Author Archives: Iain

A Plea on Behalf of Future Generations.

On Thursday of this week we in the UK will vote in what will be the most important election of our lives.

An election that will determine how this country responds to the climate change crisis. We now know that, unless this rapidly deepening crisis is addressed speedily and radically, it will entirely destroy the world as we know it. (Indeed, Professor Jem Bendell and other professionals in sustainability management, policy and research suggest that it may already be too late to address the causes of all-but-inevitable near term social collapse).

How UK citizens vote is, of course, entirely their choice. The purpose of this post is not to ask you to vote for a particular party (however much I might want to do that). Rather this is a request, from somebody who has spent a lifetime working with young people in Further and Higher Education, that you consider very carefully indeed what is really at stake in this election. 

Important as issues such as Brexit and the National Health are today, they may all too rapidly pale into insignificance besides the environmental, social and psychological impact of the deepening crisis generated by climate change. A crisis that will inevitably have the greatest impact on those currently too young to vote.   

If you have not already done so, please consider this situation very carefully before you cast your vote. It could make the difference between electing a UK government that pays lip-service to addressing this crisis while really focusing on conducting ‘business-as-usual’ and one that will actually make some real attempt to avert the crisis, or at least work towards mitigating its worst consequences.

Thank you.


Red Line Art Works

I recently met Chris Greenwood, the founder and curator of Red Line Art Works which, as he says, ‘has a global audience for art works about the big global issues, the state of our world and the lack of global justice’. It’s open to ‘all art forms, worldwide’, and seems to me the kind of inclusive cultural forum we should all be supporting at a time when the culture of possessive individualism does all it can to separate artists so as to focus on their exclusivity.

As an expression of solidarity with Chris and his initiative, I’ve sent him an essay and an image for the site.

Green politics on Channel Four and the toxic fantasy of English Nationalism

The environmental debate organised by the British TV station Channel Four last night will serve as a concrete marker for something that has been apparent for some time. That the English Nationalism of politicians like Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage is a toxic fantasy that depends on climate crisis denial, despite that fact that the reality of the situation is that we have already reached a dangerous tipping point. The no-show of Johnson and Farage at the debate was inevitable, since publicly acknowledging the crisis would mean thinking about other, closely related, issues like climate justice. And that’s not going to sit well with leading Conservative politicians like Rees-Mogg – a billionaire, climate change denier, staunch believer in his own exceptionalism, and one of the principle architects of this round of English Nationalism. By failing to attend the debate with leaders of the Labour, Liberal Democrat, Plaid Cymru and Scottish Nationalist parties, Johnson and Farage confirmed that the politics they represent is based on exactly the kind of unreal fantasy that Bruno Latour has so accurately identified in his argument for a new Terrestrial politics.  

However, what compounds last night’s insult (and indeed threat) to the British nation, and particularly to its young people, is that the Conservative party is now treating its leader’s refusal to attend the debate as an occasion to threaten Channel Four’s independence as a broadcast institution. Echoes, once again, of the bullying used by toxic Nationalists like Trump, who the English nationalists so slavishly admire. These are people who claim to be deeply concerned about ‘regaining British sovereignty’. Yet what became only too clear during the debate is that, ironically, it is the Scottish and Welsh Nationalist parties in British politics who best understand the practicalities of the need for a new Green politics. (To be fair, as with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, often building on ideas the Green party has assiduously promoted). Little wonder that the representatives of Scotland and Wales at the debate want to put as much distance between the people they represent and a group of politicians whose real constituency is the City of London’s financial district and those whose interests it represents.        

While it was a real milestone that the debate took place at all, all the signs are that we are heading into increasingly difficult and dangerous times. But then anyone with an ounce of understanding of the climate crisis already knows that.

Keeping the door open

In a long article titled ‘George and his dragons’ in The Guardian (May 17th, 2001), Maya Jaggi ponders the mixed response given by the English-speaking world to the writing of George Steiner. She notes that his sternest critics dismissed his writing as ‘pretentious intellectual bombast’ presented in a ‘writhingly Latinate’ style. But she also reminds us that, for example, the Irish novelist and critic John Banville referred to Steiner as having ‘flung open’ a door on our European heritage, insisting that we should not be intimidated ‘by insularity or hidebound by small minds, but to look beyond the border.’

Banville’s comment seems extraordinarily pertinent just now. 

I apologise if the topic of this post appears somewhat cryptic, but the circumstances that gave rise to it make this necessary, for reasons which will, I’m sure, be apparent to the reader.

I was recently reminded of George Steiner’s assertion that: ‘… a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning’ (in Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966. 1967, London: Faber. p. 15). This came to mind – it is part of his argument that it is a grave error to assume that attending to the products of ‘high culture’ necessarily humanises an individual – while attending a meeting in which two very different assumptions about art emerged.

The prompt was a discussion about the Mexican singer-songwriter, political activist, and painter León Chávez Teixeiro, who now lives in Bath. A view was expressed, based on the video ‘Iba volando, documental sobre León Chávez Teixeiro’ that it was ‘pretentious’ and, in consequence, that Teixeiro’s work as a painter was not worthy of serious consideration. What prompted my remembrance of Steiner was my knowledge of the claims made for her own work by the artist making that judgement. It would obviously be inappropriate to go into further detail here. All I can say is that it was, for me, a chilling moment; one in which the assumptions of a person given cultural authority demonstrated how her possession of ‘high’ cultural capital led to a direct and contemptuous dismissal of alternative values. The values of people who are now having to actively resist being intimidated by the insularity and hidebound assumptions of closed minds in positions of power. Minds that seem unable to look beyond their own artistic genre, art form, nationality, political persuasion, and so on, or to hold any conception of a greater good beyond their own self-interest. 

I remembered later that Steiner’s thinking appears to have been profoundly influenced by his father, who held the view that teaching was the finest thing a person could do. (Steiner learned very early in life that ‘rabbi’ means teacher, not priest). As a former Chair of the National Association for Fine Art Education, I am only too well aware that many professional artists regard those who earn a living by teaching art as second-class citizens, just as they dismiss those who work across artistic disciplines like Teixeiro as somehow ‘impure’, of lesser value. But times have changed. The internationally successful artist Andrea Fraser has been stringently critical of her own profession’s stance towards our current socio-environmental situation, insisting: ‘Artists are not part of the solution … We are part of the problem’ (in Sarah Thornton 33 Artists in 3 Acts 2014, London, Granta p. 376).

It is surely time that all the assumptions I encountered in that dismissal of Teixeiro and his work were rigorously and publicly reexamined?    

A presentation: ‘Walking away? From deep mapping to mutual accompaniment’.

In memory: Hugo Ball, 1886-1927

[The following is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given at the ‘Walking’s New Movements Conference’ in Plymouth – November 1st to 3rd, 2019. This was organised by Helen Billinghurst (University of Plymouth), Claire Hind (York St John University) and Phil Smith (University of Plymouth), to whom sincere thanks are due for putting together such a convivial and informative event]. 

In 1917, Hugo Ball broke with Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia over their ambition to turn Dada into an international art movement. Ball then ‘walked away’ – both from Zurich Dada and, as it turned out, from making art. Today, artists like Jeff Koons have infantilised Tzara and Picabia’s radical nihilism, pandering simultaneously to both the most toxic and the most trivial aspects of possessive individualism. 

My dedicating this presentation to Hugo Ball stems from his rejection of possessive individualism, a rejection based on his belief in the ultimate unity of all beings and the totality of all things. But equally from recognition of his acceptance of the need to accept the dissonances that follow from that conviction. Hans Richter reports that Ball ended his life: ‘among poor peasants, poorer than they, giving them help whenever he could’ and that, fourteen years after his death, they still spoke of him with love and admiration.

My involvement in what I’ll refer to as ‘open deep mapping’ – to distinguish it from forms of deep mapping used to serve disciplinary ends –  relates to Ball’s concerns in two ways. Firstly, because it offered me ways to work towards that sense of unity and totality, working with the dissonances and contradictions inherent in a particular place or region to do so. Secondly, because it required a walking away from art made in the image of possessive individualism in order – to  quote Les Roberts on deep mapping as bricolage – to find: “a ‘space in-between’ in which to squat in a provocatively ‘undisciplined’ manner, shrugging off the settled weight of an institutional or disciplinary habitus”. (Personally, I’d modify that slightly and say: “a space-between in which to pace in a provocatively ‘undisciplined’ manner”).

On the 15th of April, 1999, exactly a month after Loyalist paramilitaries murdered the solicitor Rosemary Nelson, I went walking in the streets of Belfast. Some of the city’s sectarian borders were still visible through curb stones painted red, white and blue, others were not, but the background of fear and anger were palpable. Four months after my walking in that city of literal, conceptual and psychic borders, I began a fourteen-year-long open deep mapping project that follows the meanders of one of the many tributaries that helped feed that fear and anger. A project oriented, first and foremost, by an unlikely resistance to a culture predicated on violence – a resistance enacted tacitly, through the preservation and performance of a handful of very old ballads, sometime referred to as ‘supernatural’ but, in fact, focused on the cunning and endurance of women. 

These photographs were taken when walking at Scot’s Dyke, which marks the English Scottish border just north-east of Carlisle, where it crosses the Debatable Land. This is the region that, historically, was the most ravaged by the consequences of wars between the English and Scottish crowns. These locked it into a cycle of violence from the late thirteenth into the early seventeen century. Walking here today, you only hear the wind, distant cattle or a tractor or, if you’re lucky, a buzzard’s cry. What’s obviously inaudible is the act of breaking of that cycle of violence – the State’s use of mass hangings, forced enrolment of large sections of the male population into mercenary regiments fighting in Europe, and the exile of entire extended families to County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. 

I’ve started here in the Debatable Land because this place gave a name to the Debatable Lands open deep mapping project I worked on for so long. By excavating and following traces of narrative that led me here, I came to touch an engrained anger and fear – but also alternatives to them – that were exported first to Ireland and, later, to the USA. Traces that draw attention to just one small thread in the UK’s contributions to what Amitav Ghosh calls ‘The Great Derangement’.

Open deep mapping – which may be what Les Roberts calls ‘deep mapping as bricolage’- is fundamentally peripatetic. It’s grounded by a walking body getting to know a place through all its senses. It’s also intellectually peripatetic, wandering freely across disciplinary and conceptual borders in order to ask unexpected and unorthodox questions in various spaces-in-between through acts of wilful intellectual trespass. I’d suggest it’s also psychically peripatetic – that its practitioners tend to take a certain rueful pride in resisting identification with any single genre, praxis, or professional category, moving on from or between these as needs must. (Which must be my excuse for delivering a presentation that no longer quite matches my original abstract).

Today, I think of open deep mapping as a walking-with the multitude of voices – both living and dead –  that animate a particular place or, more accurately, sets of relationship within and between places. A walking-with that’s alert to voices, in the spirit of Richard Kearney’s ‘testimonial imagination’, that have been forgotten, marginalized or repressed by dominant narratives. And as doing so in order to re-articulate their unanswered questions in the present moment. 

The book Between Carterhaugh and Tamshiel Rig: a borderline episode came out of the Debatable Lands project and was published in 2004The symptoms of a borderline episode or personality disorder include: unstable relationships with others, confused feelings about identity, feelings of being abandoned, and difficulty controlling anger. By using that term in my title in 2004 I wanted to suggest that, for hundreds of years, the inhabitants of the Borders had enacted and suffered just those symptoms. I only realised some time later that those same symptoms had gradually come to characterise my own relationship to the academy that employed me and, as a result, had helped lead me to involve myself in open deep mapping.

The process of making the hybrid mapping piece Hidden War further emphasised my need to look for connections where they’re not expected – some would no doubt say that don’t exist. Like the Debatable Lands project, it listened to narratives shot through with fear, loss, anger, but also to their counter-narratives. Through the good offices of Mike Pearson and others, I’d been walking with a group of performers, artists and researchers in a military training area, which suggested the means to visualise the context in which my daughter Anna lives with a chronic illness that prevents her walking.  

These images are of details of Tahmineh Hooshyar Emami’s Alice’s Alternative Wonderland and use a similar sense of cognitive dissonance to articulate a child’s experiences on the European refugee trail through contrasting spatial and textual renderings of the world of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking-Glass’. Drawing on refugees’ first-hand narratives and press reports, and inspired by a reading of Carroll’s texts as political allegory, the work offers a critical analysis of the spatial politics of refuge. Carroll’s Alice, always at odds with the physical and social space of Wonderland, provides a starting point for analysing how our bodies are defined, shaped and influenced by space. Her fears and dispossession are used to highlight the experience of refugee children in a contemporary Western “Wonderland” characterised by the on-going disputes over child-refugees and their right of asylum in countries like Great Britain.

I want to suggest that open deep mapping provides an education in what Bruno Latour calls Terrestrial politics. It teaches us that a place, region or country is not exclusive, nor is it differentiated by closing itself off. It enacts Edward S. Casey’s claim that: “a place, despite its frequently settled appearance, is an essay in experimental living within a changing culture”. It demonstrates why Terrestrial co-habitation requires us to think the global through our embodied engagement with specific places. Places experienced as inclusive – as opening themselves up to multiple, diverse, sometimes contradictory, relationships, attachments and connections. And it contests the presuppositions of unidirectional professional specialisation by suggesting that, if we want to survive in the near future, we’ll need to register, maintain, and cherish a maximum number of alternative ways of belonging to the world. 

However, the term “deep mapping” is now being co-opted to mean providing a digital “access mechanism” to “spatial narratives” so as to allow students “to begin a categorical inquiry”. (I’m quoting the Co-Director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia). Contrast that view with open deep mapping seen as a multidirectional activity. One involving: ‘observing, listening, walking, conversing, writing, exchanging, selecting, reflecting, naming, generating, digitizing, interweaving, offering and inviting’. I’m quoting Roberts again, who in turn is quoting Jane Bailey’s and my account of our open deep mapping work in North Cornwall. Fortunately, this second, more inclusive, view is still active. 

In 2017 Marega Pelser contacted me, asking if we could talk about walking and open deep mapping. Marega trained as a dancer, works with movement and drawing, and is half of the performance duo Mr & Mrs Clark. We spent a day walking and talking in her home town of Newport. In time that led to me supporting her project Framing the Transient NoW (An exercise in deep mapping) in Swansea. (There’s a video of her talking about the project I’d suggest you watch). Marega’s thinking seems to me first and foremost bodily, so it was important that we walked around and about the centre of Swansea together. She finds that walking enables her, draws her attention to the micro and to things easily overlooked. It’s a way of paying attention, of observing and meeting the people that pass through a place, the objects that bang up next to each other, and the spaces in-between places. In time her walking in Swansea generated drawings and assemblages that illuminate the city centre socially, historically, and geographically – a city centre she rightly describes as “somehow absent”. 

Marega’s particular take on deep mapping was to focus her attention on experiences she shared with a whole range of local people – from traders and allotment holders to the homeless, the partially-sighted and the elderly. All of whom she actively accompanied into the chaotic mixture of urban decay and development enacted in Swansea city centre. That act of accompaniment became mutual because it informed her about and illuminated the multi-faceted mixture of the new, the trivial, the old and the traumatic – with its undercurrent of uncertainty and disquiet – that constitutes that somehow absent centre of that city. 

A scribbled notation on one of her maps drew my attention to an incident with a bollard. Marega had accompanied some blind, partially-sighted and wheel-chair using local people on a group walk through the city centre, using hazard tape to mark problematic obstructions. A city official challenged them as they marked a bollard. Marega explained why but was told that hazard tape was (I quote): “interfering with the structural integrity of the bollard”. So the absent city centre appears here in the disconnect between the experience of functionally impaired citizens and official concern for the structural integrity of a bollard. (However, as Marega indicated in response to a question after the presentation, it must be said that those she accompanied on the walk found it empowering).   

Accompanying Marega in her work helped further shift my concern with open deep mapping towards giving more emphasis to ensemble practices and mutual accompaniment. Practices that require ways of being that require practitioners to actively distance themselves from the hyper-professionalised, unidirectional mentality rewarded by both the art world and the academy. These days, my primary concern is with ensemble practices animated by a commitment to ‘mutual accompaniment’. (A term I’ve picked up from reading the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins’ book, Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons).

In Swansea, Marega walked-alongside – or mutually accompanied – those who enacted the lived reality of a hollowed-out city centre. People who enabled her to ground her project in a genuine sense of horizontality, interdependence, and potential mutuality. The residency considered as a whole – within which I see the final exhibition as served principally as an enabling devise that gave a focus to what was very clearly a multidirectional project – points us away from the unidirectional, hyper-disciplined approaches on which academic and profession art activity are increasingly dependent, and so from the culture of possessive individualism that underpin them and which, in turn, they reinforce. 

So, is my title intended to advocate that we now ‘walk away from’ deep mapping? I’m not sure. ‘Yes’ if deep mapping is reduced to a digital access mechanism for academic inquiry into categories. ‘No’, if it is understood as contributing to the growth of ensemble practices predicated on mutual accompaniment. In my view we now desperately need Hugo Ball’s commitment to the unity and totality of all things. But, increasingly, adopting that commitment means trying to find ways to live with the – let’s face it, sometimes-overwhelming dissonances and difficulties – that flow from any such commitment. 

Speaking personally, open deep mapping has led me to see the desire to mutually accompany others in Mary Watkins’ sense as helping make that commitment possible. Despite the fact that it requires that I live with my own and others fear and anger – that I “stay with the trouble”, to borrow Donna Haraway’s phrase. Speaking personally, I see no other way of working towards the Deep Adaptation that Jem Bendell believes is now vital to our collective survival as a functioning society.            

‘Where are we just now’? Brian Hughes’ ‘The Psychology of Brexit’ and the need for disciplinary agnosticism.

I have just finished reading Brian Hughes’ new book The Psychology of Brexit: From Psychodrama to Behavioural Science (2019). Hughes is Professor of Psychology at NUI, Galway, and the author of the excellent Psychology in Crisis (2018), which addressed the various methodological crises that face psychology and (quite properly) threaten to undermine its credibility. His clear exposition in that book of various controversial psychological findings, whether based on illogical interpretations, erroneous analyses, or even fraudulent research, are indicative of his clear-sighted and even-handed approach to unpicking the psychology of Brexit as psychodrama.

I want to begin by making it clear that I think his new book is excellent. I write this because what follows might otherwise be read as criticism. That is not my purpose. However, as someone committed to understanding the world as multiverse, and so in consequence to the exercise of disciplinary agnosticism, I am troubled by his emphatic claim that: “Brexit is psychological, not political” (p. 151). What concerns me here is, I think, related both to the long-standing problem of the inability of disciplinary knowledge to adequately address ‘wicked’ issues like Brexit and a related sense of insufficient context. These issues are nothing new, but it seems important to draw attention to their consequences in relation to any discipline-based analysis of the situation in which we currently find ourselves.

I appreciate that Hughes wants to write about Brexit from a psychological point of view that stresses the role of ‘feelings, assumptions, influences, dispositions, social relations, identities, emotions, pathologies and perspectives’ (p. 151). My problem (and it is of course mine, and not Hughes’) is that it seems to me that Brexit is not a tidy, self-contained phenomenon. It is only an over-magnified aspect of a larger developing situation. One that is linked to the banking crisis of 2008 and to the imposition of so-called ‘austerity’; basically a policy to protect the wealthy, at the expense of those most dependent on public services, by avoiding the need to raise taxes or to address the increasing gap between rich and poor. This back-history is, in turn, in no small part yet another manifestation of the particularly British version of ‘class war’ between the ‘upper classes’ (now based as much on – often inherited – wealth and cultural capital as on traditional notions such as ‘family’), and the increasingly fragmented ‘middle’ and ‘working’ classes. A ‘war’ that, of course, has never been straight-forward in what Hughes might see in ‘tribal’ terms – I’m thinking of working-class support for Enoch Powell and my own godmother, Dame Irene Ward, a privately-educated Conservative MP who none the less represented a largely working-class constituency and was a strong advocate for Tyneside industry and better social conditions. While all these issues can no doubt be accounted for in psychological terms, to do so seems to me to risk missing all-important historical and other partial determinants of the complex situation in which we find ourselves.

My own view is that it is potentially misleading to focus singularly on a psychological perspective. Instead, I would argue that Hughes’ often valuable insights are best considered by relating them to a range of perspectives other than the psychological. That is by comparing them with relevant political, cultural, environmental, economic and anthropological insights.

For example, I wonder about Hughes’ dismissal of the role of nostalgia for the British Empire within the Brexit debate and, equally, about his dismissal of the use of metaphors of pathology. Both issues might, I think, usefully be pondered in the context of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. This is because a general multiculturalism and, to a lesser extent, variants on academic post-colonial thinking, have in recent years increasingly come to challenge the taken-for-granted ‘schoolbook’ view of Britain’s history. Namely the history from which the majority of the British public derive their sense of Britain’s – or perhaps more accurately England’s – ‘illustrious’ past. This shift has disturbed the status quo in various ways. That Akala’s Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (2018) should become a Sunday Times bestselling book represents one aspect of this shift. That Michael Gove, one of the most prominent figures of the Vote Leave campaign and now Minister with special responsibility for preparing for Brexit tried, as Minister for Education, to reinstate what might be called a ‘top-down’ history focused on the doings of kings and queens, represents another.

While Hughes’ account of the irrationality involved in the mutual pathologising of the ‘other’ by opposing Brexit camps seems to me accurate enough, Ghosh’s argument for using the term ‘derangement’ in relation to the mentalité of the Global North is not so easy to dismiss. While reading back and forth between Ghosh and Hughes does not invalidate anything that Hughes writes, I think Ghosh’s non-European perspective provided a useful additional inflection on ‘our’ current situation, particularly since it locates that situation – correctly in my view – within the wider context of impending socio-environmental collapse.

Understandably enough, Hughes does not address subtexts to the Brexit debates concerning financial regulation and deregulation, or the possibilities of financial speculation in relation to the renegotiation of trade agreements. However, while these relatively esoteric economic issues are clearly not directly relevant to Hughes’ psychological perspective, they are first order issues for key ‘influencers’ in the Brexit debate. For example, to those who own large sections of what Hughes refers to as the ‘vibrant’ British media (a curious term for a media culture seen world-wide, at least in its popular manifestations, as unusually vicious and partisan); to vastly wealthy politicians such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, an ultra-conservative and climate-change denier who, while arguing for national sovereignty, salts away his money in tax havens; or, on the ‘traditional Left’, those who, like Jeremy Corbin, regard the EU as fundamentally a ‘rich man’s club’ designed to exploit the ‘international working class’.

I also wonder that, writing as a psychologist, Hughes does not consider Brexit in relation to the Global North’s dominant culture of ‘possessive individualism’. He is, after all, writing at a time when the socio-environmental crisis precipitated by the Global North in terms of both social justice and environmental degradation. Consequently, I find I need to read his book with James Leach’s Creativity, Subjectivity and the Dynamic of Possessive Individualism, Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime and Jem Bendell’s paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, in mind.

James Leach’s text because it offers me a clear sense of the dominant culture’s underlying presuppositions and so clarifies the fallacies in the cult of exceptionalism espoused by Rees-Mogg. Bruno Latour for his reading of the issues at play in shifts in the global political landscape, of which Brexit is only one ‘local’ expression. And Jem Bendell because his text seems to me particularly relevant in this context given that his argument, as a scientist, raises questions about Hughes’ own position as a behavioural scientist. Questions that might be said to relate to the interface between scientific method and ethics.

The particular context within which Bendell’s paper first appeared raise profoundly important questions about the extent to which the institutional governance of science – a process mediated in no small part by discipline-based academic journals – now determine what scientists are and are not able to say publicly ‘as scientists’. Hughes writes as someone who, in so far as he is able, seeks to adopt a genuinely scientific perspective. However, that claim itself is indirectly complicated by the context of current scientific publication to which Bendell draws attention. Given Hughes’ quite proper scientific concerns in Psychology in Crisis, I would hope to find him sympathetic to my view that the issues Bendell raises as a scientist need to be addressed.

All-in-all, while I would certainly recommend reading The Psychology of Brexit, I think its understanding of Brexit as, first and foremost, psychological, should be approached with the caution proper to disciplinary agnosticism. It’s not that Hughes’ psychological approach is wrong (at leat in so far as I’m competent to judge); it’s just that, as a discipline-based academic, his views are, almost by definition, partial. If I want the fullest, most rounded sense of ‘where we are just now’, including how we are placed emotionally and behaviourally, I need to keep myself open to as many perspectives as possible on situations like Brexit, even if many of them can only be held somewhere in my peripheral vision.

From Deep Mapping to Mutual Accompaniment? Work in progress.

On Tuesday this week I spent a day helping to deliver a workshop on deep mapping to second-year architecture students at Loughborough University, the result of a kind invitation from architect, artist and architecture tutor Tahmineh Hooshyar-Emami. The students had just returned from a three-day field trip to the Debatable Land (which straddles the English/Scottish border just north east of  Carlisle), so my long-running Debatable Lands project gave me the necessary background to help them to think about what factors might inform their designs for a tourist centre there. A demanding project, given the re-focusing on borders that will be an inevitable outcome of a Brexit process that deliberately presents an agenda of deregulation, the worst possible approach to social injustice and wide-spread ecocide, in the guise of an (English) call for ‘national(ist) sovereignty’ that can only reinforce the desire for Scottish independence. 

The day was clearly productive for all concerned and has further provoked me to try to think though the relationships and tensions between three topics that were constantly in my mind on Tuesday, particularly as a result of my conversations with Tahmineh. The first of these is, inevitably, the nature of the practices we call ‘deep mapping’ – particularly as they sit between the arts (performance, visual arts, literatures of place) and those bodies of knowledge officially designated as the disciplines of geography, archaeology, history, anthropology, memory studies, architecture, etc. The second is the university as the institution responsible for the delivery of tertiary education and, in my view, increasingly failing to do so in any responsible way. This failure has to be of particular concern at a time when many universities are not only ducking serious ethical questions about their educational and research responsibilities at a time of rapidly deepening social and environmental crisis, but in some cases adopting tactics more appropriate to the Sopranos both to protect their research income and to deter right-minded staff from drawing attention to the consequences of their craven capitulation to the values of an increasingly toxic status quo. The third topic is the practical orientation that’s emerging out of the work of figures such as Paulo Freire so as to address the legacies of social and environmental legacies of colonialism holistically – that is identifying the causes of gross inequalities of wealth, social injustice, and environmental degradation as inextricably linked – and, with that, the social turn away from possessive individualism. 

In ‘Beyond Aestheticism and Scientism: Notes towards An “Ecosophical” Praxis’ (a chapter I wrote for Brett Wilson, Barbara Hawkins, and Stuart Sim’s Art, science, and cultural understanding (2014), I referenced two posts from the blog of a respected Vice-Chancellor. Some years previously he had acknowledged that universities, supposedly the prime generators of new knowledge in our culture, had become among its most reactionary and conservative institutions. He had also indicated that their archaic position vis-à-vis society as a whole stemmed from the fact that their realpolitik (as opposed to their public rhetoric) remained deeply embedded in the presuppositions that underpin disciplinary hierarchies. Five years on all that has changed is that there has been a ramping up of the academic rhetoric of interdisciplinarity and a tightening of the managerial grip on academic thinking. Rather than undertake the difficult but necessary changes that would realign tertiary education (and by implication, education more generally) to the demands of meeting the chronic socio-environmental crisis in which we are now deeply embroiled, the ‘managerial university’ has merely increased its focus on rationalization, ‘efficiency’, and the market. (One of the ways in which this impacts on the education of students studying the arts has recently been signalled by James Elkins in a paper entitled ‘The Incursion of Administrative Language into the Education of Artists’). The link between all this and deep mapping may seem oblique in the extreme. However, as the needs of a critical, post-disciplinary education are increasingly subordinated to those of income generation, academics in ‘soft’ disciplines – that is without ‘hard’ research impact in terms of income – have had to resort to ‘sexing-up’ their curricula in order to attract the numbers of ‘customers’ required by their managerial overlords to compensate for their low status as research income generators. One result of this has been the rebranding of traditional arts and humanities departments through the creation of new areas of study such as the ‘digital’ arts and humanities. (The situation of new ‘environmental humanities’ departments and centres is more complex but, unless their staff are able to overcome their own, often deeply engrained, disciplinary bias – on which their own sense of authority often depends in a culture of possessive individualism – they will send out fatally mixed messages to their students).   

In recent writing and talks I’ve been trying to get a handle on the social and environmental impact of this tripartite situation through the lens of recent developments in deep mapping. In part by referencing its appropriation by academics in the ‘spatial’ and ‘digital’ humanities, and in part by indicating how ‘open’ deep mapping has begun to mutate, to help inform what the liberation psychologist Mary Watkins calls ‘mutual accompaniment’ in her recent book Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons (Yale University Press, 2019). My aim in all this is to show that deep mapping, in the context of moving towards an education fit for purpose at a time when what is required is Deep Adaptation, must itself be prepared to rethink what is to be understood by the adverb ‘deep’ in relation to issues of place, displacement, and placeless-ness. 

My sense at present is that this will require us to de-couple ‘deep mapping’ from its links with the roll of ‘Artist’ (capital A) – a designation now fatally infected by its adoption as poster-person for the ‘creative’ within possessive individualism. The alternative is to acknowledge what has always been the case with open deep mapping. That those who undertake it have always had ensemble practices, practices in which the function of their ‘art’ skills is to help constitute a multidirectional activity by animating and complicating the host of other, often more pragmatic and instrumental skills, with which those ‘arts’ skills are aligned. The resulting ensemble practice is, as a result, polyvocal and horizontal in its operational structuring; unlike the traditional univocal approach of the Artist in which all other skills and concerns are subordinate to the needs of a single monolithic identity.

It’s not a position I expect many people to be prepared to grapple with, let alone adopt, given the massive investment in the artistic ego and its unidirectional goals required to ‘succeed’ in the dominant culture. However, at present I can see no other alternative, given the terrible situation in which we find ourselves culturally, politically and environmentally.

 

P.S.

Re. my last blog. It occurs to me that my anger with the university system (and the managerial status quo with which it is now so totally in tune) may sometimes appear disproportionate. For those of you who fear this is the case, I can only suggest reading David Tiller’s recent post. This illustrates how a major university – in this case Bristol – responds to well-founded concerns going back many years now as to the ethics of one of its researchers.

“System change not climate change”.

I heard this phrase shouted with real passion over and over again on the recent Youth Climate Strike March in Bristol. And of course the young people shouting it are absolutely right, we do need radical system change – a genuine and far-reaching programme of psycho-social and political change. But I wonder how many of the young people shouting it understand just how deep that change needs to be or, indeed, how many of their parents and other adults, come to that? 

My family situation means that I am constantly reminded just how toxic our current system is and the extent to which that toxicity extends into every aspect of our lives. It is very difficult, even when confronted by it on a daily basis, to acknowledge that our world is pathologically toxic, where toxic needs to be understood literally. That is now an accurate description of the dominant characteristics of the psycho-social presuppositions of the Global North, grounded as it is in a culture of ever more extreme variants of possessive individualism.

However, in addition to the regular flow of deeply disturbing information that comes back to us through my daughter’s network of friends fighting for their health, dignity and, all-to-often, physical survival at the sharp end of a failing social welfare system, my wife Natalie has been working for some time now on a Wellcome Trust funded project that, indirectly, has illuminated for us the extent to which universities and government departments are complicit in their suffering. (I’ve written about this in earlier blogs).

Her project, undertaken in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Cure-ME research team, is called Dialogues for a Neglected Illness, and comes out of her earlier work on the award-winning film Voices from the Shadows. What has changed for me is that I am currently reading Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons by Mary Watkins (2019, Yale University Press). This is both a history of, and advocacy for, the psycho-social practice of mutual accompaniment as an extension of ‘liberation psychology’. As such, it’s a text any artist calling themselves ‘socially engaged’ should make a point of reading.

Although only half way through the book, it has sharpened my understanding of Dialogues for a Neglected Illness – which i now view on two distinct, if closely related, levels. On one level these short films address a serious social problem regarding both the treatment of ME patients and the conduct of research into this chronic illness by medical and psychiatric researchers and the bodies that oversee and fund them. This is urgent and would be quite sufficient a topic in itself. But, while going through the material being produced to provide feedback, I am also constantly struck by how symptomatic the problems she and her collaborators are trying to identify and get addressed are with regard to the toxicity of the system as a whole. A system that has blithely rewarded, rather than identified and disciplined, now highly influential individuals who have build entire careers on a combination of pseudoscience and abject compliance with official policies and actions that are profoundly detrimental to the common good. If I was to choose a single historical public incident that typifies this I would point to those involved in the cover-up that has become known as the Camelford water pollution scandal. Today the ongoing scandal of the five million pound government PACE trial is set to match, if not exceed, this. (With at least one very senior figure indirectly implicated in both).

Listening “between the lines” to the medical experts and researchers in the two short films already on-line – Understanding Graded Exercise Therapy for ME/CFS. Parts 1 and 2. – with Mary Watkins writing in mind, I quickly picked up on their tacit, but no less damning, indication of wider systematic failures of the type indicated above. Of all their comments, perhaps the most direct and disquieting observations come from Dr Brian Hughes, Professor of Psychology at NUI, Galway, and author of Psychology in Crisis (2018) and Rethinking Psychology: Good, Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience (2016). His observations on the influence of psychology on our daily lives and on its increasing failure as a discipline to meet proper scientific standards are particularly chilling. One has only to think of the current President of the USA’s election strategy or those of the present leader of the Conservative party’s blatant attempts to conduct a form of (clearly well strategised) psychological warfare against democracy and the House of Commons. Both ultimately serve to fulfil an elitist agenda that has little to do with the rhetoric of Brexit and sovereignty and a great deal to do with the thinking of men like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

In the light of a Climate Emergency recognised by science and those prepared to attend to it, it is instructive to observe the behaviour of the multi-millionaire Jacob Rees-Mogg MP – founder of the hedge fund management business Somerset Capital Management LLP. Rees-Mogg, an architect of the current Tory Party’s disregard for the real issues of our day, has written that he is for the individual against the collective, and that “the choice” that faces us is between “the collective”, with its “constant mediocrity” – which he believes mitigates against “freedom and great peaks of human endeavour” – and achieving a world that is arranged for the personal benefit of members of the elite such as himself. That such attitudes can only result in global psycho-social and environmental catastrophe appears to count for nothing. Yet this is a man who, in the face of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, claims to be a Catholic and a Christian.

The thinking that Rees-Mogg typifies needs to be set against the point made by the anthropologist Dr James Leach, who writes, in Creativity, Subjectivity and the Dynamic of Possessive Individualism:

“If you are made up of – and manifest physically – other people’s work, input, substance and knowledge, then you do not in fact own yourself or anything you produce as an individual. There is not project that is not already the project of other people as well, because they are part of you as a person”.

Despite the fact that he inherited both his money and his elitism from his father, Rees-Mogg seems quite incapable of thinking through the fact that his much vaunted ‘individualism’ is unreal, a cultural construct that has now led to what Amitav Ghosh refers to as The Great Derangement (of which he and his colleagues in the current government are prime exemplars). I have been working for some time on the question of how we disentangle the general perception of art and the role of the artist from their co-option by a toxic culture of possessive individualism. That culture is now threatening to bring about a psychic, social and environmental Armageddon. And it’s one that, to some extent, we have all inevitably internalised. The clearest approach to further ‘de-colonising’ our own selves in this context is, in my view, that offered by Mary Watkins in Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons