Concrete Multivalence – accounting for regularities in bunker representation

Orford-Ness-2-military-testing-lab-425

My new paper (Bennett 2013), published yesterday in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space is my fourth (and possibly final) academic interpretation of bunker-hunting. In my latest paper I try to show how genres emerge and circulate within ‘old-media’ forms of bunkerological accounting. In the paper I conceptualise four relatively stable modes of representation – the political, taxonomic, nostalgic and experiential – and analyse case study examples of each.

This paper – whilst centrally concerned with bunkers – starts to reveal my wider concern with meaning making practices related to supposedly ‘non-places’. My paper is also a response to other academics (specifically Beck 2011 and Garrett 2011 a & b), and debates about the (so called) ‘crisis of representation’ and the ascendancy of ‘non-representational theory’ in cultural geography. My aim is to show how representation (i.e. stable description of bunkers) is alive and kicking within amateur bunker-hunting and how matters of genre shape how engagements with bunkers by their hunters are portrayed and written-up.

One of the case studies that I discuss is Orford Ness’ hegemonic ubiquity in arts and humanities based engagements with bunkers and specifically W.G. Sebald’s description of the weapons testing bunkers there as:

“the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself among the remnants of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe” (Sebald 2002, page 237).

My quest is to understand why I have to mention this site and this quote in order to be achieving a proficient discussion of bunkers, if working within academic conventions.

As a taster of what I’ve come up with here is an edited version of my conclusion:

Whilst bunkers may well appear ‘nonplaces’ in the sense of places passed by without any regard by most people, they are not, as Beck contends, beyond representation. Instead, this paper has shown that there is plenty that can be (and has been) said about bunkers by bunkerhunting enthusiasts working within a family of identifiable modes of representation which, whilst they evolve over time in order to reflect changes both in bunkerological practice and in the material context in which bunkers exist, are fairly stable at any particular moment. 

Garrett (2011b, page 1050) contends that urban exploration harbours “no temporal or typological constraints to an appreciation of the past”. As regards bunker hunting at least, this paper takes issue with that view, and presents bunkerology, through its representational practices, as referential and structured. Bunkerologists approach (and perform) their practice reflexively through acknowledgment of dominant modes of representation, acting with a “feel for the game” (Bourdieu, 1990, page 66), an acquired sense of what would be appropriate or inappropriate to include in specific types of bunkerological account. The practice of representation thus involves reflexive accommodation to the anticipated expectations of the likely readers of their accounts, working within their “horizons of expectation” (Frow, 2005, page 147) and seeking advantageous conformity to these dominant modes of representation because these conventions “create effects of reality and truth, authority and plausibility” (Frow, 2005, page 2). This ‘conforming’ process is more subtle than that observed in relation to the control of online representations of bunkerology, but it can still be shown.

Strictly, Garrett’s argument relates to the practice of urban exploration itself (rather than the practice of writing about urban exploration). I accept that each site visit—each bunker encounter—is a unique subjective event, but it is at the point that attempts are made to circulate accounts of that encounter (to represent it in conversation, ‘online’ or ‘off-line media’) that the dominant modes of representation operating within bunkerology’s four discursive formations appear to have their strongest effect.

This distinction between exploring and writing about exploring was highlighted earlier in Foot’s (2006; 2007) ability to switch between two markedly different modes of representation for his account of the same bunker survey along the River Lark in Suffolk. This suggests that these dominant modes of representation are not necessarily limiting what bunker hunters notice or feel at a site, but rather that they influence what, from that array of personal impressions, findings, and experiences, is considered appropriate for inclusion in circulated accounts of bunkers and bunker hunting. Thus, some room is left for a prediscursive, subjective, and ‘open’ on-site experience.

But it is likely that the dominant modes of representation will to some extent also shape the on-site experience itself, at least for explorers who are trying to perform bunkerology ‘properly’ in terms of what is sought out, what is noticed, and what is remembered. This is because bunkerologists who wish to ‘write up’ their visit, or simply to ‘successfully’ perform it, will approach the practice of the site visit with given notions of what they are looking for and how the visit should be enacted.

However, even as regards representational practices, the case studies featured in this paper have shown that strong determinism and rigid thematic demarcation are not at work here. Whilst bunkerology relies upon its dominant modes of representation in order for accounts of bunker hunting to be meaningful, and in order to target them successfully towards an audience aligned to one or other of bunkerology’s discursive formations, there is hearty cross-fertilisation across the lines.

Most bunkerologists align to one discursive formulation, and despite Foot’s (2007) dexterity at incidentally embracing the nostalgic and experiential sides of his bunkerology, he is resolutely of the taxonomic school in his areas of interest and manner of practice. Yet bunkerologists seem to know that an ancillary, occasional recourse to an alternative mode of representation or allusion to the preoccupations of an alternative discursive formation may actually serve further to enhance the effectiveness of a bunkerological account. There is thus a ‘knowing’, reflexive rhetoric at work in the discursive practice of bunkerological accounting and many accounts incidentally draw upon the styles and focus of other modes of representation in order to avoid being too serious, too experiential, too nostalgic, or too political, in order to humanise a taxonomic approach or add factual authority to experiential musings. 

Bunkerologists’ ‘off-line’ account writing practices can be said then to be influenced by dominant modes of representation, and their practices show alignment to stable discursive formulations. But it is their active, tactical engagement with these rules of the game that avoids a conclusion damning these enthusiasts as automatons of discourse. Instead, these are knowing, reflexive practitioners of an embodied and discursive engagement with these concrete places.”

[This is New Uses For Old Bunkers #32]

NB: the article is subscription access, but I’m allowed to send out individual copies to anyone who asks me directly: l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk

References

Beck J, 2011, “Concrete ambivalence: inside the bunker complex” Cultural Politics 7 79–102

Bennett L, 2013 “Concrete Multivalence: practising representation in bunkerology” Environment and Planning: Society and Space 31

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

Bennett L, 2011b, “Bunkerology: a case study in the meaning making practices of on-line exploration forums”, paper presented at ETHICOMP 2011, Sheffield, http://shura.shu.ac.uk/3760/

Bennett L, 2011c, “The Bunker: metaphor, materiality and management” Culture and Organization 17 155–173

Bennett L, 2012 “Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers” Gender, Place and Culture, advance published online 12 July, doi: 10.1080/0966369X.2012.701197

Bourdieu P, 1990 The Logic of Practice (Polity Press, Cambridge)

Foot W, 2006 Beaches, Fields, Streets and Hills: The Anti-invasion Landscapes of England, 1940 (Council for British Archaeology, York)

Foot W, 2007 The Battlefields That Nearly Were: Defended England 1940 (Tempus, Stroud, Glos)

Frow J, 2005 Genre (Routledge, London)

Garrett B L, 2011a, “Shallow excavation, a response to Bunkerology” Environment and PlanningD: Society and Space open site, http://societyandspace.com/2011/06/10/shallow-excavation-aresponse-to-bunkerology-by-bradley-l-garrett/

Garrett B L, 2011b, “Assaying history: creating temporal junctions through urban exploration”Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29 1048–1067

Sebald W G, 2002 The Rings of Saturn (Vintage, London)

Photo source: http://www.discoveringplaces.co.uk/orford-ness

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About lukebennett13
Reader & Course Leader, BSc Hons Real Estate, Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I TEACH: built environment law to construction, surveying, real estate and environmental management students. I RESEARCH: metal theft; urban exploration & recreational trespass; occupiers' perceptions of liability for their premises. I THINK: about the links between ideas, materialities and practices in the built environment. I WAS: an environmental lawyer working in commercial practice for 17 years before I joined academia in 2007. I EXPLAIN: the aims of my blogsite site here: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/prosaic/ LINKS: Twitter: @lukebennett13; Archive: http://shu.academia.edu/lukebennett. EPITAPH: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances.” James Joyce, Dubliners

2 Responses to Concrete Multivalence – accounting for regularities in bunker representation

  1. rbnd1 says:

    Hello Luke. Interesting paper. Particularly astute is the contextual historicisation of Laurie’s and Campbell’s writings. I wondered whether you were familiar with the work of Rudi Rolf in relation to typological classification systems? His ‘Atlantic Wall Typology’ and also ‘Duitse bunkers in Nederland’ are very particularly ordered. They sort of build on the figure-ground type drawings of Virilio’s early work, but are much more clinical.

    I have an academic interest in the subject, but also a lay passion – which I can only assume you may have too…? Mine is one that arises from a material fetish (concrete) and a nostalgic position – bunkers (specifically pill boxes) were landmarks that, as children, my brothers and I would watch out for on long car journeys, particularly in the Lakes where we knew of the position of several and would eagerly anticipate spotting them again.

    The idea of bunker hobbyists is interesting – motivations must be deeply ingrained and complex (I only mention two of the influencing factors in my fascination above, but there are many more). The act of researching and planning for the hobbyist is also massively biased by the way earlier visits are recorded and presented, both visually and in text. This can encompass a range of motivations IE not to visit because it is too hard to gain access, to try and visit because access is difficult, poor opportunity for good photographic recording/art (many urban explorer type bunker folk are excellent photographers), not many ‘features’ etc. So, in the contemporary forms of sharing information, there is a much more acute feedback loop than the steady accretive nomenclature and practice of the amateur historian of yesteryear. This potentially really skews the historical narratives of these locations too as seemingly authoritative (very active) forum members often make inaccurate comments.

    I look forward to digesting more of your work on this subject.

    Richard Brook [Re_Map] Manchester School of Architecture

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