Monthly Archives: January 2015

More on not saying anything further “about these deep maps ….”

This post should be read as an extension of the previous one.

In a world where we are all expected to treat our every interest and enthusiasm as ‘cultural capital’ for potential exploitation, I should not have been surprised that four different people have contacted me to tell me about a call for contributors to a proposed Humanities (ISSN 2076-0787) special issue on “Deep Mapping”. Obviously it’s kind of them to take the trouble, but starting to read a recent book – which sees itself as utilising deep mapping – had already begun to confirm my earlier sense that I should not to respond to that call.

Margaret Somerville’s Water in a Dry Land: Place-Learning Through Art and Story was recently recommended me as having a certain amount to say about deep mapping. Early on the reader is told that ‘deep mapping’ has been adopted from cultural mapping techniques and developed in collaboration with Gumbaynggirr people who live on the mid north coast of New South Wales (p. 17). We are then told that the project used a method “we named ‘deep mapping'” in order to map walking trails that are the basis of story lines that travel that same territory (p. 72). Later still a print by an Aboriginal artist is described as a type of deep mapping, one that materialises the connectivities between structures of knowledge, representation, country, water, and life forms (p.136). This is taken to present an alternative approach to mapping, namely an inclusive deep mapping that includes the temporalities of both present and the deep time of creation within a single frame (p. 137).

The publisher’s blurb on the back of the book informs me that Margaret Somerville is “internationally renowned for her creative and experimental writing and research about place” and that: “she is Director of the Centre for Educational Research, which focuses on researching sustainable futures at the University of Western Sydney”. Be that as it may, it appears to me that this is a book written by someone still locked into a conventional disciplinary outlook, one so lacking in curiosity, and ultimately so self-concerned, that it can be taken to excuse the fact that she is unaware that ‘deep mapping’ is a term (albeit a contested one) with international currency. Worse still, a term that already has a distinguished application in Australia. Indeed, Professor Gini Lee’s Deep Mapping for the Stony Rises (2009) has been taken as an exemplary work in the deep mapping tradition, an assemblage of “topographies and topologies encountered in the making of a cross-landscape environment for six particular places in the Stony Rises of Victoria and the Flinders Ranges of South Australia”;  “an experiment in the superpositioning of gathered and invited material interleaved with a stratigraphy of text – as a kind of writing” (see To point out that Margaret Somerville might reasonably be expected to know this is not to make any kind of judgement about the social or environmental value – or otherwise – of her specific project. (Although it may be to question the level of professional awareness and relevant scholarship required as the Director of a university Centre for Educational Research). Rather it is to call into question the efficacy of the disciplinary mentality and the lucrative publishing trade that serves it.

My real concern is not with Margaret Somerville then, but rather with the academic and publishing systems that allow examples of increasingly archaic and ill-informed disciplinary thinking to go out into the world unquestioned and unchecked. Water in a Dry Land: Place-Learning Through Art and Story is published in what is claimed to be an ‘Innovative Ethnographies’ series by Routledge, by any standard a major international publisher. But we need to ask by what criteria and on the basis of what understanding did those employed by Routledge to ensure the value and scholarly standards of their publications – academic Readers, editors, etc. – judge that this book was worth publishing?  (I have in mind that it was back in 2001 that Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks’ Theatre/Archaeology was published, for many of us a primary source with regard to deep mapping and one that showed even then just how outdated many of Margaret Somerville’s assumptions are now). The web site for Routledge’s new ‘Innovative Ethnographies’ series – – is quite revealing however. It appears we are to believe that:

No longer unsecure  about their aesthetic sensibilities, contemporary ethnographers have expanded upon the established tradition of impressionistic and confessional fieldwork to produce works that not only stimulate the intellect, but that also delight the senses. From visual to reflexive ethnography, from narrative to arts-based inquiry, from hypertext to multimodal scholarship, and from autoethnography to performance ethnography, fieldwork has undergone a revolution in data collection practice and strategies of representation and dissemination“.

In short, and given the commodification of scholarship, there is always the possibility of marketing yet another ‘revolutionary’ approach – to fieldwork or whatever else – to those ethnographers and their students anxious not to miss the possibilities of the ‘aesthetic turn’. Even if, twelve years earlier, you published a book that is both central to the so-called ‘revolution’ you’re now selling all over again and that shows up the scholarly inadequacy and methodological naiveté of the book you’re now promoting.

But of course to assume for a moment that publishers like Routledge, or indeed the academics paid to ensure the quality and contribution to knowledge of its publications, are not deeply enmeshed in that same commodification is itself ridiculously naïve. As, its seems, is the assumption that intellectual breadth, coherence, and rigour are proper and necessary concerns in research and publishing if there is economic advantage to be gained by ignoring them.

It’s in this context that I suggested in the last post that what I previously called ‘open’ deep mapping is now best seen as simply the trace of a ‘feint’, of a largely intuitive manoeuvre intended to divert attention away from the semi-conscious working through of a particular mentalité. One that increasingly needs to avoid any clear identity because we now know that, given the current state of the institutions of art, the academy, and the publishing trade that both supports and exploits them, any mentalité or orientation “which signals the desire to question existing power relations” at once renders itself renders incredibly “vulnerable to the process of recuperation” (Rendell 2013: 136).

In my view it’s now time to leave ‘deep mapping’ behind and move on into unnamed territory.


On not saying anything further “about these deep maps ….”

There is to be a ‘Deep Mapping Special Issue‘ of Humanities, “an international, scholarly, open access journal for scholarly papers of exceptionally high quality across all humanities disciplines”. As someone with something of a track record of writing and giving talks on this topic, shouldn’t I now be feverishly working on producing a ‘scholarly paper of exceptionally high quality’? I have certainly considered it. I even started to draft some thoughts. But in the end  the answer has to be: ‘No’. But why, given that even a few months ago I was happy to speak publicly on this topic and put the text up on this web site ? (see “Deep Mapping – a partial view“). This post is an attempt to answer my own question.

Over the last five or so years I’ve spend some considerable time exploring the – in my view increasingly ambivalent – status of ‘deep mapping’, largely by reflecting on its uneasy relationship to the institutional worlds of culture (the arts) and education (the academy) (Biggs 2011; Bailey & Biggs 2012; Bailey, Biggs & Buzzo 2014). This has been prompted by questions shaped by my fifteen years direct engagement with deep mapping as an artist/teacher/researcher concerned with site-oriented work that moves “horizontally across the terrain and simultaneously vertically through time”, so as to become “a topographical phenomenon of both natural history and local history” (Pearson 2006: 3), but also by the doubts of friends like Antony Lyons, who have always had reservations about the term ‘deep mapping’. Five years ago I believed that it was still possible, if only ideally speaking, to practice an ‘open’ form of deep mapping. I now no longer think that’s the case.

I understood ‘open’ deep mapping as a knowledgeable, passionate, polyvocal engagement with the world, one able to offer a creative prophylactic against “high-altitude thinking forgetful of its contingent roots in particular persons, places, and times” (Finn 1996: 137). My thinking drew on Edward S Casey’s distinction between position and place, where: “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] (Casey 1993: 31). That essaying is identified with Geraldine’s Finn’s concern with an encounter that puts us in question as speakers whose authority is normally located and authorised by a professional category, so that engagement with ‘place’ challenges our understanding of the territories – literal and otherwise – that both contain/constrain and sustain us (Finn 1996: 176). This was taken as converging with Ruth Behar’s concern with acts of “personal witness” that are: “at once the inscription of a self and the description of an object”, open-ended in nature and able to desegregate “the boundaries between self and other” (Behar 1996: 20). The assumption was that an ‘open’ deep mapping might evoke a particular geographically located ‘place’ and, simultaneously, spaces-of-becoming through an act of weaving and looping intended to produce “the patterns … equivalent to what anthropologists are accustomed to call ‘culture’“(Ingold 2000: 361), opening up a space between “category and experience, representation and reality, language and life [that] is … the necessary and indispensable space of judgement: of creativity and value, resistance and change” (Finn 1996: 172). While this position may remain tenable in strictly intellectual terms, the worsening material and cultural conditions that frame any critical contemporary creative praxis have rendered it, even at best, hopelessly utopian.

I think it’s now time to aside the question of an (ideal) ‘open’ deep mapping and instead focus on the simple observation that there has never been no single, homogeneous focus, process, or practice that can be identified as ‘deep mapping’. Combinations of general characteristics – “an interest in places” and “fascination with geography and space” (Schiavini 2008: 93), the production of an engaged form of documentary work with its own particular critical and regionalist contexts (Powell 2007, Maher 2005a, 2005b, Herr 1996, etc), or a conscious engagement with testimonial imagination (Kearney 1993) – are quite simply too general in this respect. They can equally be applied to the Critical Regionalism developed by the architectural critic Kenneth Frampton (Frampton 1988, 1983), to work of the filmmaker Patrick Keiller, or the writers Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, or indeed even to Alec Findlay and Ken Cockburn’s The Road North, which remaps Scotland through the lens of Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

As anyone with an interest in deep mapping knows, this lack of defining characteristics follows from the use of the term to refer to (at least) two distinct and differently oriented types of practice. ‘Deep mapping’ is used to refer to texts, usually environmentally oriented, produced as literature but also for radio and dealing more or less exhaustively with a local or regional location. These are often associated with ‘vertical’ or ‘deep’ travel writing (Schiavini 2008) and seen as building on an approach established by Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (1955), although Schiavini implies that it might be possible to argue for Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods as a prototypical deep mapping (2008: 93). Wolf Willow is , from a certain perspective, a good starting point because, with hindsight, it can be taken as sharing a concern with the concept of bioregions as espoused by Gary Snyder.However, this is only (the American) half of the story.

In the performing and visual arts and in archaeological circles deep mapping normally refers to an increasingly heterogeneous cluster of practices that may or may not take as a point of departure the adaption of elements of William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth: A Deep Map (1991) by Mike Pearson, Michael Shanks, Clifford McLucas and the radical Welsh performance group Brith Gof; an understanding codified post-hoc as ‘theatre/archaeology’ (Pearson & Shanks 2001). Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, in the context of the visual and performing arts tradition it has become necessary to distinguish between appropriations of deep mapping to serve the realpolitik of given disciplinary positions and its more ‘open’ or ‘non-aligned’ forms (Biggs 2011). These various complexities and ambiguities suggest that what I have called deep mapping is the trace of what is perhaps best understood as a ‘feint’, a largely intuitive manoeuvre intended to divert attention away from the  semi-conscious working through of a particular mentalité, one that increasingly needs to avoid any clear identity because we now know that, given the current state of the institutions of art and the academy, any mentalité or orientation “which signals the desire to question existing power relations” at once renders itself renders incredibly “vulnerable to the process of recuperation” (Rendell 2013: 136).

That being the case I suspect that a ‘Deep Mapping Special Issue’ of Humanities will mark the point when that process of recuperation reaches its tipping-point. Namely the moment when artists and academics forget the profound understanding that informed two key points in Cliff McLucas’ extraordinary manifesto: There are ten things I can say about these deep maps … which in retrospect can be seen to resonate so powerfully with, say, Guattari’s thinking in their challenge to the exclusivity of current aesthetic and academic assumptions. Namely: “Sixth –  Deep maps will require the engagement of both the insider and outsider”; and: “Seventh – Deep maps will bring together the amateur and the professional, the artist and the scientist, the official and the unofficial, the national and the local” (see Despite the optimism of some of my academic friends – for example Professor Owain Jones at Bath Spa – my sense is that no amount of emphasis on reconfiguring inter- or trans- disciplinary work – whether its the ESRC-funded Nexus Network or the creation and promotion of ‘competency groups’ (Whatmore & Landstrom 2011) – can now substantially reform the institutional worlds of the arts and the academy. They are simply too far gone and, through the no doubt well-meaning efforts of organs like Humanities, will continue unthinkingly to try to recuperate what lies behind initiatives like deep mapping to bolster up an increasingly toxic cultural and educational status quo.

In these circumstances we have no choice but to continue to work as best we can in the spaces between these institutional worlds, recognising that they still provide certain possibilities for any number of extraordinary individuals and groups who, despite an all-pervasive ‘moneyfication’ and managerialism, continue to work against the grain of that status quo. In these circumstances it seems to me best to shift our attention away from talking and writing about deep mapping, at least in any forum that does not have as a clear goal nurturing the mentalité that informs McLucas’ two points quoted above.


Murder, Monolithic Values, and Education In A Democracy

The start to the New Year is not necessarily happy.

I am not inclined to turn down paid work these days, since my pension is not exactly large. However this morning I rather reluctantly told an MA award leader that, after much thought, I had decided I was not willing to be involved in the revalidation of the award for which she is responsible. My reasons are in part simply economic. £100 plus expenses for what, at the most conservative estimate, is three days hard work at that level would be frankly insulting, even if I were still in full-time employment as an academic.

Lets be clear. Being an external member of a validation panel is demanding and responsible work. It requires subject expertise in the sense of informed rigour about curriculum, supporting context, and modes of delivery. In addition it requires a real understanding of how the whole, often rather optic, process of academic audit works. Lastly, but by no means least, it requires one to balance a degree of empathy for the realities faced by the staff team with seeing that the regulatory requirements of the university are met.

These days any solicitor doing a routine piece of legal processing would expect more than £100 for an hour’s work, let alone for three days work. So my reasons also relate to a question of principle. University senior managers would laugh themselves silly if you asked them to take time out of their busy lives to spend three days working for what amounts to about £36 less than the minimum wage, yet regard that as appropriate compensation for those revalidating their courses! (Exactly the same ridiculous situation holds for the examination of doctoral students).

This simple example is, I think, indicative of the increasingly absurd situation by which academic management assumes that it has an automatic right to demand remuneration for its skills while shamelessly exploiting those who, at the end of the day, have to ensure there is an institution fit for purpose for them to manage. Since I first posted these observations yesterday an article entitled Senior administrative staff salary details kept secret  – written by Jack Grove and published in the THE (8 January 2015) – has drawn attention to the increasingly lack of financial transparency in the university sector.

Grove writes that, of the thirty seven institutions that the Times Higher Education requested “provide information about top-earning non-academic staff”, twenty “declined to give details of how much senior administrators were paid”. Grove puts this refusal in context by noting that only months ago King’s College London was required by a judge to provide the job titles and salary bands of administrative staff in its leadership team earning more than £100,000 a year. The Judge ruled that there was: “a legitimate public interest in knowing, for example, if a senior administrator had been paid £50,000 more than a department dean, as ‘what does that indicate about the college’s priorities?'[italics mine]” She added that senior staff in an organisation in receipt of large amounts of public funds should be expected to provide appropriate level of public accountability.

I don’t think I need to spell out that the university sector’s desire to hide the sums paid to top administrators can properly be taken as a tacit admission that education is now a monoculture in which all principles are expendable bar one – the monolithic principle by which all possible values are subject to one set of absolute values – in this case those of financial gain. But we should note that Grove’s article appeared just after the news was announced that Shell has finally agreed to pay fifty-five million pounds in compensation for two devastating oil spills in Bodo, in the Niger Delta, and on the same day that we received news of the murder of journalists and police by religious fundamentalists in connection with the Charlie Hebdo magazine.

What links these events is a profound failure of the empathetic imagination – necessary to our humanity in its most fundamental sense – that enables us to recognise and respond to the fact that we live in a puristic world (a polyverse) in which multiple, and often conflicting, goals and values exist and require our respect and attention, if not necessarily our personal approval. In the last analysis that failure that stems from what can only be described as the poverty of our thinking about the proper function of an education system in a democracy. A system that, in the UK and elsewhere, has been allowed to become increasingly unfit for purpose by being made subject to the same monolithic mindset that resulted in the murders connected to the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the judicial murder of Kenule Beeson Saro Wiwa on Nov 10th, 1995. (A Nigerian writer, television producer, environmental activist, and winner of the Right Livelihood Award and the Goldman Environmental Prize, Saro-Wiwa was a member of the Ogoni people, whose land in the Niger Delta has for over sixty-five years been the site of crude oil extraction by Shell and others, during which the environment has been subject to petroleum spills and waste dumping on a massive scale).

At the end of the day those who committed the Charlie Hebdo murders and those, senior Nigerian officials and Westerners alike, who have connived in and/or benefitted from the environmental destruction of Ogoni’s homeland, share one fundamental characteristic. They have not been taught, or have refused to learn, the empathetic understanding and praxis necessary to live in and sustain a pluralistic democracy. They share this, of course, with the majority of those who make up the current UK Government’s cabinet (who, ironically, received what is supposed to be the best education money can buy); people whose sense of entitlement allows them and their media allies to demonise the chronically sick, the very poor, and the foreign immigrant, all so as to avoid taking the social, economic, and environmental measures necessary to sustain any responsible democracy worthy of the name.