Why pity inanimate objects? Posthumanism, people and pebbledash.


“…No choice for sugar
But what choice could there be?
But to drown in coffee or to drown in tea
The frustrations of being inanimate
Maybe its better that way
The fewer the moving parts
The less there is to go wrong
I wonder about these things
I pity inanimate objects…”

 Godley & Creme (1979) I Pity Inanimate Objects’

Maybe it’s an autumn thing, but each year around this time I seem to find myself having the urge to write about inanimate objects. Previous autumn blog posts have ruminated upon the inner lives of smoke detectors, telephones and the death of a sofa. I sense that urge is rising again, so here I’m going to say a little about a book chapter that I’ve previously written in an attempt to do something academic with these urges, in order to quell these urges by reminding myself of the awkwardness of doing so.

I was invited to write an essay for a collection on posthuman research methods back in early 2014 by a colleague who knew of my 2013 flurry of writings about inanimate objects. I was flattered to be invited and eagerly signed up to the project, but then the publisher changed the book title and I suddenly found myself to be a contributor for a book now explicitly focussed towards posthuman research methods in education. I soldiered on through 2014, writing and re-writing the essay, trying to align it to the book’s disciplinary focus, and trying to work out whether I even still was, or indeed had ever been a posthumanist. I checked the proof of my chapter last week – and looking back through what I’d written it all felt very long ago. Academic books take ages – about two or three years – to travel from conception to publication. I can be a very strange experience revisiting a text every six months or so, and each time trying to connect back into your lines of thought.

The question troubling me when I was writing my contribution for the book was that posthumanism exhorts us to pay more attention to nonhuman things, but can we actually engage any more ‘deeply’ with non-sentient objects than we do already for our pragmatic everyday human-centred purposes? And the answer seemed to be even clearer ‘no’ once the educational focus was added to the project. How could education research be posthuman if it still (presumably) was committed to making humans the best that they can be? And if that teleological commitment was junked, then could what was left be meaningfully called education? In short, how could educational investigations detach investigations from human concerns and positionality, and how would doing so assist education’s mission?

As I wrestled with this question, I found out that many of my co-contributors were working through similar dilemmas (although perhaps finding them less fundamentally troubling for, writing within the education discipline, they were positioning posthumanism as a corrective to a longstanding dominance of a discourse fixated social constructionism within their discipline: in short, they knew what they were rebelling against). They – from a variety of processual and neo-materialist feminist standpoints – seemed to be fairly comfortably embracing a soft posthumanism, one that very much left the human present as part of the picture, but which urged embrace of a holism which they felt that 25 years of social constructionism had suppressed. For social constructionists all phenomena are constructs of language and culture, and nothing socially meaningful exists beyond us or acts back upon us in an uncovenanted way. So, what was emerging amongst the authors as a workable prescription for a posthuman turn in education research was an avowed commitment to (to coin a phrase – and in doing so to reintroduce and accept that linguistic formulations and the images and ideas that they create are also important) studying the baby and the bathwater (rather than throwing out the baby and gazing at the bathwater alone).

And so, as this all swirled around, I had to work out what my chapter was going to say. I’d come up with the title ‘Thinking like a brick’, the moment I was invited aboard – but I now had to work out what I meant by it. The paper went through a couple of almost total rewrites as I wrestled with my ambivalent views about posthumanism within education. Eventually I came up with a plan, wrote it  up and the editors and reviewers approved it, under the revised, provocatively prosaic title “Thinking like a brick – posthumanism and building materials”.

I teach in a multidisciplinary department focussed upon training construction and property managers. Most of my colleagues know a brick when they see one (and could tell you far more about its essential qualities than I ever could). The ontology of bricks is not a matter of concern for them. So, in my essay I’ve done my best to destabilise how and what we know of bricks, but also to celebrate the fact that those who need to do so for their projects, find ways to form sophisticated relationships with such dumb brute materials. In doing so I’ve tried to reconcile my position with a soft posthumanism – that we need humans left in the equation, that if we are striving to know more of the brickness of bricks it is for us (and our purposes) rather than for the sake of brick-liberation. I realise this takes me very closely back towards what Quentin Meillassoux has dismissed as ‘correlationism’ (that we claim only to be able to know things for ourselves, rather than for themselves), and that this soft posthumanism will for some not be posthuman at all.

But interrogating ‘dumb-brute’ non-human items has this effect, and perhaps helpfully so. Much of posthuman writing and research thus far has been focused on animals or advanced technology, and thus upon their non-human sentience, or at least of an animation (or ‘vitality’ to adopt Jane Bennett’s phrase) produced by their life-like complexity and autonomy.  Accordingly, being posthuman about microbes and microprocessors is relatively easy, so instead we should take some time to contemplate the posthuman realm of the non-sentient: things that are truly inert, and which cannot speak, move or die: and my chapter attempts this in relation to construction materials. As Bjørnar Olsen (2013) notes, this classically ‘dumb brute’ matter makes up the built environment, it is all around us, it creates the very conditions by which modern life and social systems are sustained and yet these things rarely get noticed.

So, in my chapter I subject brick, concrete and rock to a questioning stare and try to remember to think about education along the way. I end up critiquing apocalypse posthumanism along the way (and its yearning for a ‘world without us’) and then I point to examples of our intertwined, and sophisticated relationships with construction materials and how our use of (and accommodation to) these materials helps to situate us very much within the world.

Posthuman Research Practices in Education (ed. Carol A. Taylor & Christina Hughes) will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in March 2016. There’s a preview of the publication here, including a chapter list. As the editors’ summary states, the contributors position posthumanism as operationalisable (as a social science research methodology), progressive and aligned to a ‘world with us’ holism:

“How do we include and develop understandings of those beyond-the-human aspects of the world in social research? Through fifteen contributions from leading international thinkers, this text provides original approaches to posthumanist research practices in education. Contributors respond to the following questions: What do empirically grounded explorations of posthumanism look like in practice? How can they be designed? What sorts of ‘data’ are produced and how might they be analysed? And, importantly, what are the social, cultural and educational impacts of empirically driven posthuman research?

The contributors to this text change the parameters of research through thinking relationally with other beings/matter and recognizing their vitality and agency. Methodologically the contributors operationalize the unself, give focus to shadow stories and the entanglement of the researcher and research apparatus. They provide analytic tools such as rhizomatic readings and cartography mapping, edu-crafting, diffraction, Indigenous storywork, intra-action and affective pedagogy and rework and transform known methodologies, such as participatory research, qualitative approaches and photo-voice.”

Image: Carl Andre (1966) ‘Equivalent VIII’ via http://fourcolorsfourwords.blogspot.co.uk/2009_07_01_archive.html

Solar Psychogeography – Into the light with a March-Riever, Eric O. Distad

I’ve recently read Eric’s essay ‘Psychogeography: Introducing the Zone and the March-Riever’ (available here – the pdf link is in the first paragraph) and having traded a few emails with Eric earlier this week I thought I’d offer up a brief summary of Eric’s standpoint, its innovations and a slight niggle I have on one aspect of his formulation of a ‘new’ form of psychogeographer, the ‘March-Riever’.

Eric’s essay is well worth a read. It is a very thoughtful, well grounded (both in the literature and embodied experience) exploration of a route towards a psychogeography that is less fixated on excavating a “storied metropolis” (3) (in other words excavating some hidden history), more appreciative of the redemptive qualities of the present (i.e. less nostalgic) and more celebrative of the resurgent power of nature.

Eric helpfully situates the roots of a recreational contemporary psychogeography (one perhaps expressed by many of the contributors to Walking Inside Out) at least in part in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (and even more helpfully situates that film in its own origins, the Strugatsky brothers’ 1972 book, Roadside Picnic). In doing so he adopts ‘The Zone’ as his name for the areas – potentially rural rather than urban or peri-urban – which he is drawn for his hybrid psychogeography/urban exploration.

Eric’s prescription for his ‘new’ type of psychogeographic practice is that it foregrounds subjective experience (with accounts of visits not aspiring to the unearthing of some hidden truth to ‘report back’ to the as yet unenlightened). But the tone to be applied to visits is a reverential one (rather than engaging zonal places wantonly as playgrounds: athletic, destructive or otherwise). Eric gives two main reasons for the reverential approach and I find myself attracted by one, but slightly cynical of the other. Let me explain.

First, Eric figures the Zone (as in Stalker) as a place in which the revenant power of ‘Nature’ can be experienced, and humans reminded of their frailty, temporality etc. This is classic ruin-gazing fare, grounded in 200 years of (variously European and North American) Romantic wilderness-worship. To be honest, I find reassertion of a Human/Nature exclusionary binary a turn off, and feel it risks leaving rural psychogeography indistinguishable from ordinary countryside walking. For me the revelation sought alongside a resurgent ‘nature’ found in ruins, would be a slightly different one, one based on realising that we and ‘nature’ are intertwined and co-dependent (co-constructed even) rather than that we can go to the Zone and humbly face a ‘separate’ (and ‘better’ non-human) realm. In my anti-binary stance, I’m thinking here of OOO writers like Timothy Morton’s (2009) Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics.

But Eric’s second reason for an experiential reverence has me hooked. As he puts it: “the march-riever’s approach to psychogeography makes conscious use of solar cues, the time-dependent effects of the sun” (21)

Eric thus appreciates the constantly changing lighting in the Zone as an emphasis of the uniqueness of each moment, and therefore the uniqueness of each experience of place. Eric takes this awareness from photographers (and painters too implicitly – all of whom are hyper-conscious of the place-compositional effects of changing light conditions), noting that “to the photographer, a reliance on solar cues is second nature, whether it is done subconsciously or with active awareness and effort” (24). The zone then, is read (by the artist) and experienced by the explorer, through the dynamic action of environmental illumination. And where there is no solar guide, the explorer must bring their own (puny and fragile by comparison) light source, the torch beams glare highlighting the dark absence around it as much as the features found within its narrow cone of vision.

Eric’s essay is a welcome hybrid in many ways, it is one of few North American commentaries upon contemporary psychogeography, it is an impressive ‘pro-am’ piece of work – a practitioner writing reflexively about their own enthusiastic practice, and by drawing out in its present-focussed and experiential oriented mode, it shows how how the ruin-based orientations of psychogeographers and urban explorers intersect.

Eric’s twitter name is @reluctantgod.

Image credit: http://www.reluctantgodproductions.com/

Urban exploration as deviant leisure


Oooh, this is good! A very thoughtful essay on the ironies of urbex’s ‘double-helix’ relationship with commodified leisure culture. Too many great quotes to pick from, so this one will do: “the performative project of (individualised) identity construction and intense competition for (subcultural) status are now primary motivations driving the practice of urban exploration towards increasingly spectacular manifestations.” Well worth the read…

Originally posted on deviantleisure:

By Theo Kindynis (University of Greenwich)

Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis. Under London, an urban explorer is dwarfed by the massive Lee Tunnel “super sewer” construction, the deepest and largest tunnel ever built under the city. Photo: Theo Kindynis.

Recreational trespass, or as it has become known in recent years, “urban exploration” (often abbreviated as UrbEx or UE) is the practice of illicitly gaining access to forbidden, forgotten or otherwise off-limits places, ‘simply for the joy of doing so’ and / or in order to document them photographically (Garrett, 2013: 21). Such places typically include: derelict industrial sites, closed hospitals or asylums, abandoned military installations, construction sites and cranes, sewer and storm drain networks, subterranean utility tunnels and rapid transit (metro) systems – the list goes on. In the past two decades, and particularly since the mid-2000s, an emergent global subculture has coalesced around this activity, facilitated by the Internet and online discussion forums such…

View original 3,593 more words

Autoarchaeology and what it means to be us: excavating the A380 without leaving the car.


Get in the car

“If place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” (Augé 1995: 77-8)

For Marc Augé roads are empty transit spaces, voids between places of departure and arrival. They are not places themselves, because they are not energised by attention, affiliation, community or continuity. Upon the non-place of the highway we are each locked into the confines of our own dulled, atomised, instrumentalist present.

Following my earlier blog here, this essay continues my problematizing of Augé’s ‘non-places’. It does so by pondering a one mile hillside portion of trunk road and finds that far from being non-place, this dual carriage-way can be shown to be deeply relational, very much wrapped up with histories and a very fertile ground for attachment and the formation and sustaining of identity and meaning.

Gravity and memory on the A380

We’re at the base of Telegraph Hill, a steep ascent for the A380 as it speeds out of the Exeter basin, and onwards towards the South Devon coast. The A380 starts as a spur, splitting off from the Plymouth-bound A38, at the base of this hill, just past the hamlet of Kennford, and its tired hostelries straining to catch the attention of motorists as they speed past.

I’ve travelled this road many, many times in my 48 years. It feels like it is etched into my very existence. Growing up in Devon, my family existed in two separate camps, which I was shuttled between. This road’s ascent to the summit of Telegraph Hill was the transition between two zones of experience, the topography acting as cues for my mental adjustment to suit the mores of the camp that I was journeying towards. That transition was mapped out by the course of this road, and specifically its ascent up this long upward climb.

Habitually you accelerate into a hill, because you know that it will drain your power as you climb. Embodied experience conditions precisely how and when I start to accelerate into this hill, and that point in the road takes on ironic significance on this summer 2015 iteration of my familiar journey, for at the point of habitual acceleration (or thereabouts) we ride over the extinguished remains of a Royal Observer Corps nuclear fallout observation monitoring post. This spring was dominated for me by hunting out these places, so it was inevitable that I would look to find them on my route towards my childhood home. This adds a new significance to my re-experience of this part of the A380, and in turn has triggered the ruminations that have led to this piece of writing.

The former Post’s location is somewhere beneath my car as I speed along the tarmac, the bunkerologists having told me that Exminster ROC Post (opened 1964, closed 1968) is:

“DEMOLISHED. No trace of anything. The site was probably lost during realignment of the junction to the east in the 1970s.” (Subbrit 2001)

I travelled this road regularly in the late 1970s, prior to this realignment. I try to think back to that time. But I can’t remember individual trips, the memory of the lumbering ascent upon rickety buses is an aggregate memory, a generalised montage. And in scouring my mind’s eye I see nothing of the extant, but already abandoned ROC post somewhere nearby. But I do recall the image of standing on the verge, by the back of a bus, sometime in the late 1970s, our ascent temporarily defeated by the demands of the hill climb. But all I can picture is the rear end of the coach, and a vague sprawl of trees and a sense of evening light fading. That’s it. Whilst I must have been close to that Post, but I never saw it. And I never saw Smokey Joe either.

Smokey Joe was a famous tramp who lived in a layby half way up the hill for many years, feeding off the land and the donations of passersby, until his death in 1976. The layby was testimony to the mechanical trials of this ascent, a place for lorry drivers to pull over and cool their overheated engines. Smokey Joe had chosen his pitch wisely, with an eye on gravity and the limitations of contemporary auto-engineering.

Even after 40 years the approach to that pull-in still compels me to glance into the shaded grove beyond the layby, a habituated action born of efforts as a young child to spot Smokey Joe’s encampment.

But that remembrance, and its accompanying reflex glance, is not – it seems – something unique to my experience of this hill, for South Devon internet forums testify to many whose childhood experience of this ascent was conditioned by the spectacle of this roadside dweller. And the character of these recollections, amidst some wistful nostalgia, is a remarkably consistent compound of memories that fuse the somatic strain of the hill climb with the hill-dwelling of Smokey Joe. This seems a specific manifestation of what Tim Edensor finds emergent in the shared experiences of regular travellers along familiar routes:

“we might conjecture that constellations of collective experience constitute something akin to a structure of feeling shared by motorway drivers in general and commuters along particular routes more specifically” (2003: 155)

This tramp, personifies the effort of the climb, thereby stabilising both a memory of this man, and a shared experience of both a time and place: the hill climb in the 1970s. Perhaps this gravity-connection is something that has emerged with the benefit of hindsight, otherwise Joe would have been called Layby Joe, or even the Crawler Lane Man, but the name that stuck emerged from an even more immediate material feature of his existence, for those who met him or the other two tramps inhabiting the Haldon Hills in the 1970s, testified to their amenability, and also to their odour. Smokey Joe was so-named because he and his wood fire, and its pervasive smoke, had become synonymous. And it was the plume of smoke from his fire that would be the looked-for sign of his presence as the layby came into view.

And then across on the North-bound, carriageway, another gravity-memory springs to mind, that of my father switching off the engine as he freewheeled downhill, inspired by the fuel crisis of 1974 and its aftermath, a global geopolitical reality expressed upon the conveniently steep incline of a South Devon hillside.

I was always relieved when he turned the engine back on, usually around the point at which we passed the sand-pit escape lane, kindly provided in the layby for the assistance of any motorist who discovered his brakes had overheated and failed after excessive use on the long descent.

At one point in a journey my father had asked me what I was thinking. I was pondering the virtual nature of the transfer of ransom payment monies as part of the US embassy hostage situation, following the Iranian Revolution. That family image now sits in my head (and maybe his), very much emplaced upon a random stretch of dual carriageway, the scene at which a distant geopolitical situation was suddenly uttered into our shared discursive world, as our car sped towards Exeter.

Augé’s critics point to the irrepressible creation of a sense of place by individuals. As Edensor shows, driving releases lines of flight both in the sense of velocities of travel, but also chains of association that link distant, seemingly unconnected themes, times and places. In contrast to Augé’s figuring highways as barren, linear ‘non-places’, Edensor revalorises them, highlighting their “complex, associational and folded geography” (2003: 156).

Furthermore, and stepping beyond a broadly psychogeographic salvation of autospaces based upon personal reverie and free-association, Peter Merriman (2004) has shown roads are sustained communal projects – they call together a cast of thousands, those who design, build, and maintain them plus those whose lives and journeys intersect with them. The shared experience of them as places is a result of the ideas and matter brought to those spaces in co-ordinated and sustained campaigns of civil engineering.

Roads are socio-material accomplishments, and as such they exist with, through and beyond us, regardless of our reflex to loath or rhapsodise upon them. Rosemary Shirley (2015) touches on this notion of roads-as-places-whether-we-like-it-or-not dimension, when she writes that roads are unequivocally part of the contemporary countryside. They are not alien encroachments from elsewhere – urban tendrils invading the picturesque purity of arcadia. Shirley persuasively argues instead that they are a feature of rural modernity, challenging our tendency to equate modernity with the metropolis. Roads comprise a core feature of both our environment and our modernity. We are creatures of roads.

So, how might we investigate this residual roadness, to take matters beyond cultural geographers’ saving roads from their non-place fate by showing us how we dwell within autoscapes, animating them as meaningful places by our presence and thoughts?

Excavating the layered remains

Here I want to consider what additional insight we might attain from archaeology – by engaging with the extant roadway as situated material culture. Importantly, this requires us to adopt a broad view of archaeology, and specifically to think about how we could investigate things-in-use, for the road is very much in use, and is very much of our time.

Rodney Harrison & John Schofield (2010) map out possible routes for engagement with the interpretation of modern roads within their prescription for an ‘archaeology of the contemporary past’ – arguing that an attentiveness to the time-depth and materiality of roads and their support infrastructure can further help to build a rounded picture of the phenomenon of contemporary auto-mobilities, and perhaps thereby to further assert the place-ness of autoscapes.

An archaeological analysis of my stretch of the A380 would show how this road has always been in a state of change. Its origins can be traced back over 2,000 years to a Roman road occupying the current course through the Haldon Hills. This continuity of route is attested by one of the first UK road maps, John Ogilby’s Britannia of 1675, and continues into the era of 18th century turnpike trusts and thereafter local authority stewardship. And yet that continuity is deceptive, for the precise route up Telegraph Hill has fluctuated in width, position and composition. To excavate these roads would be to work down through layers of different iterations of this highway, innumerable flexes and adjustments, repairs and reconstitutions. A road never stops being made.

Perhaps an archaeological eye would zero in on what the physical composition and arrangement of this road section tells us about how roads fit into our socio-technical systems. The escape lane would tell us of the limitations of our braking systems, the reorientation of road junctions at the summit of the hill would hint at our corrective attempts to address an accident blackspot, and to facilitate both safer and more fluid trafficking upon the A380 and its side roads. And looking to the surroundings, the highway facing 1960s chalet type buildings verging the highway at Kennford and the abandoned 1960s motel at the summit of Telegraph Hill would tell us of an optimistic era in which the challenge of the hill climb warranted rest or refreshment before or after the ascent, and the vacancy of this ruined plot would tell us of the marginal profitability of this autospace oasis in the early twenty first century. The crawler lane and Smokey Joe’s layby would also testify to the mechanical limitations of twentieth century motor vehicles. And analysis of changes to the road configurations would tell us material-tales of the cult of acceleration, the progressive excising of contour hugging bends to create a straighter road path, of the separation of northern and southern carriageways and of road widening to dual carriage. Meanwhile analysis of roadside litter, evolutions in lighting and ‘cat’s eye’ design, changes to crash barrier provisioning and the altered chemical composition of road marking pigments would all tell their own story (in the latter case, revealing our contemporary concerns with toxic substances in the disappearance of lead chromate pigment from the pigment of yellow road markings over the last decade).

But, much of this would require physical access to the highway, and would be ruled impracticable on cost, safety and disruption to the all-important flow. So what could archaeology add?

The drive by autoarchaeologist

“we can all be archaeologists of the contemporary past, because it is a critical inquiry into what it means to be ourselves” (2010: 12)

So write Harrison and Schofield in After Modernity, their contemplative manifesto for an archaeology concerned with making sense of the lived past – the past that exists within our present, because it has been lived by us. It is an archaeology that does not set out to encounter some remote Other, through its material remains, but rather the application of archaeology’s techniques (and its sensitivity to place’s flux through time) towards making sense of our own times, and our own sense of being.

Harrison & Schofield’s embrace of the subjectivity that lies at the heart of an attempt by us to study ourselves is refreshing, and positions their prescription for archaeology much closer to a phenomenological sensibility than we might expect of archaeologists, given that discipline’s efforts to align to scientific rigour and truth-seeking disposition built up during the twentieth century. Their prescription opens the prospect that all of us are capable of this critical enquiry (thus ‘autoarchaeology’), because the methodology is essentially a contemplative one:

“Thinking through and analysing the places we experience are normal processes that people go through often as a matter of course. And for us this seems to be the essence also of an archaeological approach. No digging required. Just observe, engage and think.” (70)

Indeed, Harrison & Schofield namecheck both Michel de Certeau and Georges Perec, in their avowal of the importance of studying our everyday existence – for:

“if we overlook the everyday, we overlook what it means to be us and we run the risk of remembering only the noteworthy, or the unusual” (11).

So, if we are being urged to co-opt archaeological methods to notice, and thereby remember the normal, the unremarkable, the prosaic – are we witnessing the point at which the archaeology of the contemporary past merges into something psychogeographic? I’m particularly thinking of Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘deep topography’ here, and his invocation to foreground everything, to background nothing. To scavenge in order to multiply, rather than to reduce our experience and its world to certain marked, salient points.

This may be pushing Harrison & Schofield’s argument too far – but it certainly opens up further bridgework between the academics and the lay meaning-makers roaming out there, enchanting and energising the supposedly prosaic phenomenon of the contemporary world like the A380 at Telegraph Hill, giving it a longer-than-normal stare, and glimpsing something else to remember, something else to take into the future as part of their own lived past. And there are plenty of people already out there doing precisely this, whether reminiscing about crawler lanes and old tramps in laybys or ‘researching’ the evolution of local road systems. In preparing this essay I’ve drawn upon the products of such labours, I’ve explored the A380 through the online resources assembled by a number of enthusiast groups – the Chudleigh History Group, the Devon Milestone Society, Torquay United Fans Forum, the ‘This is Exeter’ web-forum, Facebook, Wikipedia (on escape lanes, tarmacadam, the history of speed limits and Telegraph Hill), the BBC Domesday Project, Subterranea Britannica, CBRD (Chris’ British Road Directory) and the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts.

We are indeed all contemporary archaeologists.


Augé, M. (1995) Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. Verso: London.

Edensor, T. (2003) ‘M6 – Junction 19-16, Defamiliarizing the Mundane Roadscape’, Space & Culture, 6(2): 151-168.

Harrison, R. & Schofield, J. (2010) After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past, OUP: Oxford.

Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving places – Marc Augé, Non-places and the Geographies of England’s M1 Motorway’, Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4/5): 145-167

Shirley, R. (2015) Rural Modernity, Everyday Life and Visual Culture, Ashgate: Farnham

Subbrit (Subterranea Britannica) (2001) Royal Observer Corps – An on-line survey of the UK’s ROC and UKWMO Monitoring Posts at: http://www.subbrit.org.uk/rsg/roc/db/988399666.011001.html

Links for Smokey Joe reminiscences:


Image source: www.sabre-roads.org.uk – Junction_of_A380_and_A38,_Haldon_Hill_-_Geograph_-_1537146

What happens after? Thoughts on dark real estate, legal psychogeography and bunker-pooh.


Back in the bunker

So, I’m standing in the sparse canteen, sipping a glass of something fizzy. My neighbour turns to me and we exchange names. Then there’s a pause. She looks at me quizzically. ‘You’re Luke Bennett? You’re Luke Bennett?’ She looks like her mind is trying to catch up. There’s something about me that apparently doesn’t fit my name. She’s a cultural geographer, we’re in York Cold War Bunker and I’m amused. This isn’t the first time this has happened.

I have two arms, two legs, stand just over six feet tall and have no distinctive features. My once very dark brown hair is starting to look like I’ve been in a fight with a sack of flour. I’m middle aged and dress like it. I’m not sure what she was expecting me to look like (or be like), but from the work of mine that she’d read it seemed that she was expecting something different.

I then gleefully enhanced the mind-warp effect by explaining that I’m not a card-carrying geographer, but instead a slightly wayward environmental lawyer who spends his daylight hours teaching real estate students. To add the knockout blow I then introduced my SHU colleague, Sarah (a chartered surveyor) and explained how we are currently working on a project that explores the role of estate managers and estate agents within the ROC Post network, and that we’re spending most of our time looking at old Air Ministry estate management files, Land Registry title records and  landowner’s files. We think (and our bunker-acquaintance agreed) that this focus on the day to day forming, holding-together and dissembling of the ROC Post network is an angle that’s not been done before, and that it is worth doing.

Since finishing my PhD journey last month I’ve had lots of people coming up to me asking me one or both of the following: ‘So, what’s your next project then?’ and ‘so, are you going to leave SHU now?’. In reply to the second question is: ‘No, I’m not’ and the answer to the first is more complex. My PhD portfolio took me up to work published in 2013. I’ve carried on working on further projects since, and still have some of these in hand (and others in prospect). So, in that sense it’s just a case of keeping on going. I’m still interested in the same fundamental question (how we make, manage and encounter the built world through discursive-materialities) and I still prefer investigating this through case studies. Maybe there has been some subtle refocussing since 2013 – trying to pull the strands more closely together, and so recent work has tried to pull the legal geography and ruins stuff together (and I’m working on a very exciting funding bid on that, more on that when it’s not secret). Maybe also I’m getting a bit more historical in my focus – I’m finding the lure of archives an appealing one. I miss my days spent trawling through stacks of documents as a lawyer, looking for a smoking gun.

But I can’t seem to escape the bunker. My bunkerology is continuing via the book project (now entitled ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: Affect, Materiality and Meaning-making), which has been commissioned by Rowman & Littlefield International, and I have 12 contributors inputting to that.

As I strolled around No. 20 Group (York) ROC command bunker last night, all sorts of future angles proliferated. One study that I’d attempt, if I had more time and was even more dissident, would be on bunker-pooh. Yes, bunker-pooh. There’s a ‘sewage ejector’ machine in the York bunker. The sign indicated that this would – if the drains became blocked – expel excrement from the shelter, presumably at quite some speed and force. That certainly summons a strange image and related set of questions (was that machine the culmination of a technician’s life’s work?; was there a committee that identified the need for a shit-cannon?). I’ve tried (and failed) to encourage a fellow academic bunkerologist to write up his findings on problematic pooh at his bunker. He’s far more serious-minded than me though. His research identified that his bunker had revealed itself to the surrounding, outside, everyday world precisely because of its noxious emissions. That bunker’s existence wasn’t ferreted out by valiant oppositional detective work. It was disclosed by wayward excrement.

Anyway. You get the idea – wandering around a bunker you get to encounter all of the technology and logistics of basic human existence. The bunker thus becomes organic, in that it must have mechanical organs to duplicate/aggregate its human denizens’ bodies. It is like walking around inside a body.

The other thing (in a related, but non-scatological vein) that drew my attention was the bureaucratic architecture of resource depletion. This bunker was stocked for 30 days of operation. The commanding officer had a chart on the wall on which he would meticulously log how much food and other consumables were left. When these ran out the bunker’s role (and operability) would expire, along with its occupants too, unless they chose to leave and take their chances in the post-apocalyptic terrain beyond the entrance hatch. This place only offered temporary survival, and had no provision for beyond that. It was a place of pure function and duty (to co-ordinate ROC Post fall-out observations).

Dark Real Estate

Earlier this week, ‘Becoming Spatial Detectives’ my synoptic review of legal geography (co-authored with Antonia Layard) was published in the journal Geography Compass (it’s available open access here). If you want to know how we’d like legal geography to evolve, or you are curious about shipwreck cannibalism, we think it’s well worth a read.

By exploring the legal geography direction, and in other projects examining the fate of particular place-formations, I’ve found a way of re-embracing my law, and also ‘land management’ sides, but doing so within a context that is productive for the existing geographically-inclined topics that I’ve been exploring to date. Maybe such a conjunction needs a name, with Carolyn Gibbeson (another hybrid surveyor/cultural geographer) we’ve come up with ‘dark real estate’. My work has been on bunkers, Carolyn’s is on abandoned mental asylums, and a few years ago we wrote jointly about cemeteries. That makes it all sound like murder-house studies (an emergent sub-genre in the US), but I think its wider, less about studying stigma and more about examining redundancy and the awkwardness of afteruse for properties of a type that are too big (asylums) or too small (ROC Posts) to be either easily repurposed or erased. The intended analogy is with ‘dark tourism’ studies, but I’m also thinking of that more technical sense of ‘occult’ (occluded, hidden, not noticed). In some ways ‘grey real estate’ would be better (in terms of linking to ‘studies of everyday life’), but just as ‘dark real estate’ sounds a little too gothic, ‘grey real estate’ sounds self-defeatingly dull. So, ‘dark’ it is, for now at least.

Each of us (often separately, occasionally simultaneously) hangs out with geographers (and our work often makes more immediate sense to geographers and the wider humanities than to the econometrics dominated world of ‘real estate research’). We use qualitative research methods and cultural geographic concepts, and yet we’re also addressing questions that are (or we think should be) central to studies of how types of buildings (and the places that they form) persist (or don’t).

In pursuit of this question, I also seem to have fallen into the company of contemporary archaeologists recently (those who apply archaeological methods to the physical remains of recently abandoned places). I’m trying to work through the relationship between their near-present focus on built environment heritage, and our dark real estate near-past focus on passage of buildings through use-phases (and their ultimate arrival at redundancy). I’m speaking on this at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference in Sheffield in November, so it will be interesting to see how that goes, particularly as I will be building my talk around the (archive based) ROC Project.

Multiple faces

To return to the beginning.

Doing ‘dark real estate’, places us at the boundary between two (or more) very different disciplines, slightly orphaned, but also strangely empowered because our vantage point lets us be in both worlds, and to mediate between the two. This inevitably entails a degree of active management of the presentation of self (as Erving Goffman would put it). We adjust our register, and present slightly different faces as we engage with each audience. This is much easier to manage in hyperspace though (i.e. through this blog). In face to face encounters it seems to trigger those uncomprehending looks and someone frantically strives to pigeonhole us into one or other identity. It’s hardest when the diverse communities are all in the same room at the same time – and you are trying to address them all at once.

In my last post I wrote about this selectivity of ‘faces to the world’, and of how we never show (nor indeed ever could show) all of the versions of ourselves to the world in one go. We code-switch as circumstances require. This links to a key argument in my contribution to Tina Richardson’s edited collection Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, published earlier this week. My chapter is called ‘Incongrous steps toward a legal psychogeography’. In being part of this collection I align to a more arts and humanities milieu in style and methods, but my aim in doing so is actually to fly the flag for an attentiveness to the constitution of the built environment, the actual laws (rather than the ‘social’ laws that Guy Debord thought psychogeography could uncover). To achieve this (and to subvert the existing legal geography canon in doing so along the way) I take a passage from Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp (2012) and apply détournement to it – making Nick’s words work for me, taking them for a walk in a different direction (Nick and I have corresponded and he’s told me that the two passages my chapter works with were ‘passing thoughts’ in his text, so it’s me not he who builds them toward significance). Anyway, here’s an excerpt from my chapter:

“…Papadimitriou takes us – early on in his traverse along the escarpment of what is now the lost county of Middlesex – to ‘Suicide Corner’, a stretch of the A41 snaking out its path North West of London. He recounts for us a succession of fatal car crashes, and of the people, creatures and other matter caught up in each event that occurred there. In doing so he draws forth isolated incidents, from the pages of long forgotten local newspapers and memory, activating these incidental archives in order to show a reverberation of these events within the landscape itself.

At one point in his rumination Papadimitriou figures an anonymous “civil engineer working for the transport ministry” who “through eyeing the scraggy wood just to the north of the farmhouse, sees only camber, curve and how best to extend the planned M1 extension over this high ground from its present terminus” (Papadimitriou 2012, 20).

Papadimitriou captures in this passage how the task-orientated gaze of the engineer sees the topography as a set of logistical challenges, a puzzle to solve as he works through in his mind’s eye the most feasible path for his roadway. Papadimitriou’s description seeks to show how all other sensory inputs are blocked (or discarded) as irrelevant to this man’s purpose. He is standing there for a reason. He is harvesting the landscape for what he needs today. This applied gaze foregrounds certain features, and backgrounds all else. This spectator is in the engineering-professional equivalent of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 2008 – for whom flow is an optimal immersion in the moment, marked by both physiological and psychological change). He is portrayed as at one with his task, the landscape presenting to him as a specific “taskscape” (Ingold 1993, 1570) – the very perception of a landscape being formed by the requirements of the task to be carried out there.

And yet, Papadimitriou then importantly shows how even that intent focus is vulnerable to undermining by the assault of the disregarded ‘background’, as an irresistible reverie – or least a momentary noticing of other things – takes hold:

Momentarily distracted from his plans by the chirping of some unnamable night bird, he looks eastwards across the brightly lit Edgware Way, towards the high ground at Edgewarebury. Perhaps moved by some spontaneous memory of childhood holidays spent in the New Forest, his imagination lingers in the woods and fields like a slowly drifting plant community and then dissolves into ditches lined with black waterlogged leaves – a residue of previous summers – and the ghosts of dead insects (Papadimitriou 2012, 20).

I then chart how this connects to the material-affective turn in cultural geography (suggesting that it’s time to recognise psychogeography’s affinity with Non Representational Theory (Thrift 2008)) and then try to switch psychogeography’s attachment to an escapist ‘reverie’ back upon itself, thus:

“But, there is more work to be done. Whilst the landscape poet can happily leave us with a Romantic resurgence of ‘nature’ overwhelming instrumentalist man, psychogeography’s embrace of incongruity can – and should – be taken further. Psychogeography should equally be able to show how the workaday preoccupations of an instrumentalist science can invade a thought-stream of more affective purpose, showing how the ‘straight’ world reasserts itself, barging itself back to the foreground, in short how it re-colonizes consciousness and gaze. So for example, Papadimitriou’s engineer’s reverie – his tumble back to environment related childhood memories – is fleeting, itself inevitably undermined by the ‘day job’ returning to his consciousness, the ‘real world’ bringing him back down to earth, and back to the prosaic task in hand, as he turns away from reminiscence and resumes his survey of this countryside and its future road course.”

I then go on to suggest that Legal Geography’s recent interest in the pragmatics of everyday engagement with (and production of) place could provide the avenue for fulfilling Debord’s prescription that:

“Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” (Debord, 1955).

Elsewhere I try to outline the methodology that lies at the heart of this disciplinary-blurring intent (lining it to James Clifford’s (1988) ‘ethnographic surrealism’).

I’m really pleased with this essay (and slightly frustrated that for copyright reasons I can only put snippets here). But if dark real estate has a programme, if it has a methodology and if it has a sense of playfulness, it is here…


Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture – Twentieth Century ethnography, literature, and art. London: Harvard University Press.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. 2008. Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. London: Harper Perennial.

Debord, Guy. 1955. “Introduction to a critique of urban geography”. Les Levres Nues, 6. http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Ingold, Tim. 1993. “The Temporality of the Landscape”. World Archaeology, 25(2): 152-174.

Papadimitriou, Nick. 2012. Scarp: in search of London’s outer limits. London: Sceptre.

Thrift, Nigel. 2008. Non-representational Theory: Space, Politics and Affect. Abingdon: Routledge.

Apparently, I am now a Doctor: thoughts on straddling, changing and staying the same

berlin 052

As followers of this blog may have noticed, or guessed, I’ve been working my way towards a PhD by Publication. The journey has been seven long years of juggling this alongside my ‘daytime’ teaching and course management commitments. But – subject to some minor amendments to my synopsis – I’ve now reached the end of the road, having successfully defended my portfolio by viva yesterday before a panel of three examiners: Hilary Geoghegan (University of Reading – cultural geography), Paul Chynoweth (University of Salford – built environment law) and Angel Maye-Banbury (SHU – urban studies).

I’d anticipated that the biggest challenge would be persuading each of the examiners that the eight presented articles represented a coherent, singular programme. The articles ranged across ruminations on bunker-hunting, first-person psychogeography and law & policy analysis of certain place related safety anxieties. All – I argued – were concerned with eliciting the idea/thing relational logics of being in the built environment. That aspect went ok, and what actually proved to be the trickiest was being pressed to say which domain I was claiming my body of work to be anchored in. In short, was I claiming to be a legal scholar or a geographer? I didn’t really have a straight answer for that. My examiners squared the circle by foregrounding my eight step journey’s autoethnographic dimension: rationalising that across my eight article journey (2010 to 2013) I’d started out doing law-in-society type research, but by the end was doing cultural geography.

I was urged to say how I’d changed across that journey – how I stopped being a legal scholar and started being a cultural geographer, but I felt the need to resist that fix. I haven’t changed, I’ve just become a little more confident at being playful and candid about what makes me tick as a researcher. I’ve learned to make a virtue of being stuck on the fence with a foot in two quite different worlds. Yes, the published articles, appearing first in law and then in geography journals, show quite an extreme arc – from law-in-context analyst in 2010 through to landscape writer in 2013, and maybe I’d not fully grasped how wide that direction of travel would appear to someone (anyone) looking in.

But it always made sense to me – because I was living it, iteratively, in each small step adjusting from my former professional life to that of an academic. But we’re never just one thing – as my forthcoming chapter in Tina Richardson’s edited collection on contemporary British psychogeography will argue, professionals (engineers, lawyers, whoever) experience moments of reverie during their sober tasks and – conversely – funky urban explorers have their moments of taxonomic orderliness. We code switch as daily tasks require, and a fullsome account of either a lawyer or a landscape poet looking purposively at a place or its physical structures will be a sophisticated, action-oriented, blending of many different itensities and logics. But what, when and where you choose to reveal these multi-thoughts, realms and reasons is the key issue. My journey has been about infecting law with a sense of affect and affect with a sense of law, and I’ve become more explicit about that as the journey has progressed.

Anyway, I’ve been urged to put more of my ‘journey’ aspect into my synopsis and to boost the claim to disciplinary affiliation. The irony in all of this – of course – is that the case studies were all about delineating the internal practice-logics of particular communities. It’s fitting then that the journey closes with adjustments to enhance disciplinary fit.

When the synopsis has been revised I will make a copy available here. For now, here’s my abstract and a list of the publications that comprised my portfolio:

Interpretive communities at work and play in the built environment

Via a series of case study investigations this programme of studies applies the related concepts of ‘interpretive communities’ (Fish, 1980) and ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) to the contemplation of, and interaction with, a variety of seemingly mundane places and structures within the built environment (principally cemetery gravestones, trees, abandoned military bunkers and an industrial hillside). It takes from these and other related theorists a broadly social constructivist concern to show how discursive practices render phenomena known or noticed but also inflects these seemingly idealist notions with a materialist (and pragmatist) sensibility, namely that ideas give significance to matter, but that matter exists anyway, shapes human agency and can act back upon meaning-making. The programme explores and asserts the importance of this co-production, this matter/meaning entanglement (Barad 2007; Hodder 2012) by exploring the ‘as practiced’ imprint of law and hobbies upon the built environment. The concern is to show both the multiplicity and the robustness of particular ways of engaging with such structures and places amongst certain professional and recreational communities – and also of some of the structural similarities in their meaning-making. Thus we strangely find seemingly counter-cultural ‘urban explorers’ performing building surveying as a hobby, we find land managers projecting wild ‘learned’ anxieties onto nondescript (and perfectly safe) assets, and we find local communities excavating rich meaning – in play and reminiscence – in the detritus of a landfill site. The programme thus provides both a practical and theoretical contribution towards understanding how places and structures become feared (as liabilities) or loved (as treasures) and of the logics and processes by which this occurs.  It thus contributes to studies of the geographies of law, enthusiasm, exploration and heritage and to the sociologies of lay knowledge, law, organisation and also to material culture studies.

In closing I’d like to thank you, anonymous reader, for your encouragement along the way. Whilst not directly featured in any of my eight articles the lukebennett13 blog and my exploratory, confessional ruminations here have been a key part of the journey. I know you only as a Twitter handle or a Blog name. For all I know you may not be the gender, age or otherwise the person or collective that you claim to be. But your interest, support and/or critique has all helped me along the way.

Thank you.

Becoming Spatial Detectives: Legal (Psycho)Geography in the Naked City


“There are eight million stories in the Naked City”

This, the closing line to the 1948 film noir The Naked City – reminds us that cities are made of people, each of whom takes the built environment as a starting point and who, with a mixture of power, fate and (good or bad) fortune make their lives there, day-in and day-out. It reminds us that people inhabit the built environment, and bring it to life.

The phrase also, given its link to the film’s prosaic account of an incident, passing encounters with multiple municipal systems and the mundane vagaries of a law enforcement unit, gives us the idea of the city as an awkward, slippery place to govern, or to even get a handle on. Thus the city – even when naked, somehow stripped open to an all seeing analytical eye – is a place in which anything might happen. Here, what happened today is no guide to what might happen tomorrow, for whilst systems of order and arrangement are present, they are constantly struggling to keep pace with the multiplicity of the urban realm, its throngs of people and the diverse lives they are trying to live there, its busy flows of matter and the flux of its built form.

This “problem” of order, and of how a social (and spatial) justice is pursued within dense built environments, is a theme that underlies each of the five articles presented in a special issue of the International Journal of Law in the Built Environment on Law and Geography, published today and guest edited by me and Antonia Layard (University of Bristol). The assembled articles, including a longer version of this editorial, will be available open access until the end of May here.

The authors’ common concern in our special issue is to examine the ways in which (and to what degrees of success) people, their laws and their dwellings, streets, places of work and leisure shape (and in turn are shaped by) each other, and how through such interaction the built environment arises and is sustained.

The authors each enquire into a fundamental aspect of urban living – how the built environment and the law attendant to it provides for either shelter, sanitation or sex. In this quest to observe law at work as an important actor in the built environment, the authors roam squatter and relocation camps in South Africa and Central Asia, peer into Canadian street-side waste bins, observe “Sexual Entertainment Venues” across the United Kingdom and spend time with the angry residents of a PFI social housing project in London.

This edited collection of five articles, is the first of a number of outputs that will appear over the next few months, and which will each interrogate the idea of searching out law’s shadowy hand in the making and sustaining of environments. The next will be a commissioned article to be published later this year in the journal Geography Compass, entited ‘Legal Geography: Becoming Spatial Detectives’. This is another Bennett/Layard collaboration, and also plays with the detective/noir riff in its overview of the legal geography field, and its paths taken, and yet to be. There’s an early draft of our paper here on Antonia’s blog (the revised version will be Open Access when published).

Then towards the end of the summer (and I should stress – so as to avoid tainting Antonia’s serious scholarly repute – that this is a solo project of mine) comes my chapter entitled ‘Tentative Steps Towards a Legal Psychogeography’ which will form part of Tina Richardson’s edited collection Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography. That essay takes two passages from Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp and cross breeds it with legal geography’s own attentiveness to mundane spaces, and thereby lets loose a reckless hybrid.

In the meantime, my ‘Ruinphobia’ paper presented at the EU/SEEDS/University of Sheffield symposium in January 2015 on the reuse of empty spaces is now available, alongside the other presented papers and the discussant’s comments here.

And on 13 May, Antonia and I will each (separately) be presenting as invited speakers at the Queen Mary, University of London ‘Mapping Law Globally’ workshop. I will be continuing to plough the ‘law and ruins’ furrow, speaking to the following abstract:

How does law make place? Localisation, translocalisation and thing-law at the world’s first factory

“This paper explores how law is implicated in the formation of place, and how place in turn can shape law. It is an empirical explication of Latour’s call for researchers to study the global through its local instantiations, and thus to seek to show how:  “the world is … brought inside … places and then, after having been transformed there … pumped back out of [their] narrow walls” (Latour 2005: 179, italics in original). In pursuit of this the paper presents a case study focussed around the creation and circulation of a new form of place in the late eighteenth century, the industrial scale cotton mill. The study centres around the interplay of law and material formations at one originating site, Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills in Derbyshire. It shows how a diverse range of legal elements ranging across patent law, the Calico Acts and ancient local Derbyshire lead mining laws all helped to shape that place-form, its proliferation across the United Kingdom, and ultimately farther afield. In doing so the paper conceptualises processes of localisation, translocalisation and thing-law by which the abstractions of both place-forms and law elements become activated through their pragmatic local emplacement. Whilst the case study concerns 200 year old place-making machinations, many of the spatio-legal articulations of Arkwright and his opponents have a surprisingly modern feel about them. The paper therefore advocates the benefits of a longitudinal, historical approach to the study of place-making, and in particular, calls for a greater attentiveness in contemporary legal geography to law’s role in business-place formation and its use by site managers.”

Picture credit: stills from The Naked City (1948) dir. Jules Dassin, found at http://baron-wolf.livejournal.com/143395.html (the surrounding text there is in Russian, so I have no idea of the context)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,301 other followers