Defensive enthusiasm: anoraks, bunkers and the erotics of knowledge
February 22, 2012 4 Comments
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 (http://www.subbrit.org.uk/) 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:
Link to Hilary Geoghegan’s ‘Cultures of Enthusiasm’ blog: http://hilarygeoghegan.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/the-geography-of-enthusiasm-exploration-and-fieldwork/
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: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/3759/.
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 www.societyandspace.com.
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. http://www.inter-disciplinary.net/publishing/id-press/ebooks/war-fronts/
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.