Regular Marvels, in Theory

All histories are interim reports – and the question would be: can you get us as step forward?’

Herbert Butterfield in a letter to J. H. Elliott

Concept and process

One reason for creating Regular Marvels is to look for better ways of writing about people’s experience of art and culture. That experience is important and endlessly interesting to me, but any understanding of it, indeed the experience itself, is shaped by how it is told. So Regular Marvels sets out consciously to question how stories about artistic experience are created and shared.

It does so by trying out different ways of discovering, thinking about and recounting those experiences. If it is research—and it is deliberately not research in the sense that is currently approved by universities and research boards—it is research through practice. A Regular Marvel, for me,  includes the 18-24 month process of exploration, its evolving presence on this blog and the final book with its artwork. (I use the term ‘Regular Marvel’ rather than ‘project’ or ‘research’ precisely to free this work from association with existing theories and practice.)

Each Regular Marvel is conceived and undertaken independently, in response to a particular situation, opportunity or interest. But each one tries to look at the essential problem (how to know and tell) from a different angle and so build a little more knowledge every time.

The process of understanding and then explaining what I am doing is itself therefore slow and tricky. I have written drafts of long essays that try to set out all the questions I have, if not yet the answers. But little time and much uncertainty have limited my progress. So I’ve decided to work out aspects of what Regular Marvels is about in occasional posts, which I recognise may be of very little general interest. I might not get all my ducks in a row, but at least I’ll begin knowing which ones I’m thinking about (even if they’re actually geese).

RMT1 – Power

Learning research

Studium Urbis

For more than 10 years from 1994, I undertook a series of formal research projects into various aspects of culture and society. Partly because I was working as an independent and self-taught* researcher, I had great respect for the techniques and norms of academic research. I read books on the theory and practice of research in education, health, culture and social anthropology as well as quantitative research and evaluation. I talked and worked with academics wherever possible.

I tried, with each new research project, to improve my own practice as a researcher, partly to strengthen the robustness of the work and partly because I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of trying to solve the theoretical and practical problems involved. As far as the first was concerned, I was only partly successful, but that’s a different story. In the case of the second goal, I felt that, with a study of rural arts touring published in 2004, I’d got as far as I could or wanted to go in that direction.

The researcher’s power

Profilo Continuo (Testa di Mussolini) , 1933, by Renato Bertelli at the Imperial War Museum

Throughout this time, I gradually became used to the power that research brings. That may seem an odd idea, particularly to researchers who often feel marginal in public discourse. But power is implicit in what researchers do. They define questions and say how those questions are best answered. They decide who to ask, what, when and where. And they decide what the answers mean. They publish their work in high-status journals and books. And, whether in lecture halls, media studios or policy centres, they are listened to with respect. They have authority—being authors and having authorised knowledge—they are experts.

Or perhaps they have just invaded and colonized a part of reality that actually belongs to other people, to those whose lives they examine, describe and explain. I began to think of research as rather like the Jeremy Bentham’s ideal prison, where the authorities (that word again) control their prisoners simply by being able to see everything they do, all the time. And describe it.

Of course, research is far too clever not to have thought of all this and found equally clever ways of protecting itself from accusations of misusing its power. Critical theory is, among other things, a wonderful cloaking device. But the corrupting temptations of invisibility were identified as a moral puzzle at the dawn of philosophy.

From entitled to untitled

So one of the central ideas of Regular Marvels is to undermine the position of power that undertaking research can bring. I’ve tried to do that in a number of ways, one of which is this blog, which sets out as openly as I can manage, the doubts, inconsistencies and failures of the process itself. Thinking in public is one way of discouraging anyone from thinking that you are cleverer than you are.

Then, by taking my writing away from any association with universities, think tanks or other legitimised brands, I take personal responsibility for personal work. The organisations who have helped fund past and current Regular MarvelsMultistory, the Baring FoundationVrede van Utrecht and Creative Arts East—aren’t responsible for work they neither commissioned nor interfered with. I’m immensely grateful for their trust and support, but I try neither to shelter in their shade nor bask in their light.

At seminars, meetings and conferences, people want your title: it’s like a form of accreditation that explains why you’re there, and what entitles you to an audience. Nowadays, aware of the pretention and power that would come with describing oneself as ‘untitled’, I saw I’m a writer, which is both true and straightforward. Of course, ‘writer’ has unavoidable some status in the world, but being a writer is also a trade. You’re only worth what you write, or say. And every reader, or listener, has the power to decide if it’s interesting, or rubbish.


* The phrase ‘self-taught’ has always seemed slightly suspect to me, itself one of the subtle ways in which the academy can maintain its power. No human being is self-taught, as the sad history of wild children shows. Unless we learn to communicate and think at an early age, we cannot learn those abilities later. So we learn all the time, from our parents, siblings, relatives, friends, strangers and, if we are lucky to get a good education, from our teachers. Other people and experience are humanity’s everyday teachers. Reading is one way of gaining access to both, perhaps the single most important way that we have invented. But the approval and certification of those with financial and social interests in the knowledge economy is not as pure as they would have us think.

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