Category Archives: Provocations

Un-disciplining practices: some paradoxes and possibilities.


 This text is from a presentation given to students on the Arts and Humanities Masters programme at Duncan of Jordanstone School of Art and Design, University of Dundee on 20/11/2018.   

Since I’m going to offer you a provocation about un-disciplining art practices, I need to start by clarifying what I mean by this. My concern is with un-disciplining the framing of creative practices, freeing them from disciplinary authority so as to open up other, more relational conversations between creative practices and the world. I’ll begin with the general crisis in disciplinary thinking, move on to more specific disciplinary issues relating to creative practices, and then share some examples of undisciplined practices.

Why does the university system assume that, although I know nothing about you or your work, I will have something useful to say to you? That assumption rests on our being categorised by discipline – and on the belief that disciplinarity is the best basis for transmitting knowledge. But to say that Andrea Fraser and Jeff Koons share a discipline actually tells us nothing of real value. So, might there be another reason why we’re all here together in this room?

Jane Bennett, reflecting on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘becoming-animal’, observes that this childhood game: “suggests that children have a sense of themselves as emerging out of a field of protean forces and materials, only some of which are tapped into by a child’s current, human, form”. This sense of protean possibility – linked to empathetic imagination – usually fades as children internalizesocial norms. However Bennett’s claim might be extended to those adults who have a real desire to stay in touch with protean forces and materials, including those who feel a need to make art.

Increasingly, the assumptions that underwrite disciplinarity are being questioned. Isabelle Stengers is a Belgian professor of philosophy. She trained as a chemist and has won international acclaim for her work in the philosophy of science. Starhawk is an American writer, teacher, activist and leading exponent offeminist neopaganism and ecofeminism – or, as she might say, a witch. From the perspective of disciplinarity, these two women are separated by an unbridgeable divide. Yet in Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell, Stengers and her co-author present Starhawk as somebody reclaiming an art of participation that deals directly with pragmatic concerns about effects and consequences. That’s to say, they identify her as somebody able to tap into, and work with, Bennett’s sense of protean forces. Somebody involved in: ”the dangerous art of animating in order to be animated”; in transforming our capacity to affect and be affected. That capacity is, of course, what many people claim for art, so it’s no surprise that Stengers sees Starhawk as having what Felix Guattari would call an ‘ethico-aesthetic practice’.

The disciplinary system is in crisis because it can’t engage with the Earth as a complex adaptive whole – a nested system of ecologies, all dynamically interacting and continuously forming new structures and patterns of relationships that aren’t easily isolated or predicted. Un-disciplining art practices is a response to this failure. It involves rethinking the relationship between imaginative activity and the disciplinary discourse that positions art in terms of possessive individualism. A discourse that, to maintain its own exclusivity, needs to isolate art from the kinds of fluid, shared, more-than-human, energies sensed inthe game of ‘becoming-animal’.

So, maybe we’re not in this room just because of disciplinarity.

Stengers and Starhawk both want to counter the deadening effects that disciplinarity enacts through its overwhelming compulsion to separate, categorize and judge. They want us to remember that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us.The disciplinary compulsion to separate, categorise and judge divides the world into ever-smaller fragments that are supposed to increase our knowledge. But, because we live in a multi-layered, dynamically interacting, and continuously forming multiverse, it actually does the opposite. What we now desperately need are relational understandings– ways of thinking that acknowledge that all phenomena are ultimately  inter-related and inter-dependent. However, for the moment the disciplinary mentality is still dominant. It judges all forms of knowledge and value claims according to its own hierarchical criteria. That’s why, when artists get doctorates, they’re made Doctors of Philosophy, not Doctors of Art. In the disciplinary system, philosophy is the ‘queen of the sciences’, while art isn’t considered capable of producing proper knowledge at all.

We can’t step just away from the disciplinary system, but we can be agnostic towards its claims, neither accepting or dismissing them. We can acknowledge the values of disciplinary education in relation to practical skills and insights, while questioning how these are framed and used by institutions. It’s unwise to reject disciplinarity outright. Firstly, because that tends to encourage political and religious fundamentalisms. Secondly, because the dualistic thinking that reduces everything to an either/or choice belongs to the same binary thinking that’s embedded in disciplinarity itself. So we need to work in another space. One which the feminist thinker Geraldine Finn describes as: “the space between experience and expression, reality and representation, existence and essence: the concrete, fertile, pre-thematic and anarchic space where we actually live”.

As students on an Arts and Humanities Masters programme, you’re no doubt already navigating that space-between. So, I’m now going to touch on some of its  paradoxes and possibilities.

 In Anthropology and/as Education, Tim Ingold argues that there’s more to education than teaching and learning, and more to anthropology than making studies of other people’s lives. Instead, he sees both activities as ways of leading a life of study with others; that is, of attending to the world so as to open up paths of growth and discovery. I read this to be a variation on Isabelle Stengers’: “dangerous art of animating in order to be animated”. (I’ll come back to the danger involved later). Ingold goes on to argue for an education that’s direct, practical, an observational engagement, rather than the top-down transmission of knowledge by disciplinary experts.

That’s fine in principle, but the core issue for artists is that disciplinary art discourse doesn’t just determine what is recognised as art.

 More fundamentally, it also assumes that imagination and creativity is exclusive to, and owned by, specialist groups or individuals – an assumption enshrined in copyright and patent law. This same assumption is part of the underpinning of the Western culture of possessive individualism – a culture and society that places the sovereign individual before the community. And its particular notions of personhood, nature and society have proved toxic. It’s vital, then, that we now acknowledge alternative understandings. For example, back in 1989 the psychologist Edward Sampson pointed out that: “there are no subjects who can be apart from the world; persons are constituted in and through their attachments, connections and relationships”. More recently, the physicist-philosopher Karen Barad has again reminded us that our existence is not an individual affair, since neither individuals nor ideas pre-exist their interactions. These understandings contradict the most fundamental presuppositions of both disciplinarity and possessive individualism.

So, if personhood, ideas and imagination emerge through our entangled intra-relatedness, we need to think in terms of how people, practices, ideas and materials interact as mutually co-constituting entities. I going to suggest the notion of “ensemble practices” as providing one way for artists to start thinking about this.

The term ensemble is usually applied to groups of musicians whose music-making depends on the relationship between individual skill and collective interaction. But each musician is themselves also an ensemble, a being who must attend to and coordinate what is remembered or read as sheet music, sensed, and physically played. That coordination requires attention– a combination of sympathetic curiosity, sensitivity, and openness. Attention is central to all creative work – whether we’re performing music, having a conversation, or making a banner – and we learn it through practical interactions in all sorts of ways and contexts, as Ingold suggests. The agnosticism towards disciplinary discourse I’m proposing allows us to maintain a necessary creative tension. Between this vital attention and the ways in which the results of art practices are conceptualised by specialist discourse.

This brings me to a fundamental paradox. It’s disciplinary art discourse that’s brought you to this MA. But in the process that same discourse has gradually reframed your imaginative and affective relationships with the world. Disciplinary education requires both that you learn skills and that you internalise values via a specialist discursive language. Through the process hinted at in this slide, a relational animation– in this example evoked by a sand-painting ritual – is subjected to rationalisation and re-conceptualised as ‘making art’. In this way our initial desire for emersion in protean forces and materials is formalised into a highly specific disciplinary practice that, in Western culture, is subject to the specialist analysis and judgement that isolate art as a specific, discrete discipline.

The process of art education is, then, double-edged. It allows us to develop and maintain a creative practice, but it’s also a process of indoctrination into disciplinary values. If we simply internalize those disciplinary values, rather than remaining agnostic towards them, we risk conforming to a reductive orthodoxy. We risk that orthodoxy starting to dictate both what we feel able to make and what we feel able to say about what we make. When that happens, our sense of ourselves as open beings – as always being both more and less than the categories that name and define us – is repressed or lost. We then subject ourselves to the requirements of the disciplinary category “art” rather than engage creatively with the multiple relationalities of our worlds. This process of enculturation eventually results in art that simply illustrates some current aspect of art discourse.

A report published in 2015 – Humanities for the Environment: A Manifesto for Research and Action– can help clarify what’s needed. The report makes it very clear that the understandings our society now needs involve employing multiple, even contradictory,perspectives, something that’s alien to the logic of disciplinary thinking. Additionally, it stresses that we need to move beyond models that assume that knowledge is produced exclusively within the academy. It argues that we must find alternative understandings that exceed disciplinarily thinking.

The academy’s reply to this type of criticism has been to promote the notion of trans- disciplinarity.

But the term “trans-disciplinarity” still assumes that the discipline is foundational. And at the level of institutionally-managed practices – of what actually happens on the ground – that’s exactly the problem. Trans-disciplinary projects still remain subject to the authority of a discipline-based system of funding, evaluation, governance and dissemination. So they are all-too-often a face-saving exercise for disciplinarity as the final arbiter of “real knowledge”. This prevents us from hearing what other forms of knowledge – in the case of the knowledge embodied in this dance, one that reaches back to before the last Ice Age – might say to us.

In a chapter called Rethinking the Conversation in Re-mapping Archaeology: Critical Perspectives, Alternative Mappings, Erin Kavanagh provides a helpful insight into the underlying problems of trans-disciplinarity. She sees it as a tricky exchange that’s usually heavily distorted by different discourses and the unequal status of the participants. As a poet, artist and mytho-archaeologist working on the margins of academia, she writes from experience . She knows, for example, that the potential of trans- disciplinary work is restricted by the fear most specialists experience when faced with an unfamiliar disciplinary discourse. A fear that comes from disciplines and professions treating their fields of expertise as exclusive domains – each with its own distinct culture, linguistic habits, and traditions – all to be jealouslydefended against outsiders. A fear that’s considerably reduced if we are agnostic to the territorial claims of all disciplines, including our own.

Erin points out that, if we want to be taken seriously by members of another discipline, we have to learn to speak their language well enough to understand how they think. For genuine conversations across disciplines to take place, both parties must not only become conceptually bi- or multi- lingual, they must be sympathetically curious about, and sensitive to, the other disciplines’ concerns. This is why genuine trans-disciplinary exchange is rare. But it’s also why genuine conversationscan un-discipline our practices.

The curator and art writer Monica Szewczyk argues that entering into a conversation, properly understood, makes the creation of worlds possible. When we take part in a genuine conversation we enter a space-between different worlds. But – and this is the crux of the matter – in doing that we also run a certain risk or, in Isabelle Stengers’ terms, face a certain danger. We risk our own subjective world being destabilised, perhaps even redefined, by fully engaging with someone else’s world.The danger is that we will be transformed. That’s to say, we risk becoming both more and less than whatever disciplinary category we identify with – for example, the category ‘artist’. However, as I’ve said, these transformative conversations are fairly rare.

What does what all this mean in practice? It means that it’s not possible to discuss Ffion Jones’ imaginative work productively as something distinct from, say, her living and working in a Welsh-language speaking hill farming community, as well as working as a performance artist, academic and researcher.Her work, like her life, is a complex conversation between different, sometimes antagonistic, worlds. To navigate those worlds requires sympathy, commitment, curiosity, and an underlying attention that’s oriented by trust rather than competition. And these conditions are rare in contemporary professional life – certainly in universities and the art world – where most professional exchanges are instrumental, strategic, or competitive.

People do, of course, learn to be conceptually bi- or multi- lingual, to make productive border crossings between disciplinary territories. But such crossings are demanding and generate a certain level of discomfort – of cognitive dissonance, paradox, and ambiguity. Most people prefer to embed themselves in a familiar disciplinary world, a profession, or a given identity. Some however choose, or come to accept, to become outliers, to work out on the edge of different disciplinary territories or professions and to regularly cross their borders. As a result, they develop undisciplined practices.

I’m now going to suggest why doing this is important.  

In Artificial Hells: participatory art and the politics of spectatorship, Claire Bishop writes about what she calls ‘pedagogic art projects’. In the process she reveals the tension between Joseph Beuys’ undisciplined practice and her own disciplinary critique. During the 1970s, Beuys’ work became increasingly conversational, a relational exchange with others art, education, politics and environmental activism. However, Bishop chooses to frame this work as a prompt to: “examine our assumptions about both fields of operation – art and education – and to ponder the productive overlaps and incompatibilities that might arise from their experimental conjunction, with the consequence of perpetually reinventing both”. This re-framing is highly reductive. It reduces Beuys’ work to providing the critic with an opportunity for analyse of the categories of ‘art’, and ‘education’ and their relationship. Bishop thus treats  Beuys’ work not as an open act of social engagement, but as simply another opportunity to exercise her own disciplinary skills. This disciplinary reductivism is indicative of a fundamental problem for creative practitioners.

Earlier this year Darby English, writing in the catalogue for the exhibition Outliers and American Vanguard Art, highlighted one of the basic presuppositionsof critical art discourse. He writes: “The often brutal character of modernist criticism is shown in its insistence on the primacy of external judges, which is another way to describe its tendency not to think of makers as the primary seers and knowers of their work. Vanguard criticism displaces the maker’s vision and knowledge in favour of its own rigorously cultivated awareness of how Art operates…”.

Such acts of displacement remain the stock-in-trade of critical art discourse.

Critical discourse frames the work of Eamon Colman through genre – as landscape painting – and through technique – as the product of a colourist who grinds his own pigments. Categorised as ‘landscape paintings’, these works are assumed to lack ‘engagement’, as current art criticism understands that term. However, Colman does not describe himself as a landscape painter but as someone whose work responds to “listening to other people’s stories and interpreting their dreams”.Hewalks. He thenreconstructs what he encounters from memory, before adding carefully-considered, evocative titles. He has also said that his work responses to the earth as: “a living being like you or I … an organism that breaths and communicates”. I suggest it would be more relevant and productive to explore his work in these terms than reduce it to normative categories like ‘landscape painting’ and ‘colourist’. But because current critical discourse presupposes that landscape painting is incapable of ‘engagement’, it neutralises Colman’s work in terms of larger cultural conversations. If you want to find thinking open to the contribution Colman’s art might make to such conversations, you need to turn to the writing of a sociologist, Ben Pitcher, rather than to disciplinary art discourse.

The disciplinary process of displacement  I’ve indicated makes it hard for artists to present their work as constituted in and through their own particular attachments, connections and relationships. As a result, they’re increasingly creating their own framing narratives.

Raaswater belongs to a narrative set in motion by the South African painter, researcher and performer Hanien Conradie.The work shares its name with a now-abandoned farm that, in the 1940s and 1950s, grew grapes for export. Her mother grew up there. The farm was named after the raging waters of the Hartebees River, which ran through the property. As a child, Hanien loved her mother’s stories about Raaswater which, growing up as a child of suburbia, sounded like an earthy paradise. As an adult she took her mother to visit the farm, which her grandparents had been forced to sell, and which Hanien herself had never seen. When they got there, the river was silent and all the indigenous vegetation had gone. European farming methods have so radically destabilized the water ecology that the river is now dry for much of the year.

Shocked by this situation, Hanien salvaged some of the clay that had featured in her mother’s stories of playing by the river as a child. She took it into her studio and created a simple ritual that allowed the river’s water to re-sound, to run wild again. From that she gradually evoked a new story about Raaswater. The river became a space made up of what the geographer Doreen Massey refers to as “a simultaneity-of-stories-so-far”. Hanien’s story is about land ownership, loss of indigenous habitat, and the importance of mourning at the intersection of personal history and environmental irresponsibility. That story, along with the paintings and other works it accompanies, is part of Hanien’s MFA project, Spore. It evidences the way her conversation with an ancestral place transformed her art practice into an ensemble practice. One in which a range of arts skills interact with material from botany, ecology, law, psychology and philosophy,generating a complex, open-ended, multi-dimensional relationship of materials and narrative that is more than the sum of its parts. A telling relationship that’s irreducible to any one category or discipline.

There’s an important convergence between Doreen Massey’s understanding of space as a simultaneity of ‘stories-so-far’”, and notions of a relational self as an ongoing conversation. Gulammohammed Sheikh evokes this convergence in his major project: Kaavad: Travelling Shrine: Home. Sheikh is from a Muslim family in Gujarat, a state subject to extreme anti-Muslim violence over many years. He has long been committed to staging visual conversations between different, sometimes contradictory, stories-so-far across both space and time. This draws in part on his childhood in pre-Partition India, when the belief systems of different religious groups interacted peacefully within a heterogeneous popular culture. Consequently, much of his work can be said to counter attempts by an increasingly virulent Hindu nationalism to suppress cultural exchange in contemporary India.

In Kaavad Sheikh provides a new, expanded context for the richness of the popular heterogeneous culture of his childhood. A kaavad is a portable, folding, wooden shrine used by nomadic storytellers to reveal images of different gods, goddesses, saints, local heroes, and patrons as their narrative unfolds. For Sheikh, however, it serves as a secular device, as: ‘a site for atonement for innocent victims of the senseless violence of our times… a motif of remembrance, of memory”. Through it he enfolds figures from radically different backgrounds and spiritual traditions – his mother, medieval Hindu and Sufi saints, an anonymous sweeper, the Chinese Buddhist scholar Shoriken, St. Francis, Gandhi, and the prophet Mohammed – all within a complex, multifaceted, conversational space.

Sheikh imagines conversations between stories-so-far as a non-believer, but one deeply concerned about the failure of liberal, humanist cultural education in a fractious post-secular world. The results are complex relocations of old narrative themes within a new, cosmopolitan, multiverse, with the work’s many enfolding panels evoking a ‘safe space’ for debate.

Sheikh spent many years helping to create, and then defend, a secular educational space for Indian art students. However, in 1992 he was expelled from his academic post due to political pressure. I see Sheikh as having an ensemble practice that draws on, and works out of, a variety of distinct skills and understandings –those associated withhis roles as painter, poet, secular participant in Muslim culture, educator, activist, editor and cultural observer. Activities that then feed into his polyvocal conversation about heterogeneity and tolerance.

In 2007 Deirdre O’Mahony initiated the X-PO project. Her aim was to convert  the decommissioned Kilnaboy post office in County Clareinto a centre for artistic and community activity in that small rural community in the west of Ireland. Local people embraced the project through its first exhibition: a tribute to the last postmaster, Mattie Rynne. This was followed by exhibitions, talks and presentations dealing with changes in the environment, in farm life, and in rural social circumstances – all mirroring events and concerns across the west of Ireland. Local interest groups later took ownership of X-PO through local history and mapping projects, using digital resources to create a community archive, and through using it as a meeting place. However, it continues to feed into O’Mahony’s SPUD project.

SPUD draws on education, activism, research, art practice and agronomy. It stages a conversation between elements of traditional local agricultural knowledge, self-sufficiency practices, and the relationships between agriculture and identity, by re-imagining Land Art as ‘Useful-Art’. It has involved collaborations withthe community of Kilnaboy,a South American research institute focused on developing disease resistant potatoes, and the Loy Association – a nationwide Irish group dedicated to preserving viable traditional farming practices. Originally concerned to present a more nuanced understand of the potato’s role in Irish culture, SPUD developed into a public conversation about sustainability, food security, and vernacular cultivation knowledge. Its potato lazy-beds – at the bottom of this slide – are here displayed outside the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

SPUD requires O’Mahony and her co-workers to identify, acknowledge, and work with the possibilities and limitations of different discourses and understandings. It employs multiple, sometimes contradictory, perspectives to find ways of working productively both with and across differences. Concluding her chapter in the recent book Rurality Re-imagined, O’Mahony identifies SPUD as a micro-political process, one: “necessary to remind us that the skills of both head and hand are needed if we are to actively respond to the challenges facing humanity today”.

Luci Gorell Barnes’ ensemble practice highlights other aspects of un-disciplined practice. Her Cartographers of Compassion: community mapping of human kindness might be taken as a typical example of socially-engaged art practice. But to take it in isolation is to miss the complexity and richness of her practice. This draws onskills, interests and an ethics located at the intersections of education, participatory and personal arts practice, academic research, and community engagement. It’s also particularly involved – often through narrative mapping – with the specifics of the place where she lives.

Central to her ensemble practice is a concern with learning and a commitment to people who find themselves on the margins; particularly young children with learning difficulties and migrant and refugee women. The overarching aim of her work is: “to develop flexible and responsive processes that allow us to think imaginatively with each other”She earns part of her living as a long-term artist-in-residence in a Nursery School and Children’s Centre; work that includes the Companion Planting project on an allotment linked to the school. However, her approach is not simply that of the conventional, discipline-based, local artist. Rather, she is an informed and plural subject playing many different creative roles in many different contexts.

 In The Power of the Ooze Simon Read – who lives on a barge on the River Deben – suggests that our eco-social problems require: “a particular kind of strategy that our culture has yet to develop and promote”. This requirescontinuous improvisation, without a desire for perfection or a fear of failure. Read works as an artist, teaches at Middlesex University, and serves as an environmental designer, community mediator, and ecological activist. He’s been involved in various projects on and around the River Deben since 1997.

His numerous large map drawings are always a response to issues relating to management strategies for fluid and shifting environments. They both delineate specific and recognisable possible future landscapes, and act as tools for active meditation in debates about changing environmental conditions. He retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes material from many different official sources to equip himself to join the complex environmental planning debates around environmental management. However, his ability to imagine a synthesis of the material he collects is very much a product of his art training.

Read’s work on the Falkenham Saltmarsh project – an exploration of the conditions and potential for salt marsh stabilisation – led to him planning and creating barriers designed to prevent its erosion. These manage tidal flow and encourage the controlled deposition of silt. The practical yet sculptural barriers are “soft engineered” from timber, brushwood, straw bales, and coir – a natural fibre extracted from the husk of coconuts. They’re specifically designed to degrade back into the marsh over time. Simon’s response to the challenges of environmental change includes publicly acknowledging our need to find nuanced and complex solutions. Solutions that necessarily acknowledge the cultural implications and dimensions of change involved in re-framing our collective understanding of land, ownership, responsibility, ‘home’, and belonging.

Most of the people I’ve referenced would conventionally be categorized as artists and have no quarrel with this. But if you talk to them about what they do, you quickly recognise that their work can’t be usefully categorised through a disciplinary or trans-disciplinary discourse. Each individual is an informed and plural subject who productively adopts different roles in different contexts; subjects who understand that both they and their practices are constituted in and through their multiple attachments, connections and relationships.

There’s nothing particularly new in what I’ve been saying. In Australia, the Anthropocene Transitions Project is working to increase understanding both of the Earth as a single socio-ecological system and of the cultural drivers that threaten it. It’s co-ordinator, Kenneth McLeod, insists that we can only meet that threat if: “we climb out of our disciplinary and professional silos, take off our institutional blinkers, and start exploring genuinely transformative change; … ask ourselves how can we step into the “space between” disciplines and cultures where new thinking and ways of knowing and acting in the world are possible; where new ways of understanding and valuing the Earth can emerge”.

For those who experience creative involvements as something more than a disciplined category of work, meeting McLeod’s challenge requires a conscious un-disciplining –  perhaps the cultivation of an ensemble practice along the lines I’ve indicated.

Indicative bibliography

Karen Barad Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning.

Jane Bennett The Enchantment of Modern Life: attachments, crossings and ethics.

Claire Bishop Artificial Hells: participatory art and the politics of spectatorship.

Darby English ‘Modernism’s War on Terror’ in Lynne Cooke (ed.) Outliers and American Vanguard Art.

Geraldine Finn Why Althusser Killed His Wife: Essays on Discourse and Violence.

Tim Ingold Anthropology and/as Education.

Erin Kavanagh‘Rethinking the Conversation’ in Re-mapping Archaeology: Critical Perspectives, Alternative Mappings.

Humanities for the Environment: A Manifesto for Research and Action.

Kenneth McLeod, Learning to Think Like a Planet –

Philippe Pignarre and Isabelle Stengers Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell.

Monica Szewczyk  ‘Art of Conversation, Part 1’ e-flux journal no 3.

‘Greening’ the Borders: a personal meander through questions of agriculture, woods and wetlands


Borders mixed woodland



Around mid-summer I spent some time visiting various mosses and other wetlands in the English / Scottish Borders. These included Ford Moss, a lowland raised mire to the south-west of Berwick-upon-Tweed; the three Whitlaw Mosses just east of Selkirk; and the Gordon Feuars Moss, a wet wood, just outside the village of Gordon.

This last is a very particular place, the remnant of a large floodplain mire dominated by a low tangle of birch and willow growing over a variety of fen and bog peatland habitats. It appeared entirely un-managed and, as such, made me think it might be some of the last “natural” remaining native woodland in Britain. However, on looking at a large-scale map later, I found that there are drains marked as running through two sections of the reserve: Gordon Moss Nature Reserve itself and the neighbouring strip known as Minister’s Bog. However a third area, Laird’s Bog, appears to be undrained, suggesting that there has been only minimum human intervention in the area in the past. That was certainly my impression ‘on the ground’.

What interests me is not, however, whether or not such a place is in some sense “pristine’, but how it fits into the shifting politics of land ‘improvement’ and environmental concern that is now starting to shape the Borders landscape.


Marker on the edge of Gordon Fears Moss.


In the ‘Laird’s Bog’ wet woodland at Gordon Feuars Moss


A 2006 report – “A Borders Wetland Vison” – compiled for the Scottish Borders Counciltells me there are eleven distinct types of wetland in the region – blanket bog, lowland raised bog, fens or flushes, reed beds, coastal and floodplain grazing marsh, wet woodland, lowland meadows, upland hay meadows, purple moor-grass (Molinia), rush pasture, and lochs. All of these are environmentally important. (Peatlands, for example, reduce global climate change by acting as carbon sinks that capture and store carbon from the atmosphere. Twenty percent of the world’s terrestrial carbon is captured and stored in peatlands located in the northern hemisphere). I have two related reservations about this report’s neat definitions, however. The first is that surely one of the important qualities of wetlands is psycho-social rather than environmental as that term is usually understood – their quiet ‘wildness’ in Don McKay’s sense of that word. That is, their capacity “to elude the mind’s appropriations” (2001 p.21), even those provided by scientific organisations like environmental research consultancies. My second, related, reservation is that, in practice and perhaps somewhat ironically, it’s precisely human intervention that so often makes a nonsense of any such neat distinctions. (Wet woodland, precisely because it occurs as small areas of wood or localised patches in larger woods on floodplains, as successional habitat on fens, mires and bogs, along streams and hill-side flushes, and in peaty hollows, many of which border on cultivated agricultural or other land, often combines elements of many other ecosystems).

Repairing the old sheep fank on the Carter Burn near the entrance to Burns in the Wauchope Forest area.

Sign marking the entrance to the Burns.

The image of an old sheep fans above is located in what was once an area of upland hay meadow.  It may originally have been bounded by wet woodland similar to that at Gordon Fears Moss and subject to regular flooding. The fank, however, is a product of the move towards land enclosure and the introduction of large-scale sheep farming. Then, beginning in the 1920s, sheep farming in this area was increasingly replaced by forestry, particularly the monoculture of Sitka spruce that now dominates the Wauchope Forest. Over the last eighteen years, I’ve watched this remnant of old upland hay meadow being further transformed; overrun by a mixture of bracken, reeds, and the beginnings of what may become a ribbon of deciduous wet woodland. While this process of change will continue one way or another, how it will fit into the wider pattern of future Borders land use is an open question.

The Midstream Collective

The Midstream Collective (left to right: CB, IB & MM)

I took the journeys indicated above because I wanted to get a sense of these wetland places ‘on the ground’ and to collect images. I was working towards a celebration of wetlands with my friends Christine Baeumler (an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Minnesota) and Mary Modeen (an Associate Dean at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee) for presentation at a conference in September. These are my partners in the Midstream Collective, which we set up some years back to ‘badge’ the collaborative work we wanted to do together.

As so often happens when I visit new places, the explorations with one end in view have set me thinking about another – land use on the Borders, both past and present – which in turn provoked this essay.

Ford Moss and its woodland


Ford Moss Nature Reserve sign

Ford Moss from the south-east

The Ford Moss Nature Reserve, wedged between a mix of farm land and old forestry plantation, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that sits in the hollow of a hill overlooking the Till Valley and the Cheviots. The Moss extends over about one hundred and fifty acres and is classified as a lowland raised mire. That’s to say its ecology is underpinned by a deep peat layer laid down by the rotting of vegetation over many thousands of years. The moss has become dryer over the last 250 years, but retains echoes of its older landscape form, which is undergoing ‘renovation’. The nature reserve includes old mixed woodland that’s adjacent to the moss and contains both mature Scots Pine and Oak.

I was unable to walk into the moss itself, which is fenced to keep people away from its “soft and treacherous surface”. Instead, I (largely) followed the circular two-mile path around its edge. The wildlife, particularly the birds, were present from the start, as indicated by the variety and volume of bird song, most noticeably of thrushes, blackbirds and skylarks. The persistent call of a buzzard hunting high over the moss accompanied me for much of the second half of my walk. I also had the luck to encounter a Roe doe at close quarters.

Broken snail shell – evidence of a thrush’s activity?

A buzzard calling high over the moss

Roe doe caught unawares

As I started walking around the moss, it struck me that the mature Scots Pine and Oak woodland bordering its southern side and situated on an incline, echoed descriptions of woodland I’ve read and thought about a good deal in the past.

Mature woodland on the slope to the south side of Ford Moss

This is the old woodland of the Jed Forest that had once covered an area of land called the Wauchope Forest, now largely taken over by commercial forestry. That area that interests me sits north and west of the Carter Bar pass on the Scottish side of the Cheviot Hills. (This is well down the Border to the south-west of Ford Moss in the old Middle March). The area I’m particularly attached to consists of three parallel low ridges with the Carter and Black Burn running between them into the Jed Water.

What came to my mind was that the woodland at Ford Moss was almost certainly of the same type that persisted, probably with relatively little change, from around the time of the end of the Roman occupation to some point in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, when the Lowlands were ‘improved’. (Jennifer Owen, in her magisterial Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study, suggests that by 400 AD. only 30% of England was wooded, although the percentage would have been considerably higher in the Borders). I regularly visit this area between Carter Bar and the former parish of Southdean when I’m in the Borders and have done so for almost twenty years now.

The politics of land use

The remains of Tamshiel Rig, photographed c. 2002. Fifteen years later this site, if it still exists at all, is completely inaccessible due to the density of the Sitka planting. 

I stopped in Jedburgh on my way from Ford Moss to visit the land around Tamshiel Rig – a medieval shieling built on the site of what was once one of the best-preserved Iron Ages farms in Britain (until it was plowed up for forestry). While I was there I bought a copy of Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell’s The Lowland Clearances: Scotland’s Silent Revolution 1760-1830 (Tuckwell Press, 2012).  Like so much historical research into social conditions in rural Scotland, it’s a stark reminder of how issues of social justice, ownership, and land use are intimately linked, of the complexity of those links, and of how the language of ‘progress’ has been used to justify the imposition of ‘top-down’ changes that have had long-standing consequences. (The authors reckon that the ‘improvement’ of Lowland agriculture traumatised, displaced, or otherwise disrupted, the lives of almost one third of the population. These were for the most part cotters, the poorest members of Borders society. In this context, it’s important to know that even today more than half of Scotland is still owned by less that 500 people, a situation with enormous socio-environmental consequences.

Two views reported in the book are relevant to my visit to the former parish of Southdean, where the population has been steadily declining year on year. The first is that of an establishment orthodoxy that views the enclosures and the improvements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a mark of unqualified progress. For that orthodoxy, the creation of “big new farms in place of common grazing” not only “completely altered the landscape of Scotland”, it ushered in the new, scientific agriculture essential to Scotland entering the modern industrial age (p. 72).

The second view is that of the historian Dr James Hunter. Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands, was the first Director of its Centre for History, and the author of thirteen books about the Highlands and Islands and that region’s diaspora. He was the first director of the Scottish Crofters Union, now the Scottish Crofting Federation and is a former chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Unsurprisingly then, he contrasts the “empty deserted glens” central to large-scale Lowland sheep farming and “kept going solely by vast, enormous subsidies from Europe”, with “the unimproved parts of Scotland … the crofting counties”, where “you see a much more viable society”. (p. 148) He also suggests that the people who resisted the ‘improvements’, where, from the perspective of our present eco-social situation, those with the better, more sensible, more economically and environmentally viable vision of the Scottish landscape than the “few subsidy junkies” who now dominate “rural Scotland where improvement was given full reign” (ibid).

Lindean loch information board.

Lindean loch.

The historical link between the loss of wetlands and ‘improvements’ of various kinds is neatly illustrated by what’s known of Linden reservoir or loch, located just east of Selkirk. Prior to the eighteenth century, this would have been the lowest, and possibly most extensive, of what are now collectively known as the Whitlaw Mosses. (The remaining three are ‘Murder’, ‘Beanrig’ and ‘Blackpool’ Moss).

Whitlow moss, looking west towards Lindean Loch

Whitlaw Moss.

Although the loch looks ‘natural’ enough today, it is in fact the product of two major human interventions. As a standing body of water, it’s largely the result of the extensive extraction of lime rich marl (a form of clay), dug by hand during the eighteenth century. Marl that was then used as fertiliser locally to improve the grass necessary for intensive grazing. Then, in the twentieth century, the loch was dammed to provide a public water supply for nearby villages, a situation that continued into the nineteen seventies. Now notable for its lime-rich water and soil, and for the six hundred and more plant and animal species apparently found in and around it, the loch was designated an SSSI in 1977.

Rethinking woods and wetlands – Kielder, Wauchope and other commercial Borders forests

Clear-felled area of hillside north of Kielder


Clear-felled area at Burns in the Wauchope forest

Given my long-standing interest in the area just north west of Carter Bar, someone familiar with the area would probably expect me to visit the Border Mires, the name given to a collection of peat bog sites in, and adjacent to, Kielder Forest in Northumberland, rather than the mosses I in fact visited. After all this area was, until planting began in the 1920s, predominantly open moorland and mire, with remnants of native upland woodland – some of it wet – along stream sides and in isolated craggy areas. Now it’s the largest man-made forest in Europe, with three-quarters of its six hundred and fifty square kilometres covered by commercial forestry, of which seventy-five percent is Sitka spruce. Like all such forests, it is a depressingly monotonous and oppressive environment that, typically, sustains very little in the way of wildlife and provides little employment.

There are, however, fifty-eight separate peat bog sites within the overall forest area. These are in remote locations and largely made up of deep lenses of peat located in larger areas of blanket bog. They can be up to fifteen meters deep in places and are almost all dependent on rainfall to maintain their water-balance. Taken together, they store more water than the Kielder reservoir itself, the largest artificial lake in the United Kingdom, which holds forty-four billion gallons, figure that reminds me forcibly of the importance of peat bog in the retention and general management of water, particularly in relation to flooding.

Kielder Water reservoir.

My problem with trying to visit the Border Mires sites is that, not only are they almost all in very remote areas, but they are also designated SSSIs and require permission to visit them. Given the contingencies of our family situation and of factors like the weather, this simply isn’t practical for me. So, over the years I’ve spent time in the area of Scotland just over the border from Kielder in places I would call ‘wet edge lands’. That is, places that historically have been radically reconfigured by climate change, then by human enclosure and, later again, by the forestry practices used to create the current forest monoculture.


The Black Burn, it’s banks damaged by industrial scale clear-felling, is now producing marsh-like areas along its upper length. These are frequently flooded and almost always remain waterlogged. 

Roadside drainage ditch running into Carter Burn (2017).

The management of water in this area is now wholly determined by the needs of the forestry industry, in particular the quick and effective extraction of large volumes of timber. Crude roads built for this reason often disrupt the natural flow of water and, as a result, have a substantive impact on the two burns.  The new drainage ditch pictured above now above runs directly into Carter Burn, and over time will almost certainly impact on its course and water quality. If it speeds up lateral erosion it may undermine the bank that separates the burn from the nearby pool and, in doing so, substantially change the course of the burn.


A standing pool, perhaps originally created by the silting up of an old flood meander in the Carter Burn, also shows some evidence of having been dammed at some point, perhaps to provide water in connection with the nearby fank shown earlier.


The Carter Burn valley

The images above are indicative of the area in which I go to walk, look, listen, and remember; that is to find ways into the numerous processes that produced, and are still producing, this landscape.

What’s to remember here? Many things, but in particular the continuous processes of both sedimented and sudden change. Before it was ploughed up and obliterated to plant forestry, there were the extensive and perhaps best preserved archaeological remains of an early Iron Age farm anywhere in Britain located just above Black Burn. For some three hundred or so years either side of the start of the Christian era, there is evidence that a milder climate made it possible to grow a primitive form of barley here.  Later, in the medieval period, a bothy or sheiling called Tamshiel Rig was built near the site of the Iron Age farm. This provided shelter for those who tended the cattle that grazed here on the rich upland grasses each summer, part of a local agriculture based on transhumance. And to the east of the Rig, if local names are anything to go by, herds of swine once foraged for acorns in the oak woods and wallowed in the high mires above.

Why remember all this?

Because it tells us that present forms of land use are neither ‘natural’ nor inevitable. They are determined by the concerns of landowners and, as James Hunter indicates, there are always alternatives. That alternatives to the early modern culture of ‘improvement’ are now once again on the political agenda is clear from the Scottish Green Party’s policies.


A Borders cow and her calf (2017)

A Borders pig (2013)

Relevant Scottish Green Party policies: an indicative summary

 The Scottish Green Party’s manifesto commits it to working to ensure that Scotland’s land benefits the many and not the few, and that to establishing transparency as to exactly who owns Scotland. It also argues for a radical programme of land reform to transform the social, economic and environmental prospects for communities across Scotland. To achieve this, it is committed to supporting such proposals as providing agricultural tenants with a right to buy their farms in appropriate circumstances, and to ensuring that public subsidy is directed at those in most need of it and to support the expansion of new sustainable forestry. All of which goes against the grain of the modern culture of ‘improvement’.

The Party is also committed to increasing local community control over public land and to working towards greater democratic control of the National Forest Estate and of property currently administered by the Crown Estate Commissioners. It is similarly committed to promoting community agriculture, involving a step change in making land available for smallholdings, with a shift away from high-input agribusiness to low-carbon, organic farming.

This dovetails into  its proposal to support farming that provides public benefits, including rural jobs, water management, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and shorter food chains. It aims to foster links between communities, local farmers and food co-operatives. It also recognises the need to support new farmers from non-farming backgrounds in getting access to the land and finding opportunities to build experience in environmentally and economically sustainable farming. It is committed to supporting large scale ecological restoration projects of native flora and fauna, including the continued restoration of internationally- important peatlands. Again, these policies largely go against the grain of the modern culture of ‘improvement’.

In principle at least, all these policies point to what could be a radical transformation of the Borders region, its agriculture, woodlands and wetlands.

A ‘wild’ speculation

So, what might an alternative Borders landscape look like? What, over and above Green policy, is needed to shift the Borders back to reflect something of the ‘unimproved’ landscape values that James Hunter identifies with a contemporary crofting culture, for example that of the Sleat peninsula of the Isle of Skye? The policies of the Green Party, if put into practice, would open the way for the establishment of a hybrid between traditional small-scale subsistence agriculture, alternative sustainable forestry practices, and the contemporary possibilities of tourism and other forms of income such as I’ve seen at first hand on Mull. However, the implementation of Green Party policies would require a radical political shift that would be resisted tooth and nail by those who own or are dependent on the big Borders estates. This suggests that there is little or no realistic possibility at present of reversing the depopulation of the Borders or of breaking the stranglehold of ‘subsidy junkies’; not just the owners of big farm estates and heavily subsidized grouse moors, but the many absentee landowners whose return on investment in commercial forestry depends on subsidy. However, we do not know what the impact of Brexit will be on the subsidy culture.

If I was asked to identify a point of leverage that might nonetheless help to move this process on, I would argue for the ‘re-wilding’ of the vast forestry monoculture of Kielder forest and points north of the Border. By this I do not mean aping a few wealthy individuals to import beavers or wolves onto their private estates. My sense of re-wilding owes more, as already suggested, to Don McKay’s understanding. Not, then, the re-introduction of a single large mammal but, as a start, small-scale human projects designed to reestablish areas of mixed forest, mire and moorland in the vast monocultural hinterlands of commercial Sitka spruce cultivation. Not, however, as stand-alone projects, but as part of a wider eco-tourism and cultural/environmental education initiative build in consultation with local people, particularly those young people anxious to remain and earn a living from the land.

The artist and environmental activist Cathy Fitzgerald has ably demonstrated, through her Hollywood Project, that it is both ecologically desirable and practically possible for an individual to learn how to gradually convert commercial forest monoculture to fully sustainable mixed woodland. What is needed is, above all, opportunity and a desire for environmental change. Given a multi-stranded approach that, for example, seeks to go beneath and beyond the macho reiving-related culture so heavily promoted across the Borders, it should be possible to start to construct a multi-stranded and locally grounded basis – looking both back to a ‘pre-improvement’ agricultural past and forward to new, technologically-enabled possibilities, a basis equivalent to James Hunter’s vision of renewal on Skye.






The politics of ‘flood defence’ – land management and social justice

“David Cameron has promised to invest £400 million a year on shoring up flood defences over the next six years; but official data shows spending was cut sharply at the start of the last parliament, from £360m in 2010-11, to less than £270m in 2012-13” (The Guardian 31.12.2015: 1). 

I do not believe that David Cameron’s Government will deliver on this statement but, be that as it may, there is still something pathetic about his pottering around flood-ravaged England dispensing platitudes about funding ‘flood defences’. It is pathetic because the Government is clinging to thinking about water management that it knows is practically ineffective, socially unworkable and,  additionally, defies expert opinion.

After the flooding of the Somerset Levels the Government, having consistently cut back funding to the Environment Agency tried, in desperation, to blame it for the consequences of the Government’s own policies. It was forced to back down and the ensuing climb-down involved consultation with a range of top water management experts. They told the Government that it needed to avoid the temptation to revert to dredging and start putting in place inclusive, catchment-wide thinking about the causes and prevention of flooding. (I’ve written about this before – see ‘Won’t Wash’ or: ‘high and dry thinking in a wide, wet, world’ The Government then proceeded to totally ignore this advice because it was going to be unpopular with regional Tory supporters.

Inclusive, catchment-wide thinking in relation to flooding is primarily about prevention rather than defence and, as such, requires fundamental changes in attitudes to rural governance. On Exmoor, for example, this thinking has meant reversing long-established assumptions – not least that water needs to be drained off the high moor as fast as possible (largely with a view to improving the land for grazing). The new policy reverses this, trying to ensure that the water stays on the moor for as long as possible and drains off it as slowly as possible, thus minimising both the risk of flooding downstream in the short term and substantially reducing the amount of soil washed down to silt up rivers in the middle to long term. This change in thinking is really only possible because since 1954 Exmoor has been a National Park, with its governance initially coordinated by local government and, since 1997, by a free standing Exmoor National Park Authority. What this means in practice is that this area of land is managed through a council made up of elected individuals who, in accordance with democratic convention, must act in the public interest and demonstrate that they will do so by publically declaring their personal and pecuniary interests. In short on Exmoor there is the possibility of genuine democratic debate as to the basis for its governance, thus distinguishing it sharply from the bulk of uplands in the UK. These largely remain in private ownership and are managed on the basis of the personal interests of individuals like the “exuberant hedgefund billionaire Crispin Odey”, singled out as a typical grouse moor owner by Telegraph reporter Clive Aslet 

This is where the issue of flooding and social justice start to converge. In 2014 the same Government that chose to ignore the call for inclusive, catchment-wide thinking in relation to the Somerset Levels almost doubled the subsidy to landowners who own grouse moors (from £30 to £56 per hectare). Unfortunately what is good in terms of raising grouse for shooting is bad for flood prevention. By increasing the grouse moor subsidy the Government has effectively subsidised miss-management of hundreds of thousands of hectares, both in terms of flood prevention and of opportunities to link good environmental governance and increased rural employment more generally. In short, the wealthy and privileged few are being rewarded for perpetuating a situation that brings misery to tens of thousands of their fellow citizens. (For a direct link between grouse moor management and flooding see George Monbiot’s recent blog entry). Misery that in this last round of flooding alone is estimated to be going to cost the country in excess of five billion pounds. My point is simple. David Cameron’s promised £2,400 million is not just about “shoring up” flood defences, its also about shoring up an exclusive and deeply anachronistic version of rural life and economy – one that the right to continue fox hunting and grouse shooting have come to symbolise in the minds of those who claim to defend ‘our’ rural way of life.

It will be blindingly obvious to anyone with any political sense that a Tory Government will not risk upsetting the wealthy landowning classes – whether in the name of flood prevention or any other eco-social concern. If they were to do so, we can be sure that organisations like the Countryside Alliance and Country Land and Business Association would do everything they can to defend the rural mythology that supports the status quo. (An example of such a defence is provided by Charles Clove in an article in praise of the ownership of rural land ownership (which, he suggests, was never “likely to attract capitalists who were not born into it as a way of life – unless for social reasons, or for sport” – a sport, however, where rich individuals from around the world pay something in the region of £140 for the privilege of killing two birds).

This leaves us with the practical question of what is to be done.

In my view there is little or no point in adopting a rigidly adversarial approach towards the rural establishment, not least because it is politically and economically very powerful (for good or ill), and often holds attitudes that are likely to harden further if blindly opposed. Nor is there any ‘magic bullet’ that can solve the complex of issues involved. The real solution to the worsening flooding in the UK lies in a whole cluster of changes, some of which have no obvious connection to water management.

These include the move to proportional representation that is necessary to restore something approaching a genuine democratic system of government to the UK, and without which serious land management reform will never take place. But it also requires serious work at many levels on ending the ignorance and calculated prejudice that is used to perpetuate the rural/urban divide – a divide that plays straight into the hands of those whose only real concern is the perpetuation of a status quo that, increasingly, has become both socially and environmentally toxic. This requires us to build dialogue and a degree of trust that, inevitably, with mean building new alliances and, inevitably, some compromise of long-cherished views on both sides of that divide. There are examples that point to new possibilities in this respect, for example The BurrenLIFE project – Farming for Conservation in the Burren in the west of Ireland. The aims of this project include: 

  • Implementing best-known management practices on 2,000ha of the Burren, including new feeding systems, redeployment of existing livestock and targeted scrub removal.
    Increasing understanding of the relationship between land management practices and the natural heritage of the Burren;
  • Developing new support mechanisms for the sustainable management of the Burren habitats;
  • Enhancing awareness and skills relating to the heritage of the Burren and its management through a range of practical initiatives aimed at empowering local communities;
  • Disseminating information relating to the agricultural management of areas of high nature and cultural conservation value through literature and the media.

 Indicatively, it may be that the second and last of these aims are the most pressing. Developing ‘new support mechanisms for … sustainable management’ in any rural area has to involve looking long and hard at its eco-economic viability, which in turn will often require developing forms of employment that, in order to genuinely ’empower local communities’, will challenge a rural status quo that still takes its right to pursue activities like grouse shooting as a given. That in turn raises important governance, educational and cultural issues, including that of raising external understanding and support during what will inevitably be periods of difficult transition in such communities. It is here that the dissemination of information (and not only that relating to the environmental and agricultural management of an area) informed by inclusive catchment thinking – particularly through literature, the arts and the media – comes into play.   




Winner takes all? Re-greening democracy to overcome the culture of possessive individualism


It’s hard to write anything positive in the wake of the election results this morning.

Although the final results were not all in as I write this post it’s very clear that, once again, a tired and morally bankrupt status quo has managed to perpetuate itself by playing on the fear and manufactured ignorance of a large part of the electorate. It no longer matters whether this manifests itself via the Conservative mainstream, its supposedly ‘down-to-earth’ UKIP shadow, or a Labour Party that has become little more than Conservativelite. What is very clear is that we are seeing the triumph of the culture of possessive individualism epitomised by Margaret Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as society” – an ideology that has managed to play on a multitude of fears to ensure that the rich will continue to get richer and the sick, poor, and the majority of young people will suffer further as a result.

To put this in perspective, it’s worth looking at the Executive Summary of a report published by Church Action on Poverty, The Trussell Trust and Oxfam in June 2014. This points out that, while the UK is the seventh richest country in the world it is increasingly deeply unequal. The richest 1% owns the same amount of wealth as 54% of the population. Furthermore the 1,000 richest people in the country saw a 100% increase in their wealth in the past five years and, of course, are now set to see this growth continue while the millions of families in the UK living below the breadline see their situation worsen. The report notes that Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty calculate that in excess of 20,247,042 meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013/14, a 54% increase on 2012/13. Add to this that “more than half a million children in the UK are now living in families who are unable to provide a minimally acceptable diet” and you get a very clear sense of just what Margaret Thatcher’s much vaunted “return to Victorian values” has meant in practice.

In the run up to the election the Tories have argued that they have increased jobs, yet “despite their best efforts, many people cannot earn enough to live on”. The report points out that:

“UK food prices have increased by 43.5 per cent in the eight years to July 2013 and food expenditure as a proportion of total household expenditure has continued to rise. The UK has one of the highest levels of housing costs in Europe, while between 2010 and 2013 energy prices for households rose by 37 per cent. At the same time, low and stagnant wages, insecure and zero-hours contracts mean that for many low-income households, the money they are bringing home is less every month than their essential outgoings”.

The summary adds: “Evidence shows that changes to the social security system are a driver of food poverty. Cuts to social security since April 2013 have had a severe impact on poor and vulnerable families across the UK. These cuts have been coupled with an increasingly strict and often misapplied sanctions regime – 58% of sanctions decisions are successfully challenged”. This is both evidence of the punitive ideology driving Tory policy, and indicative of the fact that “many people needlessly suffer a loss of income through no fault of their own. The abolition of the Social Fund has prevented thousands of households from being able to access crisis loans. The Trussell Trust, the largest food bank network in the UK, estimates that 49 percent of people referred to food banks are there due to problems with social security payments or because they have been refused a crisis loan”.

And the ideologically-driven war on the poor, sick, and marginalised that these facts and figures represent will now be intensified.

On the positive side, however, the election has meant that the Liberal Democrats have quite properly been wiped out as a credible political party. They have paid the price for the cynical betrayal of their electoral pledge on education last time round and for propping up of a Tory Government hell-bent on delivering a punitive austerity programme that is as unethical as it is unnecessary. As I write the Liberal Democrats have received just 1% of the total vote – in contrast to, for example, the anti-austerity Scottish National Party’s 9%. In this context it’s worth reflecting on comments made by Caroline Lucas, who won Brighton Pavilion for the Greens on an increased majority.  Ironically, in noting that “almost a million people voting Green” she is echoing UKIP’s Mark Reckless in pointing out that the results have shown “the political system in this country is broken”. She adds: “it’s ever clearer tonight that the time for electoral reform is long overdue, and it’s only proportional representation that will deliver a Parliament that is truly legitimate and better reflects the people it is meant to represent.”

So the choice is clear. If anything like a representative democracy is to be restored to these Isles, the unrepresentative system that sustains the current toxic status quo must be dismantled. But of course I’m hardly neutral in all this. My daughter – subject to a long-term chronic illness and denied medicines that would help her – is in the front line of the Tory’s ideological war.

For her and her friends the results of this election are not simply profoundly depressing, they are potentially lethal.

Deep mapping, conversation, and re-forging tools for thought

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Geraldine Finn reminds us that we’re “always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us”. None-the-less we need categories to help us think. Deep mapping has been a valuable conceptual tool for me in this respect, albeit one I recently felt had been miss-used or blunted to the point of becoming almost meaningless. That, and more personal difficulties, prompted me to feel I should let go of it as a term. (I’ve noted the reasons in earlier blogs, so won’t go over my reasoning again here).

But I have now been movingly reminded that ‘deep mapping’ is, for me, rather more than just a useful (if slippery) concept. It’s also a shared praxis with a particular, albeit bifurcated and contested, history. At root the term names a shared and ongoing narrative, a story that many people have and are collectively making. One in which I’m still very much caught up. My friend and colleague Dr. Nessa Cronin, who works in the Centre for Irish Studies at NUI, Galway, has just reminded me of all this in the best possible way.

 Last year Nessa and I had shared thoughts about deep mapping when I was working at NUI, Galway, and we continued to do so by email after I’d left. She has recently completed work on a book chapter: ‘The Fineness of Things’: The Deep Mapping Projects of Tim Robinson’s Art and Writing, 1969 – 1972, and kindly sent me a draft to read. Given our exchanges I was curious to see what she’d written and was delighted by what I read. (The chapter will be published later this year by Manchester University Press in a book called: Unfolding the Landscape: Tim Robinson, Culture, and Environment, edited by Christine Cusick and Derek Gladwin. I’ll return to it again briefly later).

 However what I want to focus on here is not the virtues of that illuminating chapter about an exceptional man’s work, but rather my renewed sense of the whole mesh of exchanges that occasioned it and will now flow from it. Not simply for its own sake, but for what it reminds me about the real basis of shared scholarship and praxis. That mesh of exchanges includes those between Nessa, Tim Robinson himself, and his partner Mairéad; those between Nessa, myself and a host of other scholars and artists; but also, and critically, those between groups in communities in the west of Ireland, through Know your Place: A Community Mapping Workshop, run in conjunction with Lifeworlds: Space, Place and Irish Culture International Conference, Galway City Museum, 29th March 2014. This event, focused on devising a community-based mapping ‘toolkit’, centered on the mapping work and experience of the X-PO Mapping Group in Kilnaboy, County Clare, Mná Fiontracha Mapping Community Group in Árainn, and The Sliabh Aughty Community Group, with wider virtual communities, and with the workshop facilitators Dr. Ailbhe Murphy, Dr. Deirdre O’Mahony and Ms. Ann Lyons. All those exchanges will no doubt continue to contribute to this conversational weave, one in which deep mapping will be one, more or less useful, strand.

 It’s in this rich and particular context that Nessa wrote to me that she always tries to be mindful of the processes of thinking, reading, and writing as in many ways collaborative work. As she points out, this is the case even if the engagement is with thinkers long since died, yet still active in our thoughts and imaginings. Thinkers with whom we have imaginary conversations and debates around the key issues they thought and wrote about, just as we might with living thinkers. It is, she rightly insists, though all such conversations that our arguments “are tried, tested and forged over time”. Forged and, when they are chipped and blunted by careless or ignorant use, necessarily re-forged so as to help us to continue in our shared work. That’s one aspect of a community of scholar/teacher/practitioners – however on occasion fractious and divided – that helps to keep the purpose and value of listening and learning alive, despite all the dogmatic managerialism that is currently choking the vitality of our schools and universities.

 Cliff McLucas believed that deep mapping should be a conversation, and I now realize that it’s vitally important to hang onto that belief and, with it, to Nessa’s sense of the shared and ongoing nature of our conversational work. Questions of conceptual definition or miss-appropriation then become relatively minor and certainly secondary. At a difficult time in my life – not least because I’m about to turn sixty-five – I needed to be reminded that deep mapping is like a charged mycelial mesh, it’s energy flows where there are higher levels of conductivity to carry it’s charge, it jumps apparently impassible synapses and, of course, occasionally some of its energy will simply run to earth. That is not, however, a reason for not keeping faith with those conversations of which each of us is a strand.

“Blood and Bone” – the Gothic, loss, and the ecologies of the ‘polyverse’


The Cruel Mother from Ballads Weird and Wonderful. Illustrator Vernon Hill.

(This is one of Vernon Hill’s many evocative visualisations of key moments in old ballads. These are some of the best visual responses to the ballads that I know of and can be found at )

On Friday evening last week I attended a concert of Gothic music in Limerick called Blood and Bone. This was performed by Sionna – that consists of Hannah Fehey, Femke van der Kooij, Emma Langford, Niamh O Brien and on this occasion two guests, Fr Columba McCann on organ and percussionist Dale Halvey. This was a powerful and moving performance in its own right, containing as it did pieces by Hildegard of Bingen (one of the greatest, and also most practical, of medieval visionaries) and a range of other composers from the C12th through to the C17th century (along with a fine contemporary organ improvisation for good measure). However, two of the fragments of text included in the programme also prompt me to return to a point I indirectly touched on in my presentation for the Locating the Gothic conference, namely possible inflections of the relationship between the Gothic and environmental issues, particularly as these are perceived by a group like the Dark Mountain Project.

The key link here is, I suggest, the revised 1986 edition of Peter Marris’ book Loss and Change in which notions of ‘bereavement’, ‘conservatism’, and ‘incoherence’ play a key role in relation to change. (I would disagree with Marris over what I see as his – understandable for the time – failure to recognise the importance of testimonial imagination in relation what he calls ‘the conservative in innovation’, but that’s another issue).

The first of the fragments that speak to me from Sionna’s Programme Notes is from Responsory For The Innocent by Hildegard of Bingen. The text reads: ‘Receiving blood sacrifice from earth “Angels sound harmoniously, and in praise together, but the clouds weep for their shed blood”’. This highlighting of the contrasting responses of the Angelic Powers – ‘high’ representatives of the ‘arboreally-structured’ authority of The Great Chain Of Being that reaches up to the Divinity and the ‘rhizomic’ processes of the natural world (the clouds), seems to me to pre-figure our contemporary environmental dilemma in ways that bring a Gothic colouring to environmental issues. This colouring was taken up in the penultimate piece Fuweles In The Frith.

The programme note for this reads: ‘The profound last phrase, “for best of bon and blood”, brings to mind that we as humans are like all other creatures of bone and blood, while also calling to attention the fragility of our mortal state’.

‘Birds in the wood,

The fishes in the flood

And I must go mad

Much sorrow I walk with

For beast of bone and blood’.

This sentiment reminded me at once of the wonderful quasi-pagan version of the old ballad The Cruel Mother recorded by Alasdair Roberts on his CD of traditional songs No Earthly Man. The lyrics of this version are as follows:

She leaned her back up against the thorn

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

Then she has a bonny babe born

And the lion shall be lord of all

She layed him beneath some marble stone

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

Thinking to go a maiden home

And the lion shall be lord of all

As she looked over her father’s wall

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

She saw that pretty babe playing a ball

And the lion shall be lord of all

Oh bonny babe if you were mine

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

I’d dress you in that silk so fine

And the lion shall be lord of all

Oh mother mine when I was thine

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

I didn’t see any of your silk so fine

And the lion shall be lord of all

Oh bonny babe pray tell to me

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

The sort of death I shall have to die

And the lion shall be lord of all

Seven years of fish, fish in the flood

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

Seven years of bird in the wood

And the lion shall be lord of all

Seven years of tongue to the warning bell

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

Seven years in the flames of hell

And the lion shall be lord of all

Welcome, welcome fish in the flood

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

Welcome, welcome bird in the wood

And the lion shall be lord of all

And welcome tongue to the warning bell

The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall

But God keep me from the flames of hell

And the lion shall be lord of all

What so moves me here is the protagonist of the song’’s deep empathy and identification with the worlds of natural and human danger – her willingness to accept, indeed welcome, a punishment that involves spending seven years as  ‘a fish in the flood’, a ‘bird in the wood’ and a ‘tongue to the warning bell’ respectively – if this will only keep her from banishment to an unknown metaphysical realm ‘elsewhere’, will keep her ‘from the flames of hell’ central to Christian metaphysics. The resonances here with what I hope for in our contemporary Neo-animisms – which in my Limerick presentation I argued must not only insist on our need to return to just such an empathy with our given, fleshly world, but also with all its sufferings and dangers – seems to me exemplary.


Locating the Gothic – text for the paper ‘Mapping Spectral Traces’


NB – For a review of the conference at which this paper was presented see Locating the Gothic Conference and Festival: a South African Review (17 Nov 2014) by Miss Esthie Hugo.

I have just attended Locating the Gothic, a very rich and wonderful interweaving of a two day academic conference and a wide range of related Gothic events, all taking place in the city of Limerick. This was organised with great flair, warmth, and efficiency by Maria Beville (Mary Immaculate College, UL) and Tracy Fahey (Limerick School of Art and Design, LIT) and allowed me to hear, meet, and talk with, a fascinating variety of very friendly and well-informed ‘Gothically-minded’ people from all over the world. I particularly enjoyed Tabish Khair’s thoughtful and compassionate paper The Significance of the Scream: Otherness in Post-Colonial and Gothic Fiction, my various conversations with Aurora Pineiro (who teaches at the National University of Mexico), and with others far too numerous to mention. 

As a result it’s now only too clear to me that the field of the Gothic is much broader, more nuanced, and more deeply engaged in present and everyday issues than, in my ignorance, I had assumed. Before I went to Limerick it would never have crossed my mind that I would learn, for example, about the ways in which the trade in human organs – an increasing part of the economics of the new, post-aparteid South Africa – finds a queasy resonance in a knowing punk video for the ‘Gothic’ rap rave crew ‘Die Antwoord’. (This via Esthie Hugo’s informative and rather wonderfully titled paper ‘Hide and Sick: Gothic Pop Culture in the Contemporary South African Moment’).

I was particularly pleased to be able to chair a panel on Psychogeography and Visual Culture, which consisted of three very interesting talks on their own projects by Irish artist/educators Paul Tarpey,  Martina Cleary, and Marilyn Lennon. This also gave me a chance to meet and talk with them about their work. I was at the conference to gave a plenary presentation and I’ve posted the text of this in italic below. It’s pretty much ‘as delivered’ (that’s to say without images, many references, etc.).

Anyone interested in the reasoning that fed into this presentation, or in search of a bibliography that at least in part relates to it, should look at the post Acting Elsewhere and Otherwise.

Mapping Spectral Traces: notes from, and on, a Debatable Land; Or: (Re)Locating the Gothic?

I’d like to begin by thanking Maria and Tracy for inviting me to give this presentation. The Gothic is not my field, so I’m particularly honoured to be speaking here.

Much of my work revolves around ‘deep mapping’, which uses a variety of creative practices to reimagine what might be called ‘the cartographic impulse’ from a perspective not unlike that of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. My concern with the Gothic is via an interest in spectral traces, particularly as these relate to the re-emergence of animism. Deep mapping has to attend to the spectral element in place. In a paper called Spectral traces: photography, futurity and landscape, the Scottish artist Gina Wall draws on Derrida to note that in the particular, often uncanny, places she photographs (I quote) : “there is a strong sense of overlay of time”, so that the living present is “‘secretly unhinged’ from itself, “allowing other temporalities to leak through”. She reminds us that this challenge to exclusive notions of the present relates to Derrida’s concern with our responsibility towards ghosts. She adds that photographs – and by implication other images – can be both “spectral and futural”. They can, she argues, become “revenant” – “begin by coming back”. Hence my interest in the Gothic.

I see the Gothic as the trace of a psychosocial fault-line – the manifestation of a particular historical episode in the plate tectonics of our culture. Such manifestations inevitably slowly fade when the epicentre of psychosocial tension moves elsewhere. So there’s an implicit question behind this presentation: ‘Have the tensions that brought the Gothic into being now shifted elsewhere’? Or, put this question rather differently: “How does the Gothic relate to the Dark Mountain Project ; to the US military employing Max Brooks – author of the zombie novel  World War Z – to script disaster simulations for military training purposes; or to prints by the Japanese artists Toshio Saeki and Yamamoto Takato? While the Gothic is clearly a major element in contemporary culture, should we understand this as an aftershock? Is the energy that originally animated the Gothic now working elsewhere – perhaps driving the appearance of neo-animism and the lifeworld as polyverse? Or is the Gothic now both spectral and futural?

I’m going to focus on two of the Gothic’s edgelands – one pre-Gothic and one contemporary. The first is vernacular, liminal and part of the material from which the Gothic emerged. I’ve explored it via a deep mapping project called Debatable Lands that drew on micro-histories and ethnographies related to an archaic vernacular, quasi-animistic, Scottish mentality. I came to the second edgeland through contingency and genetic happenstance. I’ll describe these two edgelands later.

What’s useful about the Debateable Lands project in this present context is that it moved back and forth across a fault-line identified by Isabelle Stengers in her 2012 article Reclaiming Animism This, as I understand it,  is the divide between the progressive rationality of a modernity rooted in the secularized monotheism of the Enlightenment and, over against that, all it regarded as other. Not just Christian metaphysics but all those lived realities that make polytheism a “distinct mode of thought and of universal organisation”. Seen from Stengers’ perspective, the Gothic appears to me as a Debatable Land. (Historically the Debatable Land was a disputed territory straddling the English/Scottish Border north east of Carlisle. It included an Elizabethan earthwork – Scot’s Dyke – and for some 300 years it was perhaps the most dangerous place in Britain).

The first of my two edgelands is the quasi-pagan Scottish vernacular mentality that left traces in testimony from witch trails and in the old ‘supernatural’ Border ballads so important to James Hogg and Walter Scott. Drawing on authors like Carlo Ginzburg and Emma Wilby, I understand this mentality as inhabiting a polyverse that carried traces of an earlier, Pan-European animism. What’s significant about this mentality is that it acknowledges a messier, darker, less rationalized lifeworld than either late medieval Christianity or modernity. I’m interested in it because I think it evokes and addresses the same messy ambiguities that we find in the best Gothic art, albeit on somewhat different terms.

I have explored spectral traces of this mentality – this and the next slide indicate something of the processes involved – so as to stage a haunting.

I want to haunt the contemporary neo-animist theory of Felix Guattari and the anthropologist Tim Ingold. Like a revenant returning to warn loved ones in an old Border ballad, I want to remind neo-animist theory that loss and pain are central to human identity. So this haunting is intended as a prophylactic against what Barbara Ehrenrich calls our ‘Smile or Die’ culture and draws on my experience of a second edgeland. This is a limbo or non-space created by powerful authority figures who terrorize a vulnerable, marginalized group of people – a situation that I’m going to suggest is a literal enactment of Gothic terror. The people in this group suffer from chronic Myalgic Encephalomyelitis – ME for short.

This presentation is in four stages. I’ll begin with some background. I’ll then focus on my second edgeland, its relationship to the Gothic, and its relevance here. Following that I’ll locate and describe my first, neo-pagan, edgeland – in part to explain my linking Stengers’ thoughts on animism to my sense of the Gothic as a fault-line. Finally, I’ll turn to the question of whether a re-mapping of the Gothic would now be beneficial. What I’m going to say – and the images of my own work I’ll show – flow in large part from my Debateable Lands project. This started as an exploration of the supernatural Borders ballad Tam Lin and of specific locations on the English/Scottish Borders I associate with it. Later it expanded into an examination of site-specific memory, liminality and metamorphosis. I’ll show you some material from this project, but won’t say much about individual works since these are not my focus here.

I’ll also show you images by the painter Paula Rego. These I take to be located firmly on one side of Isabelle Stengers’ divide. As a child in Portugal Paula sat under her parents’ kitchen table and absorbed peasant proverbs and folk tales, material with the same ancestry as my Borders edgeland. Refracted through memory and imagination, this material still pervade her work. Unlike Paula I’ve no direct, visceral, access to that ancient vernacular mentality. Instead I came to it by researching Tam Lin and the micro-histories and psycho-geographies that flow through and from it. That in turn took me to studies of Scottish witch trial testimony. But despite differences between Paula Rego’s approach and my own, I see them as complementary, not as opposed.

One issue here is whether it’s possible to learn from the mentality underpinning Tam Lin – its tenacity, dark humour, plain speaking, and canny attention to an uncanny world. And, if so, whether attending to that mentality can help us ground and re-orient contemporary neo-animist theory so as to better understand and live with the uncertainties of our own more-than-human polyverse? Can it help engender the qualities necessary to living with a life-world that is both the object of scientific study and what the phenomenologist and magician David Abram calls (I quote): “a spontaneous, playful, and dangerous mystery in which we participate”.

So my haunting aims to be a reminding of the kind enacted by the three revenant sons in the ballad The Wife Of Usher’s Well. Haunting is the appropriate term here because neo-animist theory moves too quickly over issues of human pain and loss, its forgetfulness a symptom of what Stengers sees as tradition of analytical theorizing that’s contaminated by “a poisoned milieu”. One that, to use her own analogy, assumes it “knows better” than both the witch and the witch hunter, so that its adherents become heir to the particular authority assumed by the witch hunter. The production, consumption, and use of this hyper-analytical discourse remains framed by the now naturalized presuppositions on which that particular authority depends. As such it’s blind to the lifeworld as polyverse.

I see our dilemma as follows. We need neo-animist theory to help deconstruct mono-ideational belief systems – scientism, economic fundamentalism, analytical reductivism, or theological fundamentalisms claiming to be derived from the Religions of the Book. But, as Stengers indicates, such theory is itself ultimately the product of practices and traditions situated on the colonialist’s side of the divide. The side that characterized ‘others’ as animists and is itself characterized by obedience to the moral imperative: ‘thou shalt not regress’. So we remain in thrall to a discursive realpolitik predicated on possessive individualism, on unsustainable notions of techno-economic progress, and on the ancient, pervasive fear of cognitive dissonances inevitable in a lifeworld experienced as polyverse. Historically, Christianity’s ability to displace paganism lay in large part in managing that fear, converting it to an engine of salvation. But as Christianity as an explanatory system started to loose its authority, that fear had to be reframed – an historical process that first initiated the Gothic and may now have run its course, or so Marina Warner suggests.

As I’ve said, I’m interested in the imaginal world of Paula Rego’s work because much of it is located on the ‘wrong’ side of Stengers’ divide. Like any imaginal artist, she is perfectly happy to regress. She understands that ongoing metamorphosis is inseparable from imaginal work. My own approach is embedded in creative in-disciplinary research and is inflected by the assumption that borders, divides, boundaries both separate and join distinct territories. The Debatable Lands project deliberately crosses and re-crosses boundaries as an act of translation or bridging. It moves back and forth, happily schizophrenic – sometimes involving ‘regressive’ imaginal making and sometimes observantly participating in contemporary research and theorizing – all in the hope of translating between – bridging – the two sides of Stengers’ divide.That’s why I see Paula Rego’s approach and my own as complementary – not opposed.

I hope something of the spirit of that bridging activity is evoked by these images.I also hope it’s clear why the project needed a psychosocial framework not aligned to a ‘progressive’, colonizing, scientism – not bent on reducing everything that exists to objective, rational knowledge. That alternative framework is a post-Jungian, ‘polytheistic’ social psychology. An observation by James Hillman from 1992 should indicate the relevance of that approach. 

“We do not die alone. We join ancestors, and all the little people, the multiple souls who inhabit our nightworld of dreams, the complexes we speak with, the invisible guests who pass through our lives, bringing the gifts of urges and terrors, tender sighs, sudden ideas – they are with us all along, those angels, those demons”. (“Recovery” (1992 p. 127).

This statement may appear deeply alien in a culture of hyper-individualism but, like this group portrait of five generations of the More family, is entirely consistent with Gina Wall’s reading of Derrida’s “unhinged” and revenant present.

If I think Marina Warner may be right in suggesting that the conditions that gave rise to the Gothic no longer apply, why am I concerned to reconsider the spaces of the Gothic? The simple answer is that my desire to haunt neo-animist theory is therapeutic –animated by questions about how we best inhabit our life-world as polyverse. And my only real justification for speaking here is that I experience the same therapeutic desire in certain contemporary ‘Gothic’ works. I find it in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Diane Settlefield’s The Thirteenth Tale,Margo Lanagan’s Singing My Sister Down; in audio-visual work by Catherine Sullivan; in Davina Kirkpatrick’s collaborative, site-specific, mourning performances; in Cecelia Mandrile’s reworking of the ‘Trouble Dolls’ of her South American childhood; and in songs by Lal Waterson, The Handsome Family, Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, and other singer/musicians who draw on the supernatural Borders ballads tradition. It seems to me that, along with specifically Gothic elements, these works vividly acknowledge that our lifeworld is multi-stranded and conflicted; that it always both exceeds and falls short of any categorical mapping predicated on a mono-ideational explanatory system. And that it’s not enough to smile, or to see everything we can’t smile about as an opportunity to build up the resilience of our personal egos. Given the terrible eco-social and intra-psychic damage inflicted by mono-ideational systems, I hope my suggestion that we now need to think of our lifeworlds as polyverses won’t appear too outlandish.

Before I describe my second edgeland I need to ask how you understand Angela Carter’s claim that: “we live in Gothic times”.

I ask this because my second edgeland is, at least to my mind, the product of a literal enactment of the Gothic. It’s a zone marked by the terror imposed by people in authority onto others already rendered helpless by chronic illness. This is the Gothic zone inhabited by people suffering with ME, and by their families and carers. A zone created by the medical and psychiatric Establishments that neglects and abuses them and that is contested by the same therapeutic impulse that I find in aspects of the Gothic.

I think the award-winning film Voices from the Shadows is animated by that same impulse. By the need to give a face to – and so to face – a situation that is almost unbelievably painful or terrifying. In the case of ME this is abuse – by authority figures whose actions exhibit the exact antithesis of the qualities they publically claim to embody – of chronically sick individuals without power. In extreme cases these authority figures threaten patients with forcible hospitalization or with being sectioned and placed in psychiatric units. They threaten this because patients, or their carers, refuse treatments that they know will exacerbate an already chronic illness. And of course individuals have died or taken their own lives when these threats are carried out.

The Gothic nature of the terror here lies in part in a grotesque but deeply institutionalized assumption. Namely that nothing ME sufferers say about their illness can be trusted. Their experience, self-understanding, their entire identity, is regularly dismissed out of hand by those professionally empowered to determine their treatment. Any articulation of their own reality that is at odds with the official view of their illness is, all too often, taken as evidence of a pathological desire to deceive, a willful attempt to ‘stay sick’.

So I want to argue that ME sufferers live not only in Gothic times but also in a Gothic zone. They are trapped in this liminal zone and, as a consequence, constantly threated with ‘zombification’ in the sense of being condemned to a kind of  living death. Threatened not simply by the chronic nature of the illness itself – as if that were not bad enough – but also by doctors, social services employees, psychologists, the realpolitik of academic research, and the fiscal policies of politicians. ME sufferers are subject to what is paraphrasing Robert Miles on the Gothic – a process of violent deracination. They’re dispossessed in their identities, bodies and homes. Many are suspended, perhaps permanently, in a deeply frightening condition of violent personal and social rupture and dislocation – one that’s always, horribly, threatening to get worse.

My contention then is that ME sufferers – and of course innumerable others who suffer similar socially sanctioned abuse and neglect – literally live out, on a daily basis,the horror epitomized by a strand within the Gothic. This strand embodies an element of institutionalised sadism within our social system. Sadism animated by fear of cognitive dissonances that cannot be resolved or controlled by the professional authority of those who enact it. And behind this fear is the refusal to acknowledge a failure to progress, a failure to master disease. Ultimately this is a deeper fear – of regression, of the lifeworld as polyverse and, by implication, that Stengers’ divide is wrongly located, that the line between ‘progress’ and ‘regression’ has been wrongly drawn. So there’s a question here. Does all this need to be remapped, both in the context of polytheism as a distinct mode of thought and universal organisation, and of the presence of spectral and futural in the present as evoked by Derrida.

I want to suggest that paying closer attention to the two edgelands I’ve referred to might assist us to re-negotiate or translate across Stengers’ divide. It might strengthen our impulse to use image, the performative and text – both professionally and in day-to-day life – to move more freely back and forth across that divide. Why? So as to give a face to – to help us face – aspects of human suffering denied articulation and authenticity by our mono-ideational, single-minded concept of social evolution – of absurdities like ‘sustainable development’ – and the all-too-often sadistic psychosocial impulses these produces.

Notwithstanding claims from the progressive side of that divide, our world is still saturated with acute and terrible suffering – suffering that’s often denied articulation, subject to social repression, forgetting, marginalization or denial. Perhaps this suffering – and the cognitive dissonances that it produces – can only be faced, only find a face, in the ambiguous, messy space between fact and fiction, image and data, regression and progression. The liminal fictive worlds that emerge from that space often appear ‘unnatural’. In the case of Toni Morrison’s Beloved this ‘unnaturalness’ includes horrific violence, infanticide, bestiality, and haunting by a being part poltergeist, part revenant, part succubus; yet also and always still, somehow, Beloved. The practical issue here is, then, how to articulate all this through forms of telling or showing that gives horror a knowable form without explaining it away – and as such both allows and requires us to face that horror.

It’s just this need to ‘face’ horror that Nigel Clark calls for in his book Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. Suggestively, in the context of my first edgeland, Clarke proposes that: “what goes by the name of ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ may be as much about coping with loss and suffering as it is about transmitting practical advice”. Acknowledging the reality of that horror is central both to our ability to cope and to the space I’m trying to evoke here – a space that borders both the Gothic and the polyverse of Felix Guattari’s Three Ecologies – a space that is, psychosocially speaking, the other to our ‘smile or die’ culture.  

In Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds (2001)  Marina Warner identified a major shift in contemporary fiction, claiming that: “the Christian supernatural, with its terror of pagan concepts of metamorphosis, no longer obtains”. Instead, she suggests, we are offered: “… the growing fallout from such concepts as the subliminal self, with its connections to spirit voyaging, to revenants, and teleporting souls, to animism and metempsychosis, to a vision of personal survival through dispersed memory, in life and in death, rather than Freud’s unconscious, and its hopes for potential individual integration”. I see this shift as anticipated by the understanding evident in my early quotation from James Hillman. From my perspective what she is identifying is a shift away from the historical tension between the monotheistic presuppositions of the Christian supernatural and all that’s Other to it – the tension that located the Gothic as a Debatable Land. And it seems to me that this shift might require those engaged with the Gothic to reformulate its territory.

I happen to think that Warner’s observation is belated. The new relationships between terror and identity central to our emerging psychosocial situation were already apparent in the 1970s, in Hillman’s work and in novels like Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 double award-winning The Dispossessed. I’ll now suggest a historical context for Warner’s argument, one that relates to my first edgeland.

Pieter Bruegal the Elder’s painting Netherlandish Proverbs is an early example of visual art as proto-ethnography. Itdocuments some one hundred idioms and aphorisms of Flemish peasant life and is sometimes seen as a critical comment on human stupidity and foolishness. If that’s the case, it’s a contribution to the sixteenth century’s systematic creation of intellectual distance between itself and the old vernacular culture that informed my first edgeland – the same process by which Scottish Calvinism violently differentiated itself from an older, quasi-pagan, vernacular culture.

But Bruegal’s late works – including The Corn Harvest of 1565– suggest that he was more ambivalent than such a reading suggests. So it may not be entirely fortuitous that, 435 years after this work was painted, the anthropologist Tim Ingold used it to help him articulate the neo-animist concept of taskscape, a stepping-stone to a mycelial thinking that parallels that of Deleuze and Guattari. Ingold’s neo-animism is implicit in his understanding that physical locations are a complex meshscape: “a polyrhythmic composition of processes whose pulse varies from the erratic flutter of leaves to the measured drift and clash of tectonic plates”; with the result that we are co-constituted by “a tangle of interlaced trails, continually ravelling here and unravelling there”.

His casual use of the word unravelling is, for me, indicative of the forgetfulness of neo-animist theory. Forgetfulness of the human price paid for inhabiting a polyverse – all those messy paradoxes, cognitive dissonances, and painful ‘unravellings’ that inevitably flow from the politics of our eco-social situation – not to mention our mortality. In short, it forgets the lived, existential reality of that word ‘unravelling’ – the reality acknowledged by a character in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed when he insists that human solidarity “begins in shared pain”. But I’m running ahead of myself.

In 1662 Isobel Gowdie – who lived in the Scottish hamlet of Lochloy some twenty miles east of Inverness – was accused of witchcraft, arrested, and rigorously interrogated. Her extraordinarily detailed testimony provides the basis for Emma Wilby’s book The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft and Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth Century Scotland. Of all attempts to understand such testimony, this book gives perhaps the most comprehensive sense of the lifeworld of the accused as a polyverse, the same vernacular polyverse that left its trace in the supernatural Border ballads. It seems almost certain that Isobel experienced her lifeworld as perpetually dogged by cognitive dissonances, by inexplicable levels of human violence, by the chronic uncertainties of the natural world and, perhaps most difficult for her to comprehend, by the all-pervasive social fallout of recent and radical metaphysical regime change.

By the 1660s the Scottish land-owning classes had largely internalised a strictly dualistic Calvinism. By and large Isobel and her peasant neighbours had not. Their lifeworld continued to be shaped by a multitude of forces, all interwoven and some antagonistic. This polyverse was tensioned between individual lives and the natural rhythms of the land, the authority of both human and divine law, the power of human desire categorized as demonic temptation; the inexplicable patterning of fate governed by the planets and stars; and the various powers inherent in their local, vernacular, emotional geography. These included wise women and their familiars, revenants, wizards, collective dreaming, sites associated with popular Catholic belief, and of course ‘the good neighbours’ – the elves or fairies ruled over by The Dame of the Fine Green Kirtle or Queen of Elphame. In consequence Isobel’s lifeworld as polyverse was radically at odds with the strictly monotheistic universe of Calvin.

So I want to suggest that, in certain respects, her lifeworld was actually closer to the dense webs of complex interdependences that determine our current ecological, economic, and psycho-cultural conditions than to Calvinism – if only in its structural complexity and the radical uncertainty regarding the exact relationship between particular causes and effects.

Hypothetically of course the Calvinist God sat spider-like right in the centre of Isobel’s polyverse, governing all its aspects. But in practice she and most of her neighbours lived uneasily, and often fearfully, at the convergence of a constellation of fluctuating cultural, natural, and supernatural forces ambiguously related to that God – if related at all. Unsurprisingly then, it took the full dogmatic violence of the Puritan revolution in Scotland to suppress that polyverse and the old ballads that tacitly perpetuated its values. It declared them both illegal and damnable. Yet despite that violent reframing, the supernatural ballads and their offspring – Gothic or otherwise – still haunt us. And I think we need them to do so if we are to find forms of understanding, and of creative praxis, to help us face our emergent polyverse and so our uncertain future.

Isobel’s way of inhabiting her profoundly uncertain polyverse offered her the support of powerful psychosocial beliefs and rituals, strange as these now seem to us. These helped her face and cope with a world that constantly and terrifyingly threatened to unravel before her eyes. My hope is that aspects of the Gothic at its best can still do something similar for neo-animist theorizing, helping it become a thick description of our polyverse by enabling our traveling back and forth across Isabelle Stengers’ divide.

This is why I think we need to revisit the parallels between Isabel Gowdie’s polyverse and our own. Between, for example, the suppression of her vernacular culture and the sadistic terror imposed on powerless contemporary social groups by those who act in the name of a supposedly benign science or of civil society. But we also need to explore less obvious matters. Why, for example, do the animal transformations in Tam Lin still evoke a certain psychic latency that resists the single-minded conceptions of the status quo? Does this relate to the wonder that Jane Bennett identifies with a child’s sense of itself as emerging out of an over-rich field of protean forces and materials, only some of which are tapped by its current, human, form? A sensing she links to Deleuze and Guattari’s interest in the childhood game of becoming-animal, becoming-otherwise. And what human need is served when children, animists, and the imaginally engaged access a polyverse constantly in play? But again I’m digressing.

My concern here is not with Bennett’s celebration of neo-pagan enchantment – however important that may be. It’s with our culture’s growing inability to face, and give value to, unravellings – those painful elements in human life that our ‘Smile or Die’ culture actively distorts or denies. Painful elements that, I want to suggest, may require a re-mapping of the Gothic, one that can support coping strategies that enable us to face, rather than belittle, deny, privatize or otherwise exploit the human pain and suffering that grounds our commonality. This would be in line with James Hillman and David Abram’s insistence that we must address the ‘anesthetized numbness’ basic to our culture – which of course is where Bennett’s neo-pagan enchantment comes in. Perhaps only then can we realistically face powers that exceed all our attempts to control them – along with the grief and suffering they inevitably bring us.

Any such remapping of the Gothic would relate to David Abram’s claim that a new environmental ethics will appear: “not primarily through the logical elucidation of new philosophical principles and legislative strictures, but through a renewed attentiveness”. Attentiveness, that is, to the “perceptual dimension that underlies all our logics, through a rejuvenation of our carnal, sensorial empathy with the living land that sustains us”. I think the Gothic is central here because that carnal, sensorial empathy tends to be experienced in a temporal present that, as Gina Wall reminds us, needs to include traces of spectral “unravelings” – both of the consequences of the wild destructiveness of earthquakes, volcanoes, storm surges, floods, and tsunamis, and of the chronic abuses that cause man-made terror and disaster.

In drawing this presentation to an end I’ll take my cue from Marina Warner and suggest – despite being a trespasser here – that the re-emergence of the lifeworld as polyverse may have implications for how you articulate or map what’s vital in the Gothic, given that its mass-market version is now a ubiquitous aspect of the global culture industry.

So I want to ask whether the psychosocial value of the Gothic has been diluted, even perverted, in the service of mass entertainment? While films like George Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead could once be seen as a biting criticism of consumer culture, is the figure of the zombie now co-opted to feed the pathology of murderous personal entitlement that Elias Canetti so succinctly identified in his discussion of the ‘survivor’ in Crowds and Power?

I would argue that Paula Rego’s response to the failure of the abortion referendum in Portugal enacted in these images evokes an empathy once central to aspects of the Gothic. They refer us to current enactments of a literally Gothic horror in our own backyard. So I want to suggest it’s not enough to note, as Marina Warner has done, that the figure of the zombie thrives today because: “work turns people into zombies; other people turn people into zombies; life does it (so do committees)”.

I’ve tried to suggest ways in which the Gothic may continue to be relevant to our need to find, and continually renew, ways to facing, of coping with, suffering, horror, cruelty, loss, grief and death. Facing these means just that – finding ways to give them a face familiar enough to identify them for what they are without trivializing the fact that they remain on the border of the unspeakable. Of course this doesn’t mean simply accepting the horror that Beloved or Voices from the Shadows show us. What it does mean is that we will need to acknowledge an ethical baseline grounded in “shared pain” if we are to engage fully with our emergent polyverse. Shared pain leads to shared coping strategies – to the sense of common concern denied by Canetti’s survivor on the basis of a pathological, indeed ultimately murderous, sense of personal entitlement.

Speaking personally,I have to accept that I can do relatively little to facilitate a cure for my daughter’s ME, or even to seriously mitigate the difficulties she will inevitably face when my wife and I – her carers – die. While I was putting together this presentation we were getting reports of a young German woman with ME slowly dying as a result of being sectioned. This situation is the direct result of the arrogance and ignorance of the medical establishment and judiciary and of her father’s vindictiveness towards her mother. So I value any image or narrative that helps me cope with the suffering caused by my relative helplessness, my sense of disempowerment, loss and grief. Again, how we determine the balance between coping and the outrage that led our family to make Voices from the Shadows is obviously critical, but not something I can address here.

As experts on the Gothic you’re best placed to say whether it needs re-mapping. I can only suggest why that might be useful. What is clear to me is that neo-animist theory can’t generate the ecosophy Guattari rightly calls for while it forgets that re-thinking our situation is not enough. We also need a heartfelt reframing of human expectations. That reframing must enable us to see that human sufferingis not a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’. It’s integral to the human sociability that Canetti’s pathological ‘survivor’ refuses to acknowledge. We can cope with suffering through endurance, tenderness, common courage, and kindness, but we can’t abolish it. It’s this hard fact that opens us to what Emanuel Levinas calls ‘being as vulnerability’, and it’s in this context that I ask if the Gothic needs re-mapping.

The ‘survivor mentality’ increasingly pervades our society. Those adopting it act in the belief that their lifestyle is an exclusive right – despite the misery, or indeed the extinction, of vast numbers of human and non-human beings this causes. Even given the heading that goes with this image, it may well seem unreasonable to identify the mass adoption of this mentality as the most disturbing current manifestation of Gothic horror. But consider some recent research undertaken at a prestigious US University. Using MRI scans of students’ brain activity, this shows that many students, particularly the wealthiest, react to photographs of the homeless and drug addicts as if they have stumbled on a pile of trash. In the UK we are now familiar with this mentality from the present Government’s policies on the long-term sick and very poor.

Are these groups the kind of ‘human trash’ that elements within the popular culture industry now visualize as a ‘zombie plague’ to be eliminated? I’m not qualified to answer that question. But I’ll end by suggesting that it’s just such questions that any re-mapping of the Gothic would need to address.

I’d  like to acknowledge the coaching on the Gothic I received from my daughter Anna, whose breadth of reading and liveliness of mind were a great asset in helping me put this presentation together.   


Evoking a polyverse: the problem of academic writing.


A great deal of academic writing is inaccessible in two senses. Firstly, it is written in a specialist language that is exclusive in the sense of being difficult for the average lay reader to follow. This is to some degree inevitable, and actually applies equally to exchanges between the gentlemen in the image above and his co-enthusiasts. (That’s to say it’s hard to follow unless you’re a Dutch pumping station enthusiast). But at least the enthusiasm that animates such conversations, together with external points of reference and relevance, mean they can be accessed by anyone who really wants to learn more. That’s simply not the case with academic writing. Most of this is published in specialist journals which cannot be accessed from outside the library systems of academic institutions – unless, of course,  you are prepared to pay very large sums of money to do so. (This notwithstanding that it is public money in various forms that pays for the production of this writing).

It’s in this context that my thoughts below appear.

Three recent events have prompted me to think yet again about what, for me, is another central problem of academic writing/publishing. (A email exchange with Elen-Maarja Trell, one of the organisers of a recent resilience workshop at Groningen University, questions from Antony Lyons following a talk on deep mapping given at UWE, Bristol, on Monday 15th October, and down-loading the  Intellect Journals house style pdf – all 16 pages of it). The problem is that, at least for the most part, such writing/publishing requires the writer to adopt a highly artificial and exclusive ‘voice’ that is usually shorn of all the enthusiasm and wider reference that allows us to find ways into the conversations of enthusiasts. A voice heavily constrained by the increasingly repressive realpolitik of exclusive disciplinary and managerial protocols and the instrumentalism inherent in the management policies that drive current knowledge production.

I downloaded Intellect’s style guide because I have almost finished an article, the result of a Visiting Fellowship at NUI, Galway, that relates to my subsequent talks – particularly at Groningen – and so needs to go out into the world. Fine, but if I submit it to a journal I must:

  • ‘Tidy it up’ so that editors are happy with in terms of house style and ‘academic probity’. (I’ve been both an editor for Wild Conversations Press and for an academic  journal, so I entirely understand the numerous ‘technical’ issues involved in producing text for a book or journal, but that doesn’t diminish my concern with the whole system);
  • Wait for up to two years before my article appears, by which time it’s relevance to the work of the people who might find it most useful will almost certainly be severely reduced;
  • Finally, and most significantly, either I (or if not the reviewers’ requirements  and editorial interventions) will have largely smoothed away all the traces of other, non-academic, ‘voices’ that were present in the presentation and related conversations from which the article derives. As a result, the published article would reinforce our sense of academia as a ‘world-unto-itself’, a world structured around disciplinary ‘single-mindedness’, rather than reminding us that we work in a  polyvocal polyverse.

Its this last point that vexes me at present, since I’ve been doing all I can to draw attention to our need to move on from a thinking based on disciplinary ‘worlds-unto-themselves’. To suggest that we need to refuse the rhetoric of ‘inter-disciplinarity’ that all too often masks the intellectual Neo-colonialism of ‘serious’ (scientific) disciplines that are predicated on what Peter Marris (in his wonderful book Loss and Change, 1986) identifies as an “aggressive conservatism” (p. 130). Disciplines for which the arts and humanities are all too often little more than a source of subaltern labour to be exploited at will. Any outward-facing creative research in a democratic country that’s worth the name needs to be multi-contituency research; to be predicated on working towards seeing the world more as a mycelial polyverse, and less as the hierarchical mono-verse co-produced by the dominant elite and our current epistemology.

So, I’ll no longer try and find a journal to publish my article – Acting elsewhere and otherwise? Imaginative action between the institutional worlds of art, education, and politics. Instead as soon as it is completed I will simply add it to this web site and let it find its own way out into the world by word of mouth. At least in doing so I will give it the dignity of standing or falling on its own merits.



Everywhere – Pivots and Peripheries? (2nd part)

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Part Two: ‘Everywhere, pivots and peripheries’ – considering Tim Ingold’s The North Is Everywhere

In an earlier draft of the paper that forms the first part of this essay I tried to suggest that multi-constituency collaboration rarely happens because, as professional people we’re embarrassed by the self as polyverse. This is an extension of our professional discomfort with what Bakhtin calls “matters having to do with ourselves”. The majority of professional people prefer, when asked to identify themselves, to do so in terms of some autonomous cultural domain or professional discipline as an exclusive ‘world-unto-itself’.

I tried to illustrate this point by using the example of the multidimensionality of my anticipated response on coming back to the windswept northern island of Lindisfarne. I have visited it a number of times in the past, but always on family holidays. My point, obvious enough as soon as we consider it, would have been that my responses on this visit, despite my reasons for returning being ‘professional’, would not be limited by professional frames of reference – that other memories, sensations, etc. would have been peripherally present. But this example turned out to be too ponderous and long-winded and I abandoned it.

What remains from that earlier draft is a sense of the richly paradoxical, polyvocal, particular, personal, senses of the North I’d wanted to evoke – senses in which both the sensation and an cultural understanding of the north wind – derived from the extraordinary psychosocial palimpsest that is the old Supernatural ballad of Tam Lin – are always, somehow, implicit. In that ballad the north wind is the almost imperceptible hinge on which the entire narrative finally turns. This moment is described as follows:

As it fell out upon a day,

A-hunting I did ride;

There came a wind out of the north

And woe it did betide.

And drowsy, drowsy as I was,

The sleep upon me fell;

The Queen of Fairies she was there,

And took me to herself.

I have for many years had a sense of over-identification with the ‘world-unto-itself’ of hyper-professionalism, and the institutionalised forms of power we believe this to grant us, as a seductive and dangerous form of enchantment. In no small part because in my own life I’ve been constantly called to remember the price that Tam Lin would have paid for his being enchanted had Janet not woken him from it and lovingly returned him to the human lifeworld – with all the joys, trials, and tribulations that make up the lives of ordinary (lay) mortals. What I want to do here is follow the intuitive meanings that this moment in the ballad carries for me into a discussion of the issue of the North and North-ness raised during the conference.

Tim Ingold’s opening plenary – The North is everywhere – offered an imaginal, psychosocial reading of the four cardinal points as historical orientations. My notes record – and I cannot begin to do justice to the detail of his exposition – that the West is equated with modernity, with the dualistic view ‘nature versus culture’, and with ‘history of’. The East he identifies with ‘history about’ (the other), a looking-glass history of rising and falling empires. The South is identified in turn with ‘once colonized, oppressed peoples’, with non-histories or ‘people without histories, with ‘histories against’. By contrast, the North is seen as the location of ‘history from’, of ‘inhabitation’ growing from the land and with ‘lives woven into the land’, as inclusive of all beings – human and otherwise – and as ‘anti-isms’ (his examples being example Shamanism and Animism). It is to be taken as the site of circulations of vital force and revitalization, of environment as the world we inhabit grounded in a zone of interpretation where objects are illusory, merely a reification of an unfinished continuum made up of the dynamic flow of materials. In this view of the North history as a preoccupation with the ‘first time’, the novel, does not take precedence over time as repetition. But above all this north is all pervasive, indigenous, the ‘everywhere’ of inhabitation and inhabitants.

The exposition of this position was accompanied by drawings and delivered in a persuasive rhetoric that managed simultaneously to evoke the authority of philosophers and a ‘common sense’ flowing from the phenomenology of the everyday. But, as someone alerted by A. David Napier to the distinction between monotheism and polytheism as modes of thinking, and also long attuned to the ‘polytheistic’, archetypal post-Jungian thinking of James Hillman, all this troubled me.

In the question time afterwards I asked Tim Ingold whether his clear championing of the North as a position was perhaps somewhat at odds with his articulation of the world as mesh, of mycelial ravellings and unravellings, with its implication of multiple dynamic forces and perspectives. His answer suggested that, while he felt the need to acknowledge the dynamics of each of the four cardinal locations, he preferred and was committed to the North. This can be taken at face value as a personal preference, to which he is obviously entirely entitled. However, from the perspective of lifeworld as polyverse integral to the first half of this essay, it can also be taken as indicative of a problematic contradiction in Tim Ingold’s thinking – namely, that it remains, in the last analysis, animated by the same commitment to mono-ideational positions that has given rise to the modernity from which he so clearly wishes to distance himself; the same radical, secular, mono-ideational thinking that the Enlightenment inherited directly from the monotheistic theologies of the Religions of the Book.

At first I suspected that my sense of this contradiction might be as much the result of a projection of my own preoccupations as it was a possible issue inherent in Ingold’s own position. However, listening to David Martin-Jones insightful articulation of an alternative position, in which a rhizomatic South emerged as the prime location of dynamism, suggested that there might be more to my sense of an inherent contradiction than simple personal prejudice. This sense that my concerns were shared was further reinforced by a paper from Chris Dorset, with its celebration of Paul Wheatley’s 1971 work, The Pivot of the Four Quarters. I heard this as an evocation of a Dionysian, catholic (in the secular sense) South, as the counterpoint to an Apollonian, even Calvinist, North. Owain Jones’ reminder of Latour’s association of modernity with purification (a prime cause of distinction within a hierarchy of positions), and his reluctance to partly qualify the anti-modernism he shares with Tim Ingold, seemed to chime with the way in which Lisa Taylor’s informants read David Hockney. They tend to do so as confirming their own affective responses, a process that also, inadvertently, allows them to bracket out the problematic cultural and political readings that his work can also open up. (I share many of the objections to modernity articulated by both Tim and Swain but, having twice had my life saved by surgery – and so am alive only because of its technical advances – I am always mindful of it’s benefits. Additionally, and on the basis of pre-modern mortality rates and educational opportunity, my guess is that only one in ten of us would have been present at the conference had pre-modern conditions pertained). But it was a paper by Leanne Philpot – Narratives of the Transatlantic Slave trade in North West England: Museums, heritage and dockland tourism, with its insistence on the validity of blending multiple, sometimes antagonistic narratives – each a trace of a particular historical lifeworld with continuing reverberations – that was most helpful to my thinking all this into a more coherent weave.

Owain Jones had reminded us of the importance of Felix Guattari’s Three Ecologies. Each of these, as I now understand it, must be understood as the site of an interplay, of a dynamic raveling and unraveling of psychic, social and environmental energies associated with, tensioned between, and departing from, that ecology’s own, particular, cardinal points. Tim Ingold’s monolithic – as I see it – privileging of a ‘good’ North over the other cardinal points (in particular a ‘bad’ West) is, in this context, ultimately unhelpful – although, as Owain Jones’ paper made all too clear, entirely understandable given the state of the world today. What I think Tim Ingold forgot is the simple fact that all such imaginal readings are dangerously reductive when they fail to take into account that, as an analytical psychoanalyst might put it, any too close an identification with one archetypal position becomes a form of blinding enchantment, one that in turn evokes opposite and negative forces. Any call to take up a Northern perspective that neglects to attend to this risks becoming a rhetorical enchantment and, in the process, an inadvertent evocation of the mono-ideation framing that has governed the West for far too long, resulting in all the problems identified by Owain Jones and others.

Janet can only return Tim Lin to the lay world against the power of the enchantment the Dame of the Fine Green Kirtle (the Queen of Elphame), puts in place when the north wind blows by hanging on to him, sticking with him through all his multiple changes of material, category, and implicit dynamic or direction. By being the still, present, pivot around which he can swing.

So I want to suggest that, while the imaginal North may indeed be everywhere, so are each of the other imaginal cardinal points. Each, like any imaginal image, is multiple, paradoxical, and irreducible to a single perspective. To identify a ‘good’ North over against a ‘bad’ West – as I take Tim Ingold to have done – is to reify the North, and to invite the return of all those ‘bad’, ‘repressed’, elements that are also integral to its power as an orienting image.

So in the final analysis I’m not too comfortable with this way of thinking. My sense is that each cardinal point has its light and shadow and that our task is to attend at and from the pivot, the act of attending that allows us to orient ourselves by each of them as necessary and appropriate, but without identifying with any particular one. To acknowledge the unending ebb and flow of the lifeworld as polyverse in which each of us, uniquely attentive, is a pivot and, at one and the same time, utterly peripheral – just one small dynamic constellation among innumerable other constellations.

Everywhere, Pivots and Peripheries?



Part One. Reframing Northern Spaces: place, creative practice, and collaboration.

This piece of writing is in two parts. The first part is a slightly revised version of a paper I’ve just given at a workshop on Holy Island or Lindisfarne, just off the Northumbrian coast, for the Northern Peripheries Network which, entirely by chance (or not) can now also serve as background context for the second part. The day workshop for which this was written took place just prior to what turned out to be a wonderful two-day conference – Further North – organized by Ysanne Holt and Angela McClanahan. The second part -to follow – is a provisional set of thoughts in response to a paper by Tim Ingold, one that also draws on points made by a number of excellent papers given during the conference – in particular David Martin-Jones’ Where is Anywhere: Ideas of North, South, East and West and Chris Dorset’s re-situating the gallery farther south. Needless to say, my reflections are partial, a personal ‘mulling over’ of the impact of what I heard over two days on my own thinking.

So, what I myself said at the workshop was roughly as follows, some of which will already be familiar to readers of this blog.   


Part One: Reframing Northern Spaces: place, creative practice, and collaboration

I’m going to talk out of my experience of working in the north, but also, of course, elsewhere – I’ve been working on my Debatable Lands project on the Borders for fifteen years – so as to present a particular view of collaboration. Some of you may feel this view is rather extreme but, having just been listening to younger artists and geographers at three sessions on geo-aesthetics at the Royal Geographical Society Conference in London last week, I can at least confirm that it’s not an entirely idiosyncratic one. What I want to say could be related in some detail to various academic arguments. To Matthew Fuller’s wild generalization that: “art … has oozed out and “become feral in combination with other forms of life”; to Sarah Whatmore and Catharina Landstrum’s work around ‘knowledge controversies’, ‘competency groups’, and ‘pre-figured categories’; or to Yuriko Saito’s argument that we need to pay more attention to the aesthetics of the everyday and less to the aesthetics of the exceptional. But my focus is ultimately practical – to help change views of collaboration and its framings. So I’ll start there, then indicate three points of resistance to dominant cultural framings, and end by introducing examples of a specific type of collaborative project.

Ffion Jones farms with her partner in the hills of mid Wales. She’s bringing up a young daughter, studying for a doctorate at Aberystwyth University, and making extraordinary multi-media performances. Simon Read teaches at Middlesex University, produces sculptural interventions in salt marshes, and makes beautifully drawn maps predicting future costal change so as to influence debates about managing the Suffolk coast. What Ffion and Simon do is normally identified as ‘art’ and I have no particular quarrel with that. But I do wonder increasingly if this does justice to their relationship to place ortheir ability to work collaboratively between radically different lifeworlds. Personally I think of them as being as much multi-skilled cultural translators working across a lifeworld as polyverse – a world made up of multiple and sometimes antagonistic normative positions that are usually seen as largely separate and distinct.

Recently I’ve come to understand that the work I’ve done over the last twenty odd years falls along a fairly broad spectrum – with genuine collaboration at one end and basic co-operation at the other. I’d argue that what animates this spectrum can be related to the two meanings of collaboration: to work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort”, and “to cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupying one’s country”. Grant Kester refers to these two meanings at the start of The One and the Many and, conventionally, goes on to oppose them. But I think they’re actually linked at an underlying level. I think both involve challenging given roles and identities. Genuine collaboration requires that we are willing to recognize, question, and negotiate what are often uncomfortable differences between the parties involved. That process requires a type of translation across differences that changes us, or at least has the potential to do so. But radical change in a person can all too easily be taken by others as a form of betrayal – particularly by those people who can’t or – because of vested interests – won’t think beyond the polarized categories of ‘friend’/‘enemy’, ‘specialist’/‘layperson’, ‘artist’/‘public’.

So I find myself wondering whether or not the woman in Edward Capa’s ‘Collaborator woman who had a German soldier’s child, Chartres’was in fact a genuine collaborator, not just someone who simply co-operated with France’s enemies? Might it not be that her love for the child’s father led her to question the category ‘enemy’ to the point where her own self-identity was actually transformed? Whatever the case, I would argue that genuine collaboration – by putting in question the frames of reference on which our institutionalized professional identities into question – is transformative. This clearly makes genuine collaboration a risky and transformative act in any profession where conformity to a status quo predicated on disciplinary realpolitik is a tacit requirement for any ambitious person.

Of course it also means that what academic and cultural institutions call collaboration usually isn’t – it’s actually carefully regulated co-operation based on a pre-existing consensus. Necessarily so – institutionalised authority flows from maintaining or adapting existing framings and presuppositions, not from questioning them. (A point we need to remember when we identify with that authority). It may be that distinguishing collaboration from co-operation goes some way to explain institutional and Government obsession with ‘inter-disciplinarity’. While there are obviously plenty of exceptions to what I’m about to say, I think most academic research that claims to be what’s called ‘interdisciplinarity’ is in fact little more than a slight of hand. In reality the researchers involved simply share a loose co-operative framework that allows them to do precisely what they always do – work on the basis of existing, highly institutionalised, disciplinary presuppositions. Of course such projects may sometimes produce innovative outcomes, but the problem – at least as I see it – is that this leaves the underlying framings unquestioned, not to say unchallenged. Over fifteen years ago Doreen Massey quoted Barbara Bender’s observation that (I quote): “landscapes refuse to be disciplined. They make a mockery of the oppositions that we create between time [History] and space [Geography], or between nature [Science] and culture [Social Anthropology]”. However, while research funding and academic realpolitik remain dominated by disciplinary framings, we will continue to struggle to act on new understandings of place or genuinely collaborate.

So what about framings? I’ll restrict myself to my own area of concern, which is largely with rural lifeworlds. These are now increasingly subject to Government neglect of vital infrastructure, externally imposed environmental governance, and questions around energy and food security. This situation is normatively framed in various different ways. One is dismissive, locating the rural as non-place. It’s neatly summarized by Marx and Engels’ phrase: “the idiocy of rural life” and is implicit in much arts and cultural policy. A second is more complex, involving different mixes of Romanticism, regional tradition, New Age spirituality, and Edenic environmentalism. While each mix inflects the rural differently, they all idealize it over against the urban. The third framing can be characterized as ‘instrumental’. It treats the rural as ‘standing reserve’ – a resource to be exploited with no proper regard for its particular lifeworlds and ecologies. This framing is only too obvious when the Government appoints individuals embedded in the business world to head the Environment Agency and Natural England. But it also appears in a disturbing new guise in the rise of eco-scientism as a coercive top-down rhetoric in public debates about, for example, resilience.

These three normative framings regularly lock different social constituencies into mutual incomprehension, provoking protective withdrawal and making constructive exchange, let alone collaboration, very difficult. As a result different constituencies become locked into bitter, long-running conflicts – around GM crops and alternative energy in the UK, or small-scale family turf cutting in Ireland. Working across these deeply engrained normative framings requires creative, collaborative translation based on specialist knowledge, empathetic imagination, creativity, patience, and mediation skills. Simon Read and Ffion Jones are, in my view, involved both in just such creative translation. Their work facilitates multi-constituency collaboration between antagonistic constituencies and is helping develop a new, more inclusive, aesthetic.

This kind of work is certainly not without its problems. Creative translators learn many of their skills through a professional, disciplinary training. But the people they work with in rural contexts often suspect any authority based on the framings that underpin those skills. Rural selfhoods are largely dependent on another, place-specific, performative framing – one that has little time for discursive, categorical knowledge. Instead they derive identity and authority from their qualitative, embodied co-constitution in and with a specific taskscape. Addressing this difference – a primary source of conflict between professional and lay constituencies of all kinds – is a central part of Simon Read and Ffion Jones’ work to build bridges across the differences between university-trained professionals and rural workers.

As my quotation from Barbara Bender indicates, this work requires that we don’t over-identify with disciplinary positions. Instead we have to recognize, with Geraldine Finn, that we are always both more and less than the categories that name and divide us. In reality we each live in a polyverse where our various persona – professional, lay, amateur, or domestic – require collaboration on a daily basis. However, all professional work is now increasingly framed so as to reward those who internalize the values of the institutions that validate them as discrete ‘worlds-unto-themselves’. This situation prevents genuine collaboration, ensuring that the deep-seated framings that underwrite our current environmental and psychosocial difficulties go largely unchallenged.

So how do we address the tension between skills learned in a lifeworld as polyverse and those delivered by professional ‘worlds-unto-themselves’. I’ll suggest some possible answers in two stages. First, I’ll indicate three attitudes to place that help resist disciplinary professional framings. These aren’t concerned with place in terms of an aesthetic of the exceptional that speaks primarily to the eye, but with our constantly re-placed ourselves – physically, psychosocially, and ecologically – in ways that value an aesthetic of the everyday. I’ll then very briefly introduce some collaborative projects that I take to be genuinely transformative.

The first form of resistance I want to stress is ‘slowness’ in relation to place and collaboration. Christine Baeumler, working with an ecologist and an engineer, set up this tamarack wetland restoration project on the roof of the main entrance to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.It took years to raise funds, plan, and negotiate this demonstration that, even when transposed into an urban environment, such a fragile ecosystem could, given the right conditions, serve both as green roof infrastructure and an aesthetic micro-environment. As I understand it, Christine’s praxis has, over many years,gradually ‘gone feral’. To art students at the University of Minnesota she’s an inspiring and dedicated teacher. To her employer she’s an effective faculty member with an exemplary research and public engagement record. To local ethnic minority communities she’s a facilitator for environmental youth programmes. To her arts peers she’s a respected artist working across a multitude of media – including painting, installation, film and ecologically led landscape design. To local Dakota community activists she is a long-term practical ally in their fight for cultural recognition and proper representation. Finally, and centrally, to her neighbours Christine is somebody who has worked for eighteen years on community projects restoring the everyday environmental where she lives. It’s this slow engagement with the place in which she lives that’s catalyzed the transformation of her practice, both operationally and aesthetically. This relates directly to Whatmore and Landstrum’s discussion of the need (I quote): “to ‘slow down’ expert reasoning and so create opportunities to generate new knowledge opportunities and gather new publics”.

My second area of resistance concerns acknowledging the fragility of actually enacted community and sensing the interplay of presence & absence.Marlene Creates’ Sleeping Places, Newfoundland documents the impression left where she’s just slept – a transitory imprint from each of twenty-five nights’ brief habitation. The work plays up the relationship between bodily presence, transience, and absence. She later extended this to the fragile, temporal nature of human habitation.Places of Presence: Newfoundland kin and ancestral land, Newfoundland documents just that – familial sites where a sense of community relates as much to the dynamic of natural erasure as human inhabitation. Remembering that fragility helps us guard against institutional appeals to abstract categories like ‘the academic community’, ‘the research community’, or ‘the art community’ – appeals usually intended to evoke a spurious consensus in the interests of those with most to gain. This remembrance is vital because genuine collaboration is constructively combative – energized by differences – not the result of assumed or imposed consensus determined ‘from above’.

My third type of resistance is created by a community of active skill sharing – one that create a new, usually temporary, constellation of skills.Many of you will be familiar with Place of OriginKemnay, Aberdeenshire, Scotland (1996 – 2006). This was a many faceted ten-year ‘landscape as art’ project far too rich to detail here. I simply want to remind you that it involved many very different skills –negotiating, engineering, sculpting, landscape design, community discussion – that took as a focus the history of granite quarrying in the North East of Scotland and an understanding of place as inseparable from time and change. The project came about because Kemnay grew up as a result of its quarry but was fast becoming a commuter dormitory village for Aberdeen. In addition to creating of a temporary community of act, this project parallels, albeit in a very different register, both the need for slowness exemplified by Chris Baeumler’s work and the awareness of fragility, of the play of presence and absence, in that of Marlene Creates.

I now want to introduce some projects and approaches that are located on the cusp between art and art-based aesthetics, understood as the product of a monolithic ‘world-unto-itself’ and an unbounded creativity arising from the lifeworld as polyverses and engaged in opening up a sense of the everyday and unexceptional as potentially rich in aesthetic possibility.

Pauline O’Connell works to challenge normative attitudes to community and land ownership in rural Ireland. Building on her 2012 Drawing The Water commission, she’s been working on an open-ended project, two parts of which – Heave-Ho, An Invitation To Community and Heave-Ho, Pub Pulling League – are complete. This ongoing project raises and explores issues of community and social identity by drawing on history and trace memories – in this case relating to the 1970’s Kilkenny Tug O’ War team’s experience of getting to the All Ireland Final in 1971.Pauline’s use of a community-owned field – rare in Ireland – as a site in which to invite the performance of memory, has enabled her to intervene in the ecology of her local community. Community here is seen not as a given and permanent entity – as the guarantor of established ‘positions’ – but rather as an experimental exploration undertaken by individuals coming together – however temporarily – to re-place themselves so as to face the demands of a changing culture.

Simon Read lives on a barge on the River Deben and works as an artist, teacher, environmental designer, community activist, and ecological coastal expert. He’s been involved in saltmarsh projects since 1997 and his large map drawings relate to management strategies for fluid and shifting environments, delineating specific locations and actively meditating on change. He retrieves, cross-references, and synthesizes material from many different official sources so as to be properly equipped to contribute to complex planning and governance debates around costal environment issues. Recently Simon worked on a stabilization project for the Falkenham saltmarsh that led to him designing and building biodegradable sculptural barriers to prevent erosion by managing tidal flow and encourage the controlled deposition of silt. He has worked with official agencies, the regional community and inmates from the local prison to engage with the social dimensions of environmental issues through collaboration. This includes the planning and governance process, advocating and contributing nuanced practical solutions to problems on the ground, and addressing the cultural implications and dimensions of changing understandings of land, ownership, responsibility and belonging. His work also exemplifies a move to address the aesthetic issues Yuriko Saito raises in relation to ‘un-scenic’ saltmarsh and the need to address issues of cultural sustainability.

Cathy Fitzgeraldtrained as a biologist and now works as a forester, artist filmmaker, blogger, green political activist, writer and doctoral researcher. She lives in a small wood in County Wicklowin Ireland and her many concerns radiate out from her commitment to this one place. The immediate context for Cathy’s transforming of a Sitka spruce plantation into a sustainably managed mixed species wood is the tension between piecemeal official policy and grass roots public interest in sustainable forest and broadleaf native trees. While her commitment to this transformation is regularly assessed by the Irish Council for Forest Research and Development, Cathy is also building multiple face-to-face and virtual links between the Council, silvicultural specialists, local communities, timber users, artists, and environmental enthusiasts. Her intension is to further eco-cultural, scientific, aesthetic, economic, and green policy concerns – locality, across Ireland, and internationally. Cathy’s activities are variously ecological, creative, political, and educational in their addressing the everyday aesthetics of woodlands. They interweave personal interaction and strategic use of social media to generate professional and lay understandings shared with multiple constituencies and intended to encourage exchange between them. It is her public self-education as a forester that creatively meshes together innovative forestry practice, creative work, new conceptions of organic/mechanical relationship, and fundamental issues of community and environment.

Antony Lyons trained as an environmental geo-scientist, sculptor, and landscape designer, and is concerned with tidal, estuary, watershed and other watery environments. His Lovely Weather project in Donegal took a multi-constituency approach involving scientific specialists, a local postman and dedicated folk meteorologist, and the teachers and pupils from a local school.It created dialogue between scientific weather measurements (rainfall, humidity, temperature, pressure, wind speed, wind direction), traditional local weather lore, and personal weather-related material from Antony and members of a small volunteer observation team. Local peat bogs and their role as carbon sinks became a focus during the project and a peat stack and related artworks in the final exhibition raise questions about the complexity of climate and its changes in a local context. The project – sponsored by Leonardo and Donegal County Council – brought the concerns of a number of different regional, national and international constituencies into dialogue.

I’ll start to wind this up by pointing to same other, emergent, forms of translation. The boundary between site-specific performance and religious ritual has always been permeable. As the dogmas of the Religions of the Book are increasingly co-opted by fundamentalists, it’s perhaps inevitable that ritual as a form of collaborative spiritual resistance is taken up in the arts. Some people find that art practice constitutes a training of attention that aligns them with the dynamic psychophysical aspects of traditional rituals and want to reconfigure these in contemporary terms. This type of work is often focused by the need – particularly in rural contexts – to address the erosion of traditional cycles of ritual that, paradoxically, both helped constitute rural locations as communities but also bound them to social framings that then left them marginalized and neglected by the modern world.

Lucy Wright recently coordinated Making Traditions, an event at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. She works as an ethnomusicologist, with a folk group, as a maker and, having just gained a doctorate, as a Research Associate helping small companies with product design.Notionally ‘an exhibition’ to make the completion of her doctorate, this event was in reality a unique multimedia and multi-cultural event. It showcased costume and hats produced by Lucy in collaboration with makers from different ethnic communities, together with collections of contemporary folk objects. All these served as a backdrop for an event that brought together people engaged in different forms of vernacular performance from a wide cross-section of ages, backgrounds, and folk traditions. Lucy’s own work is focused by translation between several generic lifeworlds, exploring the vernacular North East from the inside out. As folk musician, apprentice maker, and professional ethno-musicologist she has explored the boundaries between professional and vernacular worlds so as to set up new modes of translation between them that also facilitate innovative aesthetic exchanges.

In various ways and particular places, I think each of the collaborative projects I’ve introduced challenges our given framings – not by abandoning Art and its aesthetic of the exceptional but by a way of working – but more by incorporating it into what we might call creative multi-tasking – an approach that also includes the development of a more inclusive and dynamic sense of the aesthetic of everyday place. All of which, I want to suggest, flows from engaging with the lifeworld as polyverse rather than orienting one self according to a single professional world-unto-itself.

I’m very well aware that an art historian like Clare Bishop might want simply to reincorporate these projects into the usual analytical, hyper-professionalised discourse of contemporary art history – through a set of comparative judgements about their aesthetic and relational originality. However, I don’t find that helpful and have instead tried to indicate another way we might understand them – as evidence of a shift from Art as a ‘world-unto-itself), whether badged as relational or otherwise, to a form of creative ecosophical translation. I think it’s more productive to see them as invitations in this respect, to recognise the value of collaborations that challenge normative frames and, in so doing, become transformative – allowing us to genuinely re-negotiate place in terms of multiple constituencies, framings, and possibilities. Of course those people whose work I’ve referenced have also been transformed by their collaborations. They are, viewed conventionally, somehow both more and less than artists in the usual sense and so can adopt more porous and eco-socially productive positions. Positions that, in turn, might serve as models to help re-frame debates about the places we refer to as the North.