Feminist Legal Geographies – RGS 2016 Call For Papers

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Feminist Legal Geographies 

Call for Papers: Royal Geographical Society with IBG Annual Conference, London, 30 August-02 September 2016

Session Conveners: Katherine Brickell, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London & Dana Cuomo, Center for Health & Wellness, University of Washington

Since the 1980s, legal geographical research as a trans-disciplinary project has drawn attention to the binding connections between law and space. While recent publications have sought to ‘expand’ the spaces of law studied (Braverman et al, 2014) and explore spatialities of injustice precipitated and/or alleviated through law (Delaney, 2015), in these and many other works in the field, sensitivity to difference and the gendered character of law, its (everyday) material sites, and discourses are limited. By bringing together interdisciplinary scholars whose research examines the themes of law, geography, gender inequality and power, the sessions aim to raise the profile of feminist legal geographies and feminist legal theory in the ‘mainstream’ field of legal geographies. Abstracts are invited which provide cutting-edge research in the Global North and/or South. Themes could include (but are not limited to):

  • Gender differentiated dynamics, experiences and outcomes of law
  • Notions of public/private in law
  • Gender-based violence
  • Gender and the body
  • Marriage and family
  • Reproduction and parenting
  • Workplaces, wages and welfare
  • Law and political struggle
  • Advocacy
  • Active and intimate citizenship
  • International law, courts and tribunals
  • Norm production in law
  • Legal identity
  • Legal pluralism
  • Feminist legal methods and methodologies

We are looking for titles and abstracts of 300 words to be sent to both session conveners by Monday 6th February 2016 (katherine.brickell@rhul.ac.uk/ danacuomo@gmail.com)
 References 

Braverman, I., Blomley, N., Delaney, D., & Kedar, A. 2014. Expanding the Spaces of Law: A Timely Legal Geography. Stanford University Press: Stanford.

Delaney, D. 2015. Legal Geography II: Discerning Injustice. Progress in Human Geography. Online before print.

 

(Image source: www.securitysafetyproducts.co.uk )

Setting to work on a modern ruin: investigating the future of St Peter’s Seminary at Kilmahew

“There is no place like it, on these islands, for the mutual battery of multiple forces, for the thumping, pummelling and attrition of creation and destruction, the incessant beating of weather, vandals and arson against rocks of obstinate architecture. It is like watching medieval knights club each other to death yet stay standing. It is a mud-wrestle of culture and nature.”

Rowan Moore, The Guardian, 17 January 2015

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St Peter’s-Kilmahew (SPK) located in Argyll, Scotland, is a place rich in narratives of human settlement. Originally a sacred landscape associated with an early Christian saint, then the woodland demesne of a medieval castle-keep, during the mid-19th century SPK was transformed into a country estate, with an extensive arboretum and pleasure-gardens encircling a baronial mansion-house. In the 20th century, the entire property was acquired by the Roman Catholic Church, and its designed landscape re-centred on a newly-built seminary complex. St. Peter’s, the striking Modernist building, opened in 1967 to critical acclaim, operated for fifteen years, and was then abandoned by the Church. Since the 1980s, the entire site has fallen ever deeper into a condition of charismatic ruination. The seminary structure remains iconic, internationally celebrated but controversial; it has been subject to repeated calls for complete demolition and campaigns for full restoration; but until very recently, SPK has frustrated all such attempts to ‘fix’ its future.

However, since 2010, detailed plans for occupying the site as a ‘transitional ruin’ have been developed by NVA, Scotland’s leading public arts charity (www.nva.org.uk). Presently, SPK is being readied for its latest transition: from a ruin into its inverse: a construction site. NVA’s radical plan to stabilise the ruined structure and open out the abandoned estate landscape has been granted £3 million by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with an additional £0.5 million backing secured from Creative Scotland. Over the next six years, dereliction will be thrown into reverse, with SPK becoming simultaneously charismatic ruin and construction site. Phased works are scheduled to begin in 2016, with completion projected for 2022 when SPK will be fully accessible for public, educational and artistic use, as a stabilised ruin and redesigned cultural landscape.

I’m excited to announce that I’m part of an AHRC grant bid submitted earlier this week seeking funding for a three year study of the stabilisation and repurposing of this iconic site. The intended project would enable a multi-disciplinary team of researchers to conduct a ‘live’ study of the transformation of this ruin site into a future facing community, arts and heritage venue. The bid is led by Ed Hollis (Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art), supported by Prof Hayden Lorimer (Historical & Cultural Geography, University of Glasgow) and me (Law & the Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University).

The project aims to explore how approaches derived from arts and humanities research can productively valorise sites in transition, opening up areas which are conventionally screened away or fenced off from public view. The project’s key concerns are:

  • how can processes of ruin-transformation can be better understood, and more widely engaged with?
  • how might the notion of a site’s ‘closure’ during building work be challenged via the collaborative design of experimental landscape interventions?
  • how can this be done within a context of ensuring the safety of all concerned?

This investigation will be pursued via three interlinked work packages, that reflect the three disciplinary perspectives of the investigators:

  1. What are the risks surrounding processes of material change in relation to human health and safety and how are these governed? How do common law and/or legislative frameworks construct this risk and liability, and how might policy be developed to allow more scope for public access to heritage sites in transition?
  2. How can artists, designers and architects work collaboratively with heritage sites that are in process? How can creative interventions harness processes of change, engage communities, and challenge regulatory frameworks to revise traditional models of heritage preservation predicated on the prevention of material change?
  3. How do stakeholders in historic sites engage in the contested processes of redevelopment and ruination? For example, through participation in decision-making, public debates, community art and archiving, acts of protest, remembrance, forgiveness and forgetting?

The project will explore these questions simultaneously, but with high degree of cross-over, as (for example) our findings on risk and liability influence the commissioning of the onsite creative interventions and vice versa. Thus through multiple methods of investigation, and through its combination of ethnographic, archival, design and regulatory perspectives and its engagement with local community, professional and policy stakeholders the project will develop a rich range of outputs, spanning scholarly collaborations, creative commissions and a practice-focussed interpretive toolkit, with all of these aimed at inspiring and facilitating  more creative, and inclusive, engagements in the future at other sites in transition.

In pursuit of this innovation and our desire to build interpretive common ground and practice for sites in transition, this project will be able to draw upon the experience and perspectives of a diverse range of stakeholders who have already affiliated to the bid, including NVA, Scottish Heritage, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and  the former head of the CBI’s Health & Safety Panel. Through these links our project will uniquely well placed to broker innovative dialogue between publics, creative practitioners (both of whom would like to access sites-in-process) and construction managers whose instinctive reaction (based on a certain overly anxious perceptions of risk and liability) is to close them off to all access.

Our bid presents the SPK works programme as a unique opportunity to investigate in an interdisciplinary, multi-stakeholder,  live and longitudinal way both how we deal with the emergent ruins of modernist heritage, and how we might better reconcile the difficulties of providing public access to heritage sites which are, inevitably, often in a perpetual state of reconstruction and repair.

If our bid is successful, the research project will commence towards the end of 2016.

 

Images credits: images from:

(1) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/jan/17/the-extraordinary-ruins-of-st-peters-seminary-near-glasgow-in-pictures;

(2) http://nva.org.uk/artwork/kilmahew-st-peters/

(3) http://nordarchitecture.com/projects/kilmahew-st-peters/

with originators credited there.

 

 

 

Vibrant voids: how some places ignore you, and others trip you up

Felimngham - Leominster

“The bunker is not a trace or shadow as it is present and also part of the foundation of an office building, and it does not haunt the landscape since, as a shelter, it was never meant to be seen in the first place” (Bartolini, 2015: 204)

Writing of a Mussolini era bunker beneath the streets of Rome, Nadia Bartolini incisively ponders the nature of such concealed places and of the awkwardness of attempting to subject them to the light of day. As she puts it, “the concrete bunker if visible, would meld with its concrete surroundings” (203). The subterranean bunker then exists as background, it is unexcavatable, it is its own container and “there is no need to disentangle and excavate it from the earth to archive it elsewhere” (200). In short, it is only a fortified hollowing out, it is an absence of ground within it, yet defined by the mass of earth around it. Whether as bunkers, cellars, crypts, tombs or chambers these subterranean places are defined only by their capacity to shelter bodies and/or valued objects. Without such contents, these voids are simply empty spaces edged with concrete.

Bartolini’s article seeks to take issue with (or at least to refine) Jane Bennett’s (2010) Vibrant Matter thesis, by which analysists are encouraged to pay more attention to materiality per se, in order to appreciate the intrinsic qualities of matter, and of their effects in the world separate from human cultural projections upon them. Bennett’s book sets out to illustrate the vibrancy of matter (and of the eco-political implications of this) via a series of case studies on the vitality of stem cells, foodstuffs and electrical power networks. But Bartolini questions the vibrancy of concrete and of the Rome bunker formed from it, and through examining the less-than-expected potency of an art show staged within the Rome bunker, argues that Bennett’s vibrancy thesis does not adequately account for the static existence of this ‘dumb brute’ matter. She concludes that without curation (an interpretive provisioning of the space of the art show) “the bunker is only a mass of concrete, a structure whose inherent materiality does not do anything in its fixed, solid state” (197).

And yet, there is one thing that the Rome bunker does. It endures. It is obstinate. It refuses to eliminate itself. It perpetuates its contained subterranean void. It endures without us. It is a chamber that sits and subsists, a repository for stale air, steady temperature and stillness (and home to a few spiders). And it remains true to the original design intent – to “immobilize time and space” (197), but now for its own sake, rather than for any purpose of human security.

But this is the destiny of any underground chamber – to lay there partly- or wholly un-known, perhaps existing in a dimension too small for human presence, to be perceived only remotely through the enquiring eye of an industrial endoscope, a bright light momentarily illuminating an otherwise constant darkness, like the torch flash of a deep sea diver, momentarily glimpsing another world in the enveloping darkness of the deep.

Both Paul Virilio and Gaston Bachelard have pointed to the atavistic, phenomenological qualities of such confined spaces and their reverberation through culture and psyche. These places take us closer to the underworld, and for Bachelard, the basement is the scene of our subconscious, a place perhaps to visit occasionally to in order to reconnect with our deeper drives, but it is not a place for us to dwell within.

Bartolini’s point is not to deny concrete its ability to influence the world, or to extend its reach into our world, but rather to argue that further delineation of how particular types of matter acquire a vibrancy. Her argument is that, in the heritage sector, we cannot entirely reject the role for cultural projection. If Mussolini’s bunker is dark, it is because someone left the lights off.

At one level Bartolini’s call is for a (re)acknowledgment of the important role of cultural projection within the framing of bland, function-formed places like these. She is challenging a suggestion that all matter is equally vibrant, and pointing out in that in the mundane built environment there is work to do – our work to do – to ascribe meaning to this space and its material composition. As she puts it: “a concrete container located underground is not equivalent to identifying the structure as ‘Mussolini’s bunker’” (207) – more is required (from us) for that to occur. This chamber doesn’t know itself as that human / heritage place (obviously it doesn’t know itself as anything, but indulge me a little here). All this place is, is a meshwork of elements held together by an interlocking set of forces that co-produce the stasis of that place. The ceiling can’t surrender to gravity because its downward fall is thwarted by the walls. If this place knows anything it is how to continue being in its current form.

So, this is what I took from Nadia’s article. But it was then odd to find myself in conversation with her at this week’s Historic Towns Forum conference. We ended up talking about dark real estate and the agency of material place formations (my phrase not hers). In our discussion Nadia argued in favour of some places having an intrinsic (i.e. an “it’s in the walls”) ability to haunt and provoke visitors. She illustrated her argument by pointing to the unsettling feelings triggered by standing within an industrial pottery kiln, the darkness, lack of edges and lines, the strange smells and the uneven floor. “But what if you worked everyday in that environment?” I asked, “it wouldn’t feel a strange place then would it?” And then I tried to push home an argument that any such strange affecto-material feelings are a product of our unfamiliarity, or of our cultural inference rather than of the place-matter itself.

But then I stopped. I’d suddenly remembered the strong feelings that morning as I’d walked into the meeting room that served as the venue for this conference. A London law practice’s building, all there was elegant clean magnolia walls, black marble topped dark lustrous cherry veneer cabinets and corporate chrome legged chairs, all bathed in beams of extra bright recessed halogen lights. Stepping into that chamber I’d been primed, and it only took the chink of a tea cup nestling back into its saucer, to tumble me back into an older, once familiar place-world.

So my conclusion was that it’s both: yes, it is us who make the meaning for the spaces we enter, but we are not always in control of that meaning-making. We can be provoked into doing so by the triggers and traps that rooms set for us. And yes, sometimes those triggers are engineered there to produce intended effects by curators or interior designers, but sometimes the effects are serendipitous: the chance meeting of a meaning brought with you, a thing lurking there that has no sense of you and a resultant feeling produced by that encounter.

 

References

Bartonini, N. (2015) ‘The politics of vibrant matter: Consistency, containment and the concrete of Mussolini’s bunker’, Journal of Material Culture, 20 (2), 191-210.

Image – Stephen Felmingham (2009) Leominster 6/31

Why pity inanimate objects? Posthumanism, people and pebbledash.

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“…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…

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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…

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

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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.

References

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:

http://torquayfansforum.co.uk/thread/3476/unknown-person

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

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