When the earth exhales

“In times of plague, common wisdom said, the bowels of the earth released their ‘feces’ as venemous exhalations from refuse and other corrupt effluvia in the soil and water. The warm rays of the midday sun turned the putrefied matter into miasmas, which the gentle spring breezes carried off to unknown destinations”

A. Lloyd Moote & Dorothy C. Moote (2004) The Great Plague. London: The John Hopkins University Press, p. 57

I was invited recently to contribute a ‘provocative’ definition of “Underground” to a multidisciplinary lexicon meditating on waste. Perhaps inevitably what I’ve come up with (below) is haunted by all of my recent researching into how previous pandemics were reacted to and come-to-terms-with. In particular, my suggested contribution channels telluric interpretations that saw emanations from the ground itself (earthly bad breath, geo-burps if you like) as a source of disease outbreaks. When searching for environmental causes for the first Cholera pandemic (which hit the UK in 1832) some doctors fell back upon “signs and wonders” type-pre-modern thinking, looking for cause in a recent volcanic eruption, or in heightened atmospheric phenomena: such as aurora borealis or meteors. For instance, on 17 August 1832 Dr Adam Neale observed a thunderstorm as it passed across the UK, and saw in it:

“a body of vapour of extraordinary magnitude, arising apparently out of the earth, accompanied by a very loud rumbling noise. It resembled the smoke of a conflagration and had a fiery appearance. It continued ascending for the space of about three minutes, all of the time accompanied by the noise above mentioned” (quoted in Morris, 1977: p.172).

In time this proto-environmental pollution theory, would lose its more outlandish apocalyptic element and come to settle (in the mid Victorian era) into the influential miasma theory. In this formulation of ‘environmental’ thinking atmospheric infection would come to be attributed to a more man-made (and less natural/divine) agency. And in this more secular and pragmatic formulation, atmospheric infection became something that could be acted against, thereby prompting a ‘Public Health’ war against bad air and the noxious and standing-in-plain-sight urban waste matter (dung heaps, offal mounds, cess-pits and such-like) to which it was now attributed. This campaign saw such waste taken underground, and whether in sewers or in landfill burial…

U is for Underground

Letting go of most unwanted things will – by action of gravity alone – see them fall to the ground. Here they will lie, either decaying into the ground or helping – through their stubborn refusal to break down – to form part of a new sedimented layer, by which the ground slowly rises beneath our feet turning successive layers of former surface into underground. This seeming ability of the ground to swallow waste matter into itself, and to carry it down into an out-of-sight and out-of-mind underground has long been exploited for waste disposal. Following the industrial revolution, and the burgeoning volumes and varieties of intractable wastes to be got rid of, first via the rise of coal power (ashes) and then petrochemicals (plastics), the ‘pushing’ of waste into the underground became the dominant form of waste disposal. This accelerated, intentional, human-authored deposition and undergrounding of our discarded useless matter is the hallmark of the Anthropocene. In the United Kingdom, an abundance of worked-out mining and quarry voids provided ample (and cheap) opportunity for an accelerated undergrounding of layers of municipal and industrial wastes, and until prohibited by the EU’s Landfill Directive, enacted in 1999, the UK’s landfills were designed on the principle of ‘dilute and disperse’. These were not to be secure containment cells, but rather they were accelerated insertions into the ground: matter emplaced there with the explicit aim that it would quickly meld with its surroundings, and continue that onward, gravity assisted, journey away from human sight and attention into the underground. But just as (for ‘depth’ psychologists like Freud or Jung) the burial of unwanted feelings or experiences runs the risk of a sudden, and unexpected, traumatic reverberation, so the undergrounding of wastes can see painful, unwanted revenant effects. Thus methane gas and leachate emanating from waste’s decay can break out from their underground confinement, visiting their poisonous effects upon the surface. Meanwhile seeming stable ‘made ground’ can over-time slump or fissure, as their underlying, and now-infilled, former extractive voids settle, in turn unsettling both the ground above and our convenient imaginings of the underground as an accepting, passive, sponge-like receptacle. This troublesome quality is also to be found in our other appropriation of the underground, as a promise of shelter for our precious possessions (think of underground vaults, tombs and buried treasure) and even for shelter of our vulnerable living, fleshy bodies in times of crisis (think improvised underground air raid shelters, fortified subterranean bunkers). But this sheltering is contingent because the underground is ultimately not a safe place for either our possessions or our bodies. Just as the underground can push-back against waste injected into it, so the atmospheric conditions of the underground corrode, compress and entrap, and the distinction between a shelter and a tomb lies only in the question of a viable route of escape back to the surface. Whether through the lens of revenant waste, or in glimpsing the smothering, life-stifling peril of underground dwelling, we come to see that the underground is never fully under our control.

Reference

Morris, R.J. (1977) Cholera 1832. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Image credit

Zdzisław Beksiński, Polish (1929-2005), Untitled, 1977 via  https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/581668108100749674/

Within the body of the text: exploring COVID-19’s silent spring

“and the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.”

Leviticus 14:37, The Bible

I was required to watch a 2018 training video this week. To foster buy-in, it featured a short video message from our Vice-Chancellor, who addressed the camera whilst standing in the midst of our campus’ busy comings and goings. This background scene of a corridor full of staff and students was enthralling, for it was both familiar and strange. Last year I wrote here about being bent back into shape every Autumn: my  anticipation of the – inevitable as it then seemed – re-filling of the same campus space every September, and of the ritualised annual bodily adaptation that moving around the campus then entails. The eternal return of that scene now seems far from this Autumn’s likely experience. In the video, the passing bodies tracing their paths with private purpose, and there was a hum. That low-level cacophony that you hear wherever there are multiple, associated voices present in a scene. It was the complexity of that noise that got me most, for it almost felt overwhelming, too complex. That sound of the crowd has disappeared from our worlds, just as that density of bodies and multiplicity of space use has been intentionally edited out in the circumstances of COVID-19. In another purpose Rachel Carson summoned up the spectre (via pesticides) of a “silent spring” bereft of wild animals. Our silent spring was the product of an unprecedented mass human withdrawal from public spaces.

The strange – shifted-sideways – normative world into which we tumbled so suddenly in March 2020, is starting to feel like it’s not going away anytime soon. The crisis’ exceptional focus on cautiously self-managing bodily proximity has ushered in what feels like a whole new art of living: an elaborate but ubiquitous  cautious choreography of bodily movement and positioning, a new art-of-living resting upon a complex meld of emergency laws, spatialised morality, and (as politicians would have us believe, recourse to ‘common sense’). These moment-by-moment choreographies of caution, are presently informed by fairly vague rule structures. There simply hasn’t been time to spell everything out, or to devise enforcement apparatuses. Perhaps there are emerging signs now that bureaucratic fine-detailing is starting to take place – for instance my employer has recently issued its ‘return to work’ manual. It seeks to re-train me in how to walk to a workstation, how to use a corridor, how to queue at a reception desk. NASA instructions for a spacewalk are probably less detailed. My – currently abandoned – workplace is now, so photographs show me, marked out in an array of colours, forward-ghosting the desired bodily movements and repose of Autumnal workers. But until we return to such inscripted places, we are charged with the responsibility of self-policing, of actively carrying the general sentiment and objective of caution and distance around with us.

I’ve started to think about this suddenly strangely-explicit self-policing of bodily deportment. For two reasons. First, because my body, like everyone else’s, is caught up in this new way of being. But also, secondly, because is strangely chimes with the three ways in which I’ve seen my own published work being referenced and used in recent scholarship. Each of these references draws out – and extends – comments I’ve made about the link between bodies and the lived reality of laws (or equivalent normative codes).

Scholarship focussing upon embodiment – the fact that we (humans) have bodies and are inescapably fleshy matter embedded in the material world – is nothing new, and social theory has been widely embracing this trend for the last decade or so. The origins of this lie in a broadly ecological sentiment, an intentional corrective to elevation of ‘the human’ to a state above, beyond and (somehow) disconnected from the grubbly world of the plants, protein and photosynthesis that sustains us.

In 2015 I set out to write an essay exploring – and I thought endorsing – a post-humanist mindset for an edited collection entitled Posthuman Research Practices in Education (Taylor & Hughes, 2016). I offered an abstract for an essay playfully styled “Thinking Like A Brick: Posthumanism and Building Materials”. But as I started to write the essay, I found it increasingly hard to abandon humanism. My literature review took me towards writers who seemed deeply misanthropic, wedded to a deep sense of collective human self-loathing. Alongside these overly-dark, pessimistic folk, I came across others who seemed impossibly light. For these writing of the world without humans was liberating, for it would let the non-human speak. But the framing of the book forced me to question the premise – how could education be posthuman at any extreme, human-rejecting level? I concluded that it couldn’t and decided that a soft-posthumanism was the only variant that could meaningfully speak to education. And in doing so I appropriated work looking at the interconnection between human bodies and the matter that they work with. Thereby I came to building materials – to bricks, concrete and stone and to the ways in which they embody the actions and the affects of the humans who helped to create them. It was in this spirit that I found my essay recently cited in an article by Beth Cullen examining the intertwined relationship of landscape, lifestyles and climate in the production of Bangladeshi bricks (Cullen 2020). Cullen quotes me thus, in order to show that it is not just clay that is changed through the making of bricks, but also the labourers too, for “their bodies [are] moulded to the daily tasks, their senses attuned to the subtle ‘voices’ of the machines and matter they are working with” (Bennett 2016, 72).

My next citation returns us to the theme of the COVID-19 crisis, but it connects to this embeddedness – that we are of the world, and that we are walking, talking co-productions with other environmental elements. And here we move from clay, bricks and sunshine to, public health laws and start to look at the way in which we – individually and collectively – carry the law with us: how and we carry a sense of the law’s purpose and apply it to the situations that we face. Thus, in a recent article by Miriam Tedeschi’s (2020) we are shown how her experience of travelling between Italy (at a time of high COVID-19 infection) to Finland (a country then with a far lesser legal apparatus for, or sensibilities of deportment and infection control). Tedeschi talks of how her journey between the two milieu made her realise how the focus upon COVID-19 in Italy had written itself into her sense of being – how she felt, acted, regarded and positioned her body in space. This was hard to perceive when in Italy but became all too apparent when she arrived in Finland. To make her point, Tedeschi draws from another of my writings – an article on ‘legal psychogeography’ published in 2019 and my call for a broadening of legal geography so as to achieve “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” (Bennett, 2019: 1). Tedeschi’s short paper gives a great illustration of what I was thinking of here in terms of sketching a legal psychogeography – for she shows how her sense of normative confusion upon arrival in Finland is a function of her heightened sense of her own body, its temperature, her breathing rate and all other symptomology of COVID-19, as intertwined with her recently learned (in Italy) expectations of bio-political surveillance and bodily distancing. In short, she felt that she should perform and present her body in space in the ways she had learned in Italy – but in Finland this no-longer fitted the spatio-legal milieu that she found herself in. Thus – she realised – she had transported the Italian normativity with her, she was a vector, a carried of that internalised Italian way of being. She was an embodied, mobile object carrying both Italian legal sensibilities and (potentially) Italian-sourced infective organisms.

Sticking with this sense of the body as a vector of law, the third citation is in an article recently published by Joshua David Michael Shaw, which purports to address the ‘legal fiction of death’. Shaw’s argument is not a denial of the reality of non-living, but rather an exploration of the ways in which death as a definitive legal category is a complex hybrid that uneasily bridges law’s quest for categorical certainty and the messy materiality of living (and dying) as a process. Thus, unlike Tedeschi’s sense of a conscious body carrying law as a sensibility, Shaw’s concern is with the ways in which disorderly materiality – the chaos of the body – frustrates attempts by others to impose legal neatness and certainty upon any body. Like Tedeschi, Shaw invokes my sketch of a legal psychogeography, as a way of accounting for “a necessary relation between the resulting spatial order and materiality of bodies that already and always threaten to leak outside its bounds” (Shaw 2020, n.p.) seeing my call for a widening of legal geography to embrace the material-affective as encompassing his concern to show how space and matter must be given their full due in any attempt to account  for law’s operations.

And so, we end, in keeping with our present hyper-awareness of our not-fully-knowable-bodies and our not-fully-knowable-but-nonetheless-felt normativities relating to them, with further images to add to my anxious premonitions of what our campus will be like this Autumn: of sweaty bodies working clay awkwardly under the weight of harsh sun or rain; a nervously sweaty traveller from Italy approaching the uncertainties of border control in Finland; and of unruly, leaky bodies refusing to conform to the legal neatness of categories of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’.  These accompanying images rise up out of textual reapplications of my words, written in a previous era, but now with an added salience amidst a heightened sense of embodiment, and the cautiousness of our present spatial interrelations. And all of the images give us a deeper appreciation of that sense that we are in the world, affected by surrounding entities from which we can never fully hide, and whether viruses or normative sensibilities, which we then absorb into ourselves, carry around with us and which each make us feel and act in distinctive ways.

References

Bennett, Luke (2016) ‘Thinking like a brick: posthumanism and building materials’ in Carol A. Taylor & Christina Hughes (eds) Posthuman Research Practices in Education (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 58-74.

Bennett, Luke (2018) ‘Towards a legal psychogeography: pragmatism, affective-materialism and the spatio-legal’. Revue Géographique de l’Est 58(1–2): 1–16.

Cullen, Beth (2020) ‘Constellations of weathering: following the meteorological mobilities of Bangla bricks’ Mobilities DOI: 10.1080/17450101.2020.1759929

Shaw, Joshua David Michael (2020) ‘The spatio-legal production of bodies through the legal fiction of death’, Law and Critique DOI: 10.1007/s10978-020-09269-5

Tedeschi, Miriam (2020) ‘The body and the law across borders during the COVID-19 pandemic’, Dialogues in Human Geography,1-4DOI: 10.1177/2043820620934234

Image Reference:

Author’s own: Dale Dyke reservoir, June 2020.

On Confinement: Dwelling in the time of COVID-19 (SHU SPG online seminar, 3 June 2020)

IMG_3057

“The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room”.

Blaise Pascal, 1650s

(quoted in ‘On Confinement’ an essay at

www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/on-confinement/)

This time last year the SHU Space and Place Group was getting ready for its annual conference, which for 2019 was on the theme of ‘the comforts and discomforts of dwelling’. This year we were all set to move on to a new theme and we were busy finalising the 2020 conference programme the day that lockdown struck. So, in the absence of an opportunity to move on to fresh pastures, and to meet there face to face, it seems strangely fitting to revisit the restless pleasure/pain duality of dwelling in the context of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The session will run online on Wednesday, 3 June between 11am and 1.00pm. It will comprise six contributions, ranging across the fine arts, poetry, geography, landscape and media from SHU, University of Sheffield and the University of Leeds. Details of the presentations are set out below. The event is free to attend, but you will need to book a place via the Eventbrite site here.

Each presentation will be ‘bitesize’ with an emphasis on visuality and with the aim that we spend as much time in discussion as in presentation.

Collectively the presentations will explore COVID-19’s destabilising of the certainties of dwelling, of its temporal and spatial disruptiveness. Across the talks we will think about:

  • confinement’s amplification of dwelling’s urge to ordering, routine and care
  • the creativity at the heart of (and inspired by) dwelling within an edgeland community
  •  the heightened sense of the importance of the recreational outdoors released by circumstances of its denial
  • the ways in which we make order out of the circumstances of the confinement: how can we ‘see’ Coronavirus, and sense the times and places of its own dwelling.

Here are our speakers’ abstracts:

>>Einräumen<<
Making room within rooms: Thinking-at home/Furnishing-the-universe

Hester Reeve, Art & Design, SHU

bell

I have an ongoing ‘art work’ that was initiated by working site-specifically in the small square bell room of St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney (October 2019). Small square rooms, one on top of the other, accessed via a well-worn spiral staircase. When the church bell rangout the hour, I stopped reading, opened the mould, removed a hand bell and rang it about my head into the large brass dome a few feet above my head. Since that time, I have almost sub-consciously started to amass a series of objects of a similar dimension to the mould. I find I am strongly satisfied –mentally and aesthetically – to arrange these square objects together in my studio, ‘keeping house’ (cleaning, finding places for things, using and cleaning things, making work stations for various projects etc.). Recently, since working at home due to COVID-19 lockdown regulations, I have really felt more enabled to think and create because I have a better balance of ‘sculpting my dwelling environment’ and ‘doing my work’ (the former gets rushed or ignored when busy out in the world). In my presentation I will present a visual essay exploring the relationship between furnishing space and ‘abstract’ thinking-creating. To do so I will draw upon Heidegger’s use of the term Einräumen which has a two-fold meaning: 1.To concede a point, give someone room to air their ideas, and 2:To put things in their proper place, furnish a house to make it liveable.

The Fitties: Plotland in Lockdown

Harriet Tarlo, Department of Humanities, SHU &
Judith Tucker, Art & Design, University of Leeds

We have been staying on and working at the Fitties Chalet Park Northeast Lincolnshire for over five years. They spoke about the project at a SHU SPG meeting in 2016. Since then they have been working on a series of paintings and poems about this long-established plotland in the closed season, at night-time and now in lockdown. They will show some atmospheric recent paintings, read some poems and reflect on changes at the Fitties, particularly those triggered by the COVID-19 lockdown.

slow

Slow: photo by Fitties resident, Jackie Nixon

driftwood

Driftwood Lodge: photo by Fitties resident Laura Porter

Accidental insights into confinement – stories of nature in the city from people with mental health difficulties.

Jo Birch, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

This short talk will introduce some confinements and escapes with nature in the city of Sheffield and beyond: indoor, outdoor, local, imagined, lively, helpful and unhelpful. I draw on a recent research project that used arts-based workshops for participants often ‘confined’ by their mental health difficulties and illnesses and ‘stuck’ in physical and mental spaces. The presentation makes a little space to wonder how concepts such as vitality and enchantment might be helpful. How might they aid understanding more about the value of nature to enable nurturing kinds of confinements and also freedoms during difficult times?

Unconfined? The (un)social life of urban green spaces

Julian Dobson, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

One of the ironies of the COVID-19 lockdown is the sudden prominence of public parks and green spaces. Government ministers have stressed the importance of keeping parks open despite concerns about overcrowding. Yet for more than a decade these spaces have been the undervalued poor relations of urban planning. This contribution will draw on current research for the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Health Foundation with colleagues at CRESR on the value of public space to different groups. It will intersperse this with snapshots from a series of walks and runs around Sheffield undertaken during the lockdown, to ask which publics are served by public space in a pandemic, and who is being made invisible and excluded.

COVID-19 Lockdown: a perfect storm of Geo-datafication

Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat, Media Arts and Communication, SHU

The global Coronavirus pandemic has become the perfect geo-datafication storm. Entire countries came to a standstill reducing body-mobility, transportation, and confining us to our kitchens, while forcing a massive move to online interactions. The heavy fleshed landscapes of brick, road, and everyday life commuting transformed into new flows of datafied interactions. But data is not an immaterial impulse that carries our words, images, and keystrokes through the air to a white floating cloud. Data is embodied and materialised in massive world-wide infrastructures that build a rather intentional and geopolitically defined geography. This contribution will describe the features of this data geography at three levels: spatial transmission, storage places, and material geographies of data. The contribution offers, afterwards a coda with a reflection about the epistemologies of geodata as a signature of a metahuman presence that constructs place and reality, identity and belonging.

Picture credit

‘It’ll Be Reyt’. Photo by me, artwork by neighbour, meaning by Yorkshire. As the metro puts it:

Reyt: Translated to non Yorkshire folk as ‘it’ll be alright’, this phrase is used as a reassurance in a situation, which most likely won’t turn out alright.”

https://metro.co.uk/2017/05/18/10-things-youll-have-heard-if-you-live-or-grew-up-in-yorkshire-6642116/