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

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“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

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“…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

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“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)

RGS-IBG 2015 – CFP – ‘Producing Law, Making Space, Mobilising Subjects’

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After very successful sessions in 2013 and 2014, and due to other commitments, Antonia Layard and I are taking a break from running a legal geography session at this year’s RGS-IBG annual conference. But if you’d like to carry on the legal geography conversation at RGS-IBG 2015, you might like to consider supporting the following session call by Alex Jeffrey and colleagues copied below.

Meanwhile our jointly edited ‘Law and Geography’ special issue of the International Journal of Law in the Built Environment will be published in April 2015 and we’re currently finalising our ‘Spatial Detectives’ synoptic paper for Geography Compass.

Luke & Antonia


“RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, Exeter, 2-4 September 2015

Producing Law, Making Space, Mobilising Subjects

Convenors: Romola Sanyal (London School of Economics), Fiona McConnell (University of Oxford), Alex Jeffrey (University of Cambridge)

Sponsored by the Political Geography Research Group

This session will chart explore emerging perspectives in the relationships between law and space. Energised by work within critical legal studies (Fitzpatrick, 2001; Valverde, 2003), political anthropology (Latour, 2010) and legal geography (Braverman, et al. 2014), the session will provide the space to explore conceptual and methodological meeting points within these diverse fields of social science, while remaining attentive to the possible political implications of law’s spatiality.

We are particularly interested in encouraging work that examines the spatial nature of legal practice and the legal nature of spatial practice, the import of materiality and evidence, the significance of embodiment and questions of gender, the circulation of legal knowledge globally, and the enrollment of purportedly non-legal actors within legal processes.

While we are keen to encourage a wide range of theoretical and methodological reflections on these issues, we are keen to focus in particular on the following themes:

1) Production of law: materiality, everyday life, origins, archives

2) Transmission of law: evidence, performance, legitimacy, legal mobilities

3) Violence of law: exclusions, erasures, silences, bracketing

4) Rights of law: mobilisations, insurgencies, legal shadows

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words to all three panel organizers: Romola Sanyal: r.sanyal@lse.ac.uk, Alex Jeffrey: asj38@cam.ac.uk, and Fiona McConnell: fiona.mcconnell@ouce.ox.ac.uk, by Tuesday 10th February 2015.

Please be sure to include your name, institution or affiliation and email address in the email.


Dr. Alex Jeffrey
Email: asj38@cam.ac.uk
Web:http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/people/jeffrey/

Image credit: http://www.e-architect.co.uk/england/exeter-university-forum-project

Collapsing the sky / closing the building: some thoughts on the unbecoming of places

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Yesterday afternoon, at 4pm, at the moment that Matthew Flintham was searching in Newcastle for ways to materialise the UK’s militarised airspaces, thousands suddenly found themselves stuck to the ground, as the virtual-but-real commercial transit spaces normally mapped out across the sky by the UK’s National Air Traffic Service’s mainframe disappeared. A glitch caused these air lanes to temporarily vanish – and for a moment the sky ceased to be a humanised place, it became undefined and uninhabitable: it collapsed as a place.

An hour or so earlier I’d also been speaking at the University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place symposium– giving an account of Marc Augé’s ‘non-places’ thesis. On one level it’s easy to dismiss his ideas: with an ‘of course non-places don’t exist, wherever we inhabit we bring meaning to, a place we are in can’t be meaningless’ assault. But rather than go for the obvious, I highlighted some of the nuances of Augé’s arguments, and tried to show their usefulness.

Fittingly (for yesterday’s conjunction of events) Augé writes at length about airports as the epitome of (nearly) non-places, framing them as places of pure transit, the arrangement of such hubs simply being to facilitate the passage of persons between other – meaningful – places (the place that they want to leave; the place that they want to go).

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For Augé a non-place is an ideal-type, and extremity unlikely to be encountered in pure form. It marks out a spectrum: non-place at one end and the mostly richly connected-to space at the other.  The extent of a place’s existence can thus be measured (somehow) by reference to the amount of engagement/meaning given to it by the user/dweller, and (for Augé) specifically in how ‘based’ (i.e. grounded) in that localised site the dweller actually is. Augé’s argument is essentially one aimed at his fellow anthropologists and their fondness for equating place with community attachment to a group-defining locality (something he styles ‘anthropological place’). He argues that with the rise of globalising forces and technologies, modern life (which he styles supermodernity) entails weaker and more individualised engagements with place, thus we pass through rather than dwell in places.  The static and certain communities and localities that we used to be quintessentially based in, now have a less powerful, less directive role in our identities.  He concedes that such ‘weak’ places are not like the stable bounded worlds of the ‘primitive’ communities that his colleagues might ordinarily focus their studies upon. But he urges them to also study the anthropology of supermodernity – and precisely in order to understand how increasingly individualised meaning making still manages to construct stabilised ‘singularities’ (and thereby maintain at least some localised semblance of place and notions of what to do there).

If we accept the impossibility of a pure non-place, we are left with the challenge of understanding weak, or individualised (and/or commodified) places, and to grapple with the conditions under which they come into being, subsist and die. This links back to Matthew’s work on visualising military airspaces – for they ‘come and go’ during the course of the day, and few are in existence 24/7. They are also ‘creations’ (places) known only to their makers (the military and NATS) and users (pilots). By they are vitally important to these people, even though they are near non-places to passengers who are transiting through them. Likewise (if we return to the ground), at airports the passengers have a very weak place attachment to the airport – it is simply a means to an ends – but what about the staff who work there? A cleaner, for example, will have a very intimate and meaningful task-driven attachment to the washrooms and their surfaces that they must regularly inspect and traverse with their mop and sponges.

Even in supermodernity places are still made meaningful by people in symbolic and physical interaction with portions of the world – sometimes those meanings are strong, aggregated notions that excite and direct action. Sometimes the meaning is individualised, improvised and/or a product of personal biography or events. And the meaningfulness of places changes moment by moment. If Augé is proposing a place/non-place spectrum, and we view this as a dial then in the places of supermodernity the needle is constantly moving – and each of us has our own dial. We cannot speak about any place being a non-place per se, for all times and all people.

These thoughts were helpfully set in train by Emma Fraser’s talk in Sheffield earlier in the week. Emma gave a talk on ‘Salvaging the urban obsolete’ as part of UCLAN’s In Certain Places programme, talking of her ongoing work at the University of Manchester upon ruination and people’s engagement with ruins. Emma posited that a ruin is never static, and that to watch a ruin is to watch a process of physical and social dissembling – thus that is an observable process of place unbecoming, as both matter and meaning irresistibly decay.

Emma’s talk paved the way for artist Victoria Lucas’ film After (2013), the result of her residence in the Castle Market complex, Sheffield’s ultra-Modernist 1960s markets, now facing demolition. As Emma observed, the moment that ruination starts is rarely witnessed by an analyst. Victoria’s short film (below) thus helpfully (and evocatively) captures the early to mid-stages of the unbecoming of the markets as a place-for-many. But it never becomes a non-place, because it remains populated by security guards – and for a time by Victoria – with both bringing a sense of place and activity to their ongoing engagements with it. But we do witness part of the material and social process by which ‘closure’ of the market triggers a collapse of this place into ruinspace.

Victoria Lucas (2013) After

And finally, back to Newcastle. Alistair Bonnett is speaking, reading extracts from his book Off The Map. He draws forth two types of non-places, which at first glance don’t appear to have any connection. First the intentional non-places of rendition and other ‘black-ops’, the places that the state does not want you to notice. These – says Alistair – are ‘redacted’ places. There is an art to hiding such facilities ‘in plain sight’, and a lot of effort is expended in achieving it. Matthew Flintham’s presentation was also addressing this – the ubiquity of inaccessible (to bodies and/or comprehension) militarised landscapes. Then Alistair points to banal, non-functional rump-spaces, that have ‘non-place’ character because they have no clear purpose, such as undercrofts beneath motorway flyovers. But these get colonised by psychogeographers or rough sleepers, so even these don’t fit the non-places ideal type.

There is some tension in applying the ‘non-places’ label to both the ultra-top secret and the ultra-banal. But I was aiming for a middle point in including bunkers in my own talk – the bunkers I’m concerned with are ubiquitous bunker-ruins. They are no longer secret or access-restricted. I don’t deny that secret and dark places still exist in operational mode, but it is the ‘what happens after’ question that intrigues me. Abandoned bunkers – and I’m thinking here of the national array of 1,500 Royal Observer Corps fallout monitoring posts, are often of the ‘hidden in plain sight’ type, but now that hiddenness is not maintained by anyone. So, they are just ‘in plain sight’ and available for those who wish, to project their meaning onto them. They are not non-places, they never were. They have always been meaningful to some people (although ‘who’ these people are has changed over time). And this meaningfulness is not entirely individualised – it is developed, shared and sustained through ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger, 1998) and their ways of doing, knowing and seeing a bunker.

If we can get past the popular view that Augé’s book consigns certain types of places to a negative or meaningless ‘non-place’ status, we can find that actually it helpfully advocates the worth of studying how types of places fade in and out of notice, and – by extension – what representational and/or pragmatic logics are at play at any particular moment of a localised built structure’s material life, as it moves along its journey of unbecoming.

Photo credit

STANTA battleground airspace in East Anglia – photo and 3D model by Matthew Flintham

Links

Marc Augé (1995) Non-Places: an introduction to [an anthropology of] supermodernity, Verso: London (Trans. John Howe) [NB: for the 2009 second edition of the English translation the words ‘an anthropology of’ is dropped from the subtitle, obscuring the original audience that Augé was directing his argument to]

University of Newcastle’s Cultural Significance of Place Interdisciplinary Research Group: https://csopnu.wordpress.com/past-events/

University of Central Lancashire’s In Certain Places programme: http://incertainplaces.org/after-castle-market-salvaging-the-urban-obsolete/

Matthew Flintham: http://parallel-landscapes.blogspot.co.uk/

Emma Fraser: http://statiscape.wordpress.com

Victoria Lucas: http://victorialucas.co.uk/

A review of Alistair Bonnett’s off The Map book: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/17/off-the-map-alastair-bonnett-revieB

Etienne Wenger (1998) Communities of Practice – learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

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