On 17 January 2020 I presented a paper at the Institute of Geography, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. The title of the presentation was ‘Navigating Cinematic Geographies: Reflections on Film as Spatial Practice’, which is also the title of a chapter I have in the forthcoming The Routledge Handbook of Place collection, edited by Tim Edensor, Ares Kalandides and Uma Kothari. Thank you to Elisabeth Sommerlad and Anton Escher for inviting me and to their students for their very interesting questions and discussion in response to the ideas (and, at times, provocations) I was putting forward.
On Saturday 14 September I attended a screening of two archive film projects that were performed with a live score at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. www.thebluecoat.org.uk/events/view/events/4036
The first, Tracks by the composer Luke Moore, featured footage shot of and from the Liverpool Overhead Railway that included the first ever moving images of Liverpool, filmed by the Lumière cameraman Alexander Promio. The film also included some stunning 3D animation of the railway and surrounding urban landscape by the artist Steven Wheeler (www.stevenpaulwheeler.com/).
The main feature, Anson Dyer’s 1929 ‘city symphony’, A Day in Liverpool, was screened with a live score performed by composer and songwriter Aidan Smith. I had seen this film many times before, but seeing it for the first time, on a big screen, with a much-needed score transformed the film and brought it alive in ways that a mute viewing on a laptop simply cannot match.
I was invited by Anselm Burke to take part in a post-screening discussion along with Luke, Steven, and Aidan. Interesting chat afterwards with people sharing their memories of the Overhead Railway.
Below is a short piece about A Day in Liverpool that I was asked to write by way of background to the film for those attending:
A Day in Liverpool
As a ‘city symphony’, although it is not quite in the same league as such classics as A Man With a Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov, USSR, 1929), A Day in Liverpool undoubtedly qualifies inasmuch as it showcases some of the genre’s key features and motifs. Like Man With a Movie Camera (which, not coincidentally, was also made in 1929), A Day in Liverpool goes out of its way to give a sense of the city’s rhythms as orchestrated by the director and editor (or should this be ‘conductor’?). It does this by drawing on the dynamism and seemingly inexhaustible energy of a city at work (and, to a lesser extent, at play). Structured around the working day, the film ebbs and flows with the activities of office workers (their hurried footsteps streaming up the steps of the Port of Liverpool Building), dock workers, merchants, traders, construction workers, commuters, shoppers, street hawkers, leisure-seekers and others caught up with, and contributing to, the rhythms of everyday life in what was a bustling, frenetic and above all industrious city. What the film also depicts in all its soot-choked splendour is the Liverpool Overhead Railway (LOR), known affectionately as the ‘Dockers’ Umbrella’ in tribute to the lively urban scenes that unfold beneath as much as along the elevated sections of track. One particular shot of the LOR, filmed from the top of the Liver Building, offers what is nothing short of an iconic view of Liverpool’s urban landscape as it was in the late 1920s, a gloriously cinematic cityscape which would not look out of place in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, made two years earlier in 1927. If these images seem familiar, this is on account of their appearance in Terence Davies’s celebrated documentary or ‘cine-poem’ from 2008, Of Time and the City (although it should be noted that the images are historically out of sync with the diegetic time-line of Davies’ film, which covers the years from the director’s birth in 1945 to his eventual departure from Liverpool in the 1970s). Footage from A Day in Liverpool also appears in a documentary produced by British Pathé in 1957, called This in Our Time (now available for purchase on DVD). A film that has been little seen in a theatrical setting, and which has only ever existed in mute or silent form, A Day in Liverpool is itself deserving of a wider audience and commercial DVD release. And if there ever was a film from Liverpool’s rich archival film heritage that has been crying out for a much needed score, then A Day in Liverpool, the city’s first and only city symphony, is most certainly it.
Les Roberts, September 2019
I visited the University of Liverpool in London campus for the first time this week. I remember when the building it occupies was the Bank of Nova Scotia. This was back in the 1990s when I was working in the area for a period (the bus stopped right outside). The building still has the feel and corporate ambience of an investment bank, which I suppose seems appropriate given the ‘trading’ of knowledge that is now expected to take place in the brave new marketised world of the neoliberal university.
Anyway, the reason I was there was to attend the Digital Memories symposium that I nominally co-organised (the bulk of the heavy lifting was done by Jordana Blejmar and Silvana Mandolessi). On the second day (18 June) the Culture, Space and Memory research group (myself, Alyssa, Wallis, and Jordana) presented some current work in progress. This was in a session held in a space called the ‘Executive Room’ (they could have at least given it a different name, one more befitting the kind of activity one would expect to be taking place at an academic conference or a university seminar room). My paper was a slightly revised version of the presentation I gave at the Geomedia Conference in May: ‘Homing in to Dwellspace: Inhabiting The Presentness of Memory’.
Following on from the previous post about the 2019 Geomedia conference, John Lynch has made available links to recordings of the plenary talk he organised and chaired (in which I participated) along with a podcast interview I recorded with John. These can be accessed below:
1. Plenary Session: Dreaming of Home: Film and Imaginary Territories of the Real, video recording of session chaired by John Lynch, Wednesday 8 May 2019. Access here.
2. Homing in Through Film, podcast discussion, Thursday 9 May 2019. Access here.
Arrived back last night from this year’s Geomedia Conference in Karlstad. Three plane journeys and nearly 12 hours from door to door made the return journey quite a slog. Next time I’ll make sure to explore other travel options.
Anyway, the conference theme was ‘Revisiting the Home’ and my contribution was as part of a plenary panel (‘Dreaming of Home: Film and Imaginary Territories of the Real’) organised by John Lynch. The other contributors were Nilgun Bayraktar (California College of the Arts) and the filmmaker Christine Molloy (Desparate Optimists).
The plenary session was filmed and will shortly be available via the conference website (http://geomedia.se/conference/2019/), along with a podcast that I recorded with John which will be available here.
The plenary paper I presented was called ‘Homing in Through Film: Movement, Embodiment, Dwellspace‘. Below is the abstract:
In this paper I set out to explore a phenomenology of ‘home’ that proceeds from contemplative reflection on three scenes from three very different films. In their own particular way, each of these scenes provide an oblique framing on ideas and affects that I am putting under the conceptual umbrella of ‘dwellspace’. Firstly, via Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1971), we consider home as an ‘island of memory’. In this reckoning, home serves as a transcendental u-topos of memory which corresponds with Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) idea of ‘absolute space’. That is, it marks out a sacred zone of authentic being which is phenomenologically rent from the embodied self situated in the here and now of social space-time. It is a ‘heterotopia’ (Foucault 1986) of home that can only exist outside of space and time, but which, like the cinematic image itself, can be accessed through our stepping in to virtual worlds. Secondly, taking as its example the euthanasia scene from Richard Fleischer’s dystopian thriller, Soylent Green (US, 1973), we consider home ‘as a journey to the other shore’, a metaphor, commonly associated with Buddhism, which refers to the journey of transition between life and death (or the afterlife). In this example, home is a place to ‘go back to’ in the sense of securing a locus of eternal dwelling where the transcendence of nature absorbs the soon-to-be-deceased back into its nurturing (or not-so-nurturing) fold. As with Solaris’s home as an island of memory, home in this example is a place that can only be embraced by correspondingly stepping away from the world: home as stasis and death as opposed to an affect of dwelling from where life and movement continue to flow. Lastly, drawing on Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life (Japan, 1998), I sketch out the contours of a phenomenologically different affect of home: home as a ‘good place’ (eu-topia) of memory. Paradoxically, although the film centres on the activities of the recently deceased (who are being processed through a transitional space – a kind of metaphysical holding area or celestial or purgatorial waystation – en route to an eternity in the afterlife), the idea – or dwellspace – of home that is crafted for those passing through is curiously life-affirming. The paper ends by extending this idea to consider what home might look and feel like as part of a creative spatial praxis: a creative ‘at-homeness’ which connotes not so much a stepping away from the space-time of everyday life, but rather a deep and poetic immersion within it.
I-Media-Cities Conference Brussels
March 27, 2019 at Cinematek Brussels, Rue Ravenstein 3, 1000 Brussels
Conference programme here.
I was invited to give a keynote talk at this one-day conference which was held on 27 March 2019 at the Cinematek (Royal Film Archive of Belgium) in Brussels. The conference was linked to the research activities of the Horizon 2020 I-Media-Cities project.
My presentation was titled: ‘Spatial Anthropology and the Archive City: Locating Urban Cultural Memory‘. Presentation slides can be accessed here.
On 22 May I presented a paper at a symposium held at LJMU, organised by Yannis Tzioumakis (University of Liverpool) and Lydia Papadimitriou (LJMU) – ‘TV is the New Cinema: Exploring the Erosion of Boundaries between two Media’.
My paper – currently work in progress – is titled: ‘Big Country, Small Screen: Exploring the Hinterlands of the British Procedural Drama’.
It is perhaps something of a truism to observe that the significance of landscape in screen studies of the crime procedural drama is partly a reflection on the geographical situatedness of the crime mise-en-scène. The crime, and the events – the narratives – that are precipitated by the fact of its occurrence, take place in specific spaces and locations. They are, in other words, spatial stories; an observation that draws succour from writer and
filmmaker Chris Petit’s claim that crime reconstruction programmes, such BBC’s Crimewatch, are unique insofar they are all about place (Brown 1995; Roberts 2014). Despite this otherwise elemental spatial underpinning, venture beyond the specifically urban environments of, for example, neo-noir or the detective film, and the critical correlation between screen, crime and landscape is one that is more than likely to equate the expansiveness of geography to that of the screen. As with discussions of place, landscape and the moving image more generally – and as is attested to by the growing body of literature focused on these areas of debate – it is cinema rather than television that is the default medium around which such discussions are seen to coalesce, whether this be the snowbound wilderness of North Dakota in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, or the remote Anatolian steppe of Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. However, in the wake of the much discussed phenomenon of so-called ‘Nordic Noir’ – and, in particular, the dramas The Killing and The Bridge – the significance of Landscape (with a capital L) in relation to the police procedural has had something of a small-screen renaissance. In this paper I discuss this with specific reference to recent productions set and filmed in Britain. Broadchurch (2013) shot in West Dorset, Southcliffe (2013) filmed in and around Faversham and the North Kent marshes, and Hinterland (Y Gwyll) (2013), filmed in and around the Welsh coastal resort of Aberystwyth in Ceredigion, all share something of a ‘post-Nordic-noir’ family resemblance insofar as landscape and location are themselves presented as central characters, prompting reflection on what these narratives reveal about ideas of place and the role of topography and landscape in the cultural imaginary of the British procedural drama.
On Thursday 3 April I presented the paper ‘The Bulger Case: a Spatial Story’ as part of the Media and Politics seminar series at the University of Liverpool.
The paper will be published in May in The Cartographic Journal – Les Roberts, ‘The Bulger Case: A Spatial Story’, in Special Issue on ‘Cartography and Narratives’, S. Caquard and W. Cartwright (eds.), The Cartographic Journal, 51 (2).
The paper is pre-published online:
On Friday 14th March 2014 I took part in a panel discussion at the Atlantic Sounds: Ships and Sailortowns conference co-organised by Graeme Milne from the Dept of History at University of Liverpool. The panel, which included the Liverpool filmmaker Dave Cotterill, discussed filmmaking as a key means of recording and analysing popular music and its history
in the second half of the twentieth century.
This Liqufruta bottle is a found object which was my contribution to a workshop organised by Hazel Andrews and held at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London on Thursday 13th March 2014.
Participants each brought an object of their choice which formed the basis of a short talk explaining the reasons for their choice, what significance it has and any stories related to or prompted by the object. Each talk was followed by a group discussion.
An edited collection based on the contributions and discussions is currently being planned.
A transcript of my talk can be accessed here.
[Below is the publicity blurb for an event I took part in at UCLAN this week…]
Liminal Landscapes: assembly, enclosure & the West Lancs coast
Tuesday 11th March, 2014
6pm – 8pm
Lecture Room 3, Foster Building,
University of Central Lancashire,
Preston, PR1 2HE
The event, which is the second in the Practising Place programme, will also premiere Jacques’ new film, The Dionysians of West Lancs. Described by the artist as ‘a phantom ride’ along the West Lancashire coast, the film weaves together historical topography, rave culture and Greek mythology to examine the age-old tension between enclosure and freedom of assembly which continues to shape this landscape.
These themes will be further explored by Les Roberts, who will present his research into sites of liminality, including the treacherous terrains of the Dee Estuary and Morecambe Bay. Through conversation, Jacques and Roberts will discuss the power struggles, both past and present – such as the current controversy surrounding ‘fracking’ – which define such places, and outline a political reading of liminal landscapes.
About the speakers:
David Jacques is a multi-media artist primarily involved with film. His practice engages with the subject of History, its narrative interpretations and the interplay between factual and fictional strategies of representation. His interest in deconstructing and re-apportioning the subject often results in the exploration of forgotten, marginalised and socially / politically disruptive sources. In 2010 he won the Liverpool Art Prize and was shortlisted for the Northern Art Prize. Recent screenings of his work include; Tate Liverpool ‘Art turning Left’, 17th International Video Festival VIDEOMEDEJA, Novi Sad Serbia, WNDX Film Festival, Winnipeg Canada and Sheffield Fringe at BLOC Projects Sheffield. He lives and works in Liverpool.
David Jacques on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/user5423212
Les Roberts’ research interests and practice fall within the areas of urban cultural studies, cultural memory, and digital spatial humanities. His work explores the intersection between space, place, mobility, and memory with a particular focus on film and popular music cultures. He is author of Film, Mobility and Urban Space: a Cinematic Geography of Liverpool (2012), editor of Mapping Cultures: Place, Practice and Performance (2012) and co-editor of Locating the Moving Image: New Approaches to Film and Place (2013), Liminal Landscapes: Travel, Experience and Spaces In-between (2012), and The City and the Moving Image: Urban Projections (2010).
For information on research activities and publications see www.liminoids.com
On 7 & 8 March I attended the Location London conference held at UCL and University of London Senate House. Organised by Roland-Francois Lack and Ian Christie, the conference programme featured some excellent papers and a preview screening of Another London, a film written and presented by architectural historian Robert Harbison, and introduced by the director Hector Arkomanis.
My paper was titled ‘Locating the City in Film | Navigating the Archive City’.
Slides of the presentation can be downloaded here
On 13 November 2013 as part of the Engage@Liverpool Transformative Legacies series I gave a paper titled ‘Spatial Anthropology: Outline of a Field of Practice’. The event was nominally based around the legacy of the James Frazer who for a short time was based at the University of Liverpool. Other speakers included Ciara Kierans and Bruce Routledge.
The text of the paper I presented is copied below:
Spatial Anthropology: Outline of a Field of Practice
In this presentation I want to follow several threads of discussion that each feed into a broader focus of analysis which is: anthropology as a field of practice. The spatial anthropology bit I’ll come onto a bit later. Framing things in terms of an ‘outline of a field of practice’ obviously has a certain Bourdieuian ring to it, and that is not entirely coincidental. It is also the sub-title of a paper I recently co-authored with Hazel Andrews on tourism
anthropology some of which I’ll be drawing on here. As with the arguments put forward in that paper, the rationale for discussing anthropology as a field of practice is to situate what anthropology is (or isn’t) in an explicitly post-disciplinary contextual framework. Those of us here who would readily apply or relate the term ‘anthropology’ to their own practice probably do so in the recognition that we increasingly inhabit and move within spaces that do not neatly align along disciplinary lines, and that, as such, what might count as ‘anthropological’ perspectives sit alongside a whole host of others, some complimentary, others perhaps less so. Up to a point this is of course true for any academic discipline. But one of the questions we might wish to take from this is what happens to anthropology and anthropologists when it – and they – migrate out of anthropology departments? What happens when the field of practice is muddied with the boots of cross- and post-disciplinary intellectual traffic? Or, to put the question in unabashedly Bourdieuian terms, what is the habitus of post-disciplinary anthropology? One way of beginning to address these questions is, in good old anthropological fashion, to reflexively observe or draw from our own ‘anthropological practice’. So in part at least this is what I will try and do in this presentation. I’ll also be exploring more closely some recent cross-currents of thought between anthropology and geography, and this is where the spatial anthropology side of the equation will hopefully begin to make a bit more sense.
Given that we’ve evoked the spirit of Frazer for this event, I feel duty bound to begin with at least some brief reflections on his legacy, to the extent that there is a legacy to speak of that is. My initial inclinations were to give him pretty short shrift. After all, as well as being an exponent of Darwinian evolutionist approaches to the culture and belief systems of so-called primitive cultures, Frazer was also famously known as an ‘armchair anthropologist’. Before the arrival of pioneers such as Malinowski or, in the United States, Franz Boas, Frazer’s generation rarely consummated the formative anthropological rite of passage that is fieldwork. For Frazer travel was limited to the vicarious kind, his analysis drawn from the expansive Orientalist literature that, in his day, passed for anthropological knowledge, and which, as Edward Said argued, played an key role in processes of European colonial expansion. In terms of Frazer’s legacy, his place in the canon of key anthropological writings taught at universities is for the most part likely to be marginal to the point of non-existence. Out of curiosity, in preparing this talk I dusted off my 1st year undergraduate lecture notes (in the mid 1990s I studied social anthropology at SOAS in London). I was not surprised to learn that The Golden Bough was not on any of the key reading lists, nor did it appear on any of the supplementary reading lists either. This appeared to confirm my suspicions that Frazer was nothing more than a footnote in the history of anthropology and that it wasn’t until Malinowski came on the scene that anthropology ‘proper’ – that is, something that more closely resembles what we might recognise as the discipline today – first began to take shape.
However, just as I was about to swipe Frazer and his legacy into oblivion, I realised that I had only recently drawn on his work myself in a paper on marketing popular music tourism sites, and that, footnote or not, his work still obviously has retained some degree of critical resonance. The paper in question took Frazer’s theory of contagious and sympathetic magic and argued the case that modern marketing discourses – particularly those that draw on the symbolic value associated with sites of local cultural heritage – often practice forms of what can be described as contagious magic. I won’t go into too much detail of the argument here (and refer you instead to the paper itself), but in a nutshell the idea being examined was the efficacy ascribed to the anticipated ‘rubbing off’ of cultural capital, as if, through contact or mimesis, some sort of economic and regenerative ‘magic’ will inevitably rub off and cast its benign spell over a city or region. Which is all well and interesting but need not concern us here. In terms of the current discussion, the point I wish to make here is that Frazer’s ideas (or some at least) have gone to inform later theoretical writings on magic and mimesis, whether this be the work of Walter Benjamin, or that of anthropologists such as Michael Taussig or Alfred Gell. Although my use of Frazer in this example probably more closely resembles what the Situationists refer to as an act of détournement than an acknowledged anthropological debt, it is nevertheless the case that Frazer’s book is still being referenced and ideas still being chewed over so there is undoubtedly a legacy there to speak of, albeit one that has been re-processed through subsequent and more substantive theoretical frameworks.
A description of anthropology I have always liked is one offered by Tim Ingold, which is simply ‘philosophy with the people in’. If we apply this to Frazer we immediately see the glaring anthropological deficit at the core of his enterprise: i.e. the conspicuous lack of actual human engagement and ethnographic interaction. It is philosophy without the people in. And before this begins to sound like a valorisation of the ethnographically-savvy
Malinowski at the expense of the stay-at-home Frazer, it is worth paying brief mention to the controversy following the posthumous publication of Malinowski’s field diary in the late 1960s. Described by some as functioning as a kind of ‘safety valve’, the diary reveals racist and at times hostile attitudes towards his Trobriand informants which provide an altogether different view from that portrayed in his monograph, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. One of the more infamous lines from the diary is ‘on the whole my feelings toward the natives are decidedly tending to “Exterminate the brutes”’. With the phrase ‘exterminate the brutes’, Malinowski is directly quoting from fellow Pole Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, not exactly a model of enlightened and empathetic ethnographic practice. That said, the ‘horror’ of some fieldwork experiences, if we can put it in those terms, would probably make for a fruitful area of discussion, and who knows, might even render Malinowski in a more sympathetic light insofar as the ethnographer-informant relationship is recognised as having its more testing moments. How many anthropologists, I wonder, in private moments of discomfort or despair have on occasion not harboured some less than wholesome views towards those they are studying? Anthropologists are only human after all. So coming back to Ingold’s ‘philosophy with the people in’, the point I wish to raise here is that, however distasteful, the diary provides valuable insights into Malinowski the man, rather than Malinowski the scientifically objective anthropologist, the latter being of course a complete fiction. These more ‘back stage’ reflections allow for a greater recognition of the situated, subjective and in many ways contingent realities that are framed by the ethnographic encounter. So in pragmatic terms at least, the idea of ‘philosophy – or anthropology – with the people in’ highlights the importance of critically taking on board questions of reflexivity, the value and role of personal narratives and experiences, and of considering how adopting more auto-ethnographic methods of fieldwork practice might be useful or productive.
A useful example to consider here is Marc Augé’s much-cited book Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. I very clearly remember when I was first introduced to this text, which was in a lecture in my first year at SOAS. The lecturer held up the slim volume in one hand and in the other he brandished the weighty tome that is Manuell Castell’s The Rise of the Network Society, which had also just been published. The lecturer’s point wasn’t to necessarily argue the merits for one over the other – for Augé vs Castells – but rather to highlight the uniquely anthropological perspective on offer in Non-Places, and to show the value of auto-ethnographic narratives in fleshing out the lived spaces of what Augé calls ‘supermodernity’. These are spaces of transit such as airports, high speed road networks, shopping malls, etc. and which represent the architectural and geographical counterpart to Castell’s ‘space of flows’. What Augé was also doing in the book was to highlight the challenge of relating some of the established anthropological ideas of place and space – such as those from a more Durkheimian tradition – to these new ‘placeless’ or transitory environments. In the book Augé doesn’t really develop as full or as adequate response to this challenge himself, the book offers more of a diagnosis than a fully-fledged ethnographic study of these landscapes. However, that said, the publication of Non-places was without doubt an important intervention in the development of specifically anthropological approaches to place and space – or ‘spatial anthropology’ if you prefer.
Another influential book that left its mark on my early adventures in anthropology was Michael Jackson’s Paths Toward a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and Ethnographic Inquiry, published in 1989. As an undergraduate I remember being very excited by this discovery and could not understand why this strand of anthropological theory and method was not more widely practised. Jackson’s work is very much rooted in an American tradition of cultural anthropology as opposed to the Durkheimian structural-functionalist tradition that has shaped the development of much Anglo-French social anthropology. As a leading exponent of phenomenological and existential anthropology, Jackson’s work explores questions of experience, embodiment, and the senses, and he offers a fieldwork model which places the anthropologist full square in the immersive field and experiential flux of the ethnographic encounter. This is what is meant by a ‘radical empiricist’ ethnographic method, drawing on everything that the field throws at you, whether emotional, bodily, sensory, performative, spatial, intersubjective, observational, thick description and so on. Strongly influenced by, amongst others, the pragmatist philosophy of William James, the phenomenological writings of Heidegger, Sartre and Merleau Ponty, as well as the work of Pierre Bourdieu, Jackson’s brand of anthropology, which is mostly based on his work with the Kuranko peoples of Sierra Leone, offers a rich embracing of Ingold’s ‘philosophy with the people in’ prescription. The core focus on experience also has close affinities with the work of experiential anthropologists such as Victor Turner and Ed Bruner.
Another phenomenological anthropologist we could briefly mention here is Thomas Csordas, whose work sits mainly in the area of medical and psychological anthropology and theories of embodiment. Commenting on the methodological focus on issues of affect, emotions, embodiment, performance and the senses, Csordas is keen to stress that ‘it will not do
to identify what we are getting at with a negative term, as something non-representational’ (1994: 10). In other words, just because phenomena cannot be ‘represented’ in conventional empirical observational terms, it doesn’t make it ‘non-representational’ (and this takes us back to the radical empiricism championed by figures such as Jackson). If we jump back to Augé for a second we can get a sense of the shortfalls of Augé’s answer to his own question of how do you conduct an anthropology of supermodernity? How do you begin to go about ethnographically investigating a space such as an airport terminal? The shortfall in Augé’s approach is perhaps on account of his being hamstrung by a rigid dualism of representational vs. non-representational thinking. And that this is in part a reflection of a disjuncture between anthropology modelled on a structural-functional intellectual heritage (of which Augé is clearly an inheritor), and one more reflective of the interpretative, experiential and phenomenological approaches exemplified by anthropologists such as Jackson and Csordas.
When we start to examine this from a wider cross or post-disciplinary context the marginalisation – certainly in British schools of social anthropology – of more phenomenological approaches to anthropological fieldwork has opened the way for scholars from other disciplinary backgrounds to steal a march, effectively. And this, I am suggesting, has possible negative ramifications in terms of the longer term sustainability of anthropology in British universities, where it sometimes seems as though it is clinging on by its fingertips. When we consider the sort of approaches pioneered by US anthropologists such as Jackson alongside initiatives that have been developed in other disciplines, most notably in geography, we can get a sense of how many of these ideas have diffused across disciplines. To take this slightly further, and proceeding from Csordas’s well observed note of caution about the term ‘non representational’, it is worth briefly considering ideas around so-called ‘non representational geographies’.
I am not going to go into this in any great depth, and I’m working towards a conclusion anyway, but I just wanted to consider some of the claims made with regard to non-representational theory. And these are cited with the preceding discussion very much in mind. I am quoting here from Nigel Thrifts 2007 book Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect.
Acknowledging the ‘increasingly diverse character’ of non representational theory, and that ‘it has a lot of forebears’, Thrift outlines some of its key tenets:
· — the importance of ‘radical empiricist’ epistemologies;
· — the ‘on-flow’ and flux of everyday life;
· — the ‘spillage of things’ (the material and technological apparatus of everyday social being – our relationship with objects and non-human agents);
· — corporeality, affect, and the senses;
· — performance and play;
· — and an attentiveness to practices, ‘understood as material bodies of work or styles that have gained enough stability over time, through, for example, the establishment of corporeal routines’ .
Another introductory or sound-bite definition Thrift offers is that non representational theory is about ‘the geography of what happens… what is present in experience’ (ibid: 2, emphasis in original). ‘The geography of what happens’ is certainly an intriguing turn of phrase. In our paper ‘(Un)Doing Tourism Anthropology’, Hazel Andrews and I float the contention that ‘the geography of what happens’ can almost be looked upon as an attempt to dress anthropological issues of place, practice and performance in the clothes of the geographical. Given that everything that happens happens somewhere (and that all anthropological phenomena is, therefore, at least partly if not intrinsically geographical) then where does this leave the anthropologist? And where does it leave anthropology as a discipline? If, rather than thinking about it in disciplinary terms, we think about anthropology in terms of its ‘doing-ness’ – in other words, in terms of its application as a wider field of practice – then what the example of non-representational geography helps us illustrate is that what might count as doing anthropology is not necessarily conditional on there being an explicitly framed discipline that is recognised in terms of it being anthropology. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to be an anthropologist to do anthropology.
If this is the case (and I am not claiming that it is necessarily), but if it is then it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the uptake of ethnographic methods that have been at the core of anthropological thinking and practice for decades are given a further reaching lease of life through different channels of theory and practice. At the same time it poses questions as to the specificity of anthropological perspectives and critical orientations (and the knock-on effects this might have for anthropology departments). Paul Gilroy has talked of the process of ‘filleting’ that sometimes occurs when ideas and theories translate between disciplines (particularly in the case of social science theories imported into
business and marketing models). So for those of us who would wish keep faith in terms of ascribing to the idea of ‘philosophy with the people in’ rather than, say, a more nebulous ‘geography of what happens’, then it seems to me the task of practicing anthropology – whatever the disciplinary or institutional setting – demands a certain degree of vigilance and, for want of a better term, ‘anthropological advocacy’.
If, for the purposes of a few closing remarks, you can once again forgive the
indulgence of my relating these points of consideration to my own experience, then the at times convoluted passage through three major interdisciplinary projects is one that has, if anything, re-affirmed my own convictions of the value of identifying more closely with this idea of anthropology as a field of practice. As a postdoctoral researcher I worked on two consecutive projects on film, mapping and urban space, and a European collaborative project on popular music, heritage and cultural memory. As interdisciplinary research programmes (working collaboratively with architects, geographers, sociologists, cartographers, film scholars, popular music scholars and others) all of these projects presented certain challenges in terms of negotiating a passage through a number of what were, at times, competing trajectories and perspectives. It is perhaps only in hindsight and on account of a closer rapprochement with anthropological approaches that it occurs to me that what probably underpins all the points of negotiation that made the projects so interesting to work on is some degree of adherence, on my part, to the principle of ‘philosophy with the people in’, or at least to skew things back towards more of an anthropological perspective. To conclude with a rather woolly call for a focus on ‘people’ sounds a bit trite, I know. But it is surprising how often you find yourself having to re-affirm – as much as to yourself as those around you – this otherwise quite elemental point of principle. Taken alongside the fact that, to paraphrase Henri Lefebvre, people have a social existence to the extent that they also have a spatial existence, it is also to re-affirm the idea of ‘geography with the people in’ (or indeed ‘architecture with the people in’). Whether ‘geography with the people in’ is the same thing as ‘human geography’ or not is probably one of those heads of a pin questions and not best pursued, but ‘spatial anthropology’, for my money at least, is a term that sits more comfortably as part of a wider, post-disciplinary field of practice.
Augé, M. 1995. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London: Verso.
Castells, M. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Volume 1. Oxford: Blackwell.
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Les Roberts, 13 November 2013.
I was invited to present at an event organised by Liz Stewart from the Museum of Liverpool on behalf of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire. The event, ‘Getting There: Exploring the History of North West’s Transport Links’, was held at the Museum on 18th September 2013. My talk was called ‘Making Connections: Amateur Transport Films and Merseyside’s Historical Geography’. Other speakers included Sharon Brown from the Museum of Liverpool, Richard Knowles, Professor of Transport Geography at the University of Salford, and Martin Dodge, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Manchester.
Invited to give a talk at the ‘Placing Morecambe’ symposium organised by David Cooper and Jo Carruthers and held at the Dept. of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University on 13 June 2013. This event followed on from the ‘Practising Morecambe’ field excursion and group exercise on 30 May (which for me also involved a night in the legendary Midland Hotel, replete with endless piped 1930s dance music – eerily reminiscent of the barroom music from The Shining). In my presentation I discussed some ideas relating to spatial anthropology and the relationship between the critical and the creative. I also provided some reflections on the creative process and outputs developed from the Morecambe field exercise, including a slide show of images gleaned from my walks around the town, and a poem, ‘Frontierland’, inspired by the practice of ‘placing Morecambe’.
Here I am transacting/exchanging some knowledge with the good people of Rotterdam at the 2013 Film Festival (IFFR). George McKay and myself were invited to share some thoughts on the music documentary ‘Let Fury Have the Hour’ that had just been screened at the Scopitone cafe. The ‘Re/Soundings: Documenting Music and Memory’ programme was a HERA-funded partnership between the IFFR and the collaborative European research project POPID. The programme was organised as part of Popular Music Heritage, Cultural Memory and Cultural Identity conference which took place at the Erasmus Research Centre for Media, Communication and Culture, 30 Jan-1 Feb 2013.
The idea for the Re/Soundings knowledge exchange initiative was developed by myself and Sara Cohen and I drafted the successful HERA grant application which was costed as €40,000. However, for reasons probably best not gone into here, that remained the extent of our contribution to this initiative, bar this brief and last minute burst of KE activity (George and I both gave the film something of a pasting, by the way). It would be nice to be able to say that Sara and I could lay claim, or at least in part, to the official credit for this grant, or some of its monies, but alas that was not to be. Such is the nature of the collaborative research process I guess.