Category Archives: Hydro-citizenship Research project

Simon Read’s Cinderella River, ‘notitia’, and the art of both/and.


Cinderella River, the Evolving Narrative of the River Lee (2017) is, taken literally, a case study undertaken by Simon Read as part of Hydrocitizenship, a three-year national research project funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. It is, however, also directly informed by Read’s work as an artist, speculative cartographer, environmental activist and Associate Professor in Fine Art at Middlesex University.

 Cinderella River

Cinderella River is primarily derived from a series of scrupulously documented walks along the Lee, undertaken by Read with students, colleagues or alone. Like any good case study, the book is scrupulously researched, offers astute observations, and provides informed suggestions for practical implementation. The rich and varied material it articulates flows from Read’s informed attention to issues as diverse as water governance, the placement of art in public spaces, limitations inherent in the planning of green spaces and open space amenities, the needs of the local wild life, and so on. A valuable and detailed case study then, albeit one written from a first-person perspective informed by certain wry humour, an unusual breadth of understanding, and enriched by numerous, carefully chosen, images. My concern here, however, ultimately has less to do with the book as a case study than with it being the physical trace of an exemplary engagement, to the point of being a form of deep mapping, with and of the River Lee. In short, I am interested in it as a significant example of ‘the art of both/and’, an inclusive art that helps address: “a deficiency in the mainstream art-based philosophical aesthetics by being truthful to the diverse dimensions [italics mine] of our aesthetic life”, a life lived in a pluriverse in which experience of the aesthetic “is not confined to the artworld and other art-like objects and activities”.[1]

The notion of an art of both/and is predicated on a conversational, relational, and inclusive understanding of the aesthetic, one that recognizes the implications of our living in a pluriverse and set over against the dominant presuppositions of our culture. (Presuppositions predicated on the assumption of a monolithic universe; the same assumptions on which our current university educational system and its research culture is based). Consequently, the art of both/and could be said to be a response to our need to abandon our culture’s reductive naturalism, it’s “faith in a single natural world, comprehensible through Science—or rather, through a mistaken definition of (Western) natural science whose purpose has been to eliminate entities from the pluriverse’.[2] A need that reflects the growing sense of crisis in our psychic, social and environmental concerns.

 Locating Cinderella River as an example of the art of both/and.

 I see Cinderella River as the outcome of different energies moving back and forth across three distinct but semi-permeable ‘worlds’ located in productive tension with each other. These are Read’s own diverse set of creative practices, his long-standing educational engagement as a tutor and lecturer (which he regards as “a duty as much as a congenial way of earning a living”), and the all-too-often Byzantine complexity of the world of State-funded academic research. (In this case, the hydrocitizenship project referred to above).

I’ll touch briefly on each of these ‘worlds’ in turn.

As the Portfolio page of Read’s web site makes clear, his creative work encompasses a diverse range of activities loosely-related practices. These include large-scale art work such as his Thames Profile, commissioned by the Countryside Commission; conference papers and talks relating to his practice and related concerns; a broad range of drawing work; both cartographic and sculptural environmental interventions; and the photographic work produced using hand-made panoramic cameras for which he was originally best known. Much of this diverse set of practices has, however, been directly or indirectly informed by the fact that his home base and studio have, since 1980, been a seagoing barge that has given him intimate access to the East Anglian Coast and its concerns.

Simon Read’s active concern with art education is, in my view, central to the perceptiveness, tolerance, and critical solicitude that permeates the text of Cinderella River. These qualities relate to a rarely discussed and poorly understood distinction between what might be called ‘monolithic’ and ‘pluralist’ conceptions of the artist. The term artist is usually (and misleadingly) taken to refer to somebody whose art practice is their sole or primary source of income and so their exclusive concern. To survive, such a person must negotiate and compete in the fickle, unregulated, and highly competitive ‘art world’ dominated by a global market predicated on conspicuous consumption. Those who wish to engage successfully with this market-driven world must adopt a single-mindedly and aggressively partisan position vis-à-vis their own work and, consequently, engage in continual and often strident self-promotion. The artist (who is also an) educator must, by contrast, constantly negotiate a paradox. She or he must square the circle of maintaining the necessary degree of partisanship to sustain their own practice with the disinterested openness necessary to meet the diverse educational needs of their students. Something of how Read himself squares this circle is hinted at in a section within the book called Walking the Walk. This includes reflections on Read’s introducing fourteen first-year art students at Middlesex University to the sculpture trail known as The Line, which roughly follows the Greenwich Meridian between the Olympic Park and the O2 stadium.

It is difficult to provide any kind of brief introduction to the world of academic research to which the hydrocitizenship project (funded to the tune of over one million pounds) belongs. This is due to the Byzantine complexities and opacity of the academic research world, but also to my own involvement in the hydrocitizenship project itself. (For my views on the early stages on this project, see my posts on 06.03.2016, 18.07.2015, and 11.02.2015). Consequently, I will restrict myself to making one general point here.

This concerns the realpolitik of disciplinarity which still underwrites almost all academic research projects. The Research Councils have, for some time now, encouraged the inclusion of the arts in inter-disciplinary academic research projects, arguably to increase the impact of their outcomes. While there are legitimate arguments for seeing the inclusion of arts elements as extending the reach and effectiveness of discipline-based research, these represent a somewhat partial view.

Arts practitioners have long complained that their inclusion in research projects is often either cosmetic, a means of ‘sexing up’ or rendering more accessible the data provided by ‘real’ research, or as a tacit form of academic ‘neo-colonialism’. That is, as a way of co-opting the aura of the arts, but without addressing the fundamental ontological and epistemological issues that should be raised when they are included in research projects. This leads to the suspicion that the academy is merely using the arts to paper over the cracks in a logocentric system increasingly unable to adequately address the ‘wicked problems’ at the heart of our most pressing psychic, social, and environmental difficulties. In my view both views outlined above contain a degree of truth.

I’m concerned here to think about Cinderella River in the context of this ambiguity, and to point up the book’s significance in relation to the type of research project that occasioned and funded it.

 The ‘art’ of both/and.

“We are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”.

Geraldine Finn[3]

In this section I want to offer a brief justification for referring to Read’s book as an exemplary engagement, to the point of being a form of deep mapping, with and of the River Lee. (A claim which, I suspect, will not concern him one way or the other). For reasons already hinted at, this justification is likely to appear indefensible to most artists because it runs counter to the cultural presupposition that art only appears as such in its own exclusive aesthetic space, one entirely ‘other’ to that occupied by such instrumental activities as the production of a case study. While practitioners of the art of deep mapping are likely, almost by definition, to be more inclined to adopt more inclusive notions of what constitutes ‘art’, they too may view my claim as over-extending the notion of what might reasonably constitute a deep mapping.

Put briefly, the justification for my claim is as follows.

In his Preface: Deep Mapping and Spatial Anthropology for the online, open access Journal Humanities,[4] Les Roberts refers to a statement by Jane Bailey and myself in which we describe the process of deep mapping as consisting of: “observing, listening, walking, conversing, writing and exchanging . . . of selecting, reflecting, naming, and generating . . . [and] of digitizing, interweaving, offering and inviting.”[5] He adds that although this “will not apply to all variations and permutations of deep mapping practice”, it usefully signposts “the way that very little of what deep mappers are doing is in fact oriented towards the production of maps”. Rather, he suggests, they immerse themselves:

“in the warp and weft of a lived and fundamentally intersubjective spatiality. It is from that performative platform—that space—that the creative coalescence of structures, forms, affects, energies, narratives, connections, memories, imaginaries, mythologies, voices, identities, temporalities, images, and textualities starts to provisionally take shape”.[6]

In my view, Reed’s book precisely articulates just such a warp and weft of lived and fundamentally intersubjective spatiality. Roberts goes on to add that whether what emerges from the process of articulating that space is a “map” is less important than the process involved; “an embodied and reflexive immersion in a life that is lived and performed spatially. A cartography of depth. A diving within”.[7] On this basis, I feel wholly justified in claiming that Read’s Cinderella River is both a case study and, additionally, the outcome of pursuing the fundamental qualities ascribed to a deep mapping by Bailey and myself, as taken up by Roberts.

This argument pre-supposes a view of the art of deep mapping in which collective relationality, rather than a traditional artistic exclusivity, is taken as central. One in which “listening”,[8] understood as a form of notitia,[9] is the founding principal. Notitia is understood here inclusively, as the exercise of an imaginative facility common to the creative articulation of insight central to the practices of art, education, ethics, and conversation, properly understood.[10] As “a careful attention that is sustained, patient, subtly attuned to images and metaphor”, it is able “to track both hidden meanings and surface presentations”.[11] Neither a technique nor a methodology, notitia constitutes an informed “seeing through” that is “never accomplished once and for all” and which is, of necessity, “slow, observant, and participatory”.[12] In the educational and research contexts relevant here, the practice of notitia is best seen as “an attempt to recover the neglected and perhaps deeper roots of what we call thinking”.[13] This attempt is necessitated by our being “inhabitants of a culture hierarchized by a logos that knows how to speak but not to listen”; the hierarchization designed to restrict our acting between and across the “competing monologues”[14] that make up the academic culture of disciplinarity.

In the context of reflecting on Cinderella River, notitia is understood as related to parrhesia, a classical term revisited by Michel Foucault and often paraphrased as ‘free or fearless speech’. This mode of speaking is intended to: “unearth alternatives to the dominant, post-Cartesian approach to truth as disembodied and objective”,[15] an approach that still dominates the presuppositions on which disciplinary realpolitik is predicated. Zitzewitz characterizes this alternative approach in terms of: “a variety of practices in which truth is dependent upon the ethical disposition of the speaker” [emphasis mine].[16] In this respect, parrhesia sits in direct contrast to notions of professional and academic authority predicated on the rhetorical use of an exclusive discourse that draws heavily on ‘power words’ that derive their authority from the taken-as-given intellectual or cultural positions of an academic status quo. “Parrhestastic speech” is, then, “characterized by the frank and unornamented declaration of … what is in the speaker’s mind”[17]; the product of a person whose spoken or otherwise articulated truth: “is subjective, verifiable not through recourse to claims of expertise” [whether that expertise is conventionally ‘academic’ or ‘artistic’], “but rather through the ethical labour … of the speaker”[18] (ibid). (A point that reinforces the inclusive understanding of notitia as common to both art and ethics). Zitzewitz adds: “The audience accepts these truths because of their relationship of trust with the speaker, a trust that is maintained through the speaker’s exposure to risk”,[19] for example, the risk inherent in setting aside any recourse to claims of a special or elevated position predicated on taken-for-granted professional expertise.

My own thinking in respect to the above draws on Guattari’s conception of the ethico-aesthetic as this relates to parrhesia. That is, in terms of a thinking that derives in part from Foucault’s desire, in the discussion of art, to move its practice “away from an exclusively discursive situation” by placing “parrahesia within the realm of sensible experience”.[20] In terms of Simon Read’s work, that sensible experience is used both ‘artfully’ and to construct a practical case study. That is, it’s located within an inclusive realm of imagining, drawing together, conversing, story-telling, all framed by extensive walking and other bodily practices oriented by the River Lee. An inclusive realm that, in its paradoxical marriage of specificity and diversity, responds to Geraldine Finn’s observation above, that “we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us” and, in doing so, is also: “truthful to the diverse dimensions of our aesthetic life”, producing a book that is both a work of art predicated on the expanded aesthetic of notitia  and a case study responding to forms of everyday aesthetic experiences that are: “not confined to the artworld and other art-like objects and activities”.[21]


[1] Yuriko Saito (2007) Everyday Aesthetics Oxford: Oxford University Press p. 242

[2] Bruno Latour (2004) Whose Cosmos, Whose Cosmopolitics p. 458.

[3] Geraldine Finn (1996) Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press International p. 156.

[4] The Deep Mapping double issue of Humanities (ISSN 2076-0787) from 2015–2016, is available online at:

[5] Jane Bailey and Iain Biggs “‘Either Side of Delphy Bridge’: A Deep Mapping Project Evoking and Engaging the Lives of Older Adults in Rural North Cornwall.” Journal of Rural Studies 28 (2012): 318–28, p. 326.

[6] Les Roberts ‘Preface: Deep Mapping and Spatial Anthropology’ reprinted from: Humanities 2016, 5(1), 5 p. xiv.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See Gemma Corradi Fiumara (1990) The Other Side of Language: a philosophy of listening trans Lambert, C London & New York, Routledge.

[9] Mary Watkins (2008) ‘”Breaking the Vessels”: Archetypal Psychology and the Restoration of Culture, Community and Ecology’ Marlan, S (ed) Archetypal Psychologies: Reflections in Honor of James Hillman New Orleans, Louisiana, Spring Journal Books pp. 415-43.

[10] See Monica Szewczyk (2009) The Art of Conversation, Part One e-flux Journal no. 3 Feb. 2009: ‘…if, as an art, conversation is the creation of worlds, we could say that to choose to have a conversation with someone is to admit them into the field where worlds are constructed. And this ultimately runs the risk of redefining not only the “other” but us as well’.

[11] Watkins (2008) op. cit. p. 419.

[12] Mary Watkins (2013) Hillman and Freire: Intellectual Accompaniment by Two Fathers p. 8. (consulted 1/12/2017).

[13] Fiumara (1990) op. cit. p. 13.

[14] Ibid p.85.

[15] Karin Zitzewittz (2014) The Art of Secularism: the cultural politics of modernist art in contemporary India London: Hurst & Co. p. 128.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Thanke quoted in Zitzewitz (2014) op. cit. p. 146.

 [21] Saito (2007) op.cit: p. 243.




‘Greening’ the Borders: a personal meander through questions of agriculture, woods and wetlands


Borders mixed woodland



Around mid-summer I spent some time visiting various mosses and other wetlands in the English / Scottish Borders. These included Ford Moss, a lowland raised mire to the south-west of Berwick-upon-Tweed; the three Whitlaw Mosses just east of Selkirk; and the Gordon Feuars Moss, a wet wood, just outside the village of Gordon.

This last is a very particular place, the remnant of a large floodplain mire dominated by a low tangle of birch and willow growing over a variety of fen and bog peatland habitats. It appeared entirely un-managed and, as such, made me think it might be some of the last “natural” remaining native woodland in Britain. However, on looking at a large-scale map later, I found that there are drains marked as running through two sections of the reserve: Gordon Moss Nature Reserve itself and the neighbouring strip known as Minister’s Bog. However a third area, Laird’s Bog, appears to be undrained, suggesting that there has been only minimum human intervention in the area in the past. That was certainly my impression ‘on the ground’.

What interests me is not, however, whether or not such a place is in some sense “pristine’, but how it fits into the shifting politics of land ‘improvement’ and environmental concern that is now starting to shape the Borders landscape.


Marker on the edge of Gordon Fears Moss.


In the ‘Laird’s Bog’ wet woodland at Gordon Feuars Moss


A 2006 report – “A Borders Wetland Vison” – compiled for the Scottish Borders Counciltells me there are eleven distinct types of wetland in the region – blanket bog, lowland raised bog, fens or flushes, reed beds, coastal and floodplain grazing marsh, wet woodland, lowland meadows, upland hay meadows, purple moor-grass (Molinia), rush pasture, and lochs. All of these are environmentally important. (Peatlands, for example, reduce global climate change by acting as carbon sinks that capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. Twenty percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon is captured and stored in peatlands located in the northern hemisphere). I have two related reservations about this report’s neat definitions, however. The first is that surely one of the important qualities of wetlands is psycho-social rather than environmental as that term is usually understood – their quiet ‘wildness’ in Don McKay’s sense of that word. That is, their capacity “to elude the mind’s appropriations” (2001 p.21), even those provided by scientific organisations like environmental research consultancies. My second, related, reservation is that, in practice and perhaps somewhat ironically, it’s precisely human intervention that so often makes a nonsense of any such neat distinctions. (Wet woodland, precisely because it occurs as small areas of wood or localised patches in larger woods on floodplains, as successional habitat on fens, mires and bogs, along streams and hill-side flushes, and in peaty hollows, many of which border on cultivated agricultural or other land, often combines elements of many other ecosystems).

Repairing the old sheep fank on the Carter Burn near the entrance to Burns in the Wauchope Forest area.

Sign marking the entrance to the Burns.

The image of an old sheep fans above is located in what was once an area of upland hay meadow.  It may originally have been bounded by wet woodland similar to that at Gordon Fears Moss and subject to regular flooding. The fank, however, is a product of the move towards land enclosure and the introduction of large-scale sheep farming. Then, beginning in the 1920s, sheep farming in this area was increasingly replaced by forestry, particularly the monoculture of Sitka spruce that now dominates the Wauchope Forest. Over the last eighteen years, I’ve watched this remnant of old upland hay meadow being further transformed; overrun by a mixture of bracken, reeds, and the beginnings of what may become a ribbon of deciduous wet woodland. While this process of change will continue one way or another, how it will fit into the wider pattern of future Borders land use is an open question.

The Midstream Collective

The Midstream Collective (left to right: CB, IB & MM)

I took the journeys indicated above because I wanted to get a sense of these wetland places ‘on the ground’ and to collect images. I was working towards a celebration of wetlands with my friends Christine Baeumler (an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Minnesota) and Mary Modeen (an Associate Dean at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee) for presentation at a conference in September. These are my partners in the Midstream Collective, which we set up some years back to ‘badge’ the collaborative work we wanted to do together.

As so often happens when I visit new places, the explorations with one end in view have set me thinking about another – land use on the Borders, both past and present – which in turn provoked this essay.

Ford Moss and its woodland


Ford Moss Nature Reserve sign

Ford Moss from the south-east

The Ford Moss Nature Reserve, wedged between a mix of farm land and old forestry plantation, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that sits in the hollow of a hill overlooking the Till Valley and the Cheviots. The Moss extends over about one hundred and fifty acres and is classified as a lowland raised mire. That’s to say its ecology is underpinned by a deep peat layer laid down by the rotting of vegetation over many thousands of years. The moss has become dryer over the last 250 years, but retains echoes of its older landscape form, which is undergoing ‘renovation’. The nature reserve includes old mixed woodland that’s adjacent to the moss and contains both mature Scots Pine and Oak.

I was unable to walk into the moss itself, which is fenced to keep people away from its “soft and treacherous surface”. Instead, I (largely) followed the circular two-mile path around its edge. The wildlife, particularly the birds, were present from the start, as indicated by the variety and volume of bird song, most noticeably of thrushes, blackbirds and skylarks. The persistent call of a buzzard hunting high over the moss accompanied me for much of the second half of my walk. I also had the luck to encounter a Roe doe at close quarters.

Broken snail shell – evidence of a thrush’s activity?

A buzzard calling high over the moss

Roe doe caught unawares

As I started walking around the moss, it struck me that the mature Scots Pine and Oak woodland bordering its southern side and situated on an incline, echoed descriptions of woodland I’ve read and thought about a good deal in the past.

Mature woodland on the slope to the south side of Ford Moss

This is the old woodland of the Jed Forest that had once covered an area of land called the Wauchope Forest, now largely taken over by commercial forestry. That area that interests me sits north and west of the Carter Bar pass on the Scottish side of the Cheviot Hills. (This is well down the Border to the south-west of Ford Moss in the old Middle March). The area I’m particularly attached to consists of three parallel low ridges with the Carter and Black Burn running between them into the Jed Water.

What came to my mind was that the woodland at Ford Moss was almost certainly of the same type that persisted, probably with relatively little change, from around the time of the end of the Roman occupation to some point in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, when the Lowlands were ‘improved’. (Jennifer Owen, in her magisterial Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study, suggests that by 400 AD. only 30% of England was wooded, although the percentage would have been considerably higher in the Borders). I regularly visit this area between Carter Bar and the former parish of Southdean when I’m in the Borders and have done so for almost twenty years now.

The politics of land use

The remains of Tamshiel Rig, photographed c. 2002. Fifteen years later this site, if it still exists at all, is completely inaccessible due to the density of the Sitka planting. 

I stopped in Jedburgh on my way from Ford Moss to visit the land around Tamshiel Rig – a medieval shieling built on the site of what was once one of the best-preserved Iron Ages farms in Britain (until it was plowed up for forestry). While I was there I bought a copy of Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell’s The Lowland Clearances: Scotland’s Silent Revolution 1760-1830 (Tuckwell Press, 2012).  Like so much historical research into social conditions in rural Scotland, it’s a stark reminder of how issues of social justice, ownership, and land use are intimately linked, of the complexity of those links, and of how the language of ‘progress’ has been used to justify the imposition of ‘top-down’ changes that have had long-standing consequences. (The authors reckon that the ‘improvement’ of Lowland agriculture traumatised, displaced, or otherwise disrupted, the lives of almost one third of the population. These were for the most part cotters, the poorest members of Borders society. In this context, it’s important to know that even today more than half of Scotland is still owned by less that 500 people, a situation with enormous socio-environmental consequences.

Two views reported in the book are relevant to my visit to the former parish of Southdean, where the population has been steadily declining year on year. The first is that of an establishment orthodoxy that views the enclosures and the improvements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a mark of unqualified progress. For that orthodoxy, the creation of “big new farms in place of common grazing” not only “completely altered the landscape of Scotland”, it ushered in the new, scientific agriculture essential to Scotland entering the modern industrial age (p. 72).

The second view is that of the historian Dr James Hunter. Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, was the first Director of its Centre for History, and the author of thirteen books about the Highlands and Islands and that region’s diaspora. He was the first director of the Scottish Crofters Union, now the Scottish Crofting Federation and is a former chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Unsurprisingly then, he contrasts the “empty deserted glens” central to large-scale Lowland sheep farming and “kept going solely by vast, enormous subsidies from Europe”, with “the unimproved parts of Scotland … the crofting counties”, where “you see a much more viable society”. (p. 148) He also suggests that the people who resisted the ‘improvements’, where, from the perspective of our present eco-social situation, those with the better, more sensible, more economically and environmentally viable vision of the Scottish landscape than the “few subsidy junkies” who now dominate “rural Scotland where improvement was given full reign” (ibid).

Lindean loch information board.

Lindean loch.

The historical link between the loss of wetlands and ‘improvements’ of various kinds is neatly illustrated by what’s known of Linden reservoir or loch, located just east of Selkirk. Prior to the eighteenth century, this would have been the lowest, and possibly most extensive, of what are now collectively known as the Whitlaw Mosses. (The remaining three are ‘Murder’, ‘Beanrig’ and ‘Blackpool’ Moss).

Whitlow moss, looking west towards Lindean Loch

Whitlaw Moss.

Although the loch looks ‘natural’ enough today, it is in fact the product of two major human interventions. As a standing body of water, it’s largely the result of the extensive extraction of lime rich marl (a form of clay), dug by hand during the eighteenth century. Marl that was then used as fertiliser locally to improve the grass necessary for intensive grazing. Then, in the twentieth century, the loch was dammed to provide a public water supply for nearby villages, a situation that continued into the nineteen seventies. Now notable for its lime-rich water and soil, and for the six hundred and more plant and animal species apparently found in and around it, the loch was designated an SSSI in 1977.

Rethinking woods and wetlands – Kielder, Wauchope and other commercial Borders forests

Clear-felled area of hillside north of Kielder


Clear-felled area at Burns in the Wauchope forest

Given my long-standing interest in the area just north west of Carter Bar, someone familiar with the area would probably expect me to visit the Border Mires, the name given to a collection of peat bog sites in, and adjacent to, Kielder Forest in Northumberland, rather than the mosses I in fact visited. After all this area was, until planting began in the 1920s, predominantly open moorland and mire, with remnants of native upland woodland – some of it wet – along stream sides and in isolated craggy areas. Now it’s the largest man-made forest in Europe, with three-quarters of its six hundred and fifty square kilometres covered by commercial forestry, of which seventy-five percent is Sitka spruce. Like all such forests, it is a depressingly monotonous and oppressive environment that, typically, sustains very little in the way of wildlife and provides little employment.

There are, however, fifty-eight separate peat bog sites within the overall forest area. These are in remote locations and largely made up of deep lenses of peat located in larger areas of blanket bog. They can be up to fifteen meters deep in places and are almost all dependent on rainfall to maintain their water-balance. Taken together, they store more water than the Kielder reservoir itself, the largest artificial lake in the United Kingdom, which holds forty-four billion gallons, figure that reminds me forcibly of the importance of peat bog in the retention and general management of water, particularly in relation to flooding.

Kielder Water reservoir.

My problem with trying to visit the Border Mires sites is that, not only are they almost all in very remote areas, but they are also designated SSSIs and require permission to visit them. Given the contingencies of our family situation and of factors like the weather, this simply isn’t practical for me. So, over the years I’ve spent time in the area of Scotland just over the border from Kielder in places I would call ‘wet edge lands’. That is, places that historically have been radically reconfigured by climate change, then by human enclosure and, later again, by the forestry practices used to create the current forest monoculture.


The Black Burn, it’s banks damaged by industrial scale clear-felling, is now producing marsh-like areas along its upper length. These are frequently flooded and almost always remain waterlogged. 

Roadside drainage ditch running into Carter Burn (2017).

The management of water in this area is now wholly determined by the needs of the forestry industry, in particular the quick and effective extraction of large volumes of timber. Crude roads built for this reason often disrupt the natural flow of water and, as a result, have a substantive impact on the two burns.  The new drainage ditch pictured above now above runs directly into Carter Burn, and over time will almost certainly impact on its course and water quality. If it speeds up lateral erosion it may undermine the bank that separates the burn from the nearby pool and, in doing so, substantially change the course of the burn.


A standing pool, perhaps originally created by the silting up of an old flood meander in the Carter Burn, also shows some evidence of having been dammed at some point, perhaps to provide water in connection with the nearby fank shown earlier.


The Carter Burn valley

The images above are indicative of the area in which I go to walk, look, listen, and remember; that is to find ways into the numerous processes that produced, and are still producing, this landscape.

What’s to remember here? Many things, but in particular the continuous processes of both sedimented and sudden change. Before it was ploughed up and obliterated to plant forestry, there were the extensive and perhaps best preserved archaeological remains of an early Iron Age farm anywhere in Britain located just above Black Burn. For some three hundred or so years either side of the start of the Christian era, there is evidence that a milder climate made it possible to grow a primitive form of barley here.  Later, in the medieval period, a bothy or sheiling called Tamshiel Rig was built near the site of the Iron Age farm. This provided shelter for those who tended the cattle that grazed here on the rich upland grasses each summer, part of a local agriculture based on transhumance. And to the east of the Rig, if local names are anything to go by, herds of swine once foraged for acorns in the oak woods and wallowed in the high mires above.

Why remember all this?

Because it tells us that present forms of land use are neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable. They are determined by the concerns of landowners and, as James Hunter indicates, there are always alternatives. That alternatives to the early modern culture of ‘improvement’ are now once again on the political agenda is clear from the Scottish Green Party’s policies.


A Borders cow and her calf (2017)

A Borders pig (2013)

Relevant Scottish Green Party policies: an indicative summary

 The Scottish Green Party’s manifesto commits it to working to ensure that Scotland’s land benefits the many and not the few, and that to establishing transparency as to exactly who owns Scotland. It also argues for a radical programme of land reform to transform the social, economic and environmental prospects for communities across Scotland. To achieve this, it is committed to supporting such proposals as providing agricultural tenants with a right to buy their farms in appropriate circumstances, and to ensuring that public subsidy is directed at those in most need of it and to support the expansion of new sustainable forestry. All of which goes against the grain of the modern culture of ‘improvement’.

The Party is also committed to increasing local community control over public land and to working towards greater democratic control of the National Forest Estate and of property currently administered by the Crown Estate Commissioners. It is similarly committed to promoting community agriculture, involving a step change in making land available for smallholdings, with a shift away from high-input agribusiness to low-carbon, organic farming.

This dovetails into  its proposal to support farming that provides public benefits, including rural jobs, water management, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and shorter food chains. It aims to foster links between communities, local farmers and food co-operatives. It also recognises the need to support new farmers from non-farming backgrounds in getting access to the land and finding opportunities to build experience in environmentally and economically sustainable farming. It is committed to supporting large scale ecological restoration projects of native flora and fauna, including the continued restoration of internationally- important peatlands. Again, these policies largely go against the grain of the modern culture of ‘improvement’.

In principle at least, all these policies point to what could be a radical transformation of the Borders region, its agriculture, woodlands and wetlands.

A ‘wild’ speculation

So, what might an alternative Borders landscape look like? What, over and above Green policy, is needed to shift the Borders back to reflect something of the ‘unimproved’ landscape values that James Hunter identifies with a contemporary crofting culture, for example that of the Sleat peninsula of the Isle of Skye? The policies of the Green Party, if put into practice, would open the way for the establishment of a hybrid between traditional small-scale subsistence agriculture, alternative sustainable forestry practices, and the contemporary possibilities of tourism and other forms of income such as I’ve seen at first hand on Mull. However, the implementation of Green Party policies would require a radical political shift that would be resisted tooth and nail by those who own or are dependent on the big Borders estates. This suggests that there is little or no realistic possibility at present of reversing the depopulation of the Borders or of breaking the stranglehold of ‘subsidy junkies’; not just the owners of big farm estates and heavily subsidized grouse moors, but the many absentee landowners whose return on investment in commercial forestry depends on subsidy. However, we do not know what the impact of Brexit will be on the subsidy culture.

If I was asked to identify a point of leverage that might nonetheless help to move this process on, I would argue for the ‘re-wilding’ of the vast forestry monoculture of Kielder forest and points north of the Border. By this I do not mean aping a few wealthy individuals to import beavers or wolves onto their private estates. My sense of re-wilding owes more, as already suggested, to Don McKay’s understanding. Not, then, the re-introduction of a single large mammal but, as a start, small-scale human projects designed to reestablish areas of mixed forest, mire and moorland in the vast monocultural hinterlands of commercial Sitka spruce cultivation. Not, however, as stand-alone projects, but as part of a wider eco-tourism and cultural/environmental education initiative build in consultation with local people, particularly those young people anxious to remain and earn a living from the land.

The artist and environmental activist Cathy Fitzgerald has ably demonstrated, through her Hollywood Project, that it is both ecologically desirable and practically possible for an individual to learn how to gradually convert commercial forest monoculture to fully sustainable mixed woodland. What is needed is, above all, opportunity and a desire for environmental change. Given a multi-stranded approach that, for example, seeks to go beneath and beyond the macho reiving-related culture so heavily promoted across the Borders, it should be possible to start to construct a multi-stranded and locally grounded basis – looking both back to a ‘pre-improvement’ agricultural past and forward to new, technologically-enabled possibilities, a basis equivalent to James Hunter’s vision of renewal on Skye.






Towards Hydro-citizenship? Speaking with Trevor Roberts

I spent the best part of two days at the beginning of this month at a Hydrocitizenship research project full team meeting held at the Windmill Hill City Farm in south Bristol. Some of that time I spent talking with ex-policeman and Canal Connections Director Trevor Roberts. Trevor and I first met properly at an earlier National Team meeting in Shipley in February 2015. (See earlier posts Troubling ‘epistemological/methodological’ waters? Parts 1 & 2) and I have come to value and enjoy his company.

Canal Connections is a social enterprise that explores opportunities for social regeneration. It does this through the medium of “waterways and their environs by the innovative engagement of individuals, families, communities and organisations (corporate, statutory and voluntary) whilst enhancing the built and natural heritage of that environment”.  This approach is based on the belief that “the canal environment provides a unique learning environment, particularly for those who benefit through a practical and vocational experience”. They see the canal environment as an under-utilized asset “for both individuals and agencies … seeking an alternative to traditional methods of engagement and empowerment”. As an enterprise Canal Connections embraces the potential of the canals for connecting with people on a variety of levels and they aim to use that environment as a stimulus to support those who want to develop new found skills and experiences and to encourage them to embrace opportunities. In particular those that will enable them to promote themselves and the area through the delivery of services or development of products for widespread community benefit. But there is also a strong desire to encourage individuals to learn more and, in the process, become ambassadors within and for their own communities.

I particularly enjoy talking with Trevor because he is an intensely practical and pragmatic man and, being neither artist nor academic, is less caught up in the tensions between conceptual projections and personal ambitions and anxieties that tend to complicate participation in any big research project of this kind. That’s not to say there aren’t things he’d like to get out of the project on a personal level, since he is obviously keen to build on what he’s learning, but only that he’s more open and straightforward about how his personal and collective concerns are related. Anyway, I enjoy talking with him both for the pleasure of it and because doing so helps me understand more clearly the internal dynamics of the research project as a whole.

Trevor is clearly a pragmatic manager who tries to do whatever is required of him to get things done. The emphasis in his work on giving others practical and vocational experience clearly reflects his own values and experience and there is no a trace of the ‘high altitude’ assumptions that are second nature to so many academics or artists (who, ironically, are often the first to criticise this tendency in academics).

I’m currently very interested in Gemma Corradi Fiumara’s work on listening as an attempt to recover: “the neglected and perhaps deeper roots of what we call thinking”. (See her The Other Side Of Language: A philosophy of listening Routledge 1990). Necessary work because the academic and cultural worlds in particular have internalised a mentality that: ‘knows how to speak but not to listen’; and that, in turn, feeds the culture of ‘competing monologues’ on which possessive individualism is predicated. Much of what Trevor and I discussed relates, albeit indirectly, to the business of face-to-face listening as a way of validating practical experience.

I’ll summarise this in my own terms, rather than those of the conversations themselves, but very much with Trevor’s approach in mind. We spoke about the value of managing creative tensions – of listening in the spaces between polarised positions so as to shift attitudes, and of the necessity of linking listening to those normally not heard to practical, transformative, action. We spoke about the need to enable communities of place and interest that have little or no voice with regard to the authorities who determine significant aspects of their lives – something I see as replicated in the sphere of academic management. We spoke about the way in which specialist academic and cultural language and practical ambitions need very careful mediation if they are to become something of value to communities.  We spoke about the importance of enacting terms like  ‘listening’, ‘validating’, ‘learning’, ‘translation’, acknowledging multiple ‘voices’, etc. so as to encourage people to change the way in which they relate to each other, and we spoke about the time necessary to developing transformative conversations. 


“Global Crisis – War, Climate Change And Catastrophe In The C17th”


Perhaps as an unconscious way of preparing myself for the UK’s pending General Election – we vote on Thursday of this week – I have just started reading Geoffrey Parker’s monumental book Global Crisis – War, Climate Change And Catastrophe In The Seventeenth Century (2013). And I’m not using the term ‘monumental’ loosely since the main body of the text alone is 708 pages long.

This is a history of genuinely global scope, and one based on an astonishingly detailed and wide-ranging reading of human and natural archival material from across Europe, Asia, Central America, and the Far East. In addition to the many and diverse elements that make up the human historical archive – Parker lists oral histories, written texts, reported numerical information, pictorial representations, epigraphic or archaeological information, and instrumental data –  he draws on the ‘nature archive’ of ice cores and glaciology, palynology (pollen and spore deposits), dendrochronology (growth rings in trees),  and speleothems (deposits formed by groundwater as stalactites). It’s not easy to summarise this book’s various aims, but put very simply it challenges the presupposition of generations of historians who, like Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie, have dismissed the consequences of climate change on human affairs as ‘slight, perhaps negligible’. That’s to say it sets out “to link the climatologists’ Little Ice Age [1640s – 1690s] with the historians’ General Crisis” that occurred during the C17th.

So for anyone interested in encouraging the formation of ‘hydro-citizens’ today (as I am currently signed up to be, although the term ‘hydro-citizen’ already seems an unnecessary limitation on the more appropriate notion of eco-citizenship), then I can see that this is going to be an important book.

Long and detailed this book may be but, even before I’ve finished the Prologue, it has me completely hooked. In addition to the interest of its argument itself, it is clearly going to be a book that anyone who understands the epistemological implications of Felix Guattari’s notion of ecosophy for the explanatory power of narrowly discipline-based approaches such as ‘economic history’ (and, of course, has the necessary time) should be sure to read. Although I’m only twenty pages in I’m already aware of the many ways the global situation during the Seventeenth Century bristles with ominous resonances with our own current situation.

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)