A dialogue of stories

AWH Rosie Redzia 28

Designing the regular marvel books is always enjoyable. Visual judgements involve a different part of the mind to writing, and when something works you can see it at once (literally).   There’s a way to go, but as far as integration of words and images A Wider Horizon might be the happiest yet. Each book has explored the dialogue between ways of knowing differently. If none has been completely successful, to my mind, I feel they’re getting better.

That’s partly thanks to the work of Dave Everitt, old friend and multi-disciplinary artist, with whom I do the layout. His command of the software has saved me having to learn it but working with a sympathetic spirit is the key. The combination of being painstaking but not opinionated is precious and makes the working process a pleasure.

But if A Wider Horizon does work out, it will be because Rosie Redzia’s drawings of landscapes, people and performers tell their story so well. It’s not my story – that’s the point of her contribution – but we often saw the same things, together or separately, and have talked about them over the years of the project. The result is not just two versions of the experience of rural touring but three, with another emerging from the dialogue between the two. At least that’s the idea: you’ll be able to decide for yourself when the books are available on 16 July.

AWH Rosie Redzia 43

Books can take care of themselves

Little Free library Methwold Rosie Redzia

I once bought a six-volume set of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion. It had been printed in 1717, less than fifty years after the author’s death, and when the English Civil War was as close as the Second World War is today. The leather binding had been repaired with electrical tape, so I paid just 50p a volume. How could something so old be so cheap? But that’s a book for you. For objects that seem so fragile, they are remarkably resilient. They dry out if they get wet. Pages tear, but not volumes. Burning them is hard: it’s a symbolic act or sometimes a desperate one. Perhaps the present fashion for paper recycling will be a greater threat.

Art is precious. We keep our children’s drawings for decades, unable to throw them away because they represent the people who made them. We protect great art with locks and alarms. When a painting is stolen, the great fear is that it might be damaged: money is a secondary concern. Fanatics destroy art. They did it in Europe during the Reformation and they are doing it now in Syria and Iraq. Art is irreplaceable because it is made by irreplaceable people. Both are precious and vulnerable; both deserve care and protection. That is not to equate inanimate objects with human beings, though. Art matters because it symbolises and shares what matters to humanity: that’s why people who burn books always go on to burning people.

Books, it turns out, are a very good way to safeguard art and the values it holds. We can see broken temples and statues from the classical era, but it is books that allow us to hear Socrates’ defence of truth and honesty during his trial. Without books, the voices of those who have lived before us, of those who live in other countries and cultures, of those we will never meet, would all be denied us. A few simple symbols recorded on a surface have given us access to the whole human universe. They have prevented us from lapsing into final barbarism, though we have at times come close.

I like the idea that, years from now, these little regular marvels will still be lying forgotten at the back of a cupboard or in some small town junk shop. Seeds can wait a very long time for fertile soil. The books that do survive the recycling bin will blossom for anyone with the curiosity to pick them up and reward them with a document of another time and a glimpse of how some people thought and felt then. They don’t need looking after. Like messages in bottles, they can bob about and take care of themselves. If you’d like a printed copy, drop me a line and I’ll put it in the post.

An antidote for visual satiety


In a world saturated with pictures, the work of artists is very vulnerable and very important –vulnerable because it is so easy to lose one’s way in this hall of mirrors, lured by money, fame and flattery into creating work that serves only the purposes of power. And important for the same reason – because, if they are true to their own way of looking, their craft and their sensibility, they are the antidote to the visual pap with which power shapes our ideas of reality. Artists with integrity are like whole food in a world of burger bars and junk.

Richard Johnson is a Scottish-Canadian artist who has been sent, first by the Detroit Free Press and latterly by the Washington Post, to Iraq and Afghanistan. There is nothing new about war artists: Britain first used them in 1916, and they have been assigned to most subsequent conflicts. But Johnson works as a ‘visual journalist’, much as a press photographer would: documenting what he sees and the people he meets in immediate sketches whose purpose is to help newspaper (and website) readers understand better what is happening now, today. His latest assignment, following the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan, brings vividly home, and from many perspectives, the humanity of the experience. The results can be seen in a blog here.

Speaking on the BBC World Service’s Boston Calling, Johnson explained his idea of drawing’s value in journalism:

‘It’s great for telling stories where you need people to care about people who are far, far away – so, your refugee camps in Syria, internally displaced camps inside Iraq now, Ebola in Africa, these are stories I think that [drawing] could be used incredibly effectively to make people emotionally connect with what are basically just other human beings. They may not be nearby but they’re just as valid and just as valuable as anything else in your life.’

In much less dramatic contexts this is one of the founding ideas behind Regular Marvels. Art has not just ways of seeing, but ways of knowing, that it alone commands. It does not simply depict or represent: it creates knowledge that cannot otherwise exist. The contributions of the artists I have worked with on these books – filmmaker, Ben Wigley; painter, Mik Godley; sculptor Bill Ming; and illustrator, Rosie Redzia – have been integral to each one. They do not illustrate my words, any more than those words describe their visual work. They create new kinds and new levels of knowledge.

One reason for that is because they are the result of time taken and therefore they take time to understand: this is slow imagery in a world that plays fast and loose with pictures. Artists like Richard Johnson can help us go beyond being informed to empathising and even understanding what is otherwise so far from our own lives. When the imagery of war can no longer be distinguished from the imagery of video games, the ball point and the pencil can still tell fact from fiction.


Testing the rules

Human beings exist in language. Words and people change each other constantly. The meaning of words shifts as they slip from one object to another like viruses. And then what we mean, or think we mean, changes too when we use them.

To prove something originally meant to test it, not to show its truth. The root of the word is Latin, through old French, and it signified the process by which people try to find the truth of something. But the word’s slippage from the test to the result of the test has left us with some odd leftovers, conceptual appendices that can cause problems. ‘Proofreading’ has no sense as a term unless it is understood to mean examining a text for accuracy. Bakers ‘prove’ their dough to test that the yeast is active.

And the saying ‘it’s the exception that proves the rule’ only makes sense if ‘proves’ is taken to mean ‘tests’. A proverb which is simply a statement of scientific method – that something can be accepted as generally true only until an exception can be found – has become a licence to turn that method on its head. In everyday use, ‘the exception that proves the rule’ is a way of avoiding the need to justify a wilful or aberrant idea.

We need rules. They are essential both to daily life and to the development of the knowledge that has taken humanity from the Bronze Age to the International Space Station in the blink of an historical eye. The complexity of reality would be paralysing if we did not simplify it by agreeing common interpretations and shared meanings. But one of the ways we get from the Bronze Age to the ISS is to test those rules and the beliefs they hold. Scientists, farmers, philosophers, mystics, gardeners, soldiers, artists – in every field of human endeavour, there are people who, by their exceptional capacities, prove and then rewrite the rules.

A couple of years ago, in explaining Regular Marvels to an academic, I found myself describing it as an attempt to do research using the rules of art. It’s still the best short explanation I have, though I recognise it needs unpacking, which is one of the things this blog tries to do. In using the rules of one field of knowledge to work in another, I am trying to test both – rules and fields, art and social science.

My work seeks to be an exception that proves some existing rules. How far, if at all, I succeed, and what value is ascribed to the results is for others to decide – but it won’t depend on whether I prove anything in the modern sense. I’m not out to prove, but to test. I’m doing it because I want to and because I can. There’s a lot to be said for having a title, a salary and a pension, whether in the arts world or in academia. But there are too many rules for me.


RMT2 – Citation

Why do writers quote other writers? The reasons are complex, and do not preclude such weaknesses as showing off—no one can write seriously without engaging in display. But the way that academics and artists quote is very different and helps distinguish their alternative intellectual projects.

Infinte library

The literature review and source traceability

The literature review has become the foundation of all work in social science and the humanities. It is like a structural survey, done before building work can begin, and is a perfectly sensible thing to do.

It is also the price of entry into a field of knowledge or discourse. An academic’s thought is legitimate to the extent they can demonstrate a full understanding of what has already been learned and thought. So, while the literature review is unimpeachable in theory, it can become in practice a way of strengthening established power. The academy and its libraries enable a student to do a literature review and its teachers guide the investigation and assess its performance. And the price can be high: as university fees rise, degrees become less about merit and more about resources.

Source traceability has become as important to academia as it is to food standards authorities, so students are taught the correct way to label every word they quote, whether it is from recognized authorities, ‘grey literature’ (as the academy terms what it has not certified), the media or the Internet. It’s a sound system and it allows errors to be corrected.

But whom you cite is also a way of defining your position within a field. In cultural studies, how you refer to certain French theorists is a signal—to those taught to read them—of your intellectual beliefs. Authorities can be conscripted as allies and protectors.

As art teaching and criticism has become more theorized, so the adoption of such associations has increased. There are artists today whose work resembles owl pellets, so full is it of the undigested remains of their intellectual prey.

Owl reader

Artists in dialogue with artists

This reflects a change in sources of artistic inspiration rather artistic practice, which has always been in dialogue with the creative work of others. As they grow, learn and mature, all artists fall under the spell of predecessors and peers—imitating, assimilating and abandoning a succession of influences. Consciously and unconsciously their work endorses, criticizes or rejects the artistic  practices that have shaped their own imagination. That is part of what is meant when it’s said that all art is about art.

One difference between this approach and the literature review is that there is nothing methodical about it and that, far from being the weakness that would be in academia, it is part of what makes each artist’s work individual. In following their own paths through other people’s imaginations, guided by instinct, feeling and non-rational reactions, artists create new relationships with reality. They may be very rigorous, even rigid, in how they work, but they are not detached. They do not place themselves above and outside what they see, as does the literature reviewer. They are not cartographers. Uninterested in objectivity, they use their subjectivity as a resource to free themselves from itself.

The Librarian, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593)

Other voices in Regular Marvels

The method explored in Regular Marvels involves frequent citation: direct, through reference and in textual echoes. It draws on a wide range of sources: Bread and Salt, for example, cites Adorno, Berger, Cavafy, Gérin-Lajoie, Hemon, Hardi, King, Padel, Russell and Stanshall among others. They include philosophers, critics, poets, campaigners, musicians, historians, social scientists and novelists (though not, I think, French theorists, on this occasion at least). Some I encountered decades ago, others only as I worked on the book. Some I know fairly well, but I have no more than a nodding acquaintance with others. I don’t agree, like or admire all of them.

But they are all among the writers I talk to as a reader and as a writer. They are reference points that define the shifting space within which my thought, for what it’s worth, ranges. They come and they go, growing or declining in importance, according to what I’m thinking about and how.

There’s nothing special or clever about this. The special and clever Pierre Bayard—professor of literature, psychoanalyst and French theorist—has some very interesting ideas about how we read. Among them, he classes books according to whether he has skimmed them, heard of them, forgotten them or never come across them. In doing so, he is courageous for a professor of literature but truthful about how our minds work.

The texts that make up Regular Marvels—printed books, PDFs and blog posts—are literary in nature and purpose. Since they are written by someone who has been reading and writing from an early age and whose university education (‘formation’ in French) was in literature, it is natural that they reflect a continuing conversation with other writers, of all kinds. Experience—my own and that of the people I meet through this work—is filtered through that imaginative landscape, formed over a lifetime by the words of others. And those words are themselves constantly changed by experience.

As a writer, an artist engaged for better or worse in a task of literary creation, I acknowledge and embrace the unending, restless dialogue between experience and art. I don’t try to control it, or even to understand it—simply to ride the current to somewhere that seems worth going towards.

Holland House Library

Richard Sennett

Philosophy Bites is a podcast that has been produced since 2007 by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. In the spirit of the Open University, where Nigel Warburton taught until recently, the podcast brings some of the world’s leading thinkers within reach of non-specialists. There are now more than 250 short interviews on subjects as diverse as love, free market fairness and the simulation argument (don’t ask – or rather, do).

In 2012, Edmonds and Warburton began a new series called Social Science Bites, and though fewer interviews have yet been produced, they offer equally interesting conversations with some outstanding thinkers. One of the first was with Richard Sennett, an American sociologist (for want of a better, single word description), who has written on culture, cities and social relations.

The interview was published on 1 May 2012, the day after Where We Dream, and it felt like a valuable affirmation of the ideas and way of working that I was exploring. Listening to it again, 18 months on, that seems even clearer. So here are a few extracts from Richard Sennett’s conversation that were particularly resonant for Regular Marvels. It helps, of course, that he speaks with such elegant authority…

Richard Sennett in conversation with Nigel Warburton

‘The methods I’ve used in my work are intensive interviewing, which is ethnography, a standard skill set for anthropologists, and now many younger sociologists have returned to ethnography. I’m quite interested because of that in issues of, philosophically, in issues of narrative, because ethnography is all about, they are, created narratives.’

‘Some of it also has to do with a very particular concern that I’ve had throughout my life which is how to write in such a way that connects with a reader, how to revive the idea of the long intense essay which was so natural to earlier generations of social thinkers and rather died out in our time. And one of the ways to do that is not to hide behind a mask with your readers so that they don’t know who’s speaking to them.’

‘I’d say this is another enormous challenge that modern human sciences face, which is how to learn to write outward rather than to talk down to readers.’

‘To me the canons of good social research are […] that you’ve done justice to the struggle that somebody else might have to actually say what they mean. Now that’s neither true nor false but it’s a canon of probity for the interviewer, and that means you don’t take people as examples of a social condition like being a white woman working class resident of Neasden, but that they exist as a competent subject struggling to make sense of their experience.’

‘When we read writers like de Tocqueville or Weber, we don’t read them in order to know ‘well he solved that one’, we read them because they’ve been able to put their hands on really significant issues and say something provocative about them. The notion that social science solves problems, you can forget about it because we have the data, it’s kind of an imperialist recipe that is to say that you don’t have to think about this anymore because we’ve solved the problem for you, I have all the data for it.’

‘My project is to write. I don’t want to go into government, I don’t want to be an advisor to anybody.’

The full interview and transcript can be found here: Richard Sennett on Social Science Bites.

Bringing one’s self into the lab

9 Spring Chickens 1

An ethnographer’s perspective on drawing

A few weeks after the publication of Winter Fires, I was contacted by the editor of an academic journal, Anthropology and Aging Quarterly, who was interested in reproducing some of Mik Godley’s images. Naturally, Mik and I were very happy to agree, and a portfolio with an explanatory note was published in the spring issue. I asked Jason Danely, the editor, to give me a sense of why he was interested in the images. This is what he says:

Images and other forms of media are not merely decorations for the journal, but generate a new kind of knowledge-making process that invites the viewer into an engagement with the subject. When I read Winter Fires, I could not imagine the text as separate from Mik Godley’s photo-paintings. This collaborative process of engagement perfectly suited the topics of creativity and art in later life. Mik’s portraits not only stir the emotions of the viewer, but they add depth to the expressions and lives of the subjects.

Ethnography also, at its best, has a particular aesthetic commitment, and does not masquerade as an objective recounting of events, but presents the ethnographer and her process as a vital part of the research. Mik’s process of reworking each photo reveals the artistic hand in ways that the camera cannot capture.

Together with the text, I was moved to wonder about the role of art and creativity not only in the lives of older people, but in my own perspective of aging and the ways I engage with aging visually. I reflected on the way these images were different from other images of aging that circulate in popular media. Most of all, I came to think about my own writing on creativity in aging, the aesthetic commitments that I use to convey the complexity and everyday life in old age.

Jason’s comments prompt several trains of thought, but the one I want to look at here is his point that ethnography does not pretend to a simple objectivity.

1978 1999

Drawing is not objective: that’s why it matters

The idealisation of objectivity in contemporary culture has long troubled me—I wrote about it 15 years ago, in the introduction to Use or Ornament?—both because it is untrue and because it is used to promote or disqualify certain forms of knowledge and, by extension, certain values, ideas and political theories. Artistic method is central to Regular Marvels, both in the collaborations with other artists and in the literary construction of my texts, partly to signal plainly that these books do not aspire to the kind of objectivity that is used to legitimise some kinds of science and, through intellectual sleight of hand, what is called ‘evidence-based policy’.

The risk, even in questioning the hegemony of this concept of how knowledge is created, is to be accused of methodological failure and therefore irrelevance. That bad faith shows why scientism in Western culture must be challenged: after all, testing is intrinsic to scientific method. Scientific objectivity can be vital in the right places. But it is not the only method of thinking deeply and with integrity about human experience. Nor is it the only way of distinguishing truth from falsehood. The vast and ancient practice of art is another, which is why 2,500 year old plays can still move us today, though we are so different from the people who created them.

And, despite the inability of some scientists, politicians, academics and, yes, artists, to understand it, these human systems of knowledge are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary, interactive and mutually rewarding.

The work of ethnography is one area, among others, where acceptance of the limits of objectivity challenges the researcher to be even more watchful of their own biases, because they do not trust a method to do it for them. Rather than pretending that their own reality can be left at the laboratory door, ethnographers, like good artists, bring it inside, the better to keep a watch on it.

A note on the photographs: Nicholas Nixon and the Brown Sisters

Nicholas Nixon and Bebe

The photographs that I’ve used to illustrate this post (alongside one of Mik Godley’s images, which are already familiar to visitors to this site) come from a remarkable project by Nicholas Nixon. Since 1975, Nicholas Nixon has made an annual group portrait of his wife with her three sisters. The resulting sequence now stretches over 30 years and is one of the most extraordinary works of portraiture I have seen.

In a press release for a 25 year retrospective of the series, the Zabriskie Gallery wrote this about the series:

For this ongoing series, the artist adheres to two unwavering constants. First, the sisters always pose in the same frontal sequence; Laurie, Heather, Bebe, and Mimi. Second, regardless of how many negatives exposed, only one is selected for printing from each individual year’s batch. This imparts a scientific approach to the work, with its unchanging variables, setting parameters for the creative process. However, operating within these limits also allows the subject matter to richly expand, allowing the viewer to partake more empathetically in the lives of the four individuals.

Despite the misuse of the word ‘scientific’, this is clearly an artistic method, using its own rules. It is also extraordinarily rigorous since it imposes a shared responsibility for the continuation of the process on the sitters. But what matters, in the end, is that the work is a beautiful and moving reflection on human life.

RMT1 – Power

Learning research

Studium UrbisFor 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 working through 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
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 Foundation, Vrede 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 some unavoidable 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 feral 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.

Regular Marvels, in Theory (RMT)

Geese 2One 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).

The first one, about power, follows this post: click on this link to read more.