From the bottom drawer: on rescuing three old thoughts about law’s quiet presence in place

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“…spread the parts out on the table and try to work out the relations between them.”

Nick Papadimitriou (2012) Scarp, Sceptre: London p. 254.

A rejection arrives. A colleague grabs for some consolation: “You’re not alone, I have a bottom drawer full of papers that never got anywhere”.

This is a strange sport – offering up sacrificial items to the shape-shifter known as Peer Review. It makes sense to have quality control, but it can produce strange effects. A line of analysis developed across a number of linked intended papers becomes thwarted when a component part is struck dead by The Arbiter. A major rewrite then ensues for the project, to swerve around the carcass now thrown down from Olympus.

Arguments can be refined this way – their salience improved in the astringent logics of truncation. But what is to become of these thrown off, defeated pieces? You place them in the lower drawer, and quickly (for the sake of your ego) turn you mind to other things. But those fragments still haunt. They remain a key, formative part of your other still-living components and their rejection gnaws at you. Over time those voices variously murmur away: speaking of the dead time still locked in them and of the things you really would still like to be saying publically. But you know that starting something new is a safer bet.

So what to do?

Well, for me I’ve managed the murmur over the years through this blog – for every potential project that springs to mind whilst out walking the dog only 1 in 10 is every going to have the luxury of a formal investigation and write-up. As time ticks by (“you’re not getting any younger Luke” comes another murmur) the best I can do is fire off an approximate sketch of WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN. Perhaps in a parallel universe somewhere, a different me catches the idea and does something proper with it. I wish him well.

But sometimes the murmurs niggle away because one or more of the pieces discarded to the prison of the bottom drawer need to live – because its siblings, still in play in various stages of review or public circulation depend implicitly on ground mapped out in the hidden fragment. Here comes the need for reanimation: to stew up the bones of the discarded papers, to extract the vital juices and DO SOMETHING with these fragments.

And so – it seems – I’m currently in a soup-making phase. I presently have on the hob (sorry – this metaphor is getting rather loaded) three reanimated papers which I’m bringing back into the light of day for a combination of reasons. First, because we all have to be seen to be productive and leaving things unpublished is just not playing the game. Secondly, because what I want to write next (about law, ruins and haunting) needs these precursors publically in place, otherwise only I will know why I’m saying what I’m trying to say and thirdly, because the opportunity has arisen to get these reanimated papers published.

So, what I have coming soon is (with the caveat that these re-workings of old rejects might yet be potentially re-rejected, but hopefully not):

The remix: I’m working on a comprehensive reworking of my ‘tentative steps towards a legal psychogeography’ chapter from Tina Richardson’s Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography 2015 edited collection). The aim here is to reposition the argument so that it is addressing legal geographers rather than psychogeographers, and urging them to be more attentive to the approximation and messiness of law’s presence and prominence in mundane situations. In the recasting of the paper I try to show using passages from Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp how attentiveness to law and other formal framings of any spatial situation are present but often at a comparatively low level of appearance than other less formal normative influences. What I will be seeking to show is how a half-thought of law may quietly – but only quietly and approximately – contribute to the making of and action within a place. If my minor corrections are accepted this will appear as an article in French geography journal in 2019.

The reanimation: the second item, also awaiting confirmation that minor corrections have been cleared, is a write up of a study that I did back in 2009. A couple of years later I tried to get it published in a built environment law journal. The proposed article outlined my early thoughts on the mechanism of law’s haunting: how places and people (and their entanglement) replicate in dead-hand fashion established normativities for a site, and perpetuate them long after their original purpose has disappeared. The key issue in the study was how (and why) precautionary signage was maintained by successive owners of a field attached to a countryside pub. The journal’s reviewers hated it. One said that “it was the kind of postmodern clap-trap that passes for research these days”. You have to choose your outlet and audience carefully in this game. The editor suggested some major rewrites to make it more conventional, but I felt this would make the paper miss its own point. So I pulled it and placed it gently in my bottom drawer. But over the years I’ve kept on needing to cite it in my subsequent work, and haven’t been able to. After a few years I tried to get it into an edited collection but that project fell through. Then I saw a call from an online journal. This was never going to be a way of keeping my institution’s REF police at bay in terms of high quality outputs – but getting it published would mean that I could at least reference it in future, more ‘top drawer’ REF-focussed outputs. So, I retooled the paper for the special issue and have my fingers’ crossed that my 2009 research will finally see the light of day soon.

The redux: the third item, never even made it into peer review, it was spat out by a journal’s editors after I had the temerity to submit a semi-fictional account of the making and abandonment of a place to a history journal. Major suggestions were offered for how I might re-present the material in a more conventional and evidence-based manner. But I sensed that meeting their requirements would have destroyed what I was trying to depict – that the life cycle of a ROC Post could only be presented in aggregate, by stitching together fragments of prosaic place-life that I’d found in Air Ministry archives for 100 sites. No single real site allowed the entire story to be presented: the story of what happens at such places of exceptional purpose but of very mundane assembly. Essentially what I wanted to preserve was a view of a very mundane legal element (based upon standard agricultural property dealings) at work at the heart of the UK’s provisioning for the Third World War, and also of how those law processes jostled for place-structuring influence alongside a host of other material and parochial concerns. Again, this is an attempt to write of law’s quietness, of its co-dependence with some much else in its vicinity in any instanciation of place. So, now I’m reworking the ‘story’ (and its contextualisation) for a forthcoming international legal geography anthology.

The above is not to suggest that nothing should ever be consigned to my bottom drawer to die: there is still plenty there which deserves to stay there. But to move wider projects forward I’ve need to heed the niggling voices because sometimes future developments need the early building blocks to be deployed. No one sets out to write papers that they intend not to be of good REF standard – but on second pass, those that have been passed over for the premiership may still have an important role to play in paving the way for more ambitious stuff ahead.

Image source: https://www.masterfile.com/search/en/messy+file+cabinet

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