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

In memory: Hugo Ball, 1886-1927

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Deep Mapping to Mutual Accompaniment? Work in progress.

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

“System change not climate change”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeline Miller’s Circe: attending to the Third Ecology

Félix Guattari argues that we need new configurations of three fundamental and interwoven ecologies – the environmental, the social and the psychic – if we are to address our now toxic situation. It has seemed to me for a good while now that artists, while they may pay lip service to Guattari’s thinking, simply don’t take the ecology of the psyche seriously enough. (Perhaps because they rightly sense that to do so might raise questions that are too close to home for comfort). Yet we are deeply embedded in a culture in which psychic problems of addiction, depression, self-harm and suicide are rapidly growing, not to speak of wider issues like the gap between rich and poor, the national disgrace in the UK of growing levels of child poverty, and the related need for food banks. All of which are indications of a shriving away of the empathetic imagination proper to understanding what constitutes human selfhood. In this grim situation, we obviously need all the help we can get to identify and address the root psychic causes of what is happening all around us. 

These thoughts, or variations on them, have been with me all summer as I’ve struggled with a familiar problem. How do I make any sense of and write about the increasingly dangerous and uncertain situation we’ve arrived at and, in particular, of the role of the arts in the culture of possessive individualism out of which that situation has grown. In the last few weeks help with this thinking has come from an unexpected source. I’ve read and re-read Madeline Miller’s novel Circe, a retelling of many of the elements of the Odyssey, seen from the perspective of the nymph, and later witch, CirceI have been fascinated by Greek myths since I read Robert Greaves’ re-telling of them in early adolescence; a fascination later deepened by my reading of authors such as James Hillman, Ginette Paris, Mary Watkins and Edward S. Casey. Much of which has, no doubt, been at the back of my mind while I read Miller. (Her book has been called an example of ‘feminist revisionism’, but for me such a dry academic term misses so much that makes it compelling as a novel). 

It has helped my thinking because it seems to me to identify and challenge two interwoven and fundamental aspects of possessive individualism – the myth of the hero (usually male, but in today’s culture of any gender), and the cult of fame (our culture’s substitution for “immortality”) which, taken together, orient our culture’s obsession with individual exceptionalism, the desire for attention-grabbing achievement or celebrity to be won regardless of the cost to one’s own humanity, to others, or to the world at large. Consequently, Miller’s evocation of Circe’s final act, her preparation to use the full strength of her knowledge and power to renounce her own immortality, is every bit as important to Miller’s story as her skilful deconstruction of Odysseus’ status as a hero. 

There is a passage late in the book that brought me close to tears because it seems so extraordinary relevant to our current situation and to the questions I’ve been asking myself. It involves a conversation between Circe and Telemachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope who, with her, has found refuge with Circe. (They hope of escape the attention of the Goddess Athena, the force behind Odysseus’ insatiable desire for fame through cunning, trickery and ruthlessness). The two of them are discussing levelling the uneven flagstones in her courtyard. As Telemachus begins the job, Circe points out that their uneven wobble is caused by roof water draining there and washing away the soil. Whatever he does, the wobble will return after the next rain. His reply begins a passage that, for me, is the heart of the book: ‘that is how things go. You fix things, and they go awry, and then you fix them again’.

What follows offers a telling account of an alternative to the heroic model based on exceptionalism. It counters its failure to acknowledge what really drives our restless “scientific” curiosity, our desire for novelty, our desire to move on so as to find new, attention-grabbing challenges to meet and problems to solve. Its failure to acknowledge and celebrate the absolute necessity to human community and solidarity of sharing attention to ‘how things go’. Of attending to their inevitable ‘going awry’, and the central importance of our willingness and ability to patiently return to the task of fixing them yet again. And within this the central importance of taking pleasure ‘in the simple mending of the world’, as Circe puts it later in the book. 

All that happens later in the book flows from Telemachus’ seeing through, and rejecting, the seductive image of the hero his father once embodied for him. Despite everything that Athena offers him, he makes it very clear that he has no wish to emulate his father. Instead he accepts that our being truly human requires us to recognise that, when things inevitably go wrong, that is simply how the world is. That we must then fix them as best we can, recognising that they will go awry again and that we, or those who follow us, will then have to fix them yet again. An honouring of the solidarity t be found in facing basic human necessities, rather than the desire for the exceptionalism of the hero.

Given what we know of the relationship between some current political players and their fathers, this passage takes on a particular relevance. But (for once) I will resist the temptation to be trite and dwell on such individuals. (If you are a regular reader of this blog, you won’t need to guess who I have in mind). This is not, however, an issue of “individual psychology” (itself a problematic and potentially misleading phrase). It’s about a fundamental presupposition that helps underpin the entire “globalised” culture of consumer capitalism. (And, of course, the “success” of artists like Jeff Koons, which depends on the warping of our sense of creativity and imagination in the name of novelties that can be easily and conspicuously consumed by the super-rich). Until we face the psychic issues that that presupposition generates, in whatever way each of us can, those who see themselves as “artists” in the heroic mode will remain just what the performance art Andrea Fraser has named them, part of the problem, not part of the solution.      


P.S. re. ‘what artists might do’.

This relates to my last post. Perhaps there is one thing I can suggest that all artists might do to become more useful. It’s to read the new Global Commission on Adaptation Report: Adapt Now: A Global Call For Leadership on Climate Resilience. OK, so it should have been a report that called for deep adaptation and spelled out why Trump, Johnson et. alia. are pursuing pathological and suicidal political policies , but that was never going to happen. I’m actually surprised they’ve said anything along these lines at all.

To write: “Government officials and business leaders need to radically rethink how they make decisions. We need a revolution in understanding, planning, and finance that makes climate risks visible, incorporates these risks into all decisions, and releases public and private financial flows” may be true; but it is also, of course, a massive fudge. It’s another way to avoid acknowledging the underlying problem of power. One that can be paraphrased as “we had the power to get you into this mess, and only we have the power to get you out of it”. This is, of course, nonsense.

If “they” really had that ability, surely they would have acted on it by now? The truth, I suspect, is that as people they are more than most psychosocially incapable of breaking with their having internalised the values of possessive individualism. To make that break would, I think, require them to reinvent themselves in ways they simply cannot begin to imagine. And maybe, just maybe, that’s where artists can do something useful. But only, of course, if we can make the break with those cultural values first.

In addition to drawing attention to what those among the status quo who are publicly prepared to say about the deepening climate crisis, the report helps explain the extraordinary energy the current British (or should that read English?) Government are putting into taking the UK out of Europe.

The last thing that cabal of autocrats and their billionaire backers want is to find themselves in a situation where this kind of thinking is taken seriously, as the EU has already shown signs of doing. That would potentially restrict their capacity to pursue their own personal fantasies of more wealth and power regardless of the socio-environmental cost. Hence the whole “sovereignty” nonsense. (As if Britain has any kind of real sovereignty as a nation in the age of global corporate capitalism). Whatever its failings, and they are many, at least the EU offers some basis on which to lobby for, coordinate, and share good practice around the deep adaptation we now urgently need.

But from a UK Government point of view, all this talk about an environmental crisis just an extension of “Project Fear”. Heaven forbid, for example, that London might be required by EU legislation, not just to actually lower its deadly traffic pollution rates, but to follow the example of Rotterdam. That is, to develop and help fund a serious, long-term flood plan. Instead we are sold a bogus vision of sovereignty that is a smoke-screen for allowing, say, property speculators to build the new Boris Johnson third London airport, and financial speculators to bet both ways on the UK’s economic collapse from the (relative and short-term) safety of their off-shore business hubs in Ireland or wherever.

So, please read the report and think about how, as people used to working imaginatively, we might best respond to it.

I’m not, of course, suggesting we need art made in response to the report – although I can think of worse things to do – but simply that we need to start cultivating imaginative responses to such understanding as it shows.

How to be a useful artist in the face of the climate emergency?

Back in May this year I put up a post called Terrestrial Matters, a version of a presentation I gave in May at Culture Climates: Fostering Art for Sustainability – Time for a new Cultural Policy? at the Moore Institute, NUI Galway. I now want to follow on from that post in response to a heartfelt question I’ve been sent, linked to that event. My questioner asks: “how to be a useful artist in the face of the climate emergency”? My response is tentative and partial, but it is informed by reading Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation essay, Extinction Rebellion’s This Is Not A Drill, and Bendell’s contribution to it, Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse.

I think there’s three, maybe four, aspects to the question I’ve been asked. The first concerns whoever asks such a question, the second concerns what we now understand by “art”, and the third is about what is meant by “the climate emergency”. (I’ll look at the final one in a postscript). Although these are obviously closely interrelated, I’ll take each of them in turn. 

There’s obviously no “one-size-fits-all” answer to this question and my response can only be personal, based on my own realisation, at some point about twenty years ago, of “advanced” art’s increasingly problematic relationship with what Amitav Ghosh has recently called The Great Derangement. Reading the work of people like A. David Napier, Mary Watkins, Geraldine Finn and James Hillman over time enabled me to see that “Art” in the Global North has been co-opted as a symbolic cornerstone of the toxic culture of possessive individualism.

One. Who is asking the question?

The realisation that “Art” had been co-opted by the culture of possessive individualism led me to question, and then unpick, the basic assumptions that that culture makes about creativity and self. I then had to listen to the response of the multiple selves that I am in the bruising psychological fallout that followed. The result was that I have had to accept that I’m not an autonomous individual; that I don’t “own” “my” creativity or even “my” selves, nor do “I” own anything they produce as some kind of autonomous, “stand-alone” entity. My “I” exists and can act only as a loose consortium of shifting selves within a larger connectivity of encultured beings of (fortunately) many different kinds (both living and dead). That is, through all the innumerable reciprocal connections, attachments and relationships in which it is entangled. (This is the best description I can mange of the psychosocial connectivity of a human being which, in turn, is wholly dependent on the larger ecology of the multiverse that Bruno Latour calls The Terrestrial).  

Two. Which “Art” and “Artist”?

This understanding of self as a loose consortium of entities, persona, or whatever, placed within a psychosocial network that’s extended in time and across place, and as dependent on the multiverse which constitutes it as its environment, has required me to detach “my” sense of self-esteem and value from any claim to be first and foremost “an Artist”. To do otherwise was ridiculously reductive and replicated the “colonial” repression of multiplicity on which power in the Global North has depended historically.

Once I began to realise this, I started to identify myself professionally (and still far too reductively) as “a teacher/artist/researcher”, which much later led me to adopt the idea of each person as an “ensemble” of practices. All of which suggests that, at least for me, the first step to addressing the question: “how to be a useful artist in the face of climate emergency” is to acknowledging that “I” am not, and have never been, primarily or essentially “an Artist”. And that neither “I” nor anyone else has ever possessed a single, monolithic, professionally-given, identity of that kind. Rather, the person that “I” am is in actuality somewhere on a continuum of possibilities. Between a process of becoming – as a living and changing constellation of roles, connections, attachments and relationships at one extreme or, at the other, so pathologically identified with one identity at the expense of the consortium they really are as to be, in Amitav Ghosh’s sense, deranged. A constellation, I hope, in which “doing art” may (or may not) have a genuinely creative role in attending to the relationship between self as a consortium of entities and the multiverse.This brings me to the point where, until I can consciously accept and honestly act on that understanding, as an “Artist” I remain, regardless of the nature of my practice, part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Linking parts One and Two.

Like most people brought up in the Global North, I was immersed from childhood in its values, unconsciously absorbing basic presuppositions handed down to me by the monotheistic Christian worldview that the Enlightenment both secularised and continued. A worldview in which the default position is always binary: this or that, good or bad, male or female, sacred or secular, Left or Right, right or wrong, etc., etc. This predisposed me to assume that I could either be an artist or I could not. It’s hard to break with that enculturation. One of the books I’ve come to treasure is Maddy Paxman’s The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss, her account of facing the consequences of the death of her husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, from a brain haemorrhage at the age of fifty. She has worked as a counsellor in women’s health, a music teacher, musician and painter and currently teaches the Alexander Technique and writes: 

“Although I don’t think of myself as an artist, in that I am not ‘driven’, painting is a form of expression that seems necessary to me and I miss it when it’s not part of my life”.

I find this sentence, which comes towards the end of her account of her relationship with the husband she clearly loved deeply (a man who was ‘driven’ to the exclusion of much that did not immediately concern his poetry), both moving and instructive. 

I recognised all-too-clearly that feeling that making art is something necessary to my well-being, like getting enough vitamin C. What most touched me, however, is that this book is about a clear-sighted and unselfish love that transcends the binary presuppositions I struggle with on a daily basis. Here, it seems to me, is somebody who understands what it is to live with and through, for better or worse, every kind of reciprocal connection, attachment and relationship.And to do it with humour, love and understanding. So I would change the question. Not ‘how can I be a useful artist in the face of the climate emergency’, but ‘what are the relationships between the consortium I call my “self” and the realities of the reciprocal connections, attachments and relationships that embed it in the multiverse’? That change allows me to ask whether involvement in art is something I am ‘driven’ to do at the expense of others (Maddy Paxman’s tacit definition of an “Artist”), or whether my making art is a “supplement” (again, like vitamin C), one that’s necessary for my well-being. When I got to that point, letting go of the idea of “being an Artist”, but without “giving up” art, freed me to prioritise other activities, including bringing an ensemble practice so as to engage with theclimate emergency.

I’m aware that all this may appear to be little more than a ‘circling round’ the question I started with. But I have needed to unpick assumptions about “being an artist” before getting to the idea of “the useful artist”.

To summarise. I think we need to face the fact that the symbolic function of the artist in the culture of possessive individualism is to epitomise the notion of individual exceptionalism; to reinforce the presupposition that creativity is ‘owned’ by exceptional and self-contained individuals in ways that reinforce currently orthodox notions of personhood, nature and society. To do this I’ve drawn onthe distinction Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead make by proposing a spectrum of identity positions between a “life-as” at one extreme and a life as “being-as-becoming” at the other. “Life-as” requires investing in a monolithic psychosocial sense of self that, to protect its investment, must oppose or deny all values, connections, and relationships that do not further it. It lacks, as a result, the basic capacity for empathetic imagination that enables us to negotiate the constant movement between self and other, to properly engage in and with the multiplicity of psychic, social and environmental realities in which we find ourselves. At the other end of their spectrum is a sense of selfhood as coexistent with the psychosocial and environmental multiverse – fluid, relationally contingent, mutable, open-ended. The psychosocial and political stakes here are simple.

To face our eco-social crisis, we must find ways to attend to, sustain, and cherish as many ways of belonging in the multiverse as possible if we are to adapt to an unprecedented need to change. We can’t do that by investing in any “life-as”, particularly not in ‘life-as an Artist’. But I’ve also unpicked the first two parts of the question in this way because I recognise that, for any number of pragmatic reasons, those who ask it in good faith will, in all likelihood, need to continue to earn a living in ways that require them to maintain the illusion of “being an Artist”, at least in relation to professional peers and public institutions. By going into this at some length, I hope to help them clarify their own situation.  

Three. The Climate Emergence.

Before we can work out how we might be useful (“as artists” or otherwise) in the Climate Emergence, we need to know what we mean by that phrase. In my view, the answer is that given by Professor Jim Bendell in his paper A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, in which he sets out the argument for: ‘inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change’. This requires, as he writes in Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse, that we now act ‘to reduce harm and save what we can’; in short, that we ‘prepare, both emotionally and practically, for a disaster’ that is likely to cut our civilization off at the knees. How we do so will depend on our individual skills, circumstances, and dispositions. Some will use their ensemble practices to facilitate community-building, some will focus on food security, some on building psychological adaptability, and so on. The skills we have as, among other roles, artists, can help us to do this. For others, myself included, our situation may be such that it requires us to all but abandon our involvement in making art for other, perhaps ultimately equally creative, activities.

That’s pretty much all that I feel able to say on the topic, other than to add what is, perhaps, too personal a postscript.    


Speaking personally, I am having to learn to deepen the love, both passionate and dispassionate, that is celebrated in The Great Below: A Journey Into Loss. A love that is, I believe, precisely the same that Jem Bendell advocates in Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse. A form of love, ultimately based on honouring the wholeness of the Terrestrial and all within it, that I’ve been trying to write about all summer in relation to the work of the painter Ken Kiff. A love that, in the unconditional form of agape, is an intensely uncomfortable and difficult word to use, let alone work with, in the culture of possessive individualism that dominates our thinking about art. That’s why, in my talk at NUI Galway, I used the phrase ‘mutual accompaniment’, borrowed from the social psychologist Mary Watkins. Mutual accompaniment understood as a continuous, shared process of respectful, practical, learning that helps reorient our thinking precisely by focusing lovingly on connections, attachments and relationships, which is probably as close to agapeas we can get in practice.


P.S. The despicable Jacob Rees-Mogg

There are times when I would really rather not have my views confirmed, but Jacob Rees-Mogg’s despicable and cowardly attack on Dr. David Nicoll – an abuse of Parliamentary Privilege if there ever was one – would seem to be designed to confirm my sense of the depths to which this multi-millionaire will sink in order to further his own agenda at the expense of people who, like my daughter, cannot survive the failure of their medical supplies due to a ‘No-deal Brexit’.