impassible synapses and, of course, occasionally some of its energy will simply run to earth. That is not, however, a reason for not keeping faith with those conversations of which each of us is a strand.