Metal theft & memory theft – valuing sentiment in punishing war memorial attacks

In my recent blog on metal theft [link] I argued that metal theft sees the ascendancy of ‘exchange value’ over ‘use value’. By this analysis an artefact comes to be seen as a composite of its raw materials and their respective commodity values, rather than as a stable and purposeful assemblage of materials, a ‘thing in itself’ with a functional utility.

In what follows I will briefly summarise recent UK steps towards legislating to tackle metal theft and then focus on an additional type of ‘value’ that can be said to attach to some artefacts, namely their embodied emotional – or ‘sentimental’ value. Often in everyday usage the term ‘sentimental’ is used in a pejorative sense. But that is not how I wish to use that term here. Instead – as cultural anthropologists like Miller (2008) have done for decades – I wish to focus upon the value of the symbolic and emotional life of things and consider the extent to which punishment of metal thieves can take account of that form of value (and consequent destruction or de-valuing of it via stealing and ‘melting down’ such treasured items).

I have in mind here war memorial plaques – for much of the articles stolen by metal thieves are mundane – but in their own terms important – infrastructure. Their forced removal causes physical damage and disturbance to social and economic life, but these are items rarely the focus of emotional investment and symbolic significance. War memorial plaques are different, and recent media coverage has focussed in particular upon metal theft’s impact of this aspect of emotional heritage and of the importance of defending them against this latest threat to their survival (see for example Ashley 2004 and the In Memoriam 2014 (2012) project).

The current position on anti-metal theft legislating in the UK

In January 2012 the UK Parliament rejected a Private Members’ Bill – the ‘Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill’ – promoted by Labour MP Graham Jones (Jones 2012). This Bill, if enacted, would have imposed a cashless system for scrap metal trading, required evidence of identity to be produced by persons delivering scrap to a merchant and increased enforcement powers against scrap metal yards.

Jones viewed the Government’s decision not to back his Bill as symptomatic of:

” a split in the government between Home Office ministers who want action and ideologues in BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) who think that stopping the theft of war memorials is somehow ‘damaging red tape'” (Angel, 2012)

Without Government support Jones’ Bill now has no realistic prospect of being enacted. In the aftermath of its effective ‘defeat’ the UK Government (who chose not to support the Bill) announced that they would in due course bring forward their own proposals for tackling metal theft. On 26 January 2012 Home Secretary Teresa May announced that the Government’s own forthcoming measures to tackle the £770 million p.a. estimated cost of metal theft to the UK economy (Angel 2012) would include transition towards a cashless system, plus ‘significant increase’ in the fines that can be imposed upon metal thieves (Home Office 2012).  In a ministerial statement (May 2012) the Home Secretary indicated that these provisions would be enacted by making amendments to the Government’s own Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is currently before Parliament. In November 2011, the UK Government also set up a metal theft task force, committing £5 million of funding to this initiative as part of its ‘National Infrastructure Plan’ (HM Treasury 2011). The Home Secretary appeared to have overcome the ideological struggles alluded to by Jones, as she declared that:

“The Government considers that legislation is the only sustainable, long-term solution to the growing menace of metal theft. There is an urgent need to make stealing metal less attractive to criminals, and tackling the stolen metal market will act as a significant deterrent.”

She also indicated that further measures may be introduced in due course. And, given its strategic high profile, we might wonder whether such measures may include some of the additional steps recommended by the Transport Select Committee’s January 2012 report on the impact of cable theft upon the nation’s rail infrastructure (House of Commons 2012):

  • Increase the powers of the British Transport Police to investigate scrap yards
  • Introduce a new offence of aggravated trespass on the railway (trespass is not generally a criminal offence in the UK)
  • Requiring Network Rail (the national rail infrastructure owner) to re-double efforts to investigate and develop measures to make railway cable more difficult to steal.

Punishing theft of sentimental value

It is unclear from the Government’s recent statement whether the tougher approach to sentencing will include any specific augmentation to single out war memorial theft as particularly odious.

Whilst we await this proposed package of measures we might wish to explore existing powers of punishment. Debate has focussed upon the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 and the low maximum fines imposable upon scrap yard operators. However, we should not forget that pillaging metal from the built environment is theft, an offence in its own right under the Theft Act 1968 (and it may also be criminal damage under section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971). Penalty maxima under these Acts are far less token then those under the 1964 Act.

Taking punishment down this avenue may achieve higher penalties (and in theory at least) greater deterrence of metal thieves (although clearly a market reduction approach focussed on the networks by which this material is ‘fenced’ into the recycling markets is still needed).

In addition, existing sentencing guidelines could be used specifically in relation to war memorial plaque theft (and perhaps also the theft of metal works of art). The sentencing guidelines issued by the Sentencing  Council in December 2008 apply to all offences committed on or after 5 January 2009, and every court is required to have regard to them. The guidelines are set out in a number of related publications – and it is the guidelines for Theft and Burglary in a building other than a dwelling- Definitive Guideline (Sentencing Council 2008) that I have in mind here. Under general sentencing principles a court is required to have regard to the ‘seriousness’ of the offence – and in doing so to identify and then weigh up ‘mitigating’ and ‘aggravating’ factors. The sentencing guidelines direct courts on how they should undertake this ‘weighing up’ process and what factors should be considered as relevant. Paragraph 12 of the guidelines tells us that the “high value” of the stolen artefact is a relevant aggrevating factor and that sentimental value is a type of value. So, an item of high sentimental value – to an individual or to a community – should be treated as ‘high value’ (even if the raw commodity (i.e exchange) value of the stolen materials is not great).

The seriousness which can be judicially attributed to metal theft is also a function of its widespread, increasing and disruptive nature and clearly in many circumstances considerable value (and premeditation) can also be attributed to the crime as aggravating factors. However, in situations where the haul itself is of relatively low financial value, the opportunity to invoke this alternative class of value is one not to be missed for assets that can credibly be shown to have sentimental value.

NB: In January 2012 the sentencing guidelines for burglary in non-domestic premises were merged into a tariff based approach for punishment of all burglary offences (Sentencing Council 2011). This revised guidance retains sentimental value as an aggravating factor but talks now in terms of that being value that attaches to the victim. This may make it slightly harder to argue that war memorial theft is a crime that attacks the sentimental value invested in a war memorial by a local community, rather than the local authority or other entity that is the legal owner of the plaques – but its still worth a try…

Angel, M. (2012) ‘Government rejects metals theft bill’,, 20 January

Ashley, P. (2004) Lest we forget, English Heritage: Swindon

HM Treasury (2011) National Infrastructure Plan 2011, HM Treasury / Infrastructure UK: London

Home Office (2012) ‘Government acts against metal thieves’ Press release – 26 January:

House of Commons (2012) Cable theft on the railway – Transport Select Committee’s 14th report (2011-12) – House of Commons: London,

In Memoriam 2014 (2012) project website – a collaboration between the War Memorials Trust and anti-metal theft technologists SmartWater’s Foundation,

Jones, G. (2012) Private Members’ Bill:

May, T. (2012) Scrap metal dealers – written ministerial statement, 30 January:

Miller, D. (2008) The Comfort of Things, Polity: Bristol.

Sentencing Council (2011) Burglary Offences – Definitive Guidance, Sentencing Council: London

Sentencing Council (2008) Theft and Burglary in a building other than a dwelling – definitive guideline, Sentencing Council for England & Wales: London,

On the on switch – tentative steps towards a phenomenology of the law/thing, thing.

Looking down at my new electric razor this morning my attention was drawn to its on switch, and more specifically the symbol embossed there to tell me that this is, indeed, the on switch.

I’ve noticed that symbol (a circle broken by a vertical radius) on computers recently but it got me thinking (again) about the subtle ways in which mundane areas of law and code shape daily life, and contribute towards the composition and use of physical artefacts.

A quick Google search (thanks Wikipedia!) tells me that the symbol is one of the graphical symbols advocated for use on equipment by the International Electrotechnical Commission’s 60417 standard (IEC 417), a technical standard that first appeared in 1973.

The IEC 417 is not law, in the sense that that expression makes sense to me. It has not been made pursuant to a sovereign power of ruling, nor does it have express penalties for non-compliance. But doubtless most designers and engineers have IEC417 in mind when thinking about selection of symbols. Indeed there is an interface with an actual legal requirement – Article 1.7.1 of the EU Machinery Directive of 2006, to be precise. This tells me that:

“Information and warnings on the machinery should preferably be provided in the form of readily understandable symbols or pictograms. Any written or verbal information and warnings  must  be  expressed  in  an  official  Community  language  or  languages,  which may  be  determined  in  accordance  with  the  Treaty  by  the  Member  State  in  which  the machinery is placed on the market and/or put into service and may be accompanied, on request, by versions in any other official Community language or languages understood by the operators.”

So, on a small device like a razor, where there wouldn’t be room for text spelling out this button’s purpose in “an official Community or languages” it makes sense to use a symbol instead – and to select one which is already endorsed by a relevant technical community. This small step will help tick one of the many boxes that device conformity assessment will require under that Directive. And if you’re interested in the detail I’ve included a link to the European Commission’s Guide to the application of the Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC which across the breadth of its 406 pages could tell you everything that you probably will never need to know about the Directive and its device conformity processes (Fraser 2010).

When I was a lawyer working in commercial practice, I would occasionally be asked to advise on issues that took me to the outer fringes of what I had been trained to think of as ‘law,’ and take me over into another, unfamiliar world – that of technical codes and standards. In Environmental Law, general regulatory principles and procedures would often be expressed in comfortably familiar lawyerly terms, but the devil would truly be in the detail. To apply those principles would require cross-reference to voluminous, alien technical documents forged by international technical committees of non-lawyer specialists. This interface between the ‘expert-lay’ and the ‘lawyerly’ horizon of knowledge and expertise fascinates me, and I have been trying to trace the influence of ‘expert-lay’ standard setting in place safety in the arboricultural, outdoor recreation and industrial safety worlds in various recent projects (for example Bennett 2010 & 2011).

In particular I recall my own difficulty of trying to advise a few years ago on the EU ban upon the use of lead solder and other now-prohibited substances from use in the manufacture of electronic equipment. The mechanisms of prohibition were familiar enough – but the level of assumed, contextual, knowledge that was required to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses of such materials was at the limit of my non-technological skills. Yet my clients assumed that as this control derived from legal interventions, then this must be something best interpreted by a lawyer.

Yes and no. Such experiences emphasised to me how law-in-practice (i.e. law as it is applied to things and acts in the world) is not solely the province of a lawyer (nor does the lawyer’s realm stop at the boundary of where the law-in-books stops). Also, the answer is not given purely by a simple analysis of the words used in the legal instrument, instead – as Fish (1980 & 1989) has shown – ‘valid’ (and invalid) interpretations of those texts emerge from interpretive communities. Instead these realms, these horizons of knowledge and expertise overlap and the things, symbols and actions in the world are made with a bit of law, a bit of genre-accessing styling, some attention to ergonomic function and an eye on profit. It is also made up of the properties of physical stuff – as an assemblage of plastic, metal, lacquer and rubber (in the case of my razor).

Law’s domain is totalising in mission – but in technological areas like Environmental Law it never reaches its goal. Instead, lawyers and the law tend towards focussing upon what they know best, and what the conventions of practice foreground. I recall a colleague (a non-lawyer) who was asked to comment upon the health & safety provisions within a lease drawn up for a large institutional building. His ‘take’ on that document and its approach to anticipatory control of how that building would be run, and how responsibilities should be allocated for it was both ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. He queried why the lease didn’t focus down upon a detailed stipulation of how electrical and fire control duties were being allocated between the landlord and the tenants, and yet the lease document contained copious coverage of matters which seemed of little practical relevance to him. Here was a clash of those knowledge and expertise horizons. He wasn’t wrong – those issues needed to be managed, and practical arrangements for their allocation understood by the parties, but by convention this was not seen as ‘appropriate’ content for the lease. Indeed, for each professional ‘the lease’ has different roles and meanings. To the lawyer it is about thinking through (and providing for) ‘the worst that could happen’. For the property agent the focus will be upon the flows and quantum of monies between the parties. For the engineer, he may assume that it will spell out how the building will actually run (though he may well end up disappointed).

In short, the lease will help to define the building and the bundle of usage rights for the parties. But it will not entirely map out how the building will come to be used – or the day to day accommodation and evolution that the parties may forge in their occupational practice.

Studies of law as a product of interaction and practice in the constitution of things and places are relatively few and far between.  But Silbey & Cavicchi (2005) provided a helpful starting point as part of Bruno Latour’s & Peter Weibel’s Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy exhibition in 2005. They brought to the surface (for a non-lawyer audience) how law helps to quietly shape how objects are formed and how they may be described and used. In doing so they touched upon an enticing possibility – a phenomenology of the habitual/mundane performance of the law/thing relationship.  They present law as part of the fabric of living, yet something that only reveals itself (as regards the material world) where something unexpected happens, and requires attention to stipulations and behaviours of those quiet frameworks. As they pointed out:

“Law’s constructions and mediations have been sedimented throughout the routines of daily living, helping to make things move around in more or less clear ways, without ever having to invoke, display or wield their elaborate and intricate processes…” (556)

Bennett, L. (2010). ‘Trees and public liability – who really decides what is reasonably safe?’ Arboricultural journal, 33, 141-164.

Bennett, L. (2011). A pub, a field and some signs – a case study on the pragmatics of proprietorship and legal cognition. In: COBRA 2011 – Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors International Research Conference, Manchester, UK, 12-13 September 2011.

Fish, S. (1980) Is there a text in this class? – the authority of interpretive communities, Harvard University Press, Harvard.

Fish, S. (1989) Doing what comes naturally: change, rhetoric, and the practice of theory in literary and legal studies, Duke University Press, Durham NC.

Fraser, I. (2010) Guide to application of the Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC (2nd edition – June 2010), European Commission, Brussels.

Silbey, S.S. & Cavicchi, A. (2005) ‘The common place of law – transforming matters of concern into the objects of everyday life’ in Latour, B. & Weibel, P. Making Things Public: Atmospheres for Democracy, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

(available at:

Strategies against architecture – and the formative influence of ‘metal bashing’ in the 1980s

A couple of years ago I took a group of Real Estate students to Berlin on a field trip. Whilst planning a context-setting lecture on the tortured physical history of the city (in the spirit of Ladd, 1998), I had the idea of opening with a blast of architectural noise from German ‘industrial’ music pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten, recalling an 1980’s NME article that had announced to me that an architecture professor was using their music to inspire his students to think about ruination and materiality. The group’s name had always stuck in my mind, as it translates as “collapsing new buildings built after 1945”. Not many bands have ever been quite so of, and about, the built environment.

As it turned out, caution got the better of me and I decided not to enhance my presentation with a trip down memory lane. Yet, ironically, as I stood up to speak a workman’s drill kicked-in in a hotel room nearby, and my attempts at provocative comments on the culpability of surveyors within the city’s Nazi and Soviet eras were drowned out anyway.

I dallied with Neubauten’s music in the mid 1980s, and also with the Anglophone variant offered up by Test Dept. Both bands focussed upon making angry-abject (Neubauten) and angry-militaristic (Test Dept) performances by pounding, grinding and crushing found metal objects, in order to foreground the rotten state of West German culture (Neubauten) or the death throws of industrial Britain (Test Dept).

I was reminded recently of the experience of seeing Test Dept live. I never got to see Neubauten, but by all accounts a performance combining members of Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle and other luminaries of the industrial music scene under the Stockhausian banner of The Concerto for Voices and Machinery at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1984 was something special – the audience got on stage and started to use ‘the band’s’ instruments (pneumatic drills, hammers, angle grinders) to start demolishing the ICA. I first saw Test Dept when they staged a re-enactment of the Gododdin saga, an epic poem about the AD 600 defeat Celtic tribes by the invading Anglo-Saxons. This took place in Cardiff’s disused Rover Car Factory in 1989 and was a collaboration with Welsh performance artists Brith Gof, who went on to stage a recreation of Frankenstein in a disused steel works in the wilds of the Ebbw Vale circa 1994. The image of a massive gantry crane hurtling over the audience with two actors dangling precariously from it in the cavernous space of the vast factory-hall haunts me to this day. Ah, it brings it all back. Oh, and Brif Gof is Welsh for… “feint recollection”.

So, rave parties were not the only ways in which exciting alternative uses were found for these recently abandoned spaces in the 1980s and 1990s.

These recollections got me thinking about the formative influence of this metal bashing  and the (so called) ‘industrial culture’ of the 1980s, its angry observation of decay, decline and ruination and its foregrounding of the materiality of abandoned factory spaces and places. Flicking back through You Tube, the rawness of the anger I found in these performers’ early work slapped me round the face. I’ve given a link below to the opening excerpt of Neubauten’s 1985 performance film Halber Mensch. I’m struck by the long (and silent) tracking shots of the abandoned Ruhr factory and its piles of industrial debris. It is very reminiscent of the extended post-human opening sequence of Sophie Fiennes’ (equally industrial ruin-focussed) 2010 film Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow about Anselm Kiefer’s  installation project at La Ribaute, a former silk factory.

Meanwhile for Test Dept I’ve chosen an audio clip taken from their 1984 collaborative performance with the South Wales Miners’ Choir at the height of the miners’ strike, a strike which unsuccessfully sought to prevent the subsequent (near) extinction of the UK deep-mining industry. The striking miners were viewed by Thatcher as ‘the enemy within’ for their efforts.

Musically both excerpts are visceral yet incidental. For me (in the footsteps of Edensor 2005), it is the focus on ruin and the new-use-finding qualities of this engagement with industrial debris that has the most enduring resonance. As Test Dept put it in an interview in 1987, their aim was:

“uncovering the stone, the beetles, the dirt and the filth…lifting the stone away so that you get a slightly clearer view of the things that frighten you.” (Neal , 1987: 165).

Edensor, T. (2005) Industrial Ruins – space, aesthetics and materiality, Berg, Oxford.

Einstürzende Neubauten (1985) Half-Mensch, Mute Films,

Fiennes, S. (2010) Promotional website for Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow:

Ladd, B. (1998) The Ghosts of Berlin – confronting German history in the urban landscape, University of Chicago Press, London.

Neal, C. (1987) Tape Delay, SAF Publishing, Harrow.

Test Dept (1984) Shockwork,

Infra_MANC: RIBA exhibition on the dreams and realities of post-war infrastructure of Manchester

Runs 27/2/12 to 23/3/12 (weekdays) and weekend of 3-4/3/12 at RIBA Hub, 113-115 Portland St, Manchester, M1 6DW.

Details received via Martin Dodge of University of Manchester on this exhibition that he is curating, along with Richard Brook, examining:

“…the planning, construction and promotion of four infrastructural projects in central Manchester: two were completed, two were to remain unrealised. the essence of recovery in post-war Britain was speed: of movement and of communication – these propositions epitomise this spirit. To traverse the city two of these schemes would seek to bury themsleves and two take to the skies…these proposals are set against the optimism of the immediate post-war recovery, the reality of construction in the 1960s and the economic and political upheaval of the 1970s. Original maps, engieering schematics, architects drawings and marketing ‘machines’ not normally seen by the public will be displayed to explore the role of infrastructure in the contemporary city and to introduce historical context to these overridingly technological propositions”

(quoted from the exhibition flyer:

More details at:

Defensive enthusiasm: anoraks, bunkers and the erotics of knowledge

In his seminal Bunker Archeology(sic) (1994: 11) Paul Virilio describes the moment in the late 1950s that he suddenly ‘notices’ the ubiquitous abandoned Nazi coastal bunkers of the Atlantikwall. He asks himself  “why would these extraordinary constructions, compared to seaside villas, not be perceived or even recognised?” and thereafter commits himself to “hunt[ing] these grey forms until they would transmit to me a part of their mystery”. Virilio’s bunker-hunting went on to inform his architectural practice, and thereafter his theorising of war and time/space mobilities. As far as I’m aware, no one has ever called Virilio an ‘anorak’, or condemned the photographical and textual outputs of his hobby as sad, autistic or pointless. But if you are not French, a social theoretician and/or a professional archaeologist then there’s fair chance that showing a sustained engagement with the ruins of concrete defensive emplacements will get you labelled as sad, autistic or infantile.

In July 2012 I will be presenting a paper at the RGS-IBG annual conference in Edinburgh, as part of a session titled ‘Geographies of Enthusiasm’. My paper will examine the ways in which contemporary bunker-hunters enchant the UK’s own more modest twentieth century concrete defensive structures through the enthusiastic attention that they lavish upon these prosaic ‘non-places’ (Augé 1995). My paper will outline the diverse range of motivations and methods that can be found amongst these ‘bunkerologists’ and focus in on the ways in which genres and their associated communities of practice (Fish 1980; Wenger 1998) shape how bunkerology is performed through accounts of hunting and finding as circulated in online and book-based texts. In such practices we find the pleasure of systemic research, co-ordinated exchange and circulation of spatial knowledge about these places, in short performance of “the erotics of knowledge” (de Certeau, 1988: 92). Following in the footsteps of Haakonssen (2009), my presentation will examine the enthusiasts’ active projection of a variety of meanings onto these blank structures (patriotism, the abject, solitude, archaeology, architecture) and (invoking Garfinkel (1967), Goffman (1971) and Orbuch (1997)) performers’ active negotiation of identity in their self-deprecating portrayal of their bunker-hunting to fellow enthusiasts, and to the sceptical audience of their families and wider communities who may commonly disparage such enthusiasts as ‘anoraks’.

Bradley Garrett’s (2011) critique of my Environment & Planning D: Society & Space (EPD) article (Bennett 2011a; 2011b) last June was a helpful intervention in evolving my ideas on bunkerology. My EPD article was one of a family of papers examining varied aspects of bunker-hunting. Garrett’s critique gave me the chance to (hopefully) show that my EPD paper wasn’t intended as either a hostile attack upon urban explorers or an attempt to strait-jacket urbex into a monolithic model. I would certainly agree that ‘urban exploration’ seems to cover a broad range of practices – and also that strikingly the same people effortlessly flip between these different modes of doing urbex where-ever the local reporting / experiential codes require. Thus some of the serial bunkerologists who wrote their ROC Post bunker reports in very taxonomic register happily flipped into psychogeographical tone when exploring abandoned asylums etc.

In his essay, Walking in the city, Michel de Certeau (1984:102) celebrates the “wandering of the semantic produced by masses that make some parts of the city disappear and exaggerate others, distorting it, fragmenting it, and diverting it from its immobile order.”

This energizing flow of ‘bottom-up’ signification is what I was seeking to celebrate, in its widest form. The flag needs to be flown for an under-represented (or at least under researched) aspect of that wandering of the semantic – that meaning created (or found depending on your ontology) by the spotter / fact collector. What Garrett read as a hostile caricature was actually intended as a positive acknowledgment of dedicated hobby practitioners seeking and organising spatial/material knowledge as an end in itself rather than in pursuit of a political or transgressive purpose.

The material/culture link is what fascinates me here; how abandoned, meaningless places are re-valorised by the enthusiasts who seek them out. This is a re-enchantment of the prosaic and the mundane, something evocatively captured in the title of Geoghegan’s (2009) paper exploring the enthusiasm of industrial archaeologists and her discovery that (for some) “even concrete is sexy”. In this enchantment of the material world, we see the linkage between the realms of thought and action, something that I tried to map out for bunkers (and the interaction of concrete materiality and abstract metaphor) in an article last year for the journal Culture & Organization (Bennett 2011c).

Recently I’ve had another article on bunker-hunters accepted for forthcoming publication in the journal Gender, Place and Culture. This article interrogates my own signification of bunkers and links this to my interpretation of the roots of bunkerological enthusiasm for these places in other – predominantly male- explorers. The article looks at how socialization and life-course may help to bring hobbyists to their objects of enthusiasm. My own path to this field can be traced through growing up in a South Devon seaside town that had no military or industrial places (and thus becoming fascinated by these ‘other worlds’ – images fed for me during the 1980s via reports of industrial collapse filtering through from ‘the north’, and of  anxious rumours of (then) secret government bunkers). My turn towards such matters was also spurred by being taught at school by a teacher who was an active industrial archaeologist and who took us on field trips to industrial ruins on Dartmoor, plus the ambiguity of my own family’s relationship to things military, and an early experience of scrabbling over mine spoil heaps with my father in the mid 1970s at the height of the antique pop bottle collecting ‘craze’. All of these subsequently shaped my signification of, and semantic wandering within the built environment.

Taken together, these experiences (and the resonance of them that I see in other middle aged urban explorers) emphasises to me the link between the amateur industrial archaeology boom of the 1960s / 1970s and contemporary urbex. With enthusiast groups like Subterranea Britannica ( the links seem clear to me – but the dominant ‘Pepsi Max’ view of urbex as young, funky and counter-cultural appears to deny (or at least down-play) these links. I also think that the importance of ‘spotting’ activities in a variety of mainstream ambulatory hobby practices like train spotting, set a clear pathway for the survey type behaviours I witnessed in my modest study of ROC Post (abandoned nuclear fall-out monitoring station) explorers. In particular the role of the ‘I Spy’ and ‘Observer’ guide books, popular in the 1960s to the 1980s, in shaping the hobby practices of a generation of spotters cries out for study.

And here now is my set of slides for the event:

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Link to Hilary Geoghegan’s ‘Cultures of Enthusiasm’ blog:

Augé M, (trans. Howe, J) 1995 Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London, Verso).

Bennett, L. 2011a. “Bunkerology – a case study in the theory and practice of urban exploration.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29 (3), 421-434.

Bennett, L.  2011b.  Exploring the bunker’ – a response by Luke Bennett to ‘Shallow Excavation’. Society and Space (website). Available at:

Bennett, L. 2011c. “The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management.” Culture and Organization, 17 (2), 155-173

Bennett, L. (forthcoming) “Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers”, Gender, Place & Culture

De Certeau M, 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life translated by S Rendall (University of California: London)

Fish S, 1980 Is There a Text in this Class? – The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Harvard University Press: Harvard)

Garfinkel, H.1967 Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Garrett, B.L. 2011. Shallow excavation – a response to Bunkerology, Available at

Geoghegan H, 2009 “’If you can walk down the street and recognise the difference between cast iron and wrought iron, the world is an altogether better place’: being enthusiastic about industrial archaeology” M/C Journal 12 (2).

Goffman, E. 1971 The presentation of self in everyday life. London: Penguin.

Haakonsen M, 2009 “Experiencing German bunkers in Denmark: space and performance in commemoration” In Gertz, Nolen (ed.) War Fronts: Interdisciplinary Perspectives On War, Virtual War and Human Security, Oxford: The Interdisciplinary Press.

Orbuch, T.L. 1997 People’s accounts count: the sociology of accounts. Annual Review of Sociology. 23: 455-478

Virilio P (trans. Collins G) 1994 Bunker Archeology (Princeton Architectural Press: New York)

Wenger E, 1998 Communities of practice – learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Code, place, law…and Minecraft

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the everyday interaction of norms, laws and the physicality of the built environment that taken together create ‘places’. In one of my papers last year (Bennett 2011) I tried to map out the processes involved in creating and managing local territory at a pub. I found David Delaney’s (2010) The Spatial, the Legal and the Pragmatics of World Making: Nomospheric Investigations particularly helpful in my analysis. Delaney foregrounds pragmatic active production of local spatial order by social actors. He does not reject a role for abstract external structures, but calls for research that focuses on the mediation (or in actor network theory terms (Latour, 2007), the ‘translation’) of abstractions such as commands of law, into the lived, material world.

I’ve also been tracing those normative structures beyond the strict confines of bodies of formal law. This has led me to surveillance studies’ concern with the world-ordering power of technology and its data flows and coding of social and material life (Kitchin & Dodge, 2011). I’ve also been influenced by Lawrence Lessig’s (2006) ‘code is law’ dictum – that we should analyse the normative role of software (and hardware) in the ‘regulation’ of use of, and behaviour in, online worlds.

So, with those thoughts swirling around my head I’ve found myself this weekend watching my kids and the ways in which they create and interact within their own online worlds in Minecraft. Minecraft is a program that enables players to create, explore, lay claim to, build and govern their own virtual worlds. And most significantly, each player can – by setting up a server and posting its IP address upon online forums – invite other players into the unique world that they have created. Thus, privately created and nurtured worlds can be made ‘open access’ to whoever wishes to come and visit them.

Minecraft’s software architecture is deeply rooted in a hacker ethos. Whilst the basic (so-called by players) ‘vanilla’ version of the Minecraft program has to be purchased from the Swedish developers, Mojang (five million downloads to date), everything else that you might wish to do to modify (mod) the program and to enhance or distort the playing experience is available as free peer-produced shareware via enthusiast forums.

Watching my kids ‘travel’ to someone else’s Minecraft world, enter and explore it, make friends (or enemies), pick up the tone of that world and decide whether to stay or to hop onward to somewhere else is fascinating. Fascinating as a ‘natural experiment’ in my search to witness the step by step ways in which normative worlds are formed through a combination of the active, pragmatic choice by social actors (after Delaney), the practice structuring power of software architecture (after Lessig)   and – importantly – something that bridges the ‘structural’ and the ‘pragmatic’: the  selection and deployment of elements of that code-architecture through world-makers’ active choices about what they want for their world AND what they want their visitors’ experience to be.

Many of the available mods focus upon issues of access and behavioural control of visitors to the hosts’ worlds. Vanilla minecraft software provides little in the way of (what minecrafters call) ‘anti-grief’ protection. Running a world on a vanilla minecraft server program will leave that world (and the buildings, artefacts and host’s creatures within it) exposed to cyber-vandalism, or ‘griefing’ as it is known. Not all roaming minecrafters will respect the property of those whose worlds they visit – much like Viking raiders.

Listening to my kids’ anxieties about the potential  griefing of their putative worlds brings to my mind the anxiety of a monk, shuddering as he looks back at the  terror of an earlier Viking raid upon Lindisfarne, as reported in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle:

“…dire portents appeared over Northumbria…immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying through the air. A great famine followed and a little after that, on the 8th of June [793 AD], the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne…” (quoted in Schama 2000, 54).

Minecraft worlds are vulnerable to those who get their kicks from destruction (though this fraternity do seem a minority). Thus the player forums bristle with home brewed mods aimed at giving the world-creator ‘better than vanilla’ protection over their world.

Whilst Minecraft is in many ways the epitome of peer produced, collaborative creation – a testimony to what Raymond (1999) has characterised as a ‘bazaar’ rather than ‘cathedral’ model of software development –  the demand for these mods suggests a certain lack of faith in utopian rule-less ‘commons’ in the realm of play. Most world makers seem to regard their worlds as theirs, to be used by the community in accordance with the way they, as world author, intended. Worlds thrive (or at least survive) because they have an owner looking out for them and actively controlling the normative environment through their moderation of behaviour of the denizens of that world.  It should be noted that some Minecraft worlds (or portions of worlds) are specifically designed to be destructive battlegrounds between warring factions – but the point here is that the warring (and its normative order, rules of combat and destruction etc) are preordained by the world maker, they arise because they are permitted.

Here we see world-controlling behaviour that echoes Hardin’s (1968) ‘tragedy of the commons’ thesis. Thus mods are used to designate ‘safezones’ (or to designate disorder to assigned ‘outlands’) rendering the assets within them unchangeable by visitors and in effect creating and protecting them as ‘private’ property. Other adjustments remove particular world-changing abilities from visitors (perhaps until they have earned the world-owner’s trust and greater ‘physical’ privileges can then be bestowed). My kids spend ages (or rather, as long as we will let them) trying to court the trust of the world owners they visit, and thereby be awarded these privileges.

The mod that has drawn my attention most this weekend has been a jail plug-in. The world owner can build a jailhouse and program his world so that he can teleport visitors there who do not behave in the way that he wants for his world. Once there the prisoners cannot get out until they have served their jail term – and the world owner can set a tariff for a list of infractions. The software jailer then automatically administers the punishment. The inmate either sits-out his punishment, incapable of game participation in that world until released, or chooses self-exile by leaving the world and triggering an automatic ban from returning.

This is all heady stuff – pre-teens creating and calibrating a criminal justice system with the press of a few keys. Such rule making in play is nothing new, and lies at the core of many playground and board games. But what is perhaps different is the extent to which this control is both dynamic (in the sense of being manipulated over-time in response to experience and user-interactions: directly ruling rather than just legislating) and ‘open’ in the sense that the permutations of control configurations are limitless, there are no overriding conventions on what level of creative/destructive or other civil liberties a visitor should expect upon arrival in any particular world. In short, each world is the personal fiefdom of its creator, and the physical arrangement of each world’s built environment is also unique, possibly even Heterotopian (Foucault, 1967).

The ‘open-source’ nature of Minecraft, and its core mission of world building and world exploring, poses some pretty complex decision making for kids. To make and own a world gives a sense of pride. To see kids pick up the pieces after a ‘griefing’ attack is to see them grappling – albeit in virtual life – with a pretty thorny set of issues around ownership, trust and cooperation.

Through Minecraft and its online worldmaking we are reminded that exploration, homesteading, norm-setting, sanction imposing, negotiation, manipulating codes and architecture (of both software and built environment) are all heady issues for humans whether in virtual or real world environments.

Bennett, L. (2011) ‘A pub, a field and some signs – a case study on the pragmatics of proprietorship and legal cognition’ a paper presented at COBRA 2011 – Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors International Research Conference, Manchester, UK, 12-13 September 2011. Available at:

Delaney, D. (2010) The spatial, the legal and the pragmatics of world making: nomospheric investigations, Routledge, London.

Foucault, M. (1967) ‘Of other spaces: utopias and heterotopias’ in, Lynch, N. (ed) (1997) Rethinking architecture, Routledge, London.

Hardin, G. (1968) ‘The tragedy of the commons’, Science, 162 (3859): 1243–1248.

Kitchin, R. & Dodge, M. (2011) Code/space: software and everyday life, MIT Press, London

Latour, B. (2007) Reassembling the social – an introduction to actor-network-theory, OUP, Oxford.

Lessig, L. (2006) Code: version 2.0, Basic Books, New York.

Raymond, E.S. (2001) The Cathedral & the bazaar, musings on Linux and open source by an accidental revolutionary, O’Reilly Books, Sebastopol, CA

Schama, S. (2000) A history of Britain, 3000BC – AD1603, BBC Books, London.

Minecraft sites – Mojang’s minecraft site – offical Mojang forum – peer forum and mod sources  – peer produced Minecraft server mods

Up, on, or over the fence? – urban exploration and premises security

I’ve been working on a presentation to public sector facilities managers recently. This talk will examine their legal duties towards trespassers and suggest proportionate responses. A key feature of my talk will be trying to map the breadth of trespass that they are likely to face. I am expecting that these hospital, college and local government premises managers will have beleaguered tales to tell of arson, vandalism, metal theft and bomb scares. They may also want to discuss urban exploration…

Whilst I’m resolutely against terrorism, arson, vandalism and metal theft, my position on urban exploration (and other forms of recreational trespass) is more complicated. I ‘get it’, but I also have a concern that to see such exploration as a ‘right’ (as in human right) to go any place you please is rather asserting individual curiosity over communal benefit. Some incursion to these premises will cause anxiety, genuine security panics and considerable cost to these cash-strapped managers. For, how are they to know that the intruder is an urban explorer wishing to ‘take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints’?

Intriguingly, at least one high profile group of US urban explorers (those collaborating as urbex fanzine Jinx) felt the need to broach this moral dilemma almost a decade ago. Jinx announced their retirement from exploration (in the US at least) with the following communiqué in April 2003:

“Jinx has ceased its unlawful trespassing activities for the duration of the present period of war and heightened alert in the United States; though neither odious nor evil, the activities of urban exploration create the hazard of false alarms and could potentially divert police resources from serious matters. Obedience of just laws is not a private matter. Every crime undermines our safety by making the staggering task of law enforcement harder in this period of terrorism and war” quoted in the frontispiece to Deyo & Leibowitz (2003).

In my talk, I will attempt something even-handed. I will outline the duties imposed by civil and criminal law upon occupiers as regards their trespassers (which are not always as onerous as some occupiers’ fear), and then I will try to highlight the logics and mission of urban exploration, thereby setting it somewhat apart from arson, burglary and vandalism.

But urbex cannot stand completely alone as a benign special case. At the end of the day whilst the motives and aims may be different, arson, burglary, vandalism and urbex all share the same methodology: incursion.  This can be foregrounded if we consider one of the roots of contemporary urban exploration :  1970s College based infrastructural and subterranean exploration. Schneier (2000) recounts his acquaintance with these ‘key freaks’ at his US college in the 1970s, highlighting their ‘go where you are not supposed to’ place-hacking ethos thus:

“they wanted access, and their goal was to have a key to every lock on campus. They would study lock-picking and learn new techniques, trade maps of steam tunnels and where they led…a locked door was a challenge, a personal affront to their ability. These people weren’t out to do damage – stealing wasn’t their objective – although they certainly could have. Their power was to go anywhere they wanted to.” (44)

And I have heard of similar clandestine clubs operating (under threat of instant expulsion) within at least one college of the University of London in the mid 1980s.

In pulling my presentation together I’ve been thinking in particular about trespass and premises management of school and college buildings. I have kids of school age and have noticed the increasing fortification of their school premises. Having looked a little into the law and policy background, I’ve found that this isn’t a particularly new trend – its roots lie in the rise of ‘security by design’ methodologies, originating with Oscar Newman’s work on ‘defensible space’ in public housing in the late 1960s (Newman 1996). UK Government school security guidance published in 1996 (DFEE) rather shockingly talks of treating the visiting public as “intruders” unless clocked in through a designated access control point. It asserts a war against ‘permeability’ and whole-perimeter fencing is encouraged. This guidance remains extant, and is now supported by Police (ACPO 2010) and planning guidance backed ‘secured by design’ accreditation for new schools which requires such fencing. This trend appears to both create and reflect anxiety about the need to render schools as defensible private space. A UK Government funded study (Lloyd & Ching, 2003) found anxieties about intrusion to be the second most highly ranked security concerns for schools after the physical safety of staff and students. A quick web search shows how this fortification drive is well served by rather a large number of specialist school security contractors.

But, fencing around schools is nothing new – the wave of late Victorian municipal school building saw the construction of schools that looked like forts, replete with sturdy wrought iron stockades. In memory and literature ‘the school gates’ were a focal point for a transition space between two worlds – one of being ‘let out of school’ at home time. Fencing thus in that era seemed to be about keeping people in (with echoes of institutional discipline in a Foucaultian sense, as ably explored for example by Markus, 1993).

What seems to have shifted is the focal point of this ‘defence’ instinct. Instead of a preoccupation with keeping order (and bodies) within the school, and controlling where they go, the focus now seems to have shifted to an attention towards exterior threat. Whilst statistically negligible, the haunting memories of school incursion by murderous gunmen at Dunblane (1996), Colombine (1999), Virginia Tech (2007) and Utoya (2011) cannot be discounted as a continuing spur towards re-fortification of the school perimeter. And then there’s the very real threat of arson and metal theft to school buildings. Figures obtained for the period 2007-09 showed 2,702 arson incidents in the UK involving police attendance (Lipsett, 2009). That’s over three a day. Meanwhile the fondness for bays, castellation and dormer sections in Victorian school roof profiles require a high proportion of lead flashing, all ripe for the metal thief.

Such fortification is ugly, makes schools look like prison camps and embodies what Furedi (1997) has labelled a “culture of fear”. But these pressures – and their consequent defensive urges cannot be ignored. They are real because they arise from the materiality and mobility of things and people. They are not simply ‘imagined’ anxieties which will disappear if we close our eyes ever so tightly shut and wish for a time when people and places were more open.

We are dealing here with competing worlds of under- and over-reaction. Everyone must take responsibility for the consequences of their actions both for themselves and for the communities they inhabit. That includes recreational trespassers and it also includes place managers closing off recreational access to public spaces where that action is out of proportion to risks actually faced.

At bit more understanding on both sides would be a good thing. I don’t want to see, for example, people abandon all geo-caching because of the risk of occasionally causing a bomb scare. But to pretend that there are no potential down-sides to trespass or to lurking around secreting small packages within the built environment is irresponsible, as recent events have shown in the English town of Wetherby in July 2011 where a geo-cache placed under a town centre rubbish bin caused a bomb scare, evacuation and cache destruction via a controlled explosion (BBC News, 2011). City centre litter bins were a favourite location for IRA mainland bomb laying in their early 1990s campaign (McGladdery, 2006) and thus are best avoided as cache points.

The worlds of the place-hacker and the place-manager need to be brought closer together. Hopefully my talk will make a small contribution to that convergence.

NOTE:  My  subsequent blog-essay ‘Riding the ripples: railway suicides and the infrastructural imperative’ (at takes some of the above points, develops them further and applies them to the specific incursion vs infrastructure tensions inherent in railway trespass.


Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) (2010) Secured by design- school’s application form and checklist,

BBC News (2011) ‘Internet treasure hunt causes bomb scare’,

Deyo, L.B. & Leibowitz, D.L. (2003) Invisible Frontier – exploring the tunnels, ruins and rooftops of hidden New York, Three Rivers Press, New York.

Department for Education & Employment (DFEE) (1996) Managing School Facilities, Guide 4: Improving Security in Schools, DFEE, London.

Furedi, F. (1997) Culture of fear – risk taking and the morality of low expectation, Cassell, London.

Lipsett, A. (2009) ‘nearly 3,000 school arson attacks in two years’ The Guardian, 22 May.

Lloyd, R. & Ching, C. (2003) School Security Concerns – Research Report R419, Department for Education & Skills, London.

Markus, T. (1993) Buildings and power: freedom and control in the origin of modern buildings, Routledge, London.

McGladdery, G. (2006) The Provisional IRA in England – the bombing campaign 1973-1997, Irish Academic Press, Dublin.

Newman, O. (1996) Creating Defensible Space, U.S. Dept of Housing & Urban Development, Washington DC.

Schneier, B. (2000) Secrets & Lies: digital security in a networked world, Wiley, New York.