Mill-mania: how does law spread place-formations? My new Geoforum article

Cromford-Mill-Model-5a-600x402

“we all looked up to him and imitated his mode of building…our buildings were copied from the models of his works”

Sir Robert Peel, 1816 Parliamentary Inquiry on the factory system

It’s almost trite in cultural geography to state that place is a multiplicity of individual and collective framings, that it has no singularity and is a flux or swirl of moment by moment encounters. Yes, fine – but surrounding that experiential swirl there are stablisations, common and shared framings which do take root and then influence those encounters. These also act to influence the form and evolution of a locality and they also have the power to influence the framing and evolution of other places. In short, some place-types become clear and potent. In the last couple of years (when not thinking about the potency of the cultural framing of abandoned bunkers) I’ve been thinking about the genesis of one now very dominant (and taken for granted) place-formation: the industrial scale factory. And I’ve done this by looking at the moment, 250 years ago when ‘the factory’ emerged almost accidentally as a new spatial form, and how it became stabilised and started to spread. I’ve been particularly interested in looking at law’s role in the framing of this (then) nascent place-formation.

Accordingly, my article published yesterday in Geoforum (free access here until 12 August) examines how law is implicated in the formation of ‘factory’ as a type of place, and how in turn such places shaped law. It is an empirical exploration of Bruno Latour’s call for researchers to study the global through its local instantiations. Drawing upon recent theoretical work in both material culture studies and legal geography my article examines the interplay of law and material formations at one originating site, Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mills in Derbyshire in order to examine the creation and circulation of a new form of place in the late eighteenth century: the industrial scale cotton mill. It shows how a diverse array of legal elements ranging across patent law, the textile tariffs and ancient local Derbyshire lead mining laws all helped to shape the cotton-mill as a place-form, its proliferation across the United Kingdom, and ultimately further afield. In doing so the article conceptualises processes of localisation, translocalisation and thing-law by which the abstractions of both place-forms and law elements become activated through their pragmatic local emplacement. Whilst the case study concerns 200 year old place-making machinations, many of the spatio-legal articulations of Arkwright and his opponents have a surprisingly modern feel about them. The paper therefore advocates the benefits of a longitudinal, historical approach to the study of place-making, and in particular, calls for a greater attentiveness in legal geography to law’s role in the intentional formation of (work)places by their owners.

In my article Cromford Mills is presented as an exemplar of Latour’s maxim that “the world is … brought inside … places and then, after having been transformed there … pumped back out of [their] narrow walls” ( Latour, 2005, 179, italics in original). Whilst both the actions of Arkwright and the influence of Cromford Mills are atypical, and few industrialists have ever engaged in such sustained and well documented lobbying and litigating, or produced industrial places that were so directly replicated, the atypical extremity of Arkwright’s industry-forming story, and the influence of Cromford Mills as an emergent place-model, helps us – via sharp relief – to witness processes of localisation and translocalisation that would be harder to spot in more mundane circumstances. Through Arkwright’s plethora of place-making efforts we see the ways in which law enables a place to stabilise (and prosper) through the localisation of law’s command and permission in specific spatial circumstances. We also see how law has the power to crush or alter any place. In the campaigning against the Calico Acts we see the role of lobbying around thing-law, the all-important framing of the matter that will matter at a particular place ( Barad, 2007). In the proximate influence of the place-formations of Derbyshire mining laws we see the multiplicity of place-law, and its tensions and resolutions.

Also, even through the spatio-legal place-making machinations described in this case study took place over 200 years ago, they are surprising time-less in their feel. There is nothing particularly ‘eighteenth century’ about the strategic dilemmas and tactical choices that the early factory masters wrestled with, or in the ways in which we have seen law being used tool-like in some situations or left ‘on the shelf’ in favour of some other solution in others. In the case study we have seen elements of the law (and the case study reminds us the that ‘the law’ is not a coordinated, monolithic system, but rather a swarm of only loosely associated discursive elements and pragmatic applications) sometimes present as enabling Arkwright’s project, and at others presenting challenges to it, challenges to be met sometimes by a legal solution, sometimes by some other manoeuvre, in each case rationally selected.

Picture credit:

http://www.dovedalemodels.co.uk/cromford-mill-model/

Drilling into the void: a miner’s life, a small box and some papers

miners_certificate

“History is the record of […] self-production; it is the activity of a historical being

recovering the past into the present which anticipates the future.”

Peter Preuss (1980), Foreword to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 

On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Hackett: Cambridge

The afternoon entails some effort, contorting between small galleries and the small piles of remaining valuable matter strewn there. Eyes and knowing hands reach into these spaces to inspect the stuff arrayed there. An instinctive evaluation is made, and then the search moves on. Or otherwise something catches the eye and more active thought amplifies this assay. A crouch or stoop is made towards something. Thoughts start connecting, an object is foregrounded and given attention. It provokes a desire to make it fit – with previous encounters with similar things, with families of things and with ideas that attach to such things.

The thing here, is a small lidless cardboard box containing a handful of small yellowing pieces of paper, portrait photographs and a couple of old Christmas cards. The box is positioned prominently, atop a low coffee table, accompanied by other items offered up here for sale, in this antiques market staged in an old warehouse. Many of these items look like they have come straight from the house clearance van. It is hard to see who would want to buy much of this stuff, it is not garish enough to be retro or ironically kitsch. It is just stuff that people lived their everyday lives with during the last century, and for reasons best known to them – whether fondness, poverty or inertia – carried with them through to the last days of their lives, and the visit a few days later of that battered white van that comes to take our stuff away, after the black hearse has already taken our bodies.

The banality of this battered box and its random seeming paper stuffing intrigued me – but only in a very low key way. I delved tentatively, looking first at the greetings cards and the photos. They were connected. The cards contained photos of a young boy, giving a time sequence, 10, 13, 15?: it was hard to tell. The clothes remained constant – an inter-war short back and sides and dishevelled shirt and jumper – only the facial features hinted at a passage of time, as the boy’s face elongated and became more taut across the years. Next I opened up one of the folded slips of paper: a school report. Some good marks, one endorsed ‘top marks in the class’, but with the summation beneath urging this pupil to work faster.

By this stage I had realised I was drilling into someone’s life, as presented by this collection of life-defining paper-based moments. But I was still feeling only mildly intrigued, this was still an idle rummage. I carried on. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for – or, indeed whether I was actually in pursuit of anything (although inevitably a base urge to resolve this stuff to a narrative or other framing was in play).

The next papers I unfurled revealed this boy to have become a miner at a colliery in West Yorkshire, working there in the 1960s and 1970s. The paperwork was a variety of certificates and working permits issued by the National Coal Board to this man, charting his progression through a variety of qualified roles within the mine. These slips of paper were pre-printed, with gaps filled in by the authoritative fountain pen strokes of a manager, the application of that ink to that paper having magical effects – our box-man became a certified shot firer upon the completion of that form on 23 January 1976, he had also become a special person when handed his morphia licence sometime thereafter, along with its attendant pocket-sized laminated instruction sheet and their vital instruction for navigating that fine line (underground, in the dark and after something terrible had happened there) of life-saving and life-taking.

It seemed, then – that I was peering into someone’s ‘important things’ box. I grew up with the convention that you have a place somewhere in your home where you keep all of your important items, and those items are your ‘papers’. Perhaps you have such a box too, hidden somewhere – secreted in the modern day equivalent of a Priest’s glory hole or a Saxon cache somewhere in the fabric of your house. Or maybe it sits in plain view, a long emptied cereal packet, now the repository of your very identity and being. Our entry into a digital age has perhaps reduced the centrality of such still-in-use time capsules, but we still need our ‘papers’ to remind us who we are, were we’ve come from and to tell others who we are too.

Much may remain of the memory of this miner elsewhere – indeed, I don’t even know that he is dead. But the occurrence of his important things box in an antiques market suggests that has possessions no longer have their owner to cherish and protect them.

Staring into the box at what this person had selected for safekeeping there, and at the oft-folded creases of these treasured documents, emphasised for me this link between building a life, becoming through – and with – ‘important’ stuff and in particular the role of ‘papers’ as a way of regulating both memory and capacity.

This is particularly true of the highly regulated underground spaces of a coal mine. The Mines & Quarries Act 1954 very-much embodies a mid-20th century world of military-like ranks and chains of command, (very) specific demarcation of roles and competencies. It created (or represented – the distinction is actually a difficult one to draw) a world of tasking and verification that was based upon the carrying and presenting of slips of paper.

The other documents in the box where also mining related – memos and works specifications for the refitting of obscure sounding machinery, their lists of serial numbers and their precise plotting of works-to-be-done upon them. Why were these kept? Perhaps our miner saw these projects as the defining heights of his working life; or perhaps these were the jobs where it all went wrong, and he lived in fear that some blame would eventually beat its path to his door and he would then need this paperwork to fend it off. Or perhaps these where his favourite machines, the ones he felt attached to, perhaps they comprised his ‘home territory’ underground. This stuffed box did not say. Perhaps the reasons were all these and more, or none. All that is certain is that these papers were in that box.

In this box we seem to find what mattered to this miner – we also see that his job was essentially about knowing how to interface, how to fit into the mine as a system, which parts of it he could visit, which materials he could have a relationship with and in what circumstances and for what purposes.

Encountering this box has a resonance for me because in a number of recent projects I’ve been looking at how meaning and material relations are constituted in the seemingly empty and/or abandoned spaces of mineral workings. As part of this I’ve previously written on climber/landowner attitudes to an empty slate quarry in North Wales for Popular Anthropology here, about community appropriation of an excavated Sheffield hillside (Screehere) and last week I gave a reading of my Beer Quarry cave piece (see an early version here) to colleagues at a SHU event, as a dry run for presenting it at a conference on Empty Spaces at the Institute of Historical Research (UCL), in London on 10 April 2015 (details here). The abstract for my contribution to that event is:

‘History in the void: narrating past, place and materiality in an abandoned quarry’

Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University

This paper will explore the ways in which meaning is brought to a quarried void in southern England. Prior to its closure in the 1920s the site had been a source of fine building stone for over 2,000 years, that rock quarried in turn by Romans, Anglo Saxons, Normans and subsequent generations. The site is now a small scale tourist attraction, with enthusiastic local guides taking visitors below ground and into the emptiness of the evacuated strata. According to a guide’s deft narration of the pasts of this site this place is rich with history and yet it is also a place at which there is nothing to see. This is a tour of a void, the only meaning here is that cast into this emptiness by the interpreters of this place. This presentation will examine the narrative and performative practices by which a sense of the labour and lives once lived here are summoned, and also how a sense of the materiality of this place is necessarily also framed and presented. In doing so the analysis will consider – after Raphael Samuel (1977), Laurajane Smith (2006) and Tim Strangleman (2013) – the motivations of post-industrial homage at sites of former (hard) labour, and the sense in which historical-materialist and neo-materialist (and post human) accounts of the physicality of our world and our relationship to it collide in such places. The presentation will outline the processual understandings of mineral working, its flows and absences found in the recent work of Bruno Latour (2005), Tim Edensor (2013) and Tim Ingold (2010) in social theory, cultural geography and anthropology respectively, and in the accounts of human-matter entanglement advanced by Ian Hodder (2012) and Bjornar Olsen (2013) in archaeology.

Image source: http://www.suttonbeauty.org.uk/suttonhistory/clockfacecolliery/index_files/miners_certificate.jpg

(N.B. this image is from a google search and unrelated to the box contents examined above – but is indicative of the kind of thing that was in the box)

RGS-IBG 2015 – CFP – ‘Producing Law, Making Space, Mobilising Subjects’

university_exeter_forum_i030512_tp1

After very successful sessions in 2013 and 2014, and due to other commitments, Antonia Layard and I are taking a break from running a legal geography session at this year’s RGS-IBG annual conference. But if you’d like to carry on the legal geography conversation at RGS-IBG 2015, you might like to consider supporting the following session call by Alex Jeffrey and colleagues copied below.

Meanwhile our jointly edited ‘Law and Geography’ special issue of the International Journal of Law in the Built Environment will be published in April 2015 and we’re currently finalising our ‘Spatial Detectives’ synoptic paper for Geography Compass.

Luke & Antonia


“RGS-IBG Annual International Conference, Exeter, 2-4 September 2015

Producing Law, Making Space, Mobilising Subjects

Convenors: Romola Sanyal (London School of Economics), Fiona McConnell (University of Oxford), Alex Jeffrey (University of Cambridge)

Sponsored by the Political Geography Research Group

This session will chart explore emerging perspectives in the relationships between law and space. Energised by work within critical legal studies (Fitzpatrick, 2001; Valverde, 2003), political anthropology (Latour, 2010) and legal geography (Braverman, et al. 2014), the session will provide the space to explore conceptual and methodological meeting points within these diverse fields of social science, while remaining attentive to the possible political implications of law’s spatiality.

We are particularly interested in encouraging work that examines the spatial nature of legal practice and the legal nature of spatial practice, the import of materiality and evidence, the significance of embodiment and questions of gender, the circulation of legal knowledge globally, and the enrollment of purportedly non-legal actors within legal processes.

While we are keen to encourage a wide range of theoretical and methodological reflections on these issues, we are keen to focus in particular on the following themes:

1) Production of law: materiality, everyday life, origins, archives

2) Transmission of law: evidence, performance, legitimacy, legal mobilities

3) Violence of law: exclusions, erasures, silences, bracketing

4) Rights of law: mobilisations, insurgencies, legal shadows

Please send abstracts of no more than 250 words to all three panel organizers: Romola Sanyal: r.sanyal@lse.ac.uk, Alex Jeffrey: asj38@cam.ac.uk, and Fiona McConnell: fiona.mcconnell@ouce.ox.ac.uk, by Tuesday 10th February 2015.

Please be sure to include your name, institution or affiliation and email address in the email.


Dr. Alex Jeffrey
Email: asj38@cam.ac.uk
Web:http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/people/jeffrey/

Image credit: http://www.e-architect.co.uk/england/exeter-university-forum-project

In the bunker, the last man

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

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

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

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

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

So, for now, a teaser…

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How the city appears: towards a legal psychogeography of the dropped kerb

This is a forward-looking plug for Walking Inside Out a compendium of essays on contemporary British psychogeography to be edited by Tina Richardson (@concretepost) as part of  Rowman and Littlefield International’s book series on Place, Memory and Affect. The book is due to be published in Autumn 2015.

There’s an overview of this project at Tina’s Particulations blog:

http://particulations.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/walking-inside-out-contemporary-british.html.

As Tina writes there:

“The book will open with a history of British psychogeography, thus situating the current swell within its chronological context. It will introduce the terms that are often used within the field and the key thinkers within the urban walking lineage. Discussing the current state of British psychogeography, the introduction will explore the historical problems within the field, dealing with some of the contemporary detractors of the subject and will introduce the various forms of output that explorations of the city take, whether they be in film form, such as Patrick Keiller’s political and architectural films about London, or the creative literary texts of Iain Sinclair.

Contributions will be from academics and researchers specialising in the field, and from those working in the area of urban walking who are not based in academia, ranging from literary writers to artists. Because of this approach the selection of essays offer a breadth and richness that can only exist when different perspectives come together under one volume. The voices expressed will highlight and explore the setting and climate as it is for psychogeography in the UK in the 21st Century. They will provide current examples of contemporary psychogeographical practices and how they are used, show how a critical form of walking can highlight easily overlooked urban phenomenon, and examine the impact that everyday life in the city has on the individual. Case studies will also be included that offer a British perspective of international spaces, from the postmodern space of Los Angeles to the post-communist city in Europe, thus offering an international direction to the volume, too. This volume also attempts to deemphasise the prevalence of London-centric psychogeographical texts, which seem to be the ones that predominate, by offering essays on cities like Manchester and Leeds, and geographical areas like Tyneside and Powys. The style of the essays will range from accounts of walks from urban walkers themselves, to theoretical texts that help to analyse the practice itself and ground it methodologically. This book proposes to be representative of psychogeography as it is in Britain today and aims to become the first dedicated academic volume on the subject: accessible to scholars, students and urban walkers alike.”

It’s great that the project brings together a wide spectrum of ‘urban walkers’, some academic, some not. Inevitably, Tina has had to be selective and there are many others who could have been featured if space had permitted – but I think the cross section that Tina has assembled will produce a very good account of the (many) ways and purposes towards which broadly psychogeographical sensibilities are being applied in both urban studies, the creative arts and good old mind-engaged curious walking.

I’m one of the contributors who has made it through to the final selection. I will now have to pull my finger out and explain what I see as the link between psychogeography and legal geography. I may even have a go at saying this out loud as my contribution to the August 2014 RGS session on Legal Geography.

But for now, here’s my abstract from Walking Inside Out. My essay will be within a section Tina’s headed ‘How the City Appears’. In my research work I’m fascinated by how different disciplines / practices foreground different aspects of the material environment that they are in. Law is one of those filters and there’s fun to be had (really, there is) in playing with the two senses of ‘law’ – first as lawyers use it and second as used by Guy Debord in framing his vision of psychogeography back in 1955:

“Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.” 

Another theme I want to blend in is Ben Highmore’s notion of a creative forensics of everyday living, captured splendidly in the following quote:

“Surrealism is about an effort, an energy, to find the marvellous in the everyday, to recognise the everyday as a dynamic montage of elements, to make it strange so that its strangeness can be recognized. The classic Surrealist can be seen as Sherlock Holmes-like: faced with the deadly boredom of the everyday, the Surrealist takes to the street, working to find and create the marvellousness of the everyday.” (2002: 56)

I’ve touched on this forensic angle in an earlier blog post:

https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/trace-absence-and-the-concrete-reading-non-places-as-event-spaces/

Highmore also speaks of Sherlock Holmes’ gift of being able to take everyday objects and to discover the stories of those associated with them. Holmes floods meaning into the seemingly insignificance of matter surrounding him – by being attentive to the banal, the elementary.

So, my contribution to Walking Inside Out will be an attempt to excavate something elementary from looking, standing, walking, researching and thinking about a nondescript section of pavement. So, finally – for now – here’s my abstract for the project:

Towards a legal psychogeography of the dropped kerb

This title has been haunting me for a number of years. It started out as a private joke, but then increasingly I came to take it seriously as a way of explaining how I see contemporary psychogeographical sensibilities as helpful to my attempts to investigate law’s contribution towards the ordering of daily encounters with mundane physical aspects of the urban realm.  Not many methods of legal or social science scholarship give you a way of meaningfully investigating the prosaic. But Ben Highmore, drawing on the work of theorists like Georg Simmel, Michel De Certeau, Walter Benjamin, Henri Lefebvre, has helpfully sketched out ways in which surrealism and other essential psychogeographical strategies give us tools to excavate the interplay of symbols, affects and materialities that make up the built environment and our daily experience of it. In my chapter I will set out a psychogeographically informed account of the multiple lives of a small spot of pavement, in order to explicate this rich realm, and its various facets and tensions. In doing so I will also reflect on the novelty of this approach, and the survival strategies that I have evolved in order to endeavour to justify this preoccupation and set of methodological strategies within the academic disciplines to which I am affiliated.”

References:

Debord, G. (1955) “Introduction to a critique of urban geography” Les Levres Nues, 6 http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/2.

Highmore, B. (2002) Everyday Life and Cultural Theory, Routledge: London

Image credit: http://cave-city.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/how-sherlock-stayed-alive-part-2-where.html, a blog post on a fan site for BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ series in which very thorough attempts are made to deduce from the arrangement of the street scene whether Sherlock [who’s not a real person anyway] did or did not fall from a tall building onto the pavement beneath

‘Fixing a hole where the rain gets in’: everyday inundation and the assault of objects

“I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in,

And stops my mind from wandering”

The Beatles (1967) ‘Fixing a hole’

So, I pick up the phone. It’s my mother calling to tell me how the first day of having her hallway and landing redecorated has gone.

So, I listen to the radio and Paul McCartney is trying to stop his mind wandering.

So, Twitter talk gets me thinking about Thomas Dolby’s 1982 LP, The Golden Age of Wireless.

So, I’m skim reading Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and I’m beguiled by its wild talk of poromechanics and Tellurian lubes.

So, I’m sitting in a class listening to student presentations. A colleague, urges the participants – next time – to take a note of the weather on the date of inspection. One fresh faced youth asks me why this is needed.

I’m not sure.

But my colleague explains:

“You see how the building works when it rains.

You notice whether the gutters manage to channel water,

you see how it encounters the exposed surfaces,

and whether they are watertight.

And in the wet air and its collision with cold zones

you see condensation saturating window panes.”

In the occurrence of wetness, a dynamic is revealed. A creeping wave of action – staged upon an event surface – rises to prominence and material finishes and conduits alike are subjected to a trial by ordeal. This is an inundation battle-space.

My colleague’s calm but confident acknowledgement of the revelatory agency of occasional precipitation leaves me slightly stunned. All the books I’ve been reading recently about object oriented ontology and vibrant matter tell me – in theoretical terms – that nature should be seen in this way, as agentive. But my colleague already gets this, and doesn’t need theory to guide her there. For her, buildings sit exposed to the elemental. They can be abstractified by the designer’s plans, marshalled for utilisation and valued using sophisticated techniques. But their properties are put to proof by a humble, universal (and unpredictable) visitor: rain.

“The copper cables all rust in the acid rain”

So sings Thomas Dolby in an album saturated with brooding wetness. I’ve known these songs for 30 years. Certain phrases – like this one – hang eternally in my mind, hummed mantra like in idle moments. These images of metal or flesh succumbing to a surfeit of hydration. Drowning, flood, clouds of enveloping damp air, all rolling into the scenes affecting the surfaces that they inundate. Wetness assailing human agency, curbing or ending life or co-opted as metaphor to the spent exhaustion of a liquid-like love:

“End of our summer

Your body weightless in condensation

My heart learned to swim

And the feeling was gone again”

I’m back in the phone call from my mother. She has great powers of recall, taking me through – blow by blow – the occurrence of her day. The story is dominated by surfaces and their disturbance; of the spatial and material disruption of re-decoration and specifically of the unsettling of her smoke detector, a sealed unit with no access to the battery inside.

The decorator had spent the day removing the existing wallpaper, exposing the raw poured concrete of this house’s walls, walls that bend any nail that you attempt to drive into them. The stairwell had filled with steam, tiny airborne particles of wallpaper and cement dust and an attendant sulphurous smell – so my mother curtly describes it – “of vomit”.

All of this has proved to be too much for the isotope encased in the smoke detector, steadily degenerating in the tick-tick of its half-life. This device works on the principle that smoke will disrupt that steady decay and the local ionisation that it will charge the air with, and the perturbation causes the alarm to go off.

This device has become spooked today. It has – my mother tells me, with jaded weariness in her voice – been intermittently going off every few minutes for the past 12 hours. She has improvised a paddle with which to waft the soiled air away and calm the nerves of this sentry, but the miasma now permeating the hallway, hanging as stale fetid damp air, keeps goading this sensor. The air and the sensor are locked in a quarrelsome dialogue, within the hallway of this now unsettled house, and there is little that she – as human bystander – can do about it.

A telephone call to the manufacturer’s helpline elicits a blank response – indeterminate advice on the theme of opening windows, repeated air-wafting and a polite chiding of

“well, we always recommend

that fire alarms are removed before any decorating works,

our alarms have very sensitive sensors you know”.

Bit late to tell me that now, my mother mouths through gritted teeth as she stares up at the agitated flying saucer pinned to her ceiling.

Reflecting on my mother’s account of her day, what struck me was how the entire event had been a narration of thing-led events, with her playing catch-up to the awkward interconnections and knock-on effects unleashed in the house by disturbing its equilibrium. This was description of an everyday encounter with matter, and a description of the rich challenge of simply facing matter – this was not things standing as symbols of ideas, positions or activities elsewhere. This was a description of an event in itself, born of an encounter with things themselves (walls, air, dust, an isotope). In the account the smoke alarm and its random bleeping was the story, there was nothing beyond the sheer irksomeness (and loss of control) experienced in this encounter.

As I thought about this I recalled something Daniel Miller wrote about the inherent experience of sari wearing in his book Stuff: that accounting for human relationships with saris should not just seek to characterise the symbolic role of sari wearing within cultures to which that apparel is indigenous, but rather also seek to explore the direct relationship of the wearer to the ‘thing itself’ – to give an account of the wrappings, the weight, the shaping of movement of the wearer: the embodied experience of the act of wearing this garment.

The weight of the sari should be heard for and of itself.

The smoke alarm in my mother’s hallway found a way to make itself heard today. Tomorrow it will fall silent. It will be wrenched from the ceiling, taken outside by my uncle, and rudely put to death with a brick. As he carries the disc to its point of brutal disassembly, a waft of fuggy air will no doubt follow out in his wake, stale air drawn inexorably towards the cooler outdoors with the opening of the door. The house will exhale, and – as it wafts past – the tendril of fetid house-breath will perhaps look down disdainfully at the now-vanquished smoke detector lying like a crushed insect in the yard, its battery and isotope now leaking their modest wet danger into the gaps between the paving slabs beneath.

References

Dolby, T (1982) The Golden Age of Wireless, Venice in Peril/EMI (LP): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Age_of_Wireless

Miller, D. (2009) Stuff, Polity: Cambridge

Negarestani, R. (2008) Cyclonopedia  – complicity with anonymous materials, re.press: Melbourne

Image source: http://news.warwickshire.gov.uk/blog/2012/10/26/check-smoke-alarms-as-you-check-clocks/

Lashed to the world: exploring building services with Slavoj Žižek

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“Inside and Outside never cover the entire space: there is always an excess of a third space which gets lost in the division into Outside and Inside. In human dwellings, there is an intermediate space which is disavowed: we all know it exists, but we do not really accept its existence – it remains ignored and (mostly) unsayable. The main content of this invisible space is excrement (canalization), but also the complex network of electricity, digital links, etc. – all this is contained in narrow spaces between walls or floors.” (Žižek 2009)

So writes Slavoj Žižek in a rather rambling rumination ranging across class struggle and post modern architecture. But it is in a few corners of this piece that he touches on something that I find worth exploring here: his passing ruminations on the ‘invisible’ zones and elements of everyday buildings. This is a preoccupation that has been hovering in my posts this year as – amongst others – I’ve pondered the narrow spaces between walls and corridors to café restrooms. In these I’ve come close to echoing Žižek’s desire for:

“a house composed only of secondary spaces and places of passage – stairs, corridors, toilets, store-rooms, kitchen – with no living room or bedroom.”

But, in this essay I want to chase infrastructural conduits around one of my University’s campuses and think about how their necessary invisibilities lash to the world their more prominent cousin features. For, without these silent ‘services’, we would be lost.

I came to the Žižek essay very recently courtesy of Amanda Crawley Jackson, and it’s helped me to pull together the following reflections on an explore that took place a few months before I encountered Žižek’s thoughts on interstitial space and the spandrel.

A spandrel is an area, form or thing created by the occurrence of something else. Byproducts and wastes are an example – think plastic sprues from which model kit pieces are harvested and you have the idea. The word is architectural in origin: a spandrel is the portion of masonry sitting at the top of a column, the edges of which are the arch. The arch is seen, intended – it is foregrounded – but the attendant spandrel is ‘invisible’. It is ‘background’ to the arch and its profile. But the arch would not exist without its dull hinterland of stonework.

Chasing flows and conduits on campus
We were sitting in a room, gathered here at the end of term to discuss the variety of ways in which our teaching and research practices interrogate space and place. I’d travelled to my University’s ‘other’ campus for this session. Day in, day out I’m based in a dense, high-rise cluster of modern(ist) buildings in the centre of the city. But today I was sitting in an older building, with the ambience of a cottage hospital, set amidst the rolling green lawns, trees and winding paths of my University’s suburban campus.

We set aside an hour to each go out and investigate this space, and to bring back that which interested us and which reflected our methodologies. Sitting listening to my colleague wind up the morning session, I still hadn’t decided what I’d focus on. Looking beyond him, towards the doorway, its signage, automatic closure armature, its safety glass and the pipes and wiring conduits that also leaving our room near this point, an idea started to build, round about the time that he uttered the words “Foucault was attentive to the materiality of power.”

Stepping out into the courtyard I started photographing the fire-escapes, struck by their (physically and functionally) ‘bolted-on’ nature. I thought I might focus upon the way in which anxieties about fire safety have mapped out on-top of this pre-existing configuration of buildings and uses, but then I started to notice – smaller but ubiquitous – the sinews of black cabling held fast to the sides of these pre-electric buildings and the fistula by which these black lines wormed their way into, and out of, these buildings. Then I saw spider-like partners, clinging to the sides of these walls. Erratic, bifurcating vertical runs of pipes clinging to these stone surfaces.

I set out to follow these strange emergent connectors – tendrils binding detached buildings to each other as an assembly of indeterminant purpose. Tracing these features around the nooks and crannies of this raggedy estate found moments of bold leap, where cabling flew through the air from gully to gully, and strange gathering points at which multiple lines congregated, perhaps awaiting their turn to go inside in conformity to some unobservable rules of physics, a bottle neck or electron marshalling yard.

I also followed the cables as they burst through from the outside, switching from their black form to interior-white. I traced their paths via strange junction boxes, their dives into internal walls and most satisfying (for me – and I’d like to think for them too) their moment of eventual congress with a device requiring their power or data.

I’m told that many of the cables playing through the sky at this campus are – in fact – now redundant, with most data relayed around the estate via microwave transmitters. Perhaps it all lingers on simply because there’s nothing to be gained in taking them all down.

On being connected
Reflecting on the fascination that this web-like interconnection of buildings via these black cables summoned to mind got me thinking about a number of pictures in which supposedly separate items are connected into a group or family via web-like connections. I thought of doodling, that drive (maybe not everyone has it) to totalise individual doodles, by joining them together into an array across the page, or the techno-human assemblages of psychiatric patients, or corporate organograms.

The image here is scanned from the cover to a 1981 LP by SPK (the Australian industrial noise band, sometimes more fulsomely monikered Sozialistisches Patienten Kollektiv) the painting – which I’ve been unable to trace by any 21st century type and click methods – is attributed to a “R. Gie”, a patient at Rosegg Sanitorium in Switzerland in 1916 and entitled “Circulation of Effluvia with Central Machine and Metric Tableau”.

Gie (1916)
This patient’s depiction of all elements being wired together has both a disturbing, horror effect (think the body farm pods from The Matrix for example) and yet also a logic if you stop to think about it. As for Žižek and for Gie, we can’t escape the fact of our effluent related interconnections with mechanical systems and the senses of others. We also are enmeshed in a web of electro-mechanical power, as Jane Bennett (2010) – no relation – has shown in her analysis of “thing-power” (the agency of assemblages), with specific reference to electricity systems and their volatile assemblage of “humans and their (social, legal, linguisitic) constructions [and][…] some very active and powerful nonhumans: electrons, trees, wind, fire, electromagnetic fields.” (24)

Foucault certainly took a broader view of power than convention had dictated – seeing it as a force (fluid like) circulating in situations to enable or retard action, things to appear or positions to be framed and sustained. But perhaps he could have gone even further, to make the link between ‘social’ power and electrical / gas / water power. The full panoply of circulating, and life sustaining forces, and of the culturally ‘invisible’ spandrel empire that provides the infrastructure for this mechanical circulation and servicing of power.

To spend a lunchtime chasing conduits and cables on campus is to follow Alice down the rabbit hole and find there not a cartoon otherworld, but rather the arteries and tendrels of the vast web of interstitial spaces that anchor us – and our buildings – to the world.

References

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant matter – a political ecology of things, Duke University Press: London.
Žižek, S. (2009) ‘Architectural Parallax – Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle’ at http://www.lacan.com/essays/?page_id=218