Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: January, 2019

19. Tim Ingold, Lines


After reading Sara Ahmed’s book, with its emphasis on the image or figure of the line, I decided to take on Tim Ingold’s Lines, which attempts, according to its author, “a comparative anthropology of the line” (1). For Ingold, lines are phenomena in themselves, not metaphors or theories (xv). “They are really there, in us and around us,” Ingold writes. “Indeed, there is no escaping them, for in any attempt to flee we only lay another one” (xv). Lines, for Ingold, are everywhere, and they are part of what makes us human: 

As walking, talking and gesticulating creatures, human beings generate lines wherever they go. It is not just that line-making is as ubiquitous as the use of the voice, hands and feet—respectively in speaking, gesturing and moving around—but rather that it subsumes all these aspects of everyday human activity and, in so doing, brings them together into a single field of inquiry. (1)

That field is what Ingold sets out to “delineate” (1) in this book; its aim is to “open up lines of inquiry that others might be inspired to pursue, in whatever directions their nowledge and experience might take them” (5). Among the topics this interdisciplinary study examines are the divorce between music and speech; the links between textiles and textuality; the distinction between pedigrees and family trees as vehicles for tracing lines of descent; the link between writing and drawing; and the predominance, in the modern world, of straight lines over curved ones. I skimmed those chapters, though, and focused my attention on Ingold’s third chapter, “Up, Across and Along,” which (among other things) explores the lines we make as we travel.

At the beginning of that chapter, Ingold argues that, in our contemporary world, lines are no longer continuous gestures. Rather, they have become fragmented into successions of points and dots. “This fragmentation,” he writes, “has taken place in the related fields of travel, where wayfaring is replaced by destination-oriented transport, mapping, where the drawn sketch is replaced by the route-plan, and textuality, where storytelling is replaced by the pre-composed plot” (77). The same process of fragmentation has affected our understanding of place: while there was a time when we considered places to be knots “tied from multiple and interlaced strands of movement and growth,” now we think of places as nodes “in a static network of connectors” (77). “To an ever-increasing extent,” Ingold contends,

people in modern metropolitan societies find themselves in environments built as assemblies of connected elements. Yet in practice they continue to thread their own ways through these environments, tracing paths as they go. I suggest that to understand how people do not just occupy but inhabit the environments in which they dwell, we might do better to revert from the paradigm of the assembly to that of the walk. (77)

Walking, for Ingold, is both literal and metaphorical, but more importantly, his argument is structured around a number of oppositions: walking versus assembly; wayfaring versus transport; the drawn sketch versus the route-plan; and places as knots versus places as nodes. Luckily for his readers, Ingold clearly explains the particular ways in which he is using these terms. I’m not going to review all of them here—just the ones I find to be of particular interest.

There are, Ingold suggests, “two modalities of travel”: wayfaring and transport (78). “The wayfarer is continually on the move,” he writes. “More strictly, he is this movement” (78). (Yes, the memo about gender-neutral pronouns has never reached Ingold’s desk.) As wayfarers proceeds through the forest or grassland or tundra, they need to sustain himself (or herself), “both perceptually and materially, through an active engagement with the country that opens up along his path” (78). As they travel, wayfarers need to actively monitor the trail they are following and its surroundings, looking out for useful plants or traces of animal activity (78). Wayfarers are not, in other words, merely getting from one place to another, but their travels are conduits of activity (78). Unlike wayfaring, however, transport is “destination-oriented”: 

not so much a development along a way of life as a carrying across, from location to location, of people and goods in such a way as to leave their basic natures unaffected. Even the wayfarer, of course, goes from place to place, as does the mariner from harbour to harbour. He must periodically pause to rest, and may even return repeatedly to the same abode or haven to do so. Each pause, however, is a moment of tension that—like holding one’s breath—becomes ever more intense and less sustainable the longer it lasts. Indeed the wayfarer . . . has no final destination, for wherever he is, and so long as life goes on, there is somewhere further he can go. For the transported traveller and his baggage, by contrast, every destination is a terminus, every port a point of re-entry into a world from which he has been temporarily exiled while in transit. This point marks a moment not of tension but of completion. (79-80)

The wayfarer’s movement—his orientation and pace—“is continually responsive to his perceptual monitoring of the environment that is revealed along the way,” Ingold continues. “He watches, listens and feels as he goes, his entire being alert to the countless cues that, at every moment, prompt the slightest adjustments to his bearing” (80). Transport, on the other hand, is distinguished “by the dissolution of the intimate bond that, in wayfaring, couples locomotion and perception. The transported traveller becomes a passenger, who does not himself move but is rather moved from place to place. The sights, sounds and feelings that accost him during the passage have absolutely no bearing on the motion that carries him forth” (81).

This distinction between wayfaring and transport—with wayfaring associated (primarily but not entirely) with tribal cultures, and transport associated (primarily but not entirely) with modern cultures and their modes of movement—is very interesting. It made me think of the distinction between pilgrimages that are focused on reaching a destination, by whatever means, and pilgrimages that are focused on the experience of the journey. The relation between those forms of pilgrimage to wayfaring and transport is complex, but Ingold is providing a language with which one could talk about those different forms of travel. 

Take, for example, the differences between what happens at places where wayfarers or transported passengers pause. Where the wayfarer stops to rest, the transported passenger experiences sites of activity:

But this activity, confined within a place, is all concentrated on one spot. In between sites he barely skims the surface of the world, if not skipping it entirely, leaving no trace of having passed by or even any recollection of the journey. Indeed, the tourist may be advised to expunge from memory the experience of getting there, however arduous or eventful it may have been, lest it should bias or detract him from the appreciation of what he has come to see. In effect, the practice of transport converts every trail into the equivalent of a dotted line. (81)

The distinction between the trail, as a continuous gesture, and the dotted line, as a series of interrupted moments, is central to Ingold’s argument. For me, however, the distinction he is drawing here between the wayfarer and the transported passenger describes my experience of walking to Wood Mountain last August. The three-hour drive back to the city was entirely unmemorable. The nine-day walk, on the other hand, was a powerful experience of the environment around me. And while there were places I wanted to reach—not just the village of Wood Mountain, but different towns along the way—I would argue that walk was closer to wayfaring than it was to transport. I would continue to make that argument even though, since I was walking along roads, I was arguably walking along what Ingold calls “point-to-point connectors,” the lines that link “successive destinations” and that are characteristic of transport (81-82). Those lines “differ from lines of wayfaring in precisely the same way that the connector differs from the gestural trace,” Ingold argues. “They are not trails but routes” (82). That difference is important. Wayfarers contribute to the construction and maintenance of trails: “the wayfarer, in his perambulations, lays a trail on the ground in the form of footprints, paths and tracks” (82). Routes, on the other hand, are premade by others. Routes take the form of networks, Ingold suggests, while the lines produced by wayfaring become a meshwork (a word he borrows from the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre) (82-83): “woven into their very texture, and thence into the country itself, are the lines of growth and movement of its inhabitants,” Ingold writes. “Every such line is tantamount to a way of life” (82). For Ingold, wayfaring is “the most fundamental mode by which living beings, both human and non-human, inhabit the earth” (83). Habitation does not mean taking one’s place in a world that has been prepared in advance for those who live in it (like the roads I walked along in August), but rather the inhabitant is “one who participates from within in the very process of the world’s continual coming into being and who, in laying a trail of life, contributes to its weave and texture. These lines are typically winding and irregular, yet comprehensively entangled into a close-knit tissue” (83). Such lines, he continues, “have no ultimate destination, no final point with which they are seeking to link up” (83).

The lines that are characteristic of wayfaring would include the trails that First Nations and Métis people used on the prairies—trails that have been either been destroyed or appropriated through the processes of settlement. The distinguishing feature of this part of the world, in fact, is the imposition of a grid—both a grid of roads, and a grid of land-ownership—over the land, an imposition that ignored the practices of the people who lived here before settlers began to arrive. Ingold’s description of this process is worth reading:

From time to time in the course of history, imperial powers have sought to occupy the inhabited world, throwing a network of connections across what appears, in their eyes, to be not a tissue of trails but a blank surface. These connections are lines of occupation. They facilitate the outward passage of personnel and equipment to sites of settlement and extraction, and the return of the riches therefrom. Unlike paths formed through the practices of wayfaring, such lines are surveyed and built in advance of the traffic that comes to pass up and down them. They are typically straight and regular, and intersect only at nodal points of power. Drawn cross-country, they are inclined to run roughshod over the lines of habitation that are woven into it, cutting them as, for example, a trunk road, a railway or a pipeline cuts the byways frequented by humans and animals in the vicinity through which it passes. . . . But lines of occupation do not only connect. They also divide, cutting the occupied surface into territorial blocks. These frontier lines, too, built to restrict movement rather than to facilitate it, can seriously disrupt the lives of in habitants whose trails they happen to cross. (85)

Those imposed lines are everywhere in this province, and it is in fact impossible to walk here without using them, given the difficulty of walking along rivers and creeks, the way First Nations people would have done, because of the province’s laws about trespassing and the difficulties involved in getting permission to walk on private land—and in this part of the world, almost all of the land is private.

Ingold returns to this point in his summary of the contrast he has drawn between wayfaring and transport:

the path of the wayfarer wends hither and thither, and may even pause here and there before moving on. But it has no beginning or end. While on the trail the wayfarer is always somewhere, yet every “somewhere” is on the way to somewhere else. The inhabited world is a reticulate meshwork of such trails, which is constantly being woven as life goes on along them. Transport, by contrast, is tied to specific locations. Every move serves the purpose of relocating persons and their effects, and is oriented to a specific destination. The traveller who departs from one location and arrives at another is, in between, nowhere at all. Taken together, the lines of transport form a network of point-to-point connections. In the colonial project of occupation, this network, once an undercurrent to life and constrained by its ways, becomes ascendant, spreading across the territory and overriding the tangled trails of inhabitants. (85)

I should point out that I am not arguing that walking to Wood Mountain was simply wayfaring, and that being driven back to Regina was transport. Rather, what I’m trying to say is that, if one can imagine a continuum with wayfaring on one end, and transport on the other, that walk was closer to the wayfaring side of the continuum. I would say something similar about other walks I’ve made—in Spain, or in England, or here in Saskatchewan. There is something about the pace of walking, and about the amount of time walking takes, and about the way one tends to experience one’s surroundings through one’s senses while walking, that places it on the wayfaring side of that continuum.

The distinction between wayfaring and transport is echoed in the distinction Ingold draws between sketch maps and cartographic maps. Most maps in human history, he suggests, have been drawn up in the context of storytelling, in which people describe their journeys, or those of characters of legend or myth (85-87). “Retracing their steps in narrative, storytellers may also gesture with their hands and fingers, and these gestures may in turn give rise to lines”—mostly ephemeral ones scratched into the earth or snow or drawn on a readily available surface (87). Such maps are not unlike the sketch maps one might draw to give a new friend directions to get to one’s house. “[T]he lines on the sketch map are formed through the gestural re-enactment of journeys actually made, to and from places that are already known for their histories of previous comings and goings,” Ingold writes. “The joins, splits and intersections of these lines indicate which paths to follow, and which can lead you astray, depending on where you want to go. In effect, the “walk” of the line retraces your own “walk” through the terrain” (87). Sketch maps, he continues, do not claim to represent the territory or to mark the spatial locations of the features they include. “What count are the lines, not the spaces around them,” he argues:

Just as the country through which the wayfarer passes is composed of the meshwork of paths of travel, so the sketch map consists—no more and no less—of the lines that make it up. They are drawn along, in the evolution of a gesture, rather than across the surfaces on which they are traced. (87)

The distinction between “along” and “across” is important to Ingold’s argument: the first is characteristic of both wayfaring and sketch maps, and the second is characteristic of transport and cartographic maps. 

Cartographic maps, he continues, are completely different than sketch maps. They have borders separating the space inside the map, which is part of it, from the space outside, which is not. And although there are various kinds of lines on cartographic maps, representing roads and railways and administrative boundaries, “these lines, drawn across the surface of the cartographic map, signify occupation, not habitation. They betoken as appropriation of the space surrounding the points that the lines connect or—if they are frontier lines—that they enclose” (87). This quotation clarifies another of Ingold’s distinctions: that between occupation and habitation. Occupation is characteristic of the world defined by transport and cartography. Habitation, on the other hand, belongs to wayfaring and sketch maps—and to storytelling as well. Ingold writes,

When, drawing a sketch map for a friend, I take my line for a walk, I retrace in gesture the walk that I made in the countryside and that was originally traced out as a trail along the ground. Telling the story of the journey as I draw, I weave a narrative thread that wanders from topic to topic, just as in my walk I wandered from place to place. The story recounts just one chapter in the never-ending journey that is life itself, and it is through this journey—with all its twists and turns—that we grow into a knowledge of the world about us. (90)

That is one way of coming to know the world. However, in the dominant framework of modern thought, it is supposed that knowledge is assembled by joining up, into a more complete picture, observations taken from a number of separate, fixed points, as in the construction of a cartographic map: “According to this view, knowledge is integrated not by going along but by building up, that is by fitting these site-specific fragments into structures of progressively greater inclusiveness” (91). Building up is thus related to going across, but it is a way of coming to knowledge rather than a way of representing that knowledge. 

The connection between wayfaring, habitation and story are important for Ingold, who argues “that it is fundamentally through the practices of wayfaring that beings inhabit the world” (91). “By the same token,” he continues, “the ways of knowing of inhabits go along, and not up. Or in a word, inhabitant knowledge . . . is alongly integrated” (91). As an example to illustrate this claim, Ingold suggests that place names in Indigenous cultures are integrated into the processes of journeys—which are both stories and examples of wayfaring. “Such names, however, mean nothing on their own, and rarely appear on cartographic maps,” he writes. That’s because surveying “is a mode of occupation, not habitation:

The names the surveyor seeks are indexed to locations in terms of their distinctive features, but without regard to how one arrives there. These named locations are the components that are then assembled into a larger totality. Occupant knowledge, in short, is upwardly integrated. And this finally brings us to the crux of the difference between these two knowledge systems, of habitation and occupation respectively. In the first, a way of knowing is itself a path of movement through the world . . . along a line of travel. The second, by contrast, is founded upon a categorical distinction between the mechanics of movement and the formation of knowledge, or between locomotion and cognition. Whereas the former cuts from point to point across the world, the latter builds up, from the array of points and the materials collected therefrom, into an integrated assembly. (92)

The differences between sketch and cartographic maps helps to illustrate the point Ingold is making. Drawing a line on a sketch map is like telling a story: 

the storyline goes along, as does the line on the map. The things of which the story tells . . . do not so much exist as occur; each is a moment of ongoing activity. These things, in a word, are not objects but topics. Lying at the confluence of actions and responses, every topic is identified by its relations to the things that paved the way for it, that presently concur with it and that follow it into the world. Here the meaning of the “relation” has to be understood quite literally, not as a connection between pre-located entities but as a path traced through the terrain of lived experience. Far from connecting points in a network, every relation is one line in a meshwork of interwoven trails. To tell a story, then, is to relate, in narrative, the occurrences of the past, retracing a path through the world that others, recursively picking up the threads of past lives, can follow in the process of spinning out their own. But rather as in looping or knitting, the thread being spun now and the thread picked up from the past are both of the same yarn. There is no point at which the story ends and life begins. (92-93)

When I read the word “relation” here, I thought of a Cree phrase I learned last semester, one that is central to the Cree worldview: kahkiyaw niwâhkômâkanak, “all my relations.” Isn’t that what Ingold is talking about here—the distinction between Western and Indigenous ways of seeing and experiencing the world? “[I]n storytelling as in wayfaring, it is in the movement from place to place—or from topic to topic—that knowledge is integrated,” Ingold writes (93), and that statement reminded me of Lee Maracle’s insistence that Indigenous knowledge is contained in and expressed by stories. It is a different way of looking at the world—one that has been denigrated by the twin forces of modernity and colonialism, but one that deserves more respect.

The last thing Ingold discusses in this chapter that is connected to my research interests is the difference he sees between concepts of place: between places understood as hubs, as containers for life, and places as knots, formed of the very lines along which life is lived (103). The first is characteristic of the world that has given us transport and cartography, the world that separates us from our environment in fundamental ways; the second is about connection. The know is the privileged term in that particular binary, I would argue. The lines that make up the knot “are bound together in the knot, but they are not bound by it,” Ingold writes. “To the contrary they trail beyond it, only to become caught up with other lines in other knots. Together they make up what I have called a meshwork. Every place, then, is a knot in the meshwork, and the threads form which it is traced are the lines of wayfaring” (104). That is why, Ingold continues,

I have consistently referred to wayfarers as inhabitants rather than locals and to what they know as inhabitant rather than local knowledge. For it would be quite wrong to suppose that such people are confined within a particular place, or that their experience is circumscribed by the restricted horizons of a life lived only there. It would be equally wrong, however, to suppose that the wayfarer wanders aimlessly over the surface of the earth, with no place or places of abode. The experience of habitation cannot be comprehended within the terms of the conventional opposition between the settler and the nomad, since this opposition is itself founded on the contrary principle of occupation. Settlers occupy places; nomads fail to do so. Wayfarers, however, are not failed or reluctant occupants but successful inhabitants. They may indeed be widely travelled, moving from place to place—often over considerable distances—and contributing through these movements to the ongoing formation of each of the places through which they pass. Wayfaring, in short, is neither placeless nor place-bound but place-making. (104)

The differences between the way the wayfarer travels, and the type of movement that is characteristic of destination-oriented transport, help to clarify the point Ingold is making:

For the wayfarer whose line goes out for a walk, speed is not an issue. It makes no more sense to ask about the speed of wayfaring than it does to ask about the speed of life. What matters is not how fast one moves, in terms of the ratio of distance to elapsed time, but that this movement should be in phase with, or attuned to, the movements of other phenomena of the inhabited world. The question ‘How long does it take?’ only becomes relevant when the duration of a journey is measured out towards a pre-determined destination. Once however the dynamics of movement have been reduced, as in destination-oriented transport, to the mechanics of locomotion, the speed of travel arises as a key concern. The traveller whose business of life is conducted as successive stopping-off points wants to spend his time in places, not between them. While in transit he has nothing to do. Much of the history of transport has been taken up with attempts to attenuate these liminal, in-between periods, by devising ever-faster mechanical means. . . . Thus unlike the wayfarer who moves with time, the transported traveller races against it, seeing in its passage not an organic potential for growth but the mechanical limitations of his equipment. If he had his way, every point in his entire network of connections, laid out on the plane of the present, could be accessed simultaneously. And so, driven by an unattainable ideal, our individual hurries form point to point, both trying and inevitably failing to be everywhere at once. The time it takes is a measure of his impatience. (104-05)

“Perhaps what truly distinguishes the predicament of people in modern metropolitan societies is the extent to which they are compelled to inhabit an environment that has been planned and built expressly for the purposes of occupation,” Ingold continues. “Life will not be contained, but rather threads its way through the world along the myriad lines of its relations. But if life is not enclosed within a boundary, neither can it be surrounded.” What, then, becomes of our ideas about our environment? he asks.

Literally an environment is that which surrounds. For inhabitants, however, the environment does not consist of the surroundings of a bounded place but of a zone in which their several pathways are thoroughly entangled. In this zone of entanglement—this meshwork of interwoven lines—there are no insides or outsides, only openings and ways through. An ecology of life, in short, must be one of threads and traces, not of nodes and connectors. And its subject of inquiry must consist not of the relations between organisms and their external environments but of the relations along their severally enmeshed ways of life. (106)

If our culture thought that way, would we be in the midst of the planet’s sixth great extinction? Would we have adopted technologies that are altering our climate in ways that might make our continued presence on this planet impossible? I don’t think so.

I included a couple of Ingold’s books on my reading list, and Lines makes me want to move on to them sooner rather than later. But his repeated references to his 2000 book The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill make me want to add that book to my list. I’m not sure that there’s much of a connection between Ahmed’s lines and Ingold’s, but that is something for me to think about as I continue to read. In the end, it doesn’t matter if those connections aren’t there; I see enough in Ingold’s writing to help me think more clearly about walking in this particular place.

Works Cited

Ingold, Tim. Lines. Routledge, 2016.

———. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, 2000.

18. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others

queer phenomenology

After reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, I am convinced that my brief foray into embodied cognition was an error, and that phenomenology will give me a language I can use to talk about embodiment. “Error” is probably the wrong word: I know now that embodied cognition isn’t what I need to study, and it’s better to know that’s the case rather than wonder whether it might be useful. Phenomenology provides a conceptual framework that can be used to think about embodiment. I had a hunch that would be the case, but Ahmed’s book has confirmed it. My discussion of Ahmed’s book in this post is long, but her argument is both complex and important to my work, and so I want to attempt to explain it in detail, if only so that I come to understand it better. 

Ahmed begins Queer Phenomenology with the question of orientation: “how is it that we come to find our way in a world that acquires new shapes, depending on which way we turn[?]” (1). What does it mean, in other words, to have our bearings, to know how we get somewhere, to be turned toward objects that help us find our way, whether those objects are landmarks or other familiar signs which function as anchoring points? Such objects, Ahmed writes, “gather on the ground, and they create a ground upon which we can gather. And yet, objects gather quite differently, creating different grounds. What difference does it make ‘what’ we are orientated toward?” (1). Those sentences give a sense of Ahmed’s poetic prose, which (from my experience reading Heidegger) seems to be common in texts about phenomenology. She also uses the verb “orientate” throughout the book, rather than its synonym, “orient,” because (I think) she wants to keep “orient,” or “Orient,” as a generic name for the east (following Edward Said’s classic book, Orientalism). She also uses what I’ve been taught are “scare quotes” throughout as a way of (I think) questioning the language she uses, or perhaps the language that English provides for her to use; she also uses italics for emphasis. Reading Ahmed’s book means getting used to these quirks, and quickly getting accustomed to her somewhat idiosyncratic writing style, but that’s no different from reading other theorists or philosophers who use language in similarly unique ways: Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Heidegger, etc. But that style makes it difficult to summarize, paraphrase, or synthesize Ahmed’s thinking; that’s something to bear in mind if you’re reading this post. It’s also important to note that Ahmed’s book is deeply personal; her writing is autobiographical, or perhaps autotheoretical, and her references to her own experience are an important part of her argument.

In her introduction, Ahmed notes that her particular interest is in the orientation of sexual desire; for her, foregrounding the concept of orientation will give us the ability to retheorize the sexualization of space and the spatiality of sexual desire (1). Her primary research question (I think) is this: “What would it mean for queer studies if we were to pose the question of ‘the orientation’ of ‘sexual orientation’ as a phenomenological question?” (1). Ahmed returns to this a question in her second chapter, and in her conclusion. Phenomenology is important to queer studies, she writes, because it “makes ‘orientation’ central in the very argument that consciousness is always directed ‘toward’ an object, and given its emphasis on the lived experience of inhabiting a body” (2). Such orientations involve our emotions, which are “directed to what we come into contact with: they move us ‘toward’ and ‘away’ from such objects” (2). We are orientated towards others as well as objects (that is, people as well as things), and our orientations towards others, she continues, “shape the contours of space by affecting relations of proximity and distance between bodies” (3). Ahmed is very interested in what we perceive as being close to us, and what we perceive as being far away; what we move toward, and what we move away from. These questions, she suggests, are important questions in phenomenology, particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Orientation, Ahmed argues, begins with disorientation (5). We notice orientation through its absence, and that leads to questions about orientation (6). Being oriented in space is about the way we inhabit space with our bodies, about the way we move through space by situating ourselves in relation to the objects in that space (6). For Ahmed, the concept of orientation allows us to rethink the phenomenality of space—“that is, how space is dependent on bodily inhabitance” (6). “Orientation involves aligning body and space: we only know which way to turn once we know which way we are facing,” she writes, and the concepts of alignment and direction are essential to her thinking. So, too, is the concept of familiarity: “[f]amiliarity is shaped by the ‘feel’ of space or by how spaces ‘impress’ upon bodies,” she writes (7). “The work of inhabiting space involves a dynamic renegotiation between what is familiar and unfamiliar, such that it is still possible for the world to create new impressions, depending on which way we turn, which affects are within reach,” she continues (7-8). Along with the way we inhabit space, Ahmed is interested in the way our bodies extend into space; when we extend ourselves into space, what is almost familiar, or almost within reach, is also extended. Being orientated, then, extends the reach of the body. “Orientations are about how we begin,” Ahmed writes: “how we proceed from ‘here,’ which affects how what is ‘there’ appears, how it presents itself” (8). But our central perspective is provided by our own bodies; we begin with our body, the point from which we begin and from which the world unfolds (8). All space, however, is not relative to the subject’s position; some spaces are defined socially (13): “[i]n this book,” Ahmed continues, “I hope to explore what it means for ‘things’ to be orientated, by showing how ‘orientations’ depend on taking points of view as given,” a givenness that is provided by our social horizon(s) (14).

Much of Ahmed’s introduction, then, is about introducing us to the key terms she uses in her book, and perhaps the central concept in her thinking is that of lines: “[t]he lines that allow us to find our way, those that are ‘in front’ of us, also make certain things, and not others, available” (14). Lines are the products of the direction we take, and they exclude possibilities as well as enable them. The lines that we follow also function as forms of alignment, of being in line with others: when we face the direction already faced by others, we are orientated along with them, and this orientation allows our bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape (15). The claim that we face in certain directions and follow certain lines because of ideological interpellation (she cites French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser), Ahmed writes, is a key argument in her book:

the body gets directed in some ways more than others. We might be used to thinking of direction as simply which way we turn, or which way we are facing, at this or that moment in time. Direction then would be a rather casual matter. But what if direction, as the way we face as well as move, is organized rather than casual? We might then speak of collective direction: of ways in which nations and other imagined communities might be “going in a certain direction” or facing the same way, such that only some things “get our attention.” Becoming a member of such a community, then, might also mean following this direction, which could be described as the political requirement that we turn some ways and not others. We follow the line that is followed by others: the repetition of the act of following makes the line disappear from view as the point from which “we” emerge. (15)

Moreover, by turning in particular directions, or moving along particular lines, “the surfaces of bodies in turn acquire their shape. Bodies are ‘directed’ and they take the shape of this direction” (15-16). Those lines are both created by being followed, and followed by being created, Ahmed notes, and the lines that direct us, “as lines of thought as well as lines of motion, are in this way performative: they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition” (16). Following these lines, following the directions they indicate, takes work, but that work is often hidden from view. Nevertheless, the commitment and social investment involved means that the line we follow ends up hewing closely to the lines of our lives: 

We then come to “have a line” which might mean a specific “take” on the world, a set of views and viewing points, as well as a route through the contours of the world, which gives our world its own contours. So we follow the lines, and in following them we become committed to “what” they lead us to as well as “where” they take us. (17)

Because following lines is a form of social investment which promises a return, subjects reproduce the lines that they follow (17). Thinking of the politics of lines leads Ahmed to think about the notion of inheritance, “the lines that are given as our point of arrival into familial and social space,” and reproduction, “the demand that we return the gift by extending the line” (17). “It is not automatic that we reproduce what we inherit, or that we always convert our inheritance into possessions,” Ahmed writes. “We must pay attention to the pressure to make such conversions” (17). We might be hailed or interpellated by a particular line or direction, but we needn’t turn in that direction; we might inherit a particular line or direction, but we needn’t face in that direction or follow that line. Much of Ahmed’s book explores refusals to accept such inheritances.

Following a particular line involves uncertainty, and lines are not always linear: there are forks in the road and different paths to follow, moments of both hope that one is headed in the right direction, and doubt which leads one to want to turn back or give up or look for another path (19). Such moments are not always conscious, Ahmed argues: “At times, we don’t know that we have followed a path, or that the line we have taken is a line that clears our way only by marking out spaces that we don’t inhabit” (19). And yet, she continues, “accidental or chance encounters do happen, and they redirect us and open up new worlds” (19). For Ahmed, such an encounter was her decision to leave her husband and come out as a lesbian. “Such moments can be a gift,” she writes, “or they might be the site of trauma, anxiety, or stress about the loss of an imagined future” (19). They can be disorienting: “disorientation is a way of describing the feelings that gather when we lose our sense of who it is that we are” (20). But moments of disorientation are vital, according to Ahmed: “to live out a politics of disorientation might be to sustain wonder about the very forms of social gathering” (24), a point she returns to in her conclusion.

Ahmed’s second chapter is an exploration and critique of the phenomenological theory, particularly the work of Edmund Husserl, that will make her third and fourth chapters possible. Phenomenology’s radical claim, she writes, is that consciousness is directed toward something; therefore, it is intentional (27). “If consciousness is about how we receive the world ‘around’ us,” she continues, “then consciousness is also embodied, sensitive, and situated” (27). This thesis “can help show us how bodies are directed in some ways and not others, as a way of inhabiting or dwelling in the world” (27). Receiving the world involves perceiving the world, and to perceive something, you need to have taken an orientation toward it: “[t]he object is an effect of towardness; it is the thing toward which I am directed and which in being posited as a thing, as being something or another for me, takes me in some directions rather than others” (27). But perceiving objects also means taking a direction toward them, and that direction is affective: “I might like them, admire them, hate them, and so on. In perceiving them in this way or that, I also take a position upon them, which in turn gives me a position” (27-28). Taking a direction appears to be another way of speaking about orientation, and being oriented towards an object affects what we do and how we inhabit space (28). However, not everything is available to us as an object. Some objects—such as the domestic labour required to maintain Husserl’s example of the table at which he writes—are relegated to the background in order to sustain a particular direction: “in other words, in order to keep attention on what is faced. Perception involves such acts of relegation that are forgotten in the very preoccupation with what it is that is faced” (31). Not everyone can sustain an orientation towards the writing table; such attention involves a political economy, “an uneven distribution of attention time,” and that uneven distribution is part of that background (32). “The objects that we direct our attention toward reveal the direction we have taken in life,” Ahmed writes. “Other objects, and indeed spaces, are relegated to the background; they are only ever co-perceived”—that is, perceived along with other background objects. If phenomenology were to attend to this background, she continues, “it might do so by giving an account of the conditions of emergence for something, which would not necessarily be available in how that thing presents itself to consciousness” (38). Ahmed’s version of phenomenology, in other words, historicizes objects, by attending to how they arrived in the place where they can be perceived. 

That arrival requires at least two entities, a subject and an object, and these have to “co-incide”: the hyphen suggests the way that different things happen at the same moment, “a happening that brings things near to other things, whereby the nearness shapes the shape of each thing” (39). We are affected by objects, and objects are affected by us. But these simultaneous arrivals aren’t necessarily matters of chance: they are at least partially determined (by their histories, it seems), even though that determination doesn’t determine what will happen as a result of their nearness, how the object will be affected by the encounter, or how we will be affected (39). In addition, according to Ahmed, things only become themselves by being cut off from their own arrival—from their histories of arrival, histories that involve multiple forms of contact with others: “Objects appear by being cut off from such histories of arrival, as histories that involve multiple generations, and the ‘work’ of bodies, which is of course the work of some bodies more than others” (41-42). Objects are not neutral or ahistorical, in other words. They have been affected by actions performed on them in the past, actions which have shaped them; and those objects, in turn, shape what we do (43). But such histories are “spectral,” not available on the surface of the object, but rather behind it (44). 

One subset of objects are tools, which are object that allow us to extend our bodies (49). Such extensions allow us to work, but in order for that work to happen, we, along with our tools, need to be orientated, or facing the right way: “in other words,” Ahmed writes, “the objects around the body allow the body itself to be extended. When things are orientated, we are occupied and busy” (51). However, not all objects, or spaces, fit all kinds of bodies:

Objects, as well as spaces, are made for some kinds of bodies more than others. Objects are made to size as well as made to order: while they come in a range of sizes, the sizes also presume certain kinds of bodies as having “sizes” that will “match.” In this way, bodies and their objects tend toward each other; they are oriented toward each other, and are shaped by this orientation. When orientation “works,” we are occupied. The failure of something to work is a matter of a failed orientation: a tool is used by a body for which it was not intended, or a body uses a tool that does not extend its capacity for action. (51)

How we reside in space with objects determines our action, and that means that the relation between action and space is crucial: “spatial relations between subjects and others are produced through actions, which make some things available to be reached” (52). Moreover, our bodies themselves take shape by moving through spaces, and as we move through spaces, objects also move, in the sense that our orientation to them changes (53). “Phenomenology hence shows how objects and others have already left their impressions on the skin surface,” Ahmed writes, and by “skin surface” she means the surface of the skin of the subject who perceives:

The tactile object is what is near me, or what is within my reach. In being touched, the object does not “stand apart”; it is felt “by” the skin and even “on” the skin. In other words, we perceive the object as an object, as something that “has” integrity, and is “in” space, only by haunting that very space; that is, by co-inhabiting space such that the boundary between the co-inhabitants of space does not hold. The skin connects as well as contains. The nonopposition between the bodies that move around objects, and objects around which bodies move, shows us how orientation involve at least a two-way “approach,” or the “more than one” of an encounter. Orientations are tactile and they involve more than one skin surface: we, in approaching this or that table, are also approached by the table, which touches us when we touch it. (54)

What is near us, in other words, is shaped by what we do, and affects what our bodies can do (54). There is also a mutuality in Ahmed’s formulation of the relationship between bodies and objects: they touch each other, which is, I think, a way of reasserting that they affect each other

But bringing objects near to our bodies also involves acts of perception: decisions about what can be brought near to us (55). “Objects are objects insofar as they are within my horizon,” Ahmed contends; “it is in the act of reaching ‘toward them’ that makes them available as objects for me” (55). The bodily horizon, she continues, establishes a line beyond which bodies cannot reach, and that horizon determines what is reachable for us:

what “comes into” view, or what is within our horizon, is not a matter simply of what we find here or there, or even where we find ourselves as we move here or there. What is reachable is determined precisely by orientations that we have already taken. Some objects don’t even become objects of perception, as the body does not move toward them: they are “beyond the horizon” of the body, and thus out of reach. The surfaces of bodies are shaped by what is reachable. Indeed, the history of bodies can be rewritten as the history of the reachable. (55)

This point is central to much of Ahmed’s argument, particularly in relation to sexual orientation. “Orientations are about the direction we take that puts some things and not others in our reach,” she contends. “So the object, which is apprehending only by exceeding my gaze, can be apprehended only insofar as it has come to be available to me: its reachability is not simply a matter of its place or location . . . but instead is shaped by the orientations I have taken that mean I face some ways more than others” (56). 

In other words, our histories, the orientations we have taken, limit the objects we are capable of perceiving. History happens in the repetition of gestures, and such repetitions give bodies their tendencies, which gives them potential orientations:

It is important that we think not only about what is repeated, but also how the repetition of actions takes us in certain directions: we are also orientating ourselves towards some objects more than others, including not only physical objects . . . but also objects of thought, feeling, and judgment, as well as objects in the sense of aims, aspirations, and objectives. (56)

Repetition is not neutral: our bodies are shaped by repetition, and “it orients the body in some ways rather than others” (57). As a result, “we get stuck in certain alignments as an effect of this work” (56). Our bodies acquire orientations through the repetitions of some actions rather than others, and since actions have certain objects in view, the nearness of objects becomes a sign of orientations we have already taken towards the world (58). Action, moreover, also defines the field of inaction, “actions that are possible but that are not taken up, or even actions that are not possible because of what has been taken up”: 

Such histories of action or “take up” shape the bodily horizon of bodies. Spaces are not only inhabited by bodies that “do things,” but what bodies “do” leads them to inhabit some spaces more than others. If spaces extend bodies, then we could say that spaces also extend the shape of the bodies that “tend” to inhabit them. (58)

“The point is simple,” Ahmed writes: “what we ‘do do’ affects what we ‘can do’” (59). Gender is one example. Because gender shapes what we do, and because gender is a factor in how we inhabit some spaces rather than others, it also shapes what we can do. Gender, then, is a bodily orientation, “a way in which bodies get directed by their actions over time” (60). As Ahmed suggests in the following chapters, sexual and racial orientations also shape the way bodies are directed by their actions over time. Even so, other possibilities remain: “bodies can take up spaces that do not extend their shape, which can in turn work to ‘reorientate’ bodies and space” (61). 

This discussion of phenomenological theory informs Ahmed’s discussion of sexual orientation, which she begins with a reflection on what she calls “queer moments” in the work of Merleau-Ponty—moments where the subject has to work to overcome a perception that things are on a slant, rather than oriented according to the vertical axis (65). The relation between the normative and that vertical axis interests Ahmed. The normative, she writes, is “an effect of the repetition of bodily actions over time, which produces what we call a bodily horizon, a space for action, which puts some objects and not others in reach” (66). That notion can be redescribed, she continues, “in terms of the straight body, a body that appears ‘in line’” (66). A straight body is one that is aligned with other lines, and so instead of taking the vertical line as a given, we ought to see it as an effect of this process of alignment (66). “The vertical axis is itself an effect of being ‘in line,” Ahmed argues, “where the line taken by the body corresponds with other lines that are already given. The vertical is hence normative; it is shaped by the repetition of bodily and social actions over time” (66). This claim is important. Bodies that are aligned with the vertical axis (and perhaps also the horizontal one?) are bodies that can extend into space, bodies that appear the right way up, bodies that do not appear out of line. Queer bodies—and Ahmed exploits both senses of the word “queer” throughout her book—are bodies that are not aligned, and such bodies can have a powerful effect:

Importantly, when one thing is “out of line,” then it is not just that thing that appears oblique but the world itself might appear on a slant, which disorientates the picture and even unseats the body. If we consider how space appears along the lines of the vertical axis, then we can begin to see how orientations of the body shape not just what objects are reachable, but also the “angle” on which they are reached. Things look right when the approach us from the right angle. (67)

The problem with this argument, I think, is that the vertical and horizontal axes are not simply matters of perception: they can be determined through the use of a plumb bob or a level. However, the reference to vertical lines is in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, and since Ahmed begins with that reference, it’s no surprise that she ends up making this argument. The image of bodies being expected to align themselves with straight lines becomes central to her discussion of queer sexual orientations, which are, according to this model, oblique or slanted, not vertical, not mapped according to a grid of horizontal or vertical lines. As I read this chapter, I found myself wondering why the lines she describes are always straight, never curved, whatever their relationship to that grid—might that not have been a better visual image? Again, by starting with her particular reference to Merleau-Ponty, the image seems to have been predetermined, which is an interesting example of the very phenomena she is describing.

According to Ahmed, sexuality is crucial to the orientation of bodies, and therefore to the way we inhabit spaces; therefore, “the differences between how we are orientated sexually are not only a matter of ‘which’ objects we are orientated toward, but also how we extend through our bodies into the world” (67-68). In other words, it’s about “differences in one’s very relation to the world—that is, in how one ‘faces’ the world or is directed toward it” (68). Different ways of directing our desires, different orientations, mean “inhabiting different worlds” (68). In this chapter of the book, Ahmed states, she wants to rethink the spatiality of sexual orientation by formulating what she calls a “queer phenomenology” (68). That phenomenology, she continues, “might offer an approach to sexual orientation by rethinking how the bodily direction ‘toward’ objects shapes the surfaces of bodily and social space” (68). After all, that’s what phenomenology is about, as the earlier chapters of the book have demonstrated: how the directions we face shape us, and how we are shaped by them, within the context of social or historical space.

Cupid and his arrows are, for Ahmed, a metaphor of the directionality of sexual orientation: Cupid’s arrows travel in lines, lines of desire. “So sexual desire orientates the subject toward some others (and by implication not other others) by establishing a line or direction,” she writes. “Sexual orientation involves following different lines insofar as the others that desire is directed toward are already constructed as the ‘same sex,’ or the ‘other sex.’ It is not simply the object that determines the ‘direction’ of one’s desire; rather, the direction one takes makes some others available as objects to be desired” (69-70). Therefore, she continues, to be directed towards the same sex, or the other sex, “becomes seen as moving along different lines” (70). And, since heterosexuality is normalized and naturalized in our culture, same-sex desire “reaches objects that are not continuous with the line of normal sexual subjectivity (71). Ahmed cites Adrienne rich on compulsory heterosexuality, the institutional practices that require men and women to be heterosexual (84), through which “subjects are required to ‘tend toward’ some objects and not others as a condition of familial as well as social love” (85). Heterosexuality functions as a background, “as that which is behind actions that are repeated over time and with force, and that insofar as it is behind does not come into view” (87). 

In fact, heterosexuality appears to be a function of the prohibitions against same-sex desire in Ahmed’s formulation: “[t]he nearness of objects to each other comes to be lived as what is already given, as a matter of how the domestic is arranged. What puts objects near depends on histories, on how ‘things’ arrive, and on how they gather in their very ability as things to ‘do things’ with” (88). Objects and bodies might seem oblique or slanted, according to Ahmed, but that will be the case “only insofar as they do not follow the line of that which is already given, or that which has already extended in space by being directed in some ways rather than others” (92). For that reason, “[s]paces as well as bodies are the effects of such straightening devices” (92). The notion of straightening devices returns later, in Ahmed’s discussion of racialized bodies.

Homosexuality, for Ahmed, results in the queer subject’s rejection by his or her or their heterosexual family, because it cannot lead to reproducing the gift of heterosexuality. “It is not that the heterosexual subject has to turn away from queer objects in accepting heterosexuality as a parental gift,” Ahmed writes:

compulsory heterosexuality makes such a turning unnecessary (although becoming straight can be lived as a ‘turning away’). Queer objects, which do not allow the subject to approximate the form of the heterosexual couple, may not even get near enough to ‘come into view’ as possible objects to be directed toward. (91)

“The body acts upon what is nearby or at hand,” she continues, “and then gets shaped by its directions toward such objects, which keeps other objects beyond the bodily horizon of the straight subject” (91). I’m not sure I’m understanding Ahmed correctly here, but she seems to be suggesting that heterosexuals are only heterosexual because they have not been able to consider same-sex bodies as objects of desire. That interpretation is strengthened by her suggestion that heterosexuality is a repetitive strain injury that shapes what bodies can do:

Bodies take the shape of norms that are repeated over time and with force. Through repeating some gestures and not others, or through being orientated in some directions and not others, bodies become contorted: they get twisted into shapes that enable some action only insofar as they restrict the capacity for other kinds of action. Compulsory heterosexuality diminishes the very capacity of bodies to reach what is off the straight line. It shapes which bodies one “can” legitimately approach as would-be lovers and which one cannot. In shaping one’s approach to others, compulsory heterosexuality also shapes one’s own body as a congealed history of past approaches. Hence, the failure to orient oneself “toward” the ideal sexual object affects how we live in the world; such a failure is read as a refusal to reproduce and therefore as a threat to the social ordering of life itself. (91)

Perhaps heterosexuality is a repetitive strain injury for someone like Ahmed, who was married to a man before ending that relationship and coming out as a lesbian (a story she tells at the beginning of the book), and if she is describing the experience of others like herself, that’s one thing. If, however, she’s suggesting that heterosexuals are only heterosexual because of the repetition of norms that have established heterosexuality as compulsory, that’s something else. I’m not sure that calling into question the authenticity of heterosexual desire—if that’s what Ahmed is doing—is either useful or true, but I might be misreading her text. I suppose I would have to read Adrienne Rich on compulsory heterosexuality, and Judith Butler on heteronormativity, before I could really understand Ahmed’s argument here. And yet, Ahmed’s discussion of heterosexuality as a form of “contact sexuality” reinforces my reading. She contends that 

straight orientations are shaped by contact with others who are constructed as reachable as love objects by the lines of social and familial inheritance. . . . Indeed, I have suggested that compulsory heterosexuality functions as a background to social action by delimiting who is available to love or ‘who’ we come into contact with. (94-95)

At the same time, she acknowledges “that (luckily) compulsory heterosexuality doesn’t always work” (94), and that many who are hailed or interpellated by compulsory heterosexuality do not turn around to respond (107). I find myself wondering why she grants queer bodies such agency, but apparently denies it to straight bodies. Perhaps I am only asking that question because, as a straight male, I am not a member of Ahmed’s audience—the people whom she imagined while she was writing this chapter. I don’t know.

Both queer bodies and black bodies (Ahmed’s terms, not mine) have difficulty inhabiting spaces that are defined as straight or white: such spaces do not allow those bodies to be extended, because they do not allow those bodies to take their shape. Ahmed begins her chapter on phenomenology and racialized bodies with a quotation from Frantz Fanon about his physical response to meeting the eyes of a white man. “For Fanon,” she writes,

racism “stops” black bodies inhabiting space by extending through objects and others; the familiarity of “the white world,” as a world we know implicitly, “disorients” black bodies such that they cease to know where to find things—reduced as they are to things among things. Racism ensures that the black gaze returns to the black body, which is not a loving return but rather follows the line of the hostile white gaze. The disorientation affected by racism diminishes capacities for action. (111)

“If the world is made white,” she continues, “then the body at home is one that can inhabit whiteness”:

As Fanon’s work shows, after all, bodies are shaped by histories of colonialism, which makes [sic] the world “white” as a world that is inherited or already given. This is the familiar world, the world of whiteness, a world we know implicitly. Colonialism makes the world “white,” which is of course a world “ready” for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach. Bodies remember such histories, even when we forget them. Such histories, we might say, surface on the body, or even shape how bodies surface. . . . In a way, then, race does become a social as well as a bodily given, or what we receive from others as an inheritance of this history. (111)

In this chapter, Ahmed writes, she wants to reflect on processes of racialization and consider “racism as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space. Such forms of orientation are crucial to how bodies inhabit space, and to the racialization of bodily as well as social space” (111). 

Ahmed begins with an analysis of the spatial formations of Orientalism and the ways that geographic space is orientated such that near and far, or proximity and distance, are associated with specific bodies and places (112). Then she considers how we inherit “the proximities that allow white bodies to extend their reach,” while “such inheritances shape those who do not or cannot ‘possess’ such whiteness” (112). She then explores the effects of racism on bodies that are not white or not quite white, and the way that mixed orientations “might allow us to reinvestigate the ‘alignments’ between body, place, nation and world that allow racial lines to be given” (112). That question is personally important to Ahmed, as the daughter of a Pakistani father and a white English mother. “The ‘matter’ of race is very much about embodied reality,” she writes:

seeing oneself or being seen as white or black or mixed does affect what one “can do,” or even where one can go, which can be redescribed in terms of what is and is not within reach. If we begin to consider what is affective about the “unreachable,” we might even begin the task of making “race” a rather queer matter. (112)

Here, of course, Ahmed is using “queer” to mean “strange” or, as her etymology suggests, “twisted” (67). 

She begins by thinking about the relationship between the words “orientate” and “Orient,” and suggests, following Said, that the Orient is constructed as “not-Europe” (114). The “not-ness” of the Orient,” she writes, “seems to point to another way of being in the world—to a world of romance, sexuality, and sensuality,” as well as its “farness”, its distance from the West, which makes it exotic. The fact that the Orient is an object of desire for the West is complex: “[d]esire confirms that which we are not (the object of desire), while it pushes us toward that ‘not,’ which appears as an object on the horizon, at the edge of our gaze, getting closer even when it is not quite here” (114). This desire for the other can be described as a way to extend the body, according to Ahmed. “The body extends its reach by taking in that which it ‘not’ it, where the ‘not’ involves the acquisition of new capacities and directions—becoming, in other words, ‘not’ simply what I am ‘not’ but what I can ‘have’ and ‘do.’ The ‘not me’ is incorporated into the body, extending its reach” (115). This incorporation is certainly a feature in the history of the Orient, at least since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the discovery of oil in the Middle East.

But Ahmed goes on to distinguish between being oriented toward something, in the sense of desiring it, and orientated around something, in the sense of making that thing central, at the centre of one’s being or action (116). “The Orient here would be the object toward which we are directed, as an object of desire,” she writes. “By being directed toward the Orient, we are orientated ‘around’ the Occident. Or, to be more precise, the Occident coheres as that which we are organized around through the very direction of our gaze toward the Orient” (116). The Orient is both far away and reachable, and it can therefore be brought home and domesticated, while still being defined by difference (116-17). “The object function of the Orient, then, is not simply a sign of the presence of the West—of where it ‘finds its way’—but also a measure of how the West has ‘directed’ its time, energy, and resources,” she continues (117). “We could even say that Orientalism involves a form of ‘world facing,’” Ahmed suggests, “that is, a way of gathering things around so they ‘face’ a certain direction” (118). In that way, Orientalism involves phenomenal space: “it is a matter of how bodies inhabit spaces through shared orientations” (118). The Orient as the desired other, then, is part of what helps the West define itself, by directing its citizens’ attention toward a shared object, creating a collective force, a collective that takes shape through the repetition of the act of facing, of putting one in line with others (119). 

How, Ahmed asks, does this help us retheorize the orientation of Orientalism? “To direct one’s gaze and attention toward the other, as an object of desire, is not indifferent, neutral, or casual: we can redescribe ‘towardness’ as energetic,” she answers:

In being directed toward others, one acts, or is committed to specific actions, which point toward the future. When bodies share an object of desire, one could say they have an “affinity” or they are going in “the same direction.” Furthermore, the affinity of such bodies involves identification: in being directed toward a shared object, as a direction that is repeated over time, they are also orientated around a shared object. So, for instance, in being directed toward the oriental object or other, they may be oriented around “the West,” as what the world coheres around. Orientalism, in other words, would involve not just making imaginary distinctions between the West and the Orient, but would also shape how bodies cohere, by facing in the same direction. Objects become objects only as an effect of the repetition of this tending “toward” them, which produces the subject as that which the world is “around.” The orient is then “orientated”; it is reachable as an object given how the world takes shape “around” certain bodies. (120)

As I read this passage, I wondered whether something similar might be said about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people in Canada. To what extent are those nations objects of Canada’s desire? To what extent does Canada cohere—to the extent that it does cohere—around those nations as objects? Could we produce a phenomenology of Canadian orientations towards First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people that would generate a similar result to Ahmed’s phenomenology of Orientalism? I would love to read something that addresses those questions, with or without the phenomenological flavour. The paper David Garneau gave on the Indian Pavillion at Expo 67 at the University of Regina on Friday afternoon gestured in that direction, but that wasn’t his primary focus.

Next, Ahmed turns to the reproduction of whiteness. She writes, “spaces become racialized by how they are directed or orientated, as a direction that follows a specific line of desire” (120), and that racialization includes whiteness. “The alignment of race and space is crucial to how they materialize as givens, as if each ‘extends’ the other,” she continues:

In other words, while “the other side of the world” is associated with “racial otherness,” racial others become associated with the “other side of the world.” They come to embody distance. This embodiment of distance is what makes whiteness “proximate,” as the “starting point” for orientation. Whiteness becomes what is “here,” a line from which the world unfolds, which also makes what is “there” on “the other side.” (121)

Echoing her earlier comments regarding straightening devices, Ahmed suggests that whiteness is more than just a straight line against which nonwhite bodies are seen as oblique or askew. Rather, “whiteness is ‘attributed’ to bodies as if it were a property of bodies; one way of describing this process is to describe whiteness as a straightening device” (121). Whiteness gets reproduced, she continues, “through acts of alignment, which are forgotten when we receive its line,” especially through the white family—not in a biological sense, but through the cultural expectation that children resemble their parents, even if they look quite different (121-22). Whiteness is therefore a form of bodily inheritance, but one based on expectations of “shared attributes,” which are taken up, retrospectively, as evidence of family or even community linkages (122). Another way to think about the relationship between inheritance and likeness, Ahmed writes, is to consider that “we inherit proximities (and hence orientations) as our points of entry into a familial space, as ‘a part’ of a new generation. Such an inheritance in turn generates ‘likeness’” (123). The notion of likeness or resemblance between parents and children is therefore an effect of proximity (nearness) or contact, which is then taken up as a sign of biological inheritance, rather than likeness or resemblance being the cause of that proximity (123). Moreover, while proximity is inherited, that inheritance can be refused and does not determine any future course of action (123). “Rather than thinking about the question of inheritance in terms of nature versus nature, or biology versus culture, we should be thinking in terms of contingency or contact (touch),” Ahmed writes (124). “[T]hings are shaped by their proximity to other things, whereby this proximity itself is inherited in the sense that it is the condition of our arrival into the world” (124). 

This is a difficult argument to understand, because it resists our commonsense notions of family resemblances as having a biological basis, and I wonder if Ahmed doesn’t push it too far. I look very much like my father, for example, and I don’t think it is because of proximity or contact, but because I have inherited genetic characteristics from him. Perhaps Ahmed is merely talking about whiteness as an inheritance, though. “In the case of race, we would say that bodies come to be seen as ‘alike’—for instance, ‘sharing whiteness’ as a ‘characteristic,’ as an effect of such proximities, where certain ‘things’ are already ‘in place’” (124). Those things, perhaps, include the expectation that children will resemble their parents, in a racialized sense, and Ahmed’s argument seems to be that those expectations are constructed on the basis of proximity. At least, I think that’s the argument. I find it very hard to follow.

The question of inheritance and whiteness as a social phenomenon is clearer than Ahmed’s discussion of family resemblances. “To inherit whiteness is to become invested in the line of whiteness: it is both to participate in it and to transform the body into a ‘part’ of it, as if each body is another ‘point’ that accumulates to extend the line,” she writes. “Whiteness becomes a social inheritance: in receiving whiteness as a gift, white bodies—or those bodies that can be recognized as white bodies—come to ‘possess’ whiteness as if it were a shared attribute” (125). But for Ahmed, inheritance can be rethought in terms of orientations:

we inherit the reachability of some objects, those that are “given” to us or at least are made available to us within the family home. I am not suggesting here that “whiteness” is one such “reachable object” but rather that whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach. By objects, we would include not just physical objects, but also styles, capacities, aspirations, techniques, even worlds. In putting certain things in reach, a world acquires it[s] shape; the white world is a world orientated “around” whiteness. This world, too, is “inherited” as a dwelling: it is a world shaped by colonial histories, which affect not simply how maps are drawn, but the kinds of orientations we have toward objects and others. Race becomes, in this model, a question of what is within reach, what is available to perceive and to do “things” with. (126)

This quotation reminds me of Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege, in which she argues, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” ([10]). What is different about Ahmed’s version, though, is the notion that along with inheriting whiteness, white people inherit colonial histories that shape their orientations, the directions they face and the things they are able to perceive—and the things they cannot perceive, like whiteness itself, which forms part of the background of a white person’s life, even as it circulates in political and affective economies, generating rates of return for bodies that are considered to be white (129).

Ahmed argues that whiteness is a habit, not unlike her claim that heterosexuality is the product of repetition:

We might be used to thinking of bodies as “having” habits, usually bad ones. We could even describe whiteness as a bad habit: as a series of actions that are repeated, forgotten, and that allow some bodies to take up space by restricting the mobility of others. I want to explore here how public spaces take shape through the habitual actions of bodies, such that the contours of space could be described as habitual. I turn to the concept of habits to theorize not so much how bodies acquire their shape, but how spaces acquire the shape of the bodies that “inhabit” them. We could think about the “habit” in the “inhabit.” (129)

The habitual can be thought of as a bodily and spatial form of inheritance, because we acquire our tendencies—“the repetition of the tending toward is what identity ‘coheres’ around,” Ahmed writes—from what we inherit (129). “To describe whiteness as a habit, as second nature, is to suggest that whiteness is what bodies do, where the body takes the shape of the action,” she continues. “Such habits are not ‘exterior’ to bodies, as things that can be ‘put on’ or ‘taken off.’ If habits are about what bodies do, in ways that are repeated, then they might shape what bodies can do” (129-30). That shaping doesn’t only affect what such bodies can do, but it also restricts their possibilities for action as well (130).

Moreover, because habits are actions we perform without thinking about them, the body itself is habitual because when it performs actions repeatedly, “it does not command attention, apart from the ‘surface’ where it ‘encounters’ an external object” (130). “In other words,” Ahmed continues, “the body is habitual insofar as it ‘trails behind’ in the performing of an action, insofar as it does not pose ‘a problem’ or an obstacle to the action, or it is not ‘stressed’ by ‘what’ the action encounters” (130). In other words, the habitual body is behind the action, in the background (131), which suggests that whiteness itself is in the background, something that is a given that does not have our attention:

White bodies are habitual insofar as they “trail behind” actions: they do not get “stressed” in their encounters with objects or others, as their whiteness “goes unnoticed.” Whiteness lags behind such bodies. White bodies do not have to face their whiteness; they are not orientated “toward” it, and this “not” is what allows whiteness to cohere, as that which bodies are orientated around. By not having to encounter being white as an obstacle, given that whiteness is “in line” with what is already given, bodies that pass as white move easily, and this motility is extended by what they move toward. The white body in this way expands; objects, tools, instruments, and even “others” allow that body to inhabit space by extending that body and what it can reach. Whiteness becomes habitual in the sense that white bodies extend their reach by incorporating objects that are within reach. To make this point simply: what is “within reach” also “extends the reach” of such bodies. (132)

“Whiteness is only invisible for those who inhabit it, or for those who get so used to its inhabitance that they learn not to see it, even when they are not in it,” Ahmed writes (133). Spaces become shaped by and orientated around whiteness, particularly institutional spaces, like universities (132-33). “It is not just that there is a desire for whiteness that leads to white bodies getting in,” Ahmed writes; “rather, whiteness is what the institution is orientated ‘around,’ so that even bodies that might not appear white still have to inhabit ‘whiteness’ if they are to get ‘in’” (134).

Being orientated in this way, for white people, is to feel at home in the world. It is to feel a certain comfort, something we only notice when we lose it and become uncomfortable (134). “To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins,” Ahmed contends. “One fits, and in the act of fitting, the surfaces of bodies disappear from view. White bodies are comfortable as they inhabit spaces that extend their shape. The bodies and spaces ‘point’ toward each other, as a ‘point’ that is not seen as it is also ‘the point’ from which we see” (134-35). However, Ahmed is not arguing that whiteness has its own ontological force. It is not something with substance. Nor is it reducible to white skin or even to something we can have or be. After all, nonwhite bodies do inhabit white spaces, although as they do so, they either become invisible or hypervisible. “You learn to fade into the background,” she writes, “but sometimes you cannot. The moments when the body appears ‘out of place’ are moments of political and personal trouble” (135). However, even white bodies can be “out of line” with the institutions they inhabit, particularly if those bodies are queer, or deviate from the vertical axis in some other way (136-37). 

Because they are comfortable in the world, white bodies move with comfort through space, and to experience the world as if it were home (136). “Bodies that are not restricted by racism, or by other technologies used to ensure that space is given to some rather than others,” Ahmed writes, “are bodies that don’t have to come up against the limitations of this fantasy of motility. Such bodies are both shaped by motility, and they may even take the shape of that motility” (136). Whiteness is also a straightening device: “bodies disappear into the ‘sea of whiteness’ when they ‘line up’ with the vertical and horizontal lines of social reproduction, which allows bodies to extend their reach” (137). In fact, whiteness becomes the universal definition of what is human, and so not to be white is to inhabit the negative, the “not,” which for Ahmed is a way of describing “the social and existential realities of racism” (139). “If Merleau-Ponty’s model of the body in Phenomenology of Perception is about ‘motility,’ expressed in the hopefulness of the utterance, ‘I can,’” she continues, “Fanon’s phenomenology of the black body could be described in terms of the bodily and social experience of restriction, uncertainty, and blockage, or perhaps even in terms of the despair of the utterance ‘I cannot’” (139). For Merleau-Ponty, that is, the body is successful if it is able to extend itself through objects in order to act on and in the world, but Fanon reveals that this success is a bodily form of privilege, rather than competence (139). “To be black or not white in ‘the white world,’” Ahmed argues, “is to turn back toward oneself, to become an object, which means not only being extended by the contours of the world, but being diminished as an effect of the bodily extensions of others” (139). 

As I’ve suggested, Ahmed is a mixed-race person, and she suggests that there is “something queer” about that orientation, something that produces discomfort, which paradoxically “allows things to move” (154). Such discomfort is what a queer genealogy would produce: through the affective possibilities of coming into contact with objects that reside on different lines, such a genealogy would open up new kinds of connection. “As we know,” she writes,

things are kept apart by such lines: they make some proximities not impossible, but dangerous. And yet, mixing does happen, and lines to not always direct us. A queer genealogy would be full of such ordinary proximities. This would not be about the meeting point between two lines that would simply create new lines . . . but rather about the “crossing” of existing lines in the very failure to return to them. After all, the gap between what one receives and what one becomes is opened up as an effect of how things arrive and of the “mixtures” of any arrival. This is not to say that some bodies necessarily acquire such orientations as effects of their own arrival. Rather it is to say that the unsettling effect of such arrivals is what allows that which has been received to be noticeable. We don’t always know what might be unsettling; what might make the lines that that direct us more noticeable as lines in one moment or another. But once unsettled it might be impossible to return, which of course means that we turn somewhere else, as a turning that might open up different horizons. (154-55)

As a descendant of settlers, I find the word “unsettling” very thought-provoking. What can unsettle a settler? For me, discovering the history of the place where I grew up—the fact that the land on which I was raised was stolen from the Haudenosaunee—was unsettling. And I have found it impossible to return to what I was before that unsettling experience. I feel the same way about learning about the nature of Treaty Four, the agreement between the Cree and Saulteaux people, on the one hand, and the federal government, on the other. For the Cree and Saulteaux Chiefs who negotiated that treaty, it was supposed to establish kinship relations with the newcomers, and to constitute an agreement to share the land; for the government negotiators, it was a land surrender—even though there’s no evidence that they told the Indigenous negotiators that the treaty would mean surrendering their land. That is another unsettling experience. And those unsettling experiences have opened up new horizons and lines of inquiry for me. The question, though, is how to translate those unsettling experiences into decolonization, given what seems to be the overwhelming power of whiteness. How does one refuse the twin inheritances of whiteness and colonialism, while still being a white settler living on stolen land? Isn’t that what decolonizing, for settlers, would entail? Ahmed seems to suggest that such refusals are possible (155), but I wonder if she means that white bodies can refuse those inheritances. Such a refusal would, she writes, reorient “our” relation to whiteness (155)—but who is included within that plural pronoun? Who is Ahmed’s audience?

In her conclusion, Ahmed suggests that moments of disorientation are vital, even though they are unsettling. In phenomenology, disorientation is followed by reorientation or realignment (159). But what happens if the disorientation cannot be overcome by the force of the vertical (159)? From Fanon, we learn about the experience of disorientation, of being an object among objects, of being shattered, “of being cut into pieces by the hostility of the white gaze” (160). “Disorientation,” Ahmed writes,

can be a bodily feeling of losing one’s place, and an effect of the loss of a place: it can be a violent feeling, and a feeling that is affected by violence, or shaped by violence directed toward the body. Disorientation involves failed orientations: bodies that inhabit spaces that do not extend their shape, or use objects that do not extend their reach. At this moment of failure, such objects “point” somewhere else or they make what is “here” become strange. Bodies that do not follow the line of whiteness, for instance, might be “stopped” in their tracks, which does not simply stop one from getting somewhere, but changes one’s relation to what is “here.” Where such lines block rather than enable action they become points that accumulate stress, or stress points. Bodies can even take the shape of such stress, as points of social and physical pressure that can be experienced as a physical press on the surface of the skin. (160)

In those moments of disorientation, objects slip away or retreat and become strange, as they do for the narrator of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea (165-66). And yet, returning to the theme of sexual orientation, Ahmed suggests that disorientation can be a positive thing. It is possible, she argues, to 

face the objects that retreat, and become strange in the face of their retreat, with a sense of hope. In facing what retreats with hope, such a queer politics would also look back to the conditions of arrival. We look back, in other words, as a refusal to inherit, as a as a refusal that is a condition for the arrival of queer. To inherit the past in the world for queers would be to inherit one’s own disappearance. . . . The task is to trace the lines for a different genealogy, one that would embrace the failure to inherit the family line as a condition of possibility for another way of dwelling in the world. (178)

This queer response to disorientation is also a form of queer politics that would be defined by both joy and hope for the future (178). To be queer is not to follow a line, but rather to ask “what our orientation toward queer moments of deviation will be,” and a queer phenomenology “would involve an orientation toward queer, a way of inhabiting the world by giving ‘support’ to those whose lives and loves make them appear oblique, strange, and out of place” (179). It’s clear that Ahmed is using the word “queer” to refer to sexual orientation here, but I wonder if it would be possible to use that word in its more general sense. Would it be possible, by refusing (or trying to refuse) the inheritance of colonialism and whiteness, to attempt a different kind of queer politics? It’s hard to say.

Queer Phenomenology is an important book, an engaged critique, theorization, and application of phenomenological ideas that provides a way to think about issues related to the body (and therefore embodiment) and space. The next logical step, I know, would be to turn to Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception, but that’s a big book—some 600 pages of text and footnotes—and it might be wiser to leave it for the spring, when I won’t be teaching or taking a language class. I recently saw a quotation from Phil Smith’s Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways recently, and it seems to use phenomenology to think about walking, but although I thought I had a copy, it turns out that I don’t. So I could turn to Tim Ingold’s book about lines, following Ahmed’s preoccupation with that image, while I’m waiting for Smith’s book to arrive. I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that I will return to this book in the future, both in an attempt to clarify the points where I was confused by Ahmed’s argument, and to answer the questions I still have about how her argument might be applied to my own research. 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom, July-August 1989, pp. 10-12.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Donald A. Landes, Routledge, 2013.

Smith, Phil. Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways. Triarchy, 2014.

17. Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson, “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology”


Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson’s article is a brief introduction to phenomenology and its usefulness for research into sports. “There are relatively few accounts truly grounded in the ‘flesh’ of the lived sporting body,” she writes, “and phenomenology offers a powerful framework for such description and analysis” (279). Phenomenology, the study of things as they present themselves to and are received in our consciousness, emerged in the work of Edmund Husserl “and now spans a wide-ranging, multi-stranded and interpretively contested set of perspectives” (279-80). “In general,” Allen-Collinson continues, “phenomenology seeks highly detailed, in-depth descriptions of subjective human experiences in specific contexts, and aspires to reveal their ‘essences’” (280). Her article is intended to give an overview of key “strands” in phenomenology, “identify central characteristics or qualities of the phenomenological method,” consider some of the ways phenomenology has been applied (particularly in sports studies), and “examine the potential of existentialist phenomenology”—particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty—“to offer rich analyses of sporting embodiment that evocatively portray the multi-textured experiences of the lived sporting body” (280). According to this article, phenomenology provides a language one can use to write and think about embodiment, and I find that encouraging. Perhaps I’m finally on the right track.

According to Allen-Collinson, who has published widely on embodiment and sports, phenomenology is not simply focused on individual experience:

in addition to overcoming Cartesian mind-body dualism and advancing detailed, grounded descriptions of phenomena (two of Husserl’s original purposes), phenomenology also provides a stance on embodiment that incorporates conceptions of bodies and action as socially and historically located, socially related and interacting from particular structural standpoints. Our bodies are thus acknowledged to be gendered, classed, “sexually oriented,” aged, “raced,” with differing degrees of dis/ability and corporeal variation. (280)

There are four tendencies within phenomenology—realist, constitutive or transcendental, hermeneutic, and existentialist—but Allen-Collinson argues that it is the last tendency that is likely to prove most relevant for investigations of embodiment (281). Existentialist phenomenology, as represented in the writing of Merleau-Ponty, “provides a ‘third way’ epistemologically and ontologically speaking, commencing not from the assumption of an objective world ‘out there,’ nor from a pure, constituting consciousness, but from a dialogic where world, body and consciousness are all fundamentally intertwined, inter-relating and mutually influencing” (283). One’s own body is the subject of perception in existentialist phenomenology, “the standpoint from which all things are perceived and experienced,” and therefore phenomena are not “merely abstract things out there in the world, separate from human consciousness and experience, but are part of our incarnate subjectivity” (283). In other words, we experience phenomena with our bodies, before reflection (thought) or language (283). 

At the same time, existentialist phenomenology also highlights the situatedness of human experience (283). It also argues that embodiment is always mediated by our interactions with other bodies (both human and non-human), something Allen-Collinson calls “inter-embodiment” (283). She also notes Merleau-Ponty’s notion of reversibility: the idea that sense perceptions are reversible, that we both touch and are touched, see and are seen, and that “our embodied subjectivity inheres in both our touching and our tangibility; the two are inextricably intertwined”—not just with other bodies but with objects and the general environment” (283). “Whilst all strands of phenomenology potentially offer insights into the sporting experience,” she concludes, “Merleau-Ponty’s form of existentialist phenomenology, with its focus upon embodiment, is particularly well-suited to the in-depth portrayal of the corporeally grounded experience of sport and physical activity” (284). 

Next, Allen-Collinson describes four themes or qualities that are general within phenomenological theory or research. The first is description, specifically descriptions of things in the world with reference to the person perceiving and recording them. The second is epochē or reduction: the work of suspending taken-for-granted assumptions about a phenomenon, something most contemporary phenomenological researchers acknowledge is an impossibility (286). The third is an interest in essences, the essential structures of experience, in order to derive knowledge in a systematic and disciplined way. The last theme is intentionality, the claim that consciousness is always directed towards something or someone (287). 

One form of phenomenological research that is common in the social sciences, Allen-Collinson continues, is something called interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA). IPA is a research approach that aims to explore in detail the sense-making activities of study participants in relation to their subjective experiences (288). However, this method has been confused with qualitative research in general, and some IPA projects lack phenomenological grounding and are phenomenological in name only. (I wonder if she includes the article on the phenomenology of long-distance walking that I wrote about yesterday in that category? The authors of that study were clearly more interested in positive psychology than they were in phenomenology.) Another research method that might be more promising is autoethnographic phenomenology, or “autophenomenography,” a rarely used research method, but one that can “provide the rich, evocative, textured descriptions of first-person experience” that are “central to the phenomenological quest to bring to life and to share with others the felt, lived, embodied experience” (291). “Phenomenology seeks to provide highly textured, evocative descriptions that locate the specifics of individual experience within broader, more general structures of human experience,” she continues, and “[a]utoethnography is thus one possible means of generating the rich, bodyful, fleshy, grounded and evocative descriptions of the body in sport and exercise” (292).

“Phenomenology can provide not only a theoretical and methodological framework for examining human subjectivity and embodiment in general,” Allen-Collinson concludes, “but also for investigating the specifics of socially located, socially related and interacting bodies” (293). It can also provide a way of combining personal experience with general or ethnographic categories, and of “creating rich descriptions that produce a feeling of understanding in the reader, of bodily knowing and sense-making as well as cognitive knowledge” (293).

Phenomenology seems much more likely to be a productive area of research for me, if Allen-Collinson is correct, in contrast to embodied cognition, and it’s clear that I need to read Merleau-Ponty if I am serious about exploring embodiment. I’m left wondering, though, if autophenomenography might not just be another word for good writing, writing that evokes sensory experiences effectively, and if there is any relationship between phenomenology and anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s much-cited “thick description.” Isn’t the point of thick description to create feelings of understanding in the reader? Is thick description just a characteristic of any decent autoethnographic writing? I don’t have the answers to those questions—but to be honest, I think those tangents can wait, at least until after I’ve finished reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. Completing that book is my next goal. I’m glad I read Allen-Collinson’s article, though, because it gives me a sense that I’m heading in the right direction, and that’s a good feeling.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn. “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology.” Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, vol. 1, no. 3, 2009, pp. 279-96. DOI: 10.1080/19398440903192340.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic, 1973.

16. Lee Crust, Richard Keegan, David Piggott, and Christian Swann, “Walking the Walk: A Phenomenological Study of Long Distance Walking”

cotswolds day 1.jpg

So, it’s clear that cognitive science isn’t the place to find a language that will help me write about the experience of walking. What else can I try? What about phenomenology? Yesterday, I started reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology, and it seems promising, but a quick Google search turned up a phenomenological study of long distance walking (available here, outside of the journal’s paywall). Could it be useful? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to read it.

The authors of this study are more interested in positive psychology than they are in phenomenology; for them, phenomenology provides a methodological context, whereas positive psychology (particularly the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his various research collaborators) is their primary theoretical context. According to the authors of this study, there are three important concepts in positive psychology. First, there is the life of enjoyment: “savoring positive emotions and feelings” (244). Second, there is the life of engagement, which is an “immersion and absorption in what one is doing,” an absorption that is characteristic of flow experiences, which typically occur “when high levels of skill are matched with high levels of challenge” and are “characterized by feelings of effortlessness and absorption in a task” and tend “to be associated with optimal experiences” (244). Finally, there is the life of affiliation: deriving a sense of well-being, belonging, meaning and purpose through positive relationships (244). Because it seems unlikely to the authors of this study that long-distance walkers would walk only for reasons related to health and fitness, they believe that positive psychology could help us understand their walking experiences (244). The other theoretical context of the study is green exercise, or exercise that takes place in the presence of nature, which other studies have shown to have psychological benefits (244).

Apparently only one psychological study of long-distance walkers had been made prior to this one, a quantitative study involving questionnaires that produced some interesting results. However, the authors of this study believe that quantitative approach “only allowed a somewhat limited understanding of what is likely to be a complex subjective experience,” so qualitative methods that “focus upon the lived experiences of walkers are necessary” (245). They believe that a phenomenological approach to studying walking might also prove useful. Their definition of phenomenology is derived from an article on embodiment in sport by Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson: phenomenology is “an attitude to research rather than specific methods and can promote a contextual re/consideration of physical activity experience and a deeper understanding of how it actually feels to be an exercising body” (245). The theoretical engagement with phenomenology provided here is rather thin, but a quick glance at Allen-Collinson’s list of references demonstrates that she has engaged in the theoretical literature on phenomenology—including books by Sara Ahmed and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, both of whom are on my reading list—and that gives me hope that phenomenology might provide the kind of language or approach I have been looking for. Besides, this study is empirical, not theoretical, and it’s important to focus on what a text set out to do, rather than what it did not.

The purpose of the study described in this article is “to provide rich, descriptive accounts of the experience of long distance walkers,” experiences, the authors write, about which very little is known (245). Their method was straightforward: they conducted retrospective interviews with four long-distance walkers (four men and two women) in the U.K. They had recently completed one of that country’s long-distance footpaths, walks that lasted between six and 11 days and involved walking between 12 and 18 miles (20 to 30 kilometres) per day (245). “The present study employs a phenomenological method,” the authors write, “with the two essential criteria being that the participants have experienced the phenomena being studied and were willing and able to describe their experiences” (245). Their use of phenomenology is “an attempt to provide a completely empirical method that focuses on what an individual experiences,” they continue, noting that the phenomenological method is solely concerned with describing an event, object, or experience (246). “With few previous studies attempting to understand the psychology of long distance walking,” they write, “phenomenology would seem to be an appropriate method in enabling the collection of descriptive information  that could lead to a clearer understanding of the walkers’ lived world” (246). In practical terms, these researchers conducted unstructured interviews in which the participants were considered the experts, a method that generated “rich, descriptive accounts of the walkers’ experiences” (246). The data collected in those interviews was coded and analyzed according to standard qualitative social science procedures.

What were the results of this study? Before the walk, the research participants reported mixed emotions: their planning and preparations demonstrated their investment in the experience of the walk, but they also tended to be apprehensive about logistical issues, their fitness, the distance, and the chances of bad weather. That nervousness was accompanied by anticipation and excitement about the challenge. During the walk, they reported positive feelings, describing the walk as “an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience,” with that enjoyment derived from many different aspects of the walk: the physical nature of the challenge and the way it tested their resolve (248); the scenic beauty of their route and being close to nature, which generated a sense of connection and reflects the life of affiliation (248, 251); and a sense of meaning derived from being part of something bigger and more permanent than oneself (251). “Participants clearly articulated that some feelings changed as the walk progressed,” the authors report, “and while enjoyment tended to characterize the whole walk, confidence and determination increased the further participants walked” (251). There was a general consensus that the concerns participants had before their walks dissipated and “were replaced by a determination to achieve the goal of finishing as the participants became more aware of how their own capabilities matched the challenge” (251, 253). Participants also reported feeling detached from the complex problems that exist in other areas of life; they “tended to contrast the experience of walking with work to describe a much reduced level of cognitive effort, and a release from responsibilities” (253). The also noted that they were able to reflect upon and solve complex issues by having the time to think through problems, while at the same time they enjoyed the simple tasks related to walking, such as finding their way (254). Reflection, then, was combined with “a focus and engagement with a pleasurable activity,” which “appears to have yielded a fulfilling and meaningful experience” (254). At the same time, the walkers reported that they enjoyed meeting other walkers and becoming part of a walking community (255).

Participants also described being completely absorbed by walking; their exertion often seemed effortless, and they sometimes lost track of time. This response suggests that they experienced what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow while they were walking. While they reported numerous challenges—getting lost, bad weather, sore feet, aching muscles and joints—“such issues were regarded as an integral and important part of the whole experience that paradoxically provided greater meaning and a sense of personal achievement at the end of the walk” (255). Overcoming those challenges required the use of a variety of strategies and techniques: some participants relied on personal characteristics, such as resilience, stubbornness, and self-confidence; others visualized the end of the walk; some used humour; some took inspiration from the scenery; and others thought about their walk in terms of “more manageable chunks” rather than thinking of it’s entirety (256). They described bittersweet feelings at the end of the walk: they experienced senses of achievement, pride, satisfaction, and joy, but they also felt sadness and loss because the walk was over (256). “This withdrawal response appeared to reflect a change in focus as the goal of completing the walk was achieved and the reality of returning to more common routines and responsibilities became more central,” the authors note (256). In some cases, though, the positive effects of the experience of walking lasted for many months afterwards, and all of the participants reported “a subjective sense of well-being” at their walk’s conclusion, including having a feelings of psychological well-being (having a clear and relaxed mind, positive attitude, and a sense of mental refreshment), physical well-being (experiencing increased feelings of fitness), and social well-being (having new and enhanced personal relationships) (257). 

“What the participants gained from the experience might best be termed personal growth,” the authors of the study state. “Participants reported a variety of enhanced self-perceptions, which included self-esteem, self-efficacy, and more global self-confidence” (257). Many of the participants in the study reported that they were able to reappraise aspects of their lives and gain new perspectives and new meanings (257). In addition, “[t]he experience of completing the walk, which was challenging and difficult for all, has since been used as a baseline from which to judge other life challenges. The result is that day-to-day problems were often down-graded in perceived difficulty due to more positive evaluations of individual capabilities to overcome challenges” (257). The walkers described their experiences as journeys of self-discovery, and noted that those experiences took place within a “bubble” that was “suitably detached from the stresses of modern life,” and which lasted for the walk’s entire duration and was both “immensely enjoyable and “mentally rejuvenating” (259). 

The study’s authors believe that it provides “a more comprehensive understanding of the potential benefits of long distance walking” (259), which they enumerate in detail. One interesting finding is that the participants reported that walking for a single day did not generate any of these feelings or experiences; it seems that multi-day, long-distance walking appears to have a cumulative effect that’s not possible in the course of a single day, a finding that contrasts with the evidence reporting large benefits from short engagements with green exercise (259). However, they also note that their methodology has limitations, in particular their use of retrospective interviews, which could lead to selective recall, and the small group of walkers who were studied. These findings, they caution, should not be generalized to a wider population of walkers (260).

I doubt that any of the findings of this study would be a surprise to anyone who has made a multi-day walking trip; they seem obvious, although perhaps it’s useful to have one’s own experiences confirmed by such a study. In fact, these responses to long-distance walking are so common that I often wonder why more people don’t engage in this activity. Even a long, challenging walk along highways and grid roads, like my walk to Wood Mountain, produced similar feelings and experiences for me, despite my blisters and exhaustion. More importantly, I have a sense from reading this article that, even though the theoretical perspective offered here is a little thin, the language of phenomenology might be useful for writing about the experience of walking, and so I will take on the phenomenological texts on my reading list with a sense of excitement and anticipation. I think I’ll take on Allen-Collinson’s article next, before returning to Sara Ahmed’s book, though, just to confirm that suspicion.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

Allen-Collinson, Jacquelyn. “Sporting Embodiment: Sports Studies and the (Continuing) Promise of Phenomenology.” Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise, vol. 1, no. 3, 2009, pp. 279-96. DOI: 10.1080/19398440903192340.

Crust, Lee, Richard Keegan, David Piggott, and Christian Swann. “Walking the Walk: A Phenomenological Study of Long Distance Walking.” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, vol. 23, no. 3, 2011, pp. 243-62. DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2010.548848.

15. Lee Maracle, My Conversations with Canadians

my conversations with canadians

I’m taking a short break from trying to find a language to talk about embodied knowledge. Sto:lo Lee writer Maracle is speaking here on Saturday night, and so I decided to read her book My Conversations with Canadians, even though, for some strange reason, it got cut from my reading list during one of my attempts at getting down to 130 books, and even though I might not be able to go to her talk, because I’m committed to be at a dinner party. So here I am, reading outside my list again. That’s not helping me reach my goal, is it? I need to start being ruthless about restricting myself to the list, or I’m going to find myself in serious trouble.

At least My Conversations with Canadians isn’t off topic, like some of the books I’ve been reading. It’s a collection of 13 essays: 12 are labelled as conversations (with Canadians, that is), and the final one is an address to the first conference on First Nations literature in India. Maracle—a fiction writer, poet, and self-described word artist (140)—knows a lot about First Nations literature, and she knows a lot about non-Indigenous Canadians (settlers and newcomers), from interacting with them at book launches, panels, and conferences. “Not a single Canadian has ever approached me to say: ‘Why are there so many injustices committed against Indigenous people?’ or ‘Why is there not a strong movement of support for justice and sovereignty for Indigenous people’s sovereignty movement in Canada?’” she writes at the beginning of the book (8). Instead, they ask other questions—ones Maracle finds puzzling or insulting or simply beside the point—and much of the book tracks her responses to them. Canadians, she writes, “are here at our goodwill and by our host laws and by way of honouring our treaties—should that happen. Most Canadians don’t see it that way, however. Nothing that happens to Indigenous people, no matter how unlawful, is of much consequence to many of the people occupying Indigenous territories” (8). In other words, Canadians don’t ask those questions because they don’t care about the answers. We prefer to believe that we are innocent—a myth Maracle describes as “inviolable” (10). Canadians believe, for instance, that Canada gave reserves to First Nations. Maracle’s response to this belief is characteristically blunt: “You cannot give someone something that already belongs to them” (11). “This is our country,” Maracle writes. “You were granted permission to live here and the conditions of that permission are embedded in treaties and recent court decisions. Nowhere in these treaties or court decisions does it say we grant you permission to take over management and control of our territories and lives” (124). But that’s exactly what Canada has done, and Canadians cannot see that taking over as the violation that it is. Our silence, Maracle writes, and our innocence, constitute “Canadian colonial strategy” (10).

That myth of innocence is powerful, according to Maracle: Canadians who protest their innocence in relation to colonialism continue to live more comfortably than Indigenous people. “The question of why settler Canadians get a better life off of my continent than Indigenous people does not pop into white men’s heads,” she writes, “or into the heads of other nice white women either” (75). Innocence, ignorance, and a deliberate lack of curiosity go together:

In Canadian people’s defense, they claim not to know what was going on. Well, everyone knew that Indigenous people came from here and non-Indigenous people came from somewhere else. No one became curious about how the shift from Indigenous authority over the land to Canadian authority over the land occurred, nor did they become curious about how our access to the land and its wealth became restricted. No one became curious about how Canadian law became the law that dominated the entire landscape. No one got curious about what was here before. (34)

When Canadians begin to get curious about any of this, when they begin to educate themselves, they still don’t ask the right questions. They ask Maracle, “What can we do to help?” (49)—a question she finds laughable, because it implies that Indigenous people “are responsible for achieving some monumental task we are not up to and so the offer of help is generous” (49). Maracle turns the question around: “Racism and colonialism and patriarchy are Canadian social formations, not Indigenous ones. We are not the only ones responsible for their undoing. If you participate in dismantling the master’s house and ending all forms of oppression, you are helping yourself. The sooner Canadians realize that, the better. . . . It is their responsibility to change their society, which is racist, colonial, and patriarchal to the core” (49-50). 

“What can we do to help?” is related to the question “What is reconciliation to you?” (137), which someone asked after Maracle gave a talk on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Maracle’s response to that question is scathing: 

“Well, stop killing us would be a good place to begin,” I answered. The audience laughed. “Then maybe stop plundering our resources, stop robbing us of our children, end colonial domination—return our lands, and then we can talk about being friends. I can’t believe we are having this conversation after you listened to my presentation about the murder of Indigenous women and children. It is embarrassing—not for me, but for you.” (137)

A reading in Hamilton, Ontario, turned out differently. The conversation turned to a discussion of the social responsibility of the arts and, Maracle recalls, “For the first time in my life I was sitting with Canadians I did not know and was having a great time” (64). A Canadian woman asked how to increase her level of curiosity about Indigenous people, and Maracle replied, “Do something about us, with us, and for us” (64). For example, she continued, churches in Owen Sound, Ontario, rang their bells every Friday in honour of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. People in the town got curious and invited her to speak with them, along with John Ralston Saul, and when she was there, she found the town to be warm and friendly (64-65). “Something will happen and curiosity will be sparked up and culture will be exchanged,” she continued. Maracle’s conclusion from these experiences is that Canadians don’t know much about Indigenous peoples (66-67). But Maracle doesn’t seem to dislike Canadians, despite their ignorance and claims to innocence; she even suggests that although it’s hard getting to know us, the journey is worthwhile (66). “Some of our people with Canadians would move back to their original homelands,” she writes. “Not me—I hope they fall in love with the land the way I have: fully, responsibly, and committed for life” (85). 

It’s hard for me to write about this book—to risk putting myself in what Maracle terms “the Knower’s Chair”: the position of being the one who gets to teach others, a position that, Maracle argues, Canadians refuse to give up in relation to Indigenous peoples (76). “[N]o white men I know have ever given up the Knower’s Chair willingly—they are always trying to educate me. They never seem to notice how annoying that is,” she writes. “I have met a few white women who have given up their Knower’s Chair. That gives me some hope for the future” (77). The person who occupies the Knower’s Chair refuses to reflect on what he (or possibly she, although Maracle’s pronouns suggest otherwise) knows:

You can mention any contentious subject about racism, sexism, or any other form of oppression, and your white male listener will avoid applying it to himself. Those who do that never get to experience the powerful and transformational aha moment of when you see what you are doing to up the stakes in a conflict. They will only go so far as to say yes to what you said. After that, the conversation is over. This agreement is the end of the road, and I suspect they are wanting forgiveness. There will be no discussion of the origin of the admission, no discussion of its history and the effect on the individual. The thing that moves them is forgiveness. For what? To be forgiven, the transgressor has to confess, but that did not happen, so does this mean the tearful white man is shedding tears of relief? After all, his place is intact, the Knower’s Chair is still his, and he does not have to change anything. (77)

Can I write about this book without occupying the Knower’s Chair? Or by writing about it, am I allowing Maracle to occupy that position? In other words, by writing about this book, am I learning from her? I would like to think so, but I could be wrong.

The question of forgiveness is important for Maracle, and her remarks make me wonder about the purpose of the apologies our governments have offered for this country’s colonialist past—especially since those apologies are never accompanied by any change in present or future behaviour. “We do not have forgiveness as a recurring theme in our culture,” Maracle writes:

If you hurt someone, own it, look at yourself, track where it came from, learn from it and make it right, continue to learn from it, continue to deepen your understanding, and grow from it. If you are transgressed, look at how it made you feel, inventory how you behave, and transform yourself—do not let the transgressions of others damage your authentic self. If you were hurt, look at the impact and effect of the hurt on you and make it right inside so that later you will not pass on the hurt to those who are innocent. Continue to learn from the behaviour. (76)

When I asked my Cree teacher how to say “I’m sorry,” he was genuinely stumped. “We don’t have a word for that,” he finally said. I know that, as Maracle says, every Indigenous nation is unique—“a Sto:lo is as much like an Ojibway as a Frenchman is like a Russian,” she writes (67)—but still, the emphasis on action, rather than apology, seems to operate across national and linguistic boundaries. And her remarks make me wonder what value there is in government apologies—especially when they are not accompanied by action. (I’m talking to you, Premier Moe.)

There is a lot more to say about this book: I haven’t discussed the essays about the colonial imposition of gender binaries, or Canada’s fixation with its multicultural identity, or the need to recognize oral literature along with written literature, or cultural appropriation. That last chapter is important, and I think it’s the only one that’s not actually addressed to settler Canadians—at least, not entirely. According to Maracle, all Sto:lo people owned were their stories, songs, and names—“this is our private, clan, family wealth,” she writes; “[t]hat was our private property” (100)—and so for someone to take those stories is a disinheritance (100). Appropriation is stealing, she continues, “so in order for appropriation to occur, theft must travel with it and receive either resale or profit or personal royalties as a benefit from its use,” while “the original owner must lose the use, benefit, authority, and ownership (as control) over the appropriated item; otherwise it is simply sharing” (101). “Appropriation can occur only if the person doing the appropriating has no prior authority or birthright or permission to access the item and no permission from its original owner to use and benefit from the item” (101). Both land and knowledge were appropriated during colonization, and much of that knowledge ended up in universities, from which Indigenous people must buy it back in the form of courses (101-02). Because of the loss of land and knowledge—and it’s clear that these are inextricably linked—Indigenous people began to think they had no knowledge (105). “Today we struggle to reclaim our knowledge, to articulate and create literary and scholarly works from it, and to end the theft through writing that characterized 120 years of prohibition, theft, and abrogation of our ancestors’ authority and ownership of knowledge,” Maracle writes. “For us to reclaim knowledge, we must re-aggregate it and we must build institutions to accomplish this” (106). Those institutions, however, must be open to Indigenous children and young people; the transmission of Indigenous knowledge to them is of paramount importance, even though ensuring transmission of that knowledge while protecting it from those who would appropriate it is difficult and complicated (107). “No one but our children are entitled to our knowledge, stories, law, teachings, science, or medicine,” Maracle argues, and therefore cultural protocols—giving gifts of tobacco to Elders, for example—are only intended for outsiders or foreigners, for non-Indigenous people, and not for Indigenous children. Much of this argument, I think, is directed at other Indigenous people who ask their children and young people for something in exchange for knowledge, or at universities, where that knowledge is commodified. I’m not sure about that, but for much of the chapter on cultural appropriation, I felt like I was overhearing a conversation, rather than being spoken to directly. That’s not a complaint, just an observation.

My Conversations with Canadians is an important book, particularly now, with militarized RCMP officers occupying Wet’suwet’en territory and arresting people who are defending the land and the water. “I have laws, I have politics, I have beliefs, I have story,” Maracle writes:

What I don’t have is access to my land—someone else is preventing me to access my land by dint of the bayonet and maintains it by a host of laws that are enforced by your hired guns (police and army). Do not mistake my kindness in not responding to your hired guns for a deluded belief in your centrality. Do not mistake my kindness for acceptance of the right of access to my land or for the absence of my love for it. Further, do not mistake my kindness for a relinquishment of who I am and who I will always want to be. (132)

“Settlers ought to look at their history, then look in the mirror,” Maracle continues. “After annihilating our populations, and much of the animal life on this continent and on the oceans, and after spoiling the air, the lands, and the waters, who would want to be you?” (132). Put that way, who would? I wouldn’t. How sad that is. I am glad, though, that I read this book, even though it’s not on my reading list. That omission was a mistake and it’s good that I’ve been able to correct it.

Works Cited

Maracle, Lee. My Conversations with Canadians. Book*hug, 2017.

14. Lawrence Shapiro, Embodied Cognition

embodied cognition

After not learning much about embodiment or embodied knowledge from the last book I read, I decided to go outside of my list in order to try to find something more helpful. When I looked at the library’s database, I didn’t find a whole lot about embodied knowledge; however, I did discover that a lot has been published about embodied cognition. Maybe I should read an introductory text on that, I thought. Maybe that’s the field of inquiry I’ve been trying to find. And that decision brought me to Lawrence Shapiro’s book, Embodied Cognition.

Shapiro describes the aims of his book on the first page: “to introduce and develop the central themes of embodied cognition,” and to assess “the relationship between embodied cognition and standard cognitive science” (1). These are important questions, he writes, because what our minds are like matters to our understanding of who and what we are (2). Standard cognitive science is a clearly defined and demarcated field of inquiry which claims that “cognition involves algorithmic processes upon symbolic representations” (2). In other words, for standard cognitive science, cognition is like a computer: our brains are the hardware, and our minds are the software (41). Embodied cognition, however, is different. According to Shapiro, there are three themes in embodied cognition. The first is Conceptualization (the capitalization is Shapiro’s), which argues that 

[t]he properties of an organism’s body limit or constrain the concepts an organism can acquire. That is, the concepts on which an organism relies to understand its surrounding world depend on the kind of body that it has, so that were organisms to differ with respect to their bodies, they would differ as well in how they understand the world. (4)

Humans and, say slugs—if slugs are capable of cognition, that is; sentient slugs, perhaps—would therefore understand the world in different ways because of their different bodies. That’s because that organism’s understanding of the world “is determined in some sense by the properties of its body and sensory organs” (66). The second theme is Replacement:

An organism’s body in interaction with its environment replaces the need for representational processes thought to have been at the core of cognition. Thus, cognition does not depend on algorithmic processes over symbolic representations. It can take place in systems that do not include representational states, and can be explained without appeal to computational processes or representational states. (4)

Our interactions between our bodies and our environment are the key to cognition, according to this theme, rather than computations going on in our brains. For Replacement, “the computational and representational tools that have for so long dominated standard cognitive science are in fact irremediably defective, and so must be abandoned in favor of new tools and approaches”—tools and approaches that don’t use a vocabulary filled with computational concepts (68). The final theme is Constitution: “The body or world plays a constitutive rather than merely causal role in cognitive processing” (4-5). For this theme, our bodies and/or our environment constitute—at least in part—cognition, rather than just whatever is going on in our heads. According to Shapiro, Constitution is “a commitment to the idea that the constituents of the mind might comprise objects and properties apart from those found in the head,” so that “mental activity includes the brain, the body, and the world, or interactions among these things” (68).

Before Shapiro discusses these themes—he calls them “themes” because he doesn’t think embodied cognition has yet acquired to coherence of a theory—he presents an overview of standard cognitive science. This way of looking at cognition claims that our minds are like computers—in fact, since the 1960s cognitive scientists have been trying to create computer software that mimics human cognition. According to this version of cognition, the environment in which an organism exists, and the body of that organism, do not matter to that organism’s cognitive processes: “cognition is computation, computation operates over symbols, symbols begin with inputs to the brain and end with outputs from the brain, so it is in the brain alone that cognition takes place and it is with the brain alone that cognitive science need concern itself” (26-27). In other words, cognition is solipsistic: subjects are merely passive receivers of information, and if you give inputs to their computational processes, the rest of the world makes no difference to those processes—a model many cognitive scientists endorse (26). Embodied cognition, though, takes a very different approach to cognition. It “resists the idea that cognition is solipsistic, and so rejects the idea that subjects are passive receivers of stimulation” (27).  Instead, according to embodied cognition, our bodies and our environments are part of cognition. For Shapiro, embodied cognition raises a couple of key questions: How might the body contribute to or constrain our psychological capacities? Is the body a constituent in psychological processes? What from standard cognitive science can be retained, and what ought to be abandoned? (50).

Shapiro’s next move is to attempt to present a common background of embodied cognition, with reference to several multidisciplinary research projects. For some researchers, cognition is embodied action: it depends on the kinds of experiences that come from having a body with sensorimotor capacities—that is, a body that moves and collects information from its senses—and these sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a wider biological, psychological, and cultural context (52). Other researchers claim that cognition depends on the experiences that come from having a body with specific perceptual and motor capacities that are inseparably linked, and that together form a matrix within which various aspects of cognition take place (56). Still others claim that the body is not merely a container for the brain, or a contributor to the brain’s activities, but is the brain’s partner in cognition (66). 

Following that attempt at a general description of embodied cognition, Shapiro reviews research that, in his judgment, falls into the Conceptualization theme. The research of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson is central to this discussion. According to Lakoff and Johnson, we understand basic concepts with reference to our bodies and their motion (88). Our minds, they contend, are biological and neural, not symbolic; our thought is embodied; the vast majority of our mind’s activity is unconscious; and abstract thought is metaphorical and uses the same sensorimotor system that runs our bodies (92). For Shapiro, the claims of Conceptualization are trivial (112), and standard cognitive science has computational explanations for many of the problems that Conceptualization claims cannot be explained by it (113), and many advocates of Conceptualization do not understand the science they “seek to topple,” especially Lakoff and Johnson (113). For these reasons, Shapiro concludes that Conceptualization is not a promising research theme.

Replacement, for Shapiro, is the theme that is the most self-consciously opposed to the computational framework that is at the core of standard cognitive science (114). Its proponents suggest that dynamical systems theory, rather than computational theory, would provide the right tools to investigate cognition (115) in a way that is committed to embodiment and situatedness—that is, to the body and its place in an environment (116). Dynamical systems theory, however, consists of a complex mathematical apparatus that attempts to describe how things change over time (116), and if it’s true that “[c]ognition emerges from dynamical interactions among brain, body, and world” (125), the resulting equations would be impossibly complicated. “Indeed,” Shapiro notes, “a common criticism of dynamical approaches to cognition is that they are practically intractable except in the simplest cases” (127-28). Shapiro concludes that the Replacement theme also falls short, because the kinds of behaviour that dynamicists have investigated “represent too thin a slice of the full cognitive spectrum to inspire much faith that embodiment and situatedness can account for all cognitive phenomena” (156).

Lastly, Shapiro takes on the Constitution theme. Proponents of this theme argue that cognitive processes extend beyond the brain (158). Some suggest that the body is part of the mind; others that the mind extends beyond the body and into the world—a view known as extended cognition (158-59). Unfortunately, much of the debate over constitution takes the form of a thought experiment, in which a brain is kept alive in a vat. When brains can be separated from the bodies that house them, I’ll take such thought experiments seriously. More sensible is the suggestion that when we write something down in a notebook in order to remember it, the pencil and paper we are using are part of our cognitive processes (185). 

In his conclusion, Shapiro argues that Conceptualization offers poor explanations of cognition (205-06), compared to standard cognitive science, and that while Replacement offers better explanations of particular phenomena, it is best thought of as an extension of standard cognitive science, rather than an alternative (207). Constitution, on the other hand, is not in competition with standard cognitive science, despite the intentions of some of its proponents (208), because “one can pursue Constitution with the assistance of explanatory concepts that are central to standard cognitive science,” something that cannot be said of Conceptualization or Replacement. In fact, Shapiro argues that Constitution pushes the boundaries of standard cognitive science—perhaps farther than many of its practitioners would have expected.

What do I make of this whirlwind introduction to a complex field I barely understand? Well, for starters, I think that standard cognitive science seems to be based on a metaphor that isn’t acknowledged as a metaphor: the brain is a computer, and our minds are that computer’s software. After all, the field seems to have arisen only after the invention of computers, and its first research projects were computer simulations that attempted to mimic our brains. What if the brain is something very different from a computer? What happens to that metaphor in that case? And does it make sense to try to separate mind and body? When I’m walking a long way on a hot day and I start to get heat exhaustion, the first symptoms include irritability and confusion. Doesn’t that suggest the link between my body and my cognitive processes? What about the recent studies that suggest that populations of gut bacteria have an effect on depression? Don’t they suggest that it’s foolish to attempt to separate mind and body? What would happen if cognitive scientists talked to neuroscientists about what’s actually going on in our skulls, instead of relying on thought experiments and simulations? Wouldn’t their theories end up being grounded in something other than a metaphor (and a pretty tired one at that)? My immediate impulse is to side with those who see a connection between mind and body, rather than a separation, and while I appreciate the care with which Shapiro works through the claims made by proponents of the various themes of embodied cognition, I wonder if his conclusions about those themes are warranted. Part of the problem, I think, is that Shapiro wants to see experimental data about embodied cognition, a field that is far too complex to generate such data. After all, if it’s true that our minds, bodies, and environment are interconnected in fundamental ways, how would those interconnections be measured? Maybe those experiments are less useful than Shapiro thinks they are.

Perhaps I need to spend more time investigating embodied cognition. I could, for example, read Lakoff and Johnson’s huge book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought, even though it’s not on my list, despite Shapiro’s dismissal of their work. Or I could look at theories of embodied learning. I’m not sure where to proceed, but I still have a sense that embodiment is an important part of my research, and that I need to find a way to think and write about it. 

Works Cited

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic, 1999.

Shapiro, Lawrence. Embodied Cognition. Routledge, 2011.

13. Celeste Snowber, Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living, and Being through the Body

embodied inquiry

One of the things I’m interested in exploring is embodied knowledge—that is, knowledge that is produced by the senses and held by the body. Maybe the embodied quality of that knowledge is only metaphorical; maybe that knowledge is actually in the brain and not in the body. I don’t know. That’s one of my questions. Anyone who has learned to ride a bicycle, though, has had an experience of embodied knowledge. Otherwise, the hard-won combination of motor skills and balance and forward movement involved in cycling wouldn’t come together, and that ability would be forgotten—something that never happens, we’re told: “It’s just like riding a bike!” is a cliché, perhaps, but it’s also true. 

I’ve had what I think are experiences of embodied knowledge through walking, although I don’t know much about the process of embodiment and don’t have a language with which to speak of it. That’s why I added Celeste Snowber’s Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living, and Being through the Body to my reading list. I had hoped that Snowber, a professor of arts education at the University of British Columbia, might offer a systematic approach to thinking about embodied knowledge. I’m planning to read some phenomenology as a way of approaching this topic, but I thought that this short book might be a better place to start. However, I was disappointed: the book is idiosyncratic, poetic, autobiographical, and meditative—more of a New Age self-help guide than a cogent theorization of embodied inquiry or embodied knowledge. That’s fine, if that’s what you’re looking for; unfortunately, it’s not what I need right now. 

“In this book, I invite you to see the body as a place of inquiry, a place of learning, understanding and perceiving,” Snowber writes in the book’s preface (xiii). Her approach, she suggests, has been developed by reading broadly in a variety of fields, “including poetics, curriculum studies, phenomenology, arts-based research, deep ecology, feminist studies, and of course, from the experience of daily life,” and this book is intended to be a companion “to the vast scholarly work done in embodied ways of knowing and inquiry” (xiv). I was hoping that this book would make more references to that “vast scholarly work,” but it doesn’t. Instead, Snowber describes her book as inspirational, as “[a] map to your own pilgrimage back to befriending your body” (xvi). I don’t need inspiration or to befriend my body, however; I need a theoretical language I can use to think about the relationship between embodiment and knowledge.

The first chapter is written from the perspective of the reader’s body. “My sentences are formed with the grammar of the gut,” Snowber writes. “This is a grammar that is often left at the doors when policies are being made or enacted. Though this is perhaps where I am most needed” (4). Unfortunately, the phrase “the grammar of the gut” reminds me of the current occupant of the White House, who relies on his faulty intuition, his “gut,” on important issues, like climate change, rather than conferring with people who know what they are talking about and making policy decisions based on evidence. The body needs to move, to play, to connect “to the magic of the life force through the magic of the body” (6), to be befriended. “[T]he deeper truth is that you were all born with the knowledge that you are bodies, not just have bodies,” Snowber writes, but “you soon learned from your culture and teachers that bodily knowledge was not valued as much as head knowledge” (7). That might be true, but claims like “the mind ceases productivity in response to the body being cramped” (7) are offered without evidence here, as aphorisms or self-evident truths, and that kind of writing isn’t helpful for me in this project.

Snowber argues that solitude is an important aspect of embodied inquiry. Her example of solitude is her daily practice of walking alone near the Pacific Ocean. On those walks, she attends to the land—the hills she climbs or descends, the native flora (19)—but I found myself wondering whether she might not be able to give similar attention to the land by walking with others. She takes her students out on silent group walks, for example (20-21). Snowber suggests that solitary physical activity spurs one’s creativity, and offers her daily walks as an example of “a practice where physicality and mindfulness meet” (17). However, she is not only interested in making time to be alone, “but the way in which one inhabits time” (20). That’s an interesting turn of phrase, but I don’t understand what it means, and it isn’t explained. However, someone looking for such explanations—someone like me, that is—is looking for the wrong thing in the wrong place: Snowber writes, “This book is not a fancy methodology, but an invocation to bring aspects to our lives which will infuse our vocation, creativity, research, skills that can bring restoration and inspiration” (22). In other words, don’t look for anything as clear-cut as a methodology here. When I got to that sentence, I should’ve stopped reading, because a methodology is pretty close to what I was hoping to find here.

The word “invocation” suggests Snowber’s interest in the connections between spirituality, sensuality, and the sacred. “Embodied ways of inquiry are an invitation to dwell more richly in the territory of the sensual life, where all of life is both sensual and sacred,” she writes (27). “Feeling the wind on the face, the blood of life running through our cells, the ecstasy of a bending tree, the freshness of water on flesh, the colour of an apricot, or the joy of jumping are all forms of sensuous knowledge,” she continues (27). All of us have experienced those things—at least, I hope we have; on my most recent long walk, I had similar sensual experiences. How do those experiences generate knowledge, however, and where is that knowledge kept? This book cannot answer those questions; that’s not its purpose.

In her chapter on writing, Snowber thinks about breathing and writing, walking and writing, grief and writing, and movement and writing (44-48). She considers writing from places of fragility or vulnerability (50-51). “Writing from the body gives you the opportunity to honour each subtle and bold sensation of life; to respond to the world and ourselves,” she writes. “Therefore everything is material for writing and listening to our lives and the grammar of our own lived experience” (51). I’m not sure those musings are helpful for me. What is helpful, however, is her reference to Mihaly Csikszentmihályi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Of course, I thought when I saw his name—I should be reading that book, not this one. Of course, I could add Csikszentmihályi’s work to my reading list, couldn’t I?

Snowber writes about listening, but in a metaphorical way: “The entire body hears,” she claims (55). “This listening isn’t just between ourselves and our bodies, but it is body to body, earth to earth, earth to body, and to what is beyond” (58). Clearly she isn’t talking about a literal form of listening, but rather listening as connection between ourselves, our environment, and something beyond the physical. In her chapter on the body and paradox, she suggests that our limitations—injuries, for example—are places of generativity, of creativity (65). “Instead of being perplexed by the paradox of the body, perhaps it is time to praise it,” she suggests (71). However, I really don’t know what to make of statements like this one: “Our bodies are the earth. The earth is our body. In my practice of walking, dancing and writing in connection to the landscape and seascape I keep living these words” (77). Yes, we are not separate from the natural world, although our culture and economy do their best to assert such a separation. But how do creative or embodied practices help us to live that truth? Isn’t there a difference between being and knowing, between ontology and epistemology, that is being elided here?

Asking such questions about this book, though, is like breaking a butterfly on a wheel: Embodied Inquiry isn’t intended to answer those kinds of questions—in fact, I would argue that it deliberately refuses to engage with them. It is a personal and eccentric book, and although I’m sure many people have gotten a great deal out of it, it’s not what I need right now. Clearly I need to do more research into embodied knowledge, or whatever term the library’s databases use to categorize that field of inquiry. After all, Snowber says that the scholarship in this area is vast; I need to dig into it, but in a much more careful way. Going by the use of the word “embodied” in a book’s title isn’t good enough. That much I’ve learned.

Work Cited

Snowber, Celeste. Embodied Inquiry: Writing, Living and Being through the Body. Sense, 2016.

12. Craig Fortier, Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism

fortier unsettling the commons

When I read Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe on hegemony, I was wondering how a hegemonic formation that respected First Nations sovereignty might be created in Canada. But according to Craig Fortier, an assistant professor of social development studies at Renison University College in Waterloo and the author of Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism, that’s the wrong question to ask. Contemporary anti-authoritarian movements, Fortier argues—a category that includes a variety of movements against economic, gendered, and racial oppression, including queer liberation, migrant justice, anti-gentrification, prison abolition, anti-imperialism, gender liberation, environmentalism, and disability justice—are inherently non-hegemonic rather than counter-hegemonic, because although they seek radical change, they do not intend to take or influence state power (78). In fact, those anti-authoritarian movements are, by their very nature, both anti-capitalist and anti-state: their goal is the dismantling of state structures, rather than their remaking. Instead, those movements seek to establish a new commons. However, for Fortier that new commons needs to be a decolonized one: “there must be a commitment to dismantling the state, heteropatriarchy, capitalism and imperialism by also divesting from the logics of settler colonialism,” he writes, and the new societies that will result from this dismantling will of necessity be “forged through relationship building and support for Indigenous reclamations of space” (50-51).

Through interviews with anti-authoritarian activists in Canada and the U.S., Fortier seeks to answer a series of questions in this book: 

what is the commons? How should commoning be practiced? What does it mean to build social movements to [re]claim the commons on stolen land? And what does a politics and practice of decolonization look like for non-Indigenous peoples seeking to resist the state while also trying to support Indigenous people in their struggle for self-determination? (15). 

In fact, it is that last question that occupies Fortier’s thinking: “a politics of unsettling and decolonizing are not only different from other forms of liberatory struggles in settler colonial states but are foundational to their success,” he argues (17). Nevertheless, “there are significant roadblocks ahead as we are faced with questions about how to struggle for liberation on stolen land,” he continues. “This is why it’s important to examine the contradictions that come up when seeking to (re)claim the commons in a settler colonial context” (17). I’m an artist, not an anti-authoritarian activist, and my goal is not a (re)claiming of the commons, but I am interested in the contradictions involved in working against colonialism while living on stolen land, and so I was interested in what Fortier has to say about that challenge.

Fortier starts his study with the Occupy movement and various occupations that were part of the “global opposition to neoliberal austerity policies that followed the 2008 financial crisis” (20). Those occupations were “incubators for experimentation in developing alternative forms of social relations outside of the logics of capitalism and have been described as engaging in the practice of reclaiming or re-negotiating the commons”—that is, reclaiming a space outside of state control, opened by those who live on it and shared according to rules they create (20). But, like all social movements, Fortier writes, “those struggling for the commons are also full of contradictions” (21). The main contradiction is that of creating a commons on stolen land—the struggle, Fortier argues, “to imagine liberation in a way that addresses really important questions about relationships to Indigenous peoples, the territories on which the movements took place, and a reckoning of the histories that structure the context in which we struggle today” (23). Attempts to (re)claim a commons on stolen land that do not address those questions, according to Fortier, risk perpetuating settler invasion and Indigenous dispossession (23). Because Occupy Wall Street did not push for liberation outside the context of settlement, for instance, it remained “implicated in the dispossession and erasure of Indigenous peoples from their own territories” (25). “The problem with the idea of the commons in settler states,” Fortier continues, “is that it evades the question of ongoing settler complicity in the project of genocide, land theft, assimilation, and occupation” (30). Settlers—even or especially those in anti-authoritarian movements—need to come to terms with their complicity in this ongoing history. As Clare Bayard, one of the activists Fortier interviews, points out, “The difficulty that a lot of non-Native people have in imagining what unsettling would look like in this country is that it’s not seen as a political possibility. . . . We can’t even imagine what that would look like—how do we do that?” (32). For Fortier, this question “speaks to the normalization of settler colonial logics even within liberatory visions of other worlds. . . . settler colonial logics are so deeply ingrained in our lives, including those of us within the anti-authoritarian current, that it seems impossible to imagine what decolonization would look like” (32). As a result, those anti-authoritarian political projects can end up being antagonistic to Indigenous attempts to assert sovereignty, and “non-Indigenous activists may sidestep their own complicity in the creation and perpetuation of settler colonial space” (37). Artists might find themselves sidestepping their own complicity in the perpetuation of that space as well.

Any resistance to things as they are—resistance against gentrification, “racist immigration and border policies,” heteropatriarchy, or environmental destruction—always takes place on top of both settler colonialism and Indigenous resistance to dispossession, Fortier contends (48-49):

This double-bind of being made by but also trying to surpass colonized subjectivity means that any struggle within the settler colonial context will always be tied by the logics of settler colonialism unless activists work to build decolonial relationships with Indigenous peoples and amongst each other that relinquish claims to settler futurity. (49)

Fortier doesn’t define “settler futurity,” unfortunately, although he does gesture to articles by Eve Tuck and Ruben Gaztambide-Fernández, and K. Gardner and Gibwanisi, on this point. (Please, people: remember your audience. If you are using a term that others may find unfamiliar, one that cannot be found in a decent dictionary, provide a definition.) “By working to create deep, long-term, and accountable relationships with Indigenous struggles for decolonization and self-determination,” Fortier writes, “non-Indigenous people can open up the possibility of sharing in a decolonial future” (50). However, creating those relationships is difficult and full of potential pitfalls. One might admire the political, spiritual, and social practices of Indigenous peoples, for instance, but that admiration can easily slide into appropriative and harmful behaviours (52). Any borrowing from Indigenous peoples needs to be respectful and take place through a process of relationship building and dialogue (54-55). “What is often missing from movements seeking to reclaim the commons—in whatever form they might take—is the presence of relationships that centre Indigenous practices, traditions, and protocols without seeking to incorporate them into a broader naturalized settler politics,” Fortier writes (57). Settlers must be willing to learn from Indigenous people with humility and accountability (63), to become co-conspirators rather than allies (64), and to accept the leadership of Indigenous communities (93). This process means becoming vulnerable (88), realizing that everything you know has to be questioned (88-89), and accepting the partiality of one’s knowledge (90). “While this uncertainty is unsettling,” Fortier writes, “that’s precisely the point: unsettling should be unsettling. The process of unsettling our movements is not simply an individual transcendence of racial prejudices and feelings of entitlement, guilt, or shame.” Rather, “it is a collective transformation of the knowledges and worldviews that shapes societies, and individual’s interactions, and the way these territories are inhabited” (89).

In practical terms, relationships between anti-authoritarian activists and Indigenous communities can be created by working together. As an example, Fortier cites demonstrations against tar sands pipelines, demonstrations that were created through relationships between non-Indigenous activists and Indigenous land-based struggles, using a diverse range of tactics and strategies that included “lobbying, community research and education, rallies and protests, fundraising, legal interventions, direct actions and blockades, traffic disruptions” (66). But some of Fortier’s demands are more abstract. For instance, he argues that 

non-Indigenous activists have a responsibility to move beyond acknowledging their settler complicity toward incorporating and integrating decolonizing relationships into all of our strategies, tactics and campaigns (even those that on the surface do not seem to relate to Indigenous sovereignty). (93)

To be honest, I’m not sure what that would look like, although Fortier also suggests that it is important “to learn from the place-based philosophies and strategies of mobilization that influence Indigenous processes of resurgence and decolonization” (95)—as long as such learning could take place without appropriation, of course. In his final chapter, Fortier gives one possible example of how this works in practice: the creation of Oshkimaadziig Unity Camp by union activists from York University and members of the Anishinabek Confederacy to Invoke our Nationhood in Awenda Provincial Park, some 200 kilometres north of Toronto. That camp, which lasted four years, “was an example of a commons that situates practice, place, and relationships at the heart of its work,” as well as being “a direct invocation of Anishinabek nationhood and sovereignty,” “an assertion of the connection between this nationhood and the land,” “an interruption of settler colonial sovereignty,” and “an invitation to re-negotiate human and non-human relationships based on traditional Anishinabek knowledge” (102). “For the organizers of the camp,” Fortier writes, “this meant acknowledging the long-standing co-stewardship of these territories between their nation and Haudenosaunee peoples. It also emphasized their desire to invite non-Indigenous people to participate in a renewal of the long histories of Indigenous governance on these lands” (102). The fact that you’ve probably never heard of this camp—I certainly hadn’t—or that it only lasted for a short time, doesn’t matter. “The idea that the changes we are seeking will not come from one grand monolithic movement, but rather from small, diverse, and widespread attempts to live outside the dominant logics of our time” is the purpose of such activities, Fortier argues, citing the idea of the “undercommons” as described by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten in their 2013 book, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. The undercommons, Fortier writes, is different from the commons; the latter “is a refusal of the process of closure,” but the former “resists both enclosure and settlement” (104). According to Fortier, “the struggle for the undercommons means to destabilize our intellectual, affective, spiritual, and material commitments to the power relations of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and settler colonialism” (105). But along with the undercommons, Fortier cites Junot Díaz’s concept of “decolonial love” (106-07), which “bridges the mental, material, emotional, and spiritual through the practice of relationality and reciprocity.” Decolonial love, he continues, “is an invitation to shift and transform our affective and spiritual relationships on these territories. It is a pathway towards a different kind of commons” (107). But, he concludes, “for this strategy to be effective decolonization needs to be foundational to all of our radical dreams, desires, and political projects—from their start and even at their end” (108).

I’m not sure what to make of Fortier’s book. I wonder what tangible results the struggles for the undercommons actually achieve. I find it hard to imagine what a world without states might look like, or how we might get there: after all, the state has a long, long history, and failed states—Venezuela, Libya, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, or Syria—are hardly places where one would want to live. There’s no guarantee that, once the state has disappeared, gangsters wouldn’t loot the armouries and establish regimes that would make capitalist liberal democracies look pretty good by comparison. What I’m trying to say is that there’s a powerful element of utopianism in Fortier’s argument, as well as a belief in the perfectibility of human nature, and I find both of those somewhat naive. At the same time, I agree with the argument that settlers need to build relationships with Indigenous communities and accept their leadership. That’s one of the reasons I’m learning Cree, although I’m sure that Fortier would tell me that learning an Indigenous language is not enough. Still, Unsettling the Commons has given me a lot to think about, and Fortier’s bibliography is very useful. He also makes me want to give that book by Harney and Moten another try—my first attempt at reading it foundered in the details of their argument. Like much of what I’ve read so far towards my comprehensive examinations, Unsettling the Commons has raised new questions, rather than answering old ones, and perhaps that’s the best outcome I can hope for in this process.

Works Cited

Fortier, Craig. Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism. ARP Books, 2017.

11. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics

laclau and mouffe

This 1985 book was a big deal when I was an undergraduate: I read many essays and articles that made some kind of reference to it. Someday, I thought, I’m going to read that. But I never did. Then, last semester, I read a couple of  essays on socially engaged art practices that referred to the notion of antagonism in Laclau and Mouffe, one by Shannon Jackson and one by Claire Bishop, and so I decided that I would add Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to my comprehensive examination reading list. Besides, I was curious about the concept of hegemony. How did it work? Would it be possible, for example, to imagine a Canada where the hegemonic formation respected Indigenous rights and would never think of sending the RCMP to arrest people protecting their unceded land and water? Or a Canada where the long-term threat of climate change was more important than the short-term gain of selling fossil fuels? Or are such ideas merely utopian fantasies? 

A lot has happened in the more than 30 years since Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics was published, but it’s still considered to be an important book. In his introduction to a recent collection of Chantal Mouffe’s essays, for example, James Martin describes the book as a “slim yet ground-breaking volume” and a “major innovation in the theorisation of radical politics” (1). In their 2000 preface to the book’s second edition, Laclau and Mouffe suggest that most of what had happened since the book’s first appearance has closely followed the pattern they describe in it. “[T]hose issues which were central to our concerns at that moment have become ever more prominent in contemporary discussions,” they write (vii), and their discussion of the hegemonic formation of neo-conservatism in the book’s final chapter certainly does seem to explain much of our political life since the 1980s.

Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is a difficult book, but the preface to the second edition does help to summarize its argument. Laclau and Mouffe set out to deconstruct existing Marxist categories, and they describe their “post-Marxism” as “the process of reappropriation of an intellectual tradition, as well as the process of going beyond it” (ix). That deconstruction uses poststructualist theory to take apart the essentialisms and totalizations of Marxism. So, Laclau and Mouffe, drawing from Michel Foucault, argue that the social is a discursive space, and discourses dissolve the illusion of an immediate or non-mediated access to things (xi). From Jacques Derrida, they take the notion of undecidability, and from Jacques Lacan, the idea that one element can assume a “universal” structuring function within a given discursive field, as well as the importance of “identification” as a category (xi-xii). But their real starting point is Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. In a hegemonic relation, they write, “a certain particularity assumes the representation of a universality entirely incommensurable with it” (xiii). A hegemonic relation is therefore metonymic: a part claims to represent the whole. Such representations, though, are always reversible and never permanent; they are therefore political, depending on “internal frontiers within society” (xiii). That leads to the notion of antagonism. Society is constituted around the limits defined by antagonisms; they are social divisions that are inherent in society and in politics (xiv). Laclau and Mouffe reject the idea that rational people will come to a consensus about social or political issues. That consensus is impossible, because antagonisms—opposing ideas about what is important or true—define the terrain of the social and the political. The “sacralization of consensus,” they write, is a problem, because it means “abandoning any attempt at transforming the present hegemonic order” (xv)—and that kind of transformation is what they think needs to happen. Such a transformation, however, does not mean abandoning the values espoused by liberal democracy. “In our view, the problem with ‘actually existing’ liberal democracies is not with their constitutive values crystallized in the principles of liberty and equality for all,” Laclau and Mouffe write, “but with the system of power which redefines and limits the operation of those values” (xv). That is the reason their project of “‘radical and plural democracy’” was conceived as a way of extending “the democratic struggles for equality and liberty to a wider range of social relations” (xv-xvi).

For Laclau and Mouffe, there are alternatives to “the so-called ‘globalized world,’” and thinking about that world through the category of hegemony

can help us to understand that the present conjuncture, far from being the only natural or possible societal order, is the expression of a certain configuration of power relations. It is the result of hegemonic moves on the part of specific social forces which have been able to implement a profound transformation in the relations between capitalist corporations and the nation-states. This hegemony can be challenged. (xvi-xvii)

Challenging that hegemony and elaborating a credible alternative to it are the jobs of the Left, they continue, not managing that hegemony more humanely. Those tasks would require “drawing new political frontiers and acknowledging that there cannot be a radical politics without the definition of an adversary,” they continue. In other words, those tasks would require “the acceptance of the ineradicability of antagonism” (xvii). “Conflict and division, in our view, are neither disturbances that unfortunately cannot be eliminated nor empirical impediments that cannot render impossible the full realization of a harmony that we cannot attain because we will never be able to leave our particularities completely aside in order to act in accordance with our rational self,” they write (xvii). Indeed, “without conflict and division, a pluralist democratic politics would be impossible,” because the moment conflicts or antagonisms were eliminated, democracy itself would disintegrate (xviii). “[A]ny form of consensus is the result of a hegemonic articulation,” they continue, and such an articulation “always has an ‘outside’ that impedes its full realization” (xviii). There is always resistance to any consensus, in other words, because something, or someone, is left outside of it. Moreover, Laclau and Mouffe believe that “a chain of equivalence among the various democratic struggles against different forms of subordination” needs to be created; that is, “struggles against sexism, racism, sexual discrimination, and in the defence of the environment need to be articulated with those of the workers in a new left-wing hegemonic project” (xviii). That’s easier said than done, of course, because of the antagonisms that cut through society—antagonisms or divisions between, for example, Indigenous people whose land is threatened by pipelines, and steel workers whose livelihoods depend on the construction of those pipelines. (I might not be using the word “antagonism” in a technically correct way, according to this book’s argument, but I hope I am.)

The first two chapters of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy set out how the version of hegemony that Laclau and Mouffe present is different from past Marxist theory. In the first chapter, the authors take classical Marxism to task for its essentialism and its belief in a historical teleology, among other things. In the second, they show how their definition of hegemony is different from Gramsci’s. At the beginning of the third chapter, they write that those two earlier chapters have “provided us with something more and something less than a precise discursive location from which to embark” (79). Much of the third chapter attempts to define the key terms in their argument: articulation, moment, discursive formation, discourse, and society. For example, they argue that “society” is not a self-defined totality, nor a valid object of discourse (97), because it is only partially fixed (or, I think, coherent and capable of definition): “If the social does not manage to fix itself in the intelligible and instituted forms of a society, the social only exists . . . as an effort to construct that impossible object” (98). That’s not a surprise, because “[a]ny discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a centre,” and the word “society” is part of discourse, rather than something outside of discourse (98). “[T]he privileged discursive points of this partial fixation,” they continue, are “nodal points”—another key term in their argument:

The practice of articulation, therefore, consists in the construction of nodal points which partially fix meaning; and the partial character of this fixation proceeds from the openness of the social, a result, in its turn, of the constant overflowing of every discourse by the infinitude in the field of discursivity. (100)

Yes, you need to have read some poststructuralist theory to follow this argument, but it’s not impossible to understand: everything—both society and the individual subject—is “penetrated by the same ambiguous, incomplete and polysemical character which overdetermination assigns to every discursive identity” (107-08). However, there are limits to difference: those limits are antagonisms (108). An antagonism is not a contradiction (110), nor is it an opposition (110-11). Rather, in an antagonism, “the presence of the ‘Other’ prevents me from being totally myself,” a relation that arises from the impossibility of the constitution of full totalities (111). In other words, “Insofar as there is antagonism, I cannot be a full presence for myself” (111); “antagonism constitutes the limits of every objectivity”—that is, every opposition—“which is revealed as partial and precarious objectification” (111). This is complicated stuff, and the example Laclau and Mouffe provide doesn’t clarify things much: “it is because a peasant cannot be a peasant that an antagonism exists with the landowner expelling him from his land,” they write (111). I’m not sure I understand that idea: doesn’t the antagonism between peasant and landowner exist prior to the landowner’s decision to expel the peasant from the land? In practice, however, it seems that “antagonism,” as Laclau and Mouffe use the term, is a lot closer to its dictionary definition.

All of these definitions are, our authors contend, the necessary theoretical elements “to determine the specificity of the concept of hegemony” (120). “It is because hegemony supposes the incomplete and open character of the social,” they write, “that it can take place only in a field dominated by articulating practices” (120). A hegemonic articulation “should take place through a confrontation with antagonistic articulatory practices”—in other words, “hegemony should emerge in a field criss-crossed by antagonisms,” although not every antagonism suggests or produces hegemony (122). “Thus, the two conditions of a hegemonic articulation are the presence of antagonistic forces and the instability of the frontiers which separate them,” Laclau and Mouffe continue. “Only the presence of a vast area of floating elements and the possibility of their articulation to opposite camps—which implies a constant redefinition of the latter—is what constitutes the terrain permitting us to define a practice as hegemonic,” they write. “Without equivalence and without frontiers, it is impossible to speak strictly of hegemony” (122). However, the proliferation of political spaces, and the complexity and difficulty of their articulation, are both central characteristics of advanced capitalist social formations, in which there is no single political space, but rather multiple political spaces, and therefore a plurality of democratic struggles (123-24). “This is why the hegemonic form of politics only becomes dominant at the beginning of modern times, when the reproduction of the different social areas takes place in permanently changing conditions which constantly require the construction of new systems of differences,” Laclau and Mouffe contend (125). Therefore, “the area of articulatory practices is immensely broadened,” and “every social identity becomes the meeting point for a multiplicity of articulatory practices, many of them antagonistic” (125). When I read that sentence, I thought about banks: everyone complains about service fees and the way the big banks treat their employees, but at the same time, we all have retirement funds invested in them, and so we all have a stake in their profitability—even if that profitability depends on the service fees and exploitation. Maybe I’m completely off base, but our social identities—or at least, my social identity—is a meeting point for those two (possibly antagonistic) articulations: my dislike of the banks and my need for their continuing profitability.

Laclau and Mouffe continue describing and defining hegemony and hegemonic formations for several more pages, but because their argument is abstract, it is difficult to grasp. It is only in the last chapter, where they begin to provide examples, that I started to feel that I knew what was going on. (And, as I review my notes from the third chapter, I’m starting to think I understand their argument—if I had time, I would reread that chapter, but I have too many other books to read to indulge in such repetition.) At the beginning of the last chapter, Laclau and Mouffe argue that we need to accept “the plurality and indeterminacy of the social” in order to create “a new political imaginary, radically libertarian and infinitely more ambitious in its objectives than that of the classic left” (136). “[P]olitics is a practice of creation, reproduction and transformation of social relations,” they continue, and it cannot “be located at a determinate level of the social, as the problem of the political is the problem of the institution of the social, that is, of the definition and articulation of social relations in a field criss-crossed with antagonisms” (137). The central problem, therefore, is identifying “the discursive conditions for the emergence of a collective action, directed towards struggling against inequalities and challenging relations of subordination,” as well as identifying “the conditions in which a relation of subordination becomes a relation of oppression, and thereby constitutes itself into the site of an antagonism” (137). A relation of oppression, they continue, requires “the presence of a discursive ‘exterior’ from which the discourse of subordination can be interrupted” (138)—the way that the words serf or slave “do not designate in themselves antagonistic positions: it is only in the terms of a different discursive formation, such as ‘the rights inherent to every human being,’ that the differential positivity of these categories can be subverted and the subordination constructed as oppression” (138). I’m not sure that is true, particularly in the case of enslaved Africans in the New World: even prior to the French Revolution, which Laclau and Mouffe describe as the key moment in the invention of democratic culture (139), wouldn’t enslaved Africans have understood their enslavement as oppression? “Our thesis is that it is only from the moment when the democratic discourse becomes available to articulate the different forms of resistance to subordination that the conditions will exist to make possible the struggle against different types of inequality,” they write (138), a statement that ignores the revolts of the Diggers, to take one example, or any other struggle which took place prior to the 18th century.

It wasn’t until Laclau and Mouffe began to discuss the hegemonic formation that was constructed after the Second World War that I really started to understand their argument. That hegemonic formation involved a transition to “an intensive regime of accumulation” in which “capitalist relations of production” spread “to the whole set of social relations,” which were subordinated “to the logic of production for profit” through Fordism, the assembly line, and the transformation of society “into a vast market in which new ‘needs’ were ceaselessly created, and in which more and more of the products of human labour were turned into social commodities” (144). “Today,” they continue, “it is not only as a seller of labour-power that the individual is subordinated to capital, but also through his or her incorporation into a multitude of other social relations: culture, free time, illness, education, sex and even death. There is practically no domain of individual or collective life which escapes capitalist relations” (144-45). As a result, numerous new struggles have emerged, expressing resistance against these new forms of subordination (145). At the same time, there were growing levels of bureaucratization, imposing still other forms of subordination, and therefore other struggles emerged against bureaucratic forms of State power (146). “One cannot understand the present expansion of the field of social conflictuality and the consequent emergence of new political subjects,” Laclau and Mouffe argue,

without situating both in the context of the commodification and bureaucratization of social relations on the one hand, and the reformulation of the liberal-democratic ideology—resulting from the expansion of struggles for equality—on the other. For this reason, we have proposed that this proliferation of antagonisms and calling into question of relations of subordination should be considered as a moment of deepening of the democratic revolution. This has also been stimulated by the third important aspect in the mutation of social relations which has characterized the hegemonic formation of the post-war period: namely, the new cultural forms linked to the expansion of the means of mass communication. These were to make possible a new mass culture which would profoundly shake traditional identities. Once again, the effects here are ambiguous, as along with the undeniable effects of massification and uniformization, this media-based culture also contains powerful elements for the subversion of inequalities: the dominant discourses in consumer society present it as social progress and the advance of democracy, to the extent that it allows the vast majority of the population access to an ever-increasing range of goods. (147)

“Interpellated as equals in their capacity as consumers, ever more numerous groups are impelled to reject the real inequalities that continue to exist,” they continue (147-48), resulting in a “‘democratic consumer culture’ which stimulates the emergence of new struggles and the rejection of old forms of subordination (148). At the same time, “‘new antagonisms’” emerge, which “are the expression of forms of resistance to the commodification, bureaucratization and increasing homogenization of social life,” which explains why these new antagonisms “should frequently manifest themselves through a proliferation of particularisms, and crystallize into a demand for autonomy itself” (148). 

That demand for autonomy was part of “the two great themes of the democratic imaginary—equality and liberty” (148). As liberty became more central after the Second World War, it tended to become a discourse of the Right, not the Left. In other words, an antagonism can crystallize in any political orientation: “it always consists in the construction of a social identity—of an overdetermined subject position—on the basis of the equivalence between a set of elements or values which expel or externalize those others to which they are opposed” (148-49). New antagonisms emerge, along with new political subjects, linked to the expansion and generalization of the democratic revolution after the war, and yet those new struggles are not necessarily progressive (152). “All struggles,” Laclau and Mouffe write, 

left to themselves, have a partial character, and can be articulated to very different discourses. It is this articulation which gives them their character, not the place from which they come. There is therefore no subject—nor, further, any “necessity”—which is absolutely radical and irrecuperable by the dominant social order, and which constitutes an absolutely guaranteed point of departure for a total transformation. (153)

The novelty of neo-conservatism in the 1980s, for example, “lies in its successful articulation to neo-liberal discourse of a series of democratic resistances to the transformation of social relations,” including the resistance to the bureaucratic character of the new forms of State organization that arose after the war (153). “That the chains of equivalence which each hegemonic articulation constitutes can be of greatly differing natures is patently demonstrated by this neo-conservative discourse: the antagonisms constituted around bureaucratization are articulated in the defence of the traditional inequalities of sex and race” (153-54). This also explains the shifts in voting patterns—between left-wing and right-wing political parties—that often befuddle political observers. The new right in the 1980s constructed “a new historic bloc in which a plurality of economic, social and cultural aspects are articulated” (154), and even if the result was incoherent, it has lasted some 40 years. “What the neo-conservative or neo-liberal ‘new right’ calls into question is the type of articulation which has led democratic liberalism to justify the intervention of the State in the struggle against inequalities, and the installation of the Welfare State,” Laclau and Mouffe argue. It has done that by transforming the definition of liberty into a traditional, Lockean notion of liberty as “non-interference with the right of unlimited appropriation and with the mechanisms of the capitalist market economy” (156)—not to mention, in the United States, the liberty to obtain as many firearms as one can afford. At the same time, neo-liberalism discredits “every ‘positive’ conception of liberty as being potentially totalitarian” (156), to the point that the word “liberal” has become totally discredited in political discourse in some countries. New chains of equivalence are therefore created by the neo-liberal hegemony: equality=identity=totalitarianism, and difference=inequality=liberty. Neo-liberals attack the one, and affirm the other (158). These chains of equivalence help to create the new hegemonic formation of neo-conservatism or neo-liberalism: “It seeks a profound transformation of the terms of political discourse and the creation of a new ‘definition of reality,’ which under the cover of the defence of ‘individual liberty’ would legitimate inequalities and restore the hierarchical relations which the struggles of previous decades had destroyed” (159). “A series of subject positions which were accepted as legitimate differences in the hegemonic formation corresponding to the Welfare State are expelled from the field of social positivity and construed as negativity,” they continue (160). The only way for the Left to create an alternative, Laclau and Mouffe argue, would be to construct a different system of equivalents, establishing social division on a new basis, by “expanding the chains of equivalents between the different struggles against oppression” (160). “The task of the left therefore cannot be to renounce liberal-democratic ideology,” they write, “but on the contrary, to deepen it and expand it in the direction of a radical and plural democracy” (160). This is possible because “the meaning of liberal discourse on individual rights is not definitively fixed; and just as this unfixity permits their articulation with elements of conservative discourse, it also permits different forms of articulation and redefinition which accentuate the democratic movement” (160). All of this helps to explain, at a theoretical level, the failures of New Labour in the U.K., or of Clinton or Obama in the United States (or, for that matter, Trudeau in Canada): none of them were able to, or interested in, expanding liberal-democratic ideology in the direction of a radical and plural democracy, or creating systems of equivalents different from those of neo-liberalism. Indeed, all of those governments simply accepted those systems of equivalents. 

So, what is to be done? For Laclau and Mouffe, traditional, oppositional (negative, in their formulation) left-wing politics is not sufficient to create a hegemony: “A situation of hegemony would be one in which the management of the positivity of the social and the articulation of the diverse democratic demands had achieved a maximum integration,” they write (173). Therefore, a radical democratic alternative for the Left “must base itself upon the search for a point of equilibrium between a maximum advance for the democratic revolution in a broad range of spheres, and the capacity for the hegemonic direction and positive reconstruction of these spheres on the part of subordinated groups” (173). Hegemonic positions begin with negativity, with opposition, but they are only consolidated by constituting the positivity of the social. Those two contradictory moments are both required. It is important to avoid utopianism or apoliticism—to avoid ignoring structural limits, on the one hand, or rejecting politics because of the limited character of the changes which are possible within it (174). But at the same time, it is important to avoid limiting the political to positivity alone—to the changes that can be made at present—and rejecting “every charge of negativity which goes beyond them” (174). Some aspect of the utopian impulse needs to remain, because “without ‘utopia,’ without the possibility of negating an order beyond the point that we are able to threaten it, there is no possibility at all of the constitution of a radical imaginary—whether democratic or any other type,” Laclau and Mouffe argue. “The presence of this imaginary as a set of symbolic meanings which totalize as negativity a certain social order is absolutely essential for the constitution of all left-wing thought” (174). In other words, “Every radical democratic politics should avoid the two extremes represented by the totalitarian myth of the Ideal City, and the positivist pragmatism of reformists without a project” (174).

So, is it possible to imagine a Canada where the rights of Indigenous nations are respected, or where a short-term economic reliance on fossil fuels is rejected? Could either hegemony be constructed, and if so, how? I’m still not sure; perhaps either idea is simply too utopian to realize now. Nevertheless, I find the ideas in the last chapter of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to be very powerful. Take this response to traditional Marxism, for example: 

The discourse of radical democracy is no longer the discourse of the universal: the epistemological niche from which “universal” classes and subjects spoke has been eradicated, and it has been replaced by a polyphony of voices, each of which constructs its own irreducible discursive identity. This point is decisive: there is no radical and plural democracy without renouncing the discourse of the universal and its implicit assumption of a privileged point of access to “the truth,” which can be reached only by a limited number of subjects. In political terms this means that just as there are no surfaces which are privileged a priori for the emergence of antagonisms, nor are there discursive regions which the programme of a radical democracy should exclude a priori as possible spheres of struggle. Juridical institutions, the educational system, labour relations, the discourses of the resistance of marginal populations construct original and irreducible forms of social protest, and thereby contribute to all the discursive complexity and richness on which the programme of a radical democracy should be founded. (175-76)

So who knows? Perhaps the Unist’ot’en land defenders will become a key point in the articulation of a hegemonic formation of radical democracy in this country. We can hope so—even though, of course, the people defending their land in northern British Columbia would likely reject the label “Canadian,” and rightly so: they have their own nation. In any case, I am happy that I read—finally—Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: the complex articulation of hegemony Laclau and Mouffe put forward is fascinating and, potentially, helpful for my own research. In fact, I’m interested in reading the later works of both authors, in which they discuss the rise of populist movements in Europe and elsewhere. That investigation, however, will have to wait. I have other things to read first.

Works Cited

Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Democratic Politics, 2nd edition, Verso, 2014.

Martin, James. “Introduction: Democracy and Conflict in the Work of Chantal Mouffe.” Chantal Mouffe: Hegemony, Radical Democracy, and the Political, Routledge, 2013, pp. 1-11.

10. Robert Coles, Doing Documentary Work

coles doing documentary work

I’ve had Robert Coles’s Doing Documentary Work on my bookshelf for quite some time. I bought it because of the title, but I’d never made time to read it. I was curious, though, about why Coles, a child psychiatrist, became the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University, how he helped to establish the Center of Documentary Studies at Duke University, and why he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Children of Crisis series. Why not put it on my reading list? I thought. That’s how I’ll answer those questions—and maybe it’ll be of some use. And so that’s what I did.

Coles begins by discussing James Agee’s aesthetic, moral, and intellectual struggle as he tried to report on what he had witnessed in central Alabama while writing his 1941 book about tenant farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. That struggle, Coles reports, can be seen in Agee’s anger, towards himself, his audience, and his editors and publishers. Agee feels inadequate to the task he is facing; he senses “that any manuscript he will complete and send to a publisher won’t convey so very much that matters about the lives of the people he has met,” and he worries that his readers won’t realize that’s the case (3). That anxiety and struggle appear in the text of Agee’s book in attacks on himself and his audience. For Coles, Agee’s story is intended “to indicate . . . some of the occupational hazards, as it were, of so-called documentary work. The intense self-scrutiny Agee attempts is, one hopes, an aspect of all writing, all research” (4). “Each of us brings, finally, a particular life to the others who are being observed in documentary work,” he continues, “and so to some degree, each of us will engage with those others differently, carrying back from such engagement our own version of them” (5). That’s because, according to Coles, documentary work is necessarily both subjective and objective: it attempts to tell the truth, but each person engaged in that work will tell the truth differently, according to their own subjectivity. Documentary work, therefore, is not neutral or impartial: “the search for objectivity [is] waylaid by a stubborn subjectivity” (5). 

For Coles, documentary work raises methodological, psychological or personal, and moral issues—primarily because he defines documentary work as research into the lives of people who are different from oneself—different in terms of class position, race, or origin. No doubt Coles thinks that way because of his experience in the 1950s and 1960s, researching the effects of desegregation on African-American children in the South and writing about the Freedom Riders. Coles does acknowledge that not all research focuses on that kind of difference, but his primary examples—Agee, George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, and Dorothea Lange’s photographs—are of documentary work that tries to tell the stories of people who are very different from the researcher. 

Coles sets out to explore a tremendous number of questions about documentary work—about telling stories, in a variety of media, about the lives of other people:

What kind of work are we doing, and to what purpose? How are we to proceed—through which intermediaries in pursuit of which men, women, children, living in what neighborhoods? How does our work compare with that of others who work for newspapers, who do more traditional social science (survey research, for instance), or who do a kind of social history that does not entail interviews with ordinary folk? When does enough turn out to be enough—when, that is, do we leave reasonably satisfied, and if so, with what messages given to the people with whom we have worked? What is our responsibility to such people, and how ought it be acknowledged? What about ourselves—when does honorable inquiry turn into an exercise in manipulative self-interest, even (that word of words!) “exploitation”? Who is to make such judgments, calling upon what criteria? As for ourselves, in the lonely corners of whose minds a certain vague yet ever so pressing moral awareness can restively lurk, ready in the most unexpected moments to pounce on us, bear down on our sense of who we are and what we’ve become—what ought we to consider appropriate or inappropriate in this kind of relatively idiosyncratic endeavor, of a kind not usually regulated by the rules of departmental disciplines, by textbooks that spell out steps and routines and procedures and the theories that justify them?

Speaking of theory—how to think of “documentary studies” in the abstract, as well as in the implementation of the concrete? Speaking, too, of the personal and ethical, as so many of the above questions do—how to talk directly, candidly (using what kind of language), about the psychological hazards of such work, and too, the ethical challenges that appear, it sometimes seems, from out of nowhere? Moreover, what to make of one’s interventions, as a writer, as an editor of tapes or notes, as the person who picks and chooses words, crops and cuts photographs, splices constantly the tapes of a documentary film? When do selection and arrangement and a response to narrative need, in the form of one’s comments and asides, become so decisive that one story (“raw interview material” or “unedited footage” or photographic film that hasn’t been sorted or sequenced) has turned into quite another? What of pictures cropped (with a possible attendant shift in emphasis, focus, not to mention the substance of a scene)? What of films that move back and forth across time and space while presenting an apparent narrative and chronological continuity? When does fact veer toward fiction—and how are those two words to be understood with respect to one another: as polarities, as contraries, or as kin, working a parallel, often contiguous territory, and borrowing from one another now and then? (15-16)

Anyone could’ve told Coles that he has too many research questions, but really, all of those questions are different ways of asking just three questions: What is documentary work? How can documentary work be conducted in an ethical way? And what is the balance between objectivity and subjectivity in documentary work?

Coles explores the first question by distinguishing documentary work from similar activities—history, journalism, anthropology, and sociology—and by thinking through the work of Agee and Orwell, which “helps clarify our thinking about the various ways observers can respond to what they have seen and heard and come to believe” (25). Both writers display similar polarities and tensions, according to Coles, including “the demands of reality against those of art,” “the demands of objectivity against those of objectivity,” and “a voice seeking to be contemplative, considered, as against one aiming for passionate persuasion, or advocacy, or denunciation” (27-28). The issue—in Agee and Orwell, and in his own work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—is “location—how a particular writer or researcher decides to commit himself or herself with respect to those others being studied, watched, heard, made the subject of a writing initiative,” as well as also how that researcher will be “touched or affected” by the people he or she is learning about (32-33). Coles finishes by considering the issue of location in the poetry of William Carlos Williams (whom he knew quite well)—the way that Williams “knew in his bones that location made a huge difference,” particularly the location of the person engaged in the project (47). If you’re surprised to hear Williams’s poetry—particularly his long poem Paterson—described as documentary work, don’t be: Coles sees the documentary impulse in a variety of forms and media.

Next, Coles looks at the moral and psychological tensions that affect the person doing documentary research, returning to Agee as an example. But that discussion quickly shifts to questions about one’s relationship with one’s research participants. Coles thinks about his work in New Orleans in the 1960s, and realizes that to some of his participants, he came across as “a self-absorbed traveling salesman, peddling my documentary (my careerist) wares,” which he was asking his participants to purchase through their investment of time and energy in his project (65-66). He came to understand how a documentary writer or photographer or filmmaker can come to feel accused—by himself or herself—and how that sense of guilt or shame can lead to the anger one sees in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Road to Wigan Pier. Documentarians need to ask questions about their responsibilities to their research participants:

How ought we regard ourselves, with what degree of scrutiny of our motives and our manner, of why we go where go do, and how we behave while there? Afterwards, what, if anything, ought we keep in mind? Should we keep in touch with those whom we have enlisted as informants, as participants in our project? Put differently, what kind of moral and psychological accountability should we demand of ourselves, we who lay claim to social idealism, or to a documentary tradition that will somehow (we hope) work toward a social good—expose injustice, shed light on human suffering, or contribute to a growing body of knowledge stored in libraries, in museums, in film studios? (74)

“More bluntly,” he continues,

what, if anything, do we owe those we have “studied,” whose lives we have gone to document? Should we, for instance, send back the writing, the photography, the film once it is completed? If so, at what stage of that work’s development: as it is being assembled, as it is being edited, before it is published or exhibited or shown on television or in a movie house, or well afterwards, or indeed never? Should we pay our informants for all the time and effort put into making a film or working with a photographer or an interviewer? Should we share our royalties, our artistic fees, our monetary rewards or prizes with the subjects of our documentary project, or share them with a group or fund whose purpose it is to address the particular “problem” we have presented?. . . Is it “exploitative” to do documentary work, to arrive on a given scene, ask for people’s cooperation, time, energy, and knowledge, do one’s “study” or “project,” and soon enough, leave, thank yous presumably extended? How can we do such work honorably, so that those observed get more closely, explicitly connected with it? Should “informants” be publicly acknowledged if they so desire? Should we invite them to those exhibitions or film presentations that commemorate the completion of documentary work? How do we communicate to others, called “potential subjects,” our artistic or social or political purposes, let them know what we have in mind, what we hope to do, and why it might be necessary to go to such lengths? (75-76)

These questions are much the same as the ones raised in the course on socially engaged art practices that I took last semester: how do we ensure that our behaviour is ethical, that everyone involved gets something out of the research project? The principle of mutual benefit can guide our answers to those questions. Coles doesn’t attempt to answer them, but he does suggest that researchers need to make a genuine effort to connect with their participants, and to make sure they are taking time to be with them, that they are giving as well as taking (77). It’s an attitude, for Coles, and a deliberate effort at avoiding being avaricious or greedy about the lives and the stories of the people one is studying (81).

Next, Coles turns to the question of objectivity versus subjectivity. He argues that all documentary work is made “by a particular mind whose capacities, interests, values, conjectures, suppositions and presuppositions, whose memories, and, not least, whose talents will come to bear directly or indirectly on what is, finally . . . presented to the world” (87). “Events are filtered through a person’s awareness,” he continues, and that awareness is influenced by experience, aspirations, frustrations, even moods (88). The subjectivity of documentary work leads Coles to the distinction his students want to make between fact and fiction, true and false, real and imaginary. Such oppositions, he argues, don’t do justice to the concept of documentary work. Fictional devices—the demands of storytelling—“inform the construction of nonfiction,” just as fiction often draws upon real life (90):

A documentarian’s report will be strengthened by what has been witnessed, but will be fueled, surely, by what those observations come to mean in his or her head: we absorb sights and sounds, and they become our experience, unique to us, in that we, their recipients, are unique. What we offer others in the way of our documentary reports, then, is our mix of what we have observed and experienced, as we have assembled it, that assembly having to do . . . with our imaginative capability, our gifts as writers, as editors, as storytellers, as artists. (91)

“[T]he doer of documentary work,” Coles writes, “is out there in this world of five billion people, free (at least by the nature of his or her chosen manner of approach to people, places, events) to buckle down, to try to find a congenial, even inspiring take on things” (126). This emphasis on subjectivity allows Coles to include Paterson and Hart Crane’s long poem The Bridge in his definition of documentary work. “[D]oing documentary work,” Coles concludes, “is a journey . . . a passage cross boundaries . . . that can become a quest, even a pilgrimage, a movement toward the sacred truth enshrined not only on tablets of stone, but in the living hearts of those others whom we can hear, see, and get to understand” (145). By engaging in this process, he continues, “we hope to be confirmed in our own humanity” (145).

Those words confirm what one might have suspected all along—that Coles is a devout humanist—and his final chapter, in which he discusses a wide range of documentarians and documentary practices he likes, display that humanism. He is interested in the work of Dorothea Lange and her husband, Paul Taylor, and he argues that Lange was an artist despite her “interest in polemical statement” (177)—a statement that reveals Coles’s own aesthetics. He also likes the writing and/or photography of John Baskin, Wright Morris, Anthony Walton, Kathleen Norris, Thomas Roma, Robert Frank, Reynolds Price, and Ruth Bottigheimer, and the filmmaking of Frederick Wiseman. All of these documentarians are storytellers, he argues: “through selection, emphasis, and the magic of narrative art, the reader or viewer gets convincingly close to a scene, a subject matter, and sees the documentary as one of many possible takes, not the story, but a story” (250). “The call of documentary work,” he concludes, “is an aspect of the call of stories, of our wish to learn about one another through observation of one another,” and the resulting stories present us with an opportunity “to wonder how we are doing as we try to affirm ourselves by reaching toward others, helping to make a difference in a neighborhood, a nation” (251-52).

So, what to make of Coles’s book? On the one hand, his definition of documentary work isn’t useful for me at all, because my project doesn’t focus on studying or researching or writing about the lives of other people. But, on the other hand, I will find myself working with other people, relying on them, and perhaps (probably?) writing about our encounters, as I did during my walk to Wood Mountain this past summer. Those people will inevitably become research participants, since I couldn’t complete the walk I am planning without their help. The questions he asks about relating to research participants are therefore worth asking myself as I move forward with my research. Some might find Coles’s humanism hopelessly outmoded, or his list of successful documentary projects obvious (I can hear someone snorting, “Robert Frank? Really?”) or old-fashioned (where is post-conceptual photography or autoethnography in his version of documentary work? where is the postmodern concern with the crisis of representation?). I did find myself curious about the mix of photography and text in Wright Morris’s The Inhabitants—curious enough that I’ve ordered a copy (since it’s not in the library here). In all of this reading, I’m trying to take what I find useful, and leave the rest behind, and I do find some of Coles’s book useful: his concern with ethics, his contention that documentary work is inevitably subjective. Besides, after reading his book, I understand how a child psychiatrist became a Pulitzer Prize-winning documentarian.

Work Cited

Coles, Robert. Doing Documentary Work. Oxford UP, 1997.