Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: November, 2019

111. Vanessa Watts, “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!)”

watts place-thought.jpg

I came across a reference to this article in Stephanie Springgay’s and Sarah E. Truman’s Walking Methodologies in a More-Than-Human World: WalkingLab, one of many texts they refer to that have resonance for my own work. Watts begins with two creation stories: the Haudenosaunee story of Sky Woman, and the Anishinaabe story about the Seven Fires of Creation. “Before continuing, I would like to emphasize that these two events took place,” Watts states. “They were not imagined or fantasized. This is not lore, myth or legend. . . . This is what happened” (21). I have to admit that I stumbled over those sentences, because although I agree that creation stories are significant, I don’t take them literally, as Watts does. For one thing, all creation stories can’t literally be true. And I’m not elevating the Christian story told in the Book of Genesis above Indigenous creation accounts by taking it literally, either, although that story, as Watts points out, has had serious consequences. The creation stories Watts relates have important consequences as well: they have enabled a cosmology of relationality that is very different from the separation between humans and the world that is constructed in Genesis.

Watts suggests that these two creation stories “focus on a common historical understanding of the origin of the human species—the spiritual and the feminine”; they “speak to the common intersections of the female, animals, the spirit world, and the mineral and plant world” (21). Both stories “describe a theoretical understanding of the world via a physical embodiment—Place-Thought” (21). This is the central term in Watts’s article. “Place-Thought is the non-distinctive space where place and thought were never separated because they never could or can be separated,” she writes. “Place-Thought is based upon the premise that land is alive and thinking and that humans and non-humans derive agency through the extensions of these thoughts” (21). Because of the centrality of Place-Thought within Indigenous world views, “Indigenous perceptions of whom and what contributes to a societal structure are quite different from traditional Euro-Western thought,” which is focused on the actions of human beings, and in which “we can see the emergence of non-humans being evaluated in terms of their contributions to the development and maintenance of society”—that is, human society (21). “This article will examine how agency circulates inside of two different frames: Place-Thought (Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe cosmologies) and epistemological-ontological (Euro-Western frame,” Watts writes, noting that her intention is “both to emphasize a differentiated framing of Indigenous cosmologies as well as to examine our rich and intelligent theories found in these cosmologies” (21). Watts is particularly interested in “what the land’s intentions might be, and how she tries to speak through us,” and in resisting “the colonial frame” by imagining and striving for the “original instructions” given to Indigenous peoples, which are located in what Susan Hill calls “the ‘pre-colonial mind’” (22). These stories, then, are both cosmologies and resistance to colonization.

“Colonization is not solely an attack on peoples and lands,” Watts continues; “rather, this attack is accomplished in part through purposeful and ignorant misrepresentations of Indigenous cosmologies” (22). “Frameworks in a Euro-Western sense exist in the abstract,” she writes. “How they are articulated in action or behavior brings this abstractions into praxis; hence a division of epistemological/theoretical versus ontological/praxis” (22). In Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe framework, however, “our cosmological frameworks are not an abstraction but rather a literal and animate extension of Sky Woman’s and First Woman’s thoughts; it is impossible to separate theory from praxis if we believe in the original historical events of Sky Woman and First Woman” (22). The complex theories of Indigenous people, then, “are not distinct from place” (22). Watts provides a visual representation of these two separate framings. The Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe framing is circular: it moves from Spirit, to Place-Thought, which determines agency within creation; societies and systems become extensions of that agency, creating an obligation to communicate, which leads back to Spirit (22). In contrast, Euro-Western framing is linear. It begins with a divide between epistemology and ontology, between knowing and being; that separates constituents for the world from how the world is understood, limiting agency to humans, and creating an “[e]xclusionary relationship with nature” (22). This representation is “a depiction of the crucial differences between Indigenous and Euro-Western processes” (23). In the Haudenosaunee or Anishnaabe framing, land is animate. Being animate “goes beyond being alive or acting, it is to be full of thought, desire, contemplation and will,” she writes:

It is the literal embodiment of the feminine, of First Woman, by which many Indigenous origin stories find their inception. When Sky Woman falls from the sky and lies on the back of a turtle, she is not only able to create land but becomes territory herself. Therefore, Place-Thought is an extension of her circumstance, desire, and communication with the water and animals—her agency. Through this communication she is able to become the basis by which all future societies will be built upon—land. (23)

Sky Woman, Watts continues, “becomes the designer of how living beings will organize upon her,” a process that scientists call ecosystems or habitats (23). “However, if we accept the idea that all living things contain spirit, then this extends beyond complex structures within an ecosystem,” she writes. “It means that non-human beings choose how they reside, interact and develop relationships with other non-humans. So, all elements of nature possess agency, and this agency is not limited to innate action or causal relationships” (23). 

For this reason, “habitats and ecosystems are better understood as societies from an Indigenous point of view; meaning that they have ethical structures, inter-species treaties and agreements, and further their ability to interpret, understand and implement” (23). Non-humans are active members os that society, and “they also directly influence how humans organize themselves into that society” (23). “The structure of societies is demarcated by territory, which again, is an extension of Sky Woman’s original circumstance,” Watts writes. “She is present in the relationships between humans and humans, humans and non-humans, and non-humans and non-humans” (23). Thus, human thought and action are “derived from a literal expression of particular places and historical events in Haudenosaunee and Anishnaabe cosmologies,” and places possess agency that is similar to the agency that Euro-Western thinkers locate in human beings (23). Indigenous people are therefore “extensions of the very land we walk upon,” and they “have an obligation to maintain communication with it” (23). If Indigenous peoples do not care for the land, they run the risk of losing who they are as Indigenous peoples: 

When this warning is examined in terms of original Place-Thought, it is not only the threat of lost identity or physical displacement that is risked but our ability to think, act, and govern becomes compromised because this relationship is continuously corrupted with foreign impositions of how agency is organized. Colonization has disrupted our ability to communicate with place and has endangered agency amongst Indigenous peoples. The pre-colonial mind was confronted with a form of diminutive agency, and the process by which we ensured our own ability to act and converse with non-humans and other humans became compromised. (23-24)

The disruptions to this process caused by colonization go beyond “losing a form of Indigenous identity or worldview and how it is practiced”; rather, such disruptions “become a violation of Sky Woman’s intentionality” (24).

The epistemological-ontological divide characteristic of Euro-Western thought understands agency much differently. Epistemology, Watts writes, citing Descartes, is “one’s perception of the world as being distinct from what is in the world, or what constitutes it” (24). Only humans are capable of thinking and perceiving (24). Other things in the world may have an essence, Watts continues, citing Kant and Latour, or have some interconnection with humans, “but their ability to perceive is null or limited to instinctual reactions” (24). “The epistemological-ontological removes the how and why out of the what,” Watts contends. “The what is left empty, readied for inscription” (24). The only theoretical structure that can understand the world and its constituents, according to the division between epistemology and ontology, requires “a separation of not only human and non-human, but a hierarchy of beings in terms of how beings are able to think as well” (24). This distinction between “what and how/why is not an innocent one,” and its consequences can be disastrous, because of the way it elevates humans above or outside of the natural world (24). Whereas an Anishnaabe perspective would state that a river perceives or contemplates its action—the flowing of its water—a Euro-Western perspective would deny the river that ability to perceive or contemplate (24). Colonization and “the imposition of the epistemology-ontology frame” have interrupted, continuously, the capacity of Indigenous peoples to communicate with “other beings in creation,” as well as their obligations to those beings” (24).

In the Christian creation story, humans became outside of their surroundings by being expelled from the garden. This separation has two significant consequences: “Firstly, humans were positioned into a world in which they were able to reside over nature. Secondly, and interdependently, humans resolved that communication with nature held disastrous effects (Tree of Knowledge, the Serpent) and so inter-species communication became quite limited if not profane” (24-25). Agency became associated only with human actions, and humans were seen as dominant over nature (25).(In the first book of Genesis, before the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, God gives humans “dominion” over all other forms of life.) However, 

in many Indigenous origin stories the idea that humans were the last species to arrive on earth was central; it also meant that humans arrived in a state of dependence on an already-functioning society with particular values, ethics, etc. The inclusion of humans into this society meant that certain agreements, arrangements, etc. had to be made with the animal world, plant world, sky world, mineral world and other non-human species. Therefore, being associated with animals, whether it be through clan systems, ceremonies, or beings that acted as advisors, transpired from a place of reverence. (25)

“Both the story of Genesis and the story of Sky Woman tell of a world that existed before humans,” Watts writes, although the differences between the stories are crucial to understanding the different understandings of the world those stories represent. Whereas in the Sky Woman story “the relationship between animals and this female is regarded as sacred and ritualized over generations,” the “interaction of Eve and the Serpent results in shame and excommunication from nature,” creating a “point of conflict where thought, perception, and action are separated from the supposed inertia of nature” (25).

“If we begin from the premise that land is female and further, that she thinks—then she is alive,” Watts continues. However, if “the most elemental female is conceived of as being responsible for pain, shame and excommunication,” as in the Christian origin story, “then doing destruction upon her does not seem that bad,” and might even seem deserved (25). “It is no surprise then, that amidst a Euro-Christian construct, land and its designations are silenced,” she writes. “Many Indigenous peoples wonder at how much destruction has persisted throughout the decades by the colonizer without any significant attempt at stopping it. If you belong to a structure where land and the feminine are not only less-than, but knowingly irresponsible, violations against her would seem warranted” (25-26). 

Where is agency in Place-Thought located? Watts asks. “I find it in animals, in humans, in plants, in rocks, etc.,” she responds. “How did I come to think that these different entities and beings had agency in the first place? From stories/histories” (26). In those stories, listeners (or readers) learn of “historical events that took place in a particular location, at a particular time, where consciousness, thought, desire, and the imagination of all individuals is in action” (26). These stories, Watts argues, such as the story of how the Three Sisters (Corn, Beans, and Squash) came to live together, must be understood literally:

In an epistemological-ontological frame, Indigenous cosmologies would be examples of a symbolic interconnectedness—an abstraction of a moral code. It would be a way in which to view the world—the basis for an epistemological stance. From a Haudenosaunee worldview, this is what happened. Further, Haudenosaunee systems, peoples, territories, etc. are affected by this relationship between the Three Sisters. It is more than a lesson, a teaching, or even an historical account. Their conscious and knowing agreement directly extends to our philosophies, thoughts and actions as Haudenosaunee peoples. (26)

Such “historical Indigenous events,” Watts continues, “are increasingly becoming not only accepted by Western frameworks of understanding, but sought after in terms of non-oppressive and provocative or interesting interfaces of accessing the real. This traces Indigenous peoples not only as epistemologically distinct but also as a gateway for non-Indigenous thinkers to re-imagine their world” (26). That’s very true; I am convinced that the climate emergency would not be taking place if non-Indigenous people possessed a way of thinking about the world that was like the Indigenous one Watts is describing. However, Watts argues that Indigenous stories “are often distilled to simply that—words, principles, morals to imagine the world and imagine ourselves in the world. In reading stories that way, non-Indigenous peoples also keep control over what agency is and how it is dispersed in the hands of humans” (26). In other words, she seems to be suggesting, those stories must be understood as literal events.

“Over time and through processes of colonization, the corporeal and theoretical borders of the epistemological-ontological divide contribute to colonial interpretations of nature/creation that act to centre the human and peripherate nature into an exclusionary relationship,” Watts writes. “Land becomes scaled and modified in terms of progress and advancement. The measure of colonial interaction with land has historically been one of violence and bordered individuations where land is to be accessed, not learned from or part of” (26). Land is something that can be owned, bought and sold, and exploited or extracted from, rather than something we are part of or belong to (26-27). “Our truth, not only Anishnaabe and Haudenosaunee people but in a majority of Indigenous societies, conceives that we (humans) are made from the land; our flesh is literally an extension of the soil,” Watts continues. “The land is understood to be female: First Woman designates the beginning of the animal world, the plant world and human beings. It is the femininity of earth itself that institutes all beings as literal embodiments of localized meanings” (27). “Could Place-Thought be the network in which humans and non-humans relate, translate and articulate their agency?” she asks. “If I, as a human, am made of the stuff of soil and spirit, do I not extend to the non-human world beyond causal interactions? And what of the non-human—non-human relationships that demarcate various roles and responsibilities of human beings?” (27). Her answer is straightforward: “If we begin from the premise that we are in fact made of soil, then our principles of governance are reflected in nature” (27). “The female earth or the feminine is intrinsically tied to the notion of sovereignty and how humans interact with non-human creatures in the formation of governance,” she continues (27). Humans are responsible and obligated “to original instructions from the earth,” and because the earth is female, this suggests “that the feminine is not only to be respected but is looked upon as a source of power and knowledge” (27-28). What happens, then, “when the all-powerful centre”—and I think she is referring to “Western categorizations of hierarchy” here—“attempts to create a de-subjugated space via non-human reactions” (28)?

Here Watts turns to the way that land “is traced in terms of agency by non-Indigenous thinkers” (28). She cites Donna Haraway’s essay “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective” as an attempt “to implode the centre where knowledge production (epistemology) is generally grounded in heteropatriarchy” (28). “However, Haraway resists essentialist notions of the earth as mother or matter and chooses instead to utilize products of localized knowledges (i.e. Coyote or the Trickster) as a process of boundary implosion” (28)—as a metaphor, as “‘coyote discourse’” (qtd. 28). “This is a level of abstracted engagement once again,” Watts argues. “While it may serve to change the imperialistic tendencies in Euro-Western knowledge production, Indigenous histories are still regarded as story and process—an abstracted tool of the West” (28). “It is not my contention that Euro-Western thinkers are inherently colonial,” she continues. “Rather, the epistemological-ontological distinction is oftentimes the assumptive basis by which Euro-Western arguments are presented upon. It is this assumption that, I argue, creates spaces for colonial practices to occur” (28). As long as agency is reserved for humans, “this epistemological-ontological divide” remains intact (28).

Watts then quotes Stacy Alaimo, who argues that “dirt acts” (28). But the agency Alaimo assigns to dirt is hierarchical, because in her argument it neither thinks, wants, nor desires, although “it is constantly fulfilling its intention” (28). In other words, Watts, writes, the agency Alaimo accords to dirt “is dependent on the belief that humans are different based on our ability of will and purpose. Dirt is acknowledged as an actant at best, no longer an afterthought but still limited with regard to ability” (28-29). Vicky Kirby’s understanding of dirt and agency goes further than Alaimo’s, because she argues that nature preexists intellectual abstraction, that flesh precedes thought (29). However, Kirby also argues “that intellect or what constitutes culture is beyond the body and is therefore distinctly apart form the primordial:

This taken-for-granted conceptualization of nature and culture is a problematic that has been re-coded in discourse time and time again—that humans are uniquely distinct from nature in their capacities. Interconnectivity is permitted, but only insofar as distinction from the thinking human and the acting natural world. True, the borders of flesh and soil rub up against each other but this does not mean one is guided by the other. The border where human-as-the-centre begins still exists and continues to determine the bounds for capacity and action. (29)

“Kirby’s claim of the special-ness of humans apart from natural determinations disregards Indigenous conceptions of human and nature,” Watts continues, “while at the same time implying that natural cause and determinism are random and therefore unintentional” (30). Other scholars—Bruno Latour, Linda Nash, and Stewart Lockie—“have begun to redefine agency to solve the problem of the man/nature dichotomy,” Watts writes, but even though they locate agency “in an interconnected web of cause and effect, where the plane of action is equalized amongst all elements,” they still contend that agency “acts outside, within, and in between this web through carefully re-designed definitions where humans possess something more or special” (30). 

“These levels of agency are a product of the epistemology-ontology paradigm,” Watts writes, which carries within it “the idea of human ownership over non-human things, beings, etc. The inclusion of the non-human, in this case dirt/soil, has been causal or instinctual in nature,” and so “although the dirt/soil has been granted entrance into the human web of action, it is still relegated to a mere unwitting player in the game of human understandings” (30). “However, if we think of agency as being tied to spirit, and spirit exists in all things, then all things possess agency,” she continues—and that sacred agency is “contained within all elements of nature,” and therefore as humans we “know our actions are intrinsically and inseparably tied to land’s intentionality—quite a counter position from notions of diluted formulations of agency” (30).

“What happens when soil is removed from territory? What happens when flesh is taken from the body? More importantly, what happens to the territory after its resources are excavated?” Watts asks (30). The “literal excavation of thoughts are forcibly transformed into objects of the colonial imperative” (30). Once the voices of creation—“the feminine and the land”—are “silenced and then corrupted, the acquisition and destruction of land becomes all the more realized” (31). Moreover, “[f]rom a theoretical standpoint, the material (body/land) becomes abstracted into epistemological spaces as a resource for non-Indigenous scholars to implode their hegemonic borders,” and the teachings, ontologies, and actions of First Woman “are interpreted as sexy lore and points of theoretical jump-offs to dismantle and dissect that which oppresses” (31). Those teachings and actions become extracted, excavated, in other words: they are used the way that trees are used to make paper. And the violence enacted against the (feminine) land is the same violence that is enacted against Indigenous women.

“Euro-Western discourses have often attempted to remedy historical mistakes of biological essentialisms (i.e. scientific racism) by rejecting what are considered to be essentialist arguments,” Watts continues. “However, essentializing categories of Indigenous cosmologies should not be measured against the products of Euro-Western mistakes. Nor should Indigenous peoples be the inheritors of those mistakes” (31-32). Instead, “to decolonize or access the pre-colonial mind, our histories (not our lore) should be understood as if they were intended in order for us to be truly agent beings. To disengage with essentialism means we run the risk of disengaging from the land” (32). 

“As Indigenous peoples, it is not only an obligation to communicate with Place-Thought (ceremonies with land, territory, the four directions, etc.), but it ensures our continued ability to act and think according to our cosmologies,” Watts contends. “To prevent these practices”—as the Indian Act tried to do for almost a century—“deafens us. It is not that the non-human world no longer speaks but that we begin to understand less and less” (32). Despite the corruption of the agency of Indigenous peoples within the colonial frame, the continued existence of Indigenous cosmologies is the reason why, after 500 years of colonization, Indigenous peoples continue to resist (32). If Indigenous peoples operationalize the distinction between Indigenous cosmology and Euro-Western epistemology-ontology—if they operationalize the distinction “between place and thought”—then, Watts writes, “Indigenous peoples risk standing in disbelief of ourselves” (32):

Even amongst ourselves it can be easy to forget that our ability to speak to the land is not just an echo of a mythic tale or part of a moral code, but a reality. Whether this forgetting has been forced upon us, or our ears have become dull to the sounds of the land speaking up through our feet, it is now incumbent upon us to remember. This is not a question of “going backwards,” for this implies there is a static place to return to. However, given that the concept of time for us was never linear, we possess the ability to access the pre-colonial mind through the ability to travel in dreams, to shapeshift, to understand what might happen tomorrow, etc. Our teachings tell us that we travel through, under, above. So it is not a question of accessing something, which has already come and gone, but simply to listen. To act. (32)

Obligation and responsibility “denote a commitment to the land,” she continues, “not just because it is a part of me (or you) but also because it continues to be removed, cemented, or ignored” (32). Listening to what the land tells us “is not only about a philosophical understanding of life and the social realm,” but “it is about a tangible and tacit violence being done to her—and therefore to us” (32). “I hope that this discussion will lead to conversations about bodies in action and how gritty flesh is elementally moved to protect and reclaim territories,” she states (32). “Only if the land decides to stop speaking to us will we enter the world of dislocation where agency is lost and our histories become provocative Indian lore in an ongoing settler mistake. Luckily for us, First Woman has shown herself to be much more intelligent than this by writing herself into our flesh,” she concludes (33).

Watts’s essay is challenging, not least because it demands both a literal understanding of Indigenous creation stories and an essentialized notion of the land as female. Both are very difficult for someone, like me, educated in a Western (and colonizing) academic context. And her  argument also suggests how difficult it would be for a Settler to come to a different understanding of the land, as I would hope to do by walking. Difficult? Perhaps impossible. I don’t think that the idea of Place-Thought advanced in this essay can be adopted simply or easily, on a short walk or a long one, and the idea that it could be would represent a complete misunderstanding of Watts’s argument and the challenge it presents. As Settlers, we need to tread very carefully (pun intended) when we consider thinking about the world through Indigenous cosmologies, because we might, as Watts argues, end up engaging in just another form of extraction.

Works Cited

Springgay, Stephanie, and Sarah E. Truman. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab, Routledge, 2018.

Watts, Vanessa. “Indigenous Place-Thought & Agency Amongst Humans and Non-Humans (First Woman and Sky Woman Go On a European World Tour!).” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 2, no. 1, 2013, pp. 20-34.

110. Stuart Horodner, Walk Ways

walk ways cover

Stuart Horodner, then at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art in Oregon and now at the Singleton Center for the Arts in Lexington, Kentucky, curated a 2002 exhibition on walking art, Walk Ways, which travelled to, among other places, the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the Oakville Galleries, in Oakville. It’s possible that some people reading this blog post might have seen the show. I managed to find the catalogue through Abebooks; it includes an essay by Horodner, documentation of works included in the exhibition, and pages from Horodner’s notebooks on walking. It’s a relatively short book, compared to Rachel Adams’s Wanderlust: Actions, Traces, Journeys 1967-2017, a massive catalogue of an exhibition of walking art at the University of Buffalo in New York, which I’ll be writing about here at some point in the next couple of weeks. But because I’m interested in the various ways that walking art is brought into gallery spaces, I thought I would begin Horodner’s catalogue first, on this cloudy morning.

Horodner’s essay, “Walk This Way,” begins with an expression that was current on college campuses in the U.S. in the 1980s: “Walk with me, talk with me” (10). This expression was intended to convey “sympathy and trust,” Horodner recalls (10). He then invites his readers to imagine that they are walking with him as he tells us about Walk Ways, “this exhibition of works by nineteen contemporary artists who have incorporated walking into their diverse practices and productions” (10). These artists “walk in their studios, on concrete streets, on sandy beaches and snowy mountains,” he states. “Their strides are a purposeful or meandering activity that combines bodily and mental freedom to yield distinct artworks that deal with politics, geography, history, and the architecture of the body” (10).

Horodner notes that “[t]he history of walking is long and various,” written about by writers ranging from Thoreau to Rebecca Solnit and discussed on web sites. “There are walks of historic importance, including Mahatma Gandhi’s 200-mile-long pilgrimage with his countrymen to the sea to make salt, or Martin Luther King’s numerous group marches on behalf of voting rights and racial justice, culminating in the march on Washington, D.C. in 1963,” he continues (11). Groups like the Sierra Club and the American Hiking Society bring together people who walk in the mountains, while in cities there are urban walks for fundraising and parades. “We walk down the aisle, walk to work, walk the dog, walk the plank, and as Lou Reed suggested, we occasionally ‘take a walk on the wild side’”; there are silly walks, too, like those made by John Cleese or Charlie Chaplin (11). Walk Ways, however, “takes its cue from Claes Oldenburg’s ‘I Am For an Art” manifesto of 1961, which promotes and art that ‘imitates the human’ and ‘embroils itself with the everyday crap’” (11). Walk Ways, Horodner suggests, takes Oldenburg’s call seriously by choreographing “a seemingly unremarkable activity, offering a series of How To’s that present walking as a subject or method or as a metaphor for human agency” (11). The artists involved include Francis Alÿs, Hamish Fulton, and Janet Cardiff, whose walks are “most often documented in combinations of photography, video/audio, and text”; Tom Marioni, Curtis Mitchell, and Rudolf Stingel, who “use walking as a means of producing gestures in what are primarily expanded drawing and painting practices that take place in the studio”; Eleanor Antin and François Morelli, who “perform walking-related tasks that feature sculptural acts of pilgrimage in public spaces”; Mowry Baden, whose work is kinesthetic; Jim Campbell, Martin Kersels, Douglas Ross, Janine Antoni, and Paul Ramirez-Jonas, who explore “the psychology of locomotion”; Nancy Spero, who uses walking to explore history; Sharon Harper, who uses it to explore rural landscape; and Matthew McCaslin and Richard Wentworth, who walk to explore urban space (11). 

The exhibition could also have included Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of people walking, Alberto Giacometti’s bronze sculptures of figures striding through space; Bruce Nauman’s videotaped studio walks; and Vito Acconci’s Following Piece of 1969, in which he chose people at random for 23 days and followed them until they entered an office or private residence (11). Another work Horodner wanted to include, but which was unavailable, was David Hammon’s video Phat Free (1995-1996), “which follows the artist, a solitary black man making lonely music by repeatedly kicking an empty can down several darkened New York City streets” (13). Horodner mentions these possibilities, he writes, “as an indication of how deep the pool of possibilities is for an investigation of walking as a subject of art” (13). He also notes the existence of other exhibitions and books that cover similar territory (Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, of course; Walking and Thinking and Walking, a show in Denmark from 1996, the catalogue for which is apparently unavailable now; and another Les Figures de la Marche, held in Antibes, France, in 2001, which didn’t know about). “This may simply indicate a shared interest on the part of the organizers and writers, or it may reveal the more profound connection between contemporary art and the human body in motion,” Horodner concludes (13).

Next, Horodner turns to discussions or descriptions of individual works included in the exhibition. First are two text and photograph works by Hamish Fulton. Horodner states that Fulton decided, after a walk of more than 1,000 miles in 1973, that he would only make art resulting from similar walks in the future. He cites Fulton’s description of his work from a 1999 exhibition catalogue, which compares walking to the art, which cannot, Fulton argues, represent the experience of the walk (13). “Fulton’s efforts extend the British tradition of the country walk, magnified severalfold in endurance and transcendence,” and his text recalls the haiku of Basho, Horodner suggests (15). I know that Fulton’s long walks, and those of his friend Richard Long, are not currently fashionable—their difficulty does not lend them to the kind of walking that includes large groups of people—but to be honest, Fulton’s and Long’s work was the first walking art I ever encountered, and I am drawn to long walks as a way of attempting to bring myself into relationship with territory or Land. Something happens to me on such walks, and while it’s hard to articulate what that something is, I think it’s close to Craig Mod’s assertion that long walks create “a heightened sense of presence” (Mod); at least, that’s the closest description I’ve found, and I haven’t been able to come up with one on my own. (Doing so is one of my goals.)

Sharon Harper’s Walkabout photographs, Horodner writes, “depict dreamlike visions of women walking in rural areas” (15). The works consist of multiple overlapping prints, “positioned side by side to create a shifting panorama,” and use techniques like “blurred focus, overexposure, and multiple perspectives to evoke feelings of detachment, isolation, and introspective” (15). Harper’s “female protagonists appear to roam a landscape that is drenched in memory” (15). Horodner notes that the word “walkabout” refers to a cultural and spiritual practice of Australian Indigenous people, and suggests that “Harper’s figures are caught in the act of creating their own songline or following those laid down by others” (15); it’s possible, though, that the use of the term “walkabout” in this context could be considered cultural appropriation—if Harper is a Settler, that is—and I think the work would stand without that particular framing.

In 1985, François Morelli observed the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima by carrying a hollow fibreglass sculpture shaped like a charred human torso on a kind of pilgrimage. During this work, which he called Transatlantic Walk, “[h]e often stopped to breathe air into the figure (which was equipped with plastic tubes) or to fill it with water from public fountains, lakes, and rivers. . . . gestures [which] served to provide symbolic sustenance, as if he were keeping his companion alive” (17). The exhibition included “performance artifacts”—slide photographs transferred to video and his journal of drawings—along with the sculpture itself, hung “at torso height, allowing viewers to imagine themselves carrying it” (17).

Douglas Ross’s pan-American project “involves him wearing a self-made robotic video camera that is guided by a compass” (17). The camera records the relationship of north to his body. “When Ross wanders the streets, he appears to others as a city cyborg, making use of his home-made prosthetic for mysterious reconnaissance work,” Horodner writes. “Like Morelli, his performing presence in the community can be baffling or unsettling, and each of them seems to enjoy presenting an image of ‘the artist’ in the process of being one” (17). The work exhibited in Walk Ways included Ross’s equipment and a selection of documentary videos, installed so that the viewer faced north.

Migration, a video by Janine Antoni and Paul Ramirez-Jones, “takes the romantic notion of lovers on a beach and adds the troubling elements of domination and subservience” (20). The artists, who are married, “take turns following each other while documenting their footsteps-in-the-making with video cameras” (20). When Antoni follows Ramierz-Jonas, her feet fall within his footprints; when he follows her, however, his footprints obliterate hers. As installed in a gallery space, the work is a two-channel video “shown on a pair of up-ended monitors placed next to each other, seemingly uniting the two separate walks into one extended horizontal image,” transforming “what at first appears to be an unequal power dynamic into a complex progression of reciprocity and love” (20). 

Audio artist Janet Cardiff was represented in the show by a video, Hillclimbing, made with her husband and frequent collaborator George Bures Miller, who holds the camera. In the video, the pair are “heard walking toward the top of a snow-covered hill” with their dog (21). “We hear the sounds of their physical effort: their labored breaths and the crunch of boots in the snow,” Horodner writes. “When Miller falls down, we hear Cardiff say, ‘Are you okay?’ ‘Yeah,’ he answers, and the piece loops back to the beginning, so that, at least on the video, the summit is never reached” (21).

Nancy Spero’s work included in the exhibition was Vietnamese Woman, a print work made on a long piece of paper using a single polymer plate, with the image repeated over and over, in different colours and at different heights, achieving “a kind of stop-action walking sequence” (22). The work refers to “news images of people fleeing the massacre of civilians in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai by American troops in 1968,” Horodner notes. “Spero insists on using anti-heroic means—paper, printing by hand, collage—to create large-scale friezes that are impossible to see completely at a single glance, and therefore must be ‘walked’” (22).

Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots “consists of fifty-one photo-postcards, each one showing fifty pairs of black rubber boots arranged in a different location across the United States . . . like scenes from a ‘road movie’” (25). The work took more than two years to make, and Antin travelled from California to New York posing the boots in various places. “100 Boots obliquely evokes the United States’ engagement in the Vietnam War, with Antin’s bodiless ‘army’ appearing to protest, parade, trespass, and commune with nature as it makes its way east,” Horodner writes. “Antin mailed the postcards to many artists, writers, critics, museums, galleries, and universities, enabling the recipients to follow the humorous pilgrimage story being told in installments. The project was a ground-breaking example of staged photography and Mail art, strategies that have been used by numerous artists since” (25).

At 6 feet, 7 inches, Martin Kersels is a big man. His Tripping Photos is a series of self-deprecating photos that depict him “flamboyantly falling face down onto the sidewalks of Los Angeles in a series of carefully orchestrated stop-action ‘trips’” (27). “These slapstick gestures seem to confirm the societal assumptions regarding a large person’s awkwardness,” Horodner writes, “while the staged precision of Kersels’s actions contradicts such generalizing” (27).

For Francis Alÿs, walking is “a metaphor for the creative act,” and “he has performed numerous passeos (walks) that he has documented in the form of postcards, each of which features an enigmatic photograph and a brief, carefully written text” (25). “Such actions allow Alÿs a mobile practice of interacting and observing the social fabric of different cities. His ability to entertain people while critiquing particular contexts was evident in his contribution to the 2001 Venice Biennale”: a work called The Ambassadors in which two peacocks (standing for Alÿs) were paraded around the festival grounds by two guardians, who handed out postcards. Walk Ways included several of Alÿs’s postcards.

Walk Ways also included Richard Wentworth’s poster project, To Walk, which included photographs of “a variety of sites in southeast England” taken during different psychogeographic dérives and which in local communities in the form of a broadsheet which encouraged people “to take a fresh look at both the rural and urban landscape in these locations by reproducing the distinct structures and semiotics that Wentworth found there” (29).

Sculptor Matthew McCaslin “makes installations that incorporate common household lighting components, hardware, and video sequences of daily events” (30). His work Check It Out, “an industrial handcart stacked with V.C.R.’s, working safety lights, a clock and T.V. monitors that show repeated images of urban commuters. . . . presents walking as the ritualized and gear-laded activity of people caught up in the hustle and bustle—wheeling carts, schlepping suitcases, and carrying briefcases containing our essential tools for the day” (30).

Jim Campbell’s Ambiguous Icon series consists of “modest-size L.E.D. displays that feature changing patters of blinking red lights, which he has programmed to create impressions of silhouetted figures walking, running, and falling” (31). According to Horodner, “[t]hese rather rudimentary sequences are ‘completed’ by the minds of the viewers, which fill in the ‘missing’ information between the black ground and the pulsing grid of red dots, producing the effect of movement” (31).

Tom Marioni’s Walking Drawing, Horodner suggests, literalizes the phrase “get your walking papers” (34). The artist taped “a long horizontal sheet of paper to a wall in his studio at a height that was level with the midsection of his body, attach[ed] coloured pencils to his waist, and then repeatedly walk[ed] close enough to the wall to create a series of overlapping lines” (34). “The drawing is pinned in place by two vertical wooden strips,” Horodner continues, “and is best seen and understood when the viewer re-creates the movements of the artist—a simple act that documents the up-and-down affair that walking really is” (34).

Rudolph Stingel’s work refers to Conceptual and Minimalist art. His eight square foot Untitled is made of thick sheets of styrofoam, which Stingel put on his studio floor and then walked on while wearing acetone-soaked boots, which melted the styrofoam in the shape of his footprints. “The resulting object recalls the clunky steps taken on the lunar surface in 1969 by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first men to set foot on the moon,” Horodner contends (34).

In Dirt Event #5, Curtis Mitchell clogged a patterned rug with a paste made of dirt and then paced back and forth on it “until he wore away a rough path in the new ground, revealing glimpses of the rug’s original design” (37). In Walk Ways, the carpet was paired with “a large sheet of glossy photo paper pinned to the wall, which turned black after being exposed to light” (37). The juxtaposition of the two objects “provides an architectural stage where the viewer can consider the ravaging effects of time together with his or her own dark reflection,” Horodner suggests (37).

Mowry Baden’s Wolf Cane is, Horodner writes, “a devious tool to be used in the landscape: a collapsible metal cane modified with the cast of a wolf’s paw attached at the bottom, designed to leave false prints on the ground” (37). In Walk Ways it was presented with a travel case and instructions. “Someone using it on a walk through fields or woods would create interpretive quandaries for others walking by after them,” Horodner notes: “Was a wolf pursuing a man, or vice versa? Or were they companions?” (37). I wonder how one could tell the difference between the paw of a wolf and the paw of a big dog, myself.

“The artists in Walk Ways explore the connections between mind and body, motion and site, process and residue,” Horodner concludes. “Their diverse practices serve to illuminate how a simply daily movement can inspire a complex meditation on the physical world and the self as a ‘mover and shaker’ within it” (39). As with other exhibitions of walking work, Walk Ways demonstrates the variety of ways that artists can respond to walking, either as a practice or as a theme. I particularly like Francis Alÿs’s postcards; what a great way to document walks and to invite others to participate, however vicariously, in the experience of walking. That, I think, is an idea worth stealing.

Works Cited

Horodner, Stuart, ed. Walk Ways, Independent Curators International, 2002.

Mod, Craig. “The Glorious, Almost-Disconnected Boredom of My Walk in Japan.” Wired, 29 May 2019, https://www.wired.com/story/six-weeks-100s-miles-hours-glorious-boredom-japan/.

109. Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman, Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab

walkinglab cover.jpg

Published as part of a series on research methods in the social sciences, Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab still has something to offer for those of us who walk as an artistic practice. However, it’s not an easy read, particularly if, like me, you’ve never read A Thousand Plateaux, know little about assemblage theory or affect theory or other theories that come out of the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Those ideas were circulating at the recent Walking’s New Movements conference at the University of Plymouth, and I intend to give myself a crash course on them once my comprehensive examinations are over. Still, my sense is that Springgay and Truman expect their readers to have a certain philosophical or theoretical background, and they aren’t interested in slowing down for those of us who haven’t read what they’ve read. My strategy throughout my reading of this text has been to find the articles they refer to, which I’ll read (eventually) as part of an attempt to understand what Springgay and Truman are arguing. But it’s possible that even all of that additional reading won’t be sufficient. I’m just not part of their intended audience. So this has been a frustrating read.

Given the text’s difficulty, I began with the foreword, by Patricia Ticineto Clough, a sociologist, and Bibi Calderaro, an artist, which starts by suggesting that Springgay and Truman “have a curiosity typical of walkers on a walk. But they do not rest where others might. Where others stop, curiosity moves them on; at every turn they refuse taken-for-granted understandings of land, people, movement and memory” (xii). Springgay and Truman also interrogate the “privileges of race, class, gender, sexuality, region and ableism” as they “turn their attention, and ours, to what is often beneath what has become normalized” (xii). “Definitions, frameworks, and the use of categories become objects of critical reflection as their walking becomes a performative writing of fresh conceptualization,” Clough and Calderaro continue (xii). “On their walks, and in their mode of ‘walking-with,’ Springgay and Truman seek the collaboration of Indigenous, queer, trans, women, people of color and differently abled walkers,” they write, and in this book the authors “share these collaborations of walking/writing/conceptualizing and draw on embodiment, place, sensory inquiry, and rhythm, four major concepts that shape what has already been dubbed ‘the new walking studies,’” offering “a timely and important contribution through the expanded concepts of Land and geos, affect, transmateriality, and movement” (xii). Their reflections on method “provide strategies for turning process of collecting data to experimentation that will greatly enrich qualitative research including walking methodologies” (xii).

According to Clough and Calderaro, “Springgay and Truman offer a critical account of the way the new materialisms, posthumanisms and speculative realisms can inform methods of walking,” approaches that have already “instigated a lively debate in the social sciences about knowledge production, about the subject and object of knowledge” (xii). Springgay and Truman “follow the current ontological turn deconstructing human privilege, not only inviting a reconsideration of the relationship of subject and object, but the organic and the nonorganic as well” (xii). In their idea of walking-with, “foot touches matter but matter touches foot as breeze touches skin; the world displays sensibilities other than our own, prior to consciousness, even to bodily-based perception. There is a sense, if not recognition, of the vibrancy of matter, of a worldly sensibility, of the force of the world’s casual efficacy” (xii-xiii). I am hearing in this echoes of Phil Smith’s discussion of object-oriented ontology in his book on site-specific theatre and performance, and these ideas are worth further exploration. In fact, this aspect of “walking-with” is probably more central to the model of walking Springgay and Truman advance in this book.

For Springgay and Truman, the more-than-human “points to the ethical and political relevancy of walking-with to feel/think or surface the intensities of the entanglements of knower and world,” Clough and Calderaro continue. “Becoming accountable to the more-than-human also involves taking account of the erasures of other knowledges and methods, erasures which, in part, have enabled thinking about the more-than-human as only a recent turn in thought” (xiii). “Walking-with becomes a movement of thought not only with others, but a process of engaging with erased or disavowed histories,” they write. “It is also a moving re-engagement with the ways that the earth and the elements have been understood, protected, feared and treasured” (xiii). The notion of walking-with should be understood as way of thinking “about experience differently, to experience differently, and to experience difference in experiencing” (xiii). The ontological shift encouraged by the idea of walking-with “requires a recognition of an alterity  within the self, an indeterminacy prior to consciousness and even bodily based perception—that is, the nonexperienced or inhuman condition of all experience” (xiii). Recognizing the inhuman within the self is “an opening to all that has been defined as other than human, nonhuman, or inhuman. Walking-with invites a sense of multiplicities in a queering of being and time, a nonexperienced time at all scales of being that affords infinite variation and multiplicities of space” (xiii). For Clough and Calderaro, “[t]he falling of the foot, and the catching-up of the body moving along with the world, allows for the rhythmicity of a multitude of indeterminate beings diffracted through different spacetimes. But because every moment conceals the bifurcation by which anything can take a conflictive turn, utmost care must be taken to move in an affirmative register” (xiii). I’m not quite sure what those last sentences mean, except that all of this is making tremendously large claims about walking.

Walking-with, Clough and Calderaro continue, “is an important methodology for thinking ethically and politically,” although it “is best practiced with a method that betrays any strict adherence to method” (xiii). This book, they write asks questions about what knowledge is, how it emerges and how, how it becomes “settled, sedimented into racial, gendered, classed particulars, the stuff regularly called the social, the political, the economic” (xiv). It’s a book about walking and thinking together, and is best approached that way. Unfortunately, I first read it on a plane, crammed into a tiny seat in economy class, but I hope I was able to get something from it nonetheless. Maybe I didn’t. In any case, Clough and Calderaro are making big claims about this book, and part of the goal of this summary is to determine whether those claims hold up under scrutiny. I can say that the notion of walking-with is gaining traction; several of the papers at the recent Walking’s New Movements conference at the University of Plymouth referred to this idea, and I am interested in learning more about it.

In their introduction, Springgay and Truman discuss how the book came out of a “walk-with Micalong Creek” in New South Wales, Australia. Drawing on the work of Isabelle Stengers, during that walk they wondered about what it might mean to think “‘in the presence of others” (1). “For Stengers, to think ‘in the presence of others’ creates a space for hesitation and resistance that produces new modes of relating,” they write (1). It is a form of thinking that is collective, unpredictable, and open to possibility (1). Its “presentness must include a ‘geo-centred dimension,’ which requires we consider different scales than those that are human-centred” (1). It is a kind of slow thinking in which “in the event of relation, ethics and politics become situated, indeterminate, and artful,” as well as (citing Donna Haraway) accountable (1). The research project that came out of this and other “walk-withs” is WalkingLab, and this book reflects on the collaborations that WalkingLab has generated.

The introductory chapter, Springgay and Truman write, “situates the book in two methodological areas in qualitative research: i) walking methodologies in the humanities and social science; ii) qualitative methodologies that are informed by new materialisms and posthumanisms, and which are called by different names including non-representational methodologies and post-qualitative methodologies,” which they call “more-than-human methodologies” (2). In their empirical research, they bring more-than-human methodologies to bear on walking research (2). The first section of the introduction summarizes “the impact of walking methodologies on qualitative research,” focusing on four major concepts: place, sensory inquiry, embodiment, and rhythm (2). “These concepts . . . mark significant contributions to social science and humanities research in that they foreground the importance of the material body in disciplines that have traditionally privileged discursive analysis,” they write. “Building on the important walk that has been done in walking research, we offer our expanded concepts that are accountable to an ethics and politics of the more-than-human: Land and geos, affect, transmaterial, and movement,” concepts they “activate in each of the remaining chapters” (2). (Bold, italicized text is in the original.)

The book, the authors continue, “interrogates the more-than-human turn in qualitative methodologies” by making “new materialist methodologies and walking research accountable to critical race, feminist, Indigenous, trans, queer, critical disability, and environmental humanities scholarship” (3). They note that Indigenous scholars “have interrogated the more-than-human turn, arguing that it continues to erase Indigenous knowledges that have always attended to nonhuman animacy,” and that “[q]ueer, trans, disability, and critical race scholars argue that while a de-centering of the human is necessary, we need to question whose concept of humanity more-than-human theories are trying to move beyond” (3). 

Next, Springgay and Truman briefly summarize the four themes—pace, sensory inquiry, embodiment, and rhythm—they found in walking research. Place, they write, is understood in this research 

as a specific location and as a process or an event. Walking scholars discuss the ways that walking is attuned to place, how place-making is produced by walking, and the ways that walking connects, bodies, environment, and the sensory surrounds of place. Walking becomes a way of inhabiting place through the lived experience of movement. Walking is a way of becoming responsive to place; it activates modes of participation that are situated and relational. (4)

I’ve written about this notion of walking as place-making, and although I may not have read everything Springgay and Truman have on the subject, I think it’s very complicated, and that space and place end up being folded together (in a Deleuzian sense) through walking. Second, walking is an important way of conducting sensory inquiry, they write:

If, as walking researchers contend, walking is a way of being in place, then walking enables researchers and research participants to tune into their sensory experiences. Walking researchers interested in sensory inquiry sometimes isolate a sense on a walk—for example, a soundwalk—or they consider the ways that the walking body is immersed in a sensory experience of place, such as the texture of feet touching the ground, air brushing against the cheeks, or the smells of city streets. (4)

I think this is true, although it’s possible as well that other ways of experiencing an environment might generate similar sensory experiences, including, potentially, just sitting in a place. Third, “[w]alking methodologies privilege an embodied way of knowing where movement connects mind, body, and environment,” they continue:

Walking scholars typically describe embodiment as relational, social, and convivial. Embodiment is conventionally understood through phenomenology, where researchers and participants examine the lived experiences of what it means to move in a particular place. This experiential understanding either focuses on an individual account of a walking, or is conceptualized through community-based or group walking practices that highlight the social aspects of walking. (4-5)

I’m glad that Springgay and Truman note that individual practices are embodied as well, since not all walking is “relational, social, and convivial.” Finally, they note that “[t]he pace and tempo of walking is another theme that emerges in walking research”:

Here, researchers are interested in the flows of everyday life, pedestrian movements in a city, or the topological features of walking in a landscape. Rhythm is described through embodied accounts of moving and sensory expressions of feet, limbs, and breath. In other instances, rhythm pertains to the pulse of the city, such as traffic, crowds, music, and other environmental phenomena that press on a walker. (5)

As I read these summaries, I found myself wishing that Springgay and Truman had referred to specific examples of texts that explore these four research themes. However, that’s what happens in the actual chapters where these themes are discussed.

Next, the authors suggest that this book extends these themes “through more-than-human theories that are accountable to critical race, feminist, Indigenous, trans, queer, and critical disability theories” (5). They propose four additional concepts: Land and geos, affect, transmaterial, and movement (5). “We use these concepts to think frictionally with WalkingLab research-creation events,” they write, noting that friction “is a force that acts in the opposite direction to movement,” slowing it and introducing resistance to it (5). “Friction exists every time bodies come into contact with each other,” they suggest, citing Jasbir Puar’s argument that when two theoretical frameworks (in his case, assemblage theory and intersectionality) converge, that coming together “is neither reconcilable nor oppositional, but frictional” and that the concepts are held together in tension (5).

By Land and geos (the capitalization of Land is not explained, but it might come from the late Greg Young-Ing’s Indigenous style guide, a book that’s gone missing since I had to move out of my office this past summer and which I’m going to have to replace, so I can’t check to make sure), Springgay and Truman suggest that “[m]ore-than-human walking methodologies must take account of the ways that place-based research is entrenched in ongoing settler colonization” (5). For that reason, “place in walking research needs to attend to Indigenous theories that centre Land, and posthuman understands of the geologic that insist on a different ethical relationship to geology, where human and nonhuman are imbricated and entwined” (5). I understand the first suggestion, but not the second; perhaps all will be revealed as I continue reading. Both of these concepts “disrupt humancentrism,” they continue (5).

Second, affect theory, “attends to the intensities and forces of an affecting and affected body,” needs to be considered along with more-than-human methodologies (5). There’s a caveat, however: “because there is a tendency to ascribe affect to pre-personal sensations, some uses and theorizing of affect can consequently erase identity. In contrast, ‘affecting subjectivities’ brings intersectional theories to bear on affect theories, emphasizing the ways that subjectivity is produced as intensive flows and assemblages between bodies” (5-6). Several papers at Walking’s New Movements focused on affect theory, but I have yet to discover (or put together) a coherent list of readings on this subject. Perhaps this book will help with that task.

Third, transmateriality, or “trans theories, which rupture heteronormative teleological understandings of movement and reproduction, disrupt the notion of an embodied, coherent self” (6). I thought that notion had been disrupted many times, going back to the Greeks and their notion of a division between reason and passion, or Freud’s three-part conception of the psyche—even though our lived experience of ourselves tends to suggest we are coherent to some extent (in my experience, anyway). “Trans theories emphasize viral, tentacular, and transversal conceptualizations of different,” Springgay and Truman continue (6). (Why “different” instead of “difference”?) Again, references here would have been useful, although they do emerge later in the book.

Finally, “[m]ovement, as it is conventionally understood in relation to walking, suggests directionality” (6). However, the movement theories used in this book “understand movement as inherent in all matter, endlessly differentiating. Movement as force and vibration resist capture” (6). Such an understanding of movement “is determinate, dynamic, and immanent and intimately entangled with transmaterial theories and practices” (6). Once again, references to these movement theories would have been useful, although they may appear later on. 

“In addition, there are particular inheritances that proliferate in walking research,” such as the notion that walking is “inherently radical, and a tactic to subvert urban space,” an idea which “often ignores race, gender, and disability” (6). “Figures like the flâneur and the practices of the dérive become common tropes, often assuming that all bodies move through space equally,” they continue (6). These ideas will be analyzed in detail later on—but of course, they have been analyzed before, particularly by Phil Smith (who is not included in the book’s list of references) and by Deidre Heddon and Cathy Turner (who are included). As it turns out, the analysis Springgay and Truman present is significantly different from those of Smith or Heddon and Turner, and it may be blind to parts of their own walking practice, as they describe it.

Next, in “Accountability and more-than-human ethics: walking queerly,” Springgay and Truman situate the book “within new materialist and posthumanist methodological approaches to qualitative research” (6). Those theoretical frameworks are used to “enact” their “four concepts of Land and geos, affect, transmaterial, and movement” (6). They begin with the phrase “walking queerly” (6). “A key concept that has gained momentum in qualitative methodologies is Karen Barad’s ‘intra-action,’” they write, an idea that suggests that the world “is composed of intra-acting phenomena which ‘are the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting components,’ meaning that they become determinant, material, and meaningful through relations,” although I’m not clear why the word Barad uses is “intra-action,” which suggests an interior relationship, rather than “interaction,” which suggests external relationships; I suppose I will have to read Barad’s text to understand (6). “Objects do not exist as discrete entities that come together through interactions but are produced through entanglement,” Springgay and Truman suggest (6). However, “such an ontological view privileges relations,” and so “a materialist ontology recognizes the interconnections of all phenomena where matter is indeterminate, constantly forming and reforming” (6-7). They cite a later text by Barad which suggests that “ethics then is not concerned with how we interact with the world as separate entities,” but rather “‘about taking account of the entangled materializations of which we are a part, including new configurations, new subjectivities, new possibilities’” (Barad, qtd. 7). “The consequences of this ethico-onto-epistemology for qualitative methodologies and walking research are significant, as it challenges individualism and humanist notions of intentionality, destabilizes conventional notions of space as a void, and directs our attention to the highly distributed nature of collectivity and relationality,” Springgay and Truman write (7). I’m not sure what “the highly distributed nature of collectivity and relationality” means, though; perhaps I would have to read Barad to get the point? Probably.

“If ontology and ethics, or being and acting, are always relational,” they continue, “then ethics shifts from a responsibility to act on the world in a particular moral way ‘to on-going precariously located practices, in which “we” are never categorically separate entities, but differentially implicated in the matters “we” engage with’” (Katrin Thiele, qtd. 7). Moreover, “if ‘we’ are intra-actively entangled in worlding, then there will never be a final solution or outcome, rather new matterings will emerge for our entangled intra-actions,” and accountability “shifts from being responsible for, to a response-ability-with” (7). Such an ethics consists of entanglements, “‘enfolded traces’ and an indebtedness of an irreducible other,’” they write, quoting Karen Barad again (7). Barad was mentioned in several of the papers presented at Walking’s New Movements, and Phil Smith mentions her in his writing, so her work seems to be part of the current discourse on walking and therefore important to read. At the same time, I saw a joke about the word “entanglement” on Facebook the other day, which might suggest that Barad’s ideas have become dominant in certain sectors of the academy, or even that people are tired of hearing about them.

According to Springgay and Truman, “[p]art of this accountability is in the use of queer theory to rupture the normalizing inheritances of walking research” (7). They suggest that while “self-identification as ‘queer’ has a place in queer theory,” “thinking beyond subject identification and with a queer relationality opens up new possibilities for understanding space and time” (7). Sara Ahmed’s work on queer phenomenology uses “queer” in a similar way, which I’m tempted to think of as a metaphor, although not to rethink space and time, as I recall. Springgay and Truman cite Jack Halberstam’s contention that “queer time” is “time outside normative temporal frames of inheritance and reproduction,” and that “queer space” involves “new understandings of space enabled by the ‘production of queer counter-publics’” (7). But those ideas speak to an notion of queer framed by sexuality, rather than one “beyond subject identification.” Springgay and Truman also refer to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notion of “queer performativity”; Donna Haraway’s suggestion that “queering” can undo the distinction between human and nonhuman; and the suggestion by Dana Luciano and Mel Chen that the queer or trans body generates other possibilities for living, including “‘multiple, cyborgian, spectral, transcorporeal, transmaterial’” possibilities (7-8). I’m a pretty down-to-earth person, though, and I’m not sure that spectral or transcorporeal or transmaterial possibilities for living actually exist—not without examples or evidence—and I’m uncomfortable, as a straight, cisgendered man, in simply adopting “queer” without actually being queer. Springgay and Truman discuss that second issue: “while many qualitative researchers in the social sciences and humanities often take up the word queer to describe letting go of traditional research boundaries . . . and utilize ‘queer’ as methodology, we need to account for the subjectivities that don’t enjoy the benefit of sliding in and out of being conveniently queer” (8). I’m not sure how to account for those subjectivities in my work or what doing so might look like, and there are no suggestions on offer here. Nor is it clear to me what it would mean, in practice, to “walk queerly,” as the section’s title suggests. Perhaps, again, this will become clear as the book continues.

In the introduction’s next section, “Unsettling the ‘ontological turn,’” Springgay and Truman suggest that the concept of the more-than-human “emerges at time in scholarly debates that seek to challenge and and de-centre human exceptionalism, taxonomies of intelligence and animacy, and the distinctions between humans and nonhumans, nature and culture” (8). They cite a number of authors on the political effects of the distinction between the human and the nonhuman, including Luciano and Chen (oh, how I hate the APA’s predilection for ignoring the given names of authors), who “posit the inhuman as a method of thinking otherwise,” and Jeffrey Cohen’s suggestion that, as a concept, the inhuman “emphasizes both difference and intimacy” (9). Karen Barad contends that “terms like human and nonhuman can’t be established as polar ends and as givens,” but rather the point ought to be “‘to understand the materializing effects of particular ways of drawing boundaries between “humans” and “non humans”’” (qtd. 9). Jin Haritaworn suggests that “the question of the inhuman is risky and requires anti-colonial methodologies that would in turn be aligned with Indigenous sovereignty” (9)—indeed, I’m finding myself wondering why, in these discussions of animacy, the grammar of Algonquian languages like Plains Cree doesn’t get mentioned. Haritaworn’s argument, Springgay and Truman continue, leads to Zoe Todd’s suggestion that the “ontological turn” is a form of colonization. According to Todd, “non-Indigenous scholars’ realization that [nonhuman] entities ‘are sentient and possess agency, that “nature” and “culture,” “human” and “animal” may not be so separate after all—is itself perpetuating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples’” (qtd. 9). I don’t quite understand this idea, and I suppose I would have to read Todd’s article to understand her point. Apparently, though, Todd is arguing that Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies are “‘legal orders through which Indigenous peoples throughout the world are fighting for self-determination, sovereignty’” (qtd. 9), and that, as Springgay and Truman suggest, “ontological discussions of matter must take into consideration not only Indigenous world-views but material legal struggles over matter and sovereignty” (9). 

Springgay and Truman summarize other critiques of notions of “posthuman” theorizing and suggest that 

[a]s more-than-human methodologies gain momentum in re-conceptualizing qualitative methodologies in the social sciences and humanities its fault lies in broad definitions. While consideration is given to all forms of matter and the intra-relatedness of entangled ethics, its politics is often consumed in a rhetoric of undoing dualisms where “everything matters” and thus becomes flattened. (10)

They also suggest that “[q]uestions about the politics of new materialism are typically elided” as well because “there is a tendency to think that arguments about matter as dynamic, self-organizing, and intensive are political in and of themselves,” and thinking that “politics is everywhere” ends up meaning that politics disappears (10). They cite feminist geographer Juanita Sundberg, who argues that “posthumanist scholarship in its attempt to critique dualisms actually works to ‘uphold Eurocentric knowledge’” because those attempts are silent about their own locations (qtd. 11). All of them? Really? Again, I’ll have to read Sundberg to understand.

Interestingly, though, Sundberg apparently “offers walking as a strategy for decolonizing research,” although her examples are Indigenous rather than Settler walking (11). In fact, it’s Sundberg who apparently came up with the term “walking-with,” borrowing it from the Zapatista movement (11). “Walking-with,” Sundberg states, “entails ‘serious engagement with Indigenous epistemologies, ontologies, and methodologies’” (11). Walking-with should not be misunderstood as “conviviality and sociality, or the idea that one needs to walk with a group of people. You could walk-with alone” (11). Springgay and Truman write that their “conceptualization and practice of walking-with” is situated alongside Sundberg and “the walkers she works with,” and also that they are “indebted to the rich feminist work on citational practices” (I’m not sure what “citational practices” means in this context) and Alecia Jackson’s and Lisa Mazzei’s “thinking-with theory” (11). They write:

Walking-with is explicit about political positions and situated knowledges, which reveal our entanglements with settler colonization and neoliberalism. Walking-with is accountable. Walking-with is a form of solidarity, unlearning, and critical engagement with situated knowledges. Walking-with demands that we forgo universal claims about how humans and nonhumans experience walking, and consider more-than-human ethics and politics of the material intra-actions of walking research. (11)

In other words, despite the various caveats and critiques they have offered about their theoretical perspectives, their practice of walking-with is nonetheless rooted in those perspectives, and in order to seriously engage with their notion of “walking-with,” one would have to read that body of theoretical material. The work of reading and learning, it seems, is endless.

The introduction concludes with summaries of the chapters to come, which I’m including here in hopes of understanding what’s coming. “In Chapter 1 we walk-with Indigenous theories of Land and critical place inquire; posthuman theories of the geological that disrupt taxonomies of what is lively and what is inert; and a posthuman critique of landscape urbanism,” they write, noting that their central example is the “WalkingLab research-creation event Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail (12). The second chapter “examines a number of WalkingLab walking projects through sensory, haptic, or affect theories,” using Stefano Harney’s and Fred Moten’s “use of hapticality to think about how walking constitutes a politics-in-movement” (12). The second chapter also discusses affect theory in relation to the politics of walking. The third chapter “examine a sonic walk called Walking to the Laundromat by Bek Conroy, in order to develop a theory of transmateriality” (12). That sonic walk “probes bodily, affective, and gendered labour including domestic labour, money laundering, and the proliferation of new age self-help audio books to question how some bodies are perceived as disposable in order for other bodies to thrive” (12). They critique the notion of the flâneur, and “introduce Stacy Alaimo’s important concept ‘transcorporeality,’ which takes into consideration the material and discursive entanglements between human and nonhuman entities,” along with “a number of trans theories,” including work by Karen Barad, which “complicate walking as embodied and emplaced in order to disassemble and disturb taxonomies, and confound the notion of an embodied, coherent self” (12). 

The fourth chapter looks at notions of walking as participatory or inclusionary and therefore convivial by critiquing “how participation has been framed through inclusionary logics and as rehabilitation,” looking at two walking projects to do so: Ring of Fire, a “mass procession for the opening of the Parapan Am games by Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffin and the Art Gallery of York University,” and “The Warren Run, a group orienteering event by Matt Prest commissioned by WalkingLab” (13). “Following these crucial critiques of participation as inclusion, we ask questions about how we might think differently about participation drawing on theories of movement,” particularly those of Erin Manning, “to argue that participation begins before the invitation of inclusion commences” (13). They also look at Carmen Papalia’s project White Cane Amplified in that chapter as well. Chapter 5, they write, 

responds to agitations that are occurring in qualitative research, particularly issues related to: the incompatibility between new empiricist methodologies and phenomenological uses of methods; the preponderance of methodocentrism; the pre-supposition of methods; a reliance of data modeled on knowability and visibility; the ongoing emplacement of settler futurity; and the dilemma of representation. (13)

“These agitations have provoked some scholars to suggest that we can do away with method,” they note, but their position is “that methods need to be generated speculatively and in the middle of research, and further that particular (in)tensions need to be immanent to whatever method is used” (13). They use a variety of WalkingLab projects as examples in that chapter. 

The sixth chapter examines walking and mapping and the fact that “the prevailing history of mapping is entrenched in imperial and colonial powers who use and create maps to exploit natural resources, claim land, and to legitimize borders” (13), reasons I will be avoiding mapping in my current walking project. However, in this chapter Springgay and Truman look at forms of “counter-cartography” in WalkingLab projects in which “re-mapping offers possibilities of conceptualizing space that is regional and relational, as opposed to state sanctioned and static,” and how “walking can re-map archives and disrupt linear conceptualizations of time” by paying attention to how “walking as ‘anarchiving’ attends to the undocumented, affective, and fragmented compositions that tell stories about a past that is not past but is the present and imagined future” (14). “As counter cartographies and anarchiving practices the walking projects disrupt dominant narratives of place and futurity, re-mapping Land ‘returning it to the landless,’” they write (14), although that return is probably metaphorical, I would imagine, rather than literal. I don’t understand the word “futurity,” particularly in this context, unless the reference is to settler futurity, but perhaps that becomes clear in that chapter. 

Chapter 7 moves away from standard conceptions of walking in education to present “two examples of walking-with research in school contexts” (14). Those examples “offer the potential for students to critically interrogate humanist assumptions regarding landscape and literacy” (14). In that chapter, Springgay and Truman “examine the complex ways that students can engage in walking-with as a method of inquiry into their world-making” (14). The eighth chapter “functions as a speculative conclusion or summary” and “is enacted in a series of walking-writing propositions that respond to questions concerning the relationship between walking and writing, and our collaborative process” (14). “Propositions,” they continue, “are different from methods in that they are speculative and event oriented”; they are “not intended as a set of directions, or rules that contain and control movement, but as prompts for further experimentation and thought” (14). The chapter “unfolds through a series of walks that we invite the reader to take: differentiation walks, surface walks, activation devices, ‘with,’ touch, and contours,” and they once again cite Karen Barad’s contention that ethics “is ‘about responsibility for the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part” (qtd. 14). “As a research methodology walking has a diverse and extensive history in the social sciences and humanities, underscoring its value for conducting research that is situational, relational, and material,” they conclude:

Yet, as we argue throughout the book, walking is never neutral. In a time of global crisis—emboldened White supremacy—it is crucial that we cease celebrating the White male flâneur, who strolls leisurely through the city, as the quintessence of what it means to walk. Instead, we must queer walking, destabilizing humanism’s structuring of human and nonhuman, nature and culture. (14)

Again, I find myself wondering what such “queer walking” would look like in practice, and whether it would be open to those who do not identify as “queer.” Finally, Springgay and Truman suggest that walking is a slow methodology: “Slowness is a process of unlearning and unsettling what has come before,” they write. “In approaching walking methodologies from the perspective of slow, we intend to critically interrogate the many inheritances of walking, to agitate, and to arouse different ethical and political concerns” (15). I’ve been told that Settlers walking is inevitably colonial because walking is slow, so I’m interested to read about slow methodologies. It’s always frustrating when a summary is longer than the original text, as is the case here, but Springgay and Truman introduce a tremendous amount of theoretical material in their introduction, and I have struggled to follow along; the length of this summary (so far) is a sign of that struggle.

The first chapter begins with a description of the geology and history of the Niagara Escarpment in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, the site of Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail, the WalkingLab event through which this chapter “is activated” (16). That event “sought ways to disrupt the typical uses of the trails in order to think about walking-with place through geologic forces and animacies, and in relation to Indigenous Land-centred knowledges,” they write. “As White settlers, we write about place informed by our conversations and readings-with Indigenous scholars and artists” (16). (Springgay and Truman use hyphens to attach the suffix “with” to many different words: “walking-with,” “thinking-with,” and now “readings-with.”) They note how place is central to walking research but point out that Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie “argue place-based learning and research is entrenched in settler colonial histories and ongoing practices and have not sufficiently attended to Indigenous understandings of Land” (17). I have Tuck’s and McKenzie’s book and it’s on my reading list; it’s time to turn to it, I think. Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail “sought to unsettler settler logics of place by thinking-with i) geo-theories; ii) Indigenous theories of Land; and iii) posthuman critiques of landscape urbanism” (17). These theoretical orientations are not analogous, but rather “we frictionally rub them together to think a different ethics-of-place” (17). Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail was nothing if not ambitious, and I’m always suspicious that such ambitions are difficult to realize.

Springgay and Truman reject “[d]ominant sustainability discourses” which “assume that knowledge of, and preservation through, technological fixes will control the ecological crises” (17). Instead, citing Stacy Alaimo, who argues that “‘the epistemological stance of sustainability, as it is linked to systems management and technological fixes, presents rather a comforting, conventional sense that the problem is out there, distinct from oneself’” (qtd. 17), they suggest that those dominant sustainability discourses turn walkers into spectators who “are external to wider transcorporeal relations including an entanglement with the geosocial and Indigenous Land” (17). (I’m not sure what the neologism “geosocial” means.) “Our research-creation event, Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail aimed to queer and rupture walking-with place,” they write (17).

Next, Springgay and Truman look at conventional distinctions between space and place, using Tim Ingold (the specific text they refer to is one I haven’t read) and Doreen Massey to critique those distinctions. However, they note that “[p]lace, much like embodiment, figures in almost all walking research regardless of the discipline and is a fundamental part of walking research” (18). Place is understood (not exclusively) through five threads: “the go-along or walking interview,” “pedestrianism,” “walking tours and ethnographic research,” “mapping practices,” and “landscape and nature” (18). Walking interviews, they suggest, citing Evans and Jones (again, I shudder at the way that APA format turns individual writers expressing ideas into oracular authorities), “‘produce more spontaneous data as elements of the surrounding environment prompt discussion of place’” (qtd 19). I’m planning to incorporate walking interviews into my work as a way of moving beyond a solo walking practice, and so I ought to read Evans and Jones along with the other writers Springgay and Truman cite on this subject. (The amount of reading I have yet to do feels overwhelming; sometimes, despite all the work I’ve done preparing for my comprehensive examinations, I feel that I have hardly begun.) 

What Springgay and Truman are actually talking about here, I think, in their discussion of these “threads” are forms of qualitative social science research that involve walking. For instance, pedestrianism includes “walking as a means of questioning and examining everyday practices and places,” they write (20). Walking tours and ethnographies have been used by many researchers (20-21). One form of “walking in relation to pedagogy and place” that has become “ubiquitous” is the dérive or drift through urban space; its “aimlessness disrupts the habitual methods people typically move from one place to another, and instead directs the walkers’ attention to the sights, sounds, smells and other psychogeographic details of a place” (21). I’m surprised to learn that the dérive has been used by social scientists, given contemporary psychogeography’s resistance (through its interest in the occult and other nonrational ways of “knowing”) to being absorbed by the academy. Mapping is also a way of “materializ[ing]” place, typically by using GPS but through analogue technologies (pencil and paper) as well (22). 

Nature and trail walks are ways “of doing nature, as if nature is separate and distinct from humans,” but understood in that way, nature “is exclusionary” because certain bodies—“queer, disabled, racialized”—are “marked out of place in nature,” since “nature reserves and hiking trails are shaped around a compulsory neurotypicality, able-bodiedness, and normativity” (22-23). In Australia, the practice of “bushwalking” “is a place-making practice that is ‘invested in settler futurity’” because it typically ignores the land’s traditional owners (Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernández, qtd. 23). Some scholars, including Sarah Pink, use the term “emplacement” to suggest the interrelationship between body, mind, and environment, but Tuck and McKenzie argue that emplacement “‘is the discursive and literal replacement of the Native by the settler,’” evident in things like property rights and broken treaties (qtd. 23-24). (I’m not sure how emplacement could be considered the sole paradigm that is entangled in settler colonialism; clearly I don’t understand how Tuck and McKenzie are using that word.) “[P]lace-based research needs to be put into conversation with Indigenous knowledges, practices that ‘unsettle’ white settlers, and critical environmental studies to move place from the periphery of social science research,” Springgay and Truman suggest, citing Tuck and McKenzie; Tuck, McKenzie, and McCoy; Delores Calderon; and many others (24). 

With this critical and theoretical framework in mind, Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail, Springgay and Truman write, “ruptured and queered the trail, challenging the nature-culture binary, demanding that we think otherwise about human and more-than-human entanglements” (25). They cite Margaret Somerville’s use of the term “queer in relation to place as a strategy or method for research and writing” that “disrupts and decenters the human, and emphasizes a new theory of representation” (25). Thus “Queering the Trail refuses and understanding of geology and Land from a human linear time-scale that can be reduced to heteronormative reproductivity” (25). (I don’t understand the relationship being posited here, through critique, between geology and Land, on the one hand, and “heteronormative reproductivity” on the other. What are they talking about?)

Springgay and Truman now describe Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail: the participants (a group of artists and academics) and the event itself, which included performances, “pop-up lectures” (26) on the history of walking, the word “queer,” the area’s geology, and the way that the word for “Haudenosaunee clans, which Euro-Western scholars have assumed is a human designation for groups of people, in fact is a Mohawk word that refers to Land, clay, or earth” (26-28). “Queering the Trail deliberately engaged with a relational politics that does not flatten all entities into equitable vitalism, but accounts for the ways that different phenomena come to matter as matter,” they write (29). The event, they continue, “enacted what Tuck and McKenzie invoke in their understanding of critical place inquiry”: 

They ask social science researchers to do more than simply collect data “on and in place, [but] to examin[e] place itself in its social and material manifestations.” After each pop-up lecture we asked walkers to continue walking the trail and to use that time for questions and discussions with the guest lecturers, artists, and WalkingLab. As we left the Iroquoia Heights side trail after the final walk . . . we invited the group of walkers to walk in silence for an extended period of time. Unlike sound walks that might ask participants to tune into their sensory surround, the silence was intended as a form of Place-Thought, where the confluence of the days’ events could come together. As a walking methodology, Stone Walks enacts a conjunction between thinking-making-doing. Walking-with place insists on a relational, intimate, and tangible entanglement with the lithic eco-materiality of which we are all a part. (33)

I wasn’t present at Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail, but it seems to me that while it would have been a provocative experience, it’s hard to imagine that such an event could carry all of the theoretical freight articulated in this account. How is one event’s walking in silence merely sensory, for example, while Stone Walks on the Bruce Trail: Queering the Trail’s silent walking was “a form of Place-Thought,” a term which comes from Anishinaabe academic Vanessa Watts and suggests that the earth has “aliveness and agency” (29)? How can one be certain that the event’s intentions were realized for its participants? How could a period of silent walking undo hundreds of years of settler colonial, religious, and philosophical baggage? Is that remotely possible? Are lectures along a trail really able to enact the radical programme this account claims they enacted? Could any event do all of the things that this event is described as being able to do? It’s hard for me to imagine. I would never make such claims about my walking; in fact, I’m always wondering whether my intentions are realized or whether I’ve failed to do what I set out to do. I don’t see any similar self-reflectivity or self-questioning here. 

The second chapter, “Sensory inquiry and affective intensities in walking research,” begins with this statement:

Walking methodologies invariably invoke sensory and affective investigations. Despite the fact that sensory studies and affect studies emerge from different conceptualizations of sensation, both, we maintain, prioritize corporeal and material practices. Sensory studies and the various approaches to affect share an interest in non-conscious, non-cognitive, transmaterial, and more-than representational processes. (34)

Springgay and Truman cite a long list of sensory studies and note that the senses have been considered to be important for qualitative research, while affect studies focus on “pre-, post-, and trans-individual bodily forces and the capacities of bodies to act or be acted upon by other bodies” (34-35). “This chapter examines a number of WalkingLab projects and categorizes them as either sensory, haptic, or affective,” they continue. “This pedagogical exercise is arguably problematic and arbitrary, as many of the walks intersect sensory inquiry and affective understandings of corporeality,” but by conducting this exercise, they “are able to demonstrate the degree of complexity and the many variations by which sensory knowing and affective tonalities shape walking methodologies” (35). The first section of the chapter focuses on walks “that isolate a particular sense,” followed by a section that looks at walks “that use synaesthesia to defamiliarize the ordinary, paying attention to visceral and immanent encounters of walking in urban space” (35). That synaesthesia must be metaphorical or otherwise constructed, because true synaesthesia is rare and wouldn’t necessarily take forms that would be activated by walking. Then they discuss hapticality—“a sense of touch felt as force, intensity, and vibration”—and the discussion of hapticality in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s articulation of “a politics of the feel” (35). That leads to affect theories and intersectionality. Finally, they argue that “‘feelings futurity’ in walking methodologies requires that sensory inquiry, haptic modulations, and affective tonalities ask questions about ‘what matters’” (35). 

To illustrate these ideas, Springgay and Truman discuss “experiments with multi-sensory and multi-species ethnography with early childhood teachers and students” in the WalkingLab project “Thinking-with Bark” (35), a project called StoryWalks (also with young children as participants) (36), several sound walks (36-38), and “a smellscape walk” in Toronto’s Kensington Market (38). “The interest in the proximinal senses in walking research is significant for the ways that it has unsettled occularcentrism,” they write, noting that “sensory inquiry ephasizes the body and corporeal ways of knowing,” although “such sensory turns need to account for the social, cultural, racial, sexual, gendered, and classed constructions of the senses. The senses are not neutral, but already exist as ethical and political demarcations of difference” (39). They cite Sarah Pink’s suggestion that the identification of five senses is a Western cultural construct (39). Next, Springgay and Truman turn to synaesthetic walks. “In walking research, synaesthesia can be deployed intentionally to defamiliarize a sensory experience of place and as a non-representational strategy,” they suggest, citing a project in which participants were encouraged to map smells “using words from another sensory register” (40): not true synaesthesia, then, but a textually constructed or metaphorical synasthesia. 

They then explore haptic walks: “Hapticality relates to the sense of touch,” they write, and “[i]n walking research, hapticality attends to tactile qualities such as pressure, weight, temperature, and texture,” sometimes organized “around kinaesthetic experience such as muscles, joints, and tendons that give a sense of weight, stretching, and angles as one walks” (40). They cite Laura Marks’s work on haptic visuality, which draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the haptic (40-41), and discuss a variety of walking projects which think about tactile knowledge and corporeality, including Deirdre Heddon’s and Misha Myers’s Walking Library project, John Wylie’s description of “the rhythm of walking as a corporeal event,” and Tim Ingold’s suggestion that “walkers ‘hear through their feet’ emphasizing the proprioception of movement,” although they suggest that Ingold’s “embodied hapticality . . . foregrounds an individual’s experience and understanding of surfaces and textures, privileging the human,” which is a problem they will address later in “discussions of human embodiment through trans theories” (41). “Hapticality emphasizes transcorporeal touching encounters,” Springgay and Truman continue (42). They discuss the use of the term “hapticality as a political mode of touching and being touched” in the work of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (42). “Hapticality or a politics of the feel,, lies below cognitive perception,” they suggest (42). This exploration ends with Métis artist Dylan Miner’s WalkingLab event To the Landless “as a politics of the feel” which “might also be understood through theories of affect, where affect is force and intensity” (42-43).

“Affect has inflected qualitative research methodologies with an attention to matter as dynamic, energetic, and emergent,” Springgay and Truman write (43). They acknowledge that “affect surfaces in the previous sensory experiments and walks, as affect circulates constantly” (43). However, they continue, “the focus in the previous experiments was on the ways in which walking shaped a sensory understanding of embodiment and place,” and affect, “although not synonymous with sensory experience, extends and complicates the ethical-political work of walking methodologies” (43). For instance, in the WalkingLab project Evaporation Walks, participants “carry broad dinner plates filled with pigmented water” until the water evaporates, “leaving a trace or silt residue on the bottom of the plate” (43). “The project speaks to pain and grief, and the weight of carrying a dying body both literally (in the form of evaporation) and metaphorically (loss of a child),” they contend. “If affect demands that sensation be understood as intensities, vibrations, and forces that are transcorporeal, as opposed to located in a particular body, then pain and grief are palpable in the circulation of affects between bodies. . . . Affect signals a capacity for the body to be open to the next affective event, an opening to an elsewhere” (43). “Affect is about surfaces,” the continue, “[q]uivering, vibrating surfaces that affect bodies, sticking to them” (44). In Evaporation Walks, they write, citing Deleuze’s claim that affects are “created through encounters, which force us to thought,” “there is a difference between the walkers feeling emotions that are already recognizable—for example, grief—and pre-, post- and trans-personal affects that unsettle and force us to resist identification. The affects that circulate might be anguish, but they could also be joyful” (44). What confuses me here, though, is why the evaporation of water necessarily literally or metaphorically speaks of pain or grief at all. What am I missing? I don’t understand how Evaporation Walks has become such a totemic example of walking and affect. It’s as if the theory and practice are not cohering, or at least not cohering in a way that is intelligible for me.

“The political potential of affect lies in intensities—which can be either deliberate or incidental—and in the ways that intensities instantiate feelings,” Springgay and Truman write. “These feelings, while immediate and in the present, arrive with a past that is never in the past , and engender an indeterminate future” (45). They cite Sara Ahmed’s suggestion that distinguishing between affect and emotion comes with particular dangers, along with other critiques that “emerge in affect studies suggesting that there can be a tendency to avoid the messiness of identity politics and a refusal to engage with issues of oppression,” a situation that “neglects the way that affect and feeling participates in the formation of subjects” (45). Nevertheless, “many affect theorists have turned to affect precisely because affect enables a form of thinking about politics as ‘processes of circulation, engagement, and assemblage rather than as originating from the position of a sovereign subject,” citing the work of Lara, Lui, Ashley, Nishida, Liebert, and Billies (45). “Numerous scholars have attended to the entanglements between affect and politics, including the ways that power and control circulates and flows and the formation of animacy hierarchies that condition corporeal threats,” they continue (45-46). “What affect theory helps us do is re-think the assumption that agency and politics begins with the human subject, and that the human is the only animate agent,” they write:

Affecting subjectivity offers possibilities for exploring material and visceral processes of subjectivity, re-thinks categories previously associated with identity, and considers the emergence of subjectivity as an assemblage of conscious and non-conscious matterings. Affectivity becomes a practice and process of defamiliarization, where subjectivities are not flattened or erased but neither are they fixed, known, or assumed. (46)

They then discuss two water walks, one in Toronto and the other in Hamilton, and “the ways that affecting subjectivities contributes to the scholarship on the intersections between affect and politics” (46-48).

In the chapter’s conclusion, Springgay and Truman write, “There is no denying that sensory experiences, haptic feelings, and affective intensities course through walking research. What matters, we contend, is how we tune into sensation, hapticality and affect” (48). They suggest that what is important is “the politics of the feel” (48). “It is our contention however, that feelings futurity in walking methodologies not only lies in these meaningful and vital contributions to qualitative research, but in the politicality of sensation and affect,” they continue. “This means that walking methodologies need to account for the ways that more-than-human sensations and affects circulate, accumulate, and stick to different bodies and spaces in different ways” (48). I find myself confused by the term “feelings futurity,” but Springgay and Truman discuss it further:

Feelings futurity arises as forces that act through and upon us. The future of walking methodologies requires not only innovative techniques to experiment with and account for sensory and haptic understandings, but must also attune to affecting subjectivities and the ways that affect flows and sticks to different bodies and spaces. Feelings futurity insists that we turn our attention to how matter comes to matter. (49)

Unfortunately, that elaboration doesn’t help. Why use the term “futurity” here? What does “futurity” actually mean in contemporary theoretical discourse? It’s as if there’s a code I’m not able to break, and it’s frustrating. Perhaps as I continue reading, this terminology will become clear. I can only hope.

Chapter 3, “Transmaterial walking methodologies: Affective labour and a sonic walk,” begins with embodiment. “As we walk we are ‘in’ the world, integrating body and space co-extensively,” Springgay and Truman write, citing Sarah Pink and Tim Ingold (50). But, they continue, “the linkage between walking and embodiment is contentious because particular ways of walking might not be embodied, such as mindless daily commutes to work” (50). What’s the connection between mindfulness and embodiment? Is there one? My “mindless” commute to work, particularly these days, when the temperature dips to minus 20, are embodied, not least because they can be uncomfortable, and that discomfort brings me back to my body as I walk.  This morning, for instance, although I was thinking about this summary as I walked through the park, I was also aware of the rhythm of my footsteps and of the cold air entering my lungs, and since I was slightly overdressed for the temperature, of the patch of sweat forming on my back. Is that awareness not embodiment? What about flow states? Are they not embodiment? When I used to run, I would occasionally find myself in a flow state in which the running was effortless. Is that not embodiment? How did mindfulness sneak into notions of embodiment? I don’t understand.

“Likewise,” they write, “when walking is described as embodied, it is typically assumed to be productive, lively, convivial, and therefore positive. However, mass refugee flights experienced globally enact vulnerable, exposed, and brutalized embodiment.” Of course, the walking that is called “lively” and “convivial” is made by choice, not out of necessity, and from a place of relative privilege and safety; comparing it to the walking experienced by refugees misses that point. “Normative understandings of embodiment are framed as affirmative, but do not take into consideration antagonism or power,” Springgay and Truman state (50). Plus, I’m not convinced that accounts of embodied walking require conviviality; I think examples of that argument would have to be provided.

Springgay and Truman turn to the work of Stacy Alaimo, who argues that embodiment “does little to account for ‘networks of risk, harm, culpability and responsibility’ within which humans find themselves entangled; to Lindsay Stephens, Susan Ruddick and Patricia McKeever, who reject “a model of embodiment based on individual experience” and “argue that embodiment theories need to account for more politically emplaced and spatially distributed understandings of bodies and space”; and to Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie, who also argue that most understandings of embodiment ignore power and perpetuate “ongoing settler colonial practices” (50). Alaimo’s notion of transcorporeality, which describes “more-than-human embodiment that includes ‘material interchanges between human bodies, geographical places, and vast networks of power’” (qtd. 50) is, for Springgay and Truman, a more satisfactory way of understanding embodiment. “Transcorporeality posits humans and nonhumans as enmeshed with each other in a messy, shifting ontology,” they write. “Transcorporeality cleaves the nature-culture divide and asserts that bodies do not pre-exist their comings together but are materialized in and through intra-action” (50). For example, Astrida Neimanis suggests that water is transcorporeal because it exists inside and outside of our bodies in “leaky entanglements” (50). 

In this chapter, Springgay and Truman argue that walking methodologies are “transmaterial,” although it’s not clear to me that transmateriality and transcorporeality are necessarily the same things (51). There’s a slippage from one term to the other. Their primary example is a sonic walk by Rebecca Conroy called Walking to the Laundromat; that is what they “think-with” in this chapter (51). “Commencing with Alaimo’s transcorporeality we draw on different trans theories to disassemble and disturb taxonomies, and confound the notion of an embodied, coherent self,” they write (51). This chapter also critiques the flâneur (everybody does) and introduces “transspecies and viral theories to further complicate humanist conceptualizations of environment,” before discussing how sounds “render some bodies as inhuman” (51). “Transmateriality,” they argue, “enlarges understandings of corporeality and takes into account more-than-human movements and entanglements that are immanent, viral, and intensive” (51).

Walking to the Laundromat is a 106-minute work of sound art “that participants listen to while doing their laundry at a public laundromat, interspersed with walks around the neighbourhood in between cycles” (51). (I’m guessing that the work instructs listeners to go to a laundromat with their laundry; the sound file is online, but I don’t have time to listen, unfortunately.) Springgay and Truman argue that this chapter uses excerpts from the work “to transduce and shape the writing with rather than about the sonic walk” (51). “In thinking trans, we invoke a transversal writing practice that attempts to rupture a reliance on lived description of artistic and bodily work,” they continue. “A challenge of writing and thinking-with more-than-human methodologies, and their experimental, material practices, is how to attend to their fleeting, viral, multiple, and affective intensities without reducing walking and art projects to mere background. There is a tendency to ‘interpret’ contemporary art practices, privileging the researcher’s voice over the artists’” (51-52). So, rather than interpretation, what? The “sonic walk” is “an instantiation of theory,” they write (52). Perhaps, but does that approach not continue to privilege their voices over Conroy’s? What’s the differentiation between interpretation and theorization in relation to a work of art? How can one talk about art without ending up privileging one’s own voice?

“In using the prefix trans, we understand that trans and non-trans people have different stakes in the field of trans studies,” they continue (52). That’s obvious; I have almost personal no stake at all in trans studies, as a cisgendered man. They note objections to the use of the term that erase “the material and social conditions of transgendered people’s lives,” but also cite those who, like Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore invoke the prefix “to consider the interrelatedness of all trans phenomena” (52). They cite Rosi Braidotti, “who describes transpositions as ‘intertextual, cross-boundary or transversal transfer’” which weave “different strands together” (qtd. 52). “Transpositions are non-linear and nomadic, and as such accountable and committed to a particular ethics,” they write (52). What links non-linearity and nomadism to ethics? I don’t understand. Does that mean that linearity and sedentarism are not linked to ethics? “Trans is a prefix that denotes across, through, or beyond,” Springgay and Truman write. “Transversing from embodiment to trans theories of walking requires us to move beyond questions that position particular kinds of human experience at the centre” (52). “[T]rans shifts the focus from a being or a thing to intensities and movement” (53). But linear understandings of trans are incorrect; rather, they suggest, quoting Eva Hayward and Che Gossett, trans “‘repurposes, displaces, renames, replicates, and intensifies terms, adding yet more texture and the possibility of nearby-ness’” (qtd. 53). “Trans refutes the nature-culture divide proliferating in nonhuman forms,” Springgay and Truman write, and it “includes the interventions of critical race studies and postcoloniality in posthuman or more-than-human conceptualizations of difference, where difference is not between entities, but constituted through movement and affect: a trans touching materiality” (53). Trans undoes “animacy categories” and “foregrounds Black and Indigenous Studies” because, as Abraham Weill suggests, it is about “entangled linkages, or transversality. Trans for Weil becomes a process of pollination and murmuration,” what Springgay and Truman will call “viral” (53).

Conroy’s sonic walk addresses labour “through the intersections of reproductive labour, capitalism, and affective labour,” because it’s about doing laundry (53). “One of the ways that labour gets circumnavigated in walking research is the reliance on two specific tropes: the flâneur and the dérive,” they continue, since the flâneur is a man, and a man of leisure (54); “[i]nstead of the flâneur, we need different conceptualizations of walking that deterritorialize what it means to move,” such as critical disability research (55). The dérive, for its part, is part of a “‘fraternity’” of walking because it is detached, although “[t]here are a number of feminist psychogeographers and collectives that use the practices of the dérive to critique and subvert the myth of urban detachment” (55-56). Walking to the Laundromat “resists the tropes of the visually privileged flâneur and queers the dérive, underscoring the labour, violence, and structures that enable some bodies to walk more freely,” Springgay and Truman contend. “The audio track emphasizes the violence of labour and transnational mobility, and the performance, of washing clothes, walking, and returning respectively to the laundromat, further positions the performance itself as a form of labour,” and unlike a dérive, the walking involved is restricted by the need to return to the washing machines periodically (56). Instead of casting off “usual relations,” the work, “through the labour of walking and washing, embodied affective labour” (56).

“We insist that walking researchers need to stop returning to the flâneur to contextualize their work, and instead consider transmaterial walking practices,” Springgay and Truman, well, insist. “Researchers must recognize that walking is not always a leisure activity, and that particular bodies already labour over walking as work” (56). Those who do draw on the dérive must “remain critical and not assume that it is automatically radical. Some bodies literally walk on foot for miles carrying laundry, water, or other commodities” (56). Conroy’s sonic walk “thinks about urban space, access, and labour associated with walking, borders, and mobility,” and it “disrupts the occularcentrism of the flâneur, focussing instead on sounds, bodies, and transmigratory spaces” (57). (Is a laundromat a transmigratory space?) “Walking to the Laundromat interrogates the ways that capitalism and neoliberalism render some lives disposable, and asserts the violence and Whiteness of colonial sovereignty,” they continue, and the laundromat itself becomes “both a space of care and cruelty” (57). “Conroy describes her project through three threads: mindfulness and penetration; invisible leaking bodies; and viral strategies,” and the audio walk also “takes up the issue of necropolitics, where queer, trans, and racialized populations are subject to occupation, conquest, and elimination” (57). How it does all of this is not clear.

Next, Springgay and Truman turn to Julie Livingston and Jasbir Puar and their term “interspecies,” which refers “to ‘relationships between different forms of biosocial life and their political effects’” (qtd. 59). “Interspecies theories and research insists that the human can no longer be the dominant subject of analysis,” and that interspecies “‘offers a broader geopolitical understanding of how the human/animal/plant triad is unstable and varies across time and place,’” (qtd. 59), a provocative statement that requires reading Livingston’s and Puar’s work to understand. “Interspecies also departs from privileged sites in posthuman work—the human and the animal—or what Donna Haraway calls companion species, to include “‘“incompanionate” pests, microscopic viruses, and commodified plants—in other words, forms of life with which interspecies life may not be so obvious or comfortable’” (Livingston and Puar, qtd. 59). Eliza Steinbock, Marianna Szczygielska, and Anthony Wagner write “that trans ‘enmeshes . . . transgender, animal, a[n]imacy, intimacy,’” and that “[t]he frictional intimacies of trans undoes the animacy hierarchies” (59). (I am finding the subject/verb agreement problems in this text very distracting.) This undoing is featured in Walking to the Laundromat as well, Springgay and Truman contend, through the use of “discordant sounds,” whose “viral penetration undoes” the soundtrack’s use of “tidy, human-centric narratives” (59-60). “‘Being open’ becomes transspecially linked to exploitation and environmental degradation,” they suggest (60).

Springgay and Truman then turn to Claire Colebrook’s “trans concept—transitivity—which emphasizes the linkages and intra-actions between entities that are non-linear. For Colebrook ‘transitive indifference’ undoes the notion of difference ‘from.’ When things are set against one another, and are different from each other, one entity remains in the centre, and is the basis for comparison and measurement,” the way the human is the standard of measurement for taxonomies of difference (60). “Indifference for Colebrook stresses the self-differentiating singularities of becoming,” they argue (60). Conroy’s sonic walk,” they claim, creates “various flowing assemblages” that have “vectors, speeds, rests, modes of expression and desiring tonalities” to construct “an instantiation of transitive indifference” (60). Carla Freccero “uses the term transpecies to invoke a form of becoming that breaks down species taxonomies questioning origins and materializations of classification hierarchies,” they continue, suggesting that “[t]rans is less ‘place bound,’ and more like the concept of ecology often invoked in posthuman discourse, and as such interrogates the logic of human exceptionalism and heteronormative reproduction” (60). How it does so, though, and what the link between “human exceptionalism” and “heteronormative reproduction” is, remains unclear; I would find the argument here more satisfying if it proceeded more slowly. Karen Barad “forms another reading of trans as a process of self-touching animacy, regeneration, and recreation” by deconstructing “the reductionist ontology of classical physics” and describing “instead how [indeterminacy] is entangled through all being” (60). For Barad, trans is about a radical undoing of the self (60). “Trans, as we’re building in this chapter emphasizes movement as flows, vectors, and affective tonalities,” Springgay and Truman write. “Trans shifts the focus from a being or a thing, to intensities and movement” (60). In doing so, might it not be radically disembodying the bodies with which this book began? Where do those intensities and flows and movements exist? Where are they located? I’m growing increasingly confused.

Another trans idea is “the viral,” which Puar uses “to untether sexuality from identity and hetero reproduction, in order to think about sexuality ‘as assemblages of sensations, affects and forces’” (qtd. 62). Hayward’s term “tranimal” “similarly reconfigures heteronormative sexuality and reproduction” by perverting “an understanding of embodiment that relies on  bounded and distinct identities,” and by considering “reproduction as ‘excess, profusion, surplus’” (62). For Hayward, trans “is about a kind of viral movement,” not from one point to another, but rather “it replicates as difference. In the viral, difference is affective and affecting modulation. It is speculative, activating potentiality and futurity through mutant replication” (62). Conroy’s various laundromat projects become, Springgay and Truman contend, “a mutant, virally reproducing, affective site that has the potential to re-imagine labour in different terms. While viruses operate parasitically and they penetrate a host, they are not adjacent to or simply touching a host, but alter and stretch the host,” as Conroy’s soundtrack apparently does (62). “In shifting from embodied theories that perpetuate a coherent sense of subjectivity, trans theories insist on an ethical-politics of walking,” Springgay and Truman continue (63). So having “a coherent sense of subjectivity” disallows ethics or politics? How so? “Thinking alongside transspeciation, Myra Hird argues that trans interrogates the idea that there is ever a natural body—the one we are born with—which must also parallel particular normative behaviours and desires,” they write (63). What if one’s desires and behaviours are normative, though? Where does this line of thought lead?

“Trans theories are invested in thinking about assemblages and viral replication rather than heteronormative future-oriented reproduction,” Springgay and Truman write. “Trans insists that the transitive state is not that some bodies matter while others continue to perish. . . . Trans emphasizes movement and vectors” (64). Walking to the Laundromat “as a transmaterial practice emphasizes the underpaid, repetitive, and bodily labour of service work,” they continue. “The project intervenes into the comfortable ways that walking is described as relational and convivial, recognizing that not all bodies move freely and that walking itself is a form of labour” (64). But when I think back to the book’s introduction, the “queer feminist Bush Salon in which texts were read, photographs taken, “perambulatory writing techniques” experimented with, and cherries eaten (1), I wonder where the labour was during that event, and how it might have addressed walking as labour, which the flâneur and the dérive fail to do. Again, I find myself looking for some degree of self-awareness in the argument. Conroy’s art work demonstrates “that embodiment, as a form of mind-body awareness and mediation, has been co-opted by liberalism,” they continue (64), although is that what embodiment is? A definition of embodiment would be useful here. “In bringing trans theories to bear on walking research we open up and re-configure different corporeal imaginaries, both human and nonhuman that are radically immanent and intensive, as an assemblage of forces and flows that open bodies to helices and transconnections,” they conclude:

Trans activates a thinking-in-movement. By conceptualizing walking methodologies as trans, we shift from thinking of movement as transition (from one place to another) or as transgression (that somehow walking is an alternative and thereby empowering methodology), towards trans as transcorporeal, transitive, transspecies, and viral in order to activate the ethical-political indifferentiation of movement. Trans activates new ways to talk about, write about, and do walking methodologies that take account of viral, mutant replication, and recognize the intra-active becomings of which we are a part. (65)

That is a huge task to lay at the feet of walking, and I find myself stumbling over almost every word. What, for instance, is meant by “the ethical-political indifferentiation of movement”? My dictionary tells me that “indifferentiation” refers to a lack of differentiation—but is that what is meant here? I can’t tell. Is it a term taken from Deleuze and Guattari? Or does it come from Brian Massumi? And what is flowing? I remember that, years ago, Deleuzians used the metaphor of “circuits”; not the language is the more organic flows. But what is actually flowing? Perhaps I really shouldn’t be reading this book without the appropriate philosophical background, and in a way I’m reading it in order to find out what I would need to read in order to understand the argument. This is extremely difficult stuff, and the argument structure, which rushes through texts and summarizes by repeating key terms, is more than a little confusing.

Chapter 4, “An immanent account of movement in walking methodologies: Re-thinking participation beyond a logic of inclusion,” suggests that it will engage with “mass forms of walking” to “consider participation from a vital and materialist perspective,” one that does not frame participation “as democratic interaction where individuals come together by choice, and as a convivial mode of collectivity” that is “emancipatory, liberatory, and transformative” (66). “The problem with this understanding of participation is that while it seems to promote diversity and equity, it operates as a symbolic gesture that fails to undo the structural logical of racism, ableism, homophobia, and settler colonialism,” Springgay and Truman write. “Furthermore, participation in contemporary art practices assumes audiences become active in the work versus passive spectators. This produces a false binary between active participation and passive viewing” (66). Nevertheless, they argue that participation “is important in walking research and as such we need different ways to think about participation’s potential” (66). So this chapter asks, “How might vital, material, and immanent theories ask different questions about the how of coming together and taking part?” (66). “The main thesis of this chapter is a critique of participation as inclusion,” they write (66). they use Ring of Fire, “a contemporary art event that resulted in a procession for the opening of the Parapan American Games” in Toronto in 2015, The Warren Run, “a running-orienteering race executed in an urban neighbourhood in Sydney, Australia,” and White Cane Amplified, “a performance in which a cane used by a walker who is visually impaired is replaced by a megaphone,” as ways of thinking about participation beyond inclusion (66)—although these examples seem to be negative ones. “[I]nclusion in events like Ring of Fire and the Parapan Am Games produces and maintains settler colonialism and White ableist homonationalism,” they argue, while The Warren Run “and the ways in which participation framed as inclusion in public art projects diffuses conflict, dissension, and difference through convivial notions of rationality” (67). “Our critiques aim to demonstrate the failure of thinking about participation as inclusion, rather than the limits of these particular projects,” they continue. “Following the crucial critiques of inclusion, we draw on theories of immanent movement, to ask questions about how we might think differently about participation,” “beyond a rhetoric of inclusion” (67). They argue that “participation begins before the invitation of inclusion commences,” and they suggest that they will conclude with “an analysis of participation that is composed from within, is immanent, vital, and of difference” (67).

The first example, Ring of Fire, brought together a wide range of communities in a procession for the Parapan Am Games. Springgay and Truman describe such “mega-events” as “corporate, neoliberal sites of homonationalism, crip nationalism, and settler colonialism” (68), which seems to be a critique of the project’s intention. They use Sykes’s (oh, that APA) distinction between “taking part” and “taking place”: “‘Taking part’ celebrates queer, disabled, and Indigenous participation in mega events”; it is “a form of inclusion” (69), while “‘taking place’ . . . perpetuates the displacement of Indigenous peoples from their traditional territories” (69). “Taking part” is “a practice of managing dissent” (69), while “mega events ‘take place’ from Indigenous peoples” (70). They cite Puar’s contention that “[r]acism, lack of medical care, settler colonialism, occupation, and incarceration are all tactical practices deployed by the State to create and maintain precarious populations through debilitation,” which, they conclude, means that “inclusion functions to produce and sustain debility” (70). “Rather than a ‘taking part,’ which continues to pathologize the differently abled body, critical disability and crip scholars . . . insist that the body-technology-environment be understood not as a supportive device that helps an individual overcome limitations, but as a moving assemblage that has different configurations and rhythms,” they continue, noting that people using a variety of assistive devices were encouraged to participate in Ring of Fire (71). “If participation as inclusion continues to normalize and pathologize different bodies, maintaining White, ableist, heteronormative, settler colonialism then what other ways can we think-with participatory projects like Ring of Fire?” they ask (71). One possibility is the notion of affirmation as a form of participation that, quoting Erin Manning, “‘keeps things unsettled, a push that ungrounds, unmoors, even as it propels’” (qtd. 71). Okay, but what would that look like in practice? Is there an example the authors can point towards? The section ends without any.

The chapter’s next section, “Conviviality and conflict-free participation,” looks at The Warren Run, an orienteering-inspired race through a neighbourhood in Sydney, Australia. “Walking art projects like The Warren Run that include communities and groups of people in the work, are often described using an assortment of terms including socially engaged art, social practice, relational, and participatory,” Springgay and Truman note (73). The same could be said of Ring of Fire. They review various critiques of this art form, including the idea “that there is a unified, pre-existing, and self-determining subject who participates, which obscures the complex ways that humans and nonhumans act” (73). They cite Brian Massumi’s claim “that participation occurs prior to cognition, before the act of thinking about taking part” (74), which might sometimes be true, but also might sometimes not be true. This idea leads into the next section, in which Springgay and Truman “tease out an immanent conceptualization of participation, arguing that such an ontology of participation might propose a more ethical-political understanding of taking part and coming together” (74). That section, “Relative and absolute movement,” begins with a discussion of rhythm, particularly as Deleuze and Guattari use the term (75). That leads to a distinction between absolute and relative movement in the work of Erin Manning. Relative movement is about the body moving while other objects in space remain stationary; absolute movement “is a form of movement that proliferates endlessly” (75). “In absolute movement, motility does not pass between points” (76); like a yoga pose, it involves “a composition of ceaselessly moving micro-movements” (76). Walking involves both absolute and relative movement (76). Manning suggests that movement becomes a vibrational force, and so rhythm “is composed of vibratory micro-movements that are constantly in flux and change. These vibrations of micro-movement are imperceptible and molecular” (76). If they are imperceptible, though, how does one know they are actually happening? “A vibrational account of rhythm provides a means to interrogate how encounters that are imperceptible produce affects across different entities,” they continue. “Thus, vibratory accounts of rhythm enable different kinds of analysis that attend to the immanent and affective dimensions of participation” (76). How so? Springgay and Truman provide no examples to support this idea.

Instead, in the next section, “Volitional and decisional movement,” they discuss Manning’s distinction between volitional, or conscious movement, and decisional, or unconscious movement (76-77). “In decisional movement, a body reacts and moves, in relation to other decisional movements,” the way a trained baseball player can respond to a ball without thinking through that response (77). Manning seems to think that decisional movement is more important, that volitional movement gets in its way, and that decisional movement “leaves room for mutation” (77). I don’t understand the hierarchy that is being asserted here. “The problem with volitional movement is that it conceives of participation through inclusionary rationalities and, as we have demonstrated, these continue to support White, ableist, settler, and heteronormative logics,” Springgay and Truman write. “Volitional movement as ‘taking part,’ while inviting different subjects and different bodies to participate, supports and reinforces norms. Furthermore, this rhetoric of inclusion is in fact exclusionary, where certain bodies are always marked as different and only included by conforming” (77). On the other hand, 

if participation is composed of absolute and decisional movement, where bodies—human and nonhuman—are rhythmically moving in variation and difference—then we can begin to think of participation beyond the rhetoric of inclusion. This is crucial. We need different ways to conceive of and understand participation, and think about participation’s political potential. This is where absolute and decisional movement become important. (78)

“If participation isn’t reduced to the volitional act of an individual, but is rendered in rhythmic terms of assemblage and composition, participation engenders a politics of potentiality,” they continue. “Instead of ‘taking part,’ which privileges inclusion, and evaluates the kind of interaction inclusion creates, we ask: how to tend to the proliferation of difference, the immanence of participation?” (78). 

Their answer lies in the importance of decisional and absolute movements. Because inclusionary participation “implies volitional movement, a form of free will or choice,” it is “linked to individual agency, rationality, and mastery” and “continues to render some bodies outside of an event, or outside of what it means to be human. Inclusionary logics reinforce and inside and an outside” (78). However, decisional movement “engenders variation and difference”; decisional movements “are rhythmic relations that are produced in and of the event. They are immanent to the event itself” (78). As a result, “[p]articipation becomes intensive, it is internal to itself, and constituted through movement and affect. In other words, participation is produced without knowing what the production will look like. It is creative and experimental” (78). How would one be able to tell that this participation was taking place, though, if it was only made up of decisional and absolute movements? What would that kind of participation look like? Is it the only “creative and experimental” form of movement? Is volitional movement really that bad? Am I not choosing to type these notes, for instance (a form of volitional movement) while reading this book (another form of volitional movement) that Springgay and Truman researched and wrote (a third form of volitional movement)? Writing can’t be a decisional form of movement—at least, it isn’t all the time; one makes a conscious choice to write. The same goes for research. Without a tangible example of the kind of participation Springgay and Truman approve of, one based in decisional and absolute movements, I really have no idea what the thing they are advocating might look like.

“‘Taking part’ in an event assumes that any negative limitations have been removed and that by being included the subject is now transformed, empowered, and liberated,” Springgay and Truman write. (They’ve never seen me grudgingly agree to participate in an office softball match; my limitations remain, and I am neither empowered by striking out nor liberated by missing a fly ball.) “However, inclusion continues to render an outside and an inside,” and it “implies a degree of choice” (78). They cite Elizabeth Grosz’s notion of “free acts,” which do not involve “rational choice and individual agency,” but are “indebted to decisional movement, to cleaving, cuts, intra-actions and transcorporeal entanglements between all bodies” (78). Their example is Carmen Papalia’s White Cane Amplified project, which “replaces the white cane with a megaphone,” allowing Papalia, who is a “non-visual learner,” Papalia’s term for blindness, which doesn’t reduce his sightlessness to a disability, “to instruct other pedestrians and vehicles about his presence and to request help from participants in crossing streets and navigating urban spaces” (79). Papalia, “in contrast to heteronormative notions of a self-reliant male strolling through the city, requires participation from others to navigate safely” (79). (Why “heteronormative”? Are there no gay flâneurs?) Papalia does not ask people to participate in guiding him “as an act of community building or empowerment,” Springgay and Truman contend. “Rather, the participants—much like the megaphone, the sidewalk, and other obstacles he encounters—are decisional in that they become inflexions that alter his movements discretely” (79-80). But aren’t those participants making a conscious decision to participate? Aren’t their movements thereby volitional? I honestly don’t understand how the theoretical paradigm they have outlined has any practical significance. I’m missing something important and I don’t know what it might be.

“Walking methodologies are commonly understood as participatory,” Springgay and Truman conclude; it is “social and interactive, whether you walk with others, or commune with your senses on a solo walk” (81). “But the inclusionary logics of participation, as we have outlined, normalize, commodify, and stratify particular bodies,” they write (I don’t recall the words “commodify” or “stratify,” but maybe I missed them), and also “establish an inside and an outside are distinct. To participate means to move from the outside into the inside. In this regard, participation would appear to be a concept that stifles a work” (81). How does it stifle a work? Were Ring of Fire or The Warren Run stifled? How so? “But if participation is immanent to life, to walking, to events, and as such to research, different questions can be asked about what participation does, or how it operates,” they continue. “Participation as immanent proliferates and multiplies endlessly. Participation as relational, always taking part, emphasizes movement and rhythm as difference” (81). But how could one tell if that kind of participation were to be taking place? What, in practical terms, would participation as an immanent proliferation that multiplies endlessly look like? 

The fifth chapter, “On the need for methods beyond proceduralism: Speculative middles, (in)tensions, and response-ability in research), begins with the “agitations that are occurring in qualitative research”: a host of conflicts that suggest that qualitative research is “stuck . . . between new empiricist theories as methodologies and traditional phenomenologically informed methods” (82). I don’t know what those new empiricist theories might be, and I’m not a qualitative social scientist, so I’m not that concerned about my lack of knowledge. This chapter responds to the suggestion that method can be done away with. “First, there is an assumption that methods are particular things, such as interviews, participant observation, or video ethnography,” but methods already “resist representation” (83). “Second, although we agree with a radical empiricist understanding that posits thought as a form of inquiry,” they feel that “methods are significant and very much present in a research event” (83). “Thus, rather than a refusal of methods, the remaining sections of this chapter propose that particular (in)tensions need to be immanent to whatever method is used,” they write. “If they intention of inquiry is to create a different world, to ask what kinds of futures are imaginable, then (in)tensions attend to the immersion, tension, friction, anxiety, strain, and quivering unease of doing research differently” (83). (I’m not convinced that the neologism “(in)tension” is communicating very much—what is the crossover between “tension” and “intention” supposed to produce?) I would like my walking practice to imagine different futures, but I’m not sure that any of this speaks to the kind of work I do and intend to do.

“We approach methods propositionally, speculatively, and experimentally and maintain that it is the logic of procedure and extraction that needs undoing,” they continue (83). Yes, extraction is something I hope my walking practice can avoid: relatively easy in a solo practice, but perhaps harder when one is walking and talking with others. “We attend to the how of research by thinking-with various walking projects from WalkingLab and beyond,” they continue. “We use the idea of the walk score as a catalyst for movement” (83). Such walk scores are propositions, “different from research methods or a research design in that they are speculative and event oriented,” and “not intended as a set of directions or rules that contain and control movement” (83). Rather, walk scores “emphasize chance and improvisation” (83). “We need to shift from thinking about methods as processes of gathering data towards methods as becoming entangled in relations,” a perspective which “requires a commitment to methods in which experience gives way to experimentation” (83-84). Since I’m not engaged in qualitative social science, though, I’m not sure this discussion is relevant to my work—although Springgay and Truman do cite Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre’s argument that one can’t simply employ new empiricist methodologies (informed by Deleuze and Guattari) or the new materialisms along with phenomenological methods, because these methodologies are situated in different “‘ontological arrangements’” (84-85). That’s worth thinking about, and St. Pierre is always worth reading. Springgay and Truman suggest that they agree with St. Pierre’s contention “that reflexiity (humanist) and radical empiricism (more-than-human) are incommensurate,” because reflexivity, “even as an entangled practice, presupposes a subject and is founded on interpretive practices” (86). 

“In instrumentalizing walking as a method there is the presumption that walking is going to do something specific before the event occurs, and that walking is uniquely situated to discover and gather data,” they write. The problem with this notion “is that instead of attending to the ecologies of research, or what we prefer to call the thinking-making-doing of research, researchers fall into the trap of believing that creating new methods will offer different solutions” (86). “We posit that methods are not the issue,” they continue. “Methods must be engaged with in the speculative middle and (in)tensions must be brought to bear on them” (87). That’s because research begins in that speculative middle, the place where Deleuze and Guattari claim “things grow, expand, and pick up speed” (87). “In the middle, immanent modes of thinking-making-doing come from within the processes themselves, rather from outside them,” they write. “In the middle, the speculative ‘what if’ emerges as a catalyst for the event. The middle is a difficult place to be,” a place where it’s hard to see clearly (87). “That is the point. The middle can’t be known in advance of research. You have to be ‘in it,’ situated and responsive. You are not there to report on what you find or what you seek, but to activate thought. To agitate it” (87). Of course, that would be hard to put on a Research Ethics Board application. 

“A speculative middle does not stop a researcher,” they write. “It’s a thrust, a future provocation for thinking-making-doing. . . . Speculative middles, through processes such as walking, reading, and writing, emerge as agitations and as affective force” (89). The “speculative middle” is “an event” in which “(in)tensions, concerns, and gnawings continually emerge. As the agitations take shape, it is the (in)tensions that incite further action,” changing “the how of methods the research event” (89-90). I wish the word “(in)tensions” had been defined here. “Deleuze’s thought compels researchers to experiment with problems rather than seek solutions,” they continue, citing Elizabeth Grosz’s argument that political activism should be about dreams of the future which are unattainable, rather than solutions (91). Springgay and Truman describe their use of pinhole photography as a method that is “entangled with an (in)tension of problematizing what matters” and that “demands we reimagine ‘land care’” (92). “Our methods of walking-with insists that the Land, the sediment of the escarpment that consist of rocks and Indigenous peoples, stays with us in unrestrained fullness” (92-93). (I’m not sure how the sediments of the Niagara Escarpment, which were formed by oceans that predate the existence of our species, consist of Indigenous peoples.) Another technique Truman used in her PhD research was the dérive, which was problematized in the “speculative middle” by a number of techniques, “including mapping using literary devices, writing poems that examined the spatial politics of their walks to and from school, and writing exercises that activated rhythm in conjunction with movement” (94). “What these minor gestures opened up for the dérive was a place for different (in)tensions to matter,” they continue. “But a dérive inflected with minor gestures is infused with intimacy where knowledge of place is not something grasped from a distance but emerges through proximity; where proximity is not a voyage of discovery, but where one bears the consequences for the things that are not even known yet” (94). I’m wondering, once again, if the theoretical conclusions that the authors place on their practical examples aren’t too strong, too certain. I would certainly be more tentative in evaluating the results of my work. Maybe that’s one of my problems.

Chapter 6, “‘To the landless’: Walking as counter-cartographies and anarchiving practices,” begins with a recognition of the way walkers have experimented with a variety of mapping techniques, although it remains “entrenched in imperial and colonial powers who use and create maps to exploit natural resources, claim land, and to legitimize borders” (99). For that reason, many artists and social scientists “deploy counter-cartographical approaches to map against dominant power structures, question the assumptions that conventional maps produce, and recognize different spatial knowledge systems” (99). Three WalkingLab projects, they suggest, “re-map—as a form of counter-cartography—erased and neglected histories” (99). They “consider the ways that re-mapping offers possibilities for conceptualizing space that is regional and relational, as opposed to state-sanctioned and static. As White settler artist-academics, we problematize the ways that new materialisms and posthumanisms have failed to account for a deeper understanding of the Anthropocene as racialized” (99-100). Walking “can re-map archives and disrupt linear conceptualizations of time,” they state. “Walking as ‘anarchiving’ attends to the undocumented, affected, and fragmented compositions that tell stories about ‘a past that is not past but is the present and an imagined future.’ As counter cartographies and anarchiving practices, the walking projects disrupt dominant narratives of place and futurity, re-mapping Land and ‘returning it to the landless’” (100). The three WalkingLab projects they discuss are Dylan Miner’s To the Landless, Walis Johnson’s The Red Line Archive and Labyrinth, and Camille Turner’s Miss Canadiana’s Heritage and Cultural Walking Tour: The Grange. 

Next, Springgay and Truman discuss borders as “social and physical constructions that paradoxically connect and divide” (101). They note that Miner (among others) argues “that settler colonial borders have impacted and limited ancestral Indigenous practices and fail to recognize Indigenous spatial knowledges” (102). They describe in detail his To the Landless project in Toronto, describing it as “a counter cartography” that “re-mapped anarchism onto the Toronto landscape” (104). The Red Line project is another example of counter-cartography that “re-claims the community spaces within the red line” that excluded African-Americans from certain neighbourhoods in New York City (105). “Walking the red line becomes a transcorporeal materialization revealing the connections between race and place on and through the lived body,” they write (106-07). These counter-mapping practices are “‘anarchival’” because they “rely on fragments of memories, oral stories, songs, marginal ephemera, and affects and emotions” (107). They also rely on archival research, I think, despite the critique Springgay and Truman make that archives are “technologies that served the production of imperialism and settler colonialism” (107); indeed, Brian Massumi states that “the archive . . . becomes the departure point for the anarchive” (108). Anarchives, though, “resist mere documentation and interpretation in favour of affective and material processes of production. . . . approaching matter from new perspectives that may be incongruent with conventional archiving practices, in order to activate erased, neglected, and hidden histories” (107). Camille Turner’s walking tours “re-map” the “erased and forgotten history” of racial intolerance in Canada “onto the Canadian landscape” while questioning “the mechanisms that enable this ongoing erasure” (109). Because there is very little documentation of African-Canadian communities in Toronto, Turner uses “alternative methods, including creating composite fictions” (110). Turner also “materialize[s]” Afrofuturism in her anarchive: “the narratives, songs, sounds, and places encountered on the walk. This is a time that is looped and haunting, rupturing teleological and linear understandings of time. Afrofuturism as a walking methodology could be described as both a method of recovering histories and futures and as an anarchiving of aesthetic productions that enact such a method” (112). Afrofuturism, they write, “is not only literary-based but can be a theoretical, material, sonic, performative, mapping, and anarchival practice” (112).

“The WalkingLab projects that we have assembled in this chapter take up walking methodologies in relation to space and time, acknowledging the possibilities and tensions that such work might produce,” Springgay and Truman conclude. “Counter-cartographies and anarchiving practices might in face reproduce the very geographies they seek to undo. However, in attending strategically to re-mapping the past that is not past, these projects offer avenues for imagining a different future. Re-mapping space and time are significant components to a counter-cartographical approach to walking methodologies” (112-13). Futurity, they continue, “refers to the ways that the future is projected and re-imagined” (113). (I’m very happy to read that definition!) “It also considers how the future is implicated in the past and the present, through different conceptualizations of time. Here time shifts from heteronormative colonial chronos”—why, again, “heteronormative”?—“to vectors, hauntings, spectres, regions, and relations. It also speaks to the ways that any reference to the future makes some futures possible while disavowing others” (113). As a counter-cartographical and anarchiving practice, walking can “enact these understandings of futurity, where the future is not a romanticized ideal, but in constant re-figurations” (113).

The seventh chapter, “Reflective inversions and narrative cartographies: Disrupting outcomes based models of walking in schools,” examines two research-creation projects that WalkingLab conducted in schools in Toronto and Cardiff. Regarding the project in Toronto, they write: “Working against the history of Canadian landscape, which is temporal, spatial, and racial, the walking-with events contest the imagined images of citizenship and identity. The work contributes to critical discourses and contemporary art practices on race, ethnicity, colonialism and land” (121). The organizers and the students “resisted the racialized dispossessions of belonging, creating new spacetimes and landscapes” (121). Again, the claim that the project created “new spacetimes and landscapes” seems hyperbolic to me. The project in Cardiff, which involved students participating in dérives, produced “narrative cartographies” that “mapped students’ understandings of how language functions to control and dehumanize students. Walking-with became a method for exploring inside and outside of school place collectively, to consider the ways that language is already pre-supposed and pre-determined in advance” (126). The maps created by the students “enabled new connections and different ontologies to become possible” (126). That seems like a lot: new ontologies? “Walking-with can be a significant and important method for working with students in educational contexts, if it does not become instrumentalized as an anti-technology and as an uncritical mode of being in place,” they conclude. “Walking-with is an ethical and political response-ability that intimately understands that any step towards a different world is always imbricated in a particular conceptualization of the human, one that continues to re-inscribe a separation between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, landscape and Other” (128). “[W]alking-with materializes horizontal and sideways ontologies where spacetimes reflect, invert, and bend,” they write, in another example of hyperbole, or perhaps metaphor (128).

Finally, Chapter 8, “A walking-writing practice: Queering the trail” is a set of propositions. “We use the propositional form for this chapter because propositions are not directions or procedures for writing,” Springgay and Truman state. “Propositions act as hybrids between potentiality and actuality: they propose what could be” (130). “In the first walk queering, we introduce walks by women, Indigenous walkers, people of colour walkers, and queer and trans walking artists, whose methods of walking defamiliarize the historical tropes of the lone walker drawing inspiration from the landscape,” they continue. “Some of these artists’ projects link walking and writing, while others illustrate a thinking-in-movement” (131). The following five walks “are walking-writing propositions that shape our collaborative practice. These are: differentiation; surfacing; activation devices; with; and touch. The seventh walk, contours, re-visits key concepts in the book and reflects on the implications of walking methodologies in a more than human world” (131).

“Walking-writing is a practice of invention, where the movement of thought is more-than a moment of walking, thinking, or inscribing,” Springgay and Truman contend (131). I’m not sure quite what that means, but they offer further description:

Walking-writing is a thinking-in-movement. Walking-writing is a practice of concept formation. We do not conceptualize walking in one register and writing in another, any more than we understand our research-creation walking events as pre-writing. Walking activates the creation of concepts. To walk is to move-with thought. In addition, we understand writing as something more-than what exists on a page or in a book. Walking-writing is experimental and speculative. Walking-writing surfaces. It is viscous and intense. Walking-writing is collaborative. (131)

I’m not sure that paragraph clarifies much for me. On one hand, to claim that walking “activates the creation of concepts” suggests an almost Wordsworthian claim that walking encourages creativity or thought, which I’m sure is not what is meant at all here. And the claim that writing is more than what gets recorded “on a page or in a book” baffles me. Is writing a metaphor, then? For what? What does it mean to say that walking-writing “is viscous and intense”? Does it have to be collaborative? What if one is alone? Are one’s collaborators then more-than-human? Would they be more-than-human even if one were with other walkers? 

The first provocation, written in the imperative, states: “Read this section and then go on a walk. Queer the trail. Defamiliarize Euro-Western traditions and other heteronormative, solo peramulations that link walking with unfettered inspiration” (131). Again, heteronormative? What about, to take one example, Virginia Woolf? And I’m not entirely sure what, in this context “queer the trail” necessarily means. In any case, as promised, the section describes the work of a variety of artists and writers: “African American poet Harryette Mullen” and her 2014 book Urban Tumbleweed; Anishinaabe artist Lisa Myers’s Blueprints for a Long Walk project; “[t]rans Black artist and activist Syrus Ware’s practice,” which “takes on many different forms”; Latai Taumoepeau’s performances; and “queer Black writer Rahawa Haile,” who walked the Appalachian Trail (132-33). “In academic scholarship and popular literature, walking is extolled and prized because: it benefits health; inspires creativity; attunes the walker with the landscape; and is a tactic for re-writing the city,” Springgay and Truman state. “While these fraught inheritances nudge at our practice, WalkingLab has intentionally sought out collaborations with women walkers, Indigenous walkers, queer and trans walkers, differently abled walkers, and people of colour to Queer the Trail. This is the ethical-political thrust of our walking-writing practice” (133). That’s commendable, but what if one doesn’t fit those categories? What if one is a straight, White, cisgendered man in his mid-fifties? What then? I suppose that kind of person is excluded. That seems ironic, given the radically inclusive practice being advocated here—and yes, I know that the authors have already argued that inclusivity is the wrong way to frame the issue, but I’m pretty sure that going for a walk is volitional, rather than decisional, so I’m not convinced that the theoretical justification for those terms works in actual practice. And Springgay and Truman can collaborate with whomever they choose; I’m not really complaining. It’s time to let people from a variety of identities into the walking game. However, I’m still not quite sure what the command to “queer the trail” might mean for that hypothetical middle-aged man: to make walking strange and different and new, I suppose, perhaps through one of the prompts that follows.

“Walk two: differentiation” begins with a command to walk to a destination, but to walk “a different path than you might normally walk” and to “[w]alk slowly” (133). The text then describes the collaborative practice Springgay and Truman have developed. which involves periodic walking. “Walk three: surfaces” suggests that a long walk “surfaces” (134), drawing on the work of Kathleen Stewart, who “describes place through terms like atmosphere, surface, and event” (134). “Surfaces are ambient and effective,” they write. “Surfaces do not refer to a specific location or form but the tonality, the expressiveness, and undulation of body-space. Surfaces vibrate, flow, and move. Surfaces are not without duration” (134). A walk that surfaces is “visceral, bodied, and shimmer” (134). “Surfacing is writing,” they continue. “Surfacing writes the body” (134). “Surface walks foreground bodily intensity,” but they also “disorient and defamiliarize” (134-35). “Walk four: activation device” demands that the reader go for a walk with an activation device, which could be anything that enables a documentary or creative response to the walk. However, the prompt demands that the device not be used for documentary purposes, “but to alter the function of the walk” (135). “The activation device experiments with the walk and enables new ways of thinking-making-doing,” they explain. It “pushes walking-writing to an edge. It forces something new to occur. The activation device is not intended to extract or collect information, but to insert itself within the walking-writing practice as a thinking-making-doing” (135). One might carry helium balloons or a bucket of water or fill one’s pockets with rocks; it doesn’t matter, as long as one is able to “modify habits of walking through various modalities” (135). Those modifications, those activation devices, “rupture and queer the walk, they slow us down and change our gat, they problematize what it means to walk, they agitate and provoke,” they write (136). Activation devices “propel us into a speculative middle and churn our thinking. They surface. They function propositionally because we don’t have a clear procedure of how they will activate the walk beforehand. They are prompts for further walking-writing, as opposed to a representation of the walk” (136).

“Walk five: ‘with’” is a group activity (the group can be composed of humans or nonhumans), but the group “composes only one aspect of ‘with.’ ‘With’ is about co-composition rather than inclusive collaboration” (136). The purpose of the activity is to find a place where the group can write together (probably that will be more difficult for the nonhumans). WalkingLab organizes Itinerant Reading Salons, in which participants walk and read out loud (237). “Walk six: touch” calls upon readers to “[f]eel the haptic; the corporeal” while walking, preferably in a graveyard (because they evoke chronological time) (138). “Walking-writing invokes the intimacy and rhythm of touch,” they write. It evokes what Karen Barad calls “a queer self-touching” in which we “encounter an uncanny sense of the stranger or otherness within the self” which “is a queer perversion of being and time” (138). “Touch queers and perverts individual identity,” they continue, generating an ethics “that queers and undoes the limits of what counts as human or otherwise in the first place. Self-touching means thinking about alterity—our touching indifference—within ourselves. It requires an ethics response-able to the inhuman within us” (139). Walking-writing, they suggest, “recognizes the radical alterity and openness, the ongoing inventive intra-actions of difference that make up the world” (139). “Walk seven: contours” demands that the walker follow edges (141). “Walking-writing contours thinking-in-movement,” they write. “As a practice of edging, contours are thresholds—an in-between space. Thresholds are full of potentiality. They seed things” (141). Part of their own contouring “has been to hold in tension the history and inheritances of walking and walking methods. Who walks, how they walk, and where requires constant queering” (141). The book concludes with a sort of manifesto about their work:

Shifting the focus from walking as a method to move from one point to another, towards an emphasis on walking as an entangled, transmaterial, affective practice of experimentation, our research considers the ethical and political dimensions of ambulatory research. Frictionally theorizing walking scholarship with feminist new materialisms, posthumanisms, queer and trans theories, critical race theory, Indigenous scholarship, and critical disability studies offers vital interventions into walking’s potential as a research methodology. Our queer orientation to walking methodologies is significant because it emphasizes the speculative and experimental potential of walking as research, while simultaneously attending to the complexities of subjectivities, mobilities, and situatedness. Queering the Trail, as [a] concept for critical walking methodologies disrupts the all too common tropes of walkers drifting through the city or rambling along a country path, and the normative narratives that inscribe walking as inherently healthy and meditative. (142)

“Walking can be overlooked in qualitative research because of its able[i]st Euro-Western history or because it is assumed to be uncritical,” they continue (142). Other assumptions are that it is too quotidian in nature, or that it is romanticized “as a method to counter technology,” or that it is naively embodied (142). “The theories and experimentations that compose this book attest to walking’s capacity to interrupt these assumptions,” they write. “Walking-with becomes a practice of thinking-making-doing that attends to the transmaterial knottings between all matter” (142).

If I had the appropriate theoretical or philosophical background, or if the book’s form welcomed those without such a background into its argument, then I might be in a position to determine whether that concluding manifesto—or the rest of the book’s argument—holds up to scrutiny. But since I don’t, and it doesn’t, I can’t. However, the good news is that the references and citations, if pursued, ought to provide readers with a crash course in the theoretical background required to assess the book’s merits. After my comprehensive examinations are finished, I’ll start doing the work of acquiring that theoretical background. Springgay and Truman aren’t the only walking researchers or artists who begin with Deleuze and Guattari, assemblage theory, or affect theory. So I will need to catch up to my peers. Then perhaps the points in this text where I was left confused will become clear. Or perhaps they won’t: in either case, I’ll be returning to this frustrating text in the future.

Works Cited

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

Deidre Heddon and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 22, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-36.

Smith, Phil. Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance: A Handbook, Red Globe Press/Macmillan International, 2019.

Springgay, Stephanie, and Sarah E. Truman. Walking Methodologies in a More-than-Human World: WalkingLab, Routledge, 2018.

Young-Ing, Gregory. Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, Brush, 2018.

108. Phil Smith, Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance: A Handbook

smith making site-specific theatre and performance

One of the reasons I decided to read this book—aside from the fact that it discusses The Weyburn Project, which I saw almost 20 years ago—is that I thought it might be useful if I ever get to teach a course on site-specific theatre and performance. (Hey, it could happen.) Smith has taught courses (“modules,” in UK academic lingo) in site-specific performance for the past 20 years, at Dartington College of Arts, the University of Exeter, and the University of Plymouth, and my guess is that much of what’s in this book comes out of those  experiences, as well as his decades of involvement in creating and experiencing site-specific performance work. 

Smith begins with a prologue about the role of sites in site-specific performance, which includes a story about an event that took place in an “enormous medieval barn”:

As I tentatively entered the almost pitch darkness of this barn, I could hear something. I thought at first that it was the sound of water dripping; then maybe of a clock softly ticking. I stood stock-still. Perhaps it was breathing, and I was interrupting a theatrical action? In the deep gloom I thought I detected a very gentle, rhythmic movement. I stared hard into the shadows. The giant roof beams and the grey lines of the cavernous space of the barn gradually emerged from the murk. After that, i sensed nothing additional to these initial impressions. The clock continued to drip and the spectral, almost abstract movement in the shades of darkness, possibly an effect inside my eyes rather than anything in the barn, continued to shift. I left after 20 minutes, still unsure whether I had experienced some very subtle theatrical scene or accidentally trespassed alone into an off-limits part of the heritage complex. Whichever it was, I exited the barn with an impression that has never left me: that with or without human performers a site will always have an agency of its own that can hold a spectator rapt by its performance. (xii)

This idea is central to this book: sites can overwhelm the performances that take place in them, or those performances can use the power of the site. Site-specific work, in other words, is not just about taking something outside of a theatre and sticking it somewhere else; the relationship between performance and site has to be carefully considered, because sites are worthy of care and attention. 

The book proper begins with a section entitled “Finding a Site,” but the first chapter in that section asks an important question: “Why Make Site-Specific Performance?” (3). That’s the right place to begin, I would think. “There is good cause to challenge any use of the word ‘site,’” Smith begins:

The word implies far more than, say, “space” or “place.” It suggests that a human choice has already defined its boundaries, meaning and identity. A site is always the site of something; with the implication that it is a kind of container for what is really important, for the valuable property that is in it but is different from the space itself. It says that space accrues its meaning through its use by humans; which, in an overwhelmingly unhuman cosmos, is an odd way of describing things. . . . (3)

Along with questioning the word “site,” Smith questions the need for site-specific theatre, “if only to dispel the idea that sites are neutral, natural places, blank pages upon which you can write with impunity” (3). Site-specific theatre is “a choice with its own traditions and legacies,” and practitioners need to be aware of them (3). 

Smith’s genealogy of site-specific work begins with Dadaism and the “excursions” that Dadaists organized in Paris, “most famously a 1921 foray to the repeatedly adapted and repurposed Church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in Paris where the Dadists yelled gnomic slogan-poems at passers-by” (4). “The ‘moment’ of Dada has become something of an event horizon for radical art, a phenomenon from which little information is allowed to radiate,” Smith continues. “Dada’s principles of rupture, rootlessness, fragmentation, nihilistic repetition, anti-art, irony and parody have often prevailed both in subsequent cultural practice and in critical theory, and they continue to inform an important seam of site-specific performance which is often closer to live art than theatre” (4). But there are other stories to tell about the origins of site-specific performance, including “the fusions of land art as practised by the likes of Kazuo Shiraga and the Gutai group, Robert Smithson or Ana Mendieta,” all of which have informed site-specific performance (5). “These artists, given their prioritising of sensitivity to and enthusiasm for materials . . . and their preference for immersion in and communion with terrains, over rupture and separation from them, showed that site-specific works could be just as critical and political as those based on modernist fragmentation and disruption,” Smith continues (5). Other “strands of influence” come from “building-based theatre,” which involves “varying degrees of adaptation of the play to their new ‘grounds,’ and varying degrees of adaptation of the spaces themselves” (5). Many theatre companies in the UK and elsewhere specialize in making such work, and “[w]hile it is possible to question quite what it is about many of these performances that is ‘specific’ to their sites, a significant proportion of what is described as site-specific theatre . . . looks much like this” (5-6). 

However, Smith continues, “building-based theatre” has had another influence on site-specific performance: Symbolist Theatre “set out to dissolve and transcend the same conventions and frames that the Dada would smash, disrupt and escape (6). Symbolist productions questioned “the physical frame of appearance and representation itself. They point theatre out beyond the container of the theatre building” (6). The work of Robert Wilson is “[a]n example of the continuing resonance of this Symbolist theatre for site-specific theatre,” Smith suggests (6). His 2008 Walking, for instance, “required its audience/participants to walk around for three hours at half pace, one by one, at intervals, along a designated path through dunes and bushes, encountering various portals, installations and soundscapes, both natural and artificial” (6-7). “Wilson and his collaborators were careful to leave literal space and symbolic ambiguity through which their ambulatory audience could explore their own associations with the augmented landscape by way of an altered moving and seeing,” Smith continues. “These theatrical strands of influence share some things in common with older lineages of performance that were, or are, sited outside of designated or conventional performance spaces,” from high modernism to theme parks and religious festivals (7-8).

“Developments in technical, artistic and productive practices and a renewed attention to terrains have all been crucial to repeated ‘turns’ to site-specificity,” Smith writes, “but theoretical ideas have also been influential,” including “the idealisation of fluidity and the privileging of rhizomic dispersal over and against fixed, vertical rooting in the work of critical theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari”; “the popularization of neo-vitalism”; Lucy Lippard’s ideas of the “lure of the local” and the dematerialization of the art object; “the ideas of the vibrant energy of non-human things in the work of Jane Bennett and the Object-Oriented Ontologists”; “the study of the performance of everyday life developed from the pioneering work of Erving Goffman”; the “spatial turn” in geography; the “mobilities paradigm” advanced by geographer John Urry; “and the increasing seriousness with which disciplines outside the arts, like human geography and anthropology, have come to regard performance as a tool of research” (9-10). 

Smith offers a “cautionary note” regarding the “temptation to assume that a common idealism, generous politics and thoughtful ethics inform all these works” (10). That’s not in fact the case: “some artists have been accused of an indifference to the impact and sustainability of their interventions in the terrain involved in making spectacular land art”; an attention to localism “can turn into petty nationalism and chauvinism”; and “opportunistic commercialism and neo-liberal individualism” have been identified in “some of the more immersive examples of site-specific theatre” (10). “There is nothing easy here,” Smith argues (10). Taking over a site, however temporarily, is a way of taking ownership that is comparable to other forms of private property (11). Such arguments, while perhaps reductive, are correctives to performances where the ecologies of sites are ignored (11). “Instead, site-specific performance making is an eclectic, conflicted and ambivalent business; and requires a matching set of inspirations, motivations and justifications,” he suggests (11).

There is also a paradox at work in site-specific performance that might cause makers to stop and think: “because site-specific performance is now communicated as a ‘thing,’ a discipline . . . a recognisable and significant cultural activity, each specificity that a performance maker now approaches, whether that be a new site or a performance idea, is likely to be interpreted by others . . . through conventions shared with others engaged with making site-specific performances” (17). In other words, site-specific work is always at risk of “succumbing to a site-specific homogenisation” (17). However, “[b]y acknowledging these conventions . . . it may become possible to do more than discuss the problem as a recognisable one, and either skirt the conventions or transform them” (17). Therefore, “in order to realise a genuine and rigorous specificity to your site not only will it be necessary to surrender some of your accustomed power and autonomy . . . it will also help (or be necessary) to know what the tics, habits and etiquettes of similar work might be, in order, if appropriate, to strip them away and get to what is special about your site” (17). On the other hand, using those existing conventions might be necessary “in order to create work that plays between what you bring to the site and what you find there” (17). 

One of those conventions, Smith writes, “probably best avoided,” is the notion “that an essential identity for a site can be discovered in the documentation of its past; that the everyday and living transformations of the contemporary site are but an ephemeral distraction from the essence that can be established by historical (or some other absolute) veracity” (18). This danger applies to any performance that seeks “to find and expressed the fixed essence of a site,” particularly those that approach such sites “in a rigid, doctrinal and monocular account” (18). Instead, there needs to be an interaction between the site and the performance, not unlike the “partnership between performance maker Mike Pearson and archaeologist Michael Shanks,” in which both found “a mutual illumination of their own disciplines in the workings of that of the other” (18). In fact, “they also found traces of each other’s disciplines in their own” (18). The work of Victoria Hunter and of Pearson and Shanks together constitutes 

a general ‘why?’ for site-specificity that is not about its veracity to a fixed idea of the site, either to its past history or to its present-day norms, or even about fixing the meaning of the site in the moment, but—by acknowledging a performance’s implication in the production of the space in materials and meanings; a process that is never completed, even in the fluidity of performance—it takes responsibility for the next iteration of the place, for its part in its production as a new space and the transformation of its contexts from one set of frames to a whole new other. (19)

Site-specific performance practitioners “emphasise the reciprocity that was not always acknowledged: that the ‘why?’ of site-specificity is equally, maybe primarily, about how its attention revives the site” (19). In other words, Smith asks, “Is the primary emerging ‘why?’ of site specificity the making of new sites?” (19).

“If a theatre maker approaches their site with the assumption that they are not entering a fixed state or exploiting a backdrop, but addressing themselves to living systems, then, by understanding what those systems are and how they work, those makers can amplify, prolong and entangle their interventions,” Smith continues. “Spending sustained periods of time in a site can reveal all sorts of unexpected dynamics,” such as the sounds of a space in an office after hours, or bats in a suburban garden (20). “The question, then, for the observant and site-engaged performance maker is how to ‘recruit’ these reliable rhythmic systems; dancing to the creaks of the building may be all it takes,” he writes (20). “The ‘why’ of performance shifts the grounds—and is the bridge—from a moment when you are most interested in how a site affects you, to one where you are more interested in finding out how—by using its own resources—you can affect it,” he concludes. “This is the moment when neither the site’s agency nor yours need be dominant; when site-specificity becomes a kind of reciprocity” (21).

The second chapter, “Drifting and Quest: In Search of Sites,” is about finding and choosing a site, something that “is more than an instrumental matter”—“[p]articularly now, when the performative qualities of ambulatory exploring are emerging as part of the continuum of site-specific performance itself” (25). (I was expecting a chapter on the intersection between site-specifity and mobility, and here it is.) Walking artists “and other nomadic thinkers have been exploding the notional fixedness or any sense of the ‘at rest’ of the site of site-specific art,” Smith continues, noting that “[e]xponentially increasing numbers of artists, performers, dancers, geographers and others are now using performative journeys as part of their production process, or as the product itself” (25). Walking art is no longer “the preserve of a few high-profile individuals” or made up of “one-off, often spectacular actions”; instead, “performative journeys, even when epic, are likely to have a convivial or social quality,” such as The Walking Library by Deidre Heddon and Misha Myers, which “gathers together groups of walkers who carry, and read from, a selected library that evolves along the way” (25). “Among other factors speeding this shift from ‘sites’ to ‘routes,’” Smith writes,

are the superior versatility of many human bodies over exploratory machines. The multi- and anti-located properties of Wi-Fi that allow a walker connections to elsewhere through area networks, the attractiveness of walking’s sustainability, the rising popularity of (often now secularised) pilgrimage and the influence of relational aesthetics have also been factors. Given its minimum cost and lack of the need for mediation, a prepared, disrupted and improvisatory walking is often seen as an egalitarian and nonspecialist performance without an audience. (26)

Yes, “without an audience”—some site-specific walking performances are private and don’t involve an audience, although sometimes they do involve other participants (if the distinction I’m making between audience and participant holds water, that is).

Smith notes the importance of psychogeography as an influence on these mobile walking performance practices: 

the “dérive” is a walk for gathering information—“psychogeography”—to be used in creating “situations.” These “situations” are temporary manifestations, including performances, constructed against a manipulated life that has become mediated by images. Hyper-sensitivity to ambiance on a “dérive” enables a radical walker to intuit and ap anomalous areas that are resistant to the brutal homogenisation of planned cities and the image-soaking of space by the mass media and social media through handheld devices. These are places where it might be possible to live outside the dominant ideology, places where everyday life might be “taken back,” experienced fully and transformed. (27)

Other influences include the 19th-century flâneur and flâneuse, early 20th-century “trampers,” and “literary walkers from Thomas de Quincey to Virginia Woolf” (27). “The tactics and techniques of the dérivistes, flâneuses, occult psychogeographers, space-activists, urban explorers and literary wanders are a resource for a maker of site-specific theatre and performance, particularly at the start of their producing process,” Smith continues; “the emphasis on sensing the atmosphere of a place, and on how a place’s shaping, symbols and texture might invite particular actions, or contain certain histories, are deployable in the search for sites for performance” (27-28).

The third chapter, “Journey Performances,” is about the “entangled performance journey, capable of engaging with and transforming its route” (37). “There are many different modes of journey-based performance,” Smith writes:

Sometimes these modes involve . . . the ‘carrying’ of a performance on a journey, stretching a narrative over terrain. At other times, however, the journey itself can be the performance. The exploratory and improvised “drift” often has performance-like qualities (spontaneous or planned); however, there is a more formal journey performance in which the route (the geographical line of a journey) is set and mapped, the score refined, the action rehearsed and then an audience is invited. At other times only a concept of a journey is set, the destination is uncertain, the route unplanned and the audience consists of strangers encountered at random. (37)

“If the performance is porous enough these accidental encounters may be full of chances for understanding,” Smith continues, although “the mingling of rigorously instructed audiences with passers-by at a disadvantage can lead to an uncomfortable privileging of those ‘in the know’ or an unhelpful misreading by the chance witness” (37). “The multiplicities of the street are such that too strict an address to them, or too simple and formal a dynamic, can generate complex and unintended meaning-making, though the resulting performance may achieve considerable success in terms of popular attendance or media reach and acclaim,” he notes (38). 

Smith gives one example of a walking performance that isn’t entirely foreign to my own walking: just after 9/11, Donna Shilling walked from Devon, UK, where she was a student at Dartington College of Arts, to her home in London, asking people along the way what was important to them. “While a journey like this might serve to gather materials for a presentation, book or blog, it was also already performance enough,” Smith writes; “the questions and answers became sufficient dialogue, the encounters constituted a score that did not require repetition or representation” (38). However, he continues, “such resonant acts are often porous ones, with more resilience than their apparent ephemerality might suggest”: in 2008, when it was announced that Dartington would close, Shilling recreated her walk, but in reverse, accompanied by a fellow alumnus and others as a way of saying goodbye (39). Another example is Bram Thomas Arnold’s 2009 Walking Home (Again), a walking journey from his home in London to the village in Switzerland where he was born. “Rather than an end in itself, Arnold used the findings of his walk as the material for an exhibition, embedded within which was a two-hour performance,” Smith writes (39). These journey performances, Smith suggests, “are characterised by a gentle political engagement; an argument with borders and property that arises from the restrictions of a route, a dialogue with conviviality and strangerhood that emerges from the walk’s encounters, and an enquiry about the nature of identity and transformation that comes with the pilgrimage-like experiences of many ambulatory performers” (39). However, these qualities are chosen rather than inevitable. For instance, in 2006 the Chinese performance artist He Yun Chang carried a rock around the coastline of Britain before returning it to the beach where he found it. That performance, Rock Touring Around Great Britain, “developed very little real dialogue with its route; it was a performance of an ordeal originally scheduled for the island of Manhattan” (39). 

“Despite their linear quality, and perhaps because of their association with such repeatable transits as pilgrimages, journey-performances lend themselves to re-enactment,” Smith notes. For instance, Esther Pilkington walked half of Richard Long’s Crossing Stones walk, “turning Long’s documentation of his walk into an instructive score, and adding an autobiographical warmth . . . to Long’s simple, dour text” (42). Han Bing’s series Walking a Cabbage in Beijing “is a comment on the upturning of traditional values in contemporary Chinese society; cabbage, formerly prized as a sign of affluence and sustenance in winter, is increasingly snubbed, while trophy dogs are paraded by many of the newly wealthy. So Bing walks a cabbage” (42). This performance was repeated in Srinagar by the anonymous “Kashmiri Cabbage Walker” in a more provocative way, addressing issues of militarization and occupation in that region. “In both cases, the walkers are challenging passers-by to question their (often extreme) responses to their performances’ minor absurdities,” Smith notes, “while all around them, unremarked, what passes for normalcy is skewed by consumerism and military oppression” (42-43).

“Ecstatic or numinous, the street and the road need not be blunt instruments,” Smith writes:

The exigencies of journeying offer a range and volatility that push beyond the limits of buskers’ “spots” or showpeoples’ “pitches.” The route may be too extensive and detailed to research for any intense specificity; there has to be a flexibility, some imposition perhaps, and certainly improvisation. . . . The specificity is to the unfolding of the path, route or vector, not the path, route or vector itself. (45)

The “flexibility and autonomy” of journey-performance can bring to it “a range of specialisms and everydayness; it shifts back and forth between acts that emphasise the rough materiality of terrains and those that embrace the airy ambiguity of the spaces of non-representational performance” (45). So the Walking Interconnections project led by Sue Porter and Deidre Heddon “used an expanded and de-normalised walking (including numerous journeys made by wheelchair users) to challenge the absence of disabled people’s voices from debates around sustainability,” and Bill Aitcheson’s The Tour of All Tours “collapses the many tours in a city into one tour,” a variation on the “‘mis-guided’ tours that challenge the dominant discourses of the heritage and tourism industries” (45-46). William Pope.L’s The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street “is a protest about and through degradation; an agitation around the spaces of race, power, dignity and fantasy” (46). Other journey performances us automobiles, trains, boats, or air travel, as documented by Fiona Wilkie in her 2015 book Performance, Transport and Mobility (47). 

Chapter 4, “What is a Site?,” begins by stating, “[s]pace is not a container; it is not an empty carton just waiting for us to fill it” (53). The idea of space as a container of action is one from which “geographers and philosophers have increasingly moved” (53). This chapter (which Smith invites his readers to skip over) discusses “theories of space, key strategies for activating sites (archaeological, chorastic, mobility and Deluezo-Guattarian) and challenges to the very ideas of site and specificity” (53). “While these subjects may not immediately appear to offer very much for performances makers,” Smith writes, “abstractions and a powerful personal vision may at times be all that stands between you and the demands of commerce, repetition and what Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing calls ‘scalability’: the making of products that are indifferent to the scale or texture of contexts and encounters” (53). 

Smith begins this theoretical discussion with Doreen Massey’s 2005 book For Space, and its “three-fold replacement of ‘empty space’”: “firstly, space is ‘the product of interrelations, it is made by the meetings and assemblages and exchanges of people and things; secondly, space is a combination of unlikes, a multiplicity, and without that unevenness there is ‘no space’; and, thirdly, space is ‘always under construction’ . . . it is never completed and never virgin” (54). “If we take these propositions seriously, then, there is never a neutral zone or blank slate for a perofrmance artist to write magisterially upon,” Smith writes. “There is, instead, a seething and volatile set of changing layers to shift with and respond to in order to write anything legible at all” (54). Space gives us “difficult entanglements across borders,” “spills, evaporations, tides and gusts that defy and defile whatever limits we choose for them” (54). “A maker of site-based performance, then, may need to be a multivalent one, capable of engaging with multiple partners, human and unhuman, including the active presence of space itself,” he suggests (54). “Given this mutability in the quality of space, you might be sympathetic to Claire Doherty’s suggestion to challenge ‘site’ rather than ‘specificity,’ proposing an alternative category of ‘situation-specific,’” Smith continues (55). I’ll have to read Doherty’s text, because I’m not convinced that changing the word one uses would have much of an impact on the complexity and changeability of space.

“Choosing any one place over another to be the site of a performance implies some concession to limits and a narrowing identification,” Smith writes, “even if it does not exclude ‘multiplicity’ and ‘heterogenous relations’” (56). But acknowledging the uniqueness of a site “is not necessarily an elitist or exceptionalist articulation of the place” (56). Places have a “conditional uniqueness,” which can be embraced by “acknowledging that an ethical ‘attending to’ and ‘tending’” (Smith is quoting Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik here) “is at least partly obliged by the violence of site-making itself,” and such an embrace “may help a performance maker avoid undermining their otherwise vivid work, at least for the more attentive among their audience, by a crass spatial illiteracy” (57). For instance, Smith recalls a conference where one presenter noted that their use of the performance space “had sealed off a shortcut used by homeless people,” a statement that “did not seem to arise from a callous disregard for other users of ‘their site,’ but rather by the panicky pragmatism that can kick in if one approaches a place as needing to be controlled rather than cooperatively engaged with” (57). Some site-specific performances fail because the artists make “[a]ssumptions about the passivity and benignity of space, and its subservience before the authority of the performing presence” which “coalesce into the belief that territory will, and should, fit itself to the art. This is an attitude that will, almost always, come back to bite a performance maker” (57).

Smith warns his readers that writing on space “slithers between spatial metaphors that stand in for ideas and ideas that seem to be more about real places than abstract concepts” (59). “Just as the places we encounter are not ‘pre-given’ and are always ‘open to change,’ similarly our ideas about place and space have also been on journeys; they carry some of the dust of those journeys with them, but they are also missing parts of themselves,” Smith suggests (59-60). In fact, “rather than providing clear or neutral analyses of, and strategies for, uncomfortable and contested sites,” theories of place and space “actually themselves constitute other sites of discomfort and contest” (60).

Next, Smith offers some useful (if not necessarily compatible) examples of theory and/or practice “with which to approach sites in general terms” (60). First is archaeology, drawn from Theatre/Archaeology, the 2001 book by Pearson and Shanks, which draws attention “to different ways that site performance and archaeology interleave each other, from the documentation of performance’s remains to the more subtle overlapping of processes” (60). In a later work, Pearson “proposes that the most intense connection of the two might be in relation to what is sometimes called the ‘contemporary past,’ the present that is already passing” (60). In response to this passing, “people are making their everyday spaces archaeological,” curating past and present together (60). By looking obliquely, by paying attention to texture and detail, Pearson suggests “that we can recognise how, even in apparently mundane places, there are traces of the immediate and ordinary that constitute ‘an archaeology of us,’” and from those marks “we have access to an existing score of how place is being, and very recently was being created and performed” (61). A performance that attends to the “apparently mundane and its juxtapositions” can take the form of a curation or assemblage, “made up from the assembling, arranging and rearranging of ordinary spaces and objects,” creating a multitemporal present (61). 

The second example is the idea of chora or “‘chorastic space’”: spaces which “are regularly seized upon by performance makers as having a certain magical affordance for generating experientially intense or immersive performances” (62). Such spaces “might wear the marks of aging or nostalgia, or display traces of history, wear and tear and abandonment,” but at the same time “there is something dynamic and utopian there” (62). The term chora (described by Stephen Wearing, Deborah Stevenson, and Tamara Young) comes from Plato through Elizabeth Grosz; it refers to “a space where multiple possibilities are not yet closed down in resolution or synthesis,” “a space that resists exchange, commerce and the oppressive obligations of gifting and reciprocity” (62). A chora “works by an evasion (rather than a violent dissolution) of identities and hierarchy, suggesting that what is being found by performance makers in these places is a temporary space where things are in suspense and meanings can be performed before they are understood or recognised” (62). But chora isn’t just about space: “[i]t also applies to the participants’ self-conscious reconstitution of their site-making selves” (62). Chora “is an energy that presages things, perhaps because chorastic spaces are often in some form of disruption or dis-assemblage through redundancy or closure or repurposing” (62). That energy, Smith suggests, “develops new kinds of what Raymond Williams called ‘structures of feeling’: common values or experiences that have not yet reached expression in the form of works of art or institutions, but have enough in the way of structure to be experienced and repeated” (62-63). This description is very suggestive, but I would have to turn to Wearing, Stevenson and Young (if not Plato and Grosz) to really get a handle on what it means.

Next, mobility and the “‘mobilities paradigm,’” which “re-addressed site as a bundle of trajectories and changes, not as stasis, fixed things, boundaries or hierarchy” (63). The mobilities paradigm “challenges specificity as a conservative anchoring of meaning to fixed and located things” and unseats “sedentary thinking” (63). “It is an invitation to make work that frees specificity from site, and vice versa; instead, affirming performance as an expression of transition and velocity, of the ideal of nomadism in ‘smooth space’ advocated by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari,” Smith writes (63). “Expressed in those terms, the mobilities paradigm sounds a little like the Futurists’ glorification of speed and transport in the 1920s,” he continues, noting that “there are concerns that it advocates a reactionary perspective in progressive terms in a way comparable to the Futurists” (64). Some scholars have pointed to the various restrictions and obligations and responsibilities involved in global travel to challenge the reality of the mobilities paradigm (64). “The paradigm’s subversive, disruptive, liberating and multiplicitous qualities are susceptible to reactionary and frozen ideas that commandeer the same qualities that ‘mobilities’ proposes to set free,” Smith suggests, and the mobilities paradigm is a cautionary case “that suggests that smooth space, acceleration and travel are not always reliable contexts for efficacious disruptions of fixed sites, but practices that may themselves require disruption” (64).

Finally, Smith comes to the notions of smooth, striated, and holey space, derived form Deleuze and Guattari. The terms “smooth” and “striated” were borrowed from the composer Pierre Boulez, Smith points out: “Striated space is marked by stress and pressure”; “it fixes place as an immobile point, and it fixes people to that immobility, enforcing dwelling against wandering” (65). However, life “is a wandering force; smooth space does not so much facilitate that movement as enable life to sustain it in multiple and discrete (even contradictory) motions without collapsing all its differences into anything that would bring it all to a halt or conclusion” (65). For Deleuze and Guattari, a third form of space—holey space—is the counter to striated space; holey space “includes mines, sewers, caves, bunkers—places where those who oppose restrictions have often hidden out and organised” (66). Some have extended this idea to cyberspace (the Dark Web?) and forests (66). “There is a considerable overlap here wiht the kinds of spaces that are attractive to site-specific performers, and to related activists such as urban explorers,” Smith writes. “As well as identifying holey-ness in virtual space, there is also a connection to the use of public space as a kind of hiding in plain sight; mapping the invisible and overground tunnel systems and blind spots that exist in everyday public spaces” (66). 

There are other theories about space and place that might be useful (or not): structuralist synchrony; Kenneth White’s “geopolitics”; Manuel Castells’s “space of flows”; Tim Ingold’s “meshwork”; Michel de Certeau’s tactics, “tiny and everyday acts of resistance at street-level that compromise the blank space of power”; or Smith’s own mythogeography (66-67). “Or you might want to shake any complacent ease you have detected in these pages, any sense that little is at stake except for careers and egos, and make performances in spaces where ‘stability of geography and the continuity of land . . . have disappeared . . . [where] identity is confined to frightened little islands in an inhospitable environment,” Smith writes, quoting Edward Said’s Orientalism (67). Said’s words “could apply to many for whom any performance on any ground might require an act of decolonialisation,” Smith suggests (67).

Next Smith takes on Miwon Kwon’s criticism of the notion of site-specificity as a weak category that shifted from a place to a discursive vector, leading to a nomadism that generated a greater commodification (69). Kwon, Smith argues, “makes a categorical assumption about site that establishes a dichotomy between location and mobility and limits her thesis to a set of art practices that mostly do not include performance” (69). The journey performances Smith has described “are as obdurately unmarketable, uncommodifiable and tied to their particular routes and the ‘physical attributes’ of them as any of the early site-specific artworks that Kwon describes” (69-70). Nevertheless, “Kwon’s criticism of how repeating the same processes for different sites leads to diminishing returns” and rote and generic art “has force and significance; not only for some of the ‘headlining’ companies and individuals in receipt of invitations from large global capitals, but also for artists who operate across limited local or regional terrains” (70). Both the extremes of localism and placelessness “are at odds with Massey’s idea of space as a multiplicity; one a vapid ideal, the other a frozen identity,” Smith writes (70). “Instead Massey argues for the validity of the unique features of particular places,” while resisting any notion of place that is too rooted and “‘too little open to the externally relational,”” he continues, quoting Massey (70). I am going to have to reread Massey’s book; it is clearly a tremendous source of ideas, and my once-over was not sufficient.

These theories generate important questions for performance makers, particularly in relation to what a site actually is:

Are you choosing sites that are conducive to, even protective of, human performance? Is the escape from the theatre building or gallery a step sideways to spaces outdoors that offer something comparable to the facilities of theatre buildings, or an escape to wider horizons that avoid a sedentary audience’s closer attention to script and theme? do these choices, when taken together, imply a proprietorial understanding of the world as benign, inhabitable, consistent and welcoming of the performers’ presence; or of a terrifying world at odds with human presence? Is your site trying to kill you? (72)

Should performance makers “be preparing for a site-practice that addresses what Don[n]a Haraway calls the Chthulucene, in which, partly but not exclusively by our own actions, humans face, and not for the first time, the monstrous on and in and of this planet?” (72).

The book’s second part, “Generating Performance,” begins with a chapter entitled “Visiting Your Site.” The chapter was initially entitled “Exploring Your Site,” but the colonial implications gave Smith pause; the notion of visiting “suggests something closer to the relationship of a guest to a host than that of an invader to an unwary local” (77). “So, what happens if you consider yourself a guest rather than an explorer?” Smith asks:

What if you consider yourself not as a privileged arrival, but as a compromised visitor with something to prove or redeem? Someone with an obligation to respect another’s hospitality? What charge or price might you pay? What gift might you bring? What kinds of exchange should you prepare for? Are there conventions of greeting and welcome that you would extend to a human host to which you can find an equivalent for a geographical host? How will you announce your arrival; it might be a knock on a door or a ring on a bell at the home of a human host, but how might you address your site before you enter? Or will you wait for the site to invite you in? Perhaps, rather than dashing to its centre, you might work your way around its edges, slowly. Or is that too furtive? Maybe you need to allow the site to “see” you, allow it time to move to include you.

Who has the most power in the exchanges between you and the site? (77-78)

But, Smith continues, if the site is not a blank slate, neither is the performance maker: “we all carry our own baggage of associations, accumulated skills and past experiences” (78). Finding the relationships between sites and artists, he suggests, “may be usefully thought of a a search for the best arrangement of voids, in order that things (objects, ideas, information, emotions, connections) flow back and forth between site and artist” (78). He cites Cathy Turner’s term “deep dramaturgy” in this regard: a sense of porosity or permeability between artist and site (79). Because of this porosity, embodied research might be a good way to approach site-specific performance, along with practices associated with ethnography, such as participant observations, field notes, and case studies (79). Such research practices acknowledge that knowledge is incomplete and uncertain, an idea that might help performance makers avoid a futile search for the “truth” of a site (80).

However, considering embodied research to be the only research method “seems unnecessarily puritanical,” Smith suggests. “If we think of sites as meshworks of connections then to understand any particular one it may be necessary to track and trace movements to and from it that cross its horizons and borders” (82). That might mean looking for written documentation about a site. “It is rare that lack of information about a site is a problem; more often, it is a case of how to deal with the incoherent avalanche of disparate forms and contents,” Smith notes, a problem exacerbated by the limited amount of time usually available to prepare for a performance (82). For that reason, one might end up relying on “[r]apid searches, intuitive leaps, shortcuts and sideways connections” (83). One “may trace the same narrative (up and down) through a multitude of layers,” or “find that different kinds of information spiral outwards from a single narrative to gather multiple thematic or associational threads” (83). 

According to Smith, site specificity “is not a reductive process of authentication based on the latest stage of academic learning” (86). Instead, at best, it 

knowingly and openly . . . embraces the inauthentic, fabricated, wilful, nonsensical, paradoxical and criminal where it is particular to a place. In that sense there is nothing that is necessarily, in any other terms, efficacious in a genuine site-specificity except the care and integrity . . . with which it addresses what is present there, in the site, whether convenient or inconvenient, consistent or inconsistent. (86)

“No ‘site’ has an original, permanent base or real identity to authenticate and be authenticated (that is the work of popular historians and nationalist poets),” he continues:

the site-artist has the more complex, if less heinous, task of making a meshwork-sense of the multiple eddies of materialities, sufferings, dreams and memories, documentations, diaries and monuments, fauna and flora past and present, architectural revenants and planning applications, pub chat, local ‘urban legend’ (how local is that, ever?), administrative structures, trash, informal markers, dignities and indignities . . . and so on. (86)

Like science, “a site-specific piece of work moves forward by a fascination with what it does not know or what it can barely even imagine a meaning for, but that begs the investigation: What is this place? What is happening here? What does all this mean? How could this be?” (86-87). Site-specificity’s paradox, Smith argues, “is that, if genuinely pursued, it brings us to an uncontainable and promiscuous multiplicity of possible ‘heres’ . . . and it is the judicious combining of those possibilities that constitutes the litmus test of the art” (87). These are important ideas for me to remember; it would be too easy to identify (or misidentify) a “truth” of rural Saskatchewan and ignore its contradictory layering.

Chapter 6, “Site Aesthetics,” begins with the words, “There is no right or wrong way to make performance in any site. Or to put it another way—there are only relative and contextualised right ways that will not apply to everywhere” (97). The purpose of this chapter is to “address how for a rigorous site-specific approach, the aesthetics of each performance intervention are forged in a tension between the qualities of the site and the predilections of the performance makers,” with the performance makers involved always, to some extent, “threatening to lose touch with their raison d’être and obscure the object of their desire: the site” (98). Smith offers “three overarching aesthetic approaches to site-based performance in the knowledge that they are necessarily generalised, not necessarily discrete and open to whatever adaptation and traducing the specificity of any use will subject them to: transparency, camouflage and symbolist” (99).

The first approach, transparency, is about “light, self-effacing and non-invasive performances through which a site can be performed and witnessed” (99). This approach will suit quieter sites where the performance is less likely to be drowned out by surrounding activity (99). Transparent performances call upon spectators to be “active witnesses . . . to the effecting of things (including people) by other things (including people) (100). The audience of a transparent performance is obliged to be attentive: “in this ‘transparency’ the focus has moved away from the human ‘act-er,’ whether artist or audience, and is displaced to the material consequences of things, and to the ‘other’ human experiences, an ‘other’ that has to be imagined, a challenge that can only be properly met by empathy” (100). 

Camouflage, however, “means creating performance that is as variegated and demonstrative as its site, integrated by its theatricality and noisiness rather than its unveiling and illuminating by restraint. By excess and showiness a camouflaged performance flattens itself into the unevenness of its space” (102). This approach is best for places that are “rich in detail,” which threaten “to overwhelm any human presence no matter how histrionic,” which are “packed with existing ‘performance’ and narrative, florid in materials and design” (102). “After choosing such a site, making a performance with exaggerated and baroque qualities can be an entanglement with, and (paradoxically) a disappearance into the space that changes its nature,” Smith writes: “it can make ‘new space’” (102-03). 

In the Symbolist approach, the way of describing a place is “drawn from some larger corpus of symbolism”: psychological, philosophical, biological, geological, “or other organisations of categories” (106). “In relation to a particular site, this ordering can be explicit and an integral part of the space’s design—as with, say, a Freemason’s temple or with the interweaving of liturgical script with the histrionic platform of a medieval cathedral’s layout—but it can also be imposed,” Smith writes, as in the case of Slavoj Žižek’s use of Freudian symbolism in his description of the Bates’s house in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (106). “Any one space is always both reminiscent and symbolic of another,” Smith suggests, citing Gaston Bachelard’s account of how a deep-sea diver lost in the desert imagined that he was walking through water (106-07). “To create work in symbolic space is a process that blends the subjective with the real, the personal with the historical, in order to firm up its abstract meanings with precise, local materials and effects,” Smith writes (107). 

Like the previous chapter, Chapter 7, “Personae, Presences, Characters” begins with a statement against prescriptiveness: “There is no generic right or wrong performance mode, style or discipline for a participant in a site-specific performance” (117). However, Smith continues, “there is also some sense, stronger perhaps outside of performance-designated buildings than within them, that a performer (no matter how masked or scripted) is always performing their personal presence, even their ‘inner self,’ as much as any fiction, script or bare list of tasks” (117). In a less-controlled performance environment, in other words, “the dislocation from an authorised performance space, somehow more pointedly exposes the performer’s performance of themselves” (117). Smith refers to Erving Goffman’s 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Judith Butler’s notion of performativity to suggest that our identities are created, not just represented, by our performances of them (117). “Just as a place has a history, no human presence (no matter how deep within) is neutral, but is always unfolding as part of, and with, the space around it,” Smith writes. “The performer is also a landscape, or more correctly is threaded throughout, but not wholly coterminous with, one” (117-18). This idea suggests that, if you “attempt to adopt too rigid a portrayal of character and identity, as if these were fixed or given by forces independent of your site, there is a danger that you may light up a set of ideological dominances to delight an audience hungry to have its assumptions affirmed” (118). “Paradoxically, then, there is, as yet, no specific acting or performance method, particular to site-specific performance,” Smith continues. “Instead, there are many practices upon which to draw, in different combinations and with different levels of intensity” (119). 

These include autobiographical and autoethnographic presences, in which performers “choose a site that constitutes a landscape of your own life story” (119). However, the actual spaces of one’s life can be “simultaneously too close and too distant; too unmediated in terms of their location and yet too distant in terms of the events there being now in a past that is not now there and therefore no longer present,” Smith suggests. “Performers, by choice or instinct, seem to mostly avoid this tearing of space from time” (120). This avoidance “suggests that performers exploring site-based work for the first time should exercise a certain wariness about the rawness or nakedness of their performance and its place. Space is never neutral, but the spatial host of autobiographical performance may be particularly loaded” (120). The places of one’s past, he continues, “may shelter revenants that will remain dormant until stirred by the intensities of performance” (120). He cites Deidre Heddon’s notion of “autotopography,” “the landscape of autobiography,” as a way of thinking about such places (120). “In an auto-ethnographic context, failures, malfunctions, cowardice or avoidance are differently significant from other more conventional disciplinary contexts,” Smith contends. “Because the auto-ethnographer must slide between their context, their research itself and their self, when things fail they still reveal, they still count as findings of significance rather than unproductive non-events or dead ends. Indeed, at times, they constitute findings that less reflexive disciplines find difficult to identity or collect” (131). In site-specific performance “mistakes and accidents can be as expressive and precisely communicative as a smoothly run show” (131). 

Another performance practice is “ablative presences”: a non-mimetic form of “‘non-matrixed performance’” that eschews “tapping directly into the energy of a site, either by representing, reproducing or amplifying it” (132). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ablative” is an adjective that can mean, in languages where nouns have cases, an expression of “direction from a place . . . which is expressed in English by ‘by’, ‘with’, or ‘from’” (OED), or the destruction or subtraction of a thing from something else, particularly a diseased organ (in medicine) or processes of melting (in physical geography or astronautics). For Smith, who is drawing from Mike Pearson here, an ablative presence is a kind of “sidestepping” that suggests performance “‘in the presence of,’ ‘together with,’ ‘adjacent to’ the site” (Pearson, qtd. 132). Smith includes Allan Kaprow’s “happenings” as examples of performances that step aside from realism or mimetic representation (132-33); the separate sections of the happenings “were played out mostly alongside each other, in tune with Pearson’s suggestions . . . rather than in consequential sequences, thematic unfolding or an overlapping entanglement” (135). Stage hands doing their work in view of the audience are, according to theatre scholar Michael Kirby, another example of an ablative presence, Smith suggests (133). “Such a ‘non-performer’ is aware that they are being watched, but they are not trying to convey any message or motivation (other than completion of their task), and they certainly do not want to ‘star’” Smith writes; “they are organised, they have certain actions to carry out and they do these as efficiently as they can” (133-34). “This approach affects more than just performance presence, serving as a means to developing a relationship with a particular site,” Smith continues (134). Such subversions of naturalistic representation are related to Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, which “disrupts any seamless weave of occurrences and psychology in order to uncover their contexts and represent their conditions” through a process of making those events strange and interrupting their continuity (135). Given that theories of space and place, such as Doreen Massey’s emphasize that sites are unfinished and in process, “the disruption of epic acting can be an equivalence to the incompleteness of space” (137). “In such a performance, the actor betrays and outrages their site; their narrative or projection of character or persona exposes the same contingency in which the apparent material solidity of the location as in their own actions (which might partly explain the attraction of sites in ruin or of those in transition between different uses),” Smith writes (137). 

A third performance practice involves performing character is a site. Smith notes that realist acting methods, “when removed from the platform of the illuminated stage, can come over as overly contrived or, contrastingly, overwhelmed by the ‘flat,’ immense or baroque and distracting qualities of a site” (141). “Yet there is no special reason why psychological, naturalistic or expressionist techniques cannot be adapted for use in site-specific performances,” Smith writes. “The key to adaptation seems to be in finding space (and a role) for the site in the technique and, complementarily, finding the spatial aspect of the technique itself” (142). Understanding the motivation of an action, he continues, “is hugely valuable to the site-specific performance maker” (142). Stanislavskian psychological acting techniques can be used, but the challenge they present “is the entangling of psychological and geographical objectives” (142). Another way of performing character is Simon Persighetti’s “actor as signpost” concept, which “points performer and audience directly to the immediate site and its material specificies; it starts as a localist gesture, a grounding of the performing body in its immediate environment, its senses as active feelers-out of information, not from a passive environment, but from an environment ‘ready’ to feel out for the sensory-feelers of its visitors” (144). This notion “gives equal priority to site and performer, the latter of which is most valued at the sensorial edge of their being; pointing away from themselves and the internal mystery narrative of the labyrinthine subconscious” (144). “Motion is one of the signpost’s key elements: the encouragement to the spectator/participant to find their own trajectory,” Smith continues (144). “Where the focus on mobility and the here and now provokes a necessary disruption, there is also a complementary ‘healing’; resisting the privileging of some sites over others” (145). In other words, the signpost technique “is a democratising activity, enacting a social as well as an organic interdependency” through acts of collaboration that are “both social and physical” (145). “This social interweaving is a ‘connection’ of the sort that Delueze makes key to any strategy for change,” he suggests (145). 

Part 3, “Shaping a Production,” begins with chapter 8, “Dramaturgy.” “There is a temptation in site-specific art—given its usually recognised origins in modernism—to automatically embrace the fragmentary, the obscure, the conceptual and the reflexive,” Smith writes (159). However, while there is no obligation to write a play that tells a story in site-specific performance, neither is there an “absolute obligation to conform to postmodernism’s urgent abandonment of an overriding, over-determining grand narrative and its replacement by a timeless and depthless immediacy that admits no unfolding of narratives at all” (159). There are “multiple alternatives,” Smith suggests, “that need not conform to a linear structure,” although the best alternative might be to think about the site’s own dramaturgy, its “physical ‘logics’ and institutional policing,” which “may dictate the limits of what is possible dramaturgically to what the material dimensions or the security forces of the sites will allow; but they may also provide a dramaturgical structure or trajectory” (159-60). “Or you own up to the importing of patterns that you, maybe inevitably, will engage with,” Smith continues. “Embracing what a totality has to offer to a site-specific performance; the creation of an ‘alternative world’ . . . which either accumulates layers until there is a qualitative change of site-identity, or uses fictions or other asymmetrical devices to change the totality of the site’s identity” (160). This isn’t just using the site as a backdrop; rather, “it is about transforming a landscape by the sinking of an aesthetic work into it; a ‘camouflage’” (160). “Alternatively, rather than accumulate the layers in some kind of consistency, you can emphasise the quality of the layering, so that the different elements of the site, in performance, retain their discreteness,” Smith suggests (160)

“With fragmentation, in any of these dramaturgies, and any consequent loss of narrative legibility—where narrative is relevant—there can be a temptation to anchor an audience in a single, fixed space in order to provide a substitute for the formal structure that is refused in, or failed by, the dramaturgy,” Smith contends. “Sometimes a formally innovative work can end up, becalmed, in conservative space. Equally, a mobile, agentive and inquisitive audience can quickly become an anxious and dissatisfied one if it feels that it is unable to find any meaningful structure, totalised or formally fragmented; or maybe just not find the action at all” (162). The point is to align performances with the sites they are made for. “Despite any talk of high political aesthetics,” he continues, “there is nothing to be ashamed about in seeking answers to the questions around dramaturgy in technical solutions” (162). 

One strategy (following Doreen Massey) is to protest what is absent from the site. For instance, a performance in “an English ‘stately home’” might call attention to “those whose enslaved labour generated the wealth to build it, not as the exposure of a historical crime, but as an indictment of the site’s ongoing and living driver for continuing the exclusion of the Other (in this case the descendents of those colonised and enslaved) from spaces free from exploitation” (169). (Are there any spaces free from exploitation?) “Without the agency of people of that Other, a performance would struggle to escape from the force of ‘consistency’ implied in the time, text and building materials of the layers and palimpsest,” he continues (169). What if, then, “the agents of a site are constituted by its Other; is coevalness then possible for its performance?” Smith asks (169). He uses the example of Misha Myers relational walking performance Way from Home which, “by overlaying one place on another by inviting refugees and asylum seekers living in the UK to map a journey from ‘home’ to a ‘special place and then to walk that route, performing that journey, but in the place they are not, and in the company of walking partners,” “created a different kind of connection to a site” (169). “Through coevalness, site specific performance can look from the centre to the edges of its site, from the vertical, the digging down, to its horizon; looking for the arrival of the Other of the site from the margins,” Smith writes. “What that Other might be, and it is by definition a potential, always described within a future to which it does not have access yet, will still be specific to its site” (169). That Other will not guarantee any narrative or other kind of consistency or coherency, though: “to expect so it to de-Other it” (169): “Coevalness does not solve the technical issues, but adds one extra challenge to them” (169).

Chapter 9, “Scenographies and Enchanged Objects,” begins by suggesting that whether to introduce “recognisable scenic elements and props into a site” is “an existential issue” for site-specific scenography, because doing so “implies that the site is, by that intervention, subjected to the same aesthetics as a building-based theatre production; that the privileging of the site has been replaced by the ‘self-fascination’ of the theatre” (179). One response to that issue is scenographer Kathleen Irwin’s generation of “a sensibility that crosses between conventional stage space and what she calls ‘found space’; the site is not necessarily primary, but provides ‘a text among other texts, such as the script or musical score’” (qtd. 181-82). In Irwin’s 2002 The Weyburn Project, located in a former mental hospital in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, “Irwin worked to recruit what she calls the ‘social energies’ hidden in the materials of the site as prompts to recover the memories and stories of those who had lived and worked there” (182). Irwin’s general approach, Smith continues, is to release the site into fragments which reveal “‘the interpenetration of people, place, culture, and history’” so that the performance’s site shifts from a geographical space to “‘the space of the glance between artist and spectator’” (Irwin qtd. 182). “Rather than agents in their own right,” Smith suggests, the site becomes an ambassador, or mediator, “between human agents or between human agents and themselves” (182).

Smith advocates phenomenology as a theoretical approach to site-specific performance (a reason to read Merleau-Ponty, finally, as if I needed one), although he cautions that it, “like any kind of philosophy, is always in dancer in becoming the subject of itself; the idea of experience standing in for experiences themselves” (185). “Site-specificity is equally vulnerable to performing an idea of itself, generating, demonstrating and commodifying the thrill of immersion rather than inviting others into the immersion itself,” he continues (185). Object-Oriented Ontology, a recent development in phenomenology, “challenges the idea of a human-centred cosmos, denying that things are ever drained of their presence or significance just because humans have stopped thinking about them,” an idea which is significant for site-specific work. Object-Oriented Ontology “asserts the independence of things from human perception and from each other,” granting “some discreteness to objects,” so that part of their “thingness” is their “resistance to being swept up and immersed in human-centred ideas about ‘full sensorium,’ about the flows and currents of all things or, indeed, any advocacy for a taxonomy of spaces” (185). “There does seem to be some object-oriented autonomy at work in the regularity in which certain objects, or categories of objects, appear in site-specific performance,” Smith writes. “Just as certain categories of site have repeatedly attracted performance makers, so there is also a taxonomy of objects that are similarly attractive: flags, water, salt, boats, and even the sun” (186). Object-Oriented Ontology isn’t restricted to things in a site, but “embraces sites themselves,” and “[i]ts emergence has coincided with several new publications proposing a similar agency of objects,” which Smith lists, including Jane Bennett’s 2010 book Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things (186). One of the things I find valuable about this book, in fact, is the way it encourages further reading over a wide range of topics, including books I’ve intended to read for some time but haven’t gotten to. 

In chapter 10, “Communities, Audiences and Immersion,” Smith argues that “[a] dramaturgy is only ever likely to make sense if it is informed by an approximate idea or intuition of how it will be received by its audience; an attitude that is sure to establish some tension (creative or otherwise) with an art form that prioritises the existing site rather than a forthcoming reception” (193). This question is less important for site-specific walking performance, which tend to be private or rely on audiences that simply happen along, but it still arises, as Smith suggests: “the audience may not be arriving, but have been present for a very long time,” since “many, maybe most, sites of performance are places of belonging, home or neighbourhood” (193). Smith draws on the work of Josephine Machon, particularly her analogy that “a ‘full-sensorium’ immersion in the performance experience . . . can be like a bodily immersion in water” (203)—yet another book to read.

I skipped over chapter 11, “Technology,” because my work is deliberately low-tech, and skimmed chapter 12, “Site Etiquette,” which addresses “some of [the] disparate issues that may arise for you in making site-based performance” (223), from access to the lack of a backstage, to health and safety, duration, scale, and weather—all of which are important considerations. Clearing up after the performance is important: “[w]hat you leave behind in your site may be the most profound result of your performance,” Smith warns (226). He discusses whether performances can be adequately documented: performance theorist Peggy Phelan suggests they can’t, but Smith contends that there are forms of documentation, such as mapping, which are “something more than a residue and more like an ongoing ‘site’” (227). This chapter ought to be handed out to anyone thinking about making a site-specific performance.

Smith’s conclusion returns to the notion of mobility in site-specific performance, suggesting that “while mobility suggested that there might be some relativistic bridge between the immediacy . . . of the human cultural occasion of performance and the inhuman aeons of matter,” there is still a discrepancy that dancer and theorist Melanie Kloetzel “has discovered within the process of site-adaptation with significance for site-based performance in general” (232). “What might seem like a mutual resilience shared between its sites and a performance moving between them and adapting itself to them, obscures a ‘more disturbing’ rationale of ‘expendability,’” Smith suggests, quoting Kloetzel, who “describes how resilience often comes at the expense of the less privileged parts of a site: adaptation is applied to the site as much as to the performance,” and the “[l]ess convenient parts” of a site “are regularly dispensed with, excluded or ignored,” reducing the site to an object (232-33). For Kloetzel, this kind of “site-adaptive performance . . . re-establishes (and spreads) the conventions of the building-based institution, the ‘empty space’ of the blank theatre-designated building that returns to ‘zero’ at the end of each production’s run” beyond the theatre’s walls (233). 

“There are at least two ways for a performance maker to respond to Melanie Kloetzel’s radical critique of the practices that I have spent this book advocating,” Smith continues:

one is to accept that it brings to a stasis and sad conclusion a series of bold experiments and disastrous compromises; another is that it represents an opportunity, an edifice just waiting to be hauled down, a poisoned playing field to be navigated, a stable reading to be cleaned out with performance fire. To me, Kloetzel’s critique changes the game. I have often felt out of kilter with those predominating tendencies to take a more laissez-faire or tolerant approach to categories and practices. Now, I want to ask again: What if the qualities that have been described as the reactionary limitations of place specificity, as giving oppressive location-meaning to a site, as nailing it to its past, obsessing on its materials, disrupting its everyday life by too aggressively addressing it, are what continue to be useful about performance? While, on the other hand, theorists who sought to mobilise and accelerate the categories around “place” and “site” and thus escape specificity’s limitations have risked thinning their meanings as they expand them and adding unintentionally to a broader ideological belief that technology and globalisation have transcended borders and expunged any meaningful remnants of colonialism and genocidal nation-building, consistent with site-adaptation’s illusion that it “allows us to . . . make the changes necessary with little real alteration of the status quo.” (233-34)

That’s a rather surprising statement, given where the book begins, and it suggests how powerful Kloetzel’s critique must be, and also that I’m going to have to read it. Smith suggests “that performers and researchers need to attend to the developments in vital materialism,” Object-Oriented Ontology, “in the more cosmic reaches of geophilosophy and eco-criticism as a torque upon the impetus to dissolving specificity in technologically enhanced acceleration and the commodification of thrills and ‘experiences’” (235). Location is important, even essential, and that assertion, “with all the layers of the palimpsest, is one of the torques by which a recontextualisation, a change in the limits and orders of a space, can begin—another being the arrival in the site of those historically made absent from it, the Other of the site, coming as new agents arriving from what, for much site-specific performance, has been the margins” (235). Such “torques” “can shift the focus back to the site, in the context of thinking about the matter of the  cosmos, and add some modesty to strategic thinking about how such sites are changed by being expertly performed” (235). 

“Given the difficulties, would it be more creative if ‘specificity’—even in its ‘purist’ form—was understood more as the rigour of its attention, of its ‘attending to’ and ‘tending of’?” Smith asks. “In other words, that while the meaning of ‘site’ can speak mostly for itself (if, hopefully, in more tongues that it did when you started this book), ‘specificity’ needs to be re-thought, re-defined and re-spoken; this time much less a geographical-research term and more as an ethical one” (236). An “ethical site-specificity,” Smith continues, “would reject site-adaptive’s expending of site and embrace an obligation to add to its multiplicity,” to what Pearson calls “‘its scene of plenitude,’” “extending the way it imagines its relationship in time with a site” (236). For Smith, this ethical site-specificity 

means a more careful consideration of the choice of sites, not simply as the best containers for performance, but as actors-in-themselves (sites that are making their own demands for attention such as re-wilding spaces or spaces of abuse), with a more careful intention in leaving; not simply discarding the site after a performance is over. (236)

Kathleen Irwin gets the last word: the space of performance is left in the charge of “‘locally based spectators,’ who were always already ahead of the performance makers with ‘an enhanced kind of creative energy in . . . their knowledge of the place and its history . . . continu[ing] to frequent the place’” (qtd. 236).

Readers expecting a primer to site-specific performance—or even, as the book’s subtitle suggests, a handbook—are perhaps likely to be disappointed and/or confused by Smith’s Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance, because it is much more than either a primer or a handbook, as the complexity of his conclusion suggests. It’s not, in other words, just a book for undergraduate students taking courses on site-specific performance. I found the chapters on mobile performance particularly useful, and the range of texts to which Smith refers—the ones I haven’t read, at least—could easily form the basis of a reading list for a comprehensive examination on the subject of site-specific theatre and performance. So this book is useful, and it encourages me to move on to read other texts about site-specific performance, from Melanie Kloetzel to Mike Pearson to Kathleen Irwin. Perhaps my earlier reading of general texts on performance was frustrating because they weren’t focused on what I’m actually interested in for my current work, which is mobile, site-specific performance. I’m not sure; that’s something to think about as I turn, inevitably, to the next book.

Work Cited

Smith, Phil. Making Site-Specific Theatre and Performance: A Handbook, Red Globe Press/Macmillan International, 2019.

107. Leslie Brown and Susan Strega, eds., Research As Resistance: Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-oppressive Approaches

brown and strega research as resistance.jpg

I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I do know one thing: if your supervisor lends you something to read for your comprehensive exams, you really ought to read it. So I need to tackle the books on methodology and Indigenous performance that have been waiting for my attention. The first of those, Research As Resistance: Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-oppressive Approaches, edited by Leslie Brown and Susan Strega, is a collection of essays on methodologies in the social sciences. Some of them are helpful; others aren’t—that’s the nature of anthologies such as these. What makes this book important is the fact that while I’m not engaged in social-science research, I still have many things to learn, particularly about Indigenous methodologies. Unfortunately, even a focus on a few of the book’s chapters ended up generating very lengthy summaries. There’s a lot going on in this book, however, even in the chapters I chose to read, and that explains why the summaries are so long.

In the book’s introduction, its editors express their interest in exploring “the emancipatory possibilities of new approaches to research, even when these transgress the boundaries of traditional research and scholarship,” even though such transgressions can come at a cost, “given the extent to which we have all internalized dominant ideas about what constitutes ‘good’ research and ‘acceptable’ research practices” (1-2). The purpose of this book is to “push the edges of academic acceptability not because we want to be accepted within the academy but in order to transform it” (2). That’s a radical statement; anyone working within the academy probably does want, at some level, to be accepted by it, since such acceptance results in employment, tenure, and promotion. 

This issues discussed in this book, the editors continue, “are part of the challenge posed by the ‘crisis of representation’ that has confronted social science research over the last quarter century,” and they “stand in a line of feminists, critical race theorists, and postmodernists who have all problematized the Enlightenment paradigm that shapes both quantitative and qualitative approaches to research, and which gives rise to concepts such as ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’” (2). “The principles of anti-oppressive practice, once restricted to the direct practice dimension, have begun to influence research practices and have contributed to these critiques by highlighting the relationship between the researcher and the ‘researched,’” they continue (3). However, “anti-oppressive and critical research methodologies still rate little more than a mention in most research methods textbooks” (4); as a result, those approaches have been marginalized, particularly by “the institutionalization of positivist research frameworks in mandatory ethical review procedures,” which consider participants in research projects to be “research ‘subjects’ in particular and limited ways,” which limits the extent to which “social justice researchers” are able “to consider ethical questions that are vitally important to them, such as voice, representation, and collaboration” (4). Moreover, this book appeared “at a time of positivist resurgence in the academy in general and in the ‘practice professions’ (social work, nursing, education) in particular,” partly as a result of the dominance of neoliberal economic ideologies which “have demanded that practice and policy be assessed in terms of fiscal accountability and little else” (5). “This book stands in opposition to those who would retrench positivism as the basis of research and practice in social work and other practice professions,” Brown and Strega write. “Instead, we hope to assist in exploring the transgressive possibilities of centring critical, Indigenous, and anti-oppressive approaches to research. We want to contextualize these approaches in terms of the social justice world views they embody and express” (6). 

At the same time, though, Brown and Strega do not intend to constrain or exclude other forms of research. “Rather, our intention is to contribute to the project of having research reflect, both in terms of its processes and in terms of the knowledge it constructs, the experience, expertise, and concerns of those who have traditionally been marginalized in the research process and by widely held beliefs about what ‘counts’ as knowledge,” they write (6).The notion of “research from the margins” is important for the editors. “Research from the margins is not research on the marginalized by research by, for, and with them/us,” they write. “It is research that takes seriously and seeks to trouble the connections between how knowledge is created, what knowledge is produced, and who is entitled to engage in these processes. It seeks to reclaim and incorporate the personal and political context of knowledge construction,” and “attempts to foster oppositional discourses, ways of talking about research, and research processes that explicitly and implicitly challenge relations of domination and subordination” (7). 

According to Brown and Strega, positivist or quantitative research—they suggest the two terms are synonyms—“continues to be the gold standard for social science research, and in the practice professions, this research is disproportionately favoured in funding, publication, and social policy decisions” (8). Qualitative social science methodologies are “generally positioned as positivism’s binary (though less valued) opposite” (8-9). Unlike quantitative researchers, who believe in neutrality and objectivity, qualitative researchers “see social reality as subjective, and their research practices involve observing and interpreting the meanings of social reality as various groups and individuals experience them” (9). However, qualitative research tends to contribute to the entrenchment of ideas about neutrality and objectivity “by utilizing alternative measures of rigour and validity, and insisting that researcher bias can be ‘bracketed’ so as not to influence research results” (9). I thought rigour and validity were good things; according to Brown and Strega, that belief is incorrect. In contrast, critical, Indigenous, and anti-oppressive research is “part of an emancipatory commitment,” and it seeks “to move beyond a critical social science to establish a position of resistance” (9). This book is therefore concerned “with the development of research approaches that empower resistance,” with empowerment defined in terms of “an analysis of power relations and a recognition of systemic oppression” (10). “Research that empowers resistance makes a contribution to individually and collectively changing the conditions of our lives and the lives of those on the margins,” Brown and Strega write. “By centring questions of whose interests are served not only by research products but also in research processes, it challenges existing relations of dominance and subordination and offers a basis for political action” (10).

A central aspect of the research methodologies that interest Brown and Strega is the notion that “research cannot challenge relations of dominance and subordination unless it also challenges the hegemony of current research paradigms” (10). One way of making such a challenge—of making “overt how power relations permeate the construction and legitimation of knowledge” (10)—is by revealing “the researcher’s location and political commitments, which are obscured by methodological claims to objectivity, neutrality, and gender and race-blindness” (10). “Thus, many of these chapters centre processes of reflexivity or self-reflexivity—the need and necessity for researchers to not only acknowledge but also examine their location and how that location permeates their inquiry at every level” (10).

Brown and Strega also believe “that multiple paradigms are an evolutionary necessity and part of a commitment to social justice, and thus it is not our intention to be definitive about what constitutes a critical or anti-oppressive methodology” (10). At the same time, though, they believe “that modifying traditional methodologies through sensitizing their methods and procedures to diversity and difference is far from enough” (10). Instead, “the centre/margin relationship and other binary hierarchies” need to be disrupted (11). This book, they write, “is an introduction, a starting point to encourage further exploration of alternative, critical, and anti-oppressive methodologies,” and it is intended for those 

who are interested in social science research that is expressly concerned with redressing oppression and committed to social justice—those who, because of their location on the margins, the marginalized locations of those with whom they are conducting research, and/or their own commitments to anti-oppressive practice, want to learn more about how to go about conducting this research. (11)

“Traditional social science research, whatever its intentions, has silenced and distorted the experiences of those on the margins, taking a deficit-informed approach to explaining their lives and experiences,” and devaluing, misinterpreting, and omitting their “histories, experiences, cultures, and languages (the ‘ways of knowing’),” leaving their knowledges “excluded or trivialized” (11). “The search for research methodologies that are capable of grasping the messy complexities of people’s lives, especially the lives of those on the margins, involves reclaiming these knowledges while simultaneously moving away from the binary conceptualizations fostered under existing research paradigms,” they write (11). (I can’t help thinking that artistic research might be able to get at those “messy complexities,” although it would have no credibility among social scientists as a form of research.) “The theoretical pieces and exemplars in this book focus on racialized, gendered, differently abled, and classed experiences form a strengths-based focus and as sources of strength,” they continue, thereby supporting “marginalized researchers attempting to cleave to the truth of their own experience” as well as offering “research ideas for those who are not from the margins, or who occupy both marginal and privileged spaces, but who want to engage in research practices from a position of solidarity with the marginalized” (11). 

Practitioners—nurses, teachers, and social workers, that is, and much of this book appears to be rooted in those disciplines—“are being encouraged to embrace research as a core feature of practice” (although the use of passive voice in that sentence obscures who is doing the encouraging), but such research tends to be “understood securely within a positivist/Enlightenment (White, heterosexual, patriarchal) framework” (12). I think what that means is that straight white men are considered to be the “universal” human according to positivist research paradigms. Brown and Strega don’t like the demand for positivist research, and suggest that “subjecting ourselves as well as our research methodologies and processes to standards of legitimacy that are ultimately not in our own interests” is a serious problem (12). “Now we have a chance to step into the research space that has been opened up by those on the margins,” they continue. “In acknowledging that previous efforts to develop critical social science have largely failed to contribute to anti-oppressive practice or policy making, we must ask different questions about how to construct and conduct our inquiries” (12). This book, then, is for those “research practitioners” who are “in search of transgressive possibilities” (12).

Margaret Kovach’s “Emerging from the Margins: Indigenous Methodologies” is the book’s first essay, and one of the most important for my purposes; I’ve read her 2009 book, Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts, and really ought to read it again as part of this project, because a) it’s important and b) I’ve forgotten much of what she says. Perhaps, though, I could consider this essay a refresher. Kovach begins by suggesting that “Indigenous researchers (and by that I mean Indigenous peoples) make research political simply by being who we are” (20). For that reason, value-neutral research methodologies “are not likely to be part of the Indigenous researcher’s experience and as such we have a natural allegiance with emancipatory research approaches” (20-21). “The challenge for Indigenous research will be to stay true to its own respective theoretical roots of what counts as emancipatory as it ventures into mainstream academia,” she continues (21). Emancipatory research includes a variety of methodologies, Kovach writes. “The epistemological assumptions of these varied methodologies contend that those who live their lives in marginal places of society experiencing silencing and injustice,” and that silencing within research and the production of knowledge “is significant and disturbing” (21). “To discuss liberating research methodologies without critical reflection on the university’s role in research and producing knowledge is impossible,” she suggests (21). 

Part of what Kovach is interested in doing is looking at Indigenous methodologies and their potential relationship with emancipatory research. “While emancipatory methodologies are distinct from each other and stem from different epistemologies, they share similar principles,” she writes. “For example, Indigenous methodology flows from Indigenous ways of knowing (epistemology), incorporating an Indigenous theoretical perspective and using aligned methods (e.g., qualitative interviews, storytelling)” (22). Research is a way of contributing to the struggle against social injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada; both research “and the control of research findings” have been “critical in pushing forward community-based goals of self-determination” (23). Taking control of Indigenous research “has been a long, arduous struggle with Indigenous peoples acutely aware of the power politics of knowledge,” and it “has been pivotal for Indigenous peoples in decolonization” (23). Participatory research “has been an ally,” she continues: “The critical, collective, and participatory principles of participatory research has made it a popular methodology for many Indigenous projects in Canada” (23). Protocols for such research were developed by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, and more recently by the Indigenous Governance program at the University of Victoria; these protocols highlight “the need for participation in all levels of research by the Indigenous participants and that the research benefit the community in some manner” (23-24). “The language of participation and community benefit show evidence of a shared goal—that research should be respectful and honour relationships in addition to research outcomes,” she continues (24).

The language used in describing research methodologies is important, according to Kovach. “For Indigenous research there are two difficulties here,” she writes. “One difficulty arises from indigenizing a Western concept such as research, which is rigid with definitional categories, evaluative criteria, outcomes, and goals. The second relates to language and epistemology—how it influences how we think, feel, and act” (25). “An Indigenous epistemology is a significant aspect of Indigenous methodology and suggests and Indigenous way of functioning in the world,” she continues (27). Such an epistemology would include “a way of knowing that is fluid” and “experiential, derived from teachings transmitted from generation to generation by storytelling; each story is alive with the nuances and wisdom of the storyteller” (27). It would emerge from Indigenous languages which emphasize verbs rather than nouns (27). It would involve “a knowing within the subconscious that is garnered through dreams and vision” (27). It would be “a knowledge that is both intuitive and quiet” (27). “Indigenous ways of knowing arise from interrelationships with the human world, the spirit, and the inanimate entities of the ecosystem,” and they also “encompass the spirit of collectivity, reciprocity, and respect” (27-28). Indigenous knowledge “is born of the land and the locality of the tribe”; it is “purposeful and practical,” “organic with emphasis of reciprocity and humour,” “both cerebral and heartfelt” (28). This description, it seems to me, asserts a tremendous difference between Indigenous epistemology and the epistemology that informs Settler ways of knowing (and thus most research), but Kovach suggests that “several key assertions that can guide research” can be drawn from Indigenous epistemology:

(a) experience as a legitimate way of knowing; (b) Indigenous methods, such as storytelling, as a legitimate way of sharing knowledge; (c) receptivity and relationship between researcher and participants as a natural part of the research “methodology”; and (d) collectivity as a way of knowing that assumes reciprocity to the community (meaning both two-legged and four-legged creatures). (28)

“An Indigenous epistemology within Indigenous research projects is important because Indigenous peoples will likely understand and share their experience from this perspective,” Kovach writes (28).

Connected to epistemology “is the role of an Indigenous theoretical framework in research” (28). “An Indigenous perspective/theory encompasses an Indigenous way of knowing”; it incorporates “a decolonizing objective”; “it is founded on collectivist research principles (and respects the inherent ethics and protocols associated”; “it has an ecological basis that is respectful of the natural world”; and it “values authentic/organic techniques in data collection” (28-29). (A note indicates that this list isn’t definitive, but rather a starting point [34].) How do epistemology and theory link to methodology? Kovach asks (29). Methodology, she suggests, is “theory that guides method,” while methods are “the techniques that a researcher uses” (29). Indigenous methodology “does not easily fit into a pre-existing Western category” (29). However, “methodology is about process,” and the “three key themes of Indigenous methodology (all grounded in Indigenous epistemology and theory)” that Kovach wants to highlight are “(a) the relational; (b) the collective; (c) and methods” (29-30). 

By “relational,” Kovach means that “Indigenous ways of knowing have a basis in the relationships that are inclusive of all life forms”:

The philosophical premise of take what you need (and only what you need), give back, and offer thanks suggests a deep respect for other living beings. Integral in Indigenous methodologies is this foundational philosophy. A relationship-based model of research is critical for carrying out research with Indigenous communities on several levels. Philosophically, it honours the cultural value of relationship, it emphasizes people’s ability to shape and change their own destiny, and it is respectful. By relationship, I mean a sincere, authentic investment in the community; the ability to take time to visit with people from the community (whether or not they are research participants); the ability to be humble about the goals; and conversations at the start about who owns the research, its use and purpose (particularly if it is academic research). (30)

“Relationship-based research can irritate the individualistic, clinical, outcome-oriented research process,” Kovach admits, but in Indigenous communities “a relationship-based approach is a practical necessity because access to the community is unlikely unless time is invested in relationship building” (30). 

Kovach suggests that “the philosophical premise of relationship” is woven together with “the collective underpinning of Indigenous research”:

The collective nature of Indigenous culture is evident in traditional economic, political, and cultural systems. It is almost instinctive—Indigenous peoples know that you take care of your sister and brother (the extended family, not just the nuclear one), and that’s just the way it is. Inherent in this understanding of life is reciprocity and accountability to each other, the community, clans, and nations. It is a way of life that creates a sense of belonging, place, and home; however, it doesn’t serve anonymity or rugged individualism well. (30)

Western research tends to be individualistic, with a principal investigator “designing the methodologies, documenting the findings, and publishing the report” (30). But Indigenous research is accountable to the community; it “must meet the criteria of collective responsibility and accountability. In protocols for Indigenous research, this is a central theme,” and as Indigenous research enters the university, “this principle needs to stay up close and personal” (31).

There is a link between methods and methodology in Indigenous research, Kovach suggests: “Research methods or techniques to gather data have expanded to fit a more expansive range of methodological choices,” and she believes “that Indigenous research will further broaden the range of methods in research” to include things like dreams and solitude with nature (31). “It will be an exciting new dialogue about what counts as legitimate knowledge and how that knowledge is garnered,” she writes (31). Indigenous research also involves “a plethora of conflicts,” “a maze of ethical issues compounded by the real need to sleep at night because there is so much work to do” (31). In particular, “[t]he issues arising from a relational research approach rooted in a collectivist epistemology brings to light distinct dilemmas for researchers,” particularly the issue of how much knowledge can be shared and how much “needs to be kept sacred” (31). “Questions about purpose, benefit, and protection of research subjects may arise across a range of methodologies,” Kovach writes, but “it is the answers to these questions and the standards regarding community accountability in a collectivist, relational research model that will be different” (31-32). “I propose that epistemology, theory, methods, and ethical protocols are integral to Indigenous methodology,” Kovach states, noting that such a methodology cannot be too narrowly defined because it “shape shifts in the form of theory, methods, and ethics” (32).

Indigenous people have “been researched to death,” Kovach continues, and much of that research has had no benefit to the communities involved (32). “Those of use who have pursued academic study and dipped our toes into the murky pool of research have obligations to use our skills to improve the socio-economic conditions of Indigenous peoples,” she argues, and that means “defining the research inquiry based on actual, not presumed, need and by designing a research process that is most effective in responding to our inquiries,” in using “research as a practical tool” (32-33). “The greatest ally of Indigenous research,” she continues, “will be those non-Indigenous ‘methodologies from the margins’ that do not hide from but embrace the political nature of research. The sustained autonomy but continued alliance between such approaches is critical. Mutually beneficial and open-spirited dialogue that is critically reflective of each other’s practice will be necessary for growth” (33). However, it seems that the most important thing about Indigenous research is its humility, since “research is, after all, just a way to find out things. As Indigenous peoples, we have lots of work ahead of us, and taking back research is one of many tasks on the list” (33). But, Kovach concludes, quoting Eber Hampton, Indigenous peoples are relentless, as well as “strong, and still here” (33-34).

I made what I hope was an appropriate strategic decision after reading Kovach’s essay: I decided I would focus on the book’s discussions of Indigenous methodologies and ignore the other chapters. That meant skipping over Mehmoona Moosa-Mitha’s “Situating Anti-Oppressive Theories Within Critical and Difference-Centred Perspectives,” which argues 

that liberalism, Marxism, and White feminism overlook the socio-political realities and oppression that individuals and collectivities experience on the basis of their “multiple differences” from the White, male (although White feminists do undertake gendered analysis), heterosexual, able-bodied norm. Thus, while they may reflect a critical theoretical orientation, they fail to take difference seriously. On the other hand, I also argue that postmodern theories are more inclusive in their orientation, taking a difference-centred stance without necessarily taking on a critical perspective. Hence they do not necessarily position themselves within oppositional knowledge claims that attempt to dismantle and contest hegemonic representation of the “Other.” (37-38)

For Moosa-Mitha, “anti-oppressive theories are discrete from other social theories,” because “the engage in a conversation with other social theories that is dialectical in nature, where they contest, influence, and are in turn influenced by the ontological and epistemological assumptions of a spectrum of social theories” (38). Such “‘conversations’ . . . influence and affect social theories, including anti-oppressive theories,” in a “process that is both creative and unpredictable so that over time it is not always easy or possible to distinguish all the various strands that come together in any one theoretical framework” (38). It also meant ignoring Sally A. Kimpson’s “Stepping Off the Road: A Narrative (of) Inquiry,” in which she “focuses on research that . . . uses an autobiographical narrative approach to inquire about my experience of being a beginning researcher struggling with issues of power and representation at work in the research I was doing as part of a graduate degree” (73). “In undertaking this kind of anti-oppressive research methodology,” she continues, “I have felt the power of . . . disciplinary norms and their role in suppressing the experiences of women . . . in this case myself as a disabled woman” (73). I’m interested in autobiographical or autoethnographic narratives, but not as a form of social science research. I also passed over “Supporting Young People’s Transitions From Care: Reflections on Doing Participatory Action Research with Youth from Care,” by Deb Rutman, Carol Hubberstey, April Barlow, and Erinn Brown, which “highlights our experiences of conducting research that was inclusive of young people form care who had lived expertise of the care system, but who lacked formal research training or education,” and “the challenges, opportunities, contradictions, and contributions of this type of participatory approach” (154). That essay seems rather far from my own project—far enough that I could probably safely pass it by. Nor did I read “Becoming an Anti-Oppressive Researcher” by Karen Potts and Leslie Brown,” which seemed to be aimed at beginning graduate students in the social sciences, a category that excludes me. And after much consideration I decided not to read Rena Miller’s “Wife Rena Teary,” an account of her encounter with the palliative care system (181), or Susan Strega’s “The View From the Poststructural Margins: Epistemology and Methodology Reconsidered,” since I’m not particularly interested in attempting to use feminist postructuralism in my work, even though Strega argues that it “offers a useful approach for those seeking a social justice orientation in their research” (200).

However, the decision to focus on essays on Indigenous methodologies almost led me to ignore Fairn herising’s “Interrupting Positions: Critical Thresholds and Queer Pro/Positions,” which “presents some ways to critically explore the stances of researchers who work with/in marginal communities,” in particular “the politics of location between the researcher and the communities that we propose to enter, or the relational locations that I call ‘the thresholds of passages,’” locations that “contain continuities and discontinuities between the researcher and the entryways to the communities we desire to work with and for under the rubric of research” (128). “I propose and explore queer flexibilities and the ex-centric researcher as counter-hegemonic positions and stances that researchers can employ in forging politically ethical relations with marginal communities,” herising writes (129). Maybe herising’s use of the word “queer” might connect with Sara Ahmed’s notion of a “queer phenomenology,” I thought, and the notion of being on a threshold, neither here nor there but in between, might be of some use. At the outset, though, herising writes, 

I want to challenge the notion that there is a fixed point or moment when one is a researcher or when one does research. I want to envision each and every process of researching as thresholds, where we critically attend to the complexities, tensions, and possibilities of arrivals and exists, where we are accountable to our different research relationships within various passageways. (129)

So, for herising, using the term “research” means inserting “a critical position where historical conditions and relations are centralized within the need and desire to change contemporary social and political conditions” (129). In other words, herising continues, “I understand research to mean re/search/in-g: that is, the ongoing social, historical, and political dialectical processes whereby subjects, disciplines, and practices are engaged in renewal, critical interruptions, and critical praxis” (129-30). How dividing the word “researching” into pieces conveys that understanding is beyond me, though.

Nevertheless, herising goes on to discuss the notion of “thresholds of passageways,” an idea which focuses on “the physical and psychological places of entry into communities” and on “forging relationships” (130). “The threshold is both the entryway and the marker for the spaces that demarcate the boundaries of inside and outside, of belonging and un-belonging,” she writes. “By attending to thresholds of passageways, the borders that exist between the researcher and the research participants are contested; it is essential to continually turn to negotiate these borders given the cultures and knowings that exist and are produced in relationship to each other” (130). This spatial metaphor—I think it’s a metaphor—is intended to move herising’s thinking “away form notions of origin and fixed identities to specific subjectivities and subject positions, highlighting the relational nature of spaces and concepts of spaciousness” (130). 

Critical research “that attends to thresholds of passageways” means engaging with “substantive questions,” which include: 

[H]ow do we negotiate the chasm between ourselves and the communities we propose to research? How are the places between these relational sites envisioned? What is the significance of negotiating the spaces between researchers, the communities in which we reside (including the marginal communities we are a part of), and the communities we are researching? What are the frictions and dissonances within and between these spaces? What aspects of our beliefs, values, identities, and knowledges to we need to disinherit, disavow, decentre, disrupt, claim, reinsert, or centre in order to work with various communities? What are the necessary politically ethical grounds that need to be cultivated and sustained to engage and recognize various thresholds in and through multiple research passageways? In what ways do we attend to our knowledges, and ethically and politically align ourselves to the vision and struggles of marginal peoples and politics in research? (130-31)

“It is essential that we critically question and consider the value of finding passages to and through research thresholds,” herising continues. “Thus, it is important to ask in what ways is the act of ‘finding’ these passages different from any imperialist/colonizing project?” (131). Research can be a “colonial and colonizing project,” particularly if discussions about making the researchers’ ideological or political biases visible sneak notions of objectivity back into the picture “by proposing that we can fully know ourselves, and that the Self is now transparent to others and Others” (131). Such notions of transparency “may become an excuse for not fully attending to the complex interrelationships and socio-political conditions of and in research” (131). In addition, such discussions “can collapse into regulatory prescriptive methods of ‘working with marginalized communities,’ thus neutralizing and masking the political foundations and emancipatory possibilities of such forms of research” (131). They can leave unquestioned “the taken-for-granted inherent right of entry” of the researcher to another’s community (131). 

For herising, it is essential to think about “the contexts and tensions of entering communities, notably the ways in which the context of history, colonizations, discipline, and institutions shape research priorities and formulations” (132). “How might we decentralize the focus on research that these questions engender, and instead shift to centralizing communities and forging collectivity and solidarity of visions?” she asks. “What questions enable me/us to attend to the various passageways that we travel and negotiate was we come to and through various thresholds?” (132). The desire to and necessity of entering the space of Others needs to be questioned, herising argues:

How and why are the borders of Otherness created? How and why might research and researching reconstitute the borders of Otherness? What are the imperatives that guide the “need to know” that inform and shape the ways in which we enter communities? Why, and in whose interests, are differences enacted that highlight research participants as Othered? (132)

“Guided by these questions while probing for new ones,” herising continues, “I want to further politicize the threshold of passages by critically examining the stances, attitudes, and encumbrances of researchers, in particular, the role that the researcher occupies in researching marginal communities” (132). Such researchers have often been “accused of participating in research that is asymmetrical and lacking in reciprocity in their excavation or retrieval of information,” and the forms such researchers take have included “the explorer” and “the traveler,” characters “who extract and exploit knowledges, or construct a partial knowledge that serves within institutional containment of valued narratives without much, if any, critical interventions or transformative shifts with marginal communities” (132). Critical researchers, herising writes, “need to substantially rethink what it is we are doing when we conveive research as we do by unravelling places of privilege within research relations” (132).

For herising, the point is to focus “on the positionality of the researcher,” and in particular, the researcher’s power, authority, and privilege (133). “In order to engage our research with politicized ethic and integrity and to attend to the nuances and specificities of our work,” she continues, “it is necessary to attend to the varying plexus and intersecting trajectories of power, authority, identity, difference, subjectivity, agency, dissent, resistance, and suspicion,” which requires attention to “the politics of location” (133). According to herising, the term “politics of location” is “a means of interrupting and accounting for the formulations and constructions of one’s social-political locations,” which requires engaging in “critically reflective processes that speak to multiple power relations” (133). “The imperative for researchers,” herising argues, “is to take a critically active stance that takes into account (and accounts for) multiple histories and traces diverse trajectories that give shape to various meanings, authorities, power, and ways of knowing” (133). Might not all of this accounting, though, prevent the research from taking place?

“[T]he politics of location,” as Adrienne Rich meant when she coined the phrase, “was a call for feminists to interrogate the linkages between feminist theory and feminist practices and to examine whose theories/practices were being privileged,” herising continues. “In its broadest usage, the term is used as a means of acknowledging differentially situated subjects (difference), and to interrogate the positions of privileged identities and histories” (134). By “examining our own politics of location in relation to the subjects of our research,” we “can shift the terms of our inquiry. This examination is an invitation for us to become more accountable to our inquiries, to the processes of our research, and ultimately to the voices of the margins” (134). She cites Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s work as “an indictment of those strains of Western feminist scholarship that reproduced, however ‘innocently,’ the altruistic missionary/explorer position,” suggesting that such scholarship “not only relegate and solidify the marginal as Other, but in doing so, consolidate their own locus of power” (134-35). “Through such constructions, and the investments in marginalizing Others, the result is to deny marginalized peoples their political and historical agency,” she continues (135). 

For herising, Mohanty’s work suggests ways that research can be used “to combat the multifaceted and multiple localities of oppressions:

First, we must resist easy generalizations; we need to avoid being reductive in our constructions and formulations of the Other. By situating and contextualizing ourselves, and ourselves in relation to the subjects of our research, our work can provide strategies for oppositional narratives and oppositional politics. As well, by understanding the contradictions in the locations of marginal people within differing structures, we can better devise effective political action. (135)

Isn’t it possible, though, that the role of devising political action rests with the “marginal people” themselves? Citing Mohanty, herising suggests that privilege engenders blindness to those without privilege. “Uncontested, privileging privilege cannot provide us with alternative accounts of justice or the ethical grounds to forge relations for political struggles within our research,” herising contends (135-36). 

Moreover, “[a] critical engagement with a politic of location has implications for the relationships formed between researchers and communities, and for the utility and applicability of research as a politicized and active endeavour that interrupts the dominant narratives and textualities of marginal lives,” herising writes. “By situating ourselves in history and the contents of our own multiple locations, we can move toward working through and with differences based on multiple subjectivities” (136). Such attention to location and to difference can allow “us to forge solidarity on grounds that reject essentialist categories and demarcate the multiple sites of struggles” (136). “Politics of location has been used”—the passive voice here obscures who has used it—“to signal and incorporate ‘what is going on’ in the research process; that research is shaped and reshaped according to self-critique, which needs to be embedded in the various steps of research, the chosen methodologies, and in the findings and discussion,” herising writes. “The emphasis in this section is to engage in an ongoing enquiry of a politics of location that is continuous, connected, specific, and emerging in any research process as a means of always questioning and queering the thresholds of re-search-ing” (137). A politics of location is not, however, “about enumerating one’s categorical list of identities as a researcher, although this may serve as a useful point of entry,” herising argues. “Nor is the politics of location meant to serve as an apology at the end of one’s research discussion” (137). Listing one’s identities, for instance, can suggest “that the subjects of research are vastly or strangely different from ourselves, and that the researchers and research subject are socially and politically isolated in relationship to one another, or that we are internally and exclusively coherent identities,” or assume “a fixed, generic, and linear version of identity, which in turn limits our ability to engage with the complex matrix that forms and informs one’s critical self-inquiry” (137-38). In addition, “[p]olitics of location ultimately can become a reified academic state, where it becomes a tool for cementing fixed hegemonic relations” (138). Honestly, with all of these caveats, it’s not entirely clear why herising thought the notion of “politics of location” might be productive of anything positive in the first place.

Not surprisingly, herising shifts from “politics of location” to “politics of accountability”: “I want to draw attention to accountability to ensure that in stressing the critical need to ‘interrogate’ and deconstruct the markers of privilege, I do not wish to leave an impression that this is sufficient to gain entry into ‘othered’ worlds” (138-39). “Politics of location in and of itself is not necessarily transformative,” she continues. “My emphasis here is to seek ways in which we build in, with, and on the processes of attending to differences within the purview of accountability, our politically ethical responsibilities to communities under/within our gaze” (139). “Whether we practise our research from liberatory, critical, and/or radical standpoints,” she writes, “we cannot claim epistemological or ontological innocence, for we are not outside of the conditions, contexts, and positionalities of life and living” (139). Therefore, researchers “must forge and centralize a politic of accountability to communities who are/have been subjects of research,” an accountability that “must be politically and ethically enacted continuously with and in research, an ethic that calls for us to shift, change, or disinherit some of our ideas, practices, methods, and interpretations if we want to sustain politically ethical relationships with marginal communities” (139). Researchers “need to ensure that we do not reproduce patterns and processes of colonization or ‘epistemic violence’ in relation to marginal knowledges,” and “to be attentive to how we relate to and with communities, and to engage politics of location continuously in order to forestall the commodification or fetishizing of marginal identities, knowledges, ways of being, and communities” (139-40). “If we are to produce research that benefits marginal communities and promotes justice,” herising continues, “we must be accountable to marked privileges by rigorously attending to the politics of transformative methodologies and epistemologies, particularly situated epistemologies” (140). Unfortunately, herising doesn’t distinguish between epistemologies and “situated epistemologies” here; that distinction is clearly important, but it remains unclear.

In the essay’s next section, herising turns to the notions of “queer flexibilities and the ex-centric researcher,” which she suggests guide her “explorations” (140). “Queer flexibilities provide both a conceptual framework and a theoretical paradigm for critical research, while the ex-centric embodies the performative modes of research,” she writes. “Ex-centricity is thus housed in the theoretical propositions of queer flexibilities” (140). These are not “static models,” but rather “possible stances and positions,” and she offers them “as a means of beginning/continuing a dialogue about the nuanced relationships between researcher and researched communities” (140). While herising is mindful of the historical origins of the recuperation of the word “queer,” she suggests that it—or perhaps transdisciplinary queer theory—“challenges the assumed coherency and stability of chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire and posits that identity is neither fixed nor determinate, but socially constructed and contingent on time and context” (140). She cites Judith Butler’s “reading of queer as a category that will always be in the flux of ‘becoming’ in its venture to avoid naturalization and homogenization, and to be disruptive of coherent articulations of sex, gender, and desire” (140-41). “It is from this definition of queer that I wish to read the strategic position and disrupt the subjectivity of ‘researcher,” herising continues. “I want to explore the political potential of queer politics for research and researchers as offering a possible method of traversing thresholds in order to maintain ethical and political affiliations to our research relationships” (141). 

First, herising argues that “like queer theory’s attention to disrupting the normative, the naturalized, and the hegemonic . . . the position of the researcher needs to be similarly deconstructed” (141). In other words, 

queer theory may be used to decentre the very position of the researcher, to renegotiate the elements that “fix” researchers to their identity categories, to question the assumptions of one’s research ideas/methodologies, to consider that which is considered outside the norm of research, and to interrogate the trajectories of power and knowledge in using the margins to define multiple central locations. (141)

This understanding of “queer,” herising continues, “requires a stance that is oppositional; it defies attempts at assimilation, co-optation, exploitation, and appropriation” (141). This “call to adopt an attitude of epistemic uncertainty is paradoxical to what we come to know academically, where claims to know are cherished, where contributions to cultivating specifics of disciplines are notarized to ensure upward mobility, and, above all, where accumulated knowledges provide the credibility that underpins belonging in the academy,” herising writes (141-42). “Queer flexibilities foreground curiosity, and maintain a stance that is willing not only to critically identify and name oppression, but also seek to understand and dismantle the workings and processes of oppression,” she continues. “Allowing for marginal or deviant knowledges requires a dismantling of inherited and cultivated knowledges, and to explore the nuanced spaces of oppression rather than a mere acknowledgment of difference” (142). For herising, “maintaining a queer flexibility is a critical tool in disrupting what and how we know” which positions us “to let difference live” and to “find pleasures in the ambiguities of multifocaled thresholds” (142). “In turn, this openness can create alternative strategies and visions for a radical praxis, where bordered and domesticated claims of knowledge are contested, challenged, decentred in order to engage processes of alteration, regeneration, and transformation,” herising states. “Queer flexibilities incite a desire to find differing thresholds, multiple thresholds so that we continually return to thresholds that disjuncture normative relations” (142). Queer understandings of resistance are “both relational and oppositional,” and suggest that researchers have “a responsibility to dissenting politics” despite institutional or disciplinary pressures (142-43). “Furthermore, in queering one’s research, one needs to resist assimilationist and co-optive strategies exercised by the dominant to ensure that the very strategies that ‘define’ queer (provision and contingent, transdisciplinary, subversive rather than regulatory, and so forth) are not reproduced,” herising argues (143).

Next herising turns to the “ex-centric researcher” (143). This figure “is closely aligned to the conceptual spaces of queer flexibilities,” because “ex-centric researchers stand in defiance of dominant sites of privilege, and are critically engaged in divesting themselves of their centred locations, interests, and agendas” (143). They also “know the value of subjugated knowledges” and “focus on the commitments to relationships and the struggles to create the spaces for ethical dialogue with ‘Others’” (143). “Ex-centrics are those who commit themselves to knowing their history, and the ways in which their histories are constituted through others as one of the precursors to forming politically ethical relationships,” herising continues. “Most saliently, ex-centrics are drawn to standing outside of the centre, embracing the borderlands of various worlds because ex-centrics do not belong to any one world” (143). However, herising is quick to point out that her use of the term “ex-centric” is not intended to “valorize and romanticize the alienation associated with ex-centric subjectivities” (143). Rather, she contends that “[e]x-centricity focuses primarily on process; it is provisional and relational to the borders between various academic sites and communities, and to our own relationship and commitment to our discipline” (143). It is a “process whereby we can interrupt the terms of ‘business as usual’ and disrupt the processes that enable the academy to maintain its exclusion of ideas and knowledges that conflict with existing established knowledges” (143). (I’m starting to get confused about which knowledge is which.) “Becoming ex-centric allows for a critical stance that can challenge the reconfiguration and tightening of borders of exclusion and denial, while building solidarity with and commitment to (O)ther communities/identities/spaces,” herising continues (143).

For herising, the writings of bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, and Edward Said “describe their experience of life in the marginal locations between various axes and nexus of power” (144). She cites hooks’s essay, “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” for its “interplay between struggle and resistance, where she can find the multiple voices and discourses within her” (144). Occupying the margins, herising contends, allows hooks “to occupy where the process of revisioning can occur,” and “[t]he process of decentring and choosing the margin is a radical political act” (144). However, choosing the margins does not mean “occupying marginality”; rather, by “[a]ttending to the transformative potential of the margin, hooks characterizes the space of the margins as a radically open and unfolding subject position” (144). For herising, “hooks offers strategy and the necessity of ex-centricity. She refers to the possibilities of solidarity and collectivity in the fissures between privileged and marginal communities” (145).

Gloria Anzaldúa, on the other hand, “provides a slightly different look at the traits of an ex-centric researcher” by speaking to “the different worlds that she intersects; she is the bridge to cultures and identities to build a new world” (145). That “new world” seems to be defined by borders: “Borderland is the space where one finds comfort in ambiguity and contradiction, where we eschew comfort and safety to making ourselves vulnerable to different ideas, thoughts, and ways of being” (145). (Does one find comfort or eschew it? Can one do both simultaneously?) “To allow ourselves to be vulnerable to shifting means that the space where comfort is found is no longer comfortable; for shifting requires seeing ‘what’ and ‘who’ defines comfort is always historically and politically implicated,” herising continues (145). “The dislodging of hegemonic comfort zones may provide a different lens and require us to forge a different kind of relationship with marginal communities,” and by becoming “an ex-centric,” one may be able “to find the pleasures of possibilities in the struggles of positioning oneself at the intersections of contradictory and disagreeable discourses where there are penalties to be paid, and where transformational possibilities [lie] in creating research that is meaningful and engages social justice” (145).

Finally, in his Reith Lectures at the BBC, Said “talks of the role and representation of intellectuals,” speaking to “this process of ex-centricity through his metaphorical use of the term ‘exile’” (145-46). Of course, for Said “exile” wasn’t just a metaphor; it was literal as well. In any case, herising suggests that Said outlines the advantages of being an exile or an outsider: “this space clarifies the historical processes that shape how things have come to be as they are”; exile also frees the exiled intellectual “from the bonds of conventional measures of intellectualism” (146). This definition, herising, continues, “offers vision and clarity for the queer ex-centric researcher. His proposals for ex-centricity invite curiosity and allow a critical and questioning stance,” while they also “call for risk taking and becoming somewhat comfortable with loneliness, for ex-centricity can often be isolating” (146). To be “ex-centric” is to be “disloyal to the reconstitution and reproduction of hegemonic processes and dominant ideology,” about “engaging with the shortcomings of knowledges and maintaining skepticism of truths borne in knowledge” (146). The use of hooks, Anzaldúa, and Said as examples does help to clarify herising’s argument, but an example of tangible community research would have done more to make her points clear. After all, using theorists to illustrate theory is one thing; using practice to illustrate theory—if practice is the actual goal in this activity—would be something else altogether. Nonetheless, there’s a lot in herising’s essay to think about, and it suggests that I ought to return to hooks’s essay at some point, since the details of its argument are fading from my memory.

Now I have only two essays left to discuss—both on Indigenous methodologies. The first,  which is in part more of a dialogue between its authors than an essay, is “Putting Ourselves Forward: Location in Aboriginal Research,” by Kathy Absolon and Cam Willet. This chapter begins with “one of the most fundamental principles of Aboriginal research methodology”: “the necessity for the researcher to locate him or herself” (97). I immediately found myself wondering if there was any overlap between this notion of location and herising’s “politics of location.” “We are of the opinion that neutrality and objectivity do not exist in research, since all research is conducted and observed through human epistemological lenses,” they write. “Therefore, in this chapter we advocate that location is essential to Indigenous methodologies and Aboriginal research/world view/epistemologies. As Aboriginal researchers, we write about ourselves and position ourselves at the outset of our work because the only thing we can write about with authority is ourselves” (97). That sounds quite limiting, but perhaps that’s because I’m used to a more imperial version of research; it could also be that, since I’m used to writing about literary texts, I’m also used to reading the stories of people who are very different from me, culturally, socially, historically, or geographically. Or it could be because I don’t quite understand the importance of location in Indigenous research methodologies and need to shut up and keep reading. Location is an essential part of research by or about Indigenous peoples, Absolon and Willet continue, since “[t]he actual research cannot take place without the trust of the community, and one way to gain trust is to locate yourself” (97). Although Absolon and Willet are writing “from an Indigenous voice to Indigenous researchers/students,” they suggest that other researchers who see “their position, history, and/or experiences as pivotal to their research process may benefit from it” (97). 

“In our experience as Indigenous peoples, the process of telling a story is as much the point as the story itself,” Absolon and Willet write. “We resist colonial models of writing by talking about ourselves first and then relating pieces of our stories and ideas to the research topic. Rather than revealing the lesson or central point in an epiphany within a key statement, we hope that we have woven our ideas in this chapter within and beyond our dialogue and discourse” (98). So, no thesis statements here: instead, Absolon and Willet state that they “rely on the intelligence and imagination of readers to draw their own interpretations and conclusions about the role and purpose of putting ourselves forward in research” (98). In fact, the repetition of the notion of location indicates what their main point is. Locating oneself “is about relationships to land, language, spiritual, cosmological, political, economical, environmental, and social elements in one’s life,” they continue (98). Absolon identifies herself as an Anishinabe women whose mother lost her status by marrying a non-Indigenous man: “this sets forth the complexities of my political, racial, or cultural location as an Aboriginal women in Canada,” she writes. “I am remembered and I re-member and this makes my existence visible” (98-99). She writes of her experiences in the bush, learning “to search for food, wood, plants, medicines, and animals,” and suggests that “growing up in the bush equipped me with an extraordinary set of research skills” (99). “In my work I often find myself trail-blazing, cutting through ideologies, attitudes, and structures ingrained in Euro-Western thought that can make the path for Aboriginal self-determination difficult, even impassable,” she continues. “I expose people to new ideas and different ways of thinking, being, and doing. I am a visionary with thoughts and dreams about life as an Anishinabe person” (99). The only voice Absolon can represent, she concludes, is her own, and that is where she places herself (99). Like Absolon, Willet’s mother also lost her Indian status by marrying a non-Indigenous man until Bill C-31 changed that odious law. She also survived residential school. He is Cree from Saskatchewan. He remembers growing up on a farm off the reserve and experiencing racism at school. Those experiences left him with many unanswered questions, he writes: “Remembering and reflecting on my experiences as an Aboriginal person is Aboriginal re-search. Through the telling and retelling of my story, I am able to reclaim, revise, and rename it so that I come to a new understanding of it” (101).

However, Absolon and Willet don’t agree about the appropriate answer to the question “Where are you from?” (101). Willet thinks that question is asking about geographical location, but Absolon doesn’t think that community and reserve are synonymous: “I think a reserve is a fabricated and constructed mythology” (101). She believes that the question of origins is about a spiritual identity: “Who you are speaks to your ancestors, When you say who you are, it acknowledges them. It acknowledges them if you have a name that is your spirit name or saying your name in your language also acknowledges who you are in relation to the creator and the spirit because that’s your spirit name” (102). This approach is so different from my connection, or lack of connection, to my own ancestors; it’s one example of how a môniyâw like me will find borrowing or even learning from Indigenous research methodologies difficult.

When Willet meets someone doing research in an Indigenous community, he wonders what that person’s stake in the community might be. “The things I might say depend on whether I believe I am talking to an insider or an outsider,” he says. “I will express views that I think might be shared and see whether they are reflected in the person that I’m talking to. It’s a way of connecting” (102). Researchers should “never make the assumption that our positionality is neutral,” he continues, because Indigenous people and Settlers are not the same (103). Settlers don’t have an Indian Act or experience racist treatment (at least, White Settlers don’t). Absolon agrees:

As a researcher in a community, when I’ve done community-based research and I’ve talked to elders or people in the community about seeking answers or searching for something, I let them know who I am and what my intent is because they are suspicious of people extracting knowledge. We are suspicious of people misrepresenting us. We are suspicious of people who take knowledge and use it and we are suspicious of being exploited and used. That knowledge that we give sometimes gets turned around and used against us. (103)

So Indigenous communities often will not cooperate with Statistics Canada on census data, for instance. Locating oneself as a researcher helps the community know “that the reason you’re collecting information is to make things better, that hopefully there will be an outcome that will be useful to the community in some way” (103). Having a personal stake in that research, Willet offers, suggests that a researcher is less likely to abuse the knowledge they acquire.

For Absolon, “saying who we are and where we come from is just part of something that’s always been done”: “It’s putting ourselves forward. It is part of your honour and your respect not only for yourself, but for your whole family, your nation, your clan, your genealogy. It’s respect for who you’re addressing, or who you’re talking to, or who you’re representing. It lets people know your relatedness” (104). All of this tells people how you are invested in your research. Willet agrees; he suggests that the assumption that people can do research on topics that are not connected to them personally is impossible: “if you have no stake in a subject, I don’t see how you can do an adequate job of researching that topic” (104). Ethical research, Absolon suggests, is about being connected to or positioned in the research. Willet agrees: “I believe that it is unethical to do research in which you have no stake whatsoever—no interest, no personal connection with, no reason other than your training as a scientist. You need to have some reason for doing it” (104). And you need to be able to articulate that reason as well (104-05).

Absolon suggests that anthropological accounts of Indigenous practices are often inaccurate and biased because the researchers lack “a cultural lens upon which to base their research, or the kind of authority of knowledge to study Aboriginal peoples” (105). For Willet, a researcher without a personal stake in the topic won’t care “what the answer to the question is. They collect the data without any understanding of its context and without any personal connection or stake in the data. They make no attempt to guess what the stories collected in a study might mean to the people who tell them” (105). He suggests that creation stories are an example; anthropologists often dismiss these “as some sort of superstitious myth” (105). However, according to Absolon, “[p]art of the point of Indigenous research methodology is to take ownership of our own language, so taking language from mainstream research and plopping it in here is not what we should be doing. We need to speak from our own position and in our own voice. Sometimes we recreate” (105). Willet suggests that locating oneself means not speaking for anyone else: “It’s just my view and this is who I am” (105). 

This section of the chapter ends with a suggestion that this dialogue was intended “to model and convey some initial ideas upon which to base further discussions,” and that the key themes in it are “remembering, community, ownership, representation, and connection” (106). The next section “expands on the ideas we discussed and challenges us to unlearn colonial research agendas and processes” (106). Absolon and Willet note that the work of other Indigenous researchers has “encouraged us to turn around, to look back, and to rethink the language, terms, and methods we employ in research” (106). They use the prefix “re-” “to divide issues into different sections as we examine the purpose of location in Indigenous research, thus serving the larger purpose of rehumanizing research, which is to foster a knowledge creation process that takes into account the underlying and often hidden factors of the researcher and producer of knowledge” (106). “‘Re’ means to redo; to look twice, and is the teaching of respect in the West direction of the Medicine Wheel,” they argue. “In our dialogue and through our process of considering knowledge creation and research, we found ourselves inadvertently returning to the notions of respectful representations, revising, reclaiming, renaming, remembering, reconnecting, recovering, and researching” (108). “All of these ideas are associated with looking again to uncover, unlearn, recover and relearn how and why location is a fundamental principle of Indigenous research,” they continue (108).

First, though, the next section returns to the issue of location in Indigenous research. Location is central to Indigenous research methodology, because, first, “researching Aboriginal knowledge and Aboriginal peoples without the consent of the Aboriginal community is unethical” and tends to lead to misrepresentations and exploitation (106). For that reason, Indigenous communities “are no longer content to be passive objects of ‘scientific’ study, but demand to know who is doing the research and for what purposes” (107). Indigenous communities and cultural research protocols demand to know “three basic things”: “(1) Who is doing the research?; (2) How is the research being done?; and (3) What purpose does the research serve to the community?” (107). Researchers “must be prepared to explain who they are and what interest they have in the proposed research before they are allowed to proceed” (107).

Second, “location helps to offset existing unbalanced scholarship about Aboriginal peoples” (107). “If location were a more widely used component of Aboriginal research methodology, readers would be more easily able to distinguish between authors who have a vested interest in the research and those who do not,” they suggest (107). Third, since “one of the roles of ethical Aboriginal research is to eradicate ethnocentrism in the writing of Aboriginal history and representation,” and since they believe “that research conducted from a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ location is Eurocentric” and therefore unethical, revealing one’s “epistemological location at the outset through a brief introductory autobiography” is a way of avoiding “[e]thnocentric writing” (107). And, finally, “research in Aboriginal circles” is not just about the end result, but the research process as well (107). “Aboriginal research methodologies are as much about process as they are about product,” they contend. “It is in the process of conducting research that the researcher engages the community to share knowledge, recreation, and work” (107). The final research product is “always secondary to the community benefitting from the process, and in order for this process to happen, the researchers must locate themselves” (107). Besides, locating oneself is a way to gain the trust of the community, without which research will not be able to take place (107).

The next section discusses respectful representations. “To look twice is to practise respect,” Absolon and Willet begin. “Respect calls upon us to consider how we are represented by others, the expectations that others have of us, and how we represent ourselves” (108). The representations of Indigenous peoples in university curricula are disrespectful, as are those in popular culture. “To various degrees, we all struggle to free ourselves from the colonial beliefs and values that have been ingrained in us,” they write. “Throughout the world such ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ research has been used to justify the oppression and genocide of the Other for the good of humankind” (108-09). “As we mirror and model ourselves after one another in search of our true identity,” they continue, “we form a framework for how we think we should be” (109). “When we self-locate, we represent our own truths. We represent our own reality,” they state, noting that Indigenous people tend to speak only about “their own experiences and opinions,” representing only themselves (109-10). To speak for someone else would be considered “arrogant, audacious, and disrespectful” in an Indigenous community (110). However, “[s]tating at the outset that you speak only for yourself . . . means who you do not represent or speak for,” and “[i]n terms of representation, location as a research methodology is ethical,” because it “brings ownership and responsibility to the forefront. When researchers own who or what they represent, they also reveal what they do not represent” (110).

“The concept of representation is significant because it leaves an imprint of what is true,” Absolon and Willet write, suggesting that “[l]ocation brings to the forefront both our commonalities and our distinctiveness,” emphasizing the diversity among Indigenous peoples (110). “There are many facets that make us who we are. To be accurate, our representations must take into account cultural and colonial histories and contexts,” they continue. “We must consider who we are relationally, interracially, intergenerationally, geographically, physically, spiritually, politically, and economically” (110). “[I]it is no simple task to represent ourselves respectfully,” they note:

Locating oneself is as lively and active as Aboriginal reality today. Each time we locate ourselves, our representations change and, depending on the context in which we locate, we may or may not emphasize certain aspects of our realities. Yet, as we locate, we must still account for the relative aspects of who we are and thus represent ourselves accordingly and distinctly. Location will not simply be about your name or where you are from, but will reflect more of a dynamic and transformative representation. (110)

One’s self-representation changes over time, “and thus our locations become dynamic” (110). But for Indigenous scholars, “knowing that location is transformative, is challenged in academia and in written research because academia is dominantly based in written text and print,” while “Indigenous knowledge and culture is dynamic—ever flowing, adaptable, and fluid. In a truly transformative research process, opinions, thoughts, ideas, and theories are in constant flux” (110-11). The printed word, though, “is one-dimensional, permanent, and fixed, a snapshot of a single moment in time” (111). For that reason, location, for Indigenous scholars, “becomes a crucial means of contextualizing their lens and reference points in a given time. Location is transformed as our lenses, perceptions, understandings, and knowledge are transformed” (111). But aren’t such changes typical of non-Indigenous scholars as well? Don’t we change our minds about things? I’m confused by this argument. In any case, Absolon and Willet conclude that “[i]t is better to locate relevant and distinct aspects of oneself rather than to make broad general statements. Location forms the basis of representation and is integral to writing and representing oneself with respect. When we look twice, we create our own checks and balances regarding respectful representation” (111).

The next section, “Re-Vising,” begins by stating that “[a]ny illumination of past, present, and future First Nations conditions demands a complete deconstruction of the history and application of colonial and racist ideology and, most importantly, of the impact (personal and political) of racism” (111). In other words, “we need to know how we got into the mess we’re in” (111). Writing about Indigenous peoples by non-Indigenous authors reveals more about their own ideological perspectives—“patriarchy, paternalism, racism, White supremacy, fear, ignorance, and ethnocentrism” (111)—than it does about Indigenous peoples (111). After suggesting that one shouldn’t speak in generalities, that’s quite a whopper of a generality, isn’t it? Decolonization of Indigenous peoples’ minds, hearts, bodies, and spirits is necessary, and the first step is “an analysis of colonization” (111). “Thus, recontextualizing and revising Aboriginal experiences, events, and history can help us make sense of our reality,” they write. “Location in research has a role as we revise and recontextualize our past, present, and future” (111-12). Location, in fact, “means that we begin by stating who we are and we revise this statement over and over again” as new information is retrieved (112). Location is therefore iterative: 

We locate ourselves differently at various points in our lives. As our recovery from colonialism progresses, we speak about our past and present experiences with more awareness, understanding, and knowledge, and we revise the stories of our lives. Revision through location is essential and integral to our recovery process. We will tell our stories one way today, then revise and retell them tomorrow. The means by which we locate may also be revised. Sometimes we locate with song, dance, or story or we locate using ceremony, language, or tradition. . . . Location as a cultural protocol provides us with an important opportunity to revise our self-concept and the way in which we present ourselves. (112)

I would suggest that it’s not only Indigenous people who can revise their stories based on experience. I wouldn’t speak about myself today the same way I did five or ten years ago. I wouldn’t have been able to give the paper I just gave at the “Walking’s New Movements” conference at the University of Plymouth five years ago, for instance. I didn’t understand my location within settler colonialism then, but my sense of that location is much clearer now. The reading I’ve been doing for the past 8 months is part of that clarity.

The next section is “Re-Claiming: Avoiding the Extraction of Knowledge.” Location is a way to reclaim one’s position, Absolon and Willet suggest, and such reclaiming “creates space for Aboriginal authors to name who they are and to claim their location in relation to their research topic” (112-13):

Aboriginal peoples must now say who we are directly and proudly, in the glory of our traditional regalia, songs, ceremonies, and languages and in the reality of contemporary issues. In reclaiming our location we assert our presence and power to define ourselves. By asserting our presence we refuse to be relics of the past. In defining ourselves we establish authority over our own knowledge. Thus, we begin to counter knowledge extraction and define our location in our own reality. (113)

“Claiming your personal space within your research and writing counters objectivity and neutrality with subjectivity, credibility, accountability, and humanity,” they continue. “We will no longer be the subjects of objective study; we are the subjects of our own knowledge creation. When we claim our location, we become congruent with Indigenous world views and knowledge, thus transforming our place within research” (113). For Settlers, perhaps, such practices of location are diminishing: without the pretence of neutral or objective knowledge, Settler researchers no longer can claim to speak for everyone everywhere. For some, that would feel like a diminishment, I’m sure.

“The writing of Indigenous knowledge is a delicate topic,” Absolon and Willet continue, suggesting that some of that knowledge should not be published (113). At the same time, there is a necessity to counter racist stereotypes and images produced by popular culture and school curricula (113). Given the power of such misrepresentations, Indigenous writers must be careful about publishing knowledge which can then be taken to feed the cultural misrepresentation machine: “Considerations such as cultural protocol, sacredness, oral traditions, copyright, and ownership all must be factored into deciding what Indigenous knowledge goes into text. However, as we record our own Indigenous histories, stories, and experiences via location, we reclaim ourselves” (113-14).

In the following section, “Re-Naming Research in Our Own Language,” Absolon and Willet begin by noting that the word “research” has a terrible meaning in Indigenous communities, because that’s how “knowledge has been misrepresented and extracted” (114). “The word ‘research’ has too much racist and colonial baggage attached to it to be used in an Indigenous context,” they continue. “If we are to gather and share knowledge in an Indigenous way, we must find new words to liberate and decolonize our processes for doing so” (114). They suggest “gathering and sharing knowledge” as an alternative (114). Another issue has to do with the use of English rather than Indigenous languages. In order to express themselves, they suggest that they have to break the rules and structures of the English language, to invent new words or use old words in new ways: “We must use the English language in a way that is congruent with Indigenous experiences and cultures” (114). “We need to transcend the rules and limitations of the English language to make it work for us as Indigenous peoples,” they continue, suggesting the work of Peter Cole, who apparently eschews paragraphs, chapters, and punctuation, as an example (115). “Ultimately, we know that the meaning of our words will often be overlooked or misunderstood not only because there is no adequate way to express our meaning in English, but also because many people lack the epistemological framework to understand it,” they conclude. “Yet it is a burden we must accept as we forge the sword of research into an implement that works for Indigenous peoples” (115).

The next section, “Re-Membering,” begins by suggesting that “remember” can mean either to recall or to reconnect (115). The process of locating oneself “establishes connection through memory” and also “re-members us with our ancestors and with our Nations” (115). They suggest that thinking of research as a “‘learning circle’” will generate “information sharing, connections,” “build capacity,” and seek “balance and healing” (116). “A learning circle also facilitates the remembering process and re-membering of individual experiences into a collective knowing and consciousness” through facilitating reconnection (116). They also suggest that memory isn “more than a mental process of recalling facts, experiences, and information”: there is “[p]hysical or body memory,” “[s]ensory memory,” “[s]piritual memory,” and “[e]motional memory” (116-17). “Location within the research process is essentially both remembering who we are and ‘re-membering’ within our Nations,” they conclude. “Indigenous researchers, we believe, research to remember and re-member” (117).

In the next section, “Re-Connecting,” Absolon and Willet note that “[c]olonization and genocide have disconnected Aboriginal peoples from our natural contexts,” and that “[c]ontextual validation makes our reality, experiences, and existence as Aboriginal peoples visible” (117). The need for contextual validation pushes Indigenous researchers to make “transformative changes in research processes and practices,” changes which are shifts in context (117). “As we (Aboriginal peoples) put our knowledge, experiences, and world views into written text, we must do so in connection to our communities (whoever, whatever, or wherever they may be,” they write. “Location in research authenticates relations within community” (118). That means working within communities (118). “Location exposes the researchers’ current context as details about the researchers such as where they are from, their race and gender, who they are connected to, and what their research intentions are become revealed,” they continues. “We take the position here that it is impossible to conduct valid and ethical research about Aboriginal peoples without locating because location asserts the identity of the writer and the importance of the research” (118). As an Indigenous research methodology, location “is one way to ensure that researchers of Aboriginal peoples and Aboriginal knowledge are connected with and accountable to the Aboriginal community”—and to “non-Aboriginal communities” as well (118). “Putting yourself forward as a researcher tells the community whether or not you are connected and committed to those you are researching,” and it also “makes the research ethical and accountable” by reconnecting “the research to self and to the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community” (118-19).

Next, in “Re-Covering,” Absolon and Willet suggest that “[i]n recovering our truths, we have a responsibility to uncover and realize our historicity,” meaning their “historical truth” (119). The recovery of truth “is evident in how, what, when, and where a person locates himself or herself” (119). This is a process of becoming conscious, of understanding one’s own experience, or realizing that “there are many truths and that within the collective Indigenous experience there are many individual diversities” (119). “Recovering, accepting, and becoming proud of who we are as we tell and retell our individual stories is a difficult challenge,” they write. “Yet location is essential to the recovery of our individual and collective experiences and identities as Indigenous peoples because it honours individual diversity and recovery of self from internalized colonialism, racism, and oppression” (119-20). 

“Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers today who tackle any facet of Indigenous study must have a critical analysis of colonialism and an understanding of Western scientific research as a mechanism of colonization,” Absolon and Willet state:

For location to be insightful and conscious, a critical analysis is required among all researchers. . . . we need to be able to re-examine, question, contemplate, and comprehend how research has been used to reinforce racist notions of evolutionary thought and how research has therefore justified and legitimized genocide in policy and action. Only when we have decolonized ourselves can we recover, contemplate, and envision ways in which research can be used to eradicate racism and lift the oppression. The answers, our Elders tell us, are in our Indigenous knowledges, cultures, and ways. (120)

More is expected of Indigenous researchers, because they must master both Indigenous epistemologies as well as “Euro-Western world views” and “have the ability to critically examine Western research methods and to develop methods that will work within Indigenous paradigms” (120). They must also “have knowledge of the cultural context, protocols, and issues within which we are researching” (120). (Surely both points are true of non-Indigenous researchers working in Indigenous communities?) “Because colonization has attempted to erase our roots, ancestors, and traditions, we must work hard to recover all that we can,” they continue, and they “cannot trust non-Aboriginal researchers to record the stories of our creation and our survival” (121). “Indigenous researchers today are hard at work recovering stories, songs, histories, experiences, ancestors, traditions, and cultural identities,” they continue. “And location is a critical part of our recovering process. When it comes to the research of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge, to be ethical and diligent researchers, we must reveal the lenses that each of us, as human beings, look through” (121).

The penultimate section of the chapter, “Re-Search Methods: Affirming Indigenous Paths,” begins by noting the uniqueness and diversity of Indigenous realities, and suggests that “expressing these realities demands creativity and innovation”: “styles of writing such as narrative, self-location, subjective text, poetry, and storytelling . . . better reflect Aboriginal realities than do academic prose” (121). (I’m always dubious about social scientists—Indigenous or non-Indigenous—who have never written poetry or studied the form using poetry to convey their research results. Writing poetry is more demanding than they realize, I think. Visual artists might say the same about social scientists who decide to paint or sculpt their results.) Moreover, “[r]esistance to colonizing research methods involves envisioning and utilizing research methods that better reflect Indigenous world views,” which will “help build a foundation for the ongoing development of Indigenous cultural knowledge production in a pattern that is congruent with Indigenous ways of knowing” (122). 

Finally, in “Location Equals Contextual Validation” begins with this statement: “It is time that academics recognize the validity of research processes that account for the influence of the researcher’s reality and experience. Locating self in research brings forward this reality” (123). “Aboriginal Elders and communities expect researchers to foster a knowledge creation process that accounts for many variables, including epistemological, cultural, colonial, historical, and contemporary contexts of both the researched and the researcher,” they continue. “It is putting ourselves forward that establishes these contexts, guides the research process, and determines research outcomes. Research outcomes, in turn, affect policy, programming, practice, and societal perceptions” (123). “In short,” they write, “location is good protocol for research methodology because it accounts for the context of the researcher” (123). The research becomes transformative, they continue, “both for the researched and researcher as individual stories are told and retold,” and locating oneself “ensures that individual realities are not misrepresented as generalizable collectives” (123). “Gathering and sharing Indigenous knowledge requires pride in self, family, community, culture, nation, identity, economy, and governance,” they conclude; “it requires courage to resist the rules and rigours of the dominant culture; and it requires faith that change can be made for the betterment of society as a whole, qualities that ought to be reflected in the location of the researcher” (123). All of those qualities are valuable and important, but I think it’s important not to set the bar too high for researchers. What about those who lack pride or who struggle with faith or are sometimes frightened? Are they to be excluded from scholarship because they are not paragons? Or is that a stupid question to ask?

In “Honouring The Oral Traditions of My Ancestors Through Storytelling,” Qwul’sih’yah’maht / Robina Anne Thomas focuses on, not surprisingly, storytelling and oral traditions. “Traditionally, storytelling played an essential role in nurturing and educating First Nations children,” she writes (237). These stories, which might seem insignificant, are important: “they are vital to the survival of First Nations peoples’ (238). These stories “leave us with a sense of purpose, pride, and give us guidance and direction—these are stories of survival and resistance” (238). For Thomas, storytelling is a research methodology.

Thomas talks about how she learned about residential schools by hearing stories about them. She also listens to stories told by her grandmothers: “Grama tells me about the cultural and traditional rights that I inherited through my family. I have the inherent right to have Sxwaixwe, or masked dancers, at all dances our family hosts. This is our most sacred ceremony, which is passed down through familial rights” (240-41). Her grandmother also tells her about the meanings of names (241). “Amma’s stories teach about conservation—taking, using, and throwing out only what is necessary,” she continues. “She taught me about taking care of Mother Earth long before anyone else” (241). Such stories “include important teachings that pass down historical facts, share culture and traditions, and life lessons. Traditionally, stories and storytelling were used for the same reasons—to teach values, beliefs, morals, history, and life skills to youth and adults” (241). Storytelling also taught “about resistance to colonialism” (241). “All stories have something to teach us,” Thomas writes. “What is most important is to learn to listen, not simply hear, the words that storytellers have to share. Many stories from First Nations tell a counter-story to that of the documented history of First Nations in Canada” (241).

“Most First Nations peoples traditionally come from an oral society,” Thomas states, and storytelling, as a methodology, “honours that tradition and the Ancestors (242). She feels that “storytelling enables us to keep the teachings of our Ancestors, culture, and tradition alive throughout the entire research process” (242). She is afraid of documenting those stories, however; taping storytellers is a foreign concept (242). “But as with everything, times change and in order for First Nations to have their voices heard, they have had to adapt and write down their experiences, while at the same time trying to maintain their stories,” particularly their “counter-stories” (242). “The beauty of storytelling is that it allows storytellers to use their own voices and tell their own stories on their own terms,” she continues (242). These stories are not merely supplementary material used to support other forms of research; nor are they illegitimate because they are subjective or biased (242-43). 

Thomas tells the story of how she received her traditional name in 1998. The process was documented by witnesses from other communities, but that documentation, traditionally, was not written down. “I am suggesting that the level of complexity and sophistication in which major events were witnessed in our communities demands that these oral histories and stories be reconceptualized and viewed as primary sources,” she writes. (244). At the same time, however, “[s]torytelling provides an opportunity for First Nations to have their histories documented and included in the written records. In other words, storytelling revises history by naming in including their experience” (244). For Thomas, listening to storytellers is “incredibly comforting and respectful. I believe that storytelling respects and honours people while simultaneously documenting their reality” (244).

“Storytelling has a holistic nature as how the story is told is up to the storytellers—they will tell the story the way they want,” Thomas continues. “Storytellers may opt to share their culture and tradition (spiritual), how events made them feel (emotional), what things looked like, or how they physically felt (physical), or how this affected their ways of knowing and being (mental)” (245). Storytellers can include what they want to include in their stories—what they think is important (245). “Storytelling uncovers new ways of knowing,” she writes (245). But researchers have to be “open to what the storytellers deem as important about their experience” (245). Listening to people tell stories is not the same as interviewing, a word that “denotes structuring from the researcher” (245). “I knew that if I asked specific questions, I would get specific answers,” Thomas writes. “What would happen if I asked the wrong questions? What would my research look like? It would answer only the questions I asked and as such I would be structuring the process. I was not the expert; the storytellers were and I was the learner, listener, recorder, and facilitator” (245-46).

When Thomas met her research participants, “the process was more storytelling in nature and interactive than questions and answers. The dialogues actually came to be only a part of the process. The relationship that transpired between the storytellers and me became very fluid” (246). She describes her process as one of “multiple dialogic interviews,” but “there were many conversations during which I recorded and listened to the various stories of particular storytellers with little interaction other than the occasional ‘ahh,’ ‘really,’ ‘wow,’ ‘ha ha ha,’ and looks (I am sure) of disbelief” (246). Most of the dialogues took place before and after the recording: “There was no need for me to question during the stories” (247). “The unstructured dialogical nature of the interviews enhanced the collection of stories,” she continues, noting that the storytelling was an iterative process:

Initially, storytellers openly shared the ‘easy’ parts of their stories—that is, the parts of their stories that they felt safe discussing. Then, at each of the subsequent interviews, the storytellers returned to where they left off, and set out on their journey into the more dangerous, less explored territory of their experience. . . . It was after the second interview that the fluid nature of the process began. After beginning the exploration into the unexplored territory, the storytellers were often inundated with memory, feelings, thoughts, etc. At this point I began to receive phone calls at home. On one occasion, a storyteller phoned and asked me to come over that evening and tape-record; he was ready to tell more stories. (247)

“I strongly believe that the flexible and personal nature of my research supported the storytellers during their process of sharing,” she continues (247). Before carrying out any interviews or recording any stories, Thomas met with the storytellers individually and explained “the purpose, nature, and intended outcome of the research,” and got the informed consent form signed (248). “From this point on, the storytellers took the lead role,” she writes. “I met with them when and where they wanted and for the length of time they determined” (248). 

“As I had chosen storytelling as my methodology, how the stories were perceived, documented, and written was a crucial point,” Thomas writes. “It was imperative that the stories remained the storytellers’ stories and did not become mine. My story needed to remain separate” (248). Early in the process she realized her power to shape the final work, but she “was determined to authentically represent the voices of the storytellers” rather than her own (248). She gave transcriptions to the storytellers to check their accuracy. “Only then did I begin to formulate stories,” she continues. “As I drafted the stories, these too were passed back and forth between the storytellers and me” (248). “This process was incredibly difficult as the transcription was not a single story told from beginning to end, but the many stories that had shaped their lives,” Thomas states. “My task was to compile all the stories into one story while at the same time not losing the intent of the many stories. I had to, in fact, find the story to tell” (248). That process “was more difficult than I ever anticipated,” she writes (248). “As much as possible, throughout the story-writing process, I used the words of the storytellers directly from the transcripts,” Thomas continues. “When I had to write a transition statement or statements, I would ask myself what words they use when they make a transition. These were areas in the stories that I would highlight and ask them to pay particular attention to” (248-49). Another struggle was deciding what to include and what to exclude. “It was very difficult to make the decision to cut a piece of the transcript from the story,” Thomas states, and when she did so, it was always in consultation with the storytellers themselves (249). The process, she continues, “should be a struggle—as researchers, we have the power to shape the lives of the storytellers and this issue should be taken seriously” (249).

Thomas struggled with the notion of how to do this work “with a good mind and a good heart” (249). She had a responsibility to the storytellers, as a witness to their stories, and therefore had to ensure that she paid attention to their words and their lives (249). Respecting and honouring what they had to say was her “most important ethical responsibility” (249). “I had to ensure that while I was storytelling, I simultaneously respected and honoured the storytellers,” she continues (249). Before the research process began, she had though that informed consent and confidentiality would be her most important ethical concerns, and her “participants were involved in all stages of the research,” while many of them wanted their names attached to their stories (249-50). At the same time, she encountered ethical issues she had not expected. She found listening to the stories of residential school experiences to be emotionally draining (250-51). “I learned to pay particular attention to the time necessary to heal between interviews and then to prepare for the next,” she writes (251). She also had to be aware of the pain her participants experienced as they told their stories. However, that problem was resolved when two of the storytellers contacted her after particularly difficult interviews: “Both of them shared the agony they had gone through with the interview, but also the lightness they felt after going back to that place and telling about what really happened. So the research would go on” (251). Sharing the stories was healing, even if it was difficult for both teller and listener (251). Thomas also felt a responsibility to her Ancestors, she writes: “what does it really mean to say that the reason I have chosen storytelling as my research methodology is because it honours the oral traditions of my Ancestors?” (251).

However, writing her thesis proved to be very difficult: the stories and the “traditional academic process” that shaped the rest of her thesis were not connected. “The message I received from the Creator and my Ancestors was that I was not to use words that justified an academic process of meeting my thesis requirements, but to believe in and use the integrity of a storytelling approach throughout the thesis,” she writes. “As such, my final thesis was many interconnected stories—no beginning and no end, but rich with teachings and gifts” (252). After all, storytelling was (and still is) a teaching tool, as well as a tool of resistance (252). “Many of us have stories in our families that have never been shared,” Thomas writes. “This in part is another impact of colonization. Stories and legends were our culture and tradition, and over the years these rituals were banned through legislation and then enforced and entrenched through residential schools” (252-53). Collecting and sharing those stories is necessary to “pass these teachings on to our future generations” (253). 

“I never dreamed of learning what I learned,” Thomas concludes. “Storytelling, despite all the struggles, enabled me to respect and honour the Ancestors and the storytellers while at the same time sharing tragic, traumatic, inhumanly unbelievable truths that our people had lived. It was this level of integrity that was essential to storytelling” (253). However, Thomas does not consider herself a storytelling expert; she is, rather, a “storyteller-in-training” (253). She intends to “continue the rigorous path required to train as I see the countless gifts and teaching that storytelling has to offer each of us” (253). Storytelling touches people “in a different and more profound way” by making what she teaches personal (253). “[W]e can see how important stories are—they bring the past, the future, and present together for now and for the next seven generations” (253). 

There is a lot in this book, even in the handful of chapters I read, and I can’t pretend I understand it all. What I ought to do, if I intend to borrow from Indigenous methodologies in my research, is continue to learn about them, and more importantly, try to understand the limitations to such borrowing. I do locate myself when I talk about my work, although not as thoroughly as Absolon and Willet would advocate—at least, I did so in the last two conference papers I gave—and I do agree with Thomas that storytelling is powerful as a form of learning and of resistance. (But I would, wouldn’t I? I’ve been teaching literature for 30 years.) And yet there are aspects of their discussions of Indigenous methodologies that I think are unavailable to me. That’s fine; perhaps being an “ex-centric” researcher, according to herising’s definition, means being in a position where not everything fits, where not everything makes sense. That seems to be more than likely.

Works Cited

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

Brown, Leslie, and Susan Strega, eds. Research As Resistance: Critical, Indigenous, and Anti-oppressive Approaches, Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2005.

Kovach, Margaret. Indigenous Methodologies: Characteristics, Conversations, and Contexts, University of Toronto Press, 2009.

106. Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized

albert memmi

Albert Memmi’s 1957 book Portrait du Colonisé précedé du Portrait du Colonisateur was first published in an English edition in 1965. Memmi was Tunisian, and since Tunisia was then a French colony, although one engaged in a struggle for liberation, he was one of the colonized. “I discovered that few aspects of my life and my personality were untouched by this fact,” he writes of being colonized in the book’s preface. “Not only my own thoughts, my passions and my conduct, but also the conduct of others towards me was affected” (viii). For this reason, he continues, “I undertook this inventory of conditions of colonized people mainly in order to understand myself and to identify my place in the society of other men. It was my readers—not all of them Tunisian—who later convinced me that this portrait was equally theirs” (viii). What Memmi was writing about “was the fate of a vast multitude across the world” (viii-ix). But The Colonizer and the Colonized goes beyond a description of colonized people:

The colonial relationship which I had tried to define chained the colonizer and the colonized into an implacable dependence, molded their respective characters and dictated their conduct. Just as there was an obvious logic in the reciprocal behavior of the two colonial partners, another mechanism, proceeding from the first, would lead, I believed, inexorably to the decomposition of this dependence. (ix)

It’s clear how Memmi could write about the colonized, since he would be drawing from his experience, but how could he understand the colonizer? “I know the colonizer from the inside almost as well as I know the colonized,” he writes (xiii), noting that even though he was Tunisian, he was Jewish, not Muslim, and the Jewish community in Tunisia “passionately endeavoured to identify themselves with the French,” thereby gaining some minor, “laughable” privileges (xiv). “The Jewish population identified as much with the colonizers as with the colonized,” he writes, and because of this ambivalence, he understood “the contradictory emotions which swayed their lives” (xiv). “All of this explains why the portrait of the colonizer was in part my own—projected in a geometric sense,” he continues (xv).

So Memmi’s book describes the colonized, but it is also a description of the colonizer, of the relationship between colonizer and colonized, and the process of decolonization; and Memmi relies on his own experience as a colonized person as the source of his understanding of these. Indeed, writing this book helped him to understand his experience. “The sum of events which I had lived since childhood, often incoherent and contradictory on the surface, began to fall into dynamic patterns,” he writes (x): 

I needed to put some sort of order into the chaos of my feelings and to form a basis for my future actions. By temperament and education I had to do this in a disciplined manner, following the consequences as far as possible. If I had not gone all the way, trying to find coherence in all these diverse facts, reconstructing them into portraits which were answerable to one another, I could not have convinced myself and would have remained dissatisfied with my effort. I saw, then, what help to fighting men the simple, ordered description of their misery and humiliation could be. I saw how explosive the objective relation to the colonized and colonizer of an essentially explosive condition could be. (x)

As I read these words, I wondered if after 60 years Memmi’s insights still have value, and if they might be applied to settler colonialism as it exists in Canada. The answer: yes, I think they can.

In his introduction to the book, published in the 1957 edition, Jean-Paul Sartre writes that it “establishes some strong truths”:

First of all, that there are neither good nor bad colonists: there are colonialists. Among these, some reject their objective reality. Borne along by the colonialist apparatus, they do everyday in reality what they condemn in fantasy, for all their actions contribute to the maintenance of oppression. They will change nothing and will serve no one, but will succeed only in finding moral comfort in malaise. (xxv-xxvi)

Doesn’t that describe those of us who reject the premises of settler colonialism but are nonetheless caught in the position of colonizer? Those colonizers, Sartre continues, deny “the title of humanity” to the colonized, which isn’t difficult, “for the system deprives them”—that is, the colonized—“of everything” (xvi):

Thus oppression justifies itself through oppression: the oppressors produce and maintain by force the evils that render the oppressed, in their eyes, more and more what they would have to be like to deserve their fate. The colonizer can only exonerate himself in the systematic pursuit of the “dehumanization” of the colonized by identifying himself a little more each day with the colonialist apparatus. Terror and exploitation dehumanize, and the exploiter authorizes himself with that dehumanization to carry his exploitation further. The engine of colonialism turns in a circle; it is impossible to distinguish between its praxis and objective necessity. (xvi-xvii)

Thus, at some level, Canadians must not think that First Nations deserve clean drinking water, to take one egregious example, because they don’t already have clean drinking water. They must think that First Nations children deserve to be apprehended by social services at astonishing rates, because they can be apprehended by social services. At the end of his introduction, Sartre suggests that the colonizer regards the humanity in others “everywhere as his enemy. To handle this, the colonizer must assume the opaque rigidity and imperviousness of stone. In short, he must dehumanize himself, as well” (xxviii). Doesn’t that describe our federal government’s continuing behaviour towards First Nations, despite its fine words about reconciliation? Hasn’t it become dehumanized by denying the humanity of others? “A relentless reciprocity binds the colonizer to the colonized—his product and his fate,” Sartre continues, and yet colonialism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, because “[t]he excluded human beings will affirm their exclusivity in national selfhood. Colonialism creates the patriotism of the colonized” (xxviii). These are some of the insights Sartre has gleaned from his reading of Memmi’s work. But what have I learned from it?

Memmi begins the book’s first part, “Portrait of the Colonizer,” in the book’s first chapter, “Does the colonial exist?,” with the mythical image of this creature as “laboring selflessly for mankind, attending the sick, and spreading culture to the nonliterate,” a pose of “a noble adventurer” or “a righteous pioneer” (3). That image is belied by the economic motives of colonization, he continues: “The cultural and moral mission of a colonizer, even in the beginning, is no longer tenable” (3). Why do Europeans move to colonies? The reason, Memmi suggests, is simple: the colony is “a place where one earns more and spends less” (4). “You go to a colony because jobs are guaranteed, wages high, careers more rapid and business more profitable,” he suggests (4). Yet, despite finding life in the colony profitable, Memmi continues, “the colonizer has nevertheless not yet become aware of the historic role which will be his. He is lacking one step in understanding his new status; he must also understand the origin and significance of this profit” (7). That understanding is not long in coming: “For how long could he fail to see the misery of the colonized and the relation of that misery to his own comfort? He realizes that this easy profit is so great only because it is wrested from others. In short, he finds two things in one: he discovers the existence of the colonizer as he discovers his own privilege” (7). Thus the European living in the colony 

finds himself on one side of a scale, the other side of which bears the colonized man. If his living standards are high, it is because those of the colonized are low; if he can benefit from plentiful and undemanding labor and servants, it is because the colonized can be exploited at will and are not protected by the laws of the colony; if he can easily obtain administrative positions, it is because they are reserved for him and the colonized are excluded from them; the more freely he breathes, the more the colonized are choked. (8)

It is impossible, Memmi continues, for the colonial “not to be aware of the constant illegitimacy of his status,” a “double illegitimacy,” since by coming to the colony, “he has succeeded not merely in creating a place for himself but also in taking away that of the inhabitant, granting himself astounding privileges to the detriment of those rightfully entitled to them” (9). The colonized, of course, recognize this fact, but Memmi argues that the colonizer does as well: “he knows, in his own eyes as well as those of his victim, that he is a usurper. He must adjust to both being regarded as such, and to this situation” (9).

Memmi now sets out “a convenient terminology” which distinguishes between “a colonial, a colonizer and the colonialist” (10). A colonial, he suggests, “is a European living in a colony but having no privileges, whose living conditions are not higher than those of a colonized person of equivalent economic and social status” (10). However, such a creature “does not exist, for all Europeans in the colonies are privileged” (10). Such privilege is relative, he continues: “To different degrees every colonizer is privileged, at least comparatively so, ultimately to the detriment of the colonized” (11). All Europeans in the colony are thus colonizers or colonialists. The courts will be more lenient on the colonizer than the colonized; it will be easier for the colonizer to get help from the government; jobs will be more available. “Can he be so blind or so blinded that he can never see that, given equal material circumstances, economic class or capabilities, he always receives preferential treatment?” Memmi asks. “How could he help looking back from time to time to see all the colonized, sometimes former schoolmates or colleagues, whom he has so greatly outpaced?” (12). The colonizer “need only show his face to be prejudged favorably by those in the colony who count” (12). 

Other groups in the colony—“those who are neither colonizers nor colonized,” such as (in Tunisia) Jews, Maltese, Corsicans, Italians—are “candidates for assimilation” or “the recently assimilated,” will receive “small crumbs” of privilege which “contribute toward differentiating them—substantially separating them from the colonized” (13). “To whatever extent favored as compared to the colonized masses, they tend to establish relationships of the colonizer-colonized nature,” Memmi argues. “At the same time, not corresponding to the colonizing group, not having the same role as theirs in colonial society, they each stand out in their own way” (13-14). The Jews in Tunisia, for instance, despite “their enthusiastic adoption of Western language, culture and customs,” are not permitted to develop a resemblance to the colonizer “in the frank hope that he may cease to consider them different from him” (15). “Thus they live in painful and constant ambiguity,” Memmi writes. “Rejected by the colonizer, they share in part the physical conditions of the colonized and have a communion of interests with him; on the other hand, they reject the values of the colonized as belonging to a decayed world from which they eventually hope to escape” (15-16). Memmi might be describing the situation of newcomers to Canada—particularly people of colour—with these words.

Memmi concludes this first chapter on the colonizer with a series of “fundamental questions”:

Once he has discovered the import of colonization and is conscious of his own position (that of the colonized and their necessary relationship), is he going to accept them? Will he agree to be a privileged man, and to underscore the distress of the colonized? Will he be a usurper and affirm the oppression and injustice to the true inhabitant of the colony? Will he accept being a colonizer under the growing habit of privilege and illegitimacy, under the constant gaze of the usurped? Will he adjust to this position and his inevitable self-censure? (18)

The next chapter, “The colonizer who refuses,” addresses the possibility that colonizers will not accept colonization (19). If a new arrival to the colony vows not to accept colonization, Memmi argues, that vow, that sense of indignation, “is not always accompanied by desire for a policy of action. It is rather a position of principle. He may openly protest, or sign a petition, or join a group which is not automatically hostile toward the colonized. This already suffices for him to recognize that he has changed difficulties and discomfort” (20). 

Why are the refusing colonizer’s actions merely symbolic? Memmi has the answer: “It is not easy to escape mentally from a concrete situation, to refuse its ideology while continuing to live with its actual relationships. From now on, he lives his life under the sign of a contradiction which looms at every step, depriving him of all coherence and all tranquility” (20). What this colonizer renounces “is part of himself, and what he slowly becomes as soon as he accepts a life in a colony. He participates in and benefits from those privileges which he half-heartedly denounces” (20). If this colonizer continues to object to colonialism, “he will learn that he is launching into an undeclared conflict with his own people which will always remain alive, unless he returns to the colonialist fold or is defeated” (21). His fellow colonizers will see this person as “nothing but a traitor. He challenges their very existence and endangers the very homeland which they represent in the colony” (21). The colonizer who refuses must either submit to the demands of “the colonial community” or leave, Memmi suggests (22), although he notes that there is one other option: to “adopt the colonized people and be adopted by them,” to “become a turncoat” (22). But this is a problem: “To refuse colonization is one thing; to adopt the colonized and be adopted by them seems to be another; and the two are far from being connected,” Memmi writes (22-23). “To succeed in this second conversion, our man would have to be a moral hero,” he continues (23). The impossibility of this conversion seems to block Memmi. “But let us drop this,” he writes, noting that one can be, “while awaiting the revolution, both a revolutionary and an exploiter”: 

He discovers that if the colonized have justice on their side, if he can go so far as to give them his approval and even his assistance, his solidarity stops here; he is not one of them and has no desire to be one. He vaguely foresees the day of their liberation and the reconquest of their rights, but does not seriously plan to share their existence, even if they are freed. (23)

Racism is part of the reason for the impossibility of doing more than this, which does not surprise Memmi at all: “Who can completely rid himself of bigotry in a country where everyone is tainted by it, including its victims?” (23). But in fact the refusing colonizer simply realizes that, while “the colonized have suddenly become living and suffering humanity” and “the colonizer refuses to participate in their suppression and decides to come to their assistance,” at the same time “he has another civilization before him, customs differing from his own, men whose reactions often surprise him, with whom he does not feel deep affinity” (24). And, one might add, there’s no guarantee that the colonized want to accept this person into their community. There may be no way to cross the cultural, social, and linguistic barriers between them.

“I am quite willing to admit that excessive romanticizing of the difference”—that is, the differences between European colonizers and North African colonized—“must be avoided,” Memmi writes. “It may be thought that the benevolent colonizer’s difficulties in adapting are not very important. The essential factor is firmness of ideological attitude and condemnation of colonization” (27). If the “benevolent colonizer has succeeded in laying aside both the problem of his own privileges and that of his emotional difficulties,” Memmi continues, “[o]nly his ideological and political attitudes remain to be considered” (27). That will involve tackling the question of nationalism—difficult for socialists, with their “internationalist bent” (28). “For a number of historical, sociological and psychological reasons, the struggle for liberation by colonized peoples has taken on a marked national and nationalistic look,” Memmi points out, which is a problem for “the European left,” which “suffers from very intense doubts and real uneasiness in the face of the nationalistic form of those attempts at liberation” (29). This doubt and uneasiness “is distinctly aggravated in a left-wing colonizer, i.e., a leftist living in a colony and living his daily life within that nationalism” (30). Such a person will be uncomfortable with terrorism and political assassination, which are tools in the struggle of the colonized for freedom (30). The refusing colonizer will also worry about what will happen after liberation, whether “the liberated nation” will aspire “to be religious,” or to show “no concern for individual freedom” (32). “Again there is no way out except to assume a hidden, bolder, and nobler motive,” Memmi writes: to believe that “all the lucid and responsible fighters are anything but theocrats; they really love and venerate freedom” (32). Yet, “proclamations in the name of God” and “the Holy War concept” will throw “the leftist off balance” and, “fearing that he might be wrong again, he will retreat; he will speculate on a more distant future,” in which “the colonized will rid themselves of xenophobia and racist temptation” (33-34). So, while “every true leftist must support the national aspirations of people,” it may be that, “in fact, he is perhaps aiding the birth of a social order in which there is no room for a leftist as such”” no room for “political democracy and freedom, economic democracy and justice, rejection of racist xenophobia and universality, material and spiritual progress,” in other words (34). “These very difficulties, this hesitation which curiously resembles remorse, excludes him all the more,” Memmi continues. “They leave him suspect not only in the eyes of the colonized, but also in those of the left wing at home; it is from this that he suffers most” (35). 

All of these anxieties stand in the way of the rejecting colonizer’s adoption by the colonized. But Memmi also points out that, “[t]o succeed in becoming a turncoat, as he has finally resolved to do, it is not enough to accept the position of the colonized, it is necessary to be loved by them” (37). This second point is just as difficult as the first: 

In order truly to become a part of the colonial struggle, even all his good will is not sufficient; there must still be the possibility of adoption by the colonized. However, he suspects that he will have no place in the future nation. This will be the last discovery, the most staggering one for the left-wing colonizer, the one which he often makes on the eve of the liberation, though it was really predictable from the very beginning. (38)

After all, “the colonial situation is based on the relationship between one group of people and another,” with the “leftist colonizer” remaining “part of the oppressing group” and “forced to share its destiny, as he shared its good fortune” (38). “If his own kind, the colonizers, should one day be chased out of the colony, the colonized would probably not make any exception for him,” Memmi notes. “If he could continue to live in the midst of the colonized, as a tolerated foreigner, he would tolerate together with the former colonizers the rancor of a people once bullied by them” (38). “To tell the truth,” Memmi continues,

the style of a colonization does not depend upon one or a few generous or clear-thinking individuals. Colonial relations do not stem from individual good will or actions; they exist before his arrival or his birth, and whether he accepts or rejects them matters little. It is they, on the contrary which, like any institution, determine a priori his place and that of the colonized and, in the final analysis, their true relationship. . . . Being oppressed as a group, the colonized must necessarily adopt a national and ethnic form of liberation from which he cannot but be excluded. (38-39)

There appears to be no way for the refusing colonizer to remain in the colony after its liberation. “Through a de facto contradiction which he either does not see in himself or refuses to see, he hopes to continue being a European by divine right in a country which would no longer be Europe’s chattel; but this time by the divine right of love and renewed confidence,” Memmi writes (40). But, with the end of colonization will come “the overthrow of his situation and himself” (40). 

“One now understands a dangerously deceptive trait of the leftist colonizer, his political ineffectiveness,” Memmi writes:

It results from the nature of his position in the colony. His demands, compared to those of the colonized, or even of a right-wing colonizer, are not solid. Besides, has one ever seen a serious political demand—one which is not a delusion or fantasy—which does not rest upon concrete solid supports, whether it be the masses or power, money or force? (41)

The colonizers know what they want, as do the colonized, but the colonist who refuses is part of neither group. “Politically, who is he? Is he not an expression of himself, of a negligible force in the varied conflicts within colonialism?” Memmi asks (41). “The difference between his commitment and that of the colonized will have unforeseen and insurmountable consequences,” Memmi answers:

Despite his attempts to take part in the politics of the colony, he will be constantly out of step in his language and in his actions. He might hesitate or reject a demand of the colonized, the significance of which he will not immediately grasp. This lack of perception will seem to confirm his indifference. Wanting to vie with the less realistic nationalists, he might indulge in an extreme type of demagogy which will increase the distrust of the colonized. When explaining the acts of the colonizer, he will offer obscure or Machiavellian rationalizations where the simple mechanics of colonization are self-explanatory. Or, to the irritated astonishment of the colonized, he will loudly excuse what the latter condemn in himself. Thus, while refusing the sinister, the benevolent colonizer can never attain the good, for his only choice is not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness. (42-43).

The colonizer who refuses is bound to fail, Memmi states: “everything confirms his solitude, bewilderment and ineffectiveness. He will slowly realize that the only thing to do is to remain silent” (43). “If he cannot stand this silence and make his life a perpetual compromise, he can end up by leaving the colony and its privileges,” Memmi concludes (43). Memmi’s argument is like looking into a disturbing mirror, one that reveals the impossibility of rejecting settler colonialism while remaining, by birth and citizenship, a descendant of settlers. And yet, so many Canadians are in the same place: they reject our country’s continuing colonialism, but see no effective ways to put that rejection into practice. We end up engaging in symbolic acts; these might be valuable, but they aren’t tangibly contributing to the goal of decolonization, which Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang describe as “the repatriation of land” to Indigenous peoples (7). That’s perhaps because we don’t know how to effect such a repatriation, what it would look like, or what it might cost.

The next chapter, “The colonizer who accepts,” begins by acknowledging that “it is more convenient to accept colonization and to travel the whole length of the road leading from colonial to colonialist” (45). A colonialist, in Memmi’s definition, is “only a colonizer who agrees to be a colonizer. By making his position explicit, he seeks to legitimize colonization” (45). “This is a more logical attitude, materially more coherent than the tormented dance of the colonizer who refuses and continues to live in a colony,” Memmi writes. “The colonizer who accepts his role tries in vain to adjust his life to his ideology. The colonizer who refuses, tries in vain to adjust his ideology to his life, thereby unifying and justifying his conduct. On the whole, to be a colonialist is the natural vocation of a colonizer” (45). Because the most talented colonizers will tend to leave the colony for the metropole, either to pursue opportunities or for ethical reasons, only the mediocre remain (48). “It is the mediocre citizens who set the general tone of the colony,” Memmi contends, suggesting that “it is the mediocre who are most in need of compensation and of colonial life” (48). “It is between them and the colonized that the most typical colonial relationships are created,” he continues:

Accepting his role as colonizer, the colonialist accepts the blame implied by that role. This decision in no way brings him permanent peace of mind. On the contrary, the effort he will make to overcome the confusion of his role will give us one of the keys to understanding his ambiguous position. Human relationship in the colony would perhaps have been better if the colonialist had been convinced of his legitimacy. In effect, the problem before the colonizer who accepts is the same as that before the one who refuses. Only their solutions are different; the colonizer who accepts inevitably becomes a colonialist. (51-52)

The related features that spring from this acceptance form what Memmi calls “The Usurper’s Role (or, the Nero complex)” (52). In this role (or complex), the colonialist, 

at the very time of his triumph . . . admits that what triumphs in him is an image which he condemns. His true victory will therefore never be upon him: now he need only record it in the laws and morals. For this he would have to convince the others, if not himself. In other words, to possess victory completely he needs to absolve himself of it and the conditions under which it was attained. This explains his strenuous insistence, strange for a victor, on apparently futile matters. He endeavors to falsify history, he rewrites laws, he would extinguish memories—anything to succeed in transforming his usurpation into legitimacy. (52)

This bad conscience expresses itself in other ways: “the more the usurped is downtrodden, the more the usurper triumphs and, thereafter, confirms his guilt and establishes his self-condemnation. Thus, the momentum of this mechanism for defence propels itself and worsens as it continues to move” (53). The colonialist will even “wish the disappearance of the usurped,” as Patrick Wolfe (among others) has noted (53). As the colonialist engages in heavier oppression, he become an oppressor. “Nero, the typical model of a usurper, is thus brought to persecute Britannicus savagely and to pursue him,” Memmi states. “But the more he hurts him, the more he coincides with the atrocious role he has chosen for himself. The more he sinks into injustice, the more he hates Britannicus. He seeks to injure the victim who turns Nero into a tyrant” (53).  Memmi’s argument here suggests something I’ve often wondered about: whether one explanation for settler colonial racism might not be a hidden awareness that our possession of the land and resources is illegitimate.

Unlike Wolfe, though, Memmi argues that even if the colonialist wants to murder the colonized, doing so is impossible, because it would mean “eliminating himself” (54):

The colonialist’s existence is so closely aligned with that of the colonized that he will never be able to overcome the argument which states that misfortune is good for something. With all his power he must disown the colonized while their existence is indespensable to his own. Having chosen to maintain the colonial system, he must contribute more vigor to its defense than would have been needed to dissolve it completely. Having become aware of the unjust relationship which ties him to the colonized, he must continually attempt to absolve himself. He never forgets to make a public show of his own virtues, and will argue with vehemence to appear heroic and great. At the same time his privileges arise just as much from his glory as from degrading the colonized. He will persist in degrading them, using the darkest colors to depict them. If need be, he will act to devalue them, annihilate them. But he can never escape from this circle. The distance which colonization places between him and the colonized must be accounted for and, to justify himself, he increases this distance still further by placing the two figures irretrievably in opposition: his glorious position and the despicable one of the colonized. (54-55)

The colonialist, despite possessing personal virtues, “will surely be transformed into a conservative, reactionary, or even a colonial fascist” (55). And yet, “[n]othing and no one can give him the high praise he so avidly seeks as compensation: neither the outsider, indifferent at best, but not a dupe or accessory; nor his native land where he is always suspected and often attacked; not his own daily acts which would ignore the silent revolt of the colonized” (57). In fact, the colonialist “scarcely believes in his own innocence. Deep within himself, the colonialist pleads guilty” (57).

The colonialist will end up over-evaluating the importance of the mother country, while simultaneously devoting “himself to a systematic devaluation of the colonized,” even while realizing that without the colonized, the colony would lost its meaning (66). The colonialist rejects both the colony and the colonized, refusing to remedy its deficiencies, because “the colonialist never planned to transform the colony into the image of his homeland, nor to remake the colonized in his own image! He cannot allow such an equation—it would destroy the principle of his privileges” (69). That equality is impossible “because of the nature of the colonized,” and so “the colonialist resorts to racism. It is significant that racism is part of colonialism throughout the world; and it is no coincidence. Racism sums up and symbolizes the fundamental relation which unites colonialist and colonized” (69-70). According to Memmi, 

colonial racism is so spontaneously incorporated in even the most trivial acts and words, that it seems to constitute one of the fundamental patterns of colonialist personality. The frequency of its occurrence, its intensity in colonial relationships, would be astounding if we did not know to what extent it helps the colonialist to live and permits his social introduction. The colonialists are perpetually explaining, justifyng and maintaining (by word as well as by deed) the place and fate of their silent partners in the colonial drama. The colonized are thus trapped by the colonial system and the colonialist maintains his prominent role. (70-71)

Memmi argues that colonial racism has three main ideological components: “one, the gulf between the culture of the colonialist and the colonized; two, the exploitation of these differences for the benefit of the colonialist; three, the use of these supposed differences as standards ob absolute fact” (71). The first point “is the least revealing of the colonialist’s mental attitude”: the colonialist “stresses those things which keep him separate, rather than emphasizing that which might contribute to the foundation of a joint community. In those differences, the colonized is always degraded and the colonialist finds justification for rejecting his subjects” (71). But the differences between colonizer and colonized are removed “from history, time, and therefore possible evolution” by the colonialist (71). Those differences become “biological, or, preferably, metaphysical” (71). Even conversion to the colonizer’s religion would not be able to erase those differences, which is, Memmi suggests, “one of the reasons why colonial missions failed” (73). Racism is therefore “not . . . an incidental detail, but . . . a consubstantial part of colonialism. It is the highest expression of the colonial systema nd one of the most significant features of the colonialist” (74). 

“But there is one final act of distortion,” Memmi writes. “The servitude of the colonized seemed scandalous to the colonizer and forced him to explain it away under the pain of ending the scandal and threatening his own existence. Thanks for a double reconstruction of the colonized and himself, he is able both to justify and reassure himself” (75). The colonizer thus sees himself as a “[c]ustodian of the values of civilization and history,” one who brings “light to the colonized’s ignominious darkness” (75). And, “since servitude is part of the nature of the colonized, and domination part of his own,” colonization will never end: it is eternal, and the colonialist “can look to his future without worries of any kind” (75). “After this, everything would be possible and would take on a new meaning,” Memmi suggests:

The colonialist could afford to relax, live benevolently and even munificently. the colonized could only be grateful to him for softening what is coming to him. It is here that the astonishing mental attitude called ‘paternalistic’ comes into play. A paternalist is one who wants to stretch racism and inequality farther—once admitted. It is, if you like, a charitable racism—which is not thereby less skillful nor less profitable. (76)

“Having founded this new moral order where he is by definition master and innocent, the colonialist would at last have given himself absolution,” Memmi concludes. “It is still essential that this order not be questioned by others, and especially not by the colonized” (76). That last statement suggests something about the psychological fragility of the colonizer’s innocence; it will not survive scrutiny or questioning. 

Memmi now moves to the book’s second part, “Portrait of the Colonized,” with a chapter entitled “Mythical portrait of the colonized.” One element in that portrait is “the often-cited trait of laziness” (79). “Nothing could better justify the colonizer’s privileged position than his industry, and nothing could better justify the colonized’s destitution than his indolence,” Memmi writes (79). “By his accusation the colonizer establishes the colonized as being lazy,” Memmi continues. “He decides that laziness is constitutional in the very nature of the colonized. It becomes obvious that the colonized, whatever he may undertake, whatever zeal he may apply, could never be anything but lazy. This always brings us back to racism, which is the substantive expression, to the accuser’s benefit, of a real or imaginary trait of the accused” (81). The same analysis could be made of each of the features found in the colonized (81). So the colonized is weak, wicked and backward, inept, poor, ungrateful—all traits that justify the colonizer’s behaviour (81-82). “It is significant that this portrait requires nothing else,” Memmi notes. “It is difficult, for instance, to reconcile most of these features and then to proceed to synthesize them objectively. One can hardly see how the colonized can be simultaneously inferior and wicked, lazy and backward” (82-83). The lack of consistency in this portrait applies to the colonizer’s self-portrait as well (83). “The point is that the colonized means little to the colonizer,” Memmi writes:

Far from wanting to understand him as he really is, the colonizer is preoccupied with making him undergo this urgent change. The mechanism of this remolding of the colonized is revealing in itself. It consists, in the first place, of a series of negations. The colonized is not this, is not that. He is never considered in a positive light; or if he is, the quality which is conceded is the result of a psychological or ethical failing. (83-84)

So the fabled Arab hospitality is seen as “a result of the colonized’s irresponsibility and extravagance, since he has no notion of foresight and economy” (84). “Another sign of the colonized’s depersonalization is what one might call the mark of the plural,” Memmi continues. “The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner; he is entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity,” as in the phrase, “They are all the same” (85). “Finally, the colonizer denies the colonized the most precious right granted to most men: liberty,” Memmi states. “Living conditions imposed on the colonized by colonization make no provision for it; indeed, they ignore it. . . . The colonized is not free to choose between beign colonized or not being colonized” (85-86). At the end of “this stubborn effort” to dehumanize the colonized, little is left: “He is surely no longer an alter ego of the colonizer. He is hardly a human being. He tends rapidly toward becoming an object” (86). 

Memmi suggests that it is surprising that this image excites “an echo . . . in the colonized himself”:

Constantly confronted with this image of himself, set forth and imposed on all institutions and in every human contact, how could the colonized help reacting to his portrait? It cannot leave him indifferent and remain a veneer which, like an insult, blows with the wind. He ends up recognizing it as one would a detested nickname which has become a familiar description. The accusation disturbs him and worries him even more because he admires and fears his powerful accuser. . . . Willfully created and spread by the colonizer, this mythical and degrading portrait ends up by being accepted and lived with to a certain extent by the colonized. It thus acquires a certain amount of reality and contributes to the true portrait of the colonized. (87-88)

The “adherence of the colonized to colonization,” then, “is the result of colonization and not its cause. It arises after and not before colonial occupation” (88). “In order for the colonizer to be the complete master, it is not enough for him to be so in actual fact, but he must also believe in its legitimacy,” Memmi concludes, and in order “for that legitimacy to be complete, it is not enough for the colonized to be a slave, he must also accept this role” (88-89).” The bond between colonizer and colonized is thus destructive and creative,” Memmi continues. “It destroys and re-creates the two partners of colonization into colonizer and colonized. One is disfigured into an oppressor,” and the other, “into an oppressed creature, whose development is broken and who compromises by his defeat” (89). “Just as the colonizer is tempted to accept his part,” in other words, “the colonized is forced to accept being colonized” (89).

In the following chapter, “Situations of the colonized,” Memmi argues that this mythical portrait “becomes what can be called a social institution. In other words, it defines and establishes concrete situations which close in on the colonized, weigh on him until they bend his conduct and leave their marks on his face” (90). These situations, he continues, “are situations of inadequacy. The ideological aggression which tends to dehumanize and then deceive the colonized finally corresponds to concrete situations which lead to the same result” (91). Moreover, that mythical portrait is “supported by a very solid organization: a government and a judicial system fed and renewed by the colonizer’s historic, economic and cultural needs” (91). “Even if he were insensitive to the calumny and scorn, even if he shrugged his shoulders at insults and jostling, how could the colonized escape the low wages, the agony of his culture, the law which rules him from birth until death?” Memmi asks (91). It is impossible for the colonized to “avoid those situations which create real inadequacy” (91).

“The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community,” Memmi argues. “Colonization usurps any free role in either war nor peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility” (91). The colonized carries the burden of history, but he is not its subject, merely an object (92). Because the colonized does not govern, “he ends up by losing both interest and feeling for control. How could he be interested in something from which he is so resolutely excluded?” (95). In addition, “[t]he colonized enjoys none of the attributes of citizenship; neither his own, which is dependent, contested and smothered, nor that of the colonizer. He can hardly adhere to one or claim the other” (96). According to Memmi, “[t]his social and historical mutilation gives rise to the most serious consequences. It contributes to bringing out the deficiencies in the other aspects of the colonized’s life and, by a countereffect which is frequent in human processes, it is itself fed by the colonized’s other infirmities” (96-97). The society either revolts, or it calcifies (98). “Colonized society is a diseased society in which internal dynamics no longer succeed in creating new structures,” Memmi writes. “Its century-hardened face has become nothing more than a mask under which it slowly smothers and dies (98-99). The colonized’s “institutions are dead or petrified,” and the colonized “often becomes ashamed of these institutions, as of a ridiculous and overaged monument” (103). The “few material traces” of the colonized’s past are erased, and replaced with those celebrating the colonizer (104). 

Memmi discusses the place of language—in his argument, Arabic—in the colony. “If only the mother tongue was allowed some influence on current social life, or was used across the counters of government offices, or directed the postal service; but this is not the case,” he notes. “The entire bureaucracy, the entire court system, all industry hears and uses the colonizer’s language” (106). This argument reminds me of something my friend Art told me once: Indigenous languages need official recognition if they are to survive. Without such recognition, “bilingualism is necessary,” although such bilingualism symbolizes, to Memmi, two worlds in conflict (107). Colonized writers need to be able to use European languages in order to be published, and it is only in those language that such writers can advocate for their own languages (110). 

Memmi then turns to the question of what might have happened to the colonized without the experience of colonization, and the reason colonization happened in the first place. Such questions, he states, are not important: 

What does count is the present reality of colonization and the colonized. We have no idea what the colonized would have been without colonization, but we certainly see what has happened as a result of it. To subdue and exploit, the colonizer pushed the colonized out of the historical and social, cultural and technical current. What is real and verifiable is that the colonized’s culture, society and technology are seriously damaged. He has not acquired new ability and a new culture. One patent result of colonization is that there are no more colonized artists and not yet any colonized technicians. (114)

Memmi’s claim about technicians might be true in Canada, although I’m not sure that it is, but his claim about artists is definitely not. Of course, he wasn’t writing about Canada, but I need to be cautious about borrowing too freely from his analysis. In any case, he continues, “colonization weakens the colonized and . . . all those weaknesses contribute to one another” (115). For instance, the country’s lack of industrialization leads to “a slow economic collapsed of the colonized” (115). Meanwhile, the colonizer “enriches himself further by selling raw materials rather than competing with industry in the home country” (116). There are few educational opportunities for the colonized as well, and even if universities and apprenticeships existed, their graduates would find it difficult to apply their training (116). “Everything in the colonized is deficient, and everything contributes to this deficiency—even his body, which is poorly fed, puny and sick,” Memmi writes. “Many lengthy discussions would be saved if, in the beginning, it was agreed that there is this wretchedness—collective, permanent, immense. Simple and plain biological wretchedness, chronic hunger of an entire people, malnutrition and illness” (117). Memmi concludes the chapter by asking how a social system which perpetuates such distress endure: “How can one dare compare the advantages and disadvantages of colonization? What advantages, even if a thousand times more important, could make such internal and external catastrophes acceptable?” (118).

The next chapter, “The two answers of the colonized,” begins with the recognition that “[t]he body and face of the colonized are not a pretty sight,” because they display the damaged caused by “such historical misfortune” (119). “The colonized does not exist in accordance with the colonial myth, but he is nevertheless recongizable,” Memmi writes. “Being a creature of oppression, he is bound to be a creature of want” (119). There are two “historically possible solutions” to this situation which may be tried: the first is to assimilate, “to become equal to that splendid model and to resemble him to the point of disappearing in him,” a step through which the colonized “rejects himself with the most tenacity” (120-21). “That is to say that he rejects, in another way, the colonial situation,” Memmi writes. “Rejection of self and love of another are common to all candidates for assimilation. Moreover, the two components of this attempt at liberation are closely tied. Love of the colonizer is subtended by a complex of feelings ranging from shame to self-hate” (121). However, “[t]he candidate for assimilation almost always comes to tire of the exorbitant price which he must pay and which he never finishes owing” (123). Moreover, the colonizer never accepts the colonized who tries to assimilate (124). Assimilation, in other words, is impossible (125). “To say that the colonizer could or should accept assimilation and, hence, the colonized’s emancipation, means to topple the colonial relationship,” Memmi argues (126). 

If assimilation and colonization are contradictory (127), what option is left? Revolt (127). “Far from being surprised at the revolts of colonized peoples, we should be, on the contrary, surprised that they are not more frequent and more violent,” Memmi writes (127). The colonizer guards against revolts in many ways, including using corruption and police oppression to abort “all popular movements” and cause “their brutal and rapid destruction,” but the colonized as well, by admiring their conquerors, “hope that the almighty power of the colonizer might bear the fruit of infinite goodness” (127). “The colonial situation, by its own internal inevitability, brings on revolt,” Memmi continues. “For the colonial condition cannot be adjusted to; like an iron collar, it can only be broken” (128). Once assimilation is abandoned, 

the colonized’s liberation must be carried out through a recovery of self and of autonomous dignity. Attempts at imitating the colonizer required self-denial; the colonizer’s rejection is the indispensable prelude to self-discovery. That accusing and annihilating image must be shaken off; oppression must be attacked boldly since it is impossible to go around it. After having been rejected for so long by the colonizer, the day has come when it is the colonized who must refuse the colonizer. (128)

Considered by the colonizer as a homogenous mass, the colonized responds “by rejecting all the colonizers en bloc. The distinction between deed and intent has no great significance in the colonial situation. In the eyes of the colonized, all Europeans in the colonies are de facto colonizers, and whether they want to be or not, they are colonizers in some ways” (130). Their economic and political privileges, for instance, or their participation “in an effectively negative complex toward the colonized,” make them colonizers (130). “If xenophobia and racism consist of accusing an entire human group as a whole, condemning each individual of that group, seeing in him an irremediably noxious nature,” Memmi continues, “then the colonized has, indeed, become a xenophobe and a racist” (130). And yet, he writes, it must be acknowledged that “the colonized’s racism is the result of a more general delusion: the colonialist delusion” (131). In other words, the colonized becomes to accept the colonialist’s racist, Manichean division of the colony and, indeed, the whole world (131). “Being definitely excluded from half the world, why should he not suspect it of confirming his condemnation?” Memmi asks. “Why should he not judge it and condemn it in its turn?” (131). Such a response, Memmi suggests, is “not aggressive but defensive racism” (131). 

The colonized has been excluded from universal human values, and “[t]he same passion which made him admire and absorb Europe shall make him assert his differences; since those differences, after all, are within him and correctly constitute his true self” (132). The young intellectual, Memmi writes, rediscovers a previously rejected religious faith: “Assigning attention to the old myths, giving them virility, he regenerates them dangerously. They find in this an unexpected power which makes them extend beyond the limited intentions of the colonized’s leaders” (133). The colonized’s language is also revitalized (134). “This must be done no matter what the price paid by the colonized,” Memmi writes. “Thus he will be nationalistic but not, of course, internationalistic. Naturally, by so doing, he runs the risk of falling into exclusionism and chauvinism, of sticking to the most narrow principles, and of setting national solidarity against human solidarity—and even ethnic solidarity against national solidarity” (135). But, he continues, “to expect the colonized to open his mind to the world and be a humanist and internationalist would seem to be ludicrous thoughtlessness. He is still regaining possession of himself, still examining himself with astonishment passionately demanding the return of his language” (135).

Even though the colonized people reject the colonizer’s myths, they still admit that they correspond, to some extent, to that picture of themselves. “He is starting a new life but continues to subscribe to the colonizers’ deception,” Memmi notes, because “his situation is shaped by colonization. It is obvious that he is reclaiming a people that is suffering deficiencies in its body and spirit, in its very responses” (137):

He is restored to a not very glorious history pierced through with frightful holes, to a moribund culture which he had planned to abandon, to frozen traditions, to a rusted tongue. The heritage which he eventually accepts bears the burden of a liability which would discourage anyone. He must endorse notes and debts, the debts being many and large. It is also a fact that the institutions of the colony do not operate directly for him. The education system is directed to him only haphazardly. The roads are open to him only because they are pure offerings. (137)

But to go through with the revolt, the colonized must “accept those inhibitions and amputations” (137). “[T]he rebellious colonized begins by accepting himself as something negative,” Memmi writes, and this “negative element has become an essential part of his revival and struggle, and will be proclaimed and glorified to the hilt” (138). “Suddenly, exactly to the reverse of the colonialist accusation, the colonized, his culture, his country, everything that belongs to him, everything he represents, become perfectly positive elements,” Memmi continues, a “countermythology” born from protest (138-39). “In order to witness the colonized’s complete cure”—the colonized’s emergence from this countermythology into an authentic sense of self—“his alienation must completely cease. We must await the complete disappearance of colonization—including the period of revolt” (141).

In his conclusion, Memmi suggests that “the colonizer is a disease of the European, from which he must be completely cured and protected. There is also a drama of the colonizer which would be absurd and unjust to underestimate”: a “difficult and painful treatment, extraction and reshaping of the present conditions of existence” (147). “Colonization disfigures the colonizer,” Memmi contends (147). The colonizer who rejects colonization’s role “is unlivable” and “cannot long be sustained” (148). The colonial situation itself must disappear (148). The two propositions made by colonization—the extermination of the colonized or their assimilation—will also have to disappear (148). “Extermination saves colonization so little that it actually contradicts the colonial process,” Memmi contends, confusingly offering the genocide in the American west as an example (149). He also argues that assimilation is “the opposite of colonization,” because it “tends to eliminate the distinctions between the colonizers and the colonized,a nd thereby eliminates the colonial relationship” (149-50). If the colonizer “refuses to abandon his profitable sicknesses, he will sooner or later be forced to do so by history,” since “one day he will be forced by the colonized to give in” (150). Revolt—successful revolt—is inevitable: “The refusal of the colonized cannot be anything but absolute, that is, not only revolt, but a revolution” (150). That’s because “colonization materially kills the colonized,” and “it kills him spiritually. Colonization distorts relationships, destroys or petrifies institutions, and corrupts men, both colonizers and colonized. To live, the colonized needs to do away with colonization” (151). And then, once “he ceases to be a colonized—he will become something else” (153). “Having reconquered all his dimensions, the former colonized will have become a man like any other,” Memmi concludes. “There will be the ups and downs of all men to be sure, but at least he will be a whole and free man” (153).

I can’t tell whether Memmi’s depiction of the colonized is accurate; it appears to be, but I don’t have enough knowledge to know for sure. I do think his representation of the colonizer is right on the money, however. His argument is so powerful that it is hard to find points where I disagree. I would have to say that his claims that extermination undercuts the colonial relationship is belied by the experience of Indigenous people in North America, and by settler colonial theorists like Wolfe, who note that elimination of the native is one of the options available for securing the land for settlers. I think he’s wrong about assimilation as well, although I’m less certain of that, since the various methods of forced assimilation in Canada, such as residential schools, did such a terrible job that one wonders if assimilation was really their intention, rather than just cultural and linguistic extinction without assimilation. I’m not sure. Part of the reason for my confusion here is the different ways colonialism has been expressed in Canada and in Memmi’s Tunisia. But Canadians can learn from Memmi’s work, and although it’s not an easy or a happy read, The Colonizer and the Colonized is an important text that I’ll return to in the future.

Work Cited

Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized, expanded edition, Beacon, 1991.

Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40. https://www.latrobe.edu.au/staff-profiles/data/docs/fjcollins.pdf.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409. DOI:10.1080/14623520601056240.