Reasons for proposing a hedge school (part one).


I have a simple proposal to make. I want to explore the possibility of a modified, twenty-first century version of the old Irish ‘hedge school’.

A hedge school based on critical solicitude between people who acknowledge their incorrigible plurality and whose work emerges out of a specific intersection of peripheries. Work that is always to a greater or lesser extent entangled in an understanding exemplified by two interrelated observations: that our common humanity: “begins in shared pain”[1] and that: “we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”.[2] This would be a hedge school with a difference, neither solely oriented to the arts or academic concerns, but animated by the intersection of these with the broader concerns of lived experience in all its complexity and multiplicity.


I find this difficult to explain, so please forgive the length of what follows. If you are short of time, or unconcerned with questions of ‘why’, please stop reading here. In due course, I’ll put up a second section of this post that addresses the practicalities of a Hedge School, actual and/or virtual?

I’m anxious about the way the economics of austerity is enforcing higher and higher degrees of cultural conformity. Today it seems that the university and arts worlds, largely inseparable from those forces that drive global capital, increasingly determine which intellectual orientations and creative activities survive and which do not. As a result, there seems a growing danger of our arriving at a point where “nothing recognizable” as knowledge (analytically or aesthetically understood) can be circulated unless it conforms to the ever more strictly enforced presuppositions of the dominant cultural.[3] (Trump’s prohibition on officials articulating concern about climate change and the environment are indicative here).

The dominant culture remains wedded to an outmoded, ‘monolithic’ approach, the limitations of which can be examined by looking at two distinct ways of experiencing life worlds. In the first a life world is a given, framed by prior expectations, as a ‘life-as’ (a banker, an artist, a farmer, an academic, and so on). In the second, a life world is experienced as an open project: multi-stranded, dynamic, as ‘being-as-becoming’.[4] (This does not, of course, preclude engagement in any of the activities named above, or facing the contingencies, vulnerabilities and responsibilities inherent in human being). This conceptual distinction between modes of experience is never absolute and parallels one made by the philosopher of place Edward S. Casey.

Casey differentiates between a position, taken as “a fixed posit of an established culture”, and our experiencing of place which, notwithstanding its normally settled appearance, he characterizes as “an essay in experimental living within a changing culture.[5] This parallel further suggests the spectrum across which life worlds are experienced. From the given, fixed, or positioned (whether willingly adopted or imposed by others), that constitutes ‘life-as’; through to a becoming that requires continual negotiate as to how we are placed in relation to a world always in process.  In actuality of course our experience fluctuates between these two poles. If the first is best described as given and unitary, the second is dynamic, experimental, and plural – a ‘polyverse’ (a term borrowed from the theologian Roger Corless, both a Benedictine oblate and a Gelugpa Buddhist, who uses it to articulate his experience of the richness of both these spiritual lifeworlds without denying the irreconcilable differences between them).[6]

Our experience of the world as polyverse is rarely acknowledged because it raises difficult questions about identity and self-consistency and opens us to increased levels of cognitive dissonance. However, denial of the world as polyverse, with its corresponding sense of plurality and internal difference, has real social consequences. It restricts our capacity to deal with change and, critically, to accept the plurality and difference of others. Fortunately, many people experience their life worlds as a polyverse, whether tacitly or explicitly, learn to manage the resulting cognitive dissonances, and welcome the new understandings that result.

An example may be helpful here. Alan Garner makes a sharp distinction between ‘life-as’ a scholar or an artist, seeing the first framed by the concept of a “purely academic mind” that insists on “the primacy of analytical categories”, and the second by a rejection of the primacy of categorical thinking in the name of creativity.[7] Yet I know artist/academics who live in a polyverse that includes these supposedly antagonistic positions which, as the art educator Jon Thompson suggests, actually provide a generative paradox necessary to good art education.[8]

I have spent almost twenty years supervising and examining arts-led doctoral research projects, work that frequently requires creative acts of translation between the values of individual life worlds and an academic institution as a ‘world unto itself’ based on “a distinct cultural and linguistic tradition and a vehement sense of territoriality”.[9]  Such institutions are designed to perpetuate particular presuppositions about professional work, and increasing put pressure on individuals to constitute their identity as a professional ‘life-as’.

However, the doctoral students I work with are engaged in projects which, while conventionally categorized as art, are better understood as examples of new ways in which meanings are actively produced in relation to life worlds as a polyverse. This claim makes two assumptions. The first is that the work actively mediates between distinct, even antagonistic, framings of life worlds. The second is that, in doing so, it also mediates between the dominant aesthetic, one that privileges ‘Art’ to the exclusion of all other categories, and an ‘aesthetic of the everyday’ essential to ecological awareness.[10] Consequently, what is distinctive about these projects is not their relationship to the given category ‘art’, but that they creatively translate or mediate between what are conventionally regarded as distinct, even antagonistic, values, positions, framings, and perspectives.

‘Incorrigibly plural’

The phrase ‘incorrigibly plural’ is borrowed from Louis MacNeice, via Declan Kiberd’s discussion of MacNeice’s “protean identity” and refusal of “any simple self-description” and, in so doing, illuminates my concern with a life world as polyverse.[11] The underlying question here is how to support our giving greater attention to living in and between the dominant lifeworlds pre-given as a ‘life-as’, so as to facilitate greater attention and respect towards the multiplicity of interwoven narratives that constitute both our multiple selves and those of others. Given our worsening eco-social situation, lack of such attention can only make our situation worse. We need, at the very least, a common, empathetic, and respectful sensing of the plurality of lifeworlds from which to recognize, acknowledge, and argue our differences and similarities.

Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be happening. Collective “incommunicability through a protective withdrawal”[12] is increasingly reinforced by a constellation of factors. These include our culture of possessive individualism (in which identification with ‘life-as’ is increasingly socially adaptive), an almost pathological desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, and the persistence of deep-seated and archaic presuppositions generated by many hundreds of years of monotheistic theology and its secular off-shots.[13] All are equally antagonistic to the understanding of a life world as polyverse. Yet such an understanding is now central to the properly ecological praxis necessary to address our present troubled social and environmental situations.

Understanding a life-world a polyverse

My own understanding in this respect has been influenced by A. David Napier, who writes:

Now in our petri dish we see not only how static and complacent cells become at the center 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.[14]

Following this metaphor, the work that matters most to me takes place somewhere along an indeterminate border, the uncertain zone that both joins and separates the cultures of ‘the university’ and ‘the arts’. However, this zone is also the site of a hard-learned empathy or critical solicitude born of ‘not (quite) belonging’, of finding oneself in a ‘place-between’ and accepting its demands. That acceptance is, in my experience, facilitated by the contingencies of an individual’s life. (In my own case, by long-undiagnosed dyslexia and through living with the innumerable ramifications of my daughter’s long-term Myalgic Encephalomyelitis). What is shared, however, is what I described earlier as an entanglement exemplified by two interrelated observations: that our common humanity begins in shared pain, and that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us.

A problem of identity

In the past, I’ve tried to identify this indeterminate place-between through the lens of ‘open deep mapping’, a perspective that I now see as far too limiting. I’m increasingly aware that any name can be used “to control and even destroy something”; while the alternative, living “with the paradox of …transformation is far more problematic, uncertain and, indeed, creative”.[15] It is also deeply problematic on various levels. In an age of austerity as social control, the weight of practical problems and uncertainty that accompany that paradox can be overwhelming, leaving us lost in an amorphous liminality ungrounded in sociability and shared endeavor. This is however an issue that might be addressed through collective action, which returns me at last to the notion of a hedge school.

What will follow in the second part of this post will be written ‘in lieu of’ a manifesto, then, since one cannot write a manifesto for what, of necessity, needs to remain unnamed.

[1] Ursula Le Guin (2002) The Dispossessed London: Orien Books.

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

[3] Michael Gibbons, Camille Limoges, Helga Nowotny, Simon Schwartzman, Peter Scott & Martin Trow (1994) The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies London, Thousand Oaks, & New Delhi: SAGE publications Ltd pp. 1-2.

[4] Paul Heelas, Paul and Linda Woodhead (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: why religion is giving way to spirituality Oxford: Blackwell.

[5] Edward S. Casey (1993) Getting Back into Place: Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press p. 31.

[6] Roger Corless ‘Many Selves, Many Realities: The Implications of Heteronyms and the Plurality of Worlds Theory for Multiple Religious Belonging”, October 6, 2002, consulted March 16, 2014.

[7] Alan Garner (1997) The Voice That Thunders London: The Harvill Press pp. 104-105.

[8] Jon Thompson, ‘Campus Camp’ in Paul Hetherington (ed) (1994) Artists in the 1990s: Their Education and Values London: Wimbledon School of Art in associate with Tate Gallery, 1994.

[9] Irit Rogoff Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2000), 122.  

[10] The aesthetic concerns at stake here are clearly articulated by Yuriko Saito (2007) Everyday Aesthetics Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007.

[11] Declan Kiberd (2001) Irish Classics London: Granta Books, 2001 p. 553.

[12] Paul Ricoeur ‘Reflections on a new ethos for Europe’ in Richard Kearney (ed) (1996) Paul Ricoeur: The Hermeneutics of Action London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE p. 4.

[13] For discussions of the continuing impact of secular monotheism see Ernest Gellner (1992) Postmodernism, Reason and Religion London: Routledge pp. 94-5; Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis (2013) Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity Cambridge: Polity Press pp. 19-29; and the work of James Hillman and others engaged in a post-Jungian ‘polytheistic’ psychology.

[14] A. David Napier (2003) The Age of Immunology Chicago & London: Chicago University Press p. 12.

[15] Ibid. pp. xxi – xxii).