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

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

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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…

References

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

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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

NakedCity1948b

“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)

Staring at empty spaces – thoughts from the IoHR conference

DSCF9016 - Version 2 (1)

“…spaces conceal their contents by means of meanings,

by means of an absence of meaning

or by means of an overload of meaning…”

Henri Lefebvre (1989) The Production of Space, Blackwell: Oxford, p92

I spoke at the ‘Empty Spaces’ conference at the Institute of Historical Studies in London today. There were lots of great papers, and plenty to chew on. But rather than attempt a summary or synthesis of the presentations, I want to reflect on the Lefebvre quote above. I’m not sure how I’ve not spotted it before, but I’m glad now to be acquainted with this provocative statement.

The general drift of the papers today was towards a tentative conclusion that empty places don’t really exist (a similar point to my conclusion about non-places, see here). This is born out in two senses with the aid of Lefebvre’s quote above. First, in that to be anywhere (a space) there will always (except perhaps in cold, dark vacuum of outer space) be some contents, in other words that there will always be some matter there. But – following Lefebvre’s point – we won’t always notice that there is stuff there. This brings in the second point, our perception of those contents depends upon the amount of significance (i.e. meaning) we give to the place in which they occur. Thus, too much or too little meaning attaching to that place can blind us to what is actually there, giving it an appearance of emptiness.

And thus my thoughts turn to a windy Tuesday morning last month, and the march up a bronze coloured rough path, to an observation platform. Here I stood with my family, gazing into a deep void, the scoured remains of Anglesey’s Parys Mountain. In its late 18th century heyday this mine was the world’s largest producer of copper ore. But all that we actually noticed there that day was the fearsome wind, its thumping waves of force tugging aggressively at our clothes. Standing at the platform I knew that I was being humoured in this cultural pit-stop. I knew that this gale rendered our vantage point precarious and our visit to it especially short-lived. And I was right, the family mutiny was near instant and we quickly marched back to the shelter of our car.

But I suspect that even if there had been glorious, welcoming weather my family would have found the experience of staring into an excavated void only bearable for a few moments. This was a trip for Dad’s benefit, just another occasional and reluctantly indulged deviation from the normalities of family holidaying. Doubtless they felt that getting it out of the way would, well – get it out of the way.

Seeking out this place was of interest to me as part of ongoing research into meaning-making in abandoned quarries, but I’m sensing recently that my project has turned in upon itself. Being interested in why some might be interested in such places isn’t quite the same thing as being directly stirred myself by these places. Or maybe I still am. I think I’ve lost the ability to work out which is the driver now. I’m no longer sure why I’m seeking to be there, starring into a big hole.

This place – Parys Mountain – has an interpretation board, a device intended to stir interest in this seemingly empty, evacuated place, by pointing to the content that is still there (or to explain how it left here – and why). It also signals the interest of others – those who have taken the trouble to build the viewing platform, and deem a place like this worthy of attention. They, and it, seek to make this place ‘an attraction’ (in the broadest sense).

Reading the board (with difficulty – as the rain slid horizontally across it) some key dates, sepia photographs and an interpretive diorama sought to portray this mine as active, showing how this void came into being.

Keying this place to its history of productive use is a standard tactic, aimed at giving it sufficient meaning such that the contents here (the void – yes an odd form of ‘content’ – and the variegated rust coloured tiers of ground comprising this deep crater) can be noticed. But on this day the insistent intrusion of the wind – the excess of weather ‘information’ foisted upon us – meant we could not even start to appreciate this place. There was too much noise (semantic and actual).

And this dissonance pushed a question up towards the surface – something I’ve been trying to ignore the nagging insistence of in recent months. The question (a painful one for a history junkie like me) is: “why does it matter that this barren place was once this, or once that? Why do we need to know and what in us does it help us to know?”

Perhaps if I lived in the constant shadow of this strange fractured hillside it would help my sense of dwelling to know this history. But I’m just a tourist passing by, what purpose does knowing this serve for me? From deep inside, my reflex answer is “we all need to know where things come from – we need to be grounded in the world, aware of the processes that make us and things we depend on”. But then a counter thought responds: “maybe, but why do we need to know where copper used to come from?”

In the ensuing self-conversation (which I’m sure must exhibit strange muttering and facial twitches erupting into the proximity of my family members) my thoughts link to that era of amateur industrial archaeology of the 1950s and 1960s. The (attempted) valorisation of local industrial sites like these is very much a product of those times. But what will happen when that generation has passed? Who will curate these sites then – managing that Goldilocks challenge of getting the temperature of the meaning-making just right for this industrial porridge?

Perhaps this will become a dying art – as curatorial attention of succeeding generations passes on to other nostalgic objects – and perhaps ultimately someone, somewhere will decide that the time has come to turn the practices and places of industrial memorialisation into meta-referential museums dedicated to preserving the lost arts of the industrial heritage industry itself.

Make, Use, Abandon, Repeat – re-mixing Real Estate and Archaeology

I was invited to give a guest lecture at University College London yesterday, in the hallowed halls of the Institute of Archaeology.

Here are my slides. They remix elements from some other recent talks I’ve given, but weave in a preoccupation with the circularity of time (Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence) or at least the circularity of certain temporal processes as they occur in the built environment.

To make things fun along the way there are also various encounters with Tom Cruise, Ouoboros the self-consuming serpent, The Simpsons and some mildly confessional stuff from me about wearing three hats, self-defining as a (dark) real estate researcher and trying to work out the relationship between recursivity in individual biography, and that played out – Ouoboros-like – in the fates and fortunes of the built environment.

All together now, ‘Eat, Sleep, Rave, Repeat.’

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Drilling into the void: a miner’s life, a small box and some papers

miners_certificate

“History is the record of […] self-production; it is the activity of a historical being

recovering the past into the present which anticipates the future.”

Peter Preuss (1980), Foreword to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 

On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Hackett: Cambridge

The afternoon entails some effort, contorting between small galleries and the small piles of remaining valuable matter strewn there. Eyes and knowing hands reach into these spaces to inspect the stuff arrayed there. An instinctive evaluation is made, and then the search moves on. Or otherwise something catches the eye and more active thought amplifies this assay. A crouch or stoop is made towards something. Thoughts start connecting, an object is foregrounded and given attention. It provokes a desire to make it fit – with previous encounters with similar things, with families of things and with ideas that attach to such things.

The thing here, is a small lidless cardboard box containing a handful of small yellowing pieces of paper, portrait photographs and a couple of old Christmas cards. The box is positioned prominently, atop a low coffee table, accompanied by other items offered up here for sale, in this antiques market staged in an old warehouse. Many of these items look like they have come straight from the house clearance van. It is hard to see who would want to buy much of this stuff, it is not garish enough to be retro or ironically kitsch. It is just stuff that people lived their everyday lives with during the last century, and for reasons best known to them – whether fondness, poverty or inertia – carried with them through to the last days of their lives, and the visit a few days later of that battered white van that comes to take our stuff away, after the black hearse has already taken our bodies.

The banality of this battered box and its random seeming paper stuffing intrigued me – but only in a very low key way. I delved tentatively, looking first at the greetings cards and the photos. They were connected. The cards contained photos of a young boy, giving a time sequence, 10, 13, 15?: it was hard to tell. The clothes remained constant – an inter-war short back and sides and dishevelled shirt and jumper – only the facial features hinted at a passage of time, as the boy’s face elongated and became more taut across the years. Next I opened up one of the folded slips of paper: a school report. Some good marks, one endorsed ‘top marks in the class’, but with the summation beneath urging this pupil to work faster.

By this stage I had realised I was drilling into someone’s life, as presented by this collection of life-defining paper-based moments. But I was still feeling only mildly intrigued, this was still an idle rummage. I carried on. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for – or, indeed whether I was actually in pursuit of anything (although inevitably a base urge to resolve this stuff to a narrative or other framing was in play).

The next papers I unfurled revealed this boy to have become a miner at a colliery in West Yorkshire, working there in the 1960s and 1970s. The paperwork was a variety of certificates and working permits issued by the National Coal Board to this man, charting his progression through a variety of qualified roles within the mine. These slips of paper were pre-printed, with gaps filled in by the authoritative fountain pen strokes of a manager, the application of that ink to that paper having magical effects – our box-man became a certified shot firer upon the completion of that form on 23 January 1976, he had also become a special person when handed his morphia licence sometime thereafter, along with its attendant pocket-sized laminated instruction sheet and their vital instruction for navigating that fine line (underground, in the dark and after something terrible had happened there) of life-saving and life-taking.

It seemed, then – that I was peering into someone’s ‘important things’ box. I grew up with the convention that you have a place somewhere in your home where you keep all of your important items, and those items are your ‘papers’. Perhaps you have such a box too, hidden somewhere – secreted in the modern day equivalent of a Priest’s glory hole or a Saxon cache somewhere in the fabric of your house. Or maybe it sits in plain view, a long emptied cereal packet, now the repository of your very identity and being. Our entry into a digital age has perhaps reduced the centrality of such still-in-use time capsules, but we still need our ‘papers’ to remind us who we are, were we’ve come from and to tell others who we are too.

Much may remain of the memory of this miner elsewhere – indeed, I don’t even know that he is dead. But the occurrence of his important things box in an antiques market suggests that has possessions no longer have their owner to cherish and protect them.

Staring into the box at what this person had selected for safekeeping there, and at the oft-folded creases of these treasured documents, emphasised for me this link between building a life, becoming through – and with – ‘important’ stuff and in particular the role of ‘papers’ as a way of regulating both memory and capacity.

This is particularly true of the highly regulated underground spaces of a coal mine. The Mines & Quarries Act 1954 very-much embodies a mid-20th century world of military-like ranks and chains of command, (very) specific demarcation of roles and competencies. It created (or represented – the distinction is actually a difficult one to draw) a world of tasking and verification that was based upon the carrying and presenting of slips of paper.

The other documents in the box where also mining related – memos and works specifications for the refitting of obscure sounding machinery, their lists of serial numbers and their precise plotting of works-to-be-done upon them. Why were these kept? Perhaps our miner saw these projects as the defining heights of his working life; or perhaps these were the jobs where it all went wrong, and he lived in fear that some blame would eventually beat its path to his door and he would then need this paperwork to fend it off. Or perhaps these where his favourite machines, the ones he felt attached to, perhaps they comprised his ‘home territory’ underground. This stuffed box did not say. Perhaps the reasons were all these and more, or none. All that is certain is that these papers were in that box.

In this box we seem to find what mattered to this miner – we also see that his job was essentially about knowing how to interface, how to fit into the mine as a system, which parts of it he could visit, which materials he could have a relationship with and in what circumstances and for what purposes.

Encountering this box has a resonance for me because in a number of recent projects I’ve been looking at how meaning and material relations are constituted in the seemingly empty and/or abandoned spaces of mineral workings. As part of this I’ve previously written on climber/landowner attitudes to an empty slate quarry in North Wales for Popular Anthropology here, about community appropriation of an excavated Sheffield hillside (Screehere) and last week I gave a reading of my Beer Quarry cave piece (see an early version here) to colleagues at a SHU event, as a dry run for presenting it at a conference on Empty Spaces at the Institute of Historical Research (UCL), in London on 10 April 2015 (details here). The abstract for my contribution to that event is:

‘History in the void: narrating past, place and materiality in an abandoned quarry’

Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University

This paper will explore the ways in which meaning is brought to a quarried void in southern England. Prior to its closure in the 1920s the site had been a source of fine building stone for over 2,000 years, that rock quarried in turn by Romans, Anglo Saxons, Normans and subsequent generations. The site is now a small scale tourist attraction, with enthusiastic local guides taking visitors below ground and into the emptiness of the evacuated strata. According to a guide’s deft narration of the pasts of this site this place is rich with history and yet it is also a place at which there is nothing to see. This is a tour of a void, the only meaning here is that cast into this emptiness by the interpreters of this place. This presentation will examine the narrative and performative practices by which a sense of the labour and lives once lived here are summoned, and also how a sense of the materiality of this place is necessarily also framed and presented. In doing so the analysis will consider – after Raphael Samuel (1977), Laurajane Smith (2006) and Tim Strangleman (2013) – the motivations of post-industrial homage at sites of former (hard) labour, and the sense in which historical-materialist and neo-materialist (and post human) accounts of the physicality of our world and our relationship to it collide in such places. The presentation will outline the processual understandings of mineral working, its flows and absences found in the recent work of Bruno Latour (2005), Tim Edensor (2013) and Tim Ingold (2010) in social theory, cultural geography and anthropology respectively, and in the accounts of human-matter entanglement advanced by Ian Hodder (2012) and Bjornar Olsen (2013) in archaeology.

Image source: http://www.suttonbeauty.org.uk/suttonhistory/clockfacecolliery/index_files/miners_certificate.jpg

(N.B. this image is from a google search and unrelated to the box contents examined above – but is indicative of the kind of thing that was in the box)

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