Here and hear: reflections on SHU SPG’s Haunts#4: atmospheres of social haunting online event, 17 June 2021

The psychologist of visual perception speaks of ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, the figure being that which is looked at while the ground exists only to give the figure its outline and mass. But the figure cannot exist without its ground; subtract it and the figure becomes shapeless, nonexistent. Even though the keynote sounds [of a soundscape] may not always be heard consciously, the fact that they are ubiquitous there suggests the possibility of a deep and pervasive influence on our behaviour and moods. The keynote sounds of a given place are important because they help outline the character of men living among them”.

R. Murray Schafer (1977) The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Destiny Books: Rochester, Vermont. p.9.

Yesterday we held our final event in our ‘Haunts’ series, Haunts#4 was focused on “atmospheres of social haunting“. Introducing the session I tabled a definition of Social Haunting thus:

“The ways in which aspects of the past are somehow mobilised – whether as ‘heritage’, ‘community’, ‘nostalgia’ or ‘trauma’ – so as to impose a strong affective (or atmospheric) charge upon a site of present action.”

But I left ‘atmosphere’ undefined, thinking that that would remain a background, unexplored element. But as it turned out (for me at least) it was the mechanisms of atmospheric engineering – and in particular sound (and silence) as key techniques for that – that seemed to resonate across (and connect together) the five papers. Looking back on it there was a trajectory – from silence through to loudness which I’m now going to try and account for.

Other linkings and cross-readings are possible, and the event recording is presented below.

The quote from Schafer above, reflects the importance of the un- or under-acknowledged role of sound and silence in composing a sense of place, and of how ever if seemingly present only as ‘background’, this environmental quality is vital to the formation of the sense of place, and of the grounding of human living (and dwelling).

The focus on sound and its contribution to the affective weight and endurance of memorial rituals (like the annual Cenotaph ‘Remembrance Day’ and its summoning of a sense of previous generations’ loss in the name of a passed-on ‘remembering’) was introduced by John Land’s presentation. John dissected the elements of the ritual and material arrangement that embedded the sense that each iteration of the Remembrance Day was acknowledging and connecting to a past. As John pointed out, sound is used to orchestrate that intentional social haunting, for example the lone bugle playing the ‘Last Post’, or orchestrated cannon fire. But it is also used in order to frame silence: a feature of these rituals that is perhaps even more potent: in silence the world is marked as stopped in its tracks. Symbolically, a portal opens up, a space of reflection in to which the social ghosts are invited to fill our thoughts.

John suggested that sound connects us to sense of a past precisely because it is ephemeral and incomplete. It leaves room for the mind to wander and (seem to) make its own novel connections (though – of course – working within received cultural schema).

This ‘summoning power’ of sound and silence followed on through into Max Munday’s performative reflections on his use of activity and movement to connect with the traumatic experiences of his Jewish ancestors. In a moving clip (not included in the recording below for copyright reasons) Max inhabited a space, spinning and contorting his body in relation to empty chairs around him as the recording of a mournful lament sung by an elderly Cantor grew louder and louder.

Esther Johnson’s short film A Role to Play summoned the intertwined features that compose the atmospheric essence of Bolsover, a small hillside town in Derbyshire, with a dual claim to fame: an Industrial-era association with coal mining and a long pre-industrial association with aristocracy though its castle. Yet, the town is now post-industrial, a fate sealed by the death of coal and the rise and rise of the logistic sector. Esther gave voice to a selection of residents, giving them space to speak of the highs and lows of their dwelling there. Woven alongside these voices, and the visual depiction of Bolsover’s heterogeneous landscape elements, were ‘local’ sounds buried in the background but giving that sense – as Schafer suggests above – that this ambient soundscape is key because it is constitutive: the sound is binding the the place together. In addition to ambient sounds in the mix, Esther subtly features a brass band’s recording of John Dowland’s 1600 lute song Flow My Tears, which rendered in modern transcription laments:

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their last fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days, my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts, for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world’s despite.

But this elegiac reference is truly backgrounded – because the band is performing the instrumental version. And Esther’s foregrounding of her interviewee’s voices is more more positive: yes speaking to adversity, but also to community, individual and collective agency and mutual aid. Whilst not included in the above recording, a copy of Esther’s film can be viewed separately below:

My own presentation – which considered the erection in the early 1830s of a stone memorial to commemorate a mass burial site for Sheffield’s Cholera victims – spoke of the power of voice in terms of the powerful co-option of poetry and civic engagement by James Montgomery to aspire to embed a lasting sense of lament upon the hillside site at which the burial ground had been hastily created. I then – perhaps moving away from a focus on sound – showed how difficult it is to sustain an atmosphere of loss at a particular site. I charted the rise, fall and recreation of the monument, and questioned whether much of the affective intensity originally intended by Montgomery to be seared into the landscape remained: in short whether his vision expressed in the final stanza of his poem The Cholera Mount (1832) had been met for long:

With statelier honours still, in time’s slow round,

Shall this sepulchral eminence be crown’d,

Where generations long to come shall hail

The growth of centuries waving in the gale,

A forest landmark on the mountain’s head,

Standing betwixt the living and the dead;

Nor while your language lasts, shall traveller cease

To say, at sight of your Memorial, “Peace!”

Your voice of silence answering from the sod,

“Whoe’er thou art, prepare to meet thy God!”

Meanwhile, Charlene Cross sought to give voice to a stranger – a Mrs Violet Murphy – piecing together fragments of a life story for a lady who now existed only through the assortment of momentos and official documents found secreted in a box, in a cupboard, in the basement of Charlene’s childhood home. The dogged application of family history techniques – and the affectionate intensity of Charlene’s searching to try to establish who Violet was, and why her archival remains were lodged in her Blackpool home – was all the more poignant for how those documentary fragments took us around the world, but never managed to reveal a connection to the home (or the town) in which her documents were found. Presented as though a detective story, the reveal – that the question of connection could not be answered – provocatively disrupted and denied assumptions that (even with the Internet) all of the past, and the people and places that may be partially recallable from it, can be neatly fitted back together.

But, as with Max’s summoning of his ancestors life-defining moments, and as with Esther’s giving voice to her interviewees, so Charlene’s act of generous, inquisitive care offered to a stranger in summoning Violet’s life by narrating to us what she had found out brings new pertinence to a popular quoted fragment of Schafer’s key 1977 text: that “hearing is a way of touching at a distance,” (p.11). Although (of course) – and to echo a closing theme of my own talk – this assumes that Violet Murphy actually wanted to be remembered and also raises the question of whether the urge to remember a stranger, just as the urge to renovate a derelict proto-Victorian monument, is an act of care-for-the-past or more a sign of our own contemporary magpie (selective appropriation) tendencies. As the Ghost Lab folk would put it (as ably summarised by Max), remembering the past and its social ghosts can have positive effects in the present and aid action towards future-making, but (as Esther’s film also suggests) to overly dwell on (for example) the loss of past collective identity (e.g. valiant coal mining labouring) could blind us to the (actual or latent) agency of the living.

Image Credit: Road workers and pedestrians fall silent and bare their heads in a mark of respect during the “Great Silence”; the two minutes silence held at 11.00am on the 11th November, 1919, a year on from the end of The Great War at TH2epuq.png (1002×711) (imgur.com)

The sap is rising: the vibrant force of this noisy spring

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

Rachel Carson (1956/1998) The Sense of Wonder: A Celebration of Nature for Parents & Children, HarperCollins: p. 100

Rachel Carson is – of course – more famous for summoning a sense of a silent spring. In her 1962 masterwork, The Silent Spring, Carson gave us the cautionary image of the cessation of the eternal return that should be spring’s noisy bursting back into life. And the agent of silencing was chemical – liquid death seeping into a vulnerable nature, suffocating and snuffing out life and its sounds. For Carson pesticides were invader substances, alien chemicals surging through innocent and vulnerable capillaries.

But a couple of events have got me thinking this week about how the springtime ‘springing to life’ is itself a product of surging, swelling, insistent chemicals.

Like everyone (I suspect) I’ve particularly noticed the spring this year. Maybe, like me you’ve yearned for it as a target point that will be the end of Lockdown 3, you’ve seen parks and countryside heaving with human bodies as the new agora. But whilst observing spring’s return more intently this year I’ve found it becoming more complex too. Those Easter cards with their cute bunnies and neat daffodils just don’t capture the sheer vibrant throb of life, and of its non-cuddliness. My failing to find cute comfort in the spring is partly wrapped up in the intensity of my watching it this year – those young birds are fighting, that bumble bee emerging from hibernation is struggling to adjust to its living – if it continues to deny the reality of the window pane it will soon be a dried up husk (a bit like that young toad lying like a strip of biltong on my patio). Spring is raw, vibrant but not cute.

There’s also the problem that spring, and my garden’s blossoming back to life, brings forth strong memories of this time last year – of spring 2020, warming air, flowers and the anxious uncertainties of ‘the first wave’. It also reminds me of a sunny lunchtime sitting outside in my yard, listening to the US President suggesting that I shoot up with disinfectant, or shine a really strong light into my body to kill off the nasty bugs. Contaminated with these memories, spring is more complicated now, it has lost its innocent connotations.

And so I find myself looking at spring differently. And I find myself thinking about the vibrant force of rising sap. Why? Well, let’s now unpack the two events that have led me to this.

Event one. I’m sat at my work desk earlier this week. I’m bleeding. Intentionally. I’m struggling to ‘milk’ my finger (as the instructional notes so delicately put it). I’m trying to bleed into a sample vial, so that I can complete a covid antibody test. My fingers are tacky with glutinous blood, but little of it wants to drip into the vial. I have to make repeated pin pricks. I wage war upon my fingers, with increasing desperation. I’m trying to harvest my own recalcitrant sap, in order that a lab can confirm to me that I have the right kind of human-made contamination within me, so that I can withstand the ambivalent life force of the covid virus were it to come upon me as a future host.

Event two. A random chain of events bring me to Nick Zinner’s 41 Strings (2014) performance piece, it’s a rock musician’s modern take on a ‘four seasons’ concerto. I listened to the ‘spring’ movement first via the YouTube recording of its live performance and it blew me away. The other three movements (the other three season pieces) are ok but counter intuitively it is ‘spring’ that has the noise, the force, the vibrancy. The ‘spring’ movement has a ascending motif woven through it – which to my mind wonderfully summons the force of sap rising. In contrast the ‘autumn’ movement (fitting titled ‘fall’ – in line with the US convention) has a descending motif. ‘Summer’ is pastoral and not driven like spring. Winter is somewhat frozen: this also not driven. But spring rocks, and has the surprisingly – but now-fitting seeming – violent edge to it.

Clearly there’s nothing new in seeing spring as a time of heady – and beyond our control and rational comprehension – life-force. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring culminates with a young maid dancing herself to death. Here the conjured Russian folk rites echo the Dionysus / Bacchus cults of ancient Greece and Rome. Euripides’ play The Bacchae depicts the frolicking of the god of fertility’s maidens – the maenads (in Greek – Bacchae in Roman) who – according to Plato ‘milk’ the environment – releasing its fecund liquids, thus:

“…the god-intoxicated celebrants draw milk and honey from the streams. they strike rocks with the thyrsus [a vaguely phallic vine adorned stick], and water gushes forth. They lower the thyrsus to the earth and a spring of wine bubbles up. If they want milk, they scratch up the ground with their fingers and draw up the milky fluid…” (Otto, 1965, p.96)

In short, spring is wet, sticky and slightly out of control. It is also ‘many’ not ‘one’. Multiple rhythms – only somewhat and incidentally harmonious. This – for me – is all there in Zinner’s ‘spring’, watch the musicians – a loose, dense crowd (like a flower bed) all almost acting as a single entity but not quite, each struggling to be an individual component and make sense of what they are doing. Like saplings they jostling for space, light and moisture. And that jostling all the stranger to our current eyes because we’ve almost forgotten what densely packed crowds and/or group endeavours look like.

References and links:

Otto, Walter, F. (1965) Dionysus: Myth and Cult. Indiana University Press.

Mp3 recordings of each part of ’41 strings’ can be downloaded for free here:

And recordings of the performance of each of the four movements can be found on YouTube.

Image Reference:

Loxley Common, Sheffield: Luke Bennett, 2020.

People in Property 2021: reflections on our series of four online panels exploring architecture’s shadow identity as real estate

“The market, technology, taste and fashion play their part in the making of obsolescence. They do so through architecture’s shadow identity as real estate.”

Cairns, S. & Jacobs, J.M. (2017) Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture. MIT Press, p.103

I don’t usually post about my teaching role. In the daytime I’m course leader for Sheffield Hallam University’s BSc Real Estate course. This draws on my practical / professional side and that isn’t really what this blog is for. But, partly because it’s consumed the best part of the last six weeks setting this up, and partly because it serves no-one well to perpetuate rigid distinctions between an unequivocally virtuous urbanism and a irredeemably dastardly real estate sector I’m offering up this reflection of our series of events.

The idea for the sessions – unsurprisingly – springs from our forced embrace of video-conferencing. That which was written off as a very poor substitute for the ‘in the flesh’ benefits of face to face meeting and conferencing has become the new normal over the last 12 months, and its has certain benefits too. Pulling together a total of 30 former SHU Real Estate students (and other industry contacts) from around the world would have been near-impossible if attempted the ‘old way’. But through Zoom it became very do-able and felt like an opportunity not to be missed. Also, we were very conscious that normally our students would be getting out on field trips and meeting professionals and touring their sites. But that’s not been possible this year.

So, we thought we’d use our networks, and this new techo-reality and bring that world to our students. When I thought up the events, my focus was probably on how the panellists could tell our students about the projects they were working on and give them a virtual sense of the physicality of their sites. But something made me opt for a series title of ‘People in Property’ (it may simply have been the alliteration that hooked me). But actually – looking back on the events – it is the way in which the sessions gave access to these real estate professionals as people that has been the project’s best value.

The exigencies of ‘broadcasting’ from your spare bedroom and trying to make intelligible to an unseen viewer what has driven your career, forced an openness and honesty that makes each of the encounters surprisingly intimate.

Many of the panellists described real estate as being ‘about people’ – and by extension about communication, interaction and trying to anticipate how people are going to want to associate (at home, work in their leisure) in the post-covid future. None of the panellists chose to speak about buildings per se, instead they invariably spoke about processes involving the interaction of people. Clearly interaction isn’t always harmonious, all projects engender conflict, compromise and a degree of competition. But all of that acts out in an arena of people, and is shaped by our collective notions of progress, value, community and lifestyle. And the panellists were (perhaps surprisingly) very open about consensus-building, as key to moving their careers, projects and communities forwards.

There are many rich career insights for our real estate students in these videos, but perhaps there is something of wider relevance too. I think there is a sense of real estate professionals as people – people in property – people who are acting in and upon the physical world, and who individually and collectively have a variety of hopes, dreams, fears, motivations, practices and logics. Yet, it is much more conventional to write of such things for architects. These videos give a glimpse of the human face of architecture’s shadow identity: real estate.

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.

Coming out of confinement: reflections on the SHU SPG online session on dwelling in the time of COVID-19.

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“In our local woods the Hipsters have taken over from the Gangsters”

(A comment raised by Geraint Owen during this session.)

Sheffield Hallam University’s Space and Place Group held its 2020 conference online yesterday – focussing upon the theme of the COVID-19 lockdown and how it has affected our sense of dwelling. A video recording of the full two hour session is available here (the password is: 4J=15J7n), and is now also embedded below:

Details of the event, including abstracts for the five presentations are set out in my previous blog. But here I offer up some reflections on key themes that struck me from each presentation (both as raised by the presenter and which emerged in each follow on Q&A). This isn’t an exhausted list, more of a teaser to see what treats await in the recording.

I chaired the session, and arranged the presentations in a sequence of scales – we started within the intimate spaces of the confined domestic dwelling, then travelled out into the experiences of a neighbourhood, onward into the indoor/outdoor relationship of individuals and social groups to the ‘great outdoors’ and rounded off considering the techno-social architectures that have underlain (and been mutated by) our recent confinement.

So, those thoughts…

>>Einräumen<< Making room within rooms: Thinking-at home/Furnishing-the-universe, Hester Reeve, Art & Design, SHU

Hester’s visual essay emphasised the intimate stillness and silence of everyday objects around her home. I was struck by how each item often contained (or otherwise bounded) another. Everything within the home was nested, and also indicative of unspoken domestic rituals. These rituals are at the very heart of our dwelling. And being stuck in our homes, our relationships with these things around us and these sedimented ways of doing are our both our comfort and our confinement (and each item a potential trigger to comfort or discomfort dependent upon setting, arrangement and context). Drawing from Heidegger’s Hester’s concern is with ‘things at hand’ – the way in which our bodies extend into and connect with these everyday tools. We arrange and order them to our needs, but they also feed back into us. The COVID-19 confinement has made us more explicitly attuned to all sorts of mundane artefacts and their heightened significance as means of hygiene, self-presentation, symbolic reminders of others to whom connection has been temporarily lost.

The Fitties: Plotland in Lockdown Harriet Tarlo, Department of Humanities, SHU & Judith Tucker, Art & Design, University of Leeds

Harriet and Judith presented an atmospheric depiction of life on the Fitties plotland, weaving in the voices and images of local residents as they have striven to adjust themselves to the lockdown, and also to find ways to (try to) keep at a safe distance those drawn as visitors to their coastal landscape. The presentation was filled with feelings that showed richness through their lack of singularity: ‘My life is really small now. Small and quiet’. ‘I don’t have the energy I did’. ‘The sky is bluer’. ‘Police put tape over the gate’. ‘irresponsible people’. ‘Go away’. ‘They miss their family’. ‘we need a shop’ ‘we’re more vulnerable because we’re remote’. This account showed the complexity of finding that balance between good humour and frustration in such circumstances. Judith’s paintings and Harriet’s poetry were evocatively woven into this account, showing how the arts and humanities can ‘do’ social research, capturing a mood and conveying it to an audience. Harriet and Judith were keen to point out that the residents are not wistful – they are embedded in their own hopes and fears for the future. As they were prior to the lockdown. But lockdown brings on as many hopes for a future (and possible new ways of dwelling there) as it does a craving for pre-confinement modes of dwelling there. Getting back to normal is complex, dynamic, as much about possible futures as about the past.

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.

With Jo’s presentation we continued to move across from an arts perspective into the social science. Jo showed how creativity-based research informed her role within a study of how a wide variety of people actually do (or don’t) engage with the ‘outdoors’ and what they need and/or take from those encounters. Through specifically focussing on the experiences of people with mental health difficulties, Jo was able to show the diversity of that need and use, and she pointed out that the dominant discourse of “nature is good for you”, can itself cause difficulties for some people: wind may worry, open space may seem mundane and oppressively shapeless and limitless. Studying engagements with nature by people with mental illness perhaps makes the extremities of reaction clearer to see, but this is only a question of degree. We all have individual needs, and likely complex attunements to the various places that make up our worlds. A questioner echoed this by flagging that they new of people who feel guilty about not enjoying being out in the sunshine (or don’t enjoy being out at all). Dominant views judge these people’s preferences to be self-limiting or damaged in some way. If someone finds their solace within the comfort of their home, why should this be seen as less valuable than “hugging a tree”? Jo emphasised the active – take what you need – aspect to engagements with place. People imagine themselves into space, they augment and play with it, in order to made it helpful for them. Social science-based research doesn’t always know how to acknowledge this subjectivity. Jo productively applied her pre-COVID19 research to the circumstances of the lockdown, showing how the outside perhaps became even more a feature of desire or aversion due to the effects of nature-distancing caused by the constraints of lockdown.

Joy Unconfined? The (un)social life of urban green spaces, Julian Dobson, Department of Landscape Architecture, University of Sheffield.

Julian’s presentation picked up where Jo’s ended – taking us pictorially into Sheffield’s empty parks and rural fringe spaces during lockdown, finding there improvised totems of territoriality and anxiety, such as a sign on a farm gate: “This is our home. Go away”. Julian pointed to the parallel between Lefebvre’s articulation of a “right to the city” and the newly raised political contestation of urban parks and countryside fields. The terms of lockdown made strong assumptions about what recreational use should be like during lockdown – focussing upon a purposeful ‘keep fit by moving’ agenda. Meanwhile lingering became malingering. To stop moving was to break the rule. To sunbathe or to enter playgrounds was forbidden. Julian also took us into the immediate present: the last fortnight has seen the sudden (partial) relaxation of lockdown. The Government (in England at least) is trying to encourage us to leave our homes. To sit or lie in parks is now allowed. And to travel further afield for recreation is permissible. But whilst non-essential shops and commercial leisure venues remain closed, parks and city-fringe fields are the only place now ‘open’ for (any kind of) leisure. And (as was revealed in discussion) different groups regard the newly arrived appearance of other users with suspicion. Do these (new) people know how to acceptably use these spaces, are they only here because the Mall is shut? Such debate is laden with assumptions by one tribe about another. There is a battle, to find a new normal (a new balance) in these suddenly occupiable spaces. What does spatial justice (equity of access and use) actually look like, who should define it, and for what purposes?

COVID-19 Lockdown: a perfect storm of Geo-datafication, Joan Ramon Rodriguez-Amat, Media Arts and Communication, SHU

As our final presenter Mon took us to the outer reaches of our journey across the scales of confinement. His perspective was a global one – presenting us with the fundamental question of how our underlying architecture of dwelling has been affected by COVID-19. Mon showed us how much of modern life is now underpinned by the internet. We simply could not have the confinement that we are currently in without this digital transformation. However, he was keen to point out the fallacies of our viewing the digital revolution as either without social consequence, or as a harmless dematerialisation. The internet depends upon energy- and metals- hungry infrastructure. Every Zoom meeting that we attend is enabled by physical systems, just as everything we order for home delivery is dependent upon citizens who (unlike the privileged e-workers sequestered in their homes) have to remain physically active within the ‘real’ economy and its logistical spaces. Our move online therefore has a footprint (both now and for the future). Our way of working may well have changed through our experience of confinement – and if it has then more cables, more server farms, more rare earth metals will need to be laid, made or mined. He pointed out how we have not even started to ask the kind of questions that – in his view – we really need to. Who will own the COVID-19 tracking data? To what purposes will it be put by governments and/or corporations? What have we been using the internet mostly for during confinement (watching lots more porn it seems according to data that Mon showed us). Mon’s presentation and its maps of data flows and digital infrastructure presented an interesting counterpoint to the incessant COVID-19 maps and graphics presented on news shows on a daily basis. During confinement both the virus and data have been circulating and evolving. Both have affected our ways of dwelling. But perhaps the changes in our digital lives will have the longest running effects.
Picture credit: conference screen grab by @laylagdesign

And with thanks to Charlene Cross for note taking during the session

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

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“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.

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Slow: photo by Fitties resident, Jackie Nixon

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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/

 

The Greater Confinement: Survival Cells, the Survival City and how COVID-19 evolves protective sequestration

“Although cities and city dwellers are vulnerable to assaults on their biotope, however crude or sophisticated, they are resilient and not easily wiped from the map. The defensive reflex that has beset the Western world, including Europe, in recent years merits some critical scrutiny. Historically, it is by no means a unique phenomenon. We may view the current syndrome in the light of the earliest attempts at national risk management, namely the defensive measures taken against air raids and when we do so, a striking continuity emerges.”
Koos Bosma (2012) Shelter City, p. 7.

fal out
The Cellar

Do you remember the rain? In February this year, at the height of this winter’s heavy downpours, I stood in a dark, dank cellar ankle deep in water. An emergency pump had cleared most of the floodwater accumulated there. But as we started to pack up, the water level slowly started to rise again. Then I saw it, bubbling, over at the base of one of the subterranean walls: a small steady trickle.

We gave up and called in a damp specialist. And he diagnosed the Second World War as the likely reason for this insistent water ingress. The cellar, he explained, would have been the best place in the house to hide from falling bombs. But it would also have been an especially deadly place: a tomb in the event of a bomb’s direct hit. So, as a precaution against entombment, residents commonly knocked an escape passage through into their neighbour’s cellar.

After the war, when the desire for territorial integrity of the home reasserted itself, such passages were quickly filled in. But the rough rubble fill material would have left voids, and this was how the water was finding its preferential pathway into the cellar.

Survival Cell

In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown this prosaic encounter with past sheltering and its womb/tomb duality got me thinking about how across history we see home confinement (or ‘protective sequestration’ as it is styled in contemporary public health discourse) operating as a base unit of action: as what Silvia Berger Ziauddin has styled a bio-political “survival cell”. In her 2017 article on the Swiss authorities’ (not entirely successful) attempt to foster a culture of sheltering from nuclear attack within each household, she shows how even in a country where the apparatus of the state (and all associated building ordinances) were geared towards ensuring that every new house or apartment was built with a fall out shelter, attempts to ensure preparedness and respectful maintenance of these facilities increasingly faltered as time went on (and no attack came). These purpose-built shelter-rooms instead became absorbed into the ‘peacetime’ household practices and/or subverted for illicit uses. Thus, neither physically creating these special rooms, nor attempts to impose respectful and prepared norms for them seemed to have worked.

But, Berger Ziauddin’s work is helpful in identifying this attempt by the Swiss authorities to fix the home, and the family unit, as the scale, or unit of action. What the policy did above all was to repurpose the home as potential shelter. We see something similar in Shapiro & Bird-David’s 2017 study of Israeli mamad rooms (domestic bomb shelters), and in studies of US Cold War shelter policy and culture (of which there are quite a few, including Rose (2001)).

We also find it in UK guidance on nuclear sheltering – think of Protect and Survive (written 1976; published 1980) and its focus on adapting suitable spaces within the home, to make an inner refuge from dismantled doors, sandbags and suchlike.

sandbags

Then jump back in time to the 1950s.

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The Hydrogen Bomb (1957), HMSO

Or the 1940s – in each era their air raid guidance is emphasising the shelter-taking potential of the home, and of the importance of withdrawal into its protective depths.

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Survival City

But this image of the enclosed, self-contained survival cell is a myth. First because a survival cell cannot ever be fully self-contained and secondly because there is nothing necessarily benign about its enclosure. Its comforts are also not equally available to all.
A survival cell exists (can only exist) within a system of relations stretching across time and space. Take current COVID-19 isolation: the ability to withdraw depends (for most) upon others’ continuing to make and deliver power, water, sewerage, food. Those who shelter are dependent upon others who do not, and the infrastructural systems that sustain (and collectivise) individual life. Here we start to glimpse survival cells as necessarily interconnected (just as my cellar was with my neighbours) and forming a network, and it is the network that is truly the author of survival. Thus we witness what Bosma (2012) has (also in the context of Second World War air raid sheltering) termed “Shelter City” – sheltering as a collaborative urban infrastructural project, in which the city (acting as a defensive organism) is the real base unit of survival.

As I encountered in my cellar. A shelter without an assured means of escape is a tomb. Just as a home can be made a place of protection, so can it be made a place of confinement: the walls of a home just as easily be made into a prison. In short, a shelter cannot shelter unless it connects to life-sustaining networks that extend beyond its walls.

Protective Sequestration.

As an organism, the city seeks to perpetuate human life in general (i.e. society). Its survival instinct can see the home become a containment vessel. But the oddity of the COVID-19 situation is that it is both the healthy and the sick who are sequestered at home. Looking back at previous outbreaks, it has more often tended to be the infected who have found themselves in confinement in their homes. Thus, as Newman (2012) shows, the Plague Orders deployed in the 16th and 17th centuries in the UK saw the forced quarantine of infected households by ‘shutting up’ whole families for a period of 40 days. The rules provided for provision of a live-in nurse and food (for the poor) – and a guard outside to make sure that the confinement was enforced. No one could leave the ‘shut-up’ houses (for any reason) until the infection there had run its course.

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As Moote and Moote (2004) show, following the Great Plague (which centred around London in 1665), the practice of forced whole-family house confinement started to fade, and the idea of taking the sick into purpose-built places of isolation and treatment gathered relative force. Such places had existed at a rudimentary level since the Middle Ages. During the Crusades, isolation camps for pilgrims infected by leprosy had been created in Mediterranean islands. In Italy this provision had progressed to ornate Lazarettos (proto-isolation hospitals). But in England this sophistication had not been attained, instead ad hoc, and small-scale pesthouses were sometimes established on a local basis in the face of infectious outbreaks. Pesthouses were often little more than shacks at the edge of a settlement, either left to fall into dereliction following an outbreak or systematically erased from the urban scene.

In the 19th century more institutionalised and long-standing forms of confinement of the infectious were arranged by municipal authorities: first workhouses then isolation hospitals (for diseases like typhoid, tuberculosis and scarlet fever). Mooney (2015) notes that by 1914, in the wake of the construction boom sparked by the Isolation Hospitals Act 1893 (which permitted local Boards of Health to raise funding), 755 isolation hospitals had been constructed in England, usually in remote locations, providing 32,000 beds. This trend towards evacuation of the sick, and the mad, the poor and the deviant from the places and spaces of everyday society to purpose-built places of separation, has been termed by Foucault “the great confinement”. Foucault locates the coding of those exclusionary practices as originating in (ultimately) the Old Testament’s banishment of lepers, to live “outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:46).

The Greater Confinement

To return to the home as the declared unit of survival in this present crisis feels both strange and familiar.

Berger Ziauddin’s analysis shows that the roots of the Swiss authorities’ failure to successfully colonise and condition a portion of the Swiss home as a place of ritual transition to an apocalyptic counter-reality ultimately failed because that feared state of play never happened. It was ritualistically practiced for, but with time passing it came to be taken less seriously and its grip on the domestic rituals faded. The integral bunker-in-the-basement simply became assimilated into everyday domesticity as a spare room. But the sudden COVID-19 confinement around the world, works in the opposite direction. It appropriates standard domestic space and renders it the focal point of a fight for survival. And the novelty of this bad dream is that it has actually happened, and that it came upon us with relatively little prehension or ritualised practice drills. The place-appropriating spell of “Stay Home. Saves Lives. Protect the NHS” was cast (almost) overnight.

shsl

To a UK audience the bunker/stay at home parallels might seem a little far-fetched – because we lack more recent cultural cues by which to analyse confinement at home. (Fortunately) we have no culture of “house arrest” or curfew, nor do we have a discourse of emergency management which has sought to frame hiding at home as a claimed imperative of “homeland security”. In contrast, in the US, civil contingencies planning – in the wake of school shootings and terrorist attacks – has come to prominently define two forms of shelter-taking: the “lock down” and “shelter in place”. A lock down defines a situation in which in the face of a local violent aggressor a place is sealed so that that danger cannot spread. Faced with that possibility school children faced with a prospect of being locked inside their school, are trained how to hide within a normally familiar and nurturing environment which may one day turn hostile. Meanwhile, “shelter in place” usually describes a response to an environmental danger (a tornado or a chemical spill). Here the aim is to adapt the building in which you find yourself into a protective shell within which to escape from the outside world and its marauding threats (by, for example, sealing windows to keep poisoned air out).

sip

But in the context of the COVID-19 confinement language has evolved: “shelter in place” has now been adopted by the US media as a convenient short-hand by which to describe protective sequestration of the healthy. New York New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has criticised this migration of language, arguing that “words matter” (Opam 2020) and that talk of shelter-in-place unhelpfully evokes images of active shooters and nuclear war. In contrast he chose to style New York City’s confinement measures using the infrastructural metaphor of “closing the valve”, emphasising (in effect) that protective confinement is a survival city measure, a contribution to a collective (and connected) response, rather than declaration of a everyone-for-themselves atomised foregrounding of individualised domestic survival cells.

Conclusion: The Greater Confinement

The contemporary crisis – the greater confinement – in which we find ourselves appears by turns to both to isolate us and to emphasise to us the social interconnections upon which any individual act of withdrawal actually depends. The greater confinement is only possible in a society that embodies surplus, and which is sufficiently automated and telecommunicated to enable the work of social coordination to be exercisable from within the confines of (remotely connected) survival cells. In most prior societies majority protective sequestration would have been logistically impossible. But the greater confinement still depends upon a fraction of the population being prepared (or forced by circumstances) to provide material circulation of goods and essential services between the sheltering majority.

The greater confinement also – if we scratch the surface – reveals timeless inequalities that lie within any era of sheltering. We are not (as the slogan would have it) “in this together”, if by that we mean “in this equally”. To have control over whether and where you are sequestered depends upon your resources and social connections. And it was ever thus: Newman (2012) shows how being Shut Up in a plague year was more likely a fate of the poor and the ‘middling’ classes, because the rich could afford to flee to the country (or to relocate to another of their houses). Meanwhile, Mooney flags how, 250 years later, the poor were more likely to be removed to an Isolation Hospital because their homes were viewed as too small and overcrowded to enable safe home-confinement of the infectious sick, the rich and well-connected had other options.

Over the weeks, months, years ahead we will search for ways to understand “what just happened” and what it has revealed to us as individual survivors and as social beings. My invoking parallels (and discontinuities) with bunker studies, and that form of urban sheltering,  is but one way to start to think through the new domestic uncanny.

 

References

Berger Ziauddin, Silvia (2016) ‘(De)Territorializing the home: the nuclear bomb shelter as a malleable site of passage.’ Environment & Planning D: Society and Space, 35(4) 674-693.

Bosma, Koos (2012) Shelter City: Protecting citizens against air raids. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Moote, A. Lloyd & Moote, Dorothy C. (2004) The Great Plague: the story of London’s most deadly year. London: The John Hopkins University Press.

Mooney, Graham (2015) Intrusive Investigations: Public health, domestic space and infectious disease surveillance in England 1840-1914. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester University Press.

Newman, Kira L. S. (2012) ‘Shutt Up: Bubonic Plague and Quarantine in Early Modern England’, Journal of Social History, 45(3) 809-834.

Opam, Kwame (2020) ‘It’s not ‘Shelter in Place’: what the New Coronavirus Restrictions Mean’, The New York Times, 24 March. https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-shelter-in-place-coronavirus.html

Rose, Kenneth (2001) One Nation Underground: The fallout shelter in American culture. New York: New York University Press.

Shapiro, Matan & Bord-David, Nurit (2017) ‘Routinergency: Domestic securitization in contemporary Israel’, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, 35(4) 637-655.
Images:

HMSO; https://www.horton-park.co.uk/; http://www.shutterstock.com; https://www.bl.uk/learning/images/uk/plague/large8122.html

Is the past always another country? Reflections on the 1832 Cholera outbreak in the light of COVID-19

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“Much, however, may be done, even in these difficult circumstances, by following the same principles of prudence, and by avoiding all unnecessary communication with the public out of doors; all articles of food, or other necessaries required by the family, should be placed in front of the house, after the person delivering them shall have retired.”

Paragraph 8 of the Privy Council announcement of the Board of Health’s rules and regulations made for the purpose of preventing the introduction and spreading of Cholera Morbus, 20 October 1831 (as reported in the London Gazette, 21 October 1831 p.2160)

We’re all presently socially-distanced, yet at the same time strangely brought together through a shared sense of adversity. Social media feeds are proliferating with suggestions of what to do to distract cooped-up children and adults. We’re all craving things to do and to think about which will give us reprise from the fundamentally uncertain situation that we all now find ourselves in.

Like everyone, I need sanity breaks away from thinking about Coronavirus. But also, I need something to chew on. Maybe its schadenfreude but I find I can take some strange, re-grounding and perspective-giving, comfort from reading about other pandemics and how society has been challenged by them. Perhaps it is their greater scale that comforts me, but maybe it’s also the fact that I’m reading about the past – and that therefore I’m reading about something once feared to be an existential threat to society, which was eventually overcome.

I’ve been reading into the circumstances of the UK’s 1831-32 Cholera outbreak and thinking about how individual citizens made sense of what was coming towards them, why it was happening and what to do about it. This journey is taking me to history books and also contemporary documents, particularly local newspapers, memoirs and government circulars through which I’m witnessing the birth of UK public health legislation.

Some of the ways of seeing the world that I’m encountering in these materials seem strange to modern sensibilities – with much talk of the power of prayer, the curative powers of brandy, the importance of keeping feet dry and loins warmly bound. There are also copious tracts on the dangers of immoderate eating, for example (the seemingly unhealthy, from our point of view) advice for all to abstain from:

“…fruit of all kinds, though ripe and even cooked, and whether dried or preserved. The most wholesome articles of vegetable diet are, well baked, but not new bread, rice, oatmeal and good potatoes. Pickles should be avoided…the diet should be solid rather than fluid: and those who have the means of choosing, should live principally on animal food…great moderation both in food and drink is absolutely essential to safety during the whole duration of the epidemic period.” (General Board of Health, 5 October 1848 Notification regarding the Nuisances Removal & Diseases Prevention Act 1848, as published in the London Gazette, 6 October 1848, p.3616)

But on the other hand much is bizarrely familiar. The state’s reaction to the spread of the Cholera virus westward across Europe was tentative. Naval quarantine measures were employed first, and then once the first cases appeared in Sunderland in the Autumn of 1831 the Government started to take steps to put in place a national requirement for Local Boards of Health to be established, and for the attendant surveillance and confinement of suspected and confirmed cases. The political establishment’s prevailing laissez faire attitude was somewhat suspended, with (temporary) introduction of free medical care for Cholera patients, funding for infection-related cleansing and plenty of nudge-like, semi-mandatory urgings that the public should in their own, and also in wider society’s best interest, become more immoderate in their social interaction.

Much of the base framework of UK medico-legal public health governance was forged in the exigencies of the 1831-32 outbreak. Whilst these were temporary measures (and lapsed once the outbreak ended) they set a precedent for a series of public health controls which were revived (temporarily) for future cholera outbreaks during the Victorian era, and which then became embedded as permanent (though rarely used) features of the statute book. For example, the statutory nuisances provisions nowadays to be found in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and their now prosaic-seeming concern with tackling (for examples) “accumulations and deposits” thought to be “prejudicial to health or a nuisance” first appeared in the emergency powers enacted in the Cholera Prevention Act 1832, and had thereafter been revived temporarily in a series of Nuisance Removal Acts (in the 1840s) before they were rendered permanent via a series of Public Health Acts stretching through into the 1960s. After this, the whole field became rebranded as “Environmental Health”, and was thereafter subsumed within “Environmental Protection”.

Anyway, this (rather arid and technical) example of the continued legacy of the 1831-32 outbreak is but one lingering effect. I’m interested in how – more broadly – an outbreak nearly 200 years ago acts across time to shape how we think about and manage urban living today, and whether in ‘normal’ and in ‘exceptional’ times. Many (particularly in the 1960s and 1970s) have written this story from the point of view of sanitary reform (principally the rise of urban sewerage), using it as an exemplar of Modernist/Welfarist social progress. But this story, re-examined from the vantage of our less confident times, would make for an interesting re-telling – unpacking issues of urban memory, everyday and exceptional imaginaries, human-material relations and of the perception, communication and management of risk and uncertainty.

For now, lets close with the spookily apposite words of Robert Morris, writing in the introduction to his incisive 1976 book, Cholera 1832: The Social Response to an Epidemic (New York: Holmes & Meier). In reading the following, what strikes me is that pretty much everything that he is saying about the importance of understanding the lifeworld of those facing that outbreak, applies equally to our current situation. Morris starts by commenting upon studies of public reaction to natural disasters carried out in the 1950s and 60s (as part of planning for nuclear war):

“Panic was rare [in those studies] but the response these communities made to the shock or threat of disruption often revealed more of their working and values than a study of a normal situation could have done. The processes which normally allocated resources and maintained stability were seen reacting rapidly to a new situation. Individuals and groups revealed much about their scale of values because they had to make rapid choices between social claims which in normal times would never have come into conflict. Most studies revealed the prime claim which family had over work, friends and entertainment. Cholera was a creeping disaster so reaction was a little more studied and circumspect than reactions to a sudden impact disaster, but the manner in which it demanded attention and comment gave cholera the ability to reveal values, patterns of thought, patterns of social relationships and ways of allocating resources in the same way as a more sudden crisis.” (1976: 18)

He then continues:

“The reactions of groups and individuals were influences by their available resources and experience as well as by their values and expectations. Each situation tended to find the population divided into two groups, those with power and resources and those without. Those with power expected to take action against cholera. Those without were the likely victims. Each had a choice of action, quarantine, cleansing, medical provision, prayer or just doing nothing on the other. Values emerged in choices between life and property, between work and safety, between charitable action and governmental agencies. The resources of each group included material wealth, the value of their labour in the market, their social authority and prestige, their administrative and scientific skills and their technical ability. All these choices were influenced by the expectations which each group had of others, wage-earners of the medical profession, or of the local authority, and the administrator’s expectations of reactions to the circular he was drafting. These expectations were all based on past experience of the physical as well as social world”. (1976: 18-19)

Morris ends by pointing out that in 1832 Cholera acted as a lens, revealing to him the “morbid pathology” of British society as it stood in the early nineteenth century. Likewise, COVID-19 holds up a lens to contemporary British society. We need to be mindful of what our outbreak reveals about our lifeworld, and of how our actions and expectations in response to it will all similarly flow from our “past experience of the physical as well as social world”.

Image credit: New York City Sanatory Committee poster, 1849 https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/plague-gotham-cholera-19th-century-new-york