On being bent back into shape every Autumn

Image result for worn stone steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

Image Reference

https://www.reddit.com/r/mildlyinteresting/comments/26grnr/stone_steps_worn_down_from_foot_traffic

 

 

 

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Gazing from ruined pavements: A postcard from Berlin

Potsdam

“Broken fragments of stone become evocative ruins when someone gazes upon them and imbues them with significance; otherwise they linger on as worthless rubble to be swept away or ignored.”

(Michael Meng (2011) Shattered Spaces: Encountering Jewish Ruins in Postwar Germany and Poland. London: Harvard University Press, p.10)

I’ve just finished reading Meng’s book. It examines the ways in which abandoned and ruined Jewish public places (principally synagogues and cemeteries) fared across various eras of neglect, erasure, re-purposing and (in some cases) rediscovery and restoration between 1945 and 2010, in Germany and Poland, under both communism and capitalism. Meng features the arresting image (above) of a crowd of passers-by photographed halted from their travels on the pavement and gazing at the ruins of Potsdam synagogue, in the daylight that followed Kristallnacht (the ‘night of broken glass’: 9-10 November 1938) and its orgy of coordinated ruin-making inflicted on Jewish buildings by the Nazis. Chillingly his sparse commentary draw us into the image, he suggests that we can’t discern from the image what the spectators were thinking, or even why they had stopped to look. This made me scour the picture – searching through the crowd, staring at the back of their heads – hoping to find a face that would meet my gaze and give me some clue. But the image – as Meng rightly notes – gives us no closure, and (as his book provides) requires a detailed meditation on context and an assaying of the ebbs and flows of two rival structures of feeling and acting: “redemptive antisemitism” and “redemptive cosmopolitanism” in each of Germany and Poland in the postwar years.

Meng’s analysis shows how, since the 1980s, Jewish ruins in Germany and Poland have become valorised – via the ascendancy of redemptive cosmopolitanism – in particular through their role in international commemoration and heritage pilgrimages. This seems self-evident, from our contemporary vantage point. But Meng’s book shows that there is nothing eternal or inevitable about this attachment of significance to these places, and his is a meticulous analysis of the unpredictable end-of-life-cycle of any ruin, and of the vital importance of understanding how the materialities (and costs) of dereliction intersect with the rise and fall (and dereliction) of the bodies of ideas that give meaning (and whether for good or ill) to any place. But Meng is also attentive to local contingencies for the sites that he chronicles, the story of each ruin cannot be contained within that building alone. The fate of a place may be collateral damage (or collateral salvation) related to some other local issue or project. To be effective then, the explanatory lens has to be able to move in (towards local prosaics) and out (to be able to situate the site’s fate as at least to some extent within wider sociopolitical trends).

Meng’s book was my holiday reading for a recent short family holiday sightseeing in Berlin. I’d been there once before, 10 years ago, and had done the whole ‘Berlin – city of traces’ thing then, absorbing myself with dark heritage guidebooks and trying to cram in as many glimpses of “the ghosts of Berlin” (Ladd 1997) as I could. This second time around I was happy to navigate the city via family consensus. I was politely but firmly told that this holiday wouldn’t be about ‘Dad’s dark ruins thing’.

The impression I came away with from this re-visit was that Berlin’s traces are neater and tidier now – presented as part of international heritage tourist circuits. The dark stuff is there, but it is increasingly ‘just’ part of those circuits. This impression may simply be a product of the different circumstances of my re-encounter with Berlin, and I’m not suggesting that Berlin in 2010 was somehow purer, more authentic or less touristic. Any experience of any place (and whether ruined, ‘dark’ or otherwise) is at least in part an outcome of what you go looking for. And I’m not going to be po-faced and suggest that somehow my exploring of Berlin in either 2010 or 2019 was itself anything other than a form of tourism. In short, each time I went to Berlin with certain expectations and each time found ways to ‘join the dots’ so as to meet those expectations.

There was one exception however to this ‘I went – I saw – I came home having seen what I expected’ intentionality. And it happened on the day where my teenage daughter had control of our itinerary. She decided that we would go to Berlin Zoo, and so we did.

Climbing out of the metro stations we were a little disorientated. We could see various signs to the zoo, but they seemed contradictory. We shuffled along in a direction that we thought might work, and soon came upon a bulky security barrier, painted in black and yellow, and with the (English) words “Truck Stop” repeated in very insistent, prominent letters. This street architecture seemed overly keen to announce itself and rather awkwardly positioned, laid down in an already cluttered street scene – pavements, market stalls, infrastructure. Then we saw some votive candles on the steps rising from this pavement and on closer inspection could see memorial photographs and a few flowers laid out besides them. Getting even closer (having weaved across the pavement’s heavy traffic of passers by to get nearer) we saw names engraved into the otherwise normal pavement steps. Collectively it started to dawn on us (but not in a tranquil, contemplative way – because our senses also had to remain focused on the perils of stopping within this pavement’s flow of incessant movement): this place was the scene of the 19 December 2016 Christmas Market terrorist attack, in which 12 of the pedestrians who had been using this pavement were murdered by being run down by a truck. Trying to take this in as the world incessantly and very mundanely carried on its flows around us felt unsettling. As I tried to process the newly-acquainted significance of this place fragments of the scene: the steps, the market stall to my left, the pavement beneath my feet, and the recently encountered Truck Stop barrier, all coalesced into a sense of place – that this otherwise unremarkable portion of pavement was a distinct location and that it was more important than any other stretch of the pavement further along this busy road. And yet, as I fought to stabilise this image  of a distinct, important place, it struggled to stay separated from the urban realm and flows of which it was part. Bodies buffeted me as I slowed to survey the scene, elements appeared at the periphery of any provisional framing of this scene – extending it further along the pavement and beyond the steps into the nearby church, the plaza beyond and the bulk of the market stalls. 

That this site was not separated from its surroundings felt strange (given the way that memorial sites usually are separated: e.g. presented as calm, contemplative oases in a nearby park). But it also gave it an unusual affective charge – this place and its unexpectedness had pricked me, and in circumstances where I had not been looking to be pricked. As we walked away I turned to look back at the ‘site’ (and to try and get a synoptic grasp of it). It was then that I noticed a very subtle form of memorialisation that had been installed to ‘frame’ this place. Running down the steps and across the heavily trafficked pavement was a narrow golden slither or rivulet. It was impossible to see the slither in its entirety because of the flow of passersby. It also proved impossible to photograph – for unlike a conventional sculpture it was but a flat mark across busy ground. It looked like a rivulet of golden blood and seemed in its context life affirming rather than mawkish.

Related image

Subsequently I’ve read that this memorial is actually meant to signify a crack – positioning this within the distinctly German post-war tradition of ‘mahnmal’ (warning monuments): for the crack here symbolises the attack (and thus the momentary breach in Berlin’s self-image of redemptive cosmopolitanism, and acting as a call for alertness and vigilance to guard against the risk of such cracks in the tolerant, democratic polity).

The creation of this artwork, by designers Merz Merz, actually involved first the chiselling out of a 17 metre long, narrow crack across the steps and pavement and then the elimination of that void with the golden infill. In that sense the re-joining of the pavement – via the elimination of the damage inflicted upon it – was intended as a redemptive gesture, a gesture augmented by involving the bereaved in the smelting of the gold.

But without knowing this process and backstory I reacted to this as a rivulet. Either way the enmeshment of this site and its subtle monument within the throng of daily life stopped me in my tracks. I had to stop, look from the pavement and make some sense of these broken-and-mended fragments of stone and what they could or should stand for.

 

Image credits: Postdam Synagogue, Potsdam Museum via http://www.grahamfoundation.org/grantees/3950-shattered-spaces-encountering-jewish-ruins-in-postwar-germany-and-poland ; Merz Merz (2017) Der Goldener Riss https://www.rbb24.de/politik/beitrag/2018/07/terror-breitscheidplatz-entschaedigung-antraege-gedaechtniskirche-berlin.html; Making Der Goldener Riss https://www.bento.de/today/berlin-so-sieht-das-mahnmal-fuer-die-terroropfer-vom-breitscheidplatz-aus-a-00000000-0003-0001-0000-000001951349

 

SHU SPG 2019 conference – the comforts and discomforts of place, 10 July 2019

bench

“…what have you in these houses? And what is it you guard with fastened doors…have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host and then a master?”

Khalil Gibran (1923) On Houses.

This free day-long event hosted by Sheffield Hallam University’s Space & Place Group at Kelham Island Industrial Museum on 10 July 2019 (as part of the University of Sheffield’s From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism programme) brings together academics from across SHU, and beyond, to explore different ways of researching spaces and places, specifically from the perspective of comfort and discomfort. This event is a culmination of a series of workshops held at SHU over recent months, with an evolving set of speakers and attendees. This final event picks up on the themes from those earlier sessions:

  • the awkward legacies of prior uses and configurations of spaces;
  • the instrumentalisation and commercialisation of iconic places;
  • different patterns of dwelling and experiencing private and public spaces; and
  • the commodification (as a measure of efficiency and or exchange value) of space.

Intentionally the assembled presentations are eclectic and juxtaposed in a way intended to draw out connections between themes and perspectives which may not at first glance have much apparent connection. Woven through all of the presentations is a concern to acknowledge that places are often simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortable. Sometimes this duality is productive, sometimes it is painful. In either case, often it is necessary. In the afternoon we will be exploring whether (and if so how) how particular atmospheres and experiences can be designed into spaces and the events that occur within them.

The programme (including each speakers’ abstract) is set out below.

[Please note that the event is free to attend but that places (subject to availability) must be booked via Eventbrite here. Lunch will not be provided at this event: instead delegates will be invited to dine locally at one of the many pubs, cafes and restaurants now available in the Kelham Island district.]

PROGRAMME

09.00-9.30        ARRIVALS & REFRESHMENTS

9.30-9.40           WELCOME & INTRODUCTION

Luke Bennett, Reader, Natural & Built Environment (SHU)

‘Exploring the comforts and discomforts of place and dwelling’

9.40-10.40        SESSION 1: [DIS]COMFORT IN PUBLIC SPACE

09.40-10.00         Amanda Crawley Jackson, Senior Lecturer in French and Francophone Studies &  Faculty Director of Impact and External Engagement (Arts & Humanities)  (University of Sheffield)

“Restoring discomfort: using large format photography to unsettle the comfortable ordinariness of Syria’s Execution Squares”

Hrair Sarkissian (b. 1973, Damascus) is an Armenian-Syrian artist working primarily in the medium of photography.  He is perhaps best known for his 2008 series, Execution Squares, in which he explores the sites of public hangings that traumatised his childhood. In this paper, I’ll consider Execution Squares in the context of my current work on post-traumatic landscapes, focusing on the ways in which these large format photographs of ostensibly ordinary public squares in Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia betray something of the violence that has taken place there. With reference to Georges Didi-Huberman’s work on visibility and visuality, I will make the case that images – and landscapes – such as these exhort us to see differently. Finally, I will argue that  Sarkissian’s work, as a complex meditation on time, plasticity and absence, affords a critical prism through which to interrogate the ways in which the past survives in the present. 

10.00-10.20         Elaine Speight, Research Fellow, ‘In Certain Places’ (UCLAN)

“Making a boob of it: Some thoughts about breastfeeding in public”

This short talk will discuss ideas of comfort and discomfort in relation to the maternal body, through a focus upon the politics and practicalities of breastfeeding in public. As evident from the recent social media furore surrounding Meghan Markle’s ‘baby bump habit’, the ways in which maternal bodies are presented and performed is an ongoing cultural concern. As ‘a leaking, secreting embodied Other’ (Longhurst 2001), the breastfeeding body is a specific source of anxiety, particularly when encountered within supposedly ordered public spaces. Drawing upon my recent experience of becoming a mother, I will examine some of the physical challenges of breastfeeding outside of the home, as well as the social unease it provokes. Touching on ideas of exhibitionism/discretion and the maternal/sexual, I will discuss how the act of breastfeeding disrupts and is disciplined by existing spatial norms, and raises the question ‘who has the right to be comfortable in public?’

10.20-10.40         Ian Whiteside, Senior Lecturer, Events Management (SHU)

“Creating visitor experience in the National Trust”

A visit, like an event, is time out of the everyday. Staff at National Trust properties welcome visitors, except at the Workhouse where they make them uncomfortable as part of the experience. Using the Workhouse at Southwell, Nottinghamshire and Belton House, Lincolnshire as case studies this paper looks at visitor experience in terms of making visitors comfortable or setting an atmosphere of unease. The Workhouse at Southwell is owned and managed by the National Trust and is the most complete workhouse building still existing in Britain. Belton House is the quintessential English Country house and one of the National Trust’s most popular properties. Through a series of conversations, with volunteers and staff, issues including the visitor experience and reasons to visit and return (or not) are discussed and then analysed with reference to the work of Lovell (2018), Boje (2001) and Dorst (1989). This paper, based on empirical data, will look at issues of welcoming visitors, or not.

10.40-10.45      COMFORT BREAK

10.45-11.45      SESSION 2: WARM & WELL?

10.45-11.05         Aimee Ambrose, Reader, Centre for Regional Economic & Social Research (SHU) & Graeme Sherriff, Research Fellow, School of Health & Society (University of Salford)

“Comfort and discomfort in ‘low-energy’ homes in the increasingly inhospitable climate of South Australia”

The energy performance of the housing sector is an important contemporary challenge in the context of environmental constraints such as climate change and social issues such as fuel poverty and social inclusion. This is not a purely technical issue: how occupants live in and negotiate comfort impacts upon to what extent energy efficiency goals can be achieved and this has implications for their quality of life. This paper draws on interviews with residents of the Lochiel Park Green Village in South Australia who have moved into purpose built low energy homes. Using an oral history approach to situate experiences of energy within individual housing histories in order to better understand the evolving relationship between the occupant and the building. Within the context of debates around adaptive comfort practices, this innovative methods reveals that, despite the expectations of some residents, moving to a ‘low-energy’ home has reduced rather than eliminated their active involvement in maintaining a thermally comfortable environment.

11.05-11.25         Michael Roskams, Workplace & Wellbeing Analyst, Technical facilities Management (Mitie plc)

“Can smart sensors support employees’ physical and psychological comfort in the workplace environment?”

Environmental discomfort is rife in the modern workplace environment and can lead to ill health and unproductive work. In this presentation, I will discuss my PhD research, which explores the relationship between environmental comfort, wellbeing, and productivity. The presentation will focus on the partnership with facilities management Mitie, who are pioneering the use of wireless environmental sensors to monitor key parameters of the physical environment in real time. I will discuss the strengths and the limitations of this technology-led approach, and will also discuss the importance of recognising psychological comfort as well as physical comfort.

11.25-11.45         Becky Shaw, Reader, Fine Art (SHU) and Frances Williams, PhD student (MMU)

“Class, Cool and Care: The Maggie’s centre and the discomfort of criticising the ‘Well-being’ aesthetic”

The Maggie’s Centre, Manchester, is seen as an exemplary model for the value of arts in healthcare- cool architect designed, displaying art from The Whitworth Collection, using Orla Keilly towels and hand-made raku mugs, with a stylish wild allotment-style garden and a non-clinical patient engagement format. As part of a nascent research group (Critical Arts for Health) six artists and academics visited Maggie’s and spent time thinking about the particular expression of well-being at work. During our visit we questioned: why the ingredients of the ‘well-being’ aesthetic are so often predictable and how, together, they perform a familiar construct of good taste; the extent to which this spatial and material language delivers care, comfort and is inclusive; and the extent to which the aesthetic language is designed to appeal to patients or to function rhetorically for private sponsors- or if both, how does this intertwine? At the same time our position as critics was deeply uncomfortable, partly because to criticise Maggie’s feels sacrilegious as it is so established as the pinnacle of good cancer care, but also because it caused us to reflect on the distance and privilege of a critical position. This brought to life the complexity of trying to think critically about the often warm and cosy terrain of arts in health.

11.45-12.00      REFRESHMENTS

12.00-1.00        SESSION 3: ARE WE SITTING COMFORTABLY?

12.00-12.20         Esther Johnson, Professor, Film & Media Arts (SHU)

“Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches”

Esther will introduce and screen her film Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches. Through the experiential capacity of film via a series of oral testimonies and carefully composed portraits, the work explores how individuals and groups spend time in two distinctive London public spaces. Revolving around the micro-space of the humble bench, the film incorporates contributions from a diverse range of visitors. These testimonies highlight themes such as the psychological feeling of being in a space, the rhythm and flow of visitors to a place, and the importance of design for everyday street furniture. The film acts like a stranger who joins you on a bench to ‘watch the world go by’, and to break the ice by starting a conversation with their fellow bench user. Made whilst Esther was co-investigator on an AHRC Connected Communities innovation project, The Un-Sociable Bench, and other urban micro-territories of encounter and intimidation.

 http://blanchepictures.com/alone-together

 12.20-12.40         James Corazzo, Principal Lecturer, Graphic Design (SHU)

“Sofa Pedagogy”

This talk will explore the comforts and discomforts of the educational design studio through a study of the squashy object par excellence – a sofa. To anybody familiar with studio environments (professional or educational), a sofa is an unremarkable presence. Indeed, contemporary HE learning spaces are now replete with hub/break-out/informal spaces, often signalled by the judicious use of colour and soft furnishings and evangelised for their apparent capacity to enable collaboration, innovation and flexibility. Eschewing such causal and monochromatic accounts of learning spaces, I will argue the sofa, in this particular studio setting, is a surprisingly mutable object affording a variety of encounters and paradoxical models of occupation: hard/soft, formal/informal, intimate/indifferent, teaching/not teaching. Through talk and draw interviews with tutors and observation, I will show the sofa in this studio is not just a comfortable place to sit, but itself a significant pedagogic actor.

12.40-1.00           Phil Crowther, Reader – Events Management (SHU)

“The comforts and discomforts of business executives sleeping with the homeless on a city’s streets for a night”

The intentionality of charity events (from the charities perspective) is – it can be proposed – to design meaningful experiences to either provoke (or consolidate) behaviour change in participants; often related to donations or advocacy.  Facilitating such experiences that participants perceive as meaningful and thus generate emotional connection underlying behaviour change is – from an experience design perspective – challenging.  We live in an age of ‘attention scarcity’ (and experience overkill) and therefore to achieve such an outcome, an appreciation of the persona of attendee, linked to empathy mapping, is pivotal.  In this presentation I will juxtapose the archetypal charity experience, with all of its comforts, with the discomforts of a charity sleep out event in Sheffield.   A fascinating lens through which to unpick the purposeful design of discomforting experiences.

1.00-1.10              Luke Bennett & Phil Crowther

Wrap-up for the morning, tasking for the lunchtime exploration of Kelham Island’s experiencescapes and an outline for the afternoon’s session

1.15-2.30           LUNCH

NB: no lunch will be provided. Delegates will be invited to eat at one of the local pubs, cafes, restaurants and to take the opportunity there to analyse how the experience offered there is staged and its atmosphere of comfort/discomfort engineered.

2.30-3.30           SESSION 4: ANALYSING THE COMFORTS AND DISCOMFORTS OF LUNCH

A facilitated discussion of delegates’ lunchtime explorations of local experiencescapes. This will showcase the variety of disciplinary perspectives upon – and varied methodologies for – ‘reading’ places and their atmospheres.

3.30-3.50           REFRESHMENTS

3.50-4.50           SESSION 5: SHU ‘EXPERIENCESCAPES CLUSTER’ INAUGRAL MEETING

The ‘Experiencescape research cluster’ has very recently been formed and in its very early stages of capitalising upon the wideranging engagements of SHU academics across psychology, sociology, hospitality, tourism, events, marketing, architecture, design, media and communications, lawyers and real estate in the study, design and critiquing of ‘experiencescaping’. The overarching interest of the cluster is the purposeful facilitation of physical and virtual spaces in order to stimulate a positive mental response from their consumer; underpinning desired actions or behaviours in the short term, and longer-term patronage and advocacy. Experience design is prevalent, and a topic ripe for examination, and the cluster seeks to deepen collaborative links both within the university, but also with industry partners engaged in the production of experiencescapes; retail, visitor attractions, stadia, city / town centres, events, and more. This discussion will – developing the themes of today’s earlier sessions – present some early ideas about the cluster and most importantly seek colleagues views on how the cluster can prosper.

(NB: all delegates are welcome to participate in this, and whether SHU staff or otherwise).

 4.50-5.00           CLOSING REMARKSLuke Bennett & Phil Crowther

 

 

Image Source: Still from Esther Johnson’s 2015 film, Alone Together, the Social Life of Benches

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

LW378-MC-Escher-Puddle-1952

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References: please see the citation list in the article

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

 

C.

Awkwardly exploring fear, fascination and ambivalence in the ruin of Hitler’s Bunker

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“Fixating on the historical locale feels naïve, even juvenile; the prime epistemological illusion of ‘heritage’, after all, is to substitute place for process, thus to manufacture ersatz ‘experience’.”

Patrick Finney (2007) ‘Finding the Führer Bunker’ Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory & Practice, 11(2) 287-291

As Finney notes in his short essay (which is an apology for him having momentarily drifted off into thinking about Hitler’s bunker when he meant to be doing other, proper academic work), showing an interest the specifics of iconic Nazi places may not be a good career move. Instead it may lead to you being bracketed with a motley collection of conspiracy theorists and fanatics. Writing about Cold War bunkers is just about passable now as an academic endeavour, but turning the spotlight onto a previous era’s concrete caverns is more risky.

So it’s been with some awkwardness that I’ve worked up a study of the post 1945 afterlife of the subterranean site of Hitler’s last days, and the resulting article has now been published in the Polish Geography journal Geographia Polonica as part of their special issue on ruination, demolition and urban  regeneration. The article is free to download here: http://www.geographiapolonica.pl/article/item/11707.html

The aim of this short blog is to add visuals to the story, and the argument, that my article sets out in its text by displaying my slides for a presentation of my paper at the ‘Thrill of the Dark:  Heritages of Fear, Fascination and Fantasy’ conference being held at the University of Birmingham at the end of the month (details here: https://thethrillofthedark.com/).

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Here’s my abstract for the conference presentation:

“Within days of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his subterranean command bunker deep beneath the Reich Chancellery, the Führerbunker came to be framed as an object of dark fascination and illicit access. First Red Army looters, then Allied investigators, and a few months later Winston Churchill all came to pick over the remains of this place. Then in 1947 Hugh Trevor Roper, propelled this cold, dank underground bunker into a symbol of thwarted meglomania, the stage for a Götterdämmerung, in his account of his search for Hitler’s missing corpse. Through such framing the site has sustained a lure for Anglo-American war veterans and tourists ever since. Yet to Germans (East and West) this site was a place of political contamination, the tomb of a potential contagion that had to be kept contained (by successive demolition action and cycles of banalisation and profanation). Almost forgotten, the site was ‘rediscovered’ in the early 1990s scrubland of the Berlin Wall’s death strip, and amidst the subsequent redevelopment of that now prime real estate a questioning of the site’s meaning, and of its potentialities, started to emerge: oscillating between calls for the primal darkness of this subterranean lair to be constructively co-opted into holocaust memorialisation and (more recently) in an increasing co-option of the site as part of heritage tours. Cultural representations of this place have become increasingly decontextualised and denatured, transformed by the generational passing of time into a more free-floating, titillating glimpse of a darkness that once was. Through this case study this paper will interpret this semantic decay, showing that ascribed darkness, fear and moral-coding for a site are not eternal givens but rather that they ebb and flow over time, and that studies of attachment to dark places need to be able to account for this, by becoming more processual.”

My Geographia Polonica article uses this chronological account of the slow-death of the Führerbunker as a way of thinking through what ruination really entails – considering the interweaving of material and semantic decay, and intentional and incidental attrition in that place’s slow, faltering fade. As shown above, my presentation also follows this trajectory, and its concern to identify the stages of that faltering fade, but it additionally touches on this bunker’s iconic on-going reverberation, showing how material obliteration of such an undesirable, dark place does not ensure its elimination from culture. Accordingly, towards the end of the presentation I chart how this place increasingly becomes a disembodied signifier – a metonym for evil and failing ‘last days’ governance. In doing this I’m connecting back to the first paper I ever wrote about bunkers:  Bennett, L. (2011) ‘The Bunker: Metaphor, Materiality and Management’, Culture and Organization, 17(2) 155-173. [free copy here].

So, by the end of the presentation I’m thinking about ruination in a non-material way and with a concern for how a (dark) symbol fades: what are its processes of semantic ruination and stubborn persistence?  In the final flurry of images I present the last days of the Führerbunker as now a free-floating meme that is not dependent for its survival upon the clarity of the spatio-material co-ordinates or physical condition of its site of origination. And this roving meme (this virtualised Führerbunker) has increasingly looser, multivalent rules of use (testimony to its normative ruination). It is now freely appropriated for a wide variety of irreverent re-purposing. These appropriations retain the essential ‘last days of governance’ abject motif, but appropriate it for new satirical projects of varying degrees of importance or seriousness. In doing so these appropriations reinforce the generality of the ‘bunker mentality’ metaphor, but also weaken the specificity of a real Hitler having inhabited a real Berlin bunker during a real total war that lead to millions of real deaths. And there’s nothing better to encapsulate this than the Downfall parodies:

 

 

References: for these please see my Geographia Polonica article.

Picture credit: https://www.express.co.uk/travel/articles/633088/hitler-grave-resting-spot-berlin-germany

 

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

Phelgm giant

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

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

“What’s going on here then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entry

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

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

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

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

sign layers

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

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

duty of care

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

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

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

Phelgm juxtaposed

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

 

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

 

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

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

References:

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

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

Image credits: Mine, all mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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