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

 

 

 

Towards a legal psychogeography: counter-reverie, overdetermined texts and the ghosts of waterlogged ditches

LW378-MC-Escher-Puddle-1952

“Momentarily distracted from his plans by the chirping of some unnameable night bird, he looks eastwards across the brightly lit Edgware Way, towards the high ground at Edgewarebury. Perhaps moved by some spontaneous memory of childhood holidays spent in the New Forest, his imagination lingers in the woods and fields like a slowly drifting plant community and then dissolves into ditches lined with black waterlogged leaves – a residue of previous summers – and the ghosts of dead insects”

Nick Papadimitriou (2012) Scarp: In Search of London’s Outer Limits, London: Sceptre, p.20).

I’ve recently had a substantially revised version of my chapter for Tina Richardson’s (2015) Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography edited collection published in the French geography journal, Revue Géographique de l’Est. Its free to access here. In the article I keep my play with two passages from Scarp, and my desire to examine counter-reverie, the way in which dry, serious, mundane reality crashes back to mind after the type of momentary drift into the elemental undergrowth as depicted by Papadimitriou in the passage above. But whereas in the original book chapter I came to this point by introducing psychogeography to the potential for fertilisation with contemporary legal geography (and its fascination with the prosaics of background dry, serious, mundane reality) in the French journal version I’m writing for a legal geography audience, so run the intro in the other direction: introducing legal geographers to psychogeography.

In Spatial Detectives (Bennett & Layard, 2015) Antonia Layard and I endorsed Braverman et al’s (2014) call for legal geographers to engage more widely with other disciplines. We also noted legal geography’s emerging interest in how individual minds and bodies in interaction with the material world come to create subjectivities which mediate spatio-legal formations. This increasing interest arises from a new found attentiveness to pragmatism (the processes by which meaning is formed in – and in turn informs – social action) by North American legal geographers (Delaney, 2010; Blomley, 2014) and to the increasing influence of the “more than human” (Whatmore, 2006) turn in British geography with its attentiveness to an affective materiality (Bennett, 2010) between human and non-human bodies. We suggested that, as a result of this conjunction, legal geography could now embrace a fully holistic study of the co-constitution of law and space, one that gives proper regard to the influence of the “affective geographies of matter” (2015, p. 419) upon the experience of place and the resulting situated normativities. But this would require a new open-mindedness: an actor-centred interpretive approach which was both attentive to, and capable of, portraying how this sense-making necessitates a constant filtering of myriad stimuli and contexts, in which sometimes – but only sometimes – a legal frame of reference comes to the fore in an actor’s understanding of their situation. This article explores how legal geography might develop these analytical tools – and looks to the concerns and methods of psychogeography as a possible aid and ally.

In Spatial Detectives we noted that law does not appear to be present as the primary guiding force in ever spatial scene and accordingly we argued for an attentiveness to context, primarily in the form of a commitment to a deep, analytic explication of the actual law present within a scene. We felt that in existing legal geographic scholarship the content of the law itself is often left under-examined, and that only a deep analysis (one that included analysis of the law itself) would explain how a specific scene was constructed. But we also acknowledged that in our day to day lives we are all already legal detectives, we all necessarily enact moment-by-moment interpretations of law, translating law’s abstractions into spatio-material circumstances, and thereby guiding our interaction with places and objects. Thus, to explicate law’s involvement in actors’ cognitive (conscious, deliberative) and affective (subconscious, felt) engagement with the world legal geographers would need to act reflexively, as self-aware spatial detectives, finding ways to render explicit the influence of spatio-legal normativities. My article argues that bringing that dynamic mix of half-thought assumptions and carefully deliberated translations of law clearly into the analyst’s view may require creative exaggeration and/or surrealist-inspired distortion, in order to see, and/or to question, law’s spatial influence.

Our view that law is not always to the fore, and that at times it is at best a barely perceptible background noise has found positive development in Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ (2015) theorising of law’s tendency to recede – or withdraw – from view, leaving its situational ‘lawscape’ often not readily noticeable. The task of the legal geographer then should be to explicate law’s quiet shaping influence over the normativities of place. Accordingly, in this article I pick up on (and develop further) one aspect of Spatial Detectives, namely that a truly holistic legal geography would express “an embrace of the limits of law’s reach, its logic and even its coherence when encountered within the daily world-making of individual actors” (Bennett & Layard, 2015, p.417). In other words, that legal geography would find a way to be comfortable about discussing the irrational and the inchoate within any particular situation and it would strive to resist the temptation to render everything down to a neat account of law’s shaping presence (and whether that is foregrounded or withdrawn).

Irus Braverman (2014) has argued that geographically inclined lawyers are well placed to investigate the way in which places are constituted, because, their training gives them a familiarity with the bureaucratic practices and dispositions of place-makers and imposes a rigor in analytical (forensic) delineation of law’s presence and directive power. In short, a legal analysis can cut through the cacophonous noise of reality to find underlying semantic and normative frameworks. However, this set of talents can also be a weakness, for the urge to explicate underlying legal (and/or power) structures re-imposes an analytical order and clarity that the scene (and the minds of the actors under observation) may not actually have.

I then reveal my concern to show a potential role for psychogeography in the extending legal geography’s project by finding ways a consideration to the ebb and flow of subjects’ regard for law as a constitutive framing of a spatial situation, its jostling for influence alongside other frames, moment by moment; and how a creative embrace of incongruity can be used to challenge the tendency of law to withdraw into the shadows in most ‘everyday’ situations. In enlisting aims and methods from psychogeography, I thereby end up sketching out the common ground of a legal psychogeography.

I explain to my audience that the term ‘psychogeography’ was coined by Guy Debord to define a mode of urban investigation that linked directly to the Situationist International’s (S.I.) radical political aim of revealing the cultural logics by which passivity and conformity is achieved in modern, consumerist society, with particular regard to the pacification induced by urban spatial arrangements. Like many new Left intellectuals, Debord’s primary concern was to understand why the revolution predicted by Marx’s scientific socialism had not occurred.

In an early programmatic text Debord positioned psychogeography as a systematic project, one which “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” (Debord, 1955, n.p.). Debord had studied law at the University of Paris in the early 1950s (but left early and never completed his studies), and thus would already have been aware that legal laws shape the environment, and people within it. But oddly psychogeography never saw investigating the influence of such laws within the generation of urban-political affects and subjectivities as a part of its project. By 1955 Debord was embracing Marxist theory (and its material determinism) and (consistent with the emergent ‘spatial science’ paradigm then ascendant in geographical analysis) was seemingly instead thinking of psychogeography as a way of revealing the ‘social laws’ beloved of classic positivistic sociological analysis.

Influenced by the surrealists, psychogeography developed seemingly playful, unconventional methods with which to expose the oppressive normativities of urban life: the détournement (using something in an unintended way – such as using a map of London as a means to travel across Paris – in order to reveal constraints and possibilities) and the derive (urban drifting) in which through open-minded movement ignoring all constraint and pre-supposition, the mind would be opened to encounter with all phenomenon without differentiation or respect for spatial-territorial conventions.

Thus, whilst concerned with explicating urban normativities per se, psychogeographic practice from its inception had a blind spot: it paid little (if any) attention to the role of legal laws in the constitution of the urban condition. After the failed revolution of 1968, the S.I. (in Paris and its affiliates in other cities around the world) reduced in political valence, and psychogeography slowly became rebranded as an aesthetic critique of urban life (rather than an explicitly revolutionary programme), surviving mostly within art schools and the outer fringe of cultural politics. The roots of contemporary British psychogeography can be traced to early 1990s London, where it surfaced as a loose, playful aesthetic practice stripped of its originally declared political reconnaissance rationale. Contemporary British psychogeography is primarily a literary practice – with derive and detournement being deployed as a spur to follow-on poetic write-ups for the individual’s psychogeographical adventures.

And this is where my deconstruction of Papadimitriou comes in. I use (and arguably abuse) two of his passages for my own ends. After the original 2015 version was published, Papadimitriou contacted me for a copy, and from his subsequent reply I think he was a little baffled by the detournment that I’d inflicted upon his own text. Seemingly I’d read rather a lot into two passages that he’d only ever regarded as incidental. But that doesn’t matter. These passages have a life of their own, it doesn’t really matter what he meant by them. They (like laws and “ditches lined with black waterlogged leaves”) things that are out there now. They have their own lives to live and their own potential effects and influences to weave.

References: please see the citation list in the article

Image source: M.C. Escher (1952) Puddle via https://www.mcescher.com/gallery/back-in-holland/puddle/

 

C.

They’re behind you!: Phelgm’s giants and mining the excess of their event

Phelgm giant

“There is no smoothness without striation. Creation is never free and savage, just as there is no life as a generative principle beyond diagrams. Life or desire is not a romantic substance outside the logic of the norm (which is only a way to reactively confirming it), but rather an inhuman and impersonal potential for relations to emerge. Life, or desire, are always machined, hence the need to explore the real conditions of possibility which simultaneously close and open the smooth paths of creation, rather than simply chanting the glory of transgression.” (Pavoni, 2018: 155)

The van pulls up suddenly, having turned sharply into this side street. The burly driver leans across the passenger seat and calls out to us.

“What’s going on here then?”

There is no reply. Everyone in the line tries to pretend that the question is not addressed to them. And indeed it is not addressed to anyone individually. But a moment later the driver is still there, waiting for someone to catch his eye. The driver’s cab is directly opposite me. Sooner or later our eyes are going to meet.

I surrender to the instinct to not leave a question unanswered. I feel the need to respond.

“It’s an exhibition.” I announce awkwardly. Phrasing that statement in a way that shuns further elaboration.

The driver smiles as something slots into place in his mind.

“Ah, ok. I’ve kept seeing this queue and wondered what it was for.”

And with that he was gone. Gone to the bottom of this shabby road to complete his delivery.

The queue pretended nothing had happened and I stood wondering why I couldn’t bring myself to say the words that were really in my head. I had settled for the worthiness of ‘exhibition’ rather than the exclusiveness of ‘art installation’. Even in a queue of self-selected art fans this didn’t seem the kind of thing to shout out too loudly in this neck of the woods.

The queue moved in slow pulses, one rhythmic shunt forward every 20 minutes as another batch of 35 punters were marshalled inside the former Sheffield cutlery works to see street artist Phelgm’s ‘Mausoleum of the Giants’ installation. As we waited we were kept updated by the volunteer guides on today’s and otherday’s waiting times.

“It was three hours waiting time yesterday. We had to close the line early”.

Entry to this free event would be paid for by its own trial of ordeal – queuing. It felt appropriately ritualistic, our waiting our turn to pay respects to the giants in their mausoleum.

This event – a temporary occupation of a factory-building-soon-to-be-refurbished-as-apartments – has attracted considerable local interest, drawing the arty types into the heart of this backwater zone at the bottom of the city centre, disciplining our bodies and minds to the locality and its potentiality as we stand on display to passers-by. Here we are an incidental installation of sorts. We’ve come to experience the area. But the area must experience us too, it must sniff us out, just as we sniff out fresh cultural fare. We – temporarily at least – must learn to inhabit the same space and make sense of each other.

Entry

This post opens with a quote from Andrea Pavoni’s (2018) book, a complex text that I’ve been reading this week. The book is about many things and can be read (used even) at a variety of levels of abstraction. Put simply Pavoni’s key point (building on the work of Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2015) regarding lawscapes and their engineering of atmospheres) is that law (in its widest sense, as normativity) is always present. Sometimes its presence is clearly evident, whilst at other times it is harder to spot. But it is always there, and modes of engagement that try to deny or destroy its presence will simply lead to a (slight) reorientation of law’s form of presence. Pavoni, then extends this logic to urban events, arguing that contemporary capitalist urbanism will always co-opt (increasingly as eventful “brandscaping” (Pavoni 2018: 168)) any attempt to subvert itself, and that anyone who thinks that they can create spaces that are autonomous from this milieu is deluded.

Pavoni and Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos each try to rescue some progressive potential from the bleakness of their conclusion. They seek to do so through a form of play – a tactical embrace of multiplicity that works with the inevitable excess that any place or situation holds. Just as law is always struggling to consume its own excess, so any experiencescape engineered or co-opted by commerce will inevitably have its own excess, something that is both an opportunity for differentiated engagement with the event or place (simultaneously something pleasurable and painful: the openness of possibility (of ‘happening’) for the participant and the anxiety of unpredictability for the place/event manager, who has to try and anticipate all of the potentialities that could spill as excess from the intended event/place).

And risk assessment – a modelling of those potentialities – and event planning is how that excess is identified and controlled.

So, back in the queue, and as we approach the entrance I’m ruminating on this (and was this – the ruminating academic who might get so wrapped up in his thoughts that he trips on the factory’s uneven floors – factored into the risk assessment and its resulting management plan?). You can never think of everything. You can never cover-off all eventualities.

sign layers

This event is enabled by the developer. They have made the space available. It helps to raise the profile of their development, it gives them a funky urban edge. It has certainly mobilised Sheffield. Is this co-option bad? Would the installation be better, more authentic if it was illicit, unsanctioned? Why would that make any difference?

I sense that Pavoni would point out that co-option is inevitable, and there is no ‘free space’ beyond it. The productive challenge is how you multiply meaning within it. Pavoni suggests how this working-within might be done. His argumentation is targeted at law but his examples are mostly instances of arts practices and (re)interpretive effects applied to abandoned buildings. He characterises tactics that seek to activate the “inoperose” potential, from working within it. Likened at one point to gardening, the inoperose stance would notice the weeds, and find a role for them too.

duty of care

I’m still chewing on Pavoni and Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ thoughts on modes of engagement with the inescapable within and the potentialities of its excesses. Their work – in part – grows out of Gilles Deleuze’s writings, in particular his idea of the ‘virtual’ as the source of this excess and its potentialities and his interpretation of action as fuelled by networks of desire rather than knowledge/power. I need to dig in further and work out how it can fit my needs (and desires!). But there’s already an analogy here: academic thinking is a process of digging into and reconfiguring concepts into new combinations to see what effects that releases from the as-yet-not-quite-captured-by-others swirl of potentialities within any field’s excess. But that production has to work within existing canon and interpretive communities. In short, games have to be played within the board or on the pitch, norms conformed to, pacts entered into with commerce. There is no other, pure uncaptured space outside of these already striated spaces.

So, why should the ‘meanwhile use’ equation of art + empty buildings + commerce be any different?

And maybe the acid test (after Pavoni and Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos) should be how well the event has left open the possibility of other readings – of cross-readings of the situation’s excess, by looking behind Phlegm’s three dimensional creatures.

Phelgm juxtaposed

So, for my part, my perusal of the mausoleum / old factory was trying to spot where the building’s two identities were juxtaposed.

 

And to read the weary, battered signs of health and safety compliance as a parallel event, one showing that the lawscape never fully leaves the scene. Instead its indicia now beat out a contrapuntal rhythm alongside the art – a strange place-jazz, speaking to two different pasts: the past of the labouring bodies regulated here and the invented (but foregrounded) past of Phelgm’s giants. 

 

This is not to say that the safety signage would have been invisible to the other art-visitors, the ephemera of deactivated signage and its authenticity is a stable of industrial ruin aesthetics – and already commodified and aestheticised as such. But even so, the relations of these signs to each other and to the otherwise invisible lawscape is something that only comes fully to the fore if the place is read with a certain forensic background knowledge. So, my inoperose investigation was a legal archaeology of sorts. As I wandered around I was starting to piece together which sign would have originated when (based upon when the legislation requiring them to be put up was enacted) and thinking of them as another slow moving processional movement – this time the year-by-year implementational actions of a likely foreman (perhaps later re-titled as ‘health and safety manager’). What was the object of his desire? Maybe he was driven by a sense of pride in keeping up to date with “the latest requirements” and mapping these onto his establishment. Perhaps he drew his power and authority from this ‘writing onto space’ and his desire was for respect or purpose. Or maybe his desire was actually anxiety: he laid out this sedimented trail out of perennial fear of the accident (the ultimate excess of risk, always waiting to leap violently out from the grinding wheels and presses).

More conventional, front-facing, images of Mausoleum of the Giants can be found here: https://mausoleumofthegiants.co.uk/

References:

Pavoni, Andrea (2018) Controlling Urban Events: Law, Ethics and the Material. Abingdon: Routledge.

Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas (2015) Spatial Justice: Body, Lawscape, Atmosphere: Abingdon: Routledge.

Image credits: Mine, all mine.

Back in the Grotto: elf ‘n’ safety, providence and thrill

 

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“law is a project aimed at manipulating, governing and channelling senses into precise categories, boundaries and definitions; at the same time, it is a process emerging out of the sensorial intermingling of human and nonhuman, tangible and intangible bodies, as such inseparable from this continuum.”

Andrea Pavoni, Controlling Urban Events: Law, Ethics and the Material (2018) Glasshouse/Routledge. p.159

All around me elves and safety, as we walk along the winding path at the come-and-pet-a-goat-this-used-to-be-a-working-farm-once-y’know attraction. I’ve been here before – to this place and to this theme – I didn’t come here as research. A mid December family outing saw us rock up. The place is near-empty, slightly too cold, and not quite close enough to Christmas to have any air of anticipation. It would also make more sense if there was snow. Too much ex-farmyard scrub and scrap remains in view, a blanket of white would knit everything together nicely. But that cold unity would create problems of its own – paths to be cleared and gritted to ensure maximal circulation of this place.

We are given a map – cartoon style (as everywhere) it carves up this place into zones, allocating themes, promises of particular atmospheres and colour-coded do’s and don’ts. The design of the map, and the topography that it represents, assumes that we will walk at a certain place, along particular routes and have particular sensations and experiences along the way. The places we are not supposed to go – the backstage, attraction-enabling, zones – are shown only part-drawn at the periphery. No colour-coded lines of movement run through them. These places are meant to look so unexciting that they will be entirely uninviting. A subtle form of prohibition based upon an engineered reversal of desire – an aversion-lite. It is sufficient for most, though risks a beguiling counter-attraction effect for some contrarians.

It all gets me thinking again about how places are parsed and encoded in the name of ‘health and safety’, and how some of the resulting normative orders are clearly contributing to that goal, whilst others seem simply the modern – acceptable – way of saying, “this is private”. And also that in “attractions” like this place, there is a dual encoding, a conformity to the curator’s perception about provident risk management sits alongside a staging of thrill, simulated jeopardy, or authenticity.

I ponder the tensions between these as I stoop to bend my lanky body into the mesh, caged frame of a sheep trailer and set off on a jolting tractor ride around the site. We stare out at the park and its uncaged patrons, who stare back sometimes envious (we were ahead of them in the queue for this experience) and others who view us as entertainment – a cage of strangers trundling around the petting zoo. Human flesh, in a pen-on-wheels that smells like it was host to an incontinent flock earlier that day. Then the highpoint, first the three-point turn in the otherwise off-limits backstage storage bay, then being sprayed with water jets as we meander down dedicated tractor-only trails amidst the motley assortment of inflatable santas, elves and snowmen. They also stare at us, except for the ones who have fallen over or twisted away in the flatland winds, now facing obstinately elsewhere.

This wet smell-fest assault is hardly the glass skywalk in Shinuizhai National Geological Park, China, where an exposure to fear is the raison d’etre of the place, but clearly we are meant to be destablised by this tractor ride – and we might leave unfulfilled were there to be no simulated jeopardy at this place. We’re we to be feeling entirely safe and certain here would mean that the place had failed as an “attraction” – a place that offers the promise of an encounter with something non-standard, and not entirely under our control.

So, having obediently washed my hands and (having brought our own picnic) not eaten it in the warm cafe area but instead in the designated cold, outdoor shame-benches of the frugal, I decided to offer-up the following conference abstract to the ‘Practising Legal Geography’ session at RGS-IBG 2019 (London, 28-30 August) – see last month’s post for details of the CFP:

Providence in place management: can critical legal geography account for zonal risk assessment?

“You can go there, but not there, and only there if accompanied”. Risk assessment is a fundamental place-making technology, one which often results in the parsing of sites into zones of normative differentiation. How is this zonal arrangement brought about? This paper will examine the practices by which law’s concern for managing the risks of injury to recreational visitors is spatialised. These practices involve the pragmatic translation of law’s abstract fears into site-specific judgements by lay-actors, principally site managers, who as neither lawyers nor professional geographers must perform delicate normative encodings of their places. This deployment of law into place by managers is a two-step process, requiring first their reading of the features and circumstances of a site and secondly, their devising of locally workable rules of being-in-place. The paper’s analysis of these lay legal geographical translation practices will be based on a comparative survey of risk assessments prepared by hosts for visitors to ‘awkward’ heritage sites. The study will show how key ‘risky’ features of those sites are identified, evaluated and presented through the managers’ mediation between safety legislation and other ‘attraction’ priorities, such as thrill, authenticity and affordability. In interpreting this data the paper will explore how well-suited critical legal geography, and its customary focus upon tracing power relations and subaltern identities, is to examining and understanding the spatial aspects of risk assessment and its resulting place management, and whether alternatively Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ (2015) and Pavoni’s (2017) more acceptive legal geography can offer additional opportunities for investigation and insight.

The android’s empty gesture: OOO, irony and the drug dealer’s watch

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“Irony is like a wink from an android. You think you know what it means, until you realise the signal you took for meaning emanates from a source for which meaning is meaningless.”

Ian Bogost (2016) Play Anything. Basic Books: New York.

We’ve met at conferences a few times. He’s always distinctively dressed. He appears to pay considerable attention to how he presents himself to the world. Like a roadie for Hot Chip, he favours a gauche retro ’80s stylee. He comes up to me and poses the question.

“So, what’s with the drug dealer’s watch then?”

I look down at my wrist, and he does too. We both stare at my Casio F-91W. He assumes that I mean something ironic by choosing to wear it. I find myself unable to account for my sartorial choice. Not because I can’t find a reason, but because I can think of half a dozen rationalisations, but I can’t remember whether any of them were ever the real reason why I started wearing this retro-watch:

  • I’m anti-flashy in intention, I’d never wear a watch that declares ostentation. So maybe I chose the cheapest watch I could find for that reason.
  • My last watch broke. And I couldn’t decide what watch to replace it with (I’d been wearing that one for 15 years). So, I decided to wear a neutral, statement-less watch in the meantime.
  • My first watch was a Casio F-91W. It was an object of delight and wonder when I got it as a teenager in the early ’80s. It’s hard to summon a sense of that wonder now – but digital watches were the smart phones of their day. Look at all of the functions. And the buttons. And its so multi-functional that it needs instructions etched onto its face. Maybe I’d hoped that wearing it again (and marvelling that it’s still being made) would connect me to that childhood wonder. Maybe it did in abstract – but I only use it to tell the time. It’s other functions are ignored. I’m served for those needs by even more complex 21st century consumer prostheses.

I mumble an explanation (I forget which one I selected) and offer a knowing laugh. It does the trick and the conversation ends. In my mind the knowing laugh is an acknowledgement of the irony that opting for the most lo-tech option nowadays can single you out as having illicit intent. As I laugh I recall the image of a colleague stopped at airport customs because he had two mobile phones, and one of them was of the near-disposable, plain-vanilla variety. An unsmart phone. He was released after explaining that the suspiciously nondescript bland-phone was a University pool-mobile, issued for use during his field trip. It was not a phone for receiving drug orders.

These intertwined stories – of consumer devices and the intentionality assumed for them – came to mind as I read Ian Bogost’s Play Anything. Bogost’s is an odd book. I’d loved his Alien Phenomenology, or what it’s like to be a thing (2012, University of Minnesota Press) and I was hoping for more of the same. What I got instead was a strange book that seems to be trying to be two books at once. At one level it’s a continuation of his mapping out of his own take on Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), through a focus on the pleasures realisable through an active exploration of the possibilities of objects. But this line of argument seems overlaid by the book’s attempt to appeal to a wider, more general readership via its appearance as a (sort of) ‘self-help’ manual – an appeal to engaged worldliness as more outward looking alternative to (or augmentation of) mindfulness. The book’s rather longwinded subtitle, shows this direction of travel: “The pleasures of limits, the uses of boredom, and the secrets of games“. In pursuit of this Bogost ruminates on the positivity of ‘play’ and ‘fun’. He productively argues that play is not (necessarily) an opposite to work, but rather is a state of interaction with objects that seeks to explore their full qualities, rather than just a “things-for-us” instrumentality. But where it then gets a bit messy is in trying to then destabilise traditional understandings of “fun”.

But, hats’ off to Bogost for getting an OOO book positioned and presented as a mainstream paperback offering. And beneath some of the chatty, discursive filler (that the genre requires) there are a number of interesting, and provocative ideas playing out.

Most importantly, for the purposes of making sense of my ‘drug dealers’ watch’ moment, Bogost offers up a very interesting cultural diagnosis: something that he calls ‘ironia’. He argues that contemporary culture embodies a retreat from commitment to ideas, social positions and material things. Ironia causes us to cloak what we mean, align to or physically do by spraying out a trail of counter-statement and counter-actions. In ironia, our aim is to confound, to slip out of certainty, to defer finality or decision. In my case, to wear an anti-watch permanently because I can’t bear the weight of choice that the multitude of possible watches (and social-symbolic messaging) poses.

“Irony is the escape from having to choose between earnestness and contempt”. Through irony you can appear to align to both, simultaneously. Bogost argues that retreat to irony feels clever, it seems to let us have our cake and eat it,  it leaves us thinking that we are able to live in a permanent deferral of choice and/or action. You can be all things to all people. But this oscillation and indeterminacy produces headaches, and Bogost goes on to show that the ironic stance ultimately produces nothing, except alienation.

Bogost points out that whilst paranoia tends to be a condition of scarcity – a manifestation of (real or mistaken) glimpses of power at work over appropriation of finite resources, ironia is a condition of overwhelming over-abundance – of choices, of matter and of awareness of the possibilities of things going wrong (i.e. risk). Ironia is a syndrome of those lucky enough to be weighed down by an over-abundance of material and symbolic choices, and of knowledge of “how things bite back” (to adopt Edward Tenner’s (1997) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the revenge of unintended consequences. Vintage: London) and can hurt us or at least fail to satisfy our expectations of them.

Bogost also argues that our retreat into ironia flows fundamentally from a state of fear, in which (in terms of politics, culture, material-relations): “we’ve trained ourselves to see commitments as affectations, and only to pursue a commitment ironically so that we can cast it aside if fear overtakes us.”

In diagnosing ironia Bogost makes a interesting link to nostalgia – by arguing that a turn to embrace of a thing-in-the-past is a control strategy, for appropriating a former thing is helpfully selective and controlled. Thus my remembrance of my first watch is fond – but only based on a few of its qualities and my experiences with it. Nostalgia enables us to keep at bay the enormity of things (material objects, cultural formations, social relations) and their risks of disappointing us. Fundamentally it is a simplifying strategy, and achieves its effect through temporal distancing – just as a holiday to a far off place where things seem simpler is a function of (social and spatial) distance from the complexity of the present at hand. As he puts it pithily, in this pillaging-to-simplify-and-keep-at-bay we “are all grave robbers now, even while mistaking ourselves as preservationists”. And the rise of social media has accelerated the pillage, giving us all and excuse [and perhaps also a fundamental need] to “abscond with objects, people, and situations by arresting them into assets imprisoned between sincerity and contempt. Online, we become digital poachers, stealing things’ souls in order to elevate ourselves above them, until we destroy those very things via incorporation or disposal. [Today’s] Safari spoils are made of pixels rather than ivory.”

Bogost’s book (as characteristic of most OOO based argumentation) is full of delicious mobilisations of aberrant mundaenity (as provocative poetics and metaphor are OOO’s analytic method), with Bogost here meditating on the act of sofa-covering in order to make his point:

“Rather than accept either the protected or the exposed state of the plastic sofa cover, irony celebrates the buffer—the plastic—as an alternative. Where grandma deployed the plastic cover out of paranoia that some mishap might befall a piece of furniture meant to last a lifetime, irony deploys it for the sake of experiencing the cover as an alternative to the cheap, crappy sofa that doesn’t warrant protection in the first place. Irony sells plastic sofa covers from the back of a truck in the IKEA parking lot.”

Having persuasively diagnosed ironia and its problems, Bogost then attaches the argument that play (as a fulsome, exploratory and committed engagement) leads to a more fulfilling (and authentic) relation with both material objects and socio-cultural objects.

So, regarding my watch. Bogost summons me off the fence: for “irony keeps reality at a distance”. He exhorts me to “pay close, foolish, even absurd attention to things. Then allow their structure, form, and nature to set the limits for the experiences”. In other words I need to declare for my watch, to accept that it is my watch, and that I have already made my choice of it. I then need to fully get to know it – to explore its affordances (as they assist me), its resistances (as they oppose my desires for my watch-tool) and play with my watch in a way that also touches the other qualities that it has – the ones that are not revealed to me by use or purpose but rather which exist none-the-less. Examples here might include, feeling the warmth of its face after exposure to the sun, exploring its crevasses and their grime-ecologies, embracing its scratches, chips and weathering as they unfurl over time.

My watch travels with me through time and space. It goes most places with me and is usually to be found resting upon the surface of my skin. It is a quiet but helpful (and reliable) companion. There are things I’ll never know about my watch – how it works, where its components have come from, who made them, or what lies in store for my watch, and how it will disassemble someday. Even with playful effort my relationship with my watch will be shallow and largely instrumentalist. But armed with OOO I can be a little more attentive to it and committed to its proximity to both my body and my social presentation of self to the world. I’ll give it a try and try and pass our time together in a more satisfying, connected way.

 

 

 

Withdrawn bodies: into the lawscape with Andreas, Keith and Candice Marie

“Bodies embody the law, carry the law with them in their moves and pauses, take the law with them when they withdraw”

Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2015) Spatial Justice: Body, Law, Atmosphere. Routledge: London.

“Shall we watch a film?”

I realise it’s not really a question. I put down my book and search for something that we might both be in the mood for.

We find Mike Leigh’s semi-improvised black comedy Nuts in May (1976). Originally broadcast as a TV play, the low resolution, 4:3 projection fails to fill our 16:9 flatscreen. The image sits withdrawn into the centre of the screen, with black bars either side of this broadcast that curiously seems deeply, from within the TV, like a time capsule signal beaming in from a different era.

And yet as we watch it is an era that increasingly rings true – awkwardly so at points. Keith and Candice Marie are earnest vegetarians, venturing out from the metropolis to rural Dorset for a camping and hiking break. The film is squirm-inducing account of the breakdown of their calm, assured and ordered orientation to the world. Here, communing with the great outdoors it all goes a bit awry. And as I watch I find myself reading the film simultaneously from two angles. First, there’s a bitter-sweet nostalgia. I remember this milieu, a childhood remembrance of mustard coloured fisherman’s jumpers, folk songs and amateur industrial archaeology. But the second angle is a frame set by not having given my head time to adjust from book to TV watching…

The book I put down was Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ Spatial Justice. It’s a challenging read, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos takes no prisoners in his synthesis of Deleuze, Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) and Affect Theory. Technically it’s a legal geography book, but for vast tracts of the book’s dense, but productive prose the law side of things disappears from view, and this is intentional. Refreshingly Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos wants to show “what happens when the law is nothing more than just one part of an assemblage with other bodies”(59) in space.

This is not a work that plays to the hegemony of critical legal geography, law’s presence (or absence) is not being explicated in order to show and/or challenge power-at-work. Instead it attempts a post human reformulation of “justice” and “spatiality”, and ends up with a conceptual product (“Spatial Justice”) that bears little relation to its otherwise next door neighbour, “Social Justice”. Indeed I’m left feeling simultaneously elated and uncomfortable that it so fully abandons a role for programmatic critique. Instead Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos uses OOO (and Deleuze) to frame Spatial Justice as the processes by which things (physical objects, ideas, emotions) do (or do not) accommodate to other things to which they find themselves adjacent. And in this flat ontology, Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos shows (perhaps) what happens when more-than-human ecological concerns are asserted over a human-centric ethics.

And a key element of Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ theorisation here is that the world is made up of myriad things: humans, oysters, table cloths and money (to use a classic OOO list-painting ploy) and that none of these things are ever fully revealed to any other thing – there is always a surplus hidden in the shadows. In short, all things withdraw. And for his purpose (as a spatio-legal theorist) law itself is one of those things that just loves – needs – to recoil into the ontological shadows.

His book seeks to account for this withdrawal – and to show its effects. In particular, he argues that where a situation is working well, its space (and other measures of its form) will appear smooth. In other words, the situation will appear straightforward, “obviously” arranged the way it is “just because”. In this slickness the resulting milieu manifests as atmosphere. Thus a romantic restaurant meal is all cosy, and (positively) emotionally charged. None of the legal infrastructure that enables the restaurant to register for VAT, to contract with the supplier of those Oysters, or the licensing requirements shaping the harvesting and dressing of that seafood will rise to the surface. But if the situation – its atmosphere – breaks (perhaps through the awkward agency of microbial contamination and resulting bodily distress) then this legal architecture – what Andreas conceptualises as lawscape – will suddenly reveal sufficient of itself, reframing the situation.

And so, with this in mind (and as I search for down-to-Earth scenarios with which to process Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ arguments), I sit watching Keith and Candice Marie as they wander the battlements of Corfe Castle, Keith doggedly “mansplaining” – squeezing the stones, the stories and the view into a totalising, instructive narrative. He’s making it all worthy, assimilating it into their holiday-making. Keith then takes them off to a quarry, and insists on interrogating the sole quarryman about his noble craft. Keith thus strides across Dorset, assimilating the actuality of the space he passes through into his already well-ordered worldview.

By all of this we see Keith (and the subordinated Candice Marie) in control.

We see this also in his hyper-ordered setting up of his pitch at the campsite.

But this is all prelude, for it is in the proximity to others that the ‘object’ Keith/Candice Marie  starts to come unstuck. First they must accommodate to the presence of Ray, a reticent (but harmless) student camped nearby. Keith finds that he cannot control the proximity of Ray, and emotionally and physically withdraws. Meanwhile Candice Marie seeks to engage Ray and to find common ground with him.

Then the arrival of Honky and Finger, on a noisy motorbike finally tips Keith over the edge. Honky and Finger are (by Keith’s judgement) the embodiment of uncouth. They are noisy and disorderly. Keith (at Candice Marie’s insistence) approaches Honky and Finger to ask them to be less noisy. First his approach seeks to active a dormant (withdrawn) civility – that surely Honky and Finger would know how to behave. But when he realises that seemingly there is no civility to re-activate, Keith takes a second line of interaction: he starts lecturing them about the “Countryside Code” and (in the face of Honky and Finger’s blank faces) then summons the image of the campsite’s rules against bonfires, painting a picture of rules signed up to by each guest at arrival, and how those strictures map on the space and specificities of this increasingly awkward encounter. When this strategy fails (when the lawscape has been summoned out from the shadows and even this has failed to bring forth a means of coexistence between these two objects: Keith/Candice Marie and Honky/Finger) Keith snaps and chases Finger around the campsite trying to reign blows upon him with a large stick.

Vanquished, the next morning Keith and Candice Marie conclude that they themselves must withdraw – they decide to leave the camp site and seek out somewhere where they can camp alone, arranging their affairs in a state of solitude. Here they can have things the way that they want theme to be. But they are visibly shrunken. They have gone into the world. They have actively and confidently sought to find its correspondence to the ideas and ideals that motivate their living, but the world (social and physical) has pushed back. They went seeking an immersion in an atmosphere (that of a calm and enriching rural idyll) but instead experience a rupture of that continuum. Friction through encounter with other semi-withdrawn objects, created a moment of crises in which the lawscape was glimpsed (and found wanting in terms of its conflict solving potential). And so, the solution – the route to Spatial Justice – was a withdrawal.

Image credit: http://lightsinthedusk.blogspot.com/2009/12/nuts-in-may.html

Infrastructure, investigated: thoughts from the SHU SPG conference

Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

“Infrastructures are the collectively constructed systems that also build and sustain human life. “We” build infrastructure, and it builds “us.” Infrastructure exceeds its most obvious forms — the pipes, roadways and rail that often monopolize our imaginaries. Social infrastructures are also built, material, and lasting. Even intimacy is increasingly understood as infrastructural.”

Deborah Cohen (2017) ‘Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance’, blog here

So, the idea was to gather together a group of people to talk about how and why they focus upon infrastructure in their research activities. In short: to form a temporary infrastructure of knowledge exchange, of intimacy even. And this is what we achieved at the recent SHU Space & Place Group conference. I’d hoped that we’d presence the often backgrounded infrastructures that enable social life but I think we also got a bonus too, a glimpse of the human within infrastructure: both in terms of a fundamental dependency, but also as an authorship, and fellow-travelling. Infrastructure is of-us and we of-it. As Paul Graham Raven reminded us at March’s taster event, for Donna Haraway we are already cyborgs, beings melded with technology, whether we like it or not.

Richard Brook (Manchester Metropolitan University) picked up this theme in his opening presentation. As an architect he’s interested in how infrastructure is a mega-object emplaced into the environment with varying degrees of explicit attention to design and context, versus the compulsion towards function-determining-form. Helpfully he showed how attitudes towards the formation of infrastructural objects and their networks have fluctuated over time: in some eras infrastructure has been the subject of presencing, or ‘fitting-in’ through design (i.e that the host society has foregrounded it, perhaps as a sign of modernity and progress) whilst it has been the subject of less concern and consideration in other eras. But in most eras design focus and appreciation of environmental ‘fit’ has still tended to follow a “view from the road” rather than a “view of the road” approach for most infrastructure which we travel or inhabit. We are supposed to look out from not look at infrastructure.

Next up architects Cristina Cerulli and Sam Vardy (SHU) reported on their project with MArch students exploring the theme of ‘infrastructures of autonomy’, considering both the ubiquity of infrastructure in the modern world, but also of how it might be critiqued, adapted and made-different. They took us through the journeys that their students have been on, first forming their own sense of what infrastructure is and then developing their views of how it might otherwise be: and whether through a design (or political) processes of addition, subtraction or mutation. Their project’s blog can be viewed here: link

Then we shifted out attention to infrastructures of power generation and supply. Will Eadson (SHU) outlined his research into the politics of district heating networks, reminding us that each element of infrastructure is owned by someone, and that the interaction necessary to create and maintain a system requires a shared purpose and a mechanism of collaboration. Will pointed out how through combinations of politico-technical friction within these systems, the best of intentions can be thwarted, or rendered more difficult than their engineering or architectural designs might suggest.

Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) turned our attention to a historical perspective, by outlining his work researching the  now-vanished 20th century network of power generation and supply in the Bradford area of north-east Manchester. He showed us how through archival searching he has pieced together a sense of the scale and purpose of the colliery, power station, gas works and abattoir that once operated as an integrated cell-like, metabolic infrastructure feeding itself and nourishing outward. But also spewing out legacies of pollution and ill health. Martin’s presentation sparked debate about whether heavy industry should be the focus of narratives of ‘loss’ and whether such foregrounding is (in any sense) nostalgic, and whether it is right or wrong to build the stories of place other than through the interview testimony of those who once worked there. Martin was open and generous in giving his responses, and in doing so indicated (for me at least) that if the aim is to presence infrastructure then the presencing of the researcher (and of their motives and feelings about what they have chosen to research, and why) is a very important – but often hidden – part of the story. A copy of Martin’s slides can be viewed here.

After lunch we reconvened to hear from Fides Matzdorf (SHU) taking us through her ethnographic account of improvised infrastructures within the spaces and places of competitive ballroom dancing. Fides showed us how generic municipal spaces (e.g. town halls) are locally and individually adapted by the competitors who appropriate the ledges of memorial plaques, radiators, window fixings as improvised changing stations. Her presentation reminded us that infrastructure is fundamentally about environmental adaptations to some pressing purpose, and that spaces can be multi-use, adapted in the moment with a venue’s infrastructural (event enabling) affordances brought out by the user, rather than designed-in, intentionally by the original place maker. Thus not all infrastructural function and use is (or can ever be) anticipated by the designer.

Then sound artist Matt Parker (University of the Arts, London) turned our attention to the presence of the infrastructures of the internet, giving them a sense of mass and energy consumption through his atmospheric short film which uses field recordings of the sounds emitted within server farms to emphasise that ‘the cloud’ is not light – hardware is just that, hard, heavy and sucking in energy at an exponential rate. The effortless screen-world of the now is enabled through a physical infrastructure that is located elsewhere, out of sight but with a heavy footprint that is visible and audible, if we know where to look (and choose to do so). Matt’s film is here:

And there’s more at: http://www.thepeoplescloud.org/

Brian Lewis (poet and publisher, Longbarrow Press) then counterbalanced the claustrophobia of Matt’s presentation by taking us outside – first through White Thorns his poetry recital, to the Isle of Axholme, the empty seeming flatlands of North Lincolnshire, where he performs long, lone night walks.

On high, a freehold
of six thousand square metres
threshed by a rotor.
All the feathering threefold
swept into pitch cylinders.

Brian’s verse (extract above and more here) drew into relief the infrastructural features of that landscape – the wind turbines, the drainage ditches and the agricultural apparatus and showed himself drawn into co-occupation of space with them thereby revealing a highly populated landscape devoid of humans. Then Brian took us outside – literally – leading us out into the daylight of Sheffield for a meander past the culverted outcrops of the River Sheaf, the barren straights runs of the tram lines as they parallel the railway station and inner ring road, across a long, confined metal bridge tunnel, that few in Sheffield choose to notice and thereafter winding up through narrow lanes to SHU’s Cantor Building for a haiku writing session inspired by the walk (with some of the compositions scrolling below).

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Then the event ended with John Grant’s (SHU) tour of the roof of the Cantor Building, showing us its heat and power infrastructure and outlining how resilient this building would be as a hiding place in the event of a zombie apocalypse. John uses this colourful metaphor as a way of engaging students in the prosaics of assessing the energy rating of buildings – it being more attention grabbing to presence infrastructure through setting the challenge of finding ways of avoiding encounter with the flesh-failing bodies of the undead than in foregrounding infrastructure through attentiveness to the power rating plates of blank solar cells and heat exchangers.

Thus, in all of the talks the power of narrating infrastructure – of knowing and presencing it for a particular purpose – came to the fore.

Image credit: Isle of Axholme (Brian Lewis)

NB: My spell checking tells me that presencing is not a real word. But it should be, and one day I will try to fully explain why. In brief, it was a term used by anti-nuclear activists in the 1980s to counter the ability of the nuclear state and its infrastructure to hide in plain sight, and involved mobilisation of a variety of representational strategies (photography, performance, writing, archival research) to make sure that that infrastructure’s  footprint was noticed (see for example the work of the Atomic Photographers Guild: https://atomicphotographers.com/). An extreme instance of presencing is the spraying of human blood on nuclear facilities by the Ploughshare activists, as chronicled in  Eric Schlosser’s (2015) Gods of Metal, see also: https://www.ploughshares.org/about-us.