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 http://cliffordmclucas.info/deep-mapping.html). 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.