Come On In!: Calling all legal geographers, place management scholars and spatio-normativity researchers! The Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law is in a listening mood…

“…to examine this background assumption, to consider the idea that law does not stop at the
utterance, but continues on through causal chains into the world of stuff. Actually, it was never
anywhere else. The violence that law authorizes or blocks happens on bodies and elsewhere in the
material world. This is not separable from law, nor are these simply ‘effects’.”

David Delaney (2003) ‘Beyond the word: law as a thing of this world’. In: Holder, J. and Harrison, C. E. (eds) Law and Geography. OUP: Oxford, pp. 67–84.

Anyone who’s read my work will know that I’m a lawyer-cum-geographer-cum-artsy kind of guy. I’m interested in that point where law as words and symbols collides with the physicality of the world around us, and how we take as natural many of these quite strange collision effects. But these collisions are necessary, important and they make fundamentally important regularities in the world, they form territories, they instruct us in how to move within and to co-inhabit our worlds. And its always struck me as odd that there is no academic journal targeted towards analysing these materialisations of law in (and into) the world, and how (formal and informal) rule frameworks form, subsist and fade for the spaces and places that we dwell in.

So, I’m very pleased to now announce that earlier this year I was appointed editor-in-chief of the established Emerald Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law. Admittedly that’s not the sexiest sounding journal title on the planet, but within the cover of that rather bland tagline, there’s great scope for the journal to become a home and heartland for investigation of the ‘rules’ of space and place.

Here’s the Journal’s recently refreshed Scope and Aims statement (featuring my editorial steer in bold) and an indication of the range (and scales) of studies that the journal has published in recent years from around the world:

The Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law publishes original legal research contributions for the benefit of scholars, policy makers and practitioners in these areas, including those operating in the fields of legal practice, real estate, place management, housing, environmental regulation and land use planning. It is an established, well-regarded journal; international in scope and with a commitment to comparative legal studies, the journal publishes scholarly legal articles dealing with the application of law in these areas as well as theoretical and policy orientated research. We are happy to accept articles taking a doctrinal approach as well as those engaging with empirical and socio-legal research.

JPPEL brings together scholarship from the inter-related areas of property, planning and environmental law, as well as a diversity of methodological approaches. The journal seeks to encourage new, interdisciplinary ways of examining how law (in its widest sense) shapes how places and spaces are conceived, made, used, owned, operated, managed, transacted, changed, harmed and/or eliminated. We are particularly keen to encourage contributions from fields such as legal geography, regulatory studies, political ecology and law & technology scholarship that explore the role of law in place-related matters.

To give an illustration of the breadth and importance of the subjects that we cover, here are some of the themes that our published articles have examined over the last three years:

  • Situating real estate law for the new outer-space economy
  • Transitioning towards circular systems: property rights in waste
  • Blockchain technology in Dutch land registration
  • The law and policy on coastal damage in New South Wales, Australia
  • Regulatory failure in hotel projects in Bali, Indonesia
  • Land expropriation in China
  • Legal frameworks for Syrian urban reconstruction
  • Developments in the law of repair in the UK private sector
  • Civil liability for nuclear operators in the United Arab Emirates
  • Logics of value in community ownership of UK pubs

We currently have an open Call for Papers, and are also open to proposals for special issues that align to the Journal’s Scope and Aims.

We also have a current specific Call for Papers (closing for submission on 21st February 2023) for a special issue to be guest edited by Dr Rebecca Leshinsky of RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia on ‘Sharing sky high stories – A narrative research approach addressing the law of concerns, complaints, and conflict in multi-unit residential developments‘, here’s the text of that Call:

Sharing sky high stories is a special issue for the Journal of Property, Planning and Environmental Law. It supports a narrative research approach addressing the law of concerns, complaints, and conflict in multi-unit residential developments. 

Land use planning and environmental studies have a long tradition with the rich information that can be gathered from narrative research. This may be through interviews, focus groups or factual discussion from court judgements. Multi-unit residential development, be it private condominium or government/community housing, comprises of concerns, complaints, and conflict. Behind these matters are narratives involving humans as lot owners, renters, committee/board members, service providers, property/strata managers and other stakeholders. Dagan (2008, 814) reminds us there is no inherent or inevitable content to property law. We argue that the time is ripe for narrative research to play a role in gaining knowledge on the lived experiences of multi-unit stakeholders. Carruthers et al. (2021), regarding their research into the pedagogy of property law teaching, note findings from their longitudinal study that some teachers want a more critical socio-legal approach to property law, rather than strict doctrinal teaching. Sherry (2021) comments that land law contains social, economic, and political values that are obvious to legal and property theorists. These are values well known to judges but the time-pressures of modern justice limits the ability of judges to “explicate those values in their decisions”. In turn, lawyers cannot see the underlying social, economic or political rationale in property case law or doctrine (Sherry 2021). The rationale then for this special issue is to align narrative research in the legal context of property, planning and environmental matters as they relate to multi-unit residential developments. Knowledge from a legal lens on multi-unit developments, from the narratives, and stories of stakeholders, will add a richer understanding regarding the lived experiences of residents and stakeholders associated with multi-unit residential developments.”

Further details of the journal and our Calls are here:

Images references: The Author, Sheffield UK (2022)

Defying gravity: construction and deconstruction campaigns against gravity and their pitfalls

When even the gravitational field — geometry incarnate — becomes a non-commuting (and hence nonlinear) operator, how can the classical interpretation of  as a geometric entity be sustained? Now not only the observer, but the very concept of geometry, becomes relational and contextual.”

Sokal, A.D. (1996) ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, Social Text, 46/47: 217-252

Not accepting the gravity of the situation

The so-called ‘Sokal Affair’ ridiculed the postmodernism critics of modernist science who, building upon literary deconstruction, were seemingly keen to show the relativity (and instability) of all knowledge. Sokal’s academic paper in a respected and peer reviewed postmodern journal wove postmodern theorists together in a way which seemed to argue (but actually didn’t quite) that gravity itself was a relative socio-cultural construct. Actually the paper was more subtle than that – and its chief mischief is actually that it didn’t really say anything at all.

But when planning the short essay that follows it seemed a good place to start. In contemporary folklore at least the Sokal paper ridicules postmodern relativity by suggesting that that journal’s reviewers and readership were happy to endorse a relativisation of gravity – an accusation that leaves open the prospect of the defying of gravity’s force by simply unmasking its socio-cultural and/or ideological nature. Taken this way – as a crude parody of deconstruction – the Sokal paper summons the impression of an intellectual campaign against gravity (and in doing so creates ridicule of postmodernist critiques of science: because clearly – as experienced in our daily lives – gravity is real and undeniable).

Having raised a chuckle at the absurdity of a (faked) intellectual campaign against gravity by deconstructionists, in this short piece I want to think about the phenomenon of the daily campaigns against gravity waged by constructionists on myriad building sites across the world.

Taking total possession of a site

Think about it. What happens shortly after a site is transformed into a building site via the erection of a boundary fence or hoarding? Scaffolding is what happens.

Scaffolding – and whether internally or externally – is set up in order to enable works access to areas of a site which are (literally) beyond the reach of ordinary inhabitation of that place. The ceilings and exterior walls of an existing building suddenly become surfaces that will feel the refurbishment touch of the builder. And where scaffolding cannot reach, other gravity defying access techniques will ensue, via ladders, roped access, cherry pickers. Increasingly this reaching for access to the totality of the site’s 3D space is technologically enhanced, using devices once thought of as science fiction: remote viewing through the eyes and flight of drones, or now as enabled by the Iron Man engineering of personal jet packs which are now being directly marketed for construction and engineering site applications.

A construction project is a campaign waged against space with material, labour and ideas against the vagaries of time, weather, stakeholders and finite finances. It is also a campaign against the limitations of gravity. That campaign requires a total – albeit temporary – acquisition and control of 3D space upon a site. It is not sufficient to occupy only the gravity dictated surfaces that future inhabitants will confine themselves to. Indeed, the very formation of those floors and walkways may only be possible via the temporary imposition upon the building envelope of numerous levels of scaffold, to form an infra-building – a distorted ghost image of the building yet to come.

The cost of defying gravity

The temporary campaign against gravity is necessary, but such gravity-defying structures come at considerable cost, and gravity’s urge to reassert its power, and the attendant limits to occupancy must not be treated lightly. Falls from height remain one of the most common types of accidents on construction sites in the UK – 47% of all fatal construction site accidents in 2019/20 (HSE 2020) and a variety of legal requirements apply to edge protection and a whole industry of consultants and engineering solutions providers exist to facilitate appropriate safety measures where-ever gravity is being defied on a site.

Meanwhile, in New York State the Labor Law 240(1) – otherwise known as the ‘Scaffold Law’ and which was originally enacted in 1885 as a response to accidents arising in the then-emerging skyscraper construction boom, in particular because the hoists being used to transport workers up the side of the buildings were proving to be unsafe – imposes strict liability upon all construction site operators who chose to defy gravity (see Powers & Sanola (2021)).  What this means is that if a construction worker is harmed by a “gravity risk” (which includes both a worker’s fall from hight and a worker being struck by an article dropped from height) then the site operator is liable regardless of whether or not they (or the worker) can be shown to have been careless in their gravity defying actions. As a New York court put it in ruling on an accident claim brought in 2009:

“[the]single decisive question is whether [the claimant’s] injuries were the direct consequence of a failure to provide adequate protection against the risk arising from a physically significant elevation differential” (quoted in Faley, 2010)

What is notable here is the explicit acknowledgment of gravity as a force to be reconned with – gravity becomes a character in the story of each accident (and each requirement to have prevented it). In contrast applicable UK legislation – like the Work at Height Regulations 2005 – concentrate more upon the health risk of falls and means of safeguarding, rather than picturing gravity itself as a force to be named and assuaged in construction site’s temporary campaigns to defy gravity in their total possession of their worksites.

But whether we give it a name or not gravity is a very real and sobering adversary in construction (and in deconstruction too).

Image Source: M.C. Escher (1953) Relativity

Quiet bubbling: observing the silent co-existence of co-workers on building sites

“The ways in which bodies move through, inhabit and occupy space on a construction site (and elsewhere) rely on both conscious and deliberate acts and on an array of taken-for-granted, unintentional modes of being.”

Dawn Lyon (2013) ‘The labour of refurbishment: the building and body in space and time’ in Pink, Tutt & Dainty (eds) Ethnographic Research in the Construction Industry. Abingdon: Routledge, p35.

This photograph is a rarity. Other than a certain quirkiness (the doubling, of the doubled-over faceless pose) there is nothing of aesthetic value about this image, but it has got me hooked because it depicts a type of working that is actually very hard to find in visual depictions of building sites. Try it: a Google of ‘construction site’ finds either:

– a site devoid of people;

– a site populated by a group of workers or visitors who are all clearly engaged in a collective task; or

– a site view in which only one, task-absorbed, worker is visible

What captivates me about this picture is that it almost depicts a reality that hardly ever appears in published construction site photographs, but yet which is likely to be the glimpsed experience of any passer-by as they encounter their local building site. The under-acknowledged reality is that of the co-existence of multiple-but-separate activities.

Now, I say ‘almost’ above because these two workers seem to both be working on setting out the reinforcement shell for a concrete slab that is about to be poured. In that sense they have a common purpose – they are both acting upon the same task. Ultimately, it could be argued that all co-workers on a construction site are engaged in the same overarching task (the making of the building) even if one is doing brickwork, one is tiling, and another is laying cables. But as that sentence suggests, at the sub-project level each of those three workers is working on a separate task, one that has its own rhythms, reasons and ways of doing.

Wandering through a live building site (particularly after the structural work has been done) is to walk through a hive of individual projects, and to step awkwardly in and out of individual territorial bubbles of temporarily claimed space. Here, each worker has set themselves up in their part of the partly-formed place, in order to then set to work.  And in doing so they have formed their own little sphere of activity – a micro-territory of which they have possession, and they signal that territorial claim in subtle but clear ways, via the spreading out of tools, the playing of music or the laying out of signage. This way of taking a temporary claim to space is picked up ‘on the job’. At college there was no ‘how to claim space’ lecture aimed at cultivating proficiency in individual bubble-making. Yes, there would have been some sessions on how a contractor’s organisation acting as a multi-person organism might ‘take possession’ of a site, and in infrastructure (for instance rail transport) there are complex rules of taking possession of tracks, pipes or cables, but nothing at the level of the individual.

In such situations – where safety risks are otherwise high – the rules of temporary space-possession are made explicit. Thus, to enter the railway line or to descend the mineshaft a unique physical token must be presented. Failure to offer-up that token means that possession of that space cannot be claimed, because possession of the token ‘proves’ an entitlement to enter and the space’s presently unoccupied status. Meanwhile permission to enter confined spaces or to carry out hazardous operations in a particular area may be governed by a paper-trail, the ‘permit-to-work’: no permit, no entry and no work. But in the vast majority of circumstances there is no token, there is no permit, there is no negotiation. Instead, by convention and subtle cues, individual task-bubbles form and fade, and the individuals within them quietly work out how to co-exist alongside others.

This silent space-possession activity is also evident (in everyday experience, but not in photographs) in domestic environments. Think about the last time you “had the builders in” – what did they do to mark out your territory as temporarily theirs? How did they subdivide your space down into an array of individual bubbles of occupancy? And how they negotiate the interaction between these individual bubbles with you, and with their workmates?

I had the experience of co-habiting with a plasterer and his ‘mate’ in my own home last week: and it got me thinking about the above, because the way that the mate set up for his ceiling pulling-down task was so different to that of the plasterer who came a few days later. Where one focussed on simply taking space and keeping to himself (thereby emphasising the separation of his work bubble from the rest of the house), the other was far more deliberative and verbal, frequently asking permission and informing me of his intentions in order to check and define the way that his and my bubbles would interact during his residency. In the end it was the over-elaboration of these normally silent territorial co-habitational rituals that brought the whole thing into focus, making me think of the verbal and visual silence that usually cloaks the proximity of separate co-habitation.

Image source:

Managing the awful precipice: law at the edge in my new article in Area

“By the extent of its prospects, the awfulness of its shades, the horrors of its precipices, the verdure of its hollows, and the loftiness of its rocks, the ideas which it forces upon the mind are the sublime, the dreadful and the vast. Above is inescapable altitude, below, is horrible profundity.”

Dr Samuel Johnston, (1816) A Diary of a journey into North Wales, in the year 1774, p.40

My latest article is inspired in part by the curated – intentionally sublime – landscape formed upon the steep cliffs of Hawkstone Park in Shropshire. The reason Dr Johnston went there (and visitors do still to this day) is to draw close to the vertiginous edges: to admire the views and to experience the thrill of standing at the limit point of safety. Here is is intended that the visitor feel a thrill, and then safely step back. In my article I attempt to explore how honouring this imperative of sublime thrill is reconciled with wider notions of safety culture. In short, in my article, I ask what happens in those situations where law has to share space (physically and conceptually) with other strong drivers, like landscape aesthetics. How does the person responsible for curating that place come to know what an appropriate point of balance looks like there?

To summon an image of intentional, sophisticated place-managers curating place in a way that requires notions of law and safety to be balanced alongside other drivers is rather rebellious – because academic commentators (from a law perspective) would normally assume that the normative drivers of law and safety fully (or at least largely) determine how the risks of place are managed, whilst a critical geographer might choose to foreground an intrepid thrill-taker’s guile in illicitly grasping a moment of thrill by finding and exploiting fragments of opportunity unintentionally left available by an uptight, risk-averse place-manger.

In my article I seek to explore a middle path, by pointing to the place-manager’s code-shifting between competing normative pressures, and thereby becoming an edgeworker: someone who deftly navigates the edge at which compliance, safety and thrill find a point of balance.

My article, entitled ‘Reconsidering law at the edge: how and why do place‐managers balance thrill and compliance at outdoor attraction sites?’ is available (free to access) in pre-publication form here, and will be formally published in the journal Area soon. Here’s an extract:

“At outdoor attraction sites, a delicate balancing act is entailed – these places must appear to be open and unencumbered – but they must also be reasonably safe. As a past senior member of the Visitor Access in the Countryside Group (a group that develops and promulgates best practice interpretation amongst public sector attraction sites in the UK) has put it, the place-manager is required to:

“…pull off the ‘con trick’ of balancing the need of visitors to feel the unrestrained freedom that is essential to the countryside experience…while in reality secretly try[ing] to manage their activities within tight legal and corporate parameters“ (Marsh 2006, 4)

The “con-trick” here is not a matter of deception – place-managers’ safety concern is genuine, but it is also a matter of user experience. Finding the balance, is often a matter of making the safety controls appropriately integrated into the setting. Thus, a visitor to an iconic ruin site declares “I would rather have come here as a trespasser”, revealing the general sentiment of the audience to an artistically augmented open day. Such visitors must be left to feel that they have roamed without constraint. But this is an impression, not a reality, to be achieved. The ruin had many perilous edges from which visitors might fall, so an event plan was made, that saw visitors led through safe areas by both human guides and a light show. Thereby, visitors’ vulnerable bodies and the ruin’s precipitous edges were reconciled in a way that achieved (in the place-managers’ view) both safety (legal compliance) and met visitors desires (the thrill dictated by sublime aesthetics) through design of an appropriate atmosphere for the event.  

At attraction sites the provision of safety (and thus the performance of legal compliance) must often be concealed lest the apparatus of safety otherwise become obstructive: literally or figuratively blocking the thrilling view, or an increasingly kinetic engagement with edges via an increasingly “accelerated sublime” (Bell & Lyall 2002). And this urge to have open communion with an unfettered edge, has been a matter of sublime aesthetics since (at least) the Enlightenment. However, whilst conventional writing about recreational, counter-cultural, edgeworkers tends to present the thrill as that of rule-breaking, the root of the sublime in landscape aesthetics does not actually set up safety and thrill as opposites. Indeed, Jean Jacques Rousseau, doyenne of the Romantic movement and all counter-cultural access-takers that have come since, revealed in 1781, that at the heart of his formulation of the landscape sublime was a requirement for safety, thus:

“Along the side of the road is a parapet to prevent accidents, which enabled me to look down and be as giddy as I pleased; for the amusing thing about my taste for steep places is, that I am very fond of the feeling of giddiness which they give rise to, provided I am in a safe position.” (Rousseau 1996, 167)

Accordingly, the place-manager is faced with the practical conundrum of how to co-create both safety and sublime, edge-embracing thrill. At a clifftop heritage landscape attraction site, the place-manager deftly addressed thrill and safety simultaneously through signage that pointed out how high up the cliff was and urged reflection on that.

The viewers’ reflection simultaneously fed the sense of thrill and the need for maintaining a respectful distance from the perilous edge. And, in a further subtle ploy that simultaneously underpinned an achievement of both safety and the sublime, that exposed escarpment was presented on the site map as “The Awful Precipice”, the doubling of thrill and safety messaging reflected in the designer’s depiction of the letters of the desiccated place name as they appear to tumble over the cliff’s abrupt edge.  

Thus, an attraction place-manager must learn to creatively and effectively codeswitch between (at least) two normative domains – that of safety/compliance and that of thrill/entertainment. An attraction site must give what its users desire of it but must do so safely. The ability of place-managers to shuttle between these seemingly incompatible frames is quite a sight to behold. But it would be wrong to give an overly autonomous impression of place-managers, for just as the place-manager may have to code-shift within their own minds to find the workable balance of safety and thrill, this balancing also plays out within management groups within place-managing organisations. Thus, a place-manager must advocate for their local safety/thrill balancings – they must act as interlocutor between others who may either not see the force of law’s safety/compliance command or may not see the value of access and thrill. The point of balance ultimately selected, may be the outcome of interpersonal negotiation within an organisation, or between a variety of stakeholder entities each with their own distinctives ways of measuring risk and benefit.

To be a place-manager, striving to find a locally workable balancing of safety/compliance and access/thrill, is a demanding, emotionally draining task. But the affective weight of that pales into insignificance when set against the emotional burden of involvement in the aftermath of an accident. Experience matters, and the affective experiences of place-managers affect how their edgework calculus is subsequently performed. Judging what is ‘reasonably safe’ at a particular site is, at least in part, a reflection of the individual (and organisational) prior experience of those involved in making that assessment. It is always open to reconsideration and adjustment, as witnessed in the reflection by architect Kathryn Gustafson upon her experience of an unexpectedly high volume of visitors to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in London’s Hyde Park, shortly after it opened in 2004. As “a flicker of remembered dread passes across her otherwise serene face” (Jeffries 2004, n.p.) Gustafson recalls:

“When it first opened, 5,000 people an hour came to see it. How could you anticipate that? …there was no precedent. The turf around the oval couldn’t survive those kind of numbers. The level of management has had to be increased because of the level of people. We really underestimated that. I thought we had a guardian angel over the project; I really wish she’d come back.” (quoted in Jeffries 2004, n.p.).

And the continual re-assessment of a site’s safety/thrill balancing is simultaneously backwards and forwards looking. The experiences of the past shape inputs to the ‘reasonable safety’ calculus, as do anticipations about the future. Schatzki (2002, 28) talks of this goal-facing, affectively driven desiring of the future as the “teleoaffective” order of practice.  The iterative calculus of ongoing place-management acts towards a simultaneously desired and feared future, and its risk assessment protocols require the place-manager to conjure the ghostly premonitions of all of the things that might go wrong there, an apprehension of all of the ways in which visitors and the site’s edges might come into harmful contact with each other.”

Image Credits

(1) Caspar David Friedrich (1818) Wanderer above the Sea of Fog: (2) Sign at Hawkstone Park, Shropshire:; (3) Hawkstone Park ‘Swiss bridge’ sign, anon (4) extract from site map, Hawkstone Park c.2009.

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.


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

Image credit

Zdzisław Beksiński, Polish (1929-2005), Untitled, 1977 via

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.


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.

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.


Then jump back in time to the 1950s.

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.

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.

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.


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).


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.



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.

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.


CFP for RGS-IBG 2020: What’s behind the fence? Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Greenham Green Gate May 2018


RGS-IBG 2020 Annual International Conference, London 1 to 4 Sept 2020

Proposed Conference Session:

What’s behind the fence?: Exploring the secret lives of ambivalent owners, dead land and empty buildings

Contemporary cultural geographies of wastelands and ruin-sites tend to celebrate these vacant spaces as a break from the ordering impulses of everday normativities (Edensor 2005; DeSilvey & Edensor 2012). Keen to chronicle the ways in which wider human and more-than-human agencies are enabled in such sites, only incidental attention is ever given in these works to the continuation of a quiet custodianship of these sites by those who own, or who otherwise consider themselves responsible for them. Yet in a fleeting glimpse of a passing security guard patrol, coming across a patched perimeter fence or in the flickering of lighting served by a still-active electrical power supply, seemingly abandoned sites reveal themselves to be not quite as abandoned as they at first seemed.

For our conference session we seek to open-up an attentiveness to the subtle, ongoing ordering and management of such sites, and whether by their owners or by opportunistic appropriators. Reflecting ruin studies’ inherent multidisciplinarity we invite contributions whether theoretical, empirical or performative from across the social sciences, humanities and the arts that speak to this sense of abandonment being a purposive, active project – sometimes expressing an intentional “curated decay” (DeSilvey 2017) but more often revealing more conventional notions of a low-maintenance preservation of some, presently latent, utility or value for the future. We envisage that these contributions, and whether critical or managerial, could range across diverse aspects of the cultures and practices of vacancy, including:

  • Investigating the professional cultures and logics of urban set-aside and vacant site management
  • Comparative international perspectives to reveal the similarities and differences between attitudes to, and management of, vacancy
  • Measuring the effect of strength of place attachment by neighbours and former site occupants upon the extent of stigma and blight that a vacant site engenders
  • Ethnographic investigation of opportunistic appropriators (and whether urban explorers, rough sleepers, ravers, scrappers and scavengers), their notions of territoriality and of their own emergent normative codings devised for the shared use of abandoned places
  • Detailing the “naturecultures” (Haraway 2003) of weeds, overgrowth and the more-than-human ecologies of untended sites
  • Regulatory perception of dead land and empty buildings as “riskscapes” (Müller-Mahn and Everts 2013) by police, fire and rescue service, local authorities, insurers
  • Assessing the market for site fortification, in terms of the evolution of technologies and practices of territorialisation and bordering for abandoned sites
  • Exploring the legal dimensions of “property guardianship” and other emergent forms of vacant site defence and fortification
  • Appropriating the aesthetic affordances of fences, hoardings and other bordering strategies, and affecting how abandoned sites are separated from the explicitly occupied and active world around them.

Please send suggested abstracts for suggested 15 minute conference session contributions to Luke Bennett, Reader in Space, Place & Law at Sheffield Hallam University at by Monday, 10 February 2020.


Image credit: Green Gate, former GAMA facility, Greenham Common, May 2018. Photograph by Phil Kokoszka.

On being bent back into shape every Autumn

Image result for worn stone steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Image Reference




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In an early programmatic text Debord positioned psychogeography as a systematic project, one which “could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals” (Debord, 1955, n.p.). Debord had studied law at the University of Paris in the early 1950s (but left early and never completed his studies), and thus would already have been aware that legal laws shape the environment, and people within it. But oddly psychogeography never saw investigating the influence of such laws within the generation of urban-political affects and subjectivities as a part of its project. By 1955 Debord was embracing Marxist theory (and its material determinism) and (consistent with the emergent ‘spatial science’ paradigm then ascendant in geographical analysis) was seemingly instead thinking of psychogeography as a way of revealing the ‘social laws’ beloved of classic positivistic sociological analysis.

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

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

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

References: please see the citation list in the article

Image source: M.C. Escher (1952) Puddle via