I spent yesterday in London at the invitation of Professor Harriet Hawkins, a geographer and art historian, who works in The Royal Holloway Centre for the GeoHumanities. She had invited Jen Harvie (QMUL), Neal White (Westminster University) and myself to act as a panel for a GeoHumanities in practice event – Practicing the GeoHumanities: the practice-based thesis and beyond – intended for doctoral students, potential doctoral students, ‘early stage’ and other post-doctoral researchers. (The event was made possible through Harriet’s seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm and by support from The Royal Holloway Centre for the GeoHumanities Royal Holloway Centre for the GeoHumanities, AHRC Creating Earth Futures project, and AHRC TECHNE doctoral Training Centre).
Harriet took the portmanteau term ‘GeoHumanities’ as naming an increasingly common intersection of the practice and scholarship of the arts and humanities with geographical scholarship and practice, focused around such topics as environment, landscape, place, identity, and mobility. As she rightly notes, a growing amount of such work is being done through practice-based or practice-led PhDs, a good proportion of which are based in Geography departments. The practices involved are various and include creative writing, poetry, visual and socially engaged arts practices, creative curation, and so on. The day workshop provided us, that is those working on practice-led or practice-based PhDs on geographical topics and those with congruent interests, with the opportunity to think and speak together around the various challenges and benefits of these ways of working.
My impression was that those who attended the day gained a good deal of useful support and information from the opportunity this event offered. However, rather than discuss the specifics of the day, difficult to do in brief, I want to draw attention to some general points that strike me as significant at this juncture. (That is, given what is now my almost eighteen years involved in the praxis of practice based/led research).
- On the evidence of this event, supervisors and doctoral students now have a much more sophisticated understanding of the experimental possibilities – both formal and intellectual – of the practice-based or practice-led PhD. Also of the regulatory issues and disciplinary realpolitik that frame and, all-too-often, still limit those possibilities.
- Closely aligned to this is a much greater involvement (and again I am largely going on the evidence of this event), in working in the ultimately political ‘spaces-between’ academic and professional knowledge production and ‘extra-academic’, ‘extra-professional’, ‘vernacular’, or ‘subaltern’ forms of understanding and practice. This might be characterized theoretically in terms of Guattari’s concern with transversality and an ethico-aesthetics, although I suspect that to do so would lead all too quickly to sterile debate on the slippery slopes of High Theory, rather than to the kinds of psycho-social and environmental engagements in evidence yesterday.
- It still seems to me significant that, as I would have predicted, almost all those attending the event were women. I think this was also significant in relation to the day’s total absence of theory-based gamesmanship. There may be any number of reasons for this, of course, but I am increasingly inclined to see both facts as relating to the emergence of a new mentalité. (This is related, but not reducible to, the effects of Feminism. If I were to try and set out in detail my own reasoning about this, I’d need to go back to an old essay: The Conversational Weave (another place) – see http://www.iainbiggs.co.uk/text-the-conversational-weave-another-place/), and to a recent book chapter – ‘Re-Visioning “North” as an ecosophical context for creative practices’ in Timo Jokela & Glen Coutts (eds) Relate North: Culture, Community, and Communication 2017, Rovaniemi, Lapland University Press – as starting points).
- I am not sure whether the following observation may involve a degree of projection, but it seemed to me that, underlying the whole event, there was a commitment, mostly tacit but sometimes explicit, to radical pedagogy in the spirit of Paulo Freire. A spirit that was manifest in many of the projects themselves but also, perhaps less noticeably, in discussions around supervision. Within any academic context this is itself significant, since any concern with pedagogy is normally treated as, at best, marginal when research is the topic of academic conversation.
- The issue of language and writing, present in many of the presentations and conversations in relation, for example, to questions of acknowledging polyvocality, the articulation of experience, and the limits of disciplinarity, needs further discussion. Those of us who have practices that don’t privilege the analytical over the narrative, imaginal or poetic, are haunted, and often harried, by the conventions and presuppositions of analytical academic discourse as the authoritative mode of thinking. This situation requires some very careful and radical work if we are to understand the problems it brings. I will simply indicate one aspect of those problem here.
In an article entitled Stepping from the wreckage: Geography, pragmatism and anti-representational theory – Geoforum 39 (2008) 1600–1612 – Owain Jones (Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University) offers a highly sophisticated philosophical account, based on non-representational theory in geography, which sets out to articulate:
The dissatisfaction … with the ongoing trajectories of enlightenment/modern aspirations of progress towards truth through the elimination of doubt and the application of reason, language and power in the dividing, sorting, representing and fixing of the world.
Jones’ aim here is to support and develop the move to “theory and research as creative action” in geography. But there is an inherent paradox. These theories set out to repudiate the epistemological error Jones identifies by, among other things, engaging “with the techniques and presentational forms of the creative arts”. However, their authority as geography theory remains almost wholly unrelated to the types of authoritative evocation manifest through arts practices. Instead it depends on using philosophy (the “queen of the sciences”) to re-conceptualize – that is finally to re-divide, re-sort, and re-represent – previous discursive positions within the ongoing competitive discourses of academic geography. Its exponents may quite properly write of ‘escaping the wreckage’ of the logocratic order but, in practice, they are simply perpetuating that order. Should they genuinely adopt forms of articulating understanding based on evocations that employ the techniques and presentational forms of the creative arts, their authority, status, and perhaps even their employment, as High Theorists of contemporary Geography would almost certainly be in jeopardy. They do not (and perhaps cannot risk) doing in practice what they speak about philosophically.
This may seem an unfair criticism, given the inevitable location of “non-“, “anti-“ or “more than” representational Geographies within the necessary limits of academic discourse and the realpolitik that sustains it. Unfair unless, that is, we start to look at other models that offer genuine alternatives to this kind of writing. The title of Donna J. Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chtulucene already indicates an important difference in language and orientation from Jones’ article. While Jones wants to step away from the wreckage – the standard academic move to gain the necessary distance on which analytical critique is dependent; Haraway wants to stay with, remain immersed in, the trouble. Jones cites philosophy, or the philosophically-underwritten position of other geographers, to authorize his thesis. By contrast, Haraway cites her direct engagement in or with an eclectic mix of science studies, anthropology, political theory, storytelling and specific arts practices, to authorize hers.
So in her book, we find a vibrant polyvocal exchange, a wild and inclusive conversation in which her own experience and involvement speaks with Isabelle Stingers’ thinking and Baila Goldenthal’s painting Cat’s Cradle/Sring Theory; where Ursula Le Guin’s notion of science fiction speaks with Hannah Arendt’s political vision; and The PigronBlog team’s project and a “Bee Orchid” cartoon by xkcd speak with Bruno Latour’s anthropology. Here there is no Art (capital A) and no Authoritative Academic Discourse (capitals A, A and D), assumed as exclusive positions, one set over or against another. In short, Haraway’s writing evokes a ‘walking in practice’ of what Jones can only identify in terms of a philosophical position within a conventional discourse; one that is authoritative only in so far as it remains firmly within a set of presuppositions inseparable from the realpolitik of the academic status quo.
I would suggest, then, that if the new terminology of Geo- or Eco-Humanities is to mean anything, and if there are to be practice-led or practice-based doctoral projects by people who can develop that meaning into forms of lived praxis, then we need to continue to act on the conversations that Harriet initiated yesterday.