Autoarchaeology and what it means to be us: excavating the A380 without leaving the car.


Get in the car

“If place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” (Augé 1995: 77-8)

For Marc Augé roads are empty transit spaces, voids between places of departure and arrival. They are not places themselves, because they are not energised by attention, affiliation, community or continuity. Upon the non-place of the highway we are each locked into the confines of our own dulled, atomised, instrumentalist present.

Following my earlier blog here, this essay continues my problematizing of Augé’s ‘non-places’. It does so by pondering a one mile hillside portion of trunk road and finds that far from being non-place, this dual carriage-way can be shown to be deeply relational, very much wrapped up with histories and a very fertile ground for attachment and the formation and sustaining of identity and meaning.

Gravity and memory on the A380

We’re at the base of Telegraph Hill, a steep ascent for the A380 as it speeds out of the Exeter basin, and onwards towards the South Devon coast. The A380 starts as a spur, splitting off from the Plymouth-bound A38, at the base of this hill, just past the hamlet of Kennford, and its tired hostelries straining to catch the attention of motorists as they speed past.

I’ve travelled this road many, many times in my 48 years. It feels like it is etched into my very existence. Growing up in Devon, my family existed in two separate camps, which I was shuttled between. This road’s ascent to the summit of Telegraph Hill was the transition between two zones of experience, the topography acting as cues for my mental adjustment to suit the mores of the camp that I was journeying towards. That transition was mapped out by the course of this road, and specifically its ascent up this long upward climb.

Habitually you accelerate into a hill, because you know that it will drain your power as you climb. Embodied experience conditions precisely how and when I start to accelerate into this hill, and that point in the road takes on ironic significance on this summer 2015 iteration of my familiar journey, for at the point of habitual acceleration (or thereabouts) we ride over the extinguished remains of a Royal Observer Corps nuclear fallout observation monitoring post. This spring was dominated for me by hunting out these places, so it was inevitable that I would look to find them on my route towards my childhood home. This adds a new significance to my re-experience of this part of the A380, and in turn has triggered the ruminations that have led to this piece of writing.

The former Post’s location is somewhere beneath my car as I speed along the tarmac, the bunkerologists having told me that Exminster ROC Post (opened 1964, closed 1968) is:

“DEMOLISHED. No trace of anything. The site was probably lost during realignment of the junction to the east in the 1970s.” (Subbrit 2001)

I travelled this road regularly in the late 1970s, prior to this realignment. I try to think back to that time. But I can’t remember individual trips, the memory of the lumbering ascent upon rickety buses is an aggregate memory, a generalised montage. And in scouring my mind’s eye I see nothing of the extant, but already abandoned ROC post somewhere nearby. But I do recall the image of standing on the verge, by the back of a bus, sometime in the late 1970s, our ascent temporarily defeated by the demands of the hill climb. But all I can picture is the rear end of the coach, and a vague sprawl of trees and a sense of evening light fading. That’s it. Whilst I must have been close to that Post, but I never saw it. And I never saw Smokey Joe either.

Smokey Joe was a famous tramp who lived in a layby half way up the hill for many years, feeding off the land and the donations of passersby, until his death in 1976. The layby was testimony to the mechanical trials of this ascent, a place for lorry drivers to pull over and cool their overheated engines. Smokey Joe had chosen his pitch wisely, with an eye on gravity and the limitations of contemporary auto-engineering.

Even after 40 years the approach to that pull-in still compels me to glance into the shaded grove beyond the layby, a habituated action born of efforts as a young child to spot Smokey Joe’s encampment.

But that remembrance, and its accompanying reflex glance, is not – it seems – something unique to my experience of this hill, for South Devon internet forums testify to many whose childhood experience of this ascent was conditioned by the spectacle of this roadside dweller. And the character of these recollections, amidst some wistful nostalgia, is a remarkably consistent compound of memories that fuse the somatic strain of the hill climb with the hill-dwelling of Smokey Joe. This seems a specific manifestation of what Tim Edensor finds emergent in the shared experiences of regular travellers along familiar routes:

“we might conjecture that constellations of collective experience constitute something akin to a structure of feeling shared by motorway drivers in general and commuters along particular routes more specifically” (2003: 155)

This tramp, personifies the effort of the climb, thereby stabilising both a memory of this man, and a shared experience of both a time and place: the hill climb in the 1970s. Perhaps this gravity-connection is something that has emerged with the benefit of hindsight, otherwise Joe would have been called Layby Joe, or even the Crawler Lane Man, but the name that stuck emerged from an even more immediate material feature of his existence, for those who met him or the other two tramps inhabiting the Haldon Hills in the 1970s, testified to their amenability, and also to their odour. Smokey Joe was so-named because he and his wood fire, and its pervasive smoke, had become synonymous. And it was the plume of smoke from his fire that would be the looked-for sign of his presence as the layby came into view.

And then across on the North-bound, carriageway, another gravity-memory springs to mind, that of my father switching off the engine as he freewheeled downhill, inspired by the fuel crisis of 1974 and its aftermath, a global geopolitical reality expressed upon the conveniently steep incline of a South Devon hillside.

I was always relieved when he turned the engine back on, usually around the point at which we passed the sand-pit escape lane, kindly provided in the layby for the assistance of any motorist who discovered his brakes had overheated and failed after excessive use on the long descent.

At one point in a journey my father had asked me what I was thinking. I was pondering the virtual nature of the transfer of ransom payment monies as part of the US embassy hostage situation, following the Iranian Revolution. That family image now sits in my head (and maybe his), very much emplaced upon a random stretch of dual carriageway, the scene at which a distant geopolitical situation was suddenly uttered into our shared discursive world, as our car sped towards Exeter.

Augé’s critics point to the irrepressible creation of a sense of place by individuals. As Edensor shows, driving releases lines of flight both in the sense of velocities of travel, but also chains of association that link distant, seemingly unconnected themes, times and places. In contrast to Augé’s figuring highways as barren, linear ‘non-places’, Edensor revalorises them, highlighting their “complex, associational and folded geography” (2003: 156).

Furthermore, and stepping beyond a broadly psychogeographic salvation of autospaces based upon personal reverie and free-association, Peter Merriman (2004) has shown roads are sustained communal projects – they call together a cast of thousands, those who design, build, and maintain them plus those whose lives and journeys intersect with them. The shared experience of them as places is a result of the ideas and matter brought to those spaces in co-ordinated and sustained campaigns of civil engineering.

Roads are socio-material accomplishments, and as such they exist with, through and beyond us, regardless of our reflex to loath or rhapsodise upon them. Rosemary Shirley (2015) touches on this notion of roads-as-places-whether-we-like-it-or-not dimension, when she writes that roads are unequivocally part of the contemporary countryside. They are not alien encroachments from elsewhere – urban tendrils invading the picturesque purity of arcadia. Shirley persuasively argues instead that they are a feature of rural modernity, challenging our tendency to equate modernity with the metropolis. Roads comprise a core feature of both our environment and our modernity. We are creatures of roads.

So, how might we investigate this residual roadness, to take matters beyond cultural geographers’ saving roads from their non-place fate by showing us how we dwell within autoscapes, animating them as meaningful places by our presence and thoughts?

Excavating the layered remains

Here I want to consider what additional insight we might attain from archaeology – by engaging with the extant roadway as situated material culture. Importantly, this requires us to adopt a broad view of archaeology, and specifically to think about how we could investigate things-in-use, for the road is very much in use, and is very much of our time.

Rodney Harrison & John Schofield (2010) map out possible routes for engagement with the interpretation of modern roads within their prescription for an ‘archaeology of the contemporary past’ – arguing that an attentiveness to the time-depth and materiality of roads and their support infrastructure can further help to build a rounded picture of the phenomenon of contemporary auto-mobilities, and perhaps thereby to further assert the place-ness of autoscapes.

An archaeological analysis of my stretch of the A380 would show how this road has always been in a state of change. Its origins can be traced back over 2,000 years to a Roman road occupying the current course through the Haldon Hills. This continuity of route is attested by one of the first UK road maps, John Ogilby’s Britannia of 1675, and continues into the era of 18th century turnpike trusts and thereafter local authority stewardship. And yet that continuity is deceptive, for the precise route up Telegraph Hill has fluctuated in width, position and composition. To excavate these roads would be to work down through layers of different iterations of this highway, innumerable flexes and adjustments, repairs and reconstitutions. A road never stops being made.

Perhaps an archaeological eye would zero in on what the physical composition and arrangement of this road section tells us about how roads fit into our socio-technical systems. The escape lane would tell us of the limitations of our braking systems, the reorientation of road junctions at the summit of the hill would hint at our corrective attempts to address an accident blackspot, and to facilitate both safer and more fluid trafficking upon the A380 and its side roads. And looking to the surroundings, the highway facing 1960s chalet type buildings verging the highway at Kennford and the abandoned 1960s motel at the summit of Telegraph Hill would tell us of an optimistic era in which the challenge of the hill climb warranted rest or refreshment before or after the ascent, and the vacancy of this ruined plot would tell us of the marginal profitability of this autospace oasis in the early twenty first century. The crawler lane and Smokey Joe’s layby would also testify to the mechanical limitations of twentieth century motor vehicles. And analysis of changes to the road configurations would tell us material-tales of the cult of acceleration, the progressive excising of contour hugging bends to create a straighter road path, of the separation of northern and southern carriageways and of road widening to dual carriage. Meanwhile analysis of roadside litter, evolutions in lighting and ‘cat’s eye’ design, changes to crash barrier provisioning and the altered chemical composition of road marking pigments would all tell their own story (in the latter case, revealing our contemporary concerns with toxic substances in the disappearance of lead chromate pigment from the pigment of yellow road markings over the last decade).

But, much of this would require physical access to the highway, and would be ruled impracticable on cost, safety and disruption to the all-important flow. So what could archaeology add?

The drive by autoarchaeologist

“we can all be archaeologists of the contemporary past, because it is a critical inquiry into what it means to be ourselves” (2010: 12)

So write Harrison and Schofield in After Modernity, their contemplative manifesto for an archaeology concerned with making sense of the lived past – the past that exists within our present, because it has been lived by us. It is an archaeology that does not set out to encounter some remote Other, through its material remains, but rather the application of archaeology’s techniques (and its sensitivity to place’s flux through time) towards making sense of our own times, and our own sense of being.

Harrison & Schofield’s embrace of the subjectivity that lies at the heart of an attempt by us to study ourselves is refreshing, and positions their prescription for archaeology much closer to a phenomenological sensibility than we might expect of archaeologists, given that discipline’s efforts to align to scientific rigour and truth-seeking disposition built up during the twentieth century. Their prescription opens the prospect that all of us are capable of this critical enquiry (thus ‘autoarchaeology’), because the methodology is essentially a contemplative one:

“Thinking through and analysing the places we experience are normal processes that people go through often as a matter of course. And for us this seems to be the essence also of an archaeological approach. No digging required. Just observe, engage and think.” (70)

Indeed, Harrison & Schofield namecheck both Michel de Certeau and Georges Perec, in their avowal of the importance of studying our everyday existence – for:

“if we overlook the everyday, we overlook what it means to be us and we run the risk of remembering only the noteworthy, or the unusual” (11).

So, if we are being urged to co-opt archaeological methods to notice, and thereby remember the normal, the unremarkable, the prosaic – are we witnessing the point at which the archaeology of the contemporary past merges into something psychogeographic? I’m particularly thinking of Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘deep topography’ here, and his invocation to foreground everything, to background nothing. To scavenge in order to multiply, rather than to reduce our experience and its world to certain marked, salient points.

This may be pushing Harrison & Schofield’s argument too far – but it certainly opens up further bridgework between the academics and the lay meaning-makers roaming out there, enchanting and energising the supposedly prosaic phenomenon of the contemporary world like the A380 at Telegraph Hill, giving it a longer-than-normal stare, and glimpsing something else to remember, something else to take into the future as part of their own lived past. And there are plenty of people already out there doing precisely this, whether reminiscing about crawler lanes and old tramps in laybys or ‘researching’ the evolution of local road systems. In preparing this essay I’ve drawn upon the products of such labours, I’ve explored the A380 through the online resources assembled by a number of enthusiast groups – the Chudleigh History Group, the Devon Milestone Society, Torquay United Fans Forum, the ‘This is Exeter’ web-forum, Facebook, Wikipedia (on escape lanes, tarmacadam, the history of speed limits and Telegraph Hill), the BBC Domesday Project, Subterranea Britannica, CBRD (Chris’ British Road Directory) and the Society for All British and Irish Road Enthusiasts.

We are indeed all contemporary archaeologists.


Augé, M. (1995) Non-places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity. Verso: London.

Edensor, T. (2003) ‘M6 – Junction 19-16, Defamiliarizing the Mundane Roadscape’, Space & Culture, 6(2): 151-168.

Harrison, R. & Schofield, J. (2010) After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past, OUP: Oxford.

Merriman, P. (2004) ‘Driving places – Marc Augé, Non-places and the Geographies of England’s M1 Motorway’, Theory, Culture & Society, 21(4/5): 145-167

Shirley, R. (2015) Rural Modernity, Everyday Life and Visual Culture, Ashgate: Farnham

Subbrit (Subterranea Britannica) (2001) Royal Observer Corps – An on-line survey of the UK’s ROC and UKWMO Monitoring Posts at:

Links for Smokey Joe reminiscences:

Image source: – Junction_of_A380_and_A38,_Haldon_Hill_-_Geograph_-_1537146

In the bunker, the last man

Oooh, I’m going to do so much with this clip in 2014. Now that I’ve tracked it down (from the depths of fond memory) I’ve realised how well it will work as a focal point for the various bunker talks I’m booked to give later this year.

Lost (the TV show) lies close to the heart of my bunker obsession. The series got ever weaker (and incredulous) as it progressed, but in the first two series the tension and mystery of a strange island was fresh and energising, and there was a physical network of strangeness for the protagonists to trace and make sense of: an interconnected array of sealed concrete bunkers. Big ones, small ones, fat ones, thin ones: all signifying something (in the past or the present, which was splendidly unclear) that the explorers were struggling to make sense of.

Series 2 opens with this clip: a sudden view of someone very at home inside a cosy bachelor pad somewhere, a man at ease with himself, self contained with all that he needs. The music plays, the machines whir, his calm and contented morning rituals are enacted. But then the scene distorts, an industrial scale daily inoculation, dust, uncovenanted movement upon the record deck. Darkness, guns, uniform, surveillance – all as a sudden lurch to a defensive mode. Then our eyes travel up, up a rough hewn dirt encrusted shaft. Up to an open hatch at the surface and the fascinated/terrified faces of the two bunkerological explorers, contemplating the unknown-to-them in the chamber below, and their next move.

The Lost bunker clip gives me a wonderful vehicle to work through many themes, some of them related to my 2013‘men ‘n’ bunkers’ Gender, Place and Culture paper, others more to do with my 2011 Culture and Organisation paper on the bunker’s image/materiality relationship – a duality splendidly captured in both the clip and the following quote from Tom Vanderbilt:

“While actual shelters were usually dark, cramped, mildewed affairs, in the realm of the subconscious desire they were always spacious, ridiculously well-stocked playrooms with artificial sunlight and state-of-the-art entertainment systems, inhabitable for years and years.” (Survival City, 2002, 110)

So, for now, a teaser…


CFP – RGS 2014 – Cold War Bunkers: exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath


Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual Conference,

London 26-29 August 2014


Proposed sessions on:


Cold War Bunkers:

exceptionalism, affect, materiality and aftermath



Session Convenors:

Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University), Ian Klinke (University of Oxford) and John Beck (University of Westminster)


“… the closer I came to the ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe. To me too, as for some latter-day stranger ignorant of the nature of our society wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside the bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways. Where I was that day at Orfordness I cannot say, even now as I write these words.”

W.G. Sebald (2002) The Rings of Saturn, London: Vintage (trans. Michael Hulse)

The Cold War era defensive concrete structures that proliferated in the late Twentieth century were a co-production of myriad material and discursive processes. The proposed sessions seek to investigate this meld by bringing together contributions from scholars working across a number of disciplines (geography, tourism, cultural studies, politics, history and archaeology to name a few). The sessions will explore the histories, meanings, materialities and fates of Cold War Bunkers, across a range of scales; from individual human encounters to their role as semi-secret nodes and exceptional spaces in global geo-political systems.

Virilio (2009) has pointed out the ‘cryptic’ characters of bunkers. Like stone chambers beneath Christian churches, they function as places of shelter, worship and salvation. Beck (2011) has written of the ‘ambivalence’ of host cultures to the decaying remains of these structures, and of how no settled meaning is possible for these now abandoned places given their apocalyptic but also contingent nature: for, these are remnants of a war that never was, places of preparation for an endtime that never came. Others (McCamley 2007; Bennett 2011, 2013) have written of those who engage in eager and earnest projection of meaning onto these places, many of whom seem inspired to do so in order to make sense of that era of brooding melancholy attached to prospective nuclear war.

This proposed session seeks papers that examine the origins and operational life of these places, of their subsequent acculturation (or lack of it), of their material legacies and attempted repurposing. A broad range of papers are invited, approaching bunkers at a variety of scales, perspectives and national contexts. The contributions might – for example – be case studies, analysis of bunker imagery in media representations, empirical studies of public engagement with bunker ‘museums’ and/or theoretical treatments of the meaning/matter meld that bunkers comprise.

Submissions might also address such matters as:

  • The excavation of the ‘secret’ history of specific bunkers – and/or analysis of bunkers’  intentional and inadvertent secrecy, of the changing status of such sites and the techniques of investigation
  • The bunker as an exceptional space at the intersection of sovereign and bio-power; how can the history of particular sites and particularly their decommissioning be fed into theories of sovereign power and legal exceptionality?
  • The significance of the subterranean nature of most bunkers – their hiddenness from sight and encounter; their womb-like properties; their primitivism; their confinement; the costly hubris of going underground; the hyper-control required or enabled in subterranean dwelling
  • The gap between fantasy and reality – ‘space age bachelor pad’ vs ‘concrete submarine’ (Vanderbilt 2002); local improvisation and vernacular styling in bunker construction; the nuclear bunker as concrete fantasy, a space where geopolitical fantasy materialises
  • Civil defence and the encouragement (or suppression) of private bunker building
  • The link between bunkers, modernism and civic infrastructure (e.g. telecommunications networks and their bunkerization)
  • The fate and aftermath of these bunkers: studies of decommissioning (policy and reality); markets in purchasing and reusing bunkers; the (in)significance of public perception in attempted reuse; the preservation of cold war heritage
  • Artistic engagements with bunkers
  • Oral history and reminiscence work with bunker personnel
  • The influence of bunker engineering on Brutalism (and vice versa)
  • Bunker hunters and their motivations
  • The (post) modern bunker – how has the bunker evolved?

How to propose a contribution:

Please submit an abstract (maximum 250 words) and single paragraph biography (including institutional and disciplinary affiliation) to Luke Bennett ( by 15 February 2014.

Further information about the conference, venue, delegate fee etc is available via the RGS website:

Each selected presenter will have a 15 minutes slot, with PowerPoint facilities provided. The sessions are subject to approval/adoption by the RGS.

A fault on the line – carpets, cables and invisible things


“…the ordinary course of life demands nearly constant efforts to maintain or salvage situations that are falling into disarray by restoring them to order. In everyday life, people never completely suppress their anxieties, and, like scientists, ordinary people never stop suspecting, wondering, and submitting the world to tests.”

Boltanski, L. and Thévenot, L. (2006) On Justification, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p37.

His phone rings

as he’s standing by the sink. With attention abruptly turned from cleaning to talking – suds dripping as he reaches across the floor – he picks up the handset.


“I’m really sorry to bother you, but my phone’s stopped working and I don’t know what to do.”

“So how are you calling me then?” he feels compelled to ask, and then instantly regrets its surly impression.

“I’m on a mobile. My son gave it to me, but I barely know how to use it. My proper phone has gone dead.”

In the ensuing conversation the talk maps out the arrangement of this elderly lady’s hallway, the telephone ‘table’ under the stairs, the ‘old style’ composure of this device as a caller, a visitor from outside to be kept at bay, waiting uncertainly in the hallway, not invited properly into the depth of the home. To make phone calls she climbs into the space under the stairs, adjusts the register of her voice. And here is where she is most comfortable calling from, huddled in the cavity, hunched over a rickety G-Plan assembly, amidst a pile of long superseded telephone directories, and a frayed and heavily annotated contacts directory: the sedimented strata of evolved and lost acquaintance.

He suggests she checks the phone socket. Carpet fitters visited her hallway yesterday. Perhaps they tugged the cable loose.

“Take the cover off and look inside.”

From the silence at the other end it is clear that he might as well have said “fire up the warp drive and set course for the heart of the sun”.

Eventually she replies: “No, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that.”

From the onward conversation it’s clear that she holds the telephone in some reverence, it’s a magical device that provides a service, but it is not hers to tinker with. The whole assembly is other. She owns a screw driver, a wooden handled one from the last century. It’s lain in a box for years, only ever used for opening cans of paint. It won’t get wielded here. She will call the telephone company instead. She hangs up.

The next day she calls again.

“I’m in a call box” she announces, with some distress. Apparently her mobile has now stopped working too. He asks a few questions to try and ascertain the symptoms of this fatality, but soon realises that this is not what she wants to talk about. Earlier that day she stood in that draughty call box for 40 minutes, eventually getting through to the phone company but getting little sense out of them. There was muzak, there was continual ringing, there was referral between different departments and eventually an undertaking to send out an engineer within the next five days.

He phones the company on her behalf to try and get things expedited. He too waits in an auditory limbo land, marvelling at just how crap the service is (and the irony that you need a phone to report a broken phone). Eventually there’s a connection. Yes, an engineer call is booked, no they can’t (or won’t) expedite for an elderly lady living on her own (unless she declared her ‘special needs’ at the time of signing up with them).

A couple of days later, she calls him again. This time from her home phone, now happily huddled back under the stairs. Her phone problem has been fixed. An engineer called yesterday. He pulled up the freshly laid carpet and carefully traced the phone cable from the socket towards its point of entry to the house.  Eventually he found it, the break in the connection:  the cable was cleanly and fully severed – cleaved by a carpet fitter’s Stanley Knife blade moving at speed and with force. The engineer held up the two ends, some shock on his face. This wasn’t a knick; this was a full cut through.

“Could they have chopped it without realising?” she asked the engineer – the forensic instinct suddenly to the fore in the hallway, all attention and thought focussed on the moment at which that cable switched from one length to two.

“Oh, they would have known” he replied with theatrical gravity.

Back in the call her spoken thoughts turn to minutiae of the fitters’ moment by moment afternoon residence in her house.  She recalls a moment – that seemed odd at the time, but which only now tumbled back to thought because of its emergent significance, when the fitters suddenly went outside to the van, but brought nothing back from that trip. She remembers the abruptness of their departure at the end of the job. In conversation with the engineer (who by then had ascended to a gallant ‘white knight’ in her narrative, contrasting with the opposing figuration of the fitters, now hunched, ruddy and vaguely Neanderthal in the imagery of the story) matters of fault and blame are mapped out. She returns to civilisation both through the restoration of her phone line and in the validation of her anger, vulnerability and sense of having been assailed. No, she didn’t imagine it. This event was real and her feeling of distress and inconvenience proportionate. She felt that she had returned to the world.

Hunting invisible things

In the above event, we find – if we choose to look – an entanglement of the personhood, matter and abstract notions of service. Whilst we do need to pay more attention to (physical) things themselves, we must not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. To talk of a telephone ceasing to work is as much as social situation as it is a technical one. Yes, the existence of the telephone system (and our dependency upon it) is revealed in the moment of its failure, but exploring the thing that is revealed requires more than tracing the cable to the point of its severance. Many things flow from that cut, and many of them are invisible.

As a lawyer my gut response to that telephone call would be a flurry of sentences floating into mind, hovering before my eyes like subtitles to the event and situation beyond. I’d see section 13 of the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982:

“In a contract for the supply of a service where the supplier is acting in the course of a business, there is an implied term that the supplier will carry out the service with reasonable care and skill.”

I’d see paperwork, a pathway to effective arguments – all so many words marshalled as ammunition for a campaign against the carpet fitter. But, that’s me. She didn’t read the situation that way. Perhaps at some vague level she realises that she has some form of contractual connection (and attendant rights) in her relationship with the carpet fitters – but if she does this element is far from mind. Her reaction is more instinctive and driven by an embedded sense of what is right and wrong, what is appropriate and not appropriate and what order and disorder look and feel like. What restores the balance is the reconnection of the phone (an important part of her identity and sense of security) and the confirmation by others (the engineer, the carpet shop) that her dislocation caused by the event was significant to others, not just her.

In her reflection upon the event – in its becalming aftermath – she also sees paper. But she does not reach for the law-makers’ vellum, the call handler’s laminated flow chart or the crinkled job-sheet of the carpet fitter. No, she reaches for her Basildon Bond and her Parker Pen. Such situations – for her – call for a stiff letter, written on her luscious watermarked cream pad. This is her way of completing the stabilisation of the situation, to commit umbrage to paper; to send off a missive. This is what the situation calls for. She invests careful thought in her letter, these things must be said for their own sake. For her they are part of the resolution of this situation.

She directs her volley to: “To whom it may concern” and awaits its return service. But she is doomed to be disappointed. For neither the carpet fitter nor the telephone company are playing the same game as her. For them the situational framing and the modes of engagement are so different, an anonymous instance of generic processes. There will be no parley. This cable, this carpet, this space under the stairs – so much to some, so little to others.

Image source: (NB: generic image, no aspersions intended on the fitter pictured or the carpet co featured in the source article)

‘I dream of wires’ or, how I never became a telephone engineer


         I am the final silence

                                The last electrician alive

                                                And they called me the sparkle

                                                                I was the best, I worked them all

                                                                                                New ways, new ways

                                                                                                                I dream of wires … the old days

                                                                                                                Gary Numan (1980) I Dream Of Wires

New ways, new ways

The mist hanging low in the valley was a familiar sight. But it was the dampness of the air that struck me that morning as we stepped out of the car. The air hung around us, poking tendrils into any building open to its reach. We’d travelled up from the coast, along the valley’s ample, empty dual carriageway and its ridgeline dense with bracken and monolithic spruce plantations. The Japanese were coming…

Gwent – a county now without an official name – typified that post-industrial landscape I’d worked amidst in South Wales in the 1990s. The roads, the low grey ‘business park’ sheds parachuted in by the Welsh Development Agency as the vanguard of hoped for inward investment, like signal flares scattered across this troubled landscape.

I’d first been in this valley in 1992, to visit the Ebbw Vale garden festival. A former steel works site, temporarily tweaked to ornamental gardens in celebration of resurgence yet to come. It had taken two early morning bus rides on that occasion to be standing, in the soon to be familiar mist. And on yet another occasion, this time in the dark, another bus ride – this time a chartered one, taking the creative class out from Cardiff (the imperial enclave) for the evening. The destination then: another abandoned Ebbw Vale steel works but this time a night of experimental theatre, celebrating (or mourning) the death of hot metal in this valley, and a memory of a man – Prometheus – hanging from a gantry crane as it sped overhead during Brith Gof’s performance. Then yet another  day in this valley, civic dignitaries assembled for a visit to the valley’s hazardous waste incinerator, huddled amidst a sea of still amply stocked superscale scrap yards. That plant, a strangely low key assembly for all the local notoriety. Like a few tubes welded together and a big chimney, but all outdoors amidst that mist.

But the destination for my mid 1990s early morning mist enveloped car journey back up this valley road was a nondescript factory unit. Standing at the door of the vast industrial shed, all I could see were conveyor belts and stacks of stock, lines receding into the dark distance. Then, as I walked those lines, women sat, their arms moving in uniform motion – an epitome of the valley’s new working class. But observed up close their actions ran backwards. They were de-manufacturing, taking old telephones apart and throwing the salvaged components into coloured bins. These were disassembly lines. And the stock?:  the nation’s heap of discarded telephones, principally the Series 700 (introduced in 1959) and the Trimphone (released 1966). In 1984 the privatisation of Post Office Telephones had opened the flood gates to an influx of new models, an international direct-to-user explosion of choice.  This heap of phones was testament to the old days – the days of limited model choice, and patient waiting in line. The plant was slowly working through the heap. Once it was gone, they would be gone too.

As I wandered the plant, amidst hundreds of thousands of waiting dead phones, there was no sudden stir in unison, no throwing out of one last resistant death-ring cacophony.

A lineman for the county

                I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road

                                                Searchin’ in the sun for another overload

                                                                I hear you singin’ in the wire, I can hear you through the whine

                                                                                                And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

                                                                                                                Jimmy Webb (1968) Wichita Lineman

In the early 1980s, as a young teenager, I’d wanted to be a telephone engineer. I’d written off to the GPO and received a manila envelope (possibly my first) in reply. Inside was a collection of leaflets telling me about the training programme for line engineers – and featuring photographs of the General Post Office Engineering Department Central Training school at Yarnfield near Stone, Staffs.  I saw happy mustachioed young men in flares and open necked shirts playing pool, eating and happily learning about multicoloured wires amidst the campus’ 1960s style wood and metal institutional architecture. The flares put me off a bit, but at the time it looked like a possible career that would set me up with a job for life.

And there was something romantic in it too. That problem solving, service restoring ethic, the mission and tasking, the promise of camaderie, of accumulated skill, of machine/human entanglement. But it was the prospect of a van, copious tools, an open road and a fakir like opportunity to escape the world by clambering up telegraph poles that did it for me the most.   On my way to school my heart would skip a beat as I saw convoys of vans setting off each day from their depot, with cable reels in tow, mounted ladders- a medley of big, small and irregular vehicles each with their own purpose, like a break-out from a toyshop. A Tonka rebellion.

Actually the convoy wasn’t telephonic. The vehicles belonged to the South West Electricity Board, their livery a municipal grey and green giving the whole despatch a vague military hew.  But that daily parade served as a nice proxy.

Somehow the idea faded though. Books took over. I never got a yellow van.  The privatisation of British Telecom in 1984 took something from the romance of being a telephone engineer. It no longer seemed like a public service, an institution, a job for life. Thereafter phones, and phone services were just commodities. My mind turned to other things.

Many of my school friends followed the lure of the van, but into the military rather than BT. Thus in the 1990s whilst I played my small – ambivalent – part in the deindustrialisation of South Wales my friends variously soaked up tank churned mud in Catterick, cheap beer in Rhineland pubs, gamma rays in the bowels of Nuclear Submarines or deadly bullets in ‘small wars’.

Hey baby, I’m your telephone man

But there was another thing that put me off. Being a telephone engineer was a fantasy of escape, of independence and yet it posed (to an innocent 13 year old boy’s mind) the scary prospect of oppressive human encounters within warm homes. I was genuinely fearful of what my customers might demand of me as ‘extras’. Remember, this was the early 1980s, Benny Hill and Robin Askwith (the Confessions of a Window Cleaner etc films) still fed the then still dominant image of the predatory desires of bored housewives and those calling upon them. It all sounded too complex, all this human stuff. There was even a song in testimony to what I feared…

                “I got it in the bedroom, and I got it in the hall

                                And I got it in the bathroom, and he hung it on the wall

                                                I got it with a buzz, and I got it with a ring

                                                                And when he told me what my number was I got a ding-a-ling”

                                                                                                                Meri Wilson (1977) Telephone Man




Image source

GPO Telephone pole man –

Entangled bodies: urban exploration, matter and meaning making


Entanglement as a term aims to allow a materialism but

embedded within the social, the historical, the contingent.”

Hodder (2012: 96)

What does it mean to be embodied? That seems to be the contested territory standing between Garrett & Hawkins (2013) and Mott & Roberts (2013a & b) in their recent Antipode exchange. Garrett & Hawkins table a body/environment ‘entanglement’ (Hodder 2012) as the object of a new era of research into urban exploration. Mott & Roberts (2013b) counter that the main thrust of their critique of existing scholarship remains unaddressed: namely where is the appreciation of embodied difference amongst those who do – and those who don’t do – urban exploration?

Mott & Roberts’ approach is broadly concerned with the social: how can this practice be culturally situated? How can it be understood in terms of identity politics? Who is dominating this practice, and whose voices and presence is absent? In what senses (and for whom) can urban exploration be said to be liberatory? For them embodiment is a question of human identity, hinged around physical and social difference. And there’s is a call for mobilisation of a greater sense of critique of urban exploration as a predominantly white, male, young, over-educated and professional class pastime.

Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins (whilst seemingly acknowledging the ‘masculinist’ nature of at least some urban exploration culture), avow (via considering the work of a female artist – Miru Kim – working in an urban exploration type terrain) urban exploration as a new way of reading and researching body/environment relations by looking at the embodiment of the human participant within the built environment structures that they explore.

Each then, figures embodiment differently. For Mott and Roberts bodies are carriers of human identity and difference: vectors of identity bio-politics. Meanwhile Garrett & Hawkins focus upon the experience and meshing of flesh in the world. Given their different theoretical starting points it is not surprising that agreement is not reached in their exchange.

Each ‘side’ do however appear to be helpfully raising questions under-explored in scholarship to date on this topic. Yes (aligning with Garrett & Hawkins), it would be too easy ‘just’ to examine urban exploration as a gendered practice, a frat-ish rite of passage. There is more to be said about what it is like to pit oneself against the hazardous-to-human arrangements of high, deep and otherwise inhospitable terrain in the built environment, and Garrett is prodigiously advancing this project. However the ‘what it’s like to be there?’ dimension must not become the sole focus, for there is much more that needs investigating (and critiquing) alongside developing deeper understanding of edgework and of the human/matter meld: in particular, the politics, ethics and impacts of urban exploration, and this brings me to a wider issue.

It takes more than urban explorers for urban exploration to exist. To date the focus has been upon the explorers, and often the treatment has been reverential in tone: the explorer as somehow pushing boundaries and thereby contributing in some – never quite articulated way – towards socio-spatial justice. But is exploration done ‘on behalf’ of anyone other than the explorers? What is achieved, and at what cost? The ‘downside’ is never probed, nor the limits of desirable infiltration ever fathomed. Just because it is possible to climb the latest skyscraper in London, is it right to do so? Who is affected by urban exploration and what are their rights? So far, the voices of non-participants (those who choose not to be urban explorers), of property owners and infrastructure managers, of security and rescue services, and of other types of incursionist – have all been absent.

Urban exploration may take place in buildings that are (or seem to be) empty, but they are not places that have become meaningless, and most are not actually abandoned. Many others (non explorers) have desires, and anxieties about, and relationships with these places – and the matter to be encountered within them –   the night watchmen, the site operators, the insurers, the regulatory authorities all need to be heard if we are to understand ‘urban exploration’, for it is not just a pastime that exists in isolation from the world – it is precisely its embodied (in the sense of being-in-the world and amidst matter and other people) aspect that raises these questions. Recreational trespass has consequences, it is an interaction not just with matter, but also with other human bodies and socio-technical systems. There is a human/matter ecology within the targeted buildings and infrastructure.

And urban exploration is a part of that ecology – but it is not the only actant that mobilises it. Those who perceive urban exploration as ‘done to them’ rarely draw neat distinctions between the motivations (and/or backgrounds) of the incursionists whom they encounter the traces of after a weekend of ‘infiltration’ in their premises. The modus operandi of urban explorers – viewed from the perspective of the site owner – is little different from that of the squatter, the arsonist or the metal thief or other scavenger. To understand urban exploration we would need to understand not just how individually or collectively urban explorers define themselves, but also how others (non urban explorers) make sense of recreational trespass and react to it. Intersubjectivity is not just played out between urban explorers, it also happens between others about urban exploration. There is discourse, there is representation, there is power, there is law: all in play around this issue. And all of that swirl of discursive stuff is intimately entwined with bodies and the hazards (and/or purposiveness) of matter.

To interview site owners about urban exploration – as I have done on occasion over recent years – is to encounter bewildered adults struggling to find a way to make sense of recreational trespass, of its implications for them and of rules of thumb by which they may distinguish one type of incursion from another. These bodies matter too: these are human beings facing anxieties as a consequence of site incursion, perhaps occasionally seeing fatalities and having to ‘pick up the pieces’ (in all senses). They also ‘matter’ in the sense used by Karen Barad (2007) : these bodies are just as involved as the explorers in sense making and prediction about human/matter interaction brought about through urban exploration: classically in the realm of risk assessments, and their narration of possible human/matter fateful contact. And, yes – to agree with Mott and Roberts here – owners and other reactors to urban exploration will frame their response decisions around bodily difference. Plainly, in the post 9/11 western world Moslem urban explorers are likely to be treated with greater suspicion or alarm than WASP ones – our bodies carry identity, and are interpreted by others on account of those manifest (and socially foregrounded) features of difference. Thus it is clearly (socially) more dangerous for some to do urban exploration than others.

Let me be clear, the above is not intended as an attack upon urban exploration. As my previous contributions to recent work in this area have hopefully shown, I have considerable respect for the investigatory endeavours of the urban explorers whom I have come across. I have also suggested to site owners in a variety of projects (for the British Mountaineering Council and other pro-access organisations) that site owners need to become more relaxed about adventurous recreational use of their properties.

But, if the talk is now of opening up new avenues of study in this area, I would like to endorse Garrett & Hawkins’ call for greater attention to human/matter relations, and also Moss & Roberts’ call for greater social critique. But, I would suggest that achieving both might actually require a much broader view of the field of study to emerge, one in which:

First, urban exploration is truly engaged with as a ‘spectrum’ (as per Craggs et al, 2013), putting the athletic boundary-pushing dimension into place alongside more ‘down to earth’ – and more inclusive – variants (and whether psychogeography, architectural enthusiasm or urban ‘sightseeing’) in which difference matters less; and

Secondly, one in which exploratory urban engagements of whatever hue are understood as a complex entanglement of many materialities, policies, peoples, priorities and politics, a mesh in which the urban explorer becomes but one actant amongst many.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University.

Craggs, R., Geoghegan, H. & Neate, H. (2013). ‘Architectural enthusiasm: visiting buildings with the Twentieth Century Society’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 31: 879-896.

Garrett, B. & Hawkins, H. (2013) ‘And now for something completely different…Thinking through explorer subject-bodies: a response to Mott and Roberts’ Antipode November 2013: via

Hodder, I. (2012) Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. London: Wiley.

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013a). ‘Not everyone has (the) balls: Urban exploration and the persistence of masculinist geography.’ Antipode doi: 10.1111/anti.12033: via

Mott, C. & Roberts, C. (2013b). ‘Difference really does matter: a reply to Garrett and Hawkins’ Antipode November 2013: via

Image credit:

Naked City Spleen by Miru Kim at (where there are more images from her Naked City sequence and her video presentation about her project).

On staring at stuff in a weird way: ethnographic surrealism and psychogeography as connectors to everyday matter

“To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.”

Henry Reed, excerpt from Naming of Parts (1942, p.92)


Recently I’ve been working on a paper with two colleagues from SHU’s Institute of Education. It concerns our exploratory workshop (my part previously reported here) and draws out the similarities in our preoccupations with, and methods for, producing our accounts of a portion of campus space that day. Each of us – in slightly differing ways – exhibited in our accounts a contemporary fascination with the instability (and playfulness of) the experience of place, and also foreground the constitutive role of mundane matter in the reciprocal formation of that sense of being-in-space.

In my piece, the tactic of foregrounding the background – the infrastructural spandrels at this place – was wilfully transgressive and playful – reading Žižek’s minor passage as major. But it was also indicative of the ontological turn, a neo-materialism that seeks to return to their rightful place centre stage in social theory and research “the missing masses” (Latour, 1992) – matter itself, the stuff of the world that enables human social life and yet so often is omitted from it. My account was not written in a technical register – it was intentionally not a building survey report – something functional and/or scientific. No, I chose a register equally alien to practical science as it was to mainstream social theory and research, in its attempt to speak the non (or post) human, consistent with Ian Bogost’s (2012: 34) exhortation that we should write “the speculative fictions” of objects’ “unit-operations”, and do so by foregrounding the background, by fetishising matter and ascribing agency and quasi subjecthood to it. My wilful turn away from the human, and foregrounding of the campus as machine used the dynamic, enthusiastic register of nature writing, and in doing so offered an oddly exuberant depiction of “moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated”. Such stylistics would be normal for writing about flora or fauna, but is alien to the depiction of wiring. Cabling is not meant to be the subject of rapt adjectival attention.

But this warping of language and gaze was not a product of reverie. What was “found”, and what was reported was wilfully selected, theoretically informed and shaped by an anticipation of performance (the presentation) and audience (in the workshop, on my blog and for our article). The cables did not present themselves in a moment of revelation. Theory made this wierding possible and permissible, as it was for John Paul Sartre upon his first acquaintance with phenomenology in the early 1930s, an encounter that enabled him to announce with youthful glee:

“nothing appeared to me more important that the promotion of street lamps to the dignity of a philosophical object…truth drags through the streets, in the factories and, apart from ancient Greece, philosophers are eunuchs who never open their doors to it.” (quoted in Kearney, 1994: 3)

This iconoclasm – this return to things (to echo Husserl) – has recently reasserted itself. Sartre’s iconoclasm is returning. In a new, 21st century its talk is of how to find methodological:

“means by which to activate the implicit thing knowledge we already possess, as well as means to become more sensitive to the inherent qualities of things themselves” (Olsen, 2010: 18)

Yet very little has actually been said about precisely how to study and foreground the submerged contribution of material things to places and processes. For now, it is humans writing the “speculative fictions” of things – using language creatively to unmask the non-linguistic – that appears the best strategy despite it seeming a contradiction in terms. Graham Harman shows the unmasking power of creative descriptive writing in his advocacy of a “weird realism”:

“…philosophy’s sole mission is weird realism. Philosophy must be realist because its mandate is to unlock the structure of the world itself; it must be weird because reality is weird.” (2008: 334, emphasis in original)

For Harman – like Bogost – creative writing is a means by which the mundane can be foregrounded by (for example) the Kafkaesque “en-wierding” techniques of horror writers like H.P. Lovecraft. To figure an assembly of overhead cables as having spider-like qualities is to destabilise the normal, directing attention to it. Harman shows this technique to deft effect in a sinister description of a (perfectly normal) local hotel, The Nile Luxor Hilton. Harman destabilises the normal via a surfeit of attentive description and inference of agency, thus:

“Though the outer walls seem to meet at solid right angles, the hue of the concrete departs from accustomed values in a manner suggestive of frailty or buckling.” (Harman, 2008: 355)

In the juxtaposition of imagery and allusion, the given of the mundane material world is destablised and through this destabilisation foregrounded. In a similar vein Highmore argues for a revival of a spirit of “surrealist ethnography” (2002: 82) in which anthropology’s “will to order” is seriously undermined, and the messiness of daily life respected, finding “society as a totality of fragments” (emphasis in original), a phrase reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s self-described method of social analysis: “rag picking”, a position Highmore describes as being “at the crossroads of magic and positivism” (82). But it is the surrealists who Highmore figures as the epitome of background foregrounding:

“Surrealism is about an effort, an energy, to find the marvellous in the everyday, to recognise the everyday as a dynamic montage of elements, to make it strange so that its strangeness can be recognized. The classic Surrealist can be seen as Sherlock Holmes-like: faced with the deadly boredom of the everyday, the Surrealist takes to the street, working to find and create the marvellousness of the everyday.” (56)

In our article (assuming my co-authors are happy with the draft I’ve just sent them) we will argue that our accounts are characteristic of an emergent “psychogeographical” sensibility, an approach that can both embrace the materiality of the external world as a co-creator of perceived reality, and yet still retain a still powerful constructivist sentiment that aligns experience of (or at least accounting for the experience of) the world in language, affect and subjective experience. This is indeed the realm of a speculative, or “weird realism” (Harman, 2008).

Psychogeography’s relationship to academic research is ambiguous, its promise to date unfulfilled. The term was formulated by Guy Debord in 1955 in the following terms:

Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can this be applied to the findings arrived by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.” (emphasis in original, Debord, 1955: 5).

In the hands of the Situationists, psychogeography became conflated with 1960s revolutionary playfulness and adherence to any search for “precise laws and specific effects” quickly disappeared from view, but nonetheless – even if in the end he didn’t pursue it himself – Debord conceptually mapped out territory for potential study: that intersection between human affective experience of place, and the materiality of the environment within which (and about which) such encounters occur. Debord also conceptualised the (Surrealist inspired) dérive as a “scientific” methodology – the aimless stroll intended to experience and/or transgress the habitual routes of travel and experience mapped out by the “the ambiance of the street…the path of least resistance which is automatically followed…” (Debord, 1955: 16).

As Coverley (2006) has since argued, contemporary psychogeography (as it is “practised” in the UK at least) is primarily a literary pastime, accessing an English mystic tradition stretching back to William Blake and Thomas De Quincy as much the conceptualising of Debord and the Situationist International. But none the less, the empirical programme framed by Debord in 1955 remains open to engagement within the academy, in addition to its vibrant literary life beyond it. One direction to take the ensuing enquiry is environmental psychology, deploying quantitative (and often perceptual experiment based) approaches to investigation of the environment/person nexus (for example Prestopnik & Roskos-Ewoldsen’s (2000) quantitative study of campus wayfinding strategies). The other direction is to embrace the interpretive, and journey into the marginal territory that lies somewhere between autoethnographic investigation and the creative “literary travel writing” of the contemporary Anglophone literary psychogeography (for example Sinclair, 1997; Sebald, 2002; Papadimitriou, 2013).

Research in this mode cannot offer up “precise laws” (or even generalisable) “specific effects”, but it can present rich, post-positivist reflexive description of the story stacking processes by which instances of place are encountered, and the terms (and sense) of that encounter negotiated between the creative agency of humans and the resistances and affordances of matter.

The paper that I’m working on will argue that a broadly psychogeographical research methodology entails an open, reflexive (and often playful) engagement with language, memory and the physicality of the built environment. It requires an embrace of multiplicity, indeterminacy and contingency, an attentiveness to the agency of matter (and data), and to the flux of temporalities, spatialities and normative orders apparent when one sets out to actively make meaning within seemingly “given” (pre-ordained) mundane, functional places that would normally be passed through and/or used without particular regard.

A connecting thread across my and my collaborators’ research work is a belief that all encounters with place are provisional, coalescing as tentative assemblages of matter and meaning as a function of overlapping strategies, subjectivities and materialities that incline towards conventional (and dominant) registers of experience, but which are never entirely contained by them. The “slip” is irrepressible, and psychogeographic techniques of the drift (dérive) and/or reappropriation (détournement) can be applied as a celebration of these aberrant flows, and whether as a challenge to hegemonic structures of power (as the Situationists intended) or as a “diffractive methodology” to simply bring to the foreground the messy multitude of the experience of place – the swirl of affects, ideas, conventions, artefacts, spatial arrangements and power inherent in the daily experience of learning environments.

We are conscious that our figuration of psychogeography as a playful experiential research methodology side-steps both psychogeography’s radical political aims and its originally conceptualised role as revolutionary reconnaissance. In a recent paper Shukaitis and Figiel, (2013) have reasserted psychogeography’s radical political purpose, and criticised its contemporary denaturing. But psychogeography is – as Bonnett (2009) notes – an increasingly broad church.

The concern of our paper is to consider meaning making and “mattering” (Barad 2007) in one nondescript corner of a University campus. It might well be said that our analysis omits matters of policy, funding and wider political economy. We do not deny the importance of such considerations, but do not consider that the choice is “either/or”. There are many scholars engaged with the structural dimensions of higher education policy and its impact upon campus management. We simply seek to reinsert notions of tactical agency, and affective, embodied experience into consideration of how being upon a University campus is constituted. Critical research into higher education place making tends to lapse into totalising models of “top-down” determinism, and consequently position individuals as dupes of structural imposition. In such readings, the fact that a University can make its physical landscape by arranging matter and symbols is equated with an equally efficacious ability to condition its students (see, for example, the “new model worker” thesis expressed by Hancock and Spicer, 2011). But we (after de Certeau 1984) see the “appellation” (in the sense used by Louis Althusser – that ideology “calls” to its subjects) as less effective, more messy and believe that a psychogeographically inclined investigation of the flux of such human/system encounters can reveal (and potentially) amplify this multivalence. An emergent example of a hybrid political/weird psychogeographic analysis of campus management can be found in Tina Richardson’s (2011) Deleuzo-guattarian variant of psychogeography which explicates the “forgotten” portions of the University of Leeds’ campus, a position somewhat closer than ours to what Bonnett has styled “magico-Marxism” (2009: 45).

Our concern then, is to understand how psychogeography might work as a methodology to explore matter/meaning relations, and we find much suited to our purpose in Shukaitis and Figiel’s depiction of the dérive as:

“a way [of] getting lost, of opening up how one is affected by the world, [that] brings to the fore all the richness (and horror) of the everyday that is typically not paid attention to.” (2013: 3)

This aspiration – in and of itself – has methodological merit, and some precedent as an axiom of both social research and creative enquiry. In his explication of theories of everyday life, Ben Highmore (2002) points to James Clifford’s 1981 essay, “On Ethnographic Surrealism”, which explored the 1920s and early 1930s links between the avant garde and the emergence of French enthnology. Clifford (1988: 121) saw modern ethnology as driven by a need to (in the oft quoted phrase) “mak[e] the familiar strange” (a particularly important dictum for research conducted within the researcher’s own cultural reality). But his invocation was more dramatic than those words portray, in embracing the destabilising principles of surrealism, Clifford advocated an ethnographic surrealist practice which “attacks the familiar, provoking the eruption of otherness – the unexpected” (146). He situated “surrealist ethnography” as revelling in difference and semantic indeterminacy (in healthy contrast to the taxonomic – naming and ordering) impulse of a “scientific” ethnology. Clifford’s ensuing methodological prescription co-opted the surrealist practice of collage, assemblage forming in which “the cuts and sutures of the research process are left visible; there is no smoothing over or blending of the work’s raw data into homogenous representation” (1988: 147).

Except – of course – that there will always be blending, an at least partial sense making (and committant ordering) of unfamiliar or de-familiarised reality. There will be re-constitution by the observer, in dynamic exchange with the multitude of things in the world beyond. Our concern should therefore be to explicate (after Karen Barad) how matter is made to matter by human interlocutors, and how matter has its own abilities to impose significance upon the social world.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. London: Duke University Press.

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien Phenomenology or what it’s like to be a thing. London: University of Minnesota Press.

Bonnett, A. (2009). The dilemmas of radical nostalgia in British Psychogeography. Theory, Culture and Society, 26(1), 45-70.

Coverley, M. (2006). Psychogeography. Harpenden: Pocket Essentials.

de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Clifford, J. (1988). The predicament of culture. London: Harvard University Press.

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Hancock, P. and Spicer, A. (2011). Academic architecture and the constitution of the new model worker. Culture and Organization, 17(2), 91-105.

Harman, G. (2008). On the horror of Phenomenology: Lovecraft and Husserl. In R. Mackay (ed) COLLAPSE IV. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

Highmore, B. (2002). Everyday life and cultural theory. London: Routledge.

Kearney, R. (1994). Modern movements in European philosophy. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Latour, B. (1992). Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. In W. E. Bijker & J. Law (Eds.) Shaping technology/building society: Studies in sociotechnical change (pp. 225–258). Harvard: MIT Press.

Olsen, B. (2010). In defense of things – Archaeology and the ontology of objects, Plymouth: Alta Mira Press.

Papadimitriou, N. (2013). Scarp. London: Sceptre.

Prestopnik, J. and Roskos-Ewoldsen, B. (2000). The relations among wayfinding strategy use, sense of direction, sex, familiarity, and wayfinding ability. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 20, 177-191.

Reed, H. (1942). Naming of Parts. New Statesman and Nation. 24, no. 598, 92.

Richardson, T. (2009) A Schizocartography of a Redbrick University. Spaces and Flows: an International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, 1(1), 119-128.

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Sebald, W.G. (2002). The Rings of Saturn, London: Vintage.

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