Bringing rock to the surface: the geological turn and the perils of geo-porn

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This essay is premature. In part it is an eulogy, a post-mortem for something that is not yet out of the exuberant play-pen of adolescence, and still has a rich, fruitful life ahead of it. But, perhaps, there is some merit now in anticipating its eventual decay, and pondering the potential pitfalls of a developing body of thought at its initial flowering. Here I want to write a prospective obituary for the ‘geological turn’.

As regular readers will have noticed, I’m happily locked into a geo-materialist groove at the moment, revelling in opportunities to contribute to a weird realist embrace of the not-quite-so-inert-as-we-think-of terra firma. My aim is not to ‘call time’ on this fertile outpouring, rather to deliver up a snapshot of this tendency, and to ponder where – for good and ill – this summoning of rock, earth and metal, and their co-option back into cultural discourse, might lead (degeneratively or otherwise).

Starting at the end: geo-porn

Sitting in York University’s new law building yesterday I noticed two dull forms, each presented in a ceramic tub filled with buff stone chippings. The forms were squat lumps of grey rock, jutting up about a metre beyond the tub’s fill line. Imagine denuded stone cacti and you get the idea. One of these artefacts was stowed away behind a staircase, wedged in between photocopiers, notice boards and desks, as depicted in the photo above, giving every appearance that the staff working here have no use for (and find not stimulation from) this feature.

These dull rock ‘plants’ annoyed me. What were they there for? What box did they tick in the designer’s checklist of contemporary sensibilities?  Were these intended as echoes of contemplative Zen gardens, something to get keen student minds churning but yet through the pragmatics compromises of procurement rendered to a scale of portability that made them both incidental, anonymous and easy for the porters to shunt around as just so much more furniture?

If they were intended to focus the minds of passersby upon the other-than-human enormity of rock and its deep time then they had the opposite effect for me. Like the corporate appropriation of lumps of rock to adorn the forecourts of business parks, these modest chunks left me cold. A lump of rock dumped amidst an otherwise manicured lawn says nothing about the meagreness of human presence upon the Earth or within Earth-time. In fact it shows the opposite, it affirms human dominion, crying out: “Look – we found this whilst developing this site. We moved it here with our diggers and have bent it to our will and design-purpose. We are the rock-kings. We tamed this place. Behold our rock zoo!”

To my mind this is geo-porn, rock commodified for low engagement aesthetic instant gratification, a muted trope perpetuating for reasons now forgotten across the development landscape, finding its worst expression in simulated stone circles at retail parks and roundabouts. One step short from the total embarrassment of Spinal Tap’s polystyrene menhirs.

And my fear would be that the geologic sensibility emergent in areas of social theory and contemporary philosophy may ultimately blossom and then dissipate into a diffused mundane earthy trope: rocks, mud and other hard stuff being dropped in as a matter of stylistic course to all ‘with-it’ discourse. For that would return us – full circle – to a lame co-option of the geologic as metaphor and instrument for business-as-usual human ends.

The playful perils of posthumanism

As things currently stand the geological turn is anything but cuddly and co-opting. Many of those engaged in writing in its vein, do so from post-human positions, the extremity of which is Nietzsche’s declaration that:

The earth has a skin; and this skin has diseases and one of them is man.” (2003: 153)

I find the yearning nilhilism of the extinction fetishism found in some quarters unsettling and don’t subscribe to an eradication agenda. We are human and whilst there is much human hubris to bring down to size, we are not external to nature and the Earth. As Jane Bennett (no relation) puts it:

“we ourselves are geo-creatures – Earthlings” (in Ellsworth & Kruse 2013: 244)

So, for me the strengths of the geologic sensibility are its decentring of the human from thinking about the material world, and the playful ways in which writers seek to foreground the geological realm and to destabilise our knowing of it, thereby reminding us of its power, its permanence and of our own incidentality. It is a concern, as Bennett puts it, “to theorise a kind of geological affect or material vitality” (2010: 61) in the face of encounters with eruptive geologic power – and whether global warming,  Icelandic volcanoes emptying air lanes or the random violence of a fatal Florida sinkhole. For me this sensibility is about humbling us in the face of what surrounds us (the “vast entourage of nonhumans” as Bennett (2010: 108) puts it), as a prompt to reconnection with the inevitable materialities and consequences of our daily lives, it is not about finding the best seat in the house from which to revel in the end of the human.

But summoning the potency and longevity of the geologic does lend itself to images of death and disaster, of working with powerful cultural tropes deeply embedded in mainstream entertainment culture, and by which we already know that we are not masters of the world in which we dwell. As Ben Woodward puts it in characteristically cataclysmic tone, there is a lazy somatic view of the Earth, for which we already have the tools for unlocking:

“[It is] images of Earth as both dead body and mute cradle that we set out to destroy with digging machines, massive energy weapons, and total ecological collapse. These images perform a dual criminal function: one, to stabilize thinking, and two, to give gravity to anthropocentric thinking and being.” (2013: 6)

Woodward then co-opts tropes of decay, giant worms, whirlpools and the Star Wars Death Star (amongst others) to summon forth destabilized, ‘ungrounded’ ways of thinking about the Earth and its materialities and its “poromechanics”(12). And like Graham Harman and others, Woodward summons the uncanny horror of H.P. Lovecraft in support of his antagonistic reading of (un)dead geology. Through such geomancery a creeping, shifting, unpredictable and fundamentally unknowable world is summoned, a world in which the human feels anything but omnipotent, a world comprised of a fleet of “hyperobjects” (Morton 2010) – issues of scale and temporaily beyond human grasp: radioactive decay, global warming, tectonics and so forth.

In my recent pieces on nuclear waste repositories and deep time (my blog piece on site warning markers here, and my companion PopAnth.com essay here) I’ve been trying to think through the ways in which human attempts to intermix with the geologic (both the rock and its timescales) shows us the limits of human time-perception and mastery of matter. My PopAnth piece is subtitled ”Why it’s difficult to think like a mountain” and includes the following paragraph:

“In his seminal book A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopard urged generations of future US environmentalists to “think like a mountain”.   Reflecting on this in his 1995 book A Moment on the Earth, U.S. eco-optimist journalist Gregg Easterbrook remarked on how Leopard’s 1948 call had actually left unexplored precisely how a mountain might indeed think. Easterbrook took up that challenge and co-opted mountain-think in his presentation of a counter-reading of environmental change and nature’s resilience that was distinctly geologic in its perspective. For Easterbrook the key point was that a mountain exists across an entirely supra-human timescale. If a mountain could think, it’s horizon of consideration – the timescales that would be of concern to it – would be the truly long term, for rock is born, exists and eventually decays in ‘deep time’.“

In that piece I then go on to consider how specifically in the geologic timescale of nuclear waste disposal, human time perception and attempts to truly ‘think like a mountain’ fail. Yes, we need to try to think like a mountain – it is humbling to do so and puts us back in our place – but a mountain is a mountain and we are human. There are limits to how much we can grasp the full reality of being a mountain, no matter how hard we try.

Timothy Morton – following Graham Harman’s object oriented ontology – can help illustrate these cognitive limits. In a splendidly playful passage, Morton laboriously charts the futility of attempts to fully know a breeze block (a concrete construction brick – a cinder block in the US):

“Maybe if I sit here and wait patiently, I will see the real block. I wait. I become impatient. I develop all kinds of contemplative practices to stay here looking at the block. I become enlightened. The block still refuses to spill the beans. I train a disciple to take over from me when I die. She sees nothing of the real block, which now has a large crack across the top, inside of which you can see right through it. She starts a religious order that carefully transmits my instructions about how to monitor the block. For tens of thousands of years, cultures, peoples, robots study the block, which is now looking pretty gnarly. A hundred thousand years later, a fully enlightened robot sits monitoring the faint traces of dust hanging in the air where the block used to sit. Still no dice.” (2013: 28)

And in contemplating a succession of human and other sentient observers of the cinder block over this expansive time period we start to glimpse the reversal that Jane Bennett denotes as ‘mineralization’:

“In the long and slow time of evolution, then, mineral material appears as the mover and shaker, the active power, and the human beings, with their much-lauded capacity for self-directed action, appear as its product.” (2010: 11).

Just who was watching who here? An omniscient onlooker would see perhaps the cinder block summoning to audience a succession of reverential companions, the observers thus seeming to become the subject of their object…

Making stuff talk

In its own terms Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory is pretty heretical position when viewed against the canon of mainstream social theory – but set against the machinations of the hardcore posthumanists it starts to looks rather tame (and surprisingly sane and practical). Like Morton, Latour finds cause to meditate upon bricks, as part of his attempt to reinsert matter into social theory. Starting with the simple (but still quite challenging for the vested interests of conventional social theory) observation that the process of building a wall entails the intermixing of the social and the physical, Latour moves on to note that the physical dimension is a mute one, particularly after the construction phase has ended:

“Once built, the wall of bricks does not utter a word – even though the group of workmen goes on talking and graffiti may proliferate on its surface” (2005: 79)

The task therefore (for ANT) becomes one of how to:

make them talk, that is, to offer descriptions of themselves, to produce scripts of what they are making others – humans or non-humans – do.” (2005: 79 – emphasis in original)

Meanwhile for the posthumanist / OOO brigades this entails what Ian Bogost calls ontography:

“…writ[ing] the speculative fictions of their processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger.” (emphasis in original)

For Latour this summoning of objects may be achieved imaginatively through the arts, but it can also be achieved via more traditional interpretive routes:

“when objects have receded into the background for good it is always possible – but more difficult – to bring them back to light by using archives, documents, memoirs, museum collections etc., to artificially produce, through historians’ accounts, the state of crisis in which machines, devices, and implements were born.” (81)

As Latour then argues, it is not lack of data that prevents us from studying objects and their network relations with us humans, but rather a lack of will. Perhaps in the geologic turn we see some sign of a resurgent will within the humanities and in social theory to engage with attempts to know – albeit inevitably in an incomplete way – the nature and influence of the not-quite-so-mute, (un)dead earth beneath us.

Let’s give almost the last word to Graham Harman, a master of colourful metaphors that – like this – often mix vivid images with gritty eruptive reality:

“Human theory and human praxis are both prone to surprises from sudden eruptions of unknown properties from the chair-being of the chair.” (2012: 15)

This winds us down, out of apocalyptic revere, but leaves us no less unsettled as readers. What if my chair did suddenly break whilst I was intently reading or writing?

Well, I would be pulled up. I would be forced to engage with the disruptive potentiality of dumb, brute matter and how I was relying upon it.

At its best the geological turn has this ability to force attention towards the taken for granted physicality of the world, and a troubling sense of its potency can be brought home. So, even if I can’t cultivate my geological affect by staring at lumps of rock in tubs, potentially I can get it from the seat or the floor as I sit and stare. As Bennett (2010: 108) puts it, what is being sought here – sometimes via kooky or anti-human seeming depictive means – is something quite practical:

 “new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely, or to listen to and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies and propositions.”

References

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter – a political ecology of things, Duke University Press: London.

Bogost, I. (2012) Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s like to be a Thing, University of Minnesota Press: London.

Easterbrook, G. (1996) A Moment on the Earth, Penguin: London.

Ellsworth, E. & Kruse, J. (2013) Making the Geologic Now – responses to material conditions of contemporary life, punctum books: New York. Available for free download at: http://geologicnow.com/

Harman, G. (2012) Wierd Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, Zero Books: Winchester

Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social – An introduction to Actor Network Theory, Oxford University Press: Oxford

Morton, T. (2010) The Ecological Thought, Harvard University Press: London.

Morton, T. (2013) Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality, Open Humanities Press. Available for free download here: http://openhumanitiespress.org/realist-magic.html

Nietzsche, F. (2003) Thus Spoke Zarathustra  (trans R.J. Hollingdale) Penguin: London.

Woodward, B. (2013) On an Ungrounded Earth: towards a New Geophilosophy, punctum books: New York. Available for free download here: http://punctumbooks.com/titles/ungrounded-earth/

Call for papers and interventions: Post-Traumatic Landscapes (Sheffield, May 22 2013)

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In the third of our series of cross-disciplinary symposia, we’ll be exploring post-traumatic landscapes.

The symposium will take place on Wednesday May 22nd, 10am-4pm. There will also be a screening of Detroit Wild City (dir. Florent Tillon) at the Showroom Cinema on May 21st, as part of the symposium programme.

The topics we would like to cover in this symposium include (but are not limited to):

socio-geological approaches to post-traumatic landscapes; physical traumas on the landscape and how they’re erased/covered over; contamination as a post-traumatic trace; the politics of erasure, regeneration, ‘moving on’; aftermath (consequences or after-effects of an event; second growth); ruptures in forgetting; photograph as a post-traumatic artefact; blankness and invisibility; absorption; landscape and PTSD – hypervigilance, structures of forgetting, avoidance; plasticity (cognitive reformatting, etc); affect, vibrant matter, materiality; the geologic now; the archaeology of the contemporary past (Victor Buchli, Gavin Lucas); beyond the ruin

If you would like…

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‘Is the elephant in the room?’: on what to do with old forts, and who should do it

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The New Uses for Old Bunkers series is currently in abeyance – I needed a breather, and to concentrate on bricks, rocks and earth. However, I couldn’t pass up this offer of a NUFOB #30.

The series was/is about how rudimentary concrete defensive structures find new physical and/or symbolic lives, and I’m rather shocked to see that I clocked up accounts of 30 different types of reuse over the last 12 months. There are a few more to come; one day. But for today here’s a guest piece written by my SHU research student colleague, Carolyn Gibbeson.

Like me Carolyn is a hybrid – part property professional, part culture buff. Carolyn kindly relented to my recent heavy hinting that it would be great if she would attend last month’s Fortress Study Group conference on the conservation and reuse of abandoned forts. In the essay that follows Carolyn reflects on the absence of developers and their funders  at events such as these, and I agree that it is odd that heritage conferences can be self-contained in this way. However, this point runs in two directions, for heritage professionals are also an absent presence in developers’ and funders’ meetings.

These are two worlds that are alien to each other and, as Carolyn observes, they strangely manage to co-exist in parallel. Occasionally there are awkward collisions (the development stopped in its tracks by the unearthing of an archaeological artefact springs to mind) but for most of the time –  for both the heritage people and for the developer/funder people  – the ‘other’ lot remain glimpsed at a distance, as a beast whose intention and world can only be guessed at. Both communities regard their semi-mythical wandering beast with nervous respect, for if their beast were to venture into town it would seriously disrupt their normal ways of framing and doing. And for both camps there is another wandering beast that they both fear: the public, and the unpredictability of its emotion, tastes and place attachment.

But in all cases they  secretly like having these beasts, as bogeymen stationed comfortably in the half-light of ‘arm’s length’, readily co-optable into instructive folk tales to scare the inexperienced with and/or to dampen the zeal of the over exuberant.

As Carolyn concludes, we all need to work harder to get all three of these elephants in the same room (except she doesn’t call them elephants). And additionally, it seems to me – if we did that – we might also be surprised at how much smaller these beasts are close-up.

 

New Uses for Old Bunkers #30 – a guest post by Carolyn Gibbeson

As someone who usually researches the re-use of large Victorian municipal buildings (hospitals and asylums in particular), it was with interest, but some trepidation that I decided to attend the second Fortifications at Risk symposium held at the beginning of March. There are in fact, more similarities between Victorian asylums and fortifications than you might originally imagine, particularly for a researcher interested in people’s perceptions of, and emotional attachment to unusual heritage buildings. Both are usually buildings designed with a specific purpose in mind that usually makes it tricky to convert or re-use them. Both also have difficult or problematic connotations.

The symposium examined the conservation of fortifications and their reuse over the two days. Many of the examples showcased were museums or cultural and educational centres with only a few with more commercial reuses demonstrated (predominantly residential schemes).  What occurred to me as I listened to the various talks, was something that has occurred to me at each similar conferences I have been to:  the fact that we were discussing the reuse of buildings, property if you will, and yet there were no representatives from either the funding institutions or property and development companies.  In a presentation outlining the conversion of a military fort into houses, it was suggested that funding conditions set by the banks and lenders on schemes are highly risk averse- you have to have a fixed price contract for the works which often poses an issue for heritage redevelopments as you do not always know what you will find on a project until work has started.  Solutions were being looked at as to how this could be achieved but what struck me as odd, was that, if indeed we were having a discussion about possible reuses of historic fortifications, and by extension historic sites, why did we not have the very institutions present that might be able to help answer these questions?

Also, the vast majority of reused and preserved fortifications that were discussed were reused as museums or cultural and education centres.  Just from this observation, it could be suggested, as Samuel argues in Theatres of Memory (1994), that the heritage preservation sector is seeking to turn the country into a gigantic museum. Given the amount of history that is “contained” within Britain, together with the current fascination for preserving our historic buildings (BBC, English Heritage, 2013), this could indeed be a valid observation.  It was noted at one point during the symposium that “perhaps we ought to leave some places where people can go and discover them in their own way”. In conjunction with who is involved in discussing the reuse of historic buildings, it should also be considered whose heritage we are seeking to protect and for what purpose?

Smith (2006) argues that, what she terms the authorised heritage discourse (AHD):

“focuses attention on aesthetically pleasing material objects, sites and places that the current generation ‘must’ care for, protect and revere so that they may be passed to nebulous future generations for their “education” and to forge a sense of common identity based on the past”.  

What this ‘education’ is to be however, is also determined by the discourse. This question arose briefly at the symposium with the question of what stories we want to tell about these sites being asked in respect of a former mustard gas factory that made mustard gas shells during the First World War. This seemed to be an uncomfortable former use that needed to be decided upon – do we use it as an education feature or gloss over the uncomfortable confrontation it brings us in the more difficult aspects of our history?

Bennett in The Birth of the Museum (1995), examines Allen’s study of the former penal colony of Port Arthur and the rebuilding of the buildings there, arguing that in preventing its deterioration, lessons of the failure of the convict system that could have been drawn from the site’s ruination were erased. It can be argued that recognition of plural meanings sits awkwardly with the established heritage discourse which holds the view that there are experts who hold the authority to recognise the values intrinsic to heritage phenomena and that those who hold the authority seek to promote uses and values that they believe should be promoted or to promote “the experience and values of the elite social classes” (Smith, 2006:30).

The AHD and those who within it hold the authority as “experts” within the heritage protection environment may be a reason why “others” are not invited or do not participate in the discussions on heritage protection and reuse.  The idea of those who did not belong to the traditional heritage organisations but who worked on, volunteered or used and explored the sites was touched on. Comments such as “we’re working with the owner” (English Heritage) could be interpreted in the sense that it is a mutual cooperation or that those “working with the owner” are doing so to “educate” the owner in the error of his ways. The recent English Heritage programme, Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s past exclaimed, following the introduction of heritage protection legislation to protect our historic sites and buildings, “at last, the freedom to do what you liked with your property was over”. This freedom to do what you want with your property was what the Victorians sought to safeguard in the early days of heritage protection as they felt this was an essential British right. Now heritage protection is afforded more protection than property ownership and it is this protection is often cited as one of the reasons why property developers do like redeveloping heritage buildings because of the protections that are seen as onerous and costly (English Heritage, 2013).

The “other” was also highlighted in the form of other users of heritage sites including ghost hunters and volunteers. Ghost hunters seemed to be viewed as a source of income for those sites whose use was a museum, tourist attraction or educational site yet, and this is purely a personal observation, they seemed to be viewed as a bit of a joke or something that was funny in an otherwise serious business. Yet it is surely their heritage too and how they choose to interpret it just happens to be different to what is considered the ‘norm’ (or what the AHD prescribes if you follow Smith’s thinking). Volunteers were seen as helpful and sometimes the only way to get sites back up and running but again there seemed sometimes to be the view that they were ok but they did not understand certain things about the building or how it worked and it was down to those in charge to put them right or make sure they were on the right lines.

It is not however, only those who seek to preserve Britain’s heritage and the heritage discourse that could be argued to only focus on a particular aspect of Britain’s heritage, Edensor in his work on industrial ruins argues that developers are also guilty of remembering these places for middle class inhabitants and as places for businesses, shoppers and tourists (2005:131). Perhaps in the eyes of both those who seek to preserve and conserve heritage sites, and the property developers, each side is the “other”, each holding an agenda or motivation that they view as being in opposition to what each party is seeking to achieve. However, I would argue that if we genuinely want to preserve Britain’s heritage we need to be involving every aspect of the community and all stakeholders to enable meaningful discussion about what people actual want, what is achievable and to promote a culture of communication, rather than what seems at times to be a culture of exclusion and perhaps even suspicion.

References:

BBC and English Heritage, (2013), Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past,

Bennett, T (1995) The Birth of the Museum, history, theory, politics, Routledge, Abingdon

English Heritage (2013) Heritage Works, English Heritage, London

Edensor, T (2005) Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality, Berg, Oxford

Samuel, R (1994) Theatres of Memory, Verso, London

Smith, L (2006) Uses of Heritage, Routledge, London

Picture Credit: Spitbank Fort, Portsmouth by andyroo74 at http://www.flickr.com/photos/16164447@N03/7841622230/in/set-72157631200002534/

Art + Law / SLSA Slides: connecting mundane law, everyday aesthetics and objectification

Here are my slides from the 15 May 2013 Art + Law Symposium. In my presentation I tentatively explored the co-constitutive roles of the discursive, the affective and the material dimensions in the everyday ‘noticing’ of mundane elements of the built environment. Essentially I tried to pull together some thoughts on how we can understand these daily encounters as processes of non-human objectification. My talk drew together a number of threads from my research case studies – trees, gravestones, quarries, metal theft, recreational trespass etc and presented four features of non-human objectification that appear to determine the ‘stability’ of objects (as practical, action oriented representations): Use, Valorisation, Representation and Affiliation.

This is still a work in progress – and will get refined and written up in due course – but it is likely to become the first step towards the development of a theorised account of how the various case studies and disciplinary strands that I’ve been working on (access/liability, bunkerology, legal geography) all fit together within an interpretation of human representational practices that objectify places and structures within the built environment, and of the relative contribution of law and legal cognition within that object and place reading.

What follows praises the gritty beyond-human realism of object oriented ontology, but then retreats to a human-centred account of object formation, as a representational practice. As such it adopts Karen Barad’s hybrid (realist/constructivist) position. I’ve a paper touching on this in the context of representation as a practice in bunkerology, due for publication in Environment & Planning D: Society and Space this summer. More in due course…

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Postscript

An abridged version of this presentation was used for my subsequent contribution to the Art, Heritage & Culture session of the Socio-Legal Studies Association 2013 conference at the University of York, on 27 July 2013. My presentation was nestled amidst talks on export controls for works of art, the legalities of expropriation of indigenous artefacts and attempts to police tomb raiding / treasure hunting. Actually, there was more commonality than I’d anticipated. The word ‘object’ kept cropping up in the other speakers’ talks (most notably in the legislation that they were reciting from), and clearly even though they were concerned with ‘high art’ (i.e. conventional aesthetics) the legal dimension (and theory/practice tension) being examined in these talks was often hinged around the difficulties of object framing within heritage law and the challenges thrown up by the differential affiliation and valorisation directed towards these artefacts by their different stakeholders. So it was pleasing to find that some of issues I’m concerned with here within the ‘everyday’ were cropping up in similar ways in these other quarters.

Here’s the overly ambitious abstract that I’d submitted for the SLSA conference. In the end, my talk was only able to cover a fraction of what I’d bitten off when I wrote the abstract!

“This paper will consider law’s ‘ways of seeing’ (Berger, 1972) and knowing the everyday material world of metal, stone and concrete. Specifically it will consider law’s contribution to ‘everyday aesthetics’ (Highmore 2011), and will do so by reference to the object/subject relationship entailed in everyday contemplation of four physical structures:

 1)            The Diana Memorial Fountain

2)            Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Two Forms (Divided Circle)’ sculpture

3)            A television transmitter aerial in North Wales; and

4)            Graffiti art on a rock face in Snowdonia

The focus will be both discursive and object oriented, following Harman (2009), Bryant (2011) and Bogost (2012) in foregrounding the materiality of the objects themselves, and then considering how law’s concepts, preoccupations and representational practices contribute to cultural cognition of these structures, via processes of human speculation about, and interaction with them.

Yet, the analysis presented will be a grounded one, for I will show how risk assessment and other anticipatory readings of these objects entails practical rumination on the materiality and agency of things. Through this segue from high theory to daily practice I will show  how the recent work of object oriented ontologists can, via both the relations-tracing focus of actor network theory and the requirements of object and event focussed laws, be (and already is) applied to concrete practical scenarios and material relationships.

The four examples will be drawn from my research into the pragmatic conceptualisation of place and objects by persons who own, manage, visit, cherish and/or otherwise engage with them. In each instance I will show how – via public safety anxieties, metal theft vulnerabilities, property misdescription and quarry ownership – law attempts to ‘know’ these objects, but also how other ways of seeing and desiring these objects exert powerful influence too, and the ensuing synergies and tensions that emerge from this.”

“This is not a place of honour, you should not have come here” – nuclear waste repositories and their messages for the future

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In the 1960 cold war sci fi classic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr, a post apocalyptic history is charted through the eyes and research of an order of desert dwelling monks who preserve the last vestiges of pre-doomsday culture. They problem is they can’t decipher the documentary fragments that they are dedicating their lives to transmit through successive generations. In this future dark age, the monks operate in a similar fashion to those of the pre-medieval Dark Ages. In both cases they are withdrawn into their remote redoubts, praying, contemplating and seeking to extract meaning from the ancient cultural fragments in their care. The irony in Canticle is that the fragment venerated by these monks yet to be, is actually a mundane shopping list.

This blog post is about the difficulties of transmitting messages into the future, specifically warning messages about high level nuclear waste burial sites. This essay is a companion piece to my short article for popanth.com here on the limits of human contemplation of deep-time in connection with such sites. That other piece is entitled Why it’s very hard to think like a mountain, and links its rumination on the limits of human temporality to the ‘geologic turn’ heralded recently by Ellsworth & Kruse (2013) and the notion of the anthropocene, the man-made strata being laid down in the current epoch. This blog post does not pre-tread the steps of that other piece. Instead it will contemplate how time affects the transmissibility of key messages about such places, into the deep future.

There are over 250,000 million tonnes of high level radioactive waste in the world today. It is presently held in surface (or shallow) interim storage facilities, solutions that depend upon human management and power systems. ’Permanent’ disposal will see this material buried within purpose built deep rock repositories. None of these places of ‘final’ disposal have yet been commissioned, but construction has commenced in Scandinavia (and is currently stalled in the US and the UK). Finland’s repository, Onkalo, is most advanced, and over the coming decades over 6km of roadways will be driven deep underground there, with a network of disposal chambers then fanning out from the subterranean terminus.

These facilities will take over 100 years to design, authorise, build and fill with waste. But sometime in the 22nd century they will be sealed, the wastes inside entombed to remain isolated from future people and their environment for 100,000 years (in the US Congress has recently revised this required period of confinement to 1 Million years, and there are signs of other national law makers following suit). But how do you ensure than an abandoned underground repository will remain undisturbed by future generations?

Here we come closest to the monks of A Canticle for Leibowitz, for experts commissioned to think through how best to project the information needed to understand this toxic legacy into the deep future consider that this task might require – amongst other things – a trans-generational  nuclear priesthood  to raise up this technical information to religious-like veneration so that it has best chance of persisting through the centuries ahead. How one would go about founding a religion for this timescale, and energising its sacred knowledge in this way, has not – to date – been mapped out. But the talk, within these otherwise sober circles, is of the greater power and durability of myth, legend, faith and ritual than of science. Indeed, this call for a sect-like focus on preserving nuclear knowledge into future generations has even been seriously advocated as a way of addressing the feared nuclear trade-skills shortage that may otherwise arise later this century and jeopardise future nuclear decommissioning and/or new build.

Onkalo means ‘hiding place’ in Finnish. At the heart of nuclear waste repository programmes is an unresolved tension between those who counsel that that non-disturbance will best be attained by erasing all surface indications that the facility exists at that location, and those who argue that future generations can only be protected against inadvertent encounter with these waste by provision of ‘future proof’ warning markers and related technical archives.

Legislators have decided that steps must be taken to ensure that future generations will be warned of these places and their properties, and that the information needed to understand the hazards there will be transmitted through culture. At the US Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, an underground repository for low level waste that has been in development since the 1970s, that site is to be physically signified as hostile using ‘forbidding blocks’, ‘hostile markers’ and ‘menacing earthworks’. There will be text warnings written in the six main UN languages, plus the local Navajo language, but aversion will be courted also through hostile symbolic architecture-sculptures. These proposed landscape features will aim at triggering affective – pre (or post) linguistic stimuli based upon an assumed universal human instinctual aesthetic reflex. The aim is that the site itself signals its message – following Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “the medium is the message”, in words of the expert report, that “the most emphatically delivered message is the meaning-bonded-to-form in the site itself” (Sandia National Laboratories, 1993: para 2.1). According to the US Department of Energy (2004) the final plan for the WIPP site markers is due to be submitted to the U.S. Government around 2033 (yes time moves very slowly on these deep-time projects).

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Alongside the proposed landscapes of thorns, spike fields and forbidding blocks, the WIPP site will also feature a text based warning not to drill or dig at the site before A.D. 12,000 augmented by drawings of human faces modelled on Edvard Munch’s The Scream it seems that the international experts regard Munch’s potent image as a universal expression of terror. But, if Munch’s painting always carries that allusion, if it can be a timeless synonym for ‘go away from this place’, could it not equally be interpreted by a slightly misinformed future traveller as the advertising hording announcing the concealed treasures of some ancient funky underground art gallery? Conversely, should a visitor to the National Gallery of Norway flee that place upon sight of that painting, due to an instinctive reaction that lingering in that place would be to expose him or herself to the invisible danger of an odourless, tasteless and delayed action dose of radiation?

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The image above is an internationally agreed symbol (ISO 21482) for warning the public about radiation dangers. Jointly developed by the International Atomic Energy Authority and The International Organization for Standardisation it is intended to intuitively communicate hazard warning to a non-technical audience. It is the outcome of a five year project conducted in Brazil, Mexico, Morocco, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Thailand, Poland, Ukraine and the United States. Yet it’s meaning still rests upon a host of cultural assumptions: that red is danger, that a trefoil is a hazard indicator, that a skull and crossed bones is bad, and that the stick figure is fleeing. Equally the sign could be read as a welcome to a splendid festival zone at which there is a fantastic sound-system, free food (served off the bone) and a charity fun run in the right-hand corner of the auditorium. I’m reminded of Grossberg et al’s (1998) retelling of the fate of an anti-malarial programme conducted by the US Army in the far east during the Second World War. The ‘natives’ were shown posters with blown-up images of mosquitoes and spray equipment for insecticide. Upon later enquiring why there technologies had not been put into use, the clan chief replied: “because we do not have any mosquitoes that big”. In that culture there was no notion of the ‘blown up’ image – that increasing an item beyond its natural size will draw attention to it.

In his haunting documentary on the Finnish Onkalo repository, Into Eternity (2010), director Michael Madsen sets his narrator to address an imagined deep future audience for his film, vocalising the intended aversion thus: ”this is not a place of honour. No esteemed deeds are commemorated here. You should not have come here”. But any attempt to deter attention to a site, particularly one based upon monumental scale artificial markers, portentous images and tablets on stone all serve to attract the attention of future generations to such places, sparking their curiosity. In reality, the only effective warning marker will be the radiation itself. Exposure will send the most compelling message to the community from which the irradiated tomb raiders hail.

There must be the distinct possibility that we may not be understood by the future – especially the distant future. History shows that knowledge, and civilisation itself can be lost – future civilisations may regress, lose a central fixation with science and technology. And even if the markers, nuclear-priests and distributed archives work to transmit a sense of aversion to these places, that very knowledge of their contents may spur some to seek to burrow into these places, whether for copper, plutonium or motivations that we cannot yet comprehend. Warnings appended to the entrance to the pyramids and to Viking tombs have each proven to be of little or no effect in deterring intrepid explorers or looters alike.

The post is a.k.a. Avoiding New Uses For Old Bunkers #29

References

Ellsworth, E. & Kruse, J. Eds. (2013) Making the Geologic Now – responses to material conditions of contemporary life, punctum books: New York, available for free at: http://geologicnow.com/index.php

Grossberg, L., Wartella, E. & Whitney, D.C. (1998) Media Making – mass media in popular culture, SAGE: Lomdon.

IAEA (2007) ‘New symbol launched to warn public about radiation dangers’ www.iaea.org/newscenter/news/2007/radiationsymbol.htm

Madsen, M. (dir) (2010) Into Eternity, Magic Hours Films

Sandia National Laboratories (1993) Expert Judgement on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (ref: SAND92-1382/UC-721, p. F-49) excerpts at: http://downlode.org/etext/WIPP

US Department of Energy (2004) Permanent Markers Implementation Plan, WIPP (rev.1)(DOE/WIPP 04-3302) Carlsbad, New Mexico: www.wipp.energy.gov/picsprog/test1

Photos / drawings: Sandia National Laboratories (1993) and IAEA (2007).

Searching for ghosts at Furnace Park

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This is a snippet from a longer piece I’m working on for the Furnace Park project, in which I explore a variety of ways in which this urban backwater can be read and rendered ‘known’:

Today, I find myself back at the site. I’m sitting by the Cementation Furnace (can it really be that it’s the last one left in the world?). I’ve now been to the site many times. There’s never anyone visiting this industrial monument, its plaque and brick recessed viewing point. I’m sat here looking across at the park-to-be site, my view partially obscured by a familiar line of tired cars awaiting attention in the hanger shaped garage nearby. The street beneath my feet is a patchwork of eras of paving, a mix of cobbles, tarmac, faded yellow lines and scuffed curbstones. By coincidence I’m wearing a suit today, and as I stare at my shoes I wonder whether what I wear shapes how I read this place.

Hardly anyone passes by. I look and I look and still all I see is a scrubland site. I came here to commune with the ghosts that the archive tells me I should find here in abundance. But today this is a mundane non-place: move-along, there is nothing to see here.

Yes, this is the kind of place that only makes sense as a crime scene.

I look across to the corner of Matthew Street and Doncaster Street, the site of the Doncaster Arms pub, demolished a century ago. The fat old television sits forlornly face down on the crumbing pavement, about where the pub’s threshold once was. That TV didn’t quite make it into the site. Perhaps the fly-tipper didn’t even try to launch it over the fence, and just casually flopped it out of the boot. Or maybe, with strained back, they gave up after several attempts to manhandle it over. Who knows. There is no record in the archive for this non-event, this act of disposal, this attempt to erase a thing: pre-owned becoming de-loved.

I walk along the Matthew Street edge of the site. Can I see the footpads of the then state-of-the-art playground swings and see-saws proudly unveiled at the 1931 opening ceremony by the Mayor and Alderman J.G. Graves, whose donation this start of the art playground then was? No, all I see is rubble, scrub and subsequent over-fill of this plot. I walk on further down Matthew Street, to the littered bell shaped main entrance, beyond is a flat scrubby plain, bounded by fragments of spalled brick walls. Here was the Council’s Lighting Dept, in its day a proud-looking multi-levelled municipal compound of workshops, stores and offices, the hub from which the city’s street lighting was maintained. But the place that once helped us to see Sheffield’s streets is now invisible, erased, gone: building and all. Yet, courtesy of the Council’s photograph archive, I have recently peered into this now non-existent building, my eyes have traversed the ordered racks, signage and stepladders – a dense vertical occupation of this now empty space.

I have sat and stared at photographs of the depot and the playground, straining to correlate each to each other and to the current lie of the land. I think I have worked it out, but I must distrust this achievement – for, if someone had thrown in a faded picture of a playground or workshop from somewhere else, I fear my mind would have managed to persuade me that that view too was part of the former lives and arrangements of the Furnace Park site.

I hear no voices. There are no ghosts of activity here. The only legacies are those I see (bricks) and sense in the ground (contamination). The emptiness of this site does not deliver to me an upwelling of the past as an occupied place. But I do sense the ghosts that Michel de Certeau sees stalking the inner-city:

“seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories [which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” (1998: 133)

For, along Matthew Street I see the truncated roads, the exposed layers of street surfacing, the fragments of walls that linger untouched in this deadzone. These may be swept away by redevelopment someday, but until then this space is limbo. But those traces are partial, and each layer erases some of the traces beneath. The tarmac of the playground hid the foundations of the 97 back-to-back houses cleared here in a 1920s slum clearance scheme (a scheme reported with pride to a Parliamentary committee in 1927 and proudly recorded for posterity in Hansard as one of 91 schemes approved since 1919 for the “improvement of unhealthy areas”). The convenient spreading of the rubble of the Council’s depot then in turn overtopped the by now perished surface of the playground. The park project will see that surface obscured by geotextile and/or a carpet of pallets and in turn, perhaps, some more permanent erasure as the site finds future purpose when the commercial appetite for marginal sites returns.

I turn and walk back down Matthew Street. I reach the junction with Doncaster Street. Matthew Street used to carry on across from here, into what is now the car park of the HSBC building. Here, until the 1950s was Daniel Doncaster’s foundry. Here, in 1886 was Daniel Doncaster’s stockyard. Here, was where the 18 feet high wall of that abundant place gave way at 5pm on Wednesday, 25th August that year and tonnes of steel and iron bars, bricks, roofing timbers and slates fell onto a group of children playing in the street.

Eight died: Martha Armitage (aged ten), John Armitage (two), Henry Crisp (six), William Cullingworth (seven), Clifford Anderson (seven), Samuel Oates (five), William Henry Ward (five) Herbert Crookes (five).

I conjecture that perhaps Graves’ playground was intended as a memorial for this tragedy, something for the memory of these street children, but then the maths pulls me up short. Forty years separate these events. They were alien to each other, just as we and the site are now alien to either of these former eras of use.