Living with the dead – notes from the ‘Community of the Dead’ conference – 30/1/14, Cambridge

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The following are my notes and thoughts from a one day conference organised by Anglia Law School (Anglia Ruskin University) on:

“the contested claims to human remains and our relationship both individually and as a community with the remains of the dead. This conference engages both with this relationship and the practical difficulties of the ever-increasing challenge of full cemeteries and the exhumation of remains in the course of construction and archaeological excavations” (ARU 2014)

The dead amongst us

Carl Jung pictured the collective unconscious, using the metaphor of a house: specifically of waking up to find the dead in the basement. Ian Hodder (2012) has found a real life mirror for this metaphor – a Neolithic civilisation at ÇatalhÖyÜk in what is now Turkey, who inserted the remains of their predecessors into the very fabric of their homes – skulls incorporated into structural columns and the dead buried beneath their homes’ plastered floors. In contrast we in northern Europe rarely visit our basements, and certainly would not expect to confront the remains of our ancestors there.

Whilst the dead vastly outnumber the living, they are usually invisible to us. We only glimpse the dead of generations whose lives didn’t overlap with our own in a fragmentary way. We stumble upon their texts, their artefacts, their graves and – only very occasionally for most of us – their bones.

This multidisciplinary conference looked at our relationship to the materiality of the dead – of our laws, procedures, cultures and technologies as they interface with mortal remains. In these notes I will highlight themes that meant most to me. This account in no way claims to be definitive, particularly authoritative or even complete. It is not a transcript, and reorders the flow of points and, perhaps, finds meaning other than what was actually intended by the presenters.

The conference was advertised under the banner of ‘the community of the dead’ but it quickly became clear that no single community could be ascribed to that title, and indeed none of the presenters figured the dead themselves as being the community in question. The presentations actually accounted for a number of different communities of the living constellated around bones. I will therefore use this multiplicity as a way to present my notes – looking at each presentation as indicative of one of a number of communities of the dead.

Bones and the community of the living

Event organiser, Jane Martin of Anglia Law School opened the conference with a case study based upon her own village and a barrow noticed in a recently constructed municipal cemetery, subtitling her talk “a confusion of bones in our landscape” she set out the quest that she had undertaken to make sense of this strange local hump. Her finding was that the barrow was indeed of recent origin – built by the Parish Council for the interment of the skeletal remains of four Anglo Saxons, from a cache of 60 discovered during nearby housing development works.

For Martin this investigation was anchored in her wanting to understand her place in history – to become more deeply embedded in her adopted local community. Likewise she saw the actions of the Parish Council as that of the living reaching out to the dead – bringing the dead into our reality to make sense of our continuity. This engagement, therefore, was essentially a question of belonging and communion. It seemed to matter little, in this civic plan, that only a fraction of the human remains were being interred in this structure, or that a barrow-style burial would not have been in keeping with the modest 6th century AD fortunes of the village.

Martin concluded that just as ancient barrows were placed into the landscape as territorial markers – using the bones of the dead to make a foundational point about the living’s claim to place – so the ‘new’ barrow was doing just that – making a statement about place and territory in the early twenty first century.

Bones, pipes and wires – the community of function and future

Martin’s presentation was followed, by a contrasting presentation from John Doyle, a Construction Manager working on Crossrail, with particular responsibility for the Liverpool Street element of the project. Doyle’s presentation intriguingly spent much time outlining the elements and aspirations of the complex construction works programme. Through this he revealed a community that deals in change, future and the maintenance of life sustaining urban functions: development and construction. Doyle illustrated the complexity of the existing subterranean realm at the site – of the existing services – the pipes, cables, machine rooms, tunnels and conduits that must all be moved before work on the construction of the new underground station can begin. Amidst images of engineering diagrams, superimposing what-is-to-be upon what-needs-to-be-moved, mention of an area of ‘archaeological’ constraint finally emerged. Thus the 4,000 or so bodies interred in the former Bedlam Hospital cemetery would need to be excavated in order that the utilities could be repositioned as a preliminary for freeing up the three dimensional ‘box’ to be excavated for the underground station – a project element described functionally and dispassionately in project documents as “sterilisation of the ticket hall footprint”.

In presenting the issue of bones in this light, they fell into an entangled relationship (both conceptually and literally) with the wires, pipes and other enabling works. The bones were given no priority, accorded no special level of difficulty or ontology. Doyle did explain the particularity of the processes triggered by the encounter with these bones, but it was this meshing aspect – the bones as just another constraint to be solved – that struck me most.

That, and his – almost tender – description of the fragility of cast iron Victorian water mains, and the great care needed to avoid them shattering when being worked upon. Perhaps this – in contrast to his more matter of fact references to the exhumation of the cemetery – reflected a differential in the level of contact – that others (archaeologists and ‘clearance contractors’ as exhumation teams seem to be known) exhibit care upon the bones, and that he and his construction colleagues are more directly involved in care for the frailty of pipes, the care of adjacent buildings, the care of workers going onto deep excavations and the hazards therein.

I intend no criticism by these observations – I think it’s really interesting that the bones were incorporated into the overall process – they were not seen as standing in some separate realm.

The possibilities that inhere in bone – the Edinburgh University Bones Collective

Dr Joost Fontein and Dr John Harris, both of Edinburgh University’s ‘Bones Collective’, gave a joint presentation each illustrating through field examples (Newfoundland and Zimbabwe) what bones do to people, what they enable, afford, provoke, constrain or allow. They presented these as excessive potentialities – actions that are object forming in the sense that the bones have no stable meaning in and of themselves and become a projection space for a variety of communities and purposes in their unearthing and subsequent attempts to stabilise their meaning, once these “hard enduring remains of humanity [have been] dragged into visibility” for our purposes (whether ethical, scientific, forensic or otherwise). In short, they become embroiled in a “politics of remaking” (both quotes Harris) – both remaking the physicality of the skeleton, as an assemblage of bones, and remaking meaning for the unearthed elements as they pass between multiple hands and purposes.

In his case study, Fontein gave a glimpse of an alien – to us – mode of interpreting bones, with the vernacular exhumation techniques used by war veterans in Zimbabwe, and in particular their use of spirit mediums to identify the bodies, a practice proudly defended in counter to criticism by European observers of their lack of formal forensic expertise with the anti-colonial retort “we use African methods here”. He also pointed to the important role of material culture in the sense making process – that in these exhumations items such a mobile phones found with the bones were richer information about the provenance of the bones than the bones themselves.

Like Harris, Fontein emphasised the processual aspect of bones – that they are caught up in a flow of material and meaning. Their location, assemblies, condition and meaning change over time. As such, their assemblages are made and remade repeatedly. Bones resist stabilisation, they remain unsettled unless and until a final accommodation can be made for them, facing contestation and controversy along the way. Constantly those charged with care of the dead strive to achieve this finality and whether through physical means or conceptual assignment, but slippage remains a potentiality in all cases. The bones cannot be totalised, they cannot be fully laid to rest.

Working with old bones – the community of archaeologists

A number of speakers pointed to the ambiguous relationship between archaeologists and bones, but it was Duncan Sawyer’s (UCLAN) presentation that set this ambiguity – and its essential tension regarding the obtaining and holding of bones by archaeologists in the name of scientific enquiry – to most sustained analysis. Bones have always been seen as research material, but Sawyer explained that it is only since the mid 1960s in the UK that digging up bones by archaeologists has been seen as having ethical connotations, and – in particular – that it has come to be regarded as subject to the exhumation licensing requirements of the Burial Act 1857.

Sawyer charted the course of this recent history, of the evolution of Ministry of Justice guidance and illustrated by reference to projects both the frustration of archaeologists at having to give up research material for reburial and public concern at insensitive treatment of human remains. In doing so he revealed how progressively archaeologists have come to realise that the law does indeed apply to them.

Contestation remains however around how long archaeologists should have for the analysis of excavated human remains, and in what circumstances they might – on the basis of ‘national’ research value – be retained indefinitely. Debate remains around what reburial actually should entail, and whether the requirement to screen exhumation sites from public view serves any purpose – there being no clear idea as to whom that requirement is meant to protect – whether the sensibilities of bystanders or the dignity of the dead.

Bones, flesh and the demands of making and maintaining burial spaces – communities of need

Julie Rugg of York University’s Cemetery Group articulated the world of the policy maker – and also that of burial authorities who must find sufficient space for the dead. Rugg explained that with cremation rates now plateaued at 70% the need for burial space remains a pressing one. Rugg sought to interrogate attitudes both towards the dead, their corpses and also to their decomposition. For her, the stage of passing beyond bones – the eventual disintegration of the remains and their dispersal into the ground of the surrounding burial plot was a part of the process of burial that had least public purchase – the dematerialisation of the dead in their graves. Rugg argued that if policy could better understand this process of disappearance, advocacy of the re-use of graves would be more successful.

This led to debate with Sawyer and others in the audience, who pointed to instances of bones lasting many hundreds of years. All agreed that the contemplation of in-grave decay presented something of a Schrödinger’s Cat conundrum – with decay being affected by so many factors and their being so little research upon it that all are left guessing how long it takes for a grave to fall ‘empty’.

If there was a common thread connecting the presentations, it was an acknowledgment of the processual nature of the ‘life’ of bones – that their status is never final, and rarely settled. They are an affective materiality, loaded with connotations and contest. They speak to something universal and yet are concealed from normal view. We don’t know how to live with them.

References: 

ARU (Anglia Ruskin University) (2014) Community of the Dead web flyer: Link 

Hodder, I (2012) Entangled – An archaeology of the relationships between humans and things, Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester.

Image source: further excavations at the Leicester car park at which Richard III was disinterred in September 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/coffin-richard-iii-burial-site-inside-tomb_n_3671397.html

Lost in the fens, a shortsighted man writes feverishly of shadows

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I’m sitting here. In a hotel room somewhere in the Fenlands. I’ve just arrived. I’ve just walked to the middle of nowhere from  the cold heart of somewhere. It was dark in that town and here it’s darker still, except for the arc lights guarding the shiny executive cars in the showroom at the turn into this business park.

My hotel room is pleasantly warm, certainly clean and my companions are the gentle rumble of air conditioning pumps and vents. In the distance a helicopter is wandering the sky, its beams teasing the evacuated gravel pits and flat fields surrounding this building.

In situations like this  I stubbornly walk, but I’m getting too old for this ‘find the ring road hotel in the dark’ game. I’ve played it too many times before. Everywhere starts to look the same behind each railway station. It’s the same old mud, tarmac and pot holes as I bisect the suburbs in search of my bed.

Will Self, writing about his compulsive walking at the start of his book Psychogeography depicts urban walkers of his ilk as middle aged men incubating slowly swelling prostates. I have no idea how swollen mine is, but the onset of myopia is certainly making it harder for me to search for clues about where I am as the light starts to fade. This liminal world beyond the city fringe and beyond daylight is getting hard to fathom. As I trudge along the road, I see shadows, splays of light, I hear muffled sounds (my hearing’s not so good these days either). Some of the apparitions thus encountered are fanciful things-out-of-place, but many are likely things but wrong. I tend to mis-see things that could readily be here, but – it just so happens – as I peer closer, are actually not. Phantom petrol stations, shimmering lakes that turn out to the loading bays of distribution sheds, that kind of thing. Maybe they lie in real form around the next bend in the road, just over the brow of the next hill.

Maybe.

And so now I sit.

I’m meant to be reading. I’m supposed to be on a self-imposed break from blogging. 

And I sit.

Really, I’m not supposed to be doing this kind of stuff at the moment.

I sit back.

Nice sturdy chair, gentle carpet beneath my feet, a strong floor, the reception desk below all marble effect and welcoming smiles, the concrete foundation slab beneath, then engineered clay, geotextile matting, capillary drainage runs and thereafter tonnes and tonnes of still rotting rubbish, quietly gurgling in a pitch beyond my failing earshot, the remains of long forgotten meals, long lost toys, accidents and incidents of daily lives all slumbering in the heap beneath my feet as the air conditioning lulls me gently to sleep.

In the bunker, the last man

Oooh, I’m going to do so much with this clip in 2014. Now that I’ve tracked it down (from the depths of fond memory) I’ve realised how well it will work as a focal point for the various bunker talks I’m booked to give later this year.

Lost (the TV show) lies close to the heart of my bunker obsession. The series got ever weaker (and incredulous) as it progressed, but in the first two series the tension and mystery of a strange island was fresh and energising, and there was a physical network of strangeness for the protagonists to trace and make sense of: an interconnected array of sealed concrete bunkers. Big ones, small ones, fat ones, thin ones: all signifying something (in the past or the present, which was splendidly unclear) that the explorers were struggling to make sense of.

Series 2 opens with this clip: a sudden view of someone very at home inside a cosy bachelor pad somewhere, a man at ease with himself, self contained with all that he needs. The music plays, the machines whir, his calm and contented morning rituals are enacted. But then the scene distorts, an industrial scale daily inoculation, dust, uncovenanted movement upon the record deck. Darkness, guns, uniform, surveillance – all as a sudden lurch to a defensive mode. Then our eyes travel up, up a rough hewn dirt encrusted shaft. Up to an open hatch at the surface and the fascinated/terrified faces of the two bunkerological explorers, contemplating the unknown-to-them in the chamber below, and their next move.

The Lost bunker clip gives me a wonderful vehicle to work through many themes, some of them related to my 2013‘men ‘n’ bunkers’ Gender, Place and Culture paper, others more to do with my 2011 Culture and Organisation paper on the bunker’s image/materiality relationship – a duality splendidly captured in both the clip and the following quote from Tom Vanderbilt:

“While actual shelters were usually dark, cramped, mildewed affairs, in the realm of the subconscious desire they were always spacious, ridiculously well-stocked playrooms with artificial sunlight and state-of-the-art entertainment systems, inhabitable for years and years.” (Survival City, 2002, 110)

So, for now, a teaser…

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How the city appears: towards a legal psychogeography of the dropped kerb

This is a forward-looking plug for Walking Inside Out a compendium of essays on contemporary British psychogeography to be edited by Tina Richardson (@concretepost) as part of  Rowman and Littlefield International’s book series on Place, Memory and Affect. The book is due to be published in Autumn 2015.

There’s an overview of this project at Tina’s Particulations blog:

http://particulations.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/walking-inside-out-contemporary-british.html.

As Tina writes there:

“The book will open with a history of British psychogeography, thus situating the current swell within its chronological context. It will introduce the terms that are often used within the field and the key thinkers within the urban walking lineage. Discussing the current state of British psychogeography, the introduction will explore the historical problems within the field, dealing with some of the contemporary detractors of the subject and will introduce the various forms of output that explorations of the city take, whether they be in film form, such as Patrick Keiller’s political and architectural films about London, or the creative literary texts of Iain Sinclair.

Contributions will be from academics and researchers specialising in the field, and from those working in the area of urban walking who are not based in academia, ranging from literary writers to artists. Because of this approach the selection of essays offer a breadth and richness that can only exist when different perspectives come together under one volume. The voices expressed will highlight and explore the setting and climate as it is for psychogeography in the UK in the 21st Century. They will provide current examples of contemporary psychogeographical practices and how they are used, show how a critical form of walking can highlight easily overlooked urban phenomenon, and examine the impact that everyday life in the city has on the individual. Case studies will also be included that offer a British perspective of international spaces, from the postmodern space of Los Angeles to the post-communist city in Europe, thus offering an international direction to the volume, too. This volume also attempts to deemphasise the prevalence of London-centric psychogeographical texts, which seem to be the ones that predominate, by offering essays on cities like Manchester and Leeds, and geographical areas like Tyneside and Powys. The style of the essays will range from accounts of walks from urban walkers themselves, to theoretical texts that help to analyse the practice itself and ground it methodologically. This book proposes to be representative of psychogeography as it is in Britain today and aims to become the first dedicated academic volume on the subject: accessible to scholars, students and urban walkers alike.”

It’s great that the project brings together a wide spectrum of ‘urban walkers’, some academic, some not. Inevitably, Tina has had to be selective and there are many others who could have been featured if space had permitted – but I think the cross section that Tina has assembled will produce a very good account of the (many) ways and purposes towards which broadly psychogeographical sensibilities are being applied in both urban studies, the creative arts and good old mind-engaged curious walking.

I’m one of the contributors who has made it through to the final selection. I will now have to pull my finger out and explain what I see as the link between psychogeography and legal geography. I may even have a go at saying this out loud as my contribution to the August 2014 RGS session on Legal Geography.

But for now, here’s my abstract from Walking Inside Out. My essay will be within a section Tina’s headed ‘How the City Appears’. In my research work I’m fascinated by how different disciplines / practices foreground different aspects of the material environment that they are in. Law is one of those filters and there’s fun to be had (really, there is) in playing with the two senses of ‘law’ – first as lawyers use it and second as used by Guy Debord in framing his vision of psychogeography back in 1955:

“Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” 

Another theme I want to blend in is Ben Highmore’s notion of a creative forensics of everyday living, captured splendidly in the following quote:

“Surrealism is about an effort, an energy, to find the marvellous in the everyday, to recognise the everyday as a dynamic montage of elements, to make it strange so that its strangeness can be recognized. The classic Surrealist can be seen as Sherlock Holmes-like: faced with the deadly boredom of the everyday, the Surrealist takes to the street, working to find and create the marvellousness of the everyday.” (2002: 56)

I’ve touched on this forensic angle in an earlier blog post:

https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/trace-absence-and-the-concrete-reading-non-places-as-event-spaces/

Highmore also speaks of Sherlock Holmes’ gift of being able to take everyday objects and to discover the stories of those associated with them. Holmes floods meaning into the seemingly insignificance of matter surrounding him – by being attentive to the banal, the elementary.

So, my contribution to Walking Inside Out will be an attempt to excavate something elementary from looking, standing, walking, researching and thinking about a nondescript section of pavement. So, finally – for now – here’s my abstract for the project:

Towards a legal psychogeography of the dropped kerb

This title has been haunting me for a number of years. It started out as a private joke, but then increasingly I came to take it seriously as a way of explaining how I see contemporary psychogeographical sensibilities as helpful to my attempts to investigate law’s contribution towards the ordering of daily encounters with mundane physical aspects of the urban realm.  Not many methods of legal or social science scholarship give you a way of meaningfully investigating the prosaic. But Ben Highmore, drawing on the work of theorists like Georg Simmel, Michel De Certeau, Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, has helpfully sketched out ways in which surrealism and other essential psychogeographical strategies give us tools to excavate the interplay of symbols, affects and materialities that make up the built environment and our daily experience of it. In my chapter I will set out a psychogeographically informed account of the multiple lives of a small spot of pavement, in order to explicate this rich realm, and its various facets and tensions. In doing so I will also reflect on the novelty of this approach, and the survival strategies that I have evolved in order to endeavour to justify this preoccupation and set of methodological strategies within the academic disciplines to which I am affiliated.”

References:

Debord, G. (1955) “Introduction to a critique of urban geography” Les Levres Nues, 6 http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Highmore, B. (2002) Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, Routledge: London

Image credit: http://cave-city.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/how-sherlock-stayed-alive-part-2-where.html, a blog post on a fan site for BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ series in which very thorough attempts are made to deduce from the arrangement of the street scene whether Sherlock [who’s not a real person anyway] did or did not fall from a tall building onto the pavement beneath

CFP – RGS 2014 – Cold War Bunkers: exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath

CALL FOR PAPERS

Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference,

London 26-29 August 2014

 

Proposed sessions on:

 

Cold War Bunkers:

exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath

 

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Session Convenors:

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University), Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) and John Beck (University of Westminster)

 

“… the closer I came to the ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where I was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.”

W.G. Sebald (2002) The Rings of Saturn, London: Vintage (trans. Michael Hulse)

The Cold War era defensive concrete structures that proliferated in the late Twentieth century were a co-production of myriad material and discursive processes. The proposed sessions seek to investigate this meld by bringing together contributions from scholars working across a number of disciplines (geography, tourism, cultural studies, politics, history and archaeology to name a few). The sessions will explore the histories, meanings, materialities and fates of Cold War Bunkers, across a range of scales; from individual human encounters to their role as semi-secret nodes and exceptional spaces in global geo-political systems.

Virilio (2009) has pointed out the ‘cryptic’ characters of bunkers. Like stone chambers beneath Christian churches, they function as places of shelter, worship and salvation. Beck (2011) has written of the ‘ambivalence’ of host cultures to the decaying remains of these structures, and of how no settled meaning is possible for these now abandoned places given their apocalyptic but also contingent nature: for, these are remnants of a war that never was, places of preparation for an endtime that never came. Others (McCamley 2007; Bennett 2011, 2013) have written of those who engage in eager and earnest projection of meaning onto these places, many of whom seem inspired to do so in order to make sense of that era of brooding melancholy attached to prospective nuclear war.

This proposed session seeks papers that examine the origins and operational life of these places, of their subsequent acculturation (or lack of it), of their material legacies and attempted repurposing. A broad range of papers are invited, approaching bunkers at a variety of scales, perspectives and national contexts. The contributions might – for example – be case studies, analysis of bunker imagery in media representations, empirical studies of public engagement with bunker ‘museums’ and/or theoretical treatments of the meaning/matter meld that bunkers comprise.

Submissions might also address such matters as:

  • The excavation of the ‘secret’ history of specific bunkers – and/or analysis of bunkers’  intentional and inadvertent secrecy, of the changing status of such sites and the techniques of investigation
  • The bunker as an exceptional space at the intersection of sovereign and bio-power; how can the history of particular sites and particularly their decommissioning be fed into theories of sovereign power and legal exceptionality?
  • The significance of the subterranean nature of most bunkers – their hiddenness from sight and encounter; their womb-like properties; their primitivism; their confinement; the costly hubris of going underground; the hyper-control required or enabled in subterranean dwelling
  • The gap between fantasy and reality – ‘space age bachelor pad’ vs ‘concrete submarine’ (Vanderbilt 2002); local improvisation and vernacular styling in bunker construction; the nuclear bunker as concrete fantasy, a space where geopolitical fantasy materialises
  • Civil defence and the encouragement (or suppression) of private bunker building
  • The link between bunkers, modernism and civic infrastructure (e.g. telecommunications networks and their bunkerization)
  • The fate and aftermath of these bunkers: studies of decommissioning (policy and reality); markets in purchasing and reusing bunkers; the (in)significance of public perception in attempted reuse; the preservation of cold war heritage
  • Artistic engagements with bunkers
  • Oral history and reminiscence work with bunker personnel
  • The influence of bunker engineering on Brutalism (and vice versa)
  • Bunker hunters and their motivations
  • The (post) modern bunker – how has the bunker evolved?

How to propose a contribution:

Please submit an abstract (maximum 250 words) and single paragraph biography (including institutional and disciplinary affiliation) to Luke Bennett (l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk) by 15 February 2014.

Further information about the conference, venue, delegate fee etc is available via the RGS website: www.rgs.org

Each selected presenter will have a 15 minutes slot, with PowerPoint facilities provided. The sessions are subject to approval/adoption by the RGS.