Madeline Miller’s Circe: attending to the Third Ecology

Félix Guattari argues that we need new configurations of three fundamental and interwoven ecologies – the environmental, the social and the psychic – if we are to address our now toxic situation. It has seemed to me for a good while now that artists, while they may pay lip service to Guattari’s thinking, simply don’t take the ecology of the psyche seriously enough. (Perhaps because they rightly sense that to do so might raise questions that are too close to home for comfort). Yet we are deeply embedded in a culture in which psychic problems of addiction, depression, self-harm and suicide are rapidly growing, not to speak of wider issues like the gap between rich and poor, the national disgrace in the UK of growing levels of child poverty, and the related need for food banks. All of which are indications of a shriving away of the empathetic imagination proper to understanding what constitutes human selfhood. In this grim situation, we obviously need all the help we can get to identify and address the root psychic causes of what is happening all around us. 

These thoughts, or variations on them, have been with me all summer as I’ve struggled with a familiar problem. How do I make any sense of and write about the increasingly dangerous and uncertain situation we’ve arrived at and, in particular, of the role of the arts in the culture of possessive individualism out of which that situation has grown. In the last few weeks help with this thinking has come from an unexpected source. I’ve read and re-read Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, a retelling of many of the elements of the Odyssey, seen from the perspective of the nymph, and later witch, CirceI have been fascinated by Greek myths since I read Robert Greaves’ re-telling of them in early adolescence; a fascination later deepened by my reading of authors such as James Hillman, Ginette Paris, Mary Watkins and Edward S. Casey. Much of which has, no doubt, been at the back of my mind while I read Miller. (Her book has been called an example of ‘feminist revisionism’, but for me such a dry academic term misses so much that makes it compelling as a novel). 

It has helped my thinking because it seems to me to identify and challenge two interwoven and fundamental aspects of possessive individualism – the myth of the hero (usually male, but in today’s culture of any gender), and the cult of fame (our culture’s substitution for “immortality”) which, taken together, orient our culture’s obsession with individual exceptionalism, the desire for attention-grabbing achievement or celebrity to be won regardless of the cost to one’s own humanity, to others, or to the world at large. Consequently, Miller’s evocation of Circe’s final act, her preparation to use the full strength of her knowledge and power to renounce her own immortality, is every bit as important to Miller’s story as her skilful deconstruction of Odysseus’ status as a hero. 

There is a passage late in the book that brought me close to tears because it seems so extraordinary relevant to our current situation and to the questions I’ve been asking myself. It involves a conversation between Circe and Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope who, with her, has found refuge with Circe. (They hope of escape the attention of the Goddess Athena, the force behind Odysseus’ insatiable desire for fame through cunning, trickery and ruthlessness). The two of them are discussing levelling the uneven flagstones in her courtyard. As Telemachus begins the job, Circe points out that their uneven wobble is caused by roof water draining there and washing away the soil. Whatever he does, the wobble will return after the next rain. His reply begins a passage that, for me, is the heart of the book: ‘that is how things go. You fix things, and they go awry, and then you fix them again’.

What follows offers a telling account of an alternative to the heroic model based on exceptionalism. It counters its failure to acknowledge what really drives our restless “scientific” curiosity, our desire for novelty, our desire to move on so as to find new, attention-grabbing challenges to meet and problems to solve. Its failure to acknowledge and celebrate the absolute necessity to human community and solidarity of sharing attention to ‘how things go’. Of attending to their inevitable ‘going awry’, and the central importance of our willingness and ability to patiently return to the task of fixing them yet again. And within this the central importance of taking pleasure ‘in the simple mending of the world’, as Circe puts it later in the book. 

All that happens later in the book flows from Telemachus’ seeing through, and rejecting, the seductive image of the hero his father once embodied for him. Despite everything that Athena offers him, he makes it very clear that he has no wish to emulate his father. Instead he accepts that our being truly human requires us to recognise that, when things inevitably go wrong, that is simply how the world is. That we must then fix them as best we can, recognising that they will go awry again and that we, or those who follow us, will then have to fix them yet again. An honouring of the solidarity t be found in facing basic human necessities, rather than the desire for the exceptionalism of the hero.

Given what we know of the relationship between some current political players and their fathers, this passage takes on a particular relevance. But (for once) I will resist the temptation to be trite and dwell on such individuals. (If you are a regular reader of this blog, you won’t need to guess who I have in mind). This is not, however, an issue of “individual psychology” (itself a problematic and potentially misleading phrase). It’s about a fundamental presupposition that helps underpin the entire “globalised” culture of consumer capitalism. (And, of course, the “success” of artists like Jeff Koons, which depends on the warping of our sense of creativity and imagination in the name of novelties that can be easily and conspicuously consumed by the super-rich). Until we face the psychic issues that that presupposition generates, in whatever way each of us can, those who see themselves as “artists” in the heroic mode will remain just what the performance art Andrea Fraser has named them, part of the problem, not part of the solution.      


P.S. re. ‘what artists might do’.

This relates to my last post. Perhaps there is one thing I can suggest that all artists might do to become more useful. It’s to read the new Global Commission on Adaptation Report: Adapt Now: A Global Call For Leadership on Climate Resilience. OK, so it should have been a report that called for deep adaptation and spelled out why Trump, Johnson et. alia. are pursuing pathological and suicidal political policies , but that was never going to happen. I’m actually surprised they’ve said anything along these lines at all.

To write: “Government officials and business leaders need to radically rethink how they make decisions. We need a revolution in understanding, planning, and finance that makes climate risks visible, incorporates these risks into all decisions, and releases public and private financial flows” may be true; but it is also, of course, a massive fudge. It’s another way to avoid acknowledging the underlying problem of power. One that can be paraphrased as “we had the power to get you into this mess, and only we have the power to get you out of it”. This is, of course, nonsense.

If “they” really had that ability, surely they would have acted on it by now? The truth, I suspect, is that as people they are more than most psychosocially incapable of breaking with their having internalised the values of possessive individualism. To make that break would, I think, require them to reinvent themselves in ways they simply cannot begin to imagine. And maybe, just maybe, that’s where artists can do something useful. But only, of course, if we can make the break with those cultural values first.

In addition to drawing attention to what those among the status quo who are publicly prepared to say about the deepening climate crisis, the report helps explain the extraordinary energy the current British (or should that read English?) Government are putting into taking the UK out of Europe.

The last thing that cabal of autocrats and their billionaire backers want is to find themselves in a situation where this kind of thinking is taken seriously, as the EU has already shown signs of doing. That would potentially restrict their capacity to pursue their own personal fantasies of more wealth and power regardless of the socio-environmental cost. Hence the whole “sovereignty” nonsense. (As if Britain has any kind of real sovereignty as a nation in the age of global corporate capitalism). Whatever its failings, and they are many, at least the EU offers some basis on which to lobby for, coordinate, and share good practice around the deep adaptation we now urgently need.

But from a UK Government point of view, all this talk about an environmental crisis just an extension of “Project Fear”. Heaven forbid, for example, that London might be required by EU legislation, not just to actually lower its deadly traffic pollution rates, but to follow the example of Rotterdam. That is, to develop and help fund a serious, long-term flood plan. Instead we are sold a bogus vision of sovereignty that is a smoke-screen for allowing, say, property speculators to build the new Boris Johnson third London airport, and financial speculators to bet both ways on the UK’s economic collapse from the (relative and short-term) safety of their off-shore business hubs in Ireland or wherever.

So, please read the report and think about how, as people used to working imaginatively, we might best respond to it.

I’m not, of course, suggesting we need art made in response to the report – although I can think of worse things to do – but simply that we need to start cultivating imaginative responses to such understanding as it shows.

How to be a useful artist in the face of the climate emergency?

Back in May this year I put up a post called Terrestrial Matters, a version of a presentation I gave in May at Culture Climates: Fostering Art for Sustainability – Time for a new Cultural Policy? at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. I now want to follow on from that post in response to a heartfelt question I’ve been sent, linked to that event. My questioner asks: “how to be a useful artist in the face of the climate emergency”? My response is tentative and partial, but it is informed by reading Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation essay, Extinction Rebellion’s This Is Not A Drill, and Bendell’s contribution to it, Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse.

I think there’s three, maybe four, aspects to the question I’ve been asked. The first concerns whoever asks such a question, the second concerns what we now understand by “art”, and the third is about what is meant by “the climate emergency”. (I’ll look at the final one in a postscript). Although these are obviously closely interrelated, I’ll take each of them in turn. 

There’s obviously no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question and my response can only be personal, based on my own realisation, at some point about twenty years ago, of “advanced” art’s increasingly problematic relationship with what Amitav Ghosh has recently called The Great Derangement. Reading the work of people like A. David Napier, Mary Watkins, Geraldine Finn and James Hillman over time enabled me to see that “Art” in the Global North has been co-opted as a symbolic cornerstone of the toxic culture of possessive individualism.

One. Who is asking the question?

The realisation that “Art” had been co-opted by the culture of possessive individualism led me to question, and then unpick, the basic assumptions that that culture makes about creativity and self. I then had to listen to the response of the multiple selves that I am in the bruising psychological fallout that followed. The result was that I have had to accept that I’m not an autonomous individual; that I don’t “own” “my” creativity or even “my” selves, nor do “I” own anything they produce as some kind of autonomous, “stand-alone” entity. My “I” exists and can act only as a loose consortium of shifting selves within a larger connectivity of encultured beings of (fortunately) many different kinds (both living and dead). That is, through all the innumerable reciprocal connections, attachments and relationships in which it is entangled. (This is the best description I can mange of the psychosocial connectivity of a human being which, in turn, is wholly dependent on the larger ecology of the multiverse that Bruno Latour calls The Terrestrial).  

Two. Which “Art” and “Artist”?

This understanding of self as a loose consortium of entities, persona, or whatever, placed within a psychosocial network that’s extended in time and across place, and as dependent on the multiverse which constitutes it as its environment, has required me to detach “my” sense of self-esteem and value from any claim to be first and foremost “an Artist”. To do otherwise was ridiculously reductive and replicated the “colonial” repression of multiplicity on which power in the Global North has depended historically.

Once I began to realise this, I started to identify myself professionally (and still far too reductively) as “a teacher/artist/researcher”, which much later led me to adopt the idea of each person as an “ensemble” of practices. All of which suggests that, at least for me, the first step to addressing the question: “how to be a useful artist in the face of climate emergency” is to acknowledging that “I” am not, and have never been, primarily or essentially “an Artist”. And that neither “I” nor anyone else has ever possessed a single, monolithic, professionally-given, identity of that kind. Rather, the person that “I” am is in actuality somewhere on a continuum of possibilities. Between a process of becoming – as a living and changing constellation of roles, connections, attachments and relationships at one extreme or, at the other, so pathologically identified with one identity at the expense of the consortium they really are as to be, in Amitav Ghosh’s sense, deranged. A constellation, I hope, in which “doing art” may (or may not) have a genuinely creative role in attending to the relationship between self as a consortium of entities and the multiverse.This brings me to the point where, until I can consciously accept and honestly act on that understanding, as an “Artist” I remain, regardless of the nature of my practice, part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Linking parts One and Two.

Like most people brought up in the Global North, I was immersed from childhood in its values, unconsciously absorbing basic presuppositions handed down to me by the monotheistic Christian worldview that the Enlightenment both secularised and continued. A worldview in which the default position is always binary: this or that, good or bad, male or female, sacred or secular, Left or Right, right or wrong, etc., etc. This predisposed me to assume that I could either be an artist or I could not. It’s hard to break with that enculturation. One of the books I’ve come to treasure is Maddy Paxman’s The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss, her account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique and writes: 

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life”.

I find this sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she clearly loved deeply (a man who was ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry), both moving and instructive. 

I recognised all-too-clearly that feeling that making art is something necessary to my well-being, like getting enough vitamin C. What most touched me, however, is that this book is about a clear-sighted and unselfish love that transcends the binary presuppositions I struggle with on a daily basis. Here, it seems to me, is somebody who understands what it is to live with and through, for better or worse, every kind of reciprocal connection, attachment and relationship.And to do it with humour, love and understanding. So I would change the question. Not ‘how can I be a useful artist in the face of the climate emergency’, but ‘what are the relationships between the consortium I call my “self” and the realities of the reciprocal connections, attachments and relationships that embed it in the multiverse’? That change allows me to ask whether involvement in art is something I am ‘driven’ to do at the expense of others (Maddy Paxman’s tacit definition of an “Artist”), or whether my making art is a “supplement” (again, like vitamin C), one that’s necessary for my well-being. When I got to that point, letting go of the idea of “being an Artist”, but without “giving up” art, freed me to prioritise other activities, including bringing an ensemble practice so as to engage with theclimate emergency.

I’m aware that all this may appear to be little more than a ‘circling round’ the question I started with. But I have needed to unpick assumptions about “being an artist” before getting to the idea of “the useful artist”.

To summarise. I think we need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. To do this I’ve drawn onthe distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make by proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a “life-as” at one extreme and a life as “being-as-becoming” at the other. “Life-as” requires investing in a monolithic psychosocial sense of self that, to protect its investment, must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not further it. It lacks, as a result, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse – fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended. The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple.

To face our eco-social crisis, we must find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. We can’t do that by investing in any “life-as”, particularly not in ‘life-as an Artist’. But I’ve also unpicked the first two parts of the question in this way because I recognise that, for any number of pragmatic reasons, those who ask it in good faith will, in all likelihood, need to continue to earn a living in ways that require them to maintain the illusion of “being an Artist”, at least in relation to professional peers and public institutions. By going into this at some length, I hope to help them clarify their own situation.  

Three. The Climate Emergence.

Before we can work out how we might be useful (“as artists” or otherwise) in the Climate Emergence, we need to know what we mean by that phrase. In my view, the answer is that given by Professor Jim Bendell in his paper A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, in which he sets out the argument for: ‘inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change’. This requires, as he writes in Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse, that we now act ‘to reduce harm and save what we can’; in short, that we ‘prepare, both emotionally and practically, for a disaster’ that is likely to cut our civilization off at the knees. How we do so will depend on our individual skills, circumstances, and dispositions. Some will use their ensemble practices to facilitate community-building, some will focus on food security, some on building psychological adaptability, and so on. The skills we have as, among other roles, artists, can help us to do this. For others, myself included, our situation may be such that it requires us to all but abandon our involvement in making art for other, perhaps ultimately equally creative, activities.

That’s pretty much all that I feel able to say on the topic, other than to add what is, perhaps, too personal a postscript.    


Speaking personally, I am having to learn to deepen the love, both passionate and dispassionate, that is celebrated in The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss. A love that is, I believe, precisely the same that Jem Bendell advocates in Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse. A form of love, ultimately based on honouring the wholeness of the Terrestrial and all within it, that I’ve been trying to write about all summer in relation to the work of the painter Ken Kiff. A love that, in the unconditional form of agape, is an intensely uncomfortable and difficult word to use, let alone work with, in the culture of possessive individualism that dominates our thinking about art. That’s why, in my talk at NUI Galway, I used the phrase ‘mutual accompaniment’, borrowed from the social psychologist Mary Watkins. Mutual accompaniment understood as a continuous, shared process of respectful, practical, learning that helps reorient our thinking precisely by focusing lovingly on connections, attachments and relationships, which is probably as close to agapeas we can get in practice.


P.S. The despicable Jacob Rees-Mogg

There are times when I would really rather not have my views confirmed, but Jacob Rees-Mogg’s despicable and cowardly attack on Dr. David Nicoll – an abuse of Parliamentary Privilege if there ever was one – would seem to be designed to confirm my sense of the depths to which this multi-millionaire will sink in order to further his own agenda at the expense of people who, like my daughter, cannot survive the failure of their medical supplies due to a ‘No-deal Brexit’.

After a long silence …

I’ve not added to this blog for a good while. I fractured my wrist and ruptured the tendon in my right thumb at the end of July, which has made life rather more complicated than usual. But the main reason has been a sense of emotional turmoil that’s made me reluctant to return to this form of writing. A mixture of fear and outrage at a political situation that impacts on my life at many levels. Fear that a no-deal Brexit will prevent my daughter from getting the vital medicine on which her precarious well-being depends. Outrage that the grim political farce of Brexit, played up by a monied elite (who effectively own the media) and who are now using a phoney English nationalism to blind the population to the need for deep adaptation in the face of environmental and social meltdown. And a strange mixture of deep sadness and regret that the various bonds that link me to good friends in Ireland and America are being weakened day by day. Weakened because, despite what we would wish, we are all increasingly forced to give more and more attention to a social and environmental situation created by the contempt of that elite for everything but their own wealth and privilege. We all had better and more worthwhile things to do, yet must now set them aside in a desperate struggle to retain some semblance of the quasi-democracy that we still have. Without it, we have no chance of working together towards addressing the fundamental socio-environmental issues we face.

Terrestrial Matters

This is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given at the Culture Climates: Fostering Art for Sustainability – Time for a new Cultural Policy? workshop held at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway, and organised by Dr Nessa Cronin, on May 14th, 2019.   

I’m very grateful to Nessa for the invitation to speak today, not least because it’s given me the chance to catch up with some old friends in Ireland, however briefly. 

I’ll start with the obvious. Our current problemsare not simply environmental. They’re social and, perhaps particularly, psychological – that’swhy Amitav Ghosh refers to our global crisis asThe Great Derangement. Until a few years back, I earned a living teaching, so I tend to see situations in terms of what we need to unlearn, learn or re-learn. I think that one of the most important things we can do now is unlearnthe dominant culture’s assumptions about creativity and self. That’s to say, we have toreturn to a fundamental ecological principle – that we’re not autonomousas individuals. We don’t own ourselves or anything we produce because we exist and can act onlythroughconnections, attachments and relationships.

In its own particular cultural terms, that’s what this retablo tells us. I’ll give you a moment to read the dedication. 

Retablo commissioned by Obdulia Lopez and dedicated to the Virgin of Jaquila. Artist: Flor Palomares. The dedication reads:

“I’m thanking, with all my heart, the Virgin of Jaquila, for keeping our family tradition of weaving. My mother and grand-mother were weavers and they taught me since I was a little girl. Now my serapes, huipils and rebozos are most valued among foreign tourists who buy them.”
Obduilia Lopez , Chiapas, Mexico.

If we want a just and sustainable world, we have to acknowledge that each of us is always enmeshed in, and dependent on, larger exchanges over time and across space. Exchanges involving the work, substance and knowledge of numerous other beings, human and non-human. That’s not always  easy to acknowledge in a culture of possessive individualism.

One way of unpicking the assumptions of possessive individualism is by thinking in terms of‘mutual accompaniment’, a phrase used by the social psychologist Mary Watkins.Mutual accompaniment is a continuous, shared process of respectful, practical, learning that helps reorient our thinking precisely by focusing onconnections, attachments and relationships. I’m going to try to give you a sense of what this might mean in practice using work I’m involved with.

LuciGorell Barnes co-ordinates Companion Plantingas part of her work at a Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Bristol, where she’s been artist-in-residence for fifteen years. Based on a council allotment plot, the project involves gardening and environmental awareness as a medium to explore parents’ engagement with their children’s learning. In the process, it brings people together to share skills, make friends, and celebrate diversity. Many of those involved are refugees or migrants, mainly from Africa and Asia. My contribution to all this is simply as a sounding-board, a ‘critical friend’ that Luci can discuss the project with in the wider context of non-standard education, environmental concerns, parenting, and creative forms of narrative and research.  

Luci earns her living as an educator, researcher, and artist-in-residence, while simultaneously working as a partner, mother, grandmother, writer, illustrator, and studio artist. We met by chance while helping to run a workshop for people involved in water policy and governance, part of a UK-wide research project exploring hydrocitizenship.On her web site, Luci introduces herself as an artist concerned with:‘… developing flexible and responsive processes that enable us to think imaginatively with ourselves and each other’. I see that concern as central tomutual accompaniment. 

Water Storiesconsists of stories told by 19 women from 16 countries across 5 continents and is produced by two groups from local families. Sitting with them in a small nursery classroom as they told their water stories was an extraordinarily powerful experience. It gave me a tangible sense of the multiplicity of human relationships with water and confirmed that, if we’re going to develop concepts like hydrocitizenship, we need to start by sharing water stories.   

The process of mutual accompaniment is focused by exchanges that constantly test the people involved. It’s educational in the root sense of a ‘drawing out’ of our possibilities. I need to read widely for the work I do supervising and examining doctoral projects, and this inevitably informs the work I share with people like Luci. I’m going to reflect this aspect of my contribution here by referencing two books in particular – Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regimeand Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable

I understandLuci to work in the political space that Latour calls the ‘radically Terrestrial’. Knowing that she lives in the Anthropocene, she works with others towards cohabiting a world that has re-imagined the relationship between the ‘global’ as created by modernisation, and commitment to a particular place on the other. She also enacts Latour’s insight that: ‘what counts is understanding whether you are managing to register, to maintain, to cherish, a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world.’ Her work with migrants and refugees reflects her choice to distance herself from any sense of the Local as being exclusive, as differentiating itself by closing itself off. Instead, she identifies with the Terrestrial througha specific place experienced as inclusive, as opening itself up. Finally, she acts on Ghosh’s point that we need to renew our forms of collective imagining; to contest an economics and culture based on, and designed to increase, isolation. She does that by listening to untold stories and facilitating the creation of new, shared, ones.  

These qualities are equally applicable to Christine Baeumler’s work. For example, the recent Defiant Gardensproject for the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, North Dakota. This involved Christine, her collaborators, and their Buzz Lab interns, turning an art museum car park into a pollinator garden. A transformation with social, political and economic consequences. Christine and I have been mutually accompanying each other, both conversationally and practically, since 2007. A process that made it possible for me to write an essay on her practice for a recent book on the Defiant Gardensproject. 

An earlier example of Christine’s work isthis tamarack wetland restoration project, made for the main entrance roof at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. It calls attention to fragile and unique tamarack ecosystems in the Minnesota region by reimaging a fragment of wetland as green roof infrastructure. She wanted to show staff, students and local residents that it’s possible to “reconstitute” an endangered rural ecosystem in an urban setting by using water where it falls. Like Luci, Christine’swork requires her having a ‘mycelial’ or ‘ensemble’ approach to her work. This enables herto register, maintain, and cherish the maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world ascitizen, neighbour, artist, university teacher, student of ecology, researcher, curator, mentor, and activist. And like Luci, Christine understands that issues of climate change, social justice and self-understanding have to be addressed together. 

Breaking from her ecological interventions, in 2014 Christine made a set of Tarot cards based on works in the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis. She then began giving face-to-face ‘readings’ as an eco-oracle at events ranging from local fairs to academic conferences. Like Latour and Ghosh, she had seen the need to draw attention to what is repressed by Scientism. Ghosh refers to Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Thinkto remind us that most people, across different times and cultures, have understood that communication exceeds both language and the human. To take on the role of eco-oracle is both to playfully question the limits of humanistic rationality and to suggest the possibility of radically other modes of communication. In this Christine’s eco-oracle personaenacts important points made by Isabelle Stengers, both in her writing on animismand in Capitalist Sorcery, Breaking the Spell

By playing the role of an eco-oracle, Christine also questions our culture’s presuppositions about authority.A university professor performing as a fortune-teller begs questions about what kinds of knowledge we assume to be authoritative, and why. It’s also an indirect reminder that we’re eachalwaysbothmore and less than the categories of identity used to name and divide us. Working with that understanding isn’t always comfortable, as I learned collaborating on The Crow Road, a performance made with Erin Kavanagh. However, as both Latour andStengers suggest, stepping away from our professional categorical helps us to register, maintain, and cherish a greater variety of ways of belonging to the world.

Simon Read teaches art students at Middlesex University in London and we’ve been exchanging observations since we were undergraduates.In 1980 he left his developing London art career to live on a barge on the Suffolk Coast. He joined the River Deben Association, a local environmental group, and immersed himself in debates about the cultural implications of unstable coastal and estuarine systems. Unable to find large-scale maps that related the river to its defences, the surrounding landscape and to the floodplain, he decided to make his own. He retrieved the necessary information from admiralty charts, Ordinance Survey maps, scientific literature, Environment Agency Flood Plain maps and aerial surveys. All of which he then synthesised, cross-referenced, and checked for accuracy on the ground. This mapping work equipped him to make informed contributions to debates between multiple official agencies and the local community about the management of the River Deben estuary. 

Simon’s predictive maps– they visualise the future of the riverscape over periods of between five and fifty years – enable him to make an informed practical contribution to discussions about environmental management. They’ve also served as a basis for creating tidal attenuation barriers that help sustain both the Sutton and Falkenham tidal saltmarshes. These structures were made following discussions with the local community and built, in the first case, with help from volunteers from a local open prison. They’re materialextensions of insights gained through visualisation as an artist on one hand, and involvement in public debates regarding the Deben and its environs on the other.

Simon would stress that there’s no single answer to the question: ‘what’s the outcome of these projects’? Tothe farmer who owns the saltmarsh and to the Deben Estuary Partnership, it’s environmental restoration. To those interested in art, it may be aesthetic or a questioning of categories like ‘Land’ or ‘Environmental’ art. To environmental managers it’s the use of bio-degradable materials to create structures that help build up the sediment on which healthy saltmarshes depend. To those involved in public engagement and environmental governance, it’s the processes that enmesh cultural engagement with environmental questions about ownership, land, responsibility, and belonging. As I say, for Simon each view is equally valid. 

Simon’s and my sense of mutual accompaniment circles around two core concerns. The complexities of place andcommitment to an education through art that challenges the culture industry’s assumptions about what art can do. Simon’s come to accept that his contribution to any environmental debate or action as an artist is no more important than any other when trying to find equitable solutions to problems. It took him a while and he still sometimes asks himself whether he’s in danger of losing his identity as an artist altogether. However, I see him as having developed an open creative approach to complex, multi-dimensional environmental partnerships that frees him from the limits of both his own individual ego and any one signature approach or methodology. 

I need to turn to my own situation at this point.In my final undergraduate year as an art student, I had a brief conversation with Joseph Beuys. It ended with him saying to me: ‘Always remember, education is more important than art’. I’d taken refuge in art as a dyslexic schoolboy and it had become the focus of my identity as an art student. So at the time I met Beuys I couldn’t accept what I thought he was saying to me. 

Thirty-five years later, I was supporting my family by working for a university and was involved in various deep mapping projects – in this case with my chronically-ill daughter. I’d arrived at my own interpretation of Beuys’ view, which is to embrace the necessity of working around the constraints imposed on us by categories like ‘art’ and ‘education’. That shift was in no small part due to mutual accompaniment with the last person whose work I want to talk about. 

Natalie Boulton and I were art students together and have been married for 45 years. Natalie is the main carer for our daughter, who suffers from chronic Myalgic Encephalomyelitis -ME for short- and works as a patient advocate and activist. About fifteen years ago, she started to look for ways to use her various skills and abilities to articulate the experience of ME sufferers and their careers. She first designed and edited a book of interviews and then produced the award-winning documentary film, Voices From The Shadows. These both articulate, in sometimes horrifying detail, the abuse of ME sufferers by members of the medical and psychiatric professions. Natalie is now working on an ME education project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, alongside a network of patients, researchers, carers, citizen-scientists and investigative journalists she’s helped bring together. They’re promoting proper research and contesting institutionalised neglect, abuse, and mis-representation of ME sufferers. Through that work, they’re also contributing to the increasingly vocal political opposition to the UK’s oppressive policy of ‘austerity’.  

Natalie’s work relates directly to our environmental concerns here because it exposes and challenges the mechanisms used by what Latour calls ‘obscurantist elites’. Elites that now use every means possible to obscure the fact that they’ve abandoned any sense of civic responsibility to preserve their wealth, authority and status, largely by fostering counter realities that deny the reality of our situation. The network Natalie’s involved in is, like many others, engaged in an unrelenting struggle for the social justice with which environmental sanity is inextricably bound up. Accompanying that work on a daily basis has taught methe necessity of working around the constraints imposed on us by social categories of occupation and identity.  

“… 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”(italics mine)

Monica Szewczyk  ‘Art of Conversation, Part 1’ e-flux journal no 3 – February 2009

In this presentation, I’ve tried to indicate why what I would once have called ‘mywork’ is actually inseparable from the process of mutual accompaniment grounded in conversation in this sense. The connections, attachments, and relationshipsI’ve touched are only part of a larger picture, of course, which is dependent on the work of innumerable others, both living and dead. That is, in the shared work of trying tosustain the multiverse that, more fundamentally, sustains us. 

I want to end by picking up Mary Watkins’ suggestion there’s a downside to the increased professionalisation of social and environmental agencies and NGOs. That it sends an unintended signal to civil society, implying that caringis a specialist activity best undertaken by paid professionals. That in turn implies that ‘ordinary citizens’ no longer need to concern themselves with issues of care because professionals will do it for them and do it better. The same might be said about the culture industry. 

The work Natalie does reveals, in shocking detail, just how socially and psychically disastrous the professionalisation of care can be. It’s significant that the work I’ve referred to in this presentation involves lay citizens, refugees, scientists, children, migrants, young people, experts, the chronically sick, their carers, local communities, and even prisoners excluded from those communities. All of whom, for better or worse, are dependent on multiple ecologies consisting of shared connections, attachments, and relationships. Perhaps it’s only through acknowledging and developing our many mutual accompaniments across and beyond social categories that those shared connections, attachments, and relationships can be re-oriented towards the common good?


Amitav Ghosh The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Donna Haraway Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press 2016) 

Bruno Latour Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime 
(Polity Press, 2018)

James Leach ‘Creativity, Subjectivity and the Dynamic of Possessive Individualism’ inElizabeth Hallam & Tim Ingold (eds.), Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. (Berg, 2007)

Phillippe Pignarre & Isabelle Stengers trans. Andrew Goffey, Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Mary Watkins ‘From Hospitality to Mutual Accompaniment: Addressing Soul Loss in the Citizen-Neighbour’ in Tomaž Gruovnik, Eduardo Mendieta & Lenart Škof (eds.) Borders and Debordering: Topologies, Praxes, Hospitableness(Lexington Books, 2018).

Some initial thoughts on reading Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’

One of the many challenges thrown up by reading Amitav Ghosh’s extraordinary book: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (University of Chicago Press, 2016) is that it shows very clearly the quite extraordinary degree to which ‘we’ (those who inhabit the dominant culture of the Anglosphere) have been either misled or just plain lied to. It is true that much of what he writes brings forward into full view as fact material that have been present in my own peripheral vision as an ill-focused sense of unease, even dread. But his ability to link apparently disparate areas of knowledge makes the causes of that dread both graspable and crystal clear. 

The challenge closest to me, perhaps, is that Ghosh’s book requires me to reconsider everything I have done professionally; that is as someone who has spent a working lifetime engaged in education and the cultural field. While the principle thread Ghosh follows might be said to be the novel’s failure to address critically the imaginative world of an economic system not only predicated on isolation, but designed to produce further isolation, the implications of his argument for all the arts seem to me to need particularly urgent consideration just now, however unpalatable they will be to many people. While it is profoundly uncomfortable, at the age of sixty-nine, to be faced with the task of revising a great many of assumptions, many of them personal but considerably more in the field in which I work, there have been plenty of indicators that this would need to be done.    

In 2014 the performance artist Andrea Fraser claimed that artists are not part of the solution to our current crisis, as many in the cultural are beginning to assume, but contribute to it. Ghosh’s argument suggests that she is very likely right in the vast majority of cases. The art world has, in consequence, yet to acknowledge, let alone adequately respond to, Bruno Latour’s suggestion that we cannot start to address our current situation until ‘progressives’ begin to acknowledge the reality of those they previously viewed as ‘outsiders’, as outmoded, reactionary, traditionalist, or parochial. Yet to do so would be to undermine the whole modernist cultural project on which contemporary art is predicated. There was, of course, nothing particularly new about Andrea Fraser’s claim. It echoes, for example, issues that had been raised twenty years earlier by the artist-turned-anthropologist A. David Napier, the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins, and the writer, poet and art critic Thomas McEvilley. Issues that Ghosh now firmly locates within the culture, history and politics of The Great Derangement. 

Ghosh concludes by expressing the hope that the struggle we now face in addressing that Derangement will result in an ability to see the world more clearly and to transcend the isolation in which that derangement has trapped us. And, almost as an afterthought it sees to me, his final sentence expresses the hope that the resulting vision will be set out by a transformed and renewed art and literature. It’s a hope I can only share, but one tempered by the knowledge that there is an enormous amount of work – particularly our own psycho-social re-education – that will need to be done first.

Drying up / running out?

I have neglected this blog because I find it harder and harder to write anything sensible here.

This is almost entirely due to the state we in Britain find ourselves in. I think we are witnessing the final demolition of the British civic society built after the 1939-1945 war. That demolition project became explicit under Margaret Thatcher. It was then ramped up by a policy of ‘austerity’ largely designed to protect the interests of those for whom the only real world is that of finance. It is now coming to a head with the playing out of Brexit. When I hear some Tory politician dismiss the very real fears of families like ours with the phrase ‘project fear’ I have to accept, yet again, just how chronically warped our national psyche has become. The old class war has returned with a vengeance, with those with money and power using issues of religion (principally Islam), race, emigration and so-called ‘sovereignty’ vis-a-vis the EU, as the basis for stoking division and hatred as a way of distracting attention from the callousness and greed which their pursuit of their own self-interest is based.

Like many others, I continue to participate in finding alternatives to this situation and, in particular, am writing in support of those I know who are on the front line of the effort to create a more open, just, and sane society. But if I am honest it often seems hopeless. However, I try to continue to see as clearly as I can what is happening around me.

In this context, I have started to read Amitav Ghosh’s deeply insightful book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which perfectly complements Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime. Both will, I hope, help me to contribute in a more informed way to the climate change workshop I’m due to attend at NUI Galway in May. In the meantime, I work from day to day, remaining incredibly grateful for family and friends whose sense of outrage at our present situation keeps them rowing against the tide.

Trackings: Don McCullin, ‘Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner’, and the twilight of landscape?

Yesterday I saw Don McCullin’s photographs at Tate Britain.

One of the many extraordinary images – Mercenary with Congolese Family, Paulus from 1965, with its uncanny synergy between the expressions of the soldier and the seated woman next to him – brought back the memory of an extraordinary conversation I had as a student. Sitting on a low wall outside the laundrette near my digs in Leeds I found that I was talking to a ‘resting’ mercenary. I remember very little of our conversation, other than him telling me he had done his National Service training but seen no active service and wondered if he had real soldiering in him. That doubt ultimately led him to signing up as a mercenary, an occupation he appeared to find addictive.

What I do remember is that, as we sat talking, a little girl ran out of the laundrette past us and then tripped and fell. Almost before she could cry out, the man I’d been talking with had picked he up and started comforting her. Smiling, he then returned her to her mother. The combined speed and gentleness of his reaction left me with a lasting sense of the extraordinary contradictions to be found in one human being.

By an odd coincidence, sometime last week I downloaded Lauren O’Connell’s version of Warren Zevon’s Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, a song that always strikes me as a strange updating of the Borders reiver and revenant ballads that have fascinated me for years. It has the same blend of blunt and bloody realism, belief in the importance of loyalty between men and odd sense of the possibility of supernatural justice from beyond the grave. A re-casting then, of what is perhaps a very old and somehow quintessentially  masculine set of masculine preoccupations? Zevon co-wrote the song with David Lindell, who he met running a bar in Spain, having worked previously as a mercenary in Africa. (You can find Zevon’s original version of the song here  and Lauren O’Connell’s here). 

In the last room of the exhibition are the dark and brooding landscape photographs McCullin has been making for a while now. These could be seen as Romantic images, but also perhaps as representing the twilight of the whole idea of ‘natural’ landscape as we’ve understood it. I couldn’t help seeing them as a pre-figuration of a new sense of the Terrestrial, as Bruno Latour understands it in his book published last year Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime, published by Polity Press and translated by Catherine Porter.  

Brief Update: a major Ken Kiff Exhibition?

At a recently Exhibition Advisory Group meeting at the Royal West of England Academy, of which I’m a member, it was agreed that the RWA will now work towards a major exhibition of Ken Kiff’s work, hopefully to include examples of work by both the major artists who influenced him and of younger artists influenced by him. As things stand at present, this will be curated by the artist James Fisher and myself, working closely with Anna Kiff, who is responsible for her father’s estate. We are also very fortunate to have the support of John Talbot, who has a substantive collection of Ken Kiff’s work, particularly the Sequence.

Obviously it’s very early days as yet, and there is a long way to go before this project starts to take shape. However, having worked with Ken Kiff for several years on the book Ken Kiff’s Sequence (1999), as its editor and an author alongside Norbert Lynton and Martha Kapos, I’m delighted to be part of this project.

Ken Kiff remains an artist more respected by other painters and devoted members of the public than by the critical establishment that holds authority within the art world and ultimately determines reputation and financial value. The reasons for Ken Kiff’s ambivalent status are complex and in fact go to the heart not only of how we currently think about contemporary art and artists, but also touch on more fundamental issues about our presuppositions regarding in the world in which we live. Anyone familiar with the range of Kiff’s work overall will at once recognise that, in addition to being an extraordinary painter (particularly as a colourist) and print-maker, he had a an astonishingly inclusive vision. This ran from evocations of the everyday – Posting a Letter , the whimsical – From the sea to the shore , the profoundly moving – Talking with a psychoanalyst: night sky and Walking (the dead father), to extraordinary landscapes – Tree by the River and Yellow Hill and Deep River, confessional images – Anxiety, images that suggest folklore – Cottage in a field,  and the visionary – Orange sun. To my mind it is this inclusivity, along with the sense of connectivity between these diverse images, that is ultimately the most significant aspect of his work.