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 http://thestonyrisesproject.com/the-exhibition/the-works/). 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 – http://www.innovativeethnographies.net – 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.