From Deep Mapping to Mutual Accompaniment? Work in progress.

On Tuesday this week I spent a day helping to deliver a workshop on deep mapping to second-year architecture students at Loughborough University, the result of a kind invitation from architect, artist and architecture tutor Tahmineh Hooshyar-Emami. The students had just returned from a three-day field trip to the Debatable Land (which straddles the English/Scottish border just north east of  Carlisle), so my long-running Debatable Lands project gave me the necessary background to help them to think about what factors might inform their designs for a tourist centre there. A demanding project, given the re-focusing on borders that will be an inevitable outcome of a Brexit process that deliberately presents an agenda of deregulation, the worst possible approach to social injustice and wide-spread ecocide, in the guise of an (English) call for ‘national(ist) sovereignty’ that can only reinforce the desire for Scottish independence. 

The day was clearly productive for all concerned and has further provoked me to try to think though the relationships and tensions between three topics that were constantly in my mind on Tuesday, particularly as a result of my conversations with Tahmineh. The first of these is, inevitably, the nature of the practices we call ‘deep mapping’ – particularly as they sit between the arts (performance, visual arts, literatures of place) and those bodies of knowledge officially designated as the disciplines of geography, archaeology, history, anthropology, memory studies, architecture, etc. The second is the university as the institution responsible for the delivery of tertiary education and, in my view, increasingly failing to do so in any responsible way. This failure has to be of particular concern at a time when many universities are not only ducking serious ethical questions about their educational and research responsibilities at a time of rapidly deepening social and environmental crisis, but in some cases adopting tactics more appropriate to the Sopranos both to protect their research income and to deter right-minded staff from drawing attention to the consequences of their craven capitulation to the values of an increasingly toxic status quo. The third topic is the practical orientation that’s emerging out of the work of figures such as Paulo Freire so as to address the legacies of social and environmental legacies of colonialism holistically – that is identifying the causes of gross inequalities of wealth, social injustice, and environmental degradation as inextricably linked – and, with that, the social turn away from possessive individualism. 

In ‘Beyond Aestheticism and Scientism: Notes towards An “Ecosophical” Praxis’ (a chapter I wrote for Brett Wilson, Barbara Hawkins, and Stuart Sim’s Art, science, and cultural understanding (2014), I referenced two posts from the blog of a respected Vice-Chancellor. Some years previously he had acknowledged that universities, supposedly the prime generators of new knowledge in our culture, had become among its most reactionary and conservative institutions. He had also indicated that their archaic position vis-à-vis society as a whole stemmed from the fact that their realpolitik (as opposed to their public rhetoric) remained deeply embedded in the presuppositions that underpin disciplinary hierarchies. Five years on all that has changed is that there has been a ramping up of the academic rhetoric of interdisciplinarity and a tightening of the managerial grip on academic thinking. Rather than undertake the difficult but necessary changes that would realign tertiary education (and by implication, education more generally) to the demands of meeting the chronic socio-environmental crisis in which we are now deeply embroiled, the ‘managerial university’ has merely increased its focus on rationalization, ‘efficiency’, and the market. (One of the ways in which this impacts on the education of students studying the arts has recently been signalled by James Elkins in a paper entitled ‘The Incursion of Administrative Language into the Education of Artists’). The link between all this and deep mapping may seem oblique in the extreme. However, as the needs of a critical, post-disciplinary education are increasingly subordinated to those of income generation, academics in ‘soft’ disciplines – that is without ‘hard’ research impact in terms of income – have had to resort to ‘sexing-up’ their curricula in order to attract the numbers of ‘customers’ required by their managerial overlords to compensate for their low status as research income generators. One result of this has been the rebranding of traditional arts and humanities departments through the creation of new areas of study such as the ‘digital’ arts and humanities. (The situation of new ‘environmental humanities’ departments and centres is more complex but, unless their staff are able to overcome their own, often deeply engrained, disciplinary bias – on which their own sense of authority often depends in a culture of possessive individualism – they will send out fatally mixed messages to their students).   

In recent writing and talks I’ve been trying to get a handle on the social and environmental impact of this tripartite situation through the lens of recent developments in deep mapping. In part by referencing its appropriation by academics in the ‘spatial’ and ‘digital’ humanities, and in part by indicating how ‘open’ deep mapping has begun to mutate, to help inform what the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins calls ‘mutual accompaniment’ in her recent book Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons (Yale University Press, 2019). My aim in all this is to show that deep mapping, in the context of moving towards an education fit for purpose at a time when what is required is Deep Adaptation, must itself be prepared to rethink what is to be understood by the adverb ‘deep’ in relation to issues of place, displacement, and placeless-ness. 

My sense at present is that this will require us to de-couple ‘deep mapping’ from its links with the roll of ‘Artist’ (capital A) – a designation now fatally infected by its adoption as poster-person for the ‘creative’ within possessive individualism. The alternative is to acknowledge what has always been the case with open deep mapping. That those who undertake it have always had ensemble practices, practices in which the function of their ‘art’ skills is to help constitute a multidirectional activity by animating and complicating the host of other, often more pragmatic and instrumental skills, with which those ‘arts’ skills are aligned. The resulting ensemble practice is, as a result, polyvocal and horizontal in its operational structuring; unlike the traditional univocal approach of the Artist in which all other skills and concerns are subordinate to the needs of a single monolithic identity.

It’s not a position I expect many people to be prepared to grapple with, let alone adopt, given the massive investment in the artistic ego and its unidirectional goals required to ‘succeed’ in the dominant culture. However, at present I can see no other alternative, given the terrible situation in which we find ourselves culturally, politically and environmentally.