On being bent back into shape every Autumn

Image result for worn stone steps

“Me, I’m just a lawnmower. You can tell me by the way that I walk”

Genesis (1973) I know what I like (In your wardrobe).

I’m shuffling around the house, trying to break in a new pair of shoes. At times I feel like giving up. My movement has been rendered so laboured by my new apparel. I try to keep on the level, because every attempt to use stairs triggers a pulse of intense sense-data rushing from my feet to my head. The act of ascending or descending has suddenly taken on a whole extra dimension of information. Without this self-inflicted ordeal I would be bounding around my familiar spaces without thought, but as I try to bend these shoes to my will they are forcing me to engage with my environment oh so much more deliberatively.

I take the shoes off. My feet visibly enter a state of calm repose. They stop their manic environmental signalling, but have evidently paid their price in the short war of my flesh on leather. My skin has yielded as much as the leather has in this battle of accommodation. It is broken and weeping.

The start of term brings new shoes and an awareness of the need to be presentable for the arrival of students. My body and mind must be bent back into shape. Summer has let the mind and body slouch. Sinews must stiffen. Confidence and authority must be personified. “Don’t smile until Christmas” someone once said.

The corridors and stairwells are starting to fill with bodies. There is always a week or so of spatial anarchy at the start of each academic year – it takes a while for the rules of flow to re-establish themselves (even with the “keep left” signage). Eventually everything will bed down. Everyone will assimilate to the staircase’s ways of doing. Transgressors will be tutted at, blocked by a properly aligned descending throng. It will soon become realised that there is nothing to be gained in trying to travel up (or down) the stairs against the flow.

And some of those moving bodies will belong to my final year students, freshly released from their placement years. I will be shocked (but somehow also not surprised) when I see them. They will be taller. About two inches. And this will be a product of two changes. First, some sharper, tighter clothes bought with their placement wages, but secondly (and I think more importantly) they will seem taller because their posture will have changed. They – literally – will be holding themselves differently. More confident in their abilities and the value of their knowledge and skills they hold themselves up straight. Their placement have changed them. They have allowed themselves to be bent into shape by the experiences that they have engaged in. Not all of that bending will have been painless, but it has produced palpable change.

Writing in 2011 Philip Hancock and André Spicer wrote of how neoliberalism’s colonisation of Higher Education could be detected in the very arrangement of University spaces, and that this rendered blatant the contemporary view that University campuses are simulacra of corporate campuses, and that therefore University spaces were environments intended to shape students into the dispositions of the “new model worker”. Whilst the affinity between the contemporary University space-aesthetic is blatantly Googlesque (all multi coloured soft furnishings, with an accent of multiple configurations of creativity and adaptabilty) their suggestion that places bending people into shape might be something new is where I probably diverge.

The design of a 1960s university campus embodied its own notions of ordering bodies, statuses and purposes. As did the precincts and cloisters of earlier iterations of the academy. Buildings playing a role in bending bodies into conformity in prisons, schools, convents and barracks is nothing new, as Thomas Markus (1993) has shown.

And, to suggest that students are formed by their material environment is to deny the mutual bending and rubbing entailed in any accommodation. Just as with my shoes, the influx of students affects the fabric, form and function of my university’s buildings, its corridors and staircases. In the short-term this rubbing is the disordering of use and flow. In the longer term it is the physical wearing down of the treads, causing feet to fall into patterns set by the actions of thousands of feet that have passed by before. On the stairs the bodies are shaped by the arrangement and culturation of these risers, and simultaneously the flow of bodies affects the stairs.

As Levi Bryant puts it – linking the environmental conditioning that (for Pierre Bourdieu) creates hexis (physical bodily dispositions within an environment), emergent identities and change within the environment itself:

“…people who live their lives at sea on barges and tugboats such as my grandfather. Their movement and manner of holding themselves is absolutely distinct. They walk a bit like a crab, their legs squarely apart, their shoulders slightly hunched, arms at the side. they have folded the movement of waves into their bodies, generating a form of walking and standing that allows them to traverse the surface of boats without falling over or stumbling. So inscribed is this movement of waves in their musculature that they are eventually unable to walk or hold themselves in any other way even on dry land. The sailor’s body literally becomes a wave made flesh.” (Bryant, 2014: 127)

As Bryant points out, this disposition is not a matter of signification. These adjustments have become embodied, and inseparable from a state of competent dwelling within a body, within a situation and within an identity. They may have stated out as consciously willed, as affected mannerisms, but they have become something much deeper. They are embedded as muscle memory within their human hosts, and in a parallel embedding, they have also imprinted themselves into the material conditions, and symbolic orderings, of the places that those bodies inhabit.

Were we to inspect them we would see the sailor’s comfortable craggy boots, soles worn away at odd angles testifying to the crab-man’s necessary gait and his adventures at sea.

 

References

Bryant, Levi, R. (2014) Onto-Cartography: An ontology of machines and media. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh.

Hancock, Philip & Spicer, André (2011) ‘Academic architecture and the constitution of the new model worker’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 87-90.

Markus, Thomas A. (1993) Buildings and Power: Freedom and control in the origin of modern building types. Routledge: London.

Image Reference

https://www.reddit.com/r/mildlyinteresting/comments/26grnr/stone_steps_worn_down_from_foot_traffic

 

 

 

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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

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