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)