After the fieldwork, which as I stated in the last post produced silence, comes the noise.  The noise of sorting out well over a year of ethnographic data in a viable Anthropological thesis that both makes a contribution to the disciple, and speaks with as much sincerity as possible of behalf of the people who made the ethnography possible, the informants. Further this piece of work should be fun to write and for me that I believe in.  And this brings me to the point of this post, noise.

What I mean by noise is that indecipherable abundance that can be large amounts of data.  Take any moment of life and what do you have.  Sights, sounds, smells, meanings, emotions, relations, power, history.  So much.. so we all start with a point to our gaze, we direct our attention to the useful moment, we walk down the street missing to get to where we are going, not to notice the floor, which sometimes holds lost money (isn’t it nice when you find some).  And this what this post is about, cutting through the noise.  In her book ‘Meeting the Universe Halfway’ Karan Barad uses the double split experiment in physics to illustrate her point.  Describing the ways in which an electron can appear to act as a both a wave and an particle at the same time Barad draws attention to the ways in which our understanding of objects is always a cut.  That is, our gaze only draws upon certain aspects of the properties and actions of any moment, so that what we understand is a phenomena.  So in the double split experiment the results of the experiment differ when different apparatus are used to understand the relations of materials and their actions. As such the apparatus effects the phenomena produced and as such our understandings of what goes on.

In relation to the large amounts of data I gathered during my ethnography I have a double cut in operation.  Firstly the things I noticed and recorded reflect my intentions in recording my experiences, so I look for certain properties to explain certain phenomena.  Secondly those recordings have to be cut again into a readable narrative into the thesis.  Without wanting to go back to the debate that raged through the subject during the crisis of representation I would like to draw attention to the ways in which out of noise comes order.  It is not object, electron that is sought; rather we seek to describe phenomena.  That is we aim to gain an understanding of what is happening in peoples worlds that help them make sense of their being.  As such it is the questions that jump out at us that get attention.  We make cuts in the noise to answer questions.  There is nothing to radical about this but if we acknowledge this cutting as mechanism then the worry over representation over real fades but the question of the politics of the question and more so the nature of the cutting emerges.

Over the summer months whilst getting some distance from my fieldwork I wrote a few conference papers to get the writing hand going.  The last conference I was in was today and was called ‘Spatial Cultures’.  The conference, convened and opened by Sam Griffiths set out a number of questions during the opening address.  The first was; What does spatial culture mean?  The second was; What methods do we use to analyse what we are looking at spatially and thirdly what role does mobility have in this?

After submitting a paper and presenting I argued that when analysing something spatially what we are doing is grounding relations over phenomena between through and over materials.  So this could be fear over space, could be tweets over space, buildings over space.  Space is taken as Euclidean sense where distance between materials matters.  The key for me is why anyone would spatialise a relation?  This helps us get at question 1.  If we ask the intention behind the creation of data then we start to understand the choices made in viewing, cutting the possible attributes of things to look at.  We can ask as to the choice of scale, frames of analysis, what type of phenomena are being measured.  This leads us to question 2 about methods.  In my paper I looked at how an architectural analysis of the spatial relations amongst the materials of the suburbs were incompatible with how my informants in the suburb saw them.  The two groups pressesnced very different attributes of the materials of the suburb.  Both groups aimed to further their understanding of them, both groups aimed to make place better and both groups.  However the regimes of value, the ways in which materials are understood are hugely different.  For some the materials afford a further of new forms of socio-economic value whilst for the other material spaces afford new ways to develop sociality.  In this sense the properties of the materials they sensed, and related to were different.  In a phenomenological sense, their experiences were different.  They saw different things.

My sense in this post is that I am coming to terms with seeing different things, that is, I am starting to see the world as polyontological.  The next question becomes what is the politics of this and how does it precipitate down onto people and their quality of live.   In this sense the analysis I make, we make, as academics becomes not one of pressencing but of selective erasures.  We rid ourselves of perceived irrelevances.  The task now has become super political.  As an anthropologist I feel ethnography can help illuminate erasures, absences and silences in data.  The task however is understanding the cuts you make yourself and the implications of that.  Bring on the noise!

For almost a year now this blog has been inactive.  It became increasingly sedate as I emerged myself in the field of my PhD research.  It is considered almost an anthropological right of passage that one leaves the academy and gets shell shocked in the field, totally re-imagines their research in light of the ethnographic data in front of them and comes home to write up why they threw out the bathwater of the pre-fieldwork literature.  However as I moved beyond the upgrade and into field research my colleagues in the corridors of the anthropology department noticed that I was still very much in the corridors of the department “When do you leave for fieldwork” I would be asked.  Only my fieldwork was in London, not a remote archipelago conducive to culture shocks that shift ontological assumptions.  Was I to leave to the suburbs and to avoid the corridors of conversations that would saturate my thoughts with isms and ologys?   Was I to go and live in my own J.G. Ballard novel?

The notion of distance from academic life, its language, its ways of thinking and its routines is one that is considered vital to truly live through the lifeworlds of your informants.  For me, with most of my informants having full time jobs.  I needed a place to write up notes and myself feeling a little under prepared to be a ‘proper’ anthropologist I felt that I needed to keep a foot in the door of academia.  After all I my background was in geography, my first year of the PhD was layered with thoughts from Architecture through the influence of my mother project.  For a few months I kept the blog up, I wrote thinking that practice was needed.

My notes would be written up and I would ask people around in the department ‘who is writing on [insert topic of the day]’ and bank the knowledge in my back pocket for the writing up phase.  As time went on I felt as if the sort of works I was reading in anthropology, particular regarding walking in the landscape of the everyday was at a mismatch of what I was hearing on the ground.  Without intending to I would ask my informants about the topics I would come across in the literature.  The research methods I choose were also reflected in the literature.  After a few months I felt that I wasn’t making the relationships I wanted to make. I didn’t feel I had the trust of many of my informants.  I didn’t feel they didn’t trust me, rather I felt that they were helping me out, being polite, spending time with me to help me out but not really understanding what I was doing.  I brought up the disjunctures I felt with some of my informants at the end of informal interviews.  At some point a few of discussed the research over a few drinks when a non-informant asked me what I did for work in the area.  Another informant said ‘we are being studied…watch out he’s got a notebook’.  Working with some informants I took there advice and stopped writing stuff down that evening I just drank, chatted and made friends.

Over the next few months this happened, I turned off.  Over time the more I turned off the more people were interested in what I was interested in.  They asked what really got me so interested in this that I would hang out in a place and spend a good 3 years of my life on it.  This provoked more conversations, ‘you should come with me on Saturday…’ ‘you should talk to…..’ and so on.  After 6 months I had lived the cliché, I had dropped the original driver of research methodology and listened to my informants who had defined what I was doing through my basic passions.  Further they got involved, they got involved on their terms and when and how they wanted to.  This gives me a messy bunch of fieldnotes that don’t make sense with the literature I know.  But then that’s the point right?  A silence in the literature is good.  Don’t always take notes, listen, say nothing until someone else speaks.  This is the power of silence, I now have notes I believe in, something I really think I can say, I’m not sure what that is yet but it will reflect the lives of my informants, it will speak with them not bounce of them, I hope.

I have just happened across this article which seemed to work around some of the thoughts I have been having of late around the politics of representation. I have been thinking about how internet maps, such as Google maps, allow you to scroll in or out of the image. At each level of zoom the amount of information remains the same even though the geographical area it covers changes. So when zoomed out only certain areas of the map are labeled, such as the continents, countries, cities or districts. When zoomed in we have street names and even shops. But who decides which places are marked as the most important information to show and how does this effect the way we understand place? Here the algorithms behind the map zoom function seem to take on a more than functional role. They seem rather to be a moment of selection, moment of deciding to show what is important. In this sense it is highly political and this article shows how that politics has ruptured between Google and the Rio government. This rupture shows just how and in what ways Google is powerful beyond the obvious.

As someone who has an undergraduate BSc and a MA in geography you might think I would be doing my PhD in the same subject.  However I now find myself sitting in the Anthropology department and funded by a project based from UCL Architecture department.  Whilst switching between disciplines is increasingly common I felt that at this years RGS-IBG conference I had an itching for fleshy bodies.  Through my work I have an interest in how people, local people relate to land and territory through economies of love and care in a late liberal society in which narratives of localism and the devolution of power run strong.  As such I attempt at least to keep central the notion of bodies, blood and personhoods.  I ask routinely how personhoods and citizens are shaped through the various scales of governance and structures of cultural legal and cultural governmental practice.

Whilst the RGS-IBG is far too big for me to give a review of the conference as a whole or even write about all the presenters I saw I can say that around half way through the second day I had listened to sessions on ‘Critical Approaches to Localism, neighbourhood working and governance’ ‘Contesting Post-Democratic Cities Amid the ‘tyranny of participation’.  The sessions overall aroused some interesting reflections yet I was left yearning more for flesh, people, humans, Ethnography in the geography.  Through the graphs, charts and theoretical discussions of various post-political philosophers I felt a strong presence of the absent bodies of those who are affected by, work within and live such ideas, bodies I yearned for.   In the latter session Chloe Buire ended the session with an impassioned and energetic description of everyday tactics used by the residents of various cities in Southern African cities, such as dancing, playing, re-using older buildings, gardening disused land and such.  I asked her if her work was a call for geographers to be more Ethnographic, she returned an empathetic and enthusiastic YES!  Such issues would be brought up later in my session.

I had been sufficiently awoken to be further satisfied by Kirsten Simonsen’s ‘Quest for a new humanism’ where, through the work and philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty she called for a focus on emotions and experience in research using excerpts from the experience of a young Asian man boarding trains shortly after the London 7/7 bombings and his feelings of being in the wrong place.


This embodied experience is something I am interested in my work, but I depart from the realm of phychogeography in that I am interested in how embodiment and experience are communicated to others.  In my work I look at how local enthusiasts give over knowledge of their relation of the built environment in walking tours.  So it was appropriate that Dr Hilary Geohagen and colleagues had arranged a session that was essentially a walking tour. The walking tour consisted of an enthusiast of Edinburgh’s modernist architecture who had been invited from the local Heritage Association to talk to us geographers about the history of the buildings in the University area. The guide was confidant vastly experienced and knowledgeable and Luke Bennett suggested around half of the people on the tour was much studying the process of guiding enthusiasm and giving of historical architectural knowledge as were interested in the knowledge itself.  Many people noted his skill at tailoring the tour to deal with dramatic rain and the undercurrents of personal opinion on the ways in which the university and planners dealt with these buildings.

In a session I both convened and shared, questions as to how engagements with everyday materiality is coming conducive to a form of social tactic in dealing with an understanding one’s relationship to the world work was explored in four papers which were as interesting as they were different from each other.  Mia Hunt’s paper explored the ways in which shopkeepers in everyday London high streets curated and composed the items within the shop.  Taking as an example small London montages design for tourist pockets her work shows how the everyday curatorial practice of shopkeepers can be understood as a tactic in dealing with the everyday and identity. Dave Yates’s paper neatly used the metaphor of his complex sense of self, which understood differently depending on perspectives needs of the viewer and viewed can be seen to align the complex identities places.  Issues of relevant scale, practice and rhythm of self and place were brought together in Yates’s work in looking at a series of London markets. Alessandro Froldi’s paper was an excellent example of using both archive and ethnography in understanding the ways in which radical politics segwayed with the everyday practice of living in urban environments of dereliction construction sites and renewal.  The session was neatly rounded up by Kaisa Schmidt-Thome whose explanation of a development of a softGIS toolbox neatly leading to a wide-ranging and engaging discussion around the issues of scale, nothing moments of flow and moments of stillness, dealing with flux and change an everyday occurrence and using GIS tools in increasingly ethnographic and qualitative ways.

The session abstract can be seen here.

On the 26th of June I participated in the Creativity of Property workshop at UCL which I helped convene.  Together with two other PhD students at UCL I have been thinking through some of the ideas that were explored in this workshop.

Namely these ideas relate to how creative practices are involved in shaping the ways in which we as humans relate to each other through land, territory, space, legal discourses and so on… we focused on property in the workshop as a particular mode of ownership which brings about a certain way of relating to each other.  To explain myself further I’ll run through how the day went.

We started with Charlotte Johnson from Newcastle University whose talk (The Urge to Tidy: Fashioning post –neoliberal property out of shared attics and basements in residential buildings in Belgrade) investigated what happens when a particular mode of relation to space, namely the socialist communal ideal of shared space seen here is shared attics space is managed in a post-socialist society.  She mentioned that a mode of relations was “literally built into the fabric of the building”.  I found this idea fascinating and wondered how it this idea might look when applied to the everyday English suburb.  Tom McDonald and Meixuan Chen both talked about the changes in Chinese society with the former looking at hosting and how karaoke bars as a hired space reflect yet simultaneously change the hosting relation between host, guest and help (service) through the use of commercialised hosting space.  A vegetable patch featured in Chen’s work where genealogical lines, community notions of ‘the greater good’ and state notions of communal land were mixed together in the debates around how and if to sell land and who should, might and could benefit from such an exchange.


A fundamental philosophical question was posed by Luke Bennett who asked if the Lockien notion of ownership, relating to the application of labour to natural state leads to the acquisition of property, then what happens when property is in excess in relation to the amounts of labour able to be applied to it?  What do to with the excessive present space…?  Put the toilet roll in the freezer was amongst the answers.  Rafael Schacter’s paper moved us to looking at the practice of participating and asked questions of daubing on walls through his account of graffiti in Madrid merging notions of owning, aesthetics, action over substance and style over substance.


Nick Gadsby, through his study of the players of second life asked what digital items acquired through the game meant in relation to Mauss’s theories of the gift and in relation to the notion of abandoning relations.  He skilfully applied this idea to a exchange of slushy machine (a gift in ‘real life’ not in the game) between two participants and how this worked to release a relation of debt of favour and kindness yet simultaneously created a relation of kindness and appreciation to the ways in which players can abandon items and players in the game.  Amy Hinterberger, Natalie Porter and Mike Upton all talked about the relation of the body, drugs, IP rights, who owns genomes, the right to drugs and much more.  This stimulated some productive conversations between them and in the group as a whole. The day ended nicely with a consideration of how one human may own another through a form of relation through a focus on the slavery and kinship relation in Amazonia by Marc Brightman.  My mind spun to the ways in which such relations might work in everyday late liberal societies.  To help make sense of the many ideas and conversations we allowed plenty of room for discussion and Dr Eric Hirsch and Dr James Leech kindly opened up the discussions for us and added some much appreciated experience, expertise and intellectual reflections on the papers.

Overall the day was a success if it aimed to open up ideas of creativity as a mode of forming relations of owning.  Debates ranged as to the definition of property, the difference to owning.  People discussed how useful these debates were and the PhD students iron some of the creases in thought around such ideas.  Thanks you to all who came, presented and discussed.

Self proclaimed phyco-geographer and new Professor of contemporary thought at Brunel University Will Self used his inaugural lecture as Professor of contemporary thought at Brunel university to proclaim that ‘walking is political’.  Drawing upon the relationship that walking engenders to the city Self notes that, with a shift away from walking over the last 200 years that we have seen a ‘fundamental alteration in the nature of human connectivity’ towards our environments equating a walk to a ‘physical possession of the built environment and that ‘that to walk the city and its environs is, in a very powerful sense, to use it’ and the flâneur as a ‘democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control’ and in so doing relegates suburbs to locations that ‘no longer convey any sense of place’.

However here I’d like to follow Creswell 2010 and assert that all forms of mobility are political and that whilst I agree with Self that walking allows one to see and experience the city in ways that other forms of movement do not a true ‘democratisation’ of the city would see an aim of access, impact, engagement through all forms mobilties and in so doing would have to fundamentally address questions such as the levels of investment in various forms of movement and the spatial structures of settlements and who these investments and changes benefit.

“Importantly, these forms of mobility (walking, Driving, etc) and these aspects of mobilities (movement, representation and practice) are political – they are implicated in the production of power and relations of domination.”

Further cycling, catching a train and so on have their own emancipatory political potentials of moving our bodies in a phenomological and performative sense, becoming one with machine and zooming past traffic jams is in itself its own experience of interacting with the city as is the train ride along corridors of graffiti or moterway drive.  Everyday ‘tactics’ of walking, routes rhythms and speeds are used by both social systems and individuals simultaneously as outlined by Michael De Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life and Self pays attention to the politics of rhythm.

In a direct way he equates a body’s connection to territory in a philosophy of rhythm where consideration comes in a tangible stillness (or slowness) that allows a material connection to the land and in doing so the train, car and bus are rhythm stealers that distort this connection.  The questions this raises then is why is that the walk gives us a connection to the city that the train does not?  Is the train, its blurring of the buildings it passes, the collection of people it gathers in ephemeral moments of collective individually not a form of movement that can be considered as part of the city and are the collective entanglements of body and car (see Edensor) or bicycle (see Spinney 2010) as engaging of bodies place and movement?

Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis offers explorations into notions of timespace and the politics of body object interactions in respect of all types of rhythm.   The equation of slowness with control moves us from a politics of rhythm to a philosophy of rhythm in Self’s piece where thought, experience and conection to territory comes only with the wander on foot.  Whilst reading David Bissell’s 2011 paper Thinking habits for uncertain subjects: movement, stillness, susceptibility  I was brought to think that such an equation is predicated on notions of rationality and self determination embedded in western rationalism that perhaps is ill equipped to deal with the speedy bodily experiences we have today.

Walking itself has taken various forms of politics in relation to conection to territory.  Historically the parish boundaries of London where marked out in bi-annual processions or ambulation’s as described by Micheal Housemans’s 1998 article Painful Places: ritual encounters with one’s homelands  where the boundaries of the parishes which persit today were walked by a crowd of adults and children, led by a community representative (usually a clergyman).  The crowd would halt at vital landmarks for readings rememberances of the boundriy lines for the “taking of pains”. This is where the body experience the landscape in direct sense so… “if the boundary be a stream, one of the boys is tossed into it; …. ….if a hedge, a sapling is cut out of it and used in afflicting the body…”.

This act, dating to at least the 6th century faded away around the time of the enclosure act of 1800 although it is often remembered  today.  Boundaries were protected in future disputes through the string formative bonds of childhood memory and bodily pain.  Many of the boundaries in London today are marked by these walks as Alan Warwick notes of Norwood and the boundary between Croydon and Lambeth

“Tracing that broken dotted line along church road and down Fox Hill, it is almost as through one can follow the reluctant footprints of Revd. Richard Finch, walking close as he dared to the disputed property” (Warwick 1972:14)

Walking also creates paths and which have turned into ‘rights’ and laws.  Olwig (2008) notes the act of walking causes lines of ‘desire’ (see Tiessen 2011) causing material traces in the land and such paths in land have been the basis for common law.

So walking is political historically as territory maps onto bodies and bodies onto territory and such material moves shift the realm of value which sediment in law, culture and social norms.  Practices of movement are productive in fixing place and types of place.  Today we walk for protest, to think, to experience places we shouldn’t go as kids, as adults  yes walking  IS political but  so are all forms of movement are.  What Self’s article asks me is how to we beat the bounds today?  How to we engage with the polotics of our bodies and the relationship to territory.  In an age of almost unquestioned private land ownership, land that is often revered in very public ways how is control achieved and maintained.  What is the role of the body, of memory and how does this communicate to the burocratic halls of councils, planners and to wider scales of city forms?

Today perhaps it is the historical tour that ties us to place through shared memory and learning of place value.  Where the material trace is harder to leave as asphalt refuses to fade or boundaries refuse to move being locked behind bureaucratic filing cabinets new forms of body politics emerge.  Walking is, was and always will be political but we are constantly trying to find new ways to reclaim the politics are we not?

Spinney, J. (2010) “Resisting rhythms: re-reading urban times and spaces through everyday practices of cycling” in Edensor T (Ed) Geographies of Rhythm (Ashgate, Aldershot)

I’m very much involved in this one day workshop at UCL please come along it will a great day of discussions!

The Creativity of Property: An Interdisciplinary Workshop on the Reinvention of Ownership
One-day workshop on the 26th of June at University College London

Aleksi Knuutila, UCL Anthropology (
David Jeevendrampillai, UCL Anthropology (
Gabrielle Ackroyd, UCL Anthropology (

The workshop invites contributions on the topic of property and ownership in moments of change, i.e. the way concepts, institutions and structures of ownership are being negotiated and reinvented, how notions of ownership are being symbolically challenged and promoted, and how the constraints of property elicit creative responses. It will explore what it is, in our times, to possess or author something; on what grounds a place belongs to people or people to a place; what it takes to claim something or to make it common for everyone; and how people are creatively making something of their own out of the institutions of property. It explores the reasons and consequences behind the constitution of property, showing how it fabricates certain categories of persons, groups and objects, and assigns originality or origination.

The past two decades have seen the dominant liberal mode of ownership expand to new areas. Yet this development has been paralleled with a diversification, as institutions of property have been creatively remade or appropriated for different purposes. For example, notions of authorship are challenged in digital commons and “remix cultures”, just as indigenous groups are calling on international cultural property law to protect their stakes in their collective ways of life. New consumption infrastructures such as Boris Bikes mean use no longer depends on ownership, while many protests in 2011 depended on claiming public spaces for purposes of demonstration and deliberation.

The attempts to reinvent or challenge systems of property might be best understood with a theoretical lense that places the agency, creativity and fluidity of social action at its heart. This might make current the calls for anthropological theory that see property as a on-going, dynamic process of assertion and contestation, and not as the result of reified social relations (Strang and Busse 2011). Such an approach would be more sensitive to wider conditions of social practices and their interaction with the material and spatial environment. It could show how personhood or group identity may not independent and clearly bounded, but constituted with the things possessed or acts of appropriation. It can demonstrate the reality of numerous ways of owning or making things common, and the reasons of power, culture and institutions that may keep them from being dominant.

The day will consist of two panels, which will be oriented towards the following themes:

I) Space and place

– How ideas of territory, belonging, and identity are contested and challenged
– The appropriation and reclaiming of public spaces
– How people make spaces their own through creativity, movement and innovation
– Who controls cities in moments of change, and what skills and discourses are deployed in doing so
– How the movement and rhythms in places are directed, controlled and unevenly distributed

II) The self and materials

– Acts of appropriating objects as personal property
– The interrelation between personhood, peoplehood and possessions
– Responses to the constraints of property systems
– Material qualities of assets and their consequences for systems of property
– Creativity, originality, and how it is recognized and channeled by systems of property
– How and why new objects come to be considered as property
– Struggles between several different ways of owning or making things common

Practicalities of the workshop

The workshop will take place on the 26th of June in the Anthropology department of University College London. Participants that wish to present in the sessions will be asked to pre-circulate short extracts of their work of between 1000 and 5000 words. We welcome PhD level work, which could be drafts of articles or chapters of theses. People from all relevant disciplines in the social sciences are welcome to attend. Participants are asked to give 20 minute presentations of their work. The workshop will emphasise active involvement in an interactive and informal setting, with a focus on improving academic work and identifying emerging issues for research. Each workshop will have an invited academic as a discussant, who will discuss the contributions together with the audience. We have confirmed James Leach as one of our discussants. The day will end with a roundtable discussion that will bring together and conclude on the themes that were brought out during the day. light lunch is provided for the participants. Places are limited for the event to facilitate discussions.

Submission of abstracts

Please send an e-mail to Aleksi Knuutila.(  with the following information:

– Title of paper
– An abstract of 300-500 words
– Contact details
– University affiliation and city from which you will be traveling

The call for papers will close on 15th of May. Individuals who have been accepted based on their abstracts will be asked to circulate short extracts of their work in early June.

This workshop is funded by the UCL Anthropology Reading Group and Research Fund.

Here is a rundown of my ever growing network of friends and family investigating the many issues around space and place which interest me.  The collection of websites, blogs and journals help when lost and when I think I’m found they make sure I get lost again!  All very useful and fun, please have a click around, get in touch and suggest more…




Adaptable Suburbs – I am one of three PhD students on this EPSRC funded project based out of The Barlett School of Graduate Studies at UCL.  A deeper understanding of suburbs is sought in particular looking at the relationship between the built environment and social life, I take a historical perspective to the emergence of networks of movement and the role of history and memory in place making by both people and stubborn materialities.  I use the skills of the team in bringing together architectural methods and approaches together with anthropological understandings.  Its all very exciting!

Great Blogs On Space Place Stuff… – Journal and Weblog, it will make your brain hurt! Some really interesting debates from here and one of my favourites. varve – Tim Cresswell’s thoughts on place, mobility, landscape and poetry, always a pleasure to read. Matthew Gandy – prolific and gripping writer on cities, landscapes and nature.  Ecological dynamics of urban space the connection/co-mingling of bodies and place and the moving image are key themes.

In/Out 0f Place…Spectral Nonsensical… – Bradley Garret and crew go on their urban explorations blurring lines, breaking boundaries and turning the outside in.  Fun, full on and bursting with potential to make your thoughts go through worm holes. – the politics of it all, oh yeh that! – where are we…let Brian take a picture and…. – The inside of buildings, yeh….

Geography if it’s not here….

Follow objects through space and time ahh where material culture Anthropology, geography politics all meet (and it helps you do your shopping)

Anthropological – based out of UCL anth Material culture group, what do materials do.. if you don’t know….. – leading blog on matters Anth – reflexive and personal reflections on doing, being Anthropological.  Helps me think other people think “Eh?” sometimes too. for Anthropologists that like to talk a lot (find one that doesn’t!)


Londonist – general London – Dave Hill of the Guardian, keeps it London!

Historyistish Musing on Historical Geogrpahy and social life…. Manchester focus (good city that!) – history in the making

Moving, Wandering & Walking – US focused but interest and up to date with how people move, want to move and think about moving. – walking and art…yes please – guess…yep walking – walking and talking – this one is about ‘being’ generally, very phenomeno-logical,_Landscape,_Literature.html – walking tours, bit spooky! – lets all walk walk walk!

If life’s a Journey then pack a bag Random people with interesting projects all around but – geographical, discursive, moving being…. Arty… and walking – of particular interest.

Memory & Oral History – working in Leeds on Oral Histories using locative media and new technologies, interesting yes! – Toby Butler’s memoryscapes! – oral histories

Architecture & Urban Studies – people and objects, where Anthropology and Architecture meet… interesting scraps of all sorts lots of wanderings and meanderings. – Does what it says on the tin, lots of interesting visuals that present data in very interesting ways. – all a bit psycho-geography, don’t be square but a square…. – landscape futures, architectural conjecture and urban speculations – Network the network, ideas of movement and place (and some handsome maps)

Citizen Science

Others of general interest – Datarific

Land & Activism

The Portas Review: An anthropological reading. 

Just this week [12.12.2011] celebrity retail analyst Mary Portas published UK government sponsored report entitled “The Portas Review: An independent review into the future of our high streets” outlining 28 key recommendations and suggesting ideas for the future of the UK high street.  The report has attracted a large amount of interest in the press and reflects wider discussions on high streets and the associated issues of ‘localness’ ‘community’ and an interesting collection of values, morals and ways of thinking about high streets and the social relations they engender.

Through my work with the Adaptable Suburbs team at UCL I have a keen interest in the historical development and changes in the spaces of the Suburbs and in particular the built environment of the ‘high street’ and its land uses.  The Portas Report provides a rich reading for an anthropologist interested in the phenomena of the high street and its associated notions of neighbourhood, its values etc. and in this post I pull out some of the ways in which I read the document.

My reading can be categorised into two sections, firstly the social values, morals and orderings of these spaces and associated practices and their entanglement with wider discourses of identity.  Secondly how this ordering is either maintained or restored in response to perceived threats through practical measures that reflect both a ordering of social and moral values and an ideological position that in could be referred to as post-political[i].


Despite a number of declarative statements about the report not being about nostalgia there is a layering of a yearning to return to some notion of community, place, localness, perhaps not like days of ‘butcher baker and candle stick maker’ but to locally focused economy and specialist and personalised services.  From the outset the report declares that it is about ‘Our’ high street, that are ‘spaces which….people make their own’ (p46),  ‘people and place come first’ (p31) that there is some sense of public ownership in these spaces.  Portas invokes an idea that people are willing to ‘fight’ for, are enthusiastic about, and care for such spaces and that we have “sacrificed our communities for convenience” in light of internet and supermarket based shopping and service delivery, describing them as ‘key threats’. The report states that the high street is in a ‘dire state’ and that we have seen a loss of ‘street trust’, a sense of belonging and yet people care deeply for the high street and the appetite to fight for the high street is strong.  Throughout the report and surrounding publicity bodily metaphors are used frequently, the high street is said to need life ‘breathed’ into it and its heart putting back through ‘local people’ (p37, 44, 45).

Portas equates the shift in retail practices to a ‘radical and profound shift in our values’ (p13) and asserts the role of the high street in maintaining a sense of belonging, community and maintain social capital.  She asserts that the high street is about “so much more than shopping” (p44) and that the high street should serve community needs.

The above shows how such ideas of community here are based in a particular idea of place;- of the high street that maintains a sense of communal value and way of life that the place of the internet, the supermarket apparently cannot.  Local produce is valued for economic and ecological reasons relating to an idea of sustainability and stable socio-environmental systems and community needs and a ‘sense of belonging’ works through spaces that the high street is able to deliver.  Clearly the report is designed to preserve and boost the high street in its ability to maintain the work it does in these orderings and understanding of such categories.  Through a serious of re-thinking of the spatial practices the high street encourages supports and engenders and a number of bureaucratic measures Portas outlines 28 recommendations for the high streets.


The report suggests a number of measures including setting up town teams that will run the high street ‘like a business’ and develop strategic local plans.  Local histories and pride are conceived as selling points and building blocks for a type of space different to the ‘general’ experience of the supermarket. She requests more considerate planning in regard to the perceived threats of out of town shopping centres and supermarkets and wants to free up parking spaces and empty buildings so that they can be used by small businesses and costumers without large bureaucratic or capital obstacles.  She talks with business like efficiency about social capital and how the civic pride and goodwill of local people of local people is essential to maintaining high streets.  She invokes the recent localism act in stressing that local people should have control of the recourses around them and encourages creative and community based use of spaces such as second floor building space and market halls.  Many of the recommendation follow case studies of best practice or exist elsewhere already but my aim here is not to run through them in terms of their effectiveness and impact but rather to reflect on them in regard to what they do in relation the above assertion of the way in which the high street is a conduit of categories of identity, neighbourhood and whose spaces engender a becoming of a particular place with its associated values.

These measures clearly aim to assert the high street as a place that needs to be maintained against a danger of their decline in the face of a threat of changing spatial practices born out of convenience.  The mechanism of doing that is a re-ordering of bureaucratic measures and policy to ensure that town centres become central to priorities, social relations and healthy community is premised here not only on particular spaces but on particular ways of managing spaces.  This management takes the form of shaping and influencing the retail practices and flows of capital which is seen as key to social relations and current understandings of positive social values.  The bodily metaphors indicate a relation to the spaces of the high street as something that holds life, has lungs and a heart and that people care about.  The resulting media responses may differ in their agreement on the minor issues of policy of such things as the category of betting shops to the large ideological differences that come about in discussions over ownership of community resources and the use of the localism act.

However anthropologically the report and the resulting attention demonstrates the extent to which social relations in everyday British life work around, through and with the spaces of the everyday such as the high street, the supermarket, the betting shop.  The ‘crisis’, the panic and decline in the state of the high street has resulted in considerable government resources and press attention with a ‘minster for shops’ a possibility and much debate occurring over what to do with the high street.  Few if any commentators have considered the impact of directing such resources to a form of social relation measured through such spaces and practices.  What are the historical conditions for these social relations, for ideas of localness and the social values that occur through these spaces.  What does it mean to maintain social relations through a strong correlation to retail practices, the high street and so on.  What might supermarkets, global flows of food, money and the internet do to these orderings and what might the range of possible futures be.

With a critical analysis of the changes in the spaces of the high street, the understandings of what the high street does in terms of social relations and a developed historical context it might be possible to not only to discuss what people might do maintain high streets or if we should have them at all but further to ask in what ways and through what spatial practices do we wish to construct our social relations.  We need to ask what the current ways of understanding social relations and where we place the emphasis for action and change does, but also who is it for and who is left out.  With such critical insights we may be better placed to develop understandings of social relations that move beyond reductionist ideas of ‘consumer society’, and readings of events such as the recent riots and the ‘decline’ of the High Street and postulate a position in which we might be able to discuss real ways to alternative and progressive futures in which our discussions around the spaces of our everyday social relations offer real progressive futures in how shape the spaces in which we live our social relations.


[i] See the works of Mouff, Laclau, Zizek, and so on

Laclau, E. (2005). On Populist Reason. London, Verso.

Mouffe, C. (2005). On The Political. London, Routledge.

Žižek, S. (1999a). Carl Schmitt in the Age of Post-Politics. The Challenge of Carl Schmitt. C. Mouffe. London, Verso: 18-37.

In the past week I have engaged in my regular life of my PhD research, chatted with friends, read the news, marched on a student rally against the introduction of fees into higher education and visited occupy london a number of times.  One thing that seems to stand out above all is the ways in which things are understood, that is the frame, the context of all action.  In this blog I will reflect a little on a few of the ways in which the ‘terms of debate’ were key in these events.

Firstly within my own work, an EPSRC funded project which looks at the relationship between the physical and social environments in the suburbs the question of scale and representation is an important one.  At one extreme, and I’ll be crude here for the point of a short blog, we have the notion of embodied, relational, subjective human space and the other we have the decentred, ‘objective’ systemic abstract space.  The first is similar to Ingold’s -(see lines 2007) notion of habitation where place comes to be seen as a point of convergence of many paths, lifelines that create an energy around a node, the latter is equated with Ingold’s notion of Occupation whereby place is seen a static bounded place that people are in, making the paths between them utilitarian movements as opposed to place forming movements.  Much has been made of the relative merits of either angle but my point here is that both are ways of representing space that work in very different ways.  Abstract space is useful for maps of a large scale and larger analysis of areas, whereas human space is more useful for person centred analysis, local embodied knowledge.   My point here is that scale is not just choice of representation, it is a choice of knowledge and as such it is, in some sense political.  So the project tries to have both types of representation but in doing so it must recognise the political implication of the representation, what does each one do, how does it de-limit the terms of knowledge. 

In a very real way this goes beyond representation, it is in a sense directly influencing the ways in which people act.  On both a traditional OS street map and in a mental map of a street, the street is represented.  However the various capacities of that street are drawn upon in very different ways.  For example the street in abstract space is a traffic node, it is a point from A to B.  It is a route.  This was used to demark the route of the Student protest.  The route map will show, in the annals of history, the realisation of the democratic right to march.  However what it does not show is the ‘terms’ of the march, the bodily experience and the effectiveness of the movement through the streets, that is the human space.   

I was a little late for the march (shame on me) and decided to join it from the front by cycling down the route in the wrong direction.  As I did I was confronted with empty streets and with almost as many police officers that could fit into every side street gap, every overhead bridge, as possible.  It was quite frankly odd.  I was being watched from every angle and the route was very strictly barricaded.  A to B was the only option available by force.  This was directly Foucauldian, the way in which I used my body changed, I felt vulnerable and I felt disempowered, rightly or wrongly.  Further the march had been preceded by the sanctioning of the use of rubber bullets ‘if needed’ and the sending of letters to those who had been on marches before and had their names taken by police (not necessarily charged

Now I don’t want to get into my moral position but these events are of direct relevance to academic geographers and anthropologists.  Here we can see directly the managing of the bodies of both the florescent clad police officers, the students as well as the office workers (perhaps representative of the normative users of space?).  Bodies as vessels of force over the struggle to use space, the streets, to perform an action, to behave in a certain way which reflects the contestation – the disjuncture’s – of power, of body politics, of conceived notions of the ‘right to the city’.  It seemed as though the demonstrators posed a real threat to the normative use of space, that needed managing, the ‘terms of debate’ are directly spatial here. It is the street and its use.  Further is it the discourse around the street. 

A recent suggestion that public sector workers should only strike for 15 minutes to avoid disruption to the public was recently tabled (but only to the press) by Francis Maude a government minister.  It seems that the idea is that protests should not disrupt, they should be made and then listened too and this is democracy.  However in recent times I would suggest that this is the problem.  Such marches have in the last 30 years, with a weakening role of trade unions and the move towards a post-political age (where consensus based arrangements to technical problems such as climate change have replaced a politics of radical alterity) have been largely ignored or ineffective.  That is a politics of antagonism where a radically different arrangement of social relations is conceived of has been wiped away from the realm of possibility.  In this situation Zizek claims it is almost easier to imagine the appocaliptic end of the world than radical alterity.  Further activists such as Arundahati Roy have suugested that if non-violent protest is not listened too in an active way, if there seems to be no discourse then violent action is the recourse and, she states this is the position of the Maoist fighters in India.  This is a serious issue.

“If you’re an adivasi [tribal Indian] living in a forest village and 800 CRP [Central Reserve Police] come and surround your village and start burning it, what are you supposed to do? Are you supposed to go on hunger strike? Can the hungry go on a hunger strike? Non-violence is a piece of theatre. You need an audience. What can you do when you have no audience? People have the right to resist annihilation.” Arundahati Roy

So at the end of a slow, crowded march that stopped frequently in cold weather behind thick lines of police the end point was reached, the police surrounded the marches and let them filter out slowly in different directions.  Most people did leave as memories at a 9 hour kettle on a windy Westminster bridge were still raw for many.  I was asked by a TV crew if I thought the march was a success.  My answer was it depends on how you judge success, it shows that people can get together and express a view, a point of concern, a united voice on a particular issue.  Will it change the issue, I don’t think so.  For me, the failure of the anti-war marches pre-iraq invasion have signed the end to the effectiveness of such things but I hold hope. 

So I made my way to St Pauls to re-energise, and there I was given more hope.  I was tired, this is essentially an embodied experience, the police had made it hard, the march was not carnivalesque, family orientated or an engaging with the police as they have been in the past, this does not encourage wider participation at all.  It de-limits the effectiveness of ‘your right’ I needed energy.  Fortunately I was given some by Rage Against the Machine ( guitarist Tom Morello who played some songs for a lucky crowd. 

This made me think about the occupy movements static-ness.  It does not move, it’s a place of flow in that I am there sometimes and not there at others but the camp stays as an ‘occupied’ part of the city.  A space of persistent demonstration where people come and talk, re-energise and form links (via livestream, through face to face meetings or through association) with others, the so called 99%.  What this shows for me is the way in which ‘the right to the city’ is constantly contested and the fights over it take many forms, they are embodied, they are spatial and in flux with the various configurations of relations between bodies, power and space. 

Lots of people I have been talking to have different ideas of the camp, some state that it needs particular demands, some say it is not ‘particularly constructive’, others sympathise.  For me this blog sums up the various positions that can be taken on the situation and as such I shall not repeat them here other than to surmise that the blog suggest three positions, greater regulation of current system, a true free market or no capitalism at all.  Whilst we all have opinions on the future there seems to be wide recognition of crisis. 

From the talks at the camp a number of ideas where put forward and here I want to relate them to geography and anthropology so we can see how our disiplines effect the ‘terms of debate’.  Professor Danny Miller, of UCL Anthropology, rejected the ideas that our society had become ‘to much’ of something or other and rather that it had become the wrong sort of thing.  Specifically he rejected the notions of ‘over commodification’ and that we had in some way become to materialistic and asserted that in many ways societies are materialistic.  That is they work through materials, he cited the love and affection in looking for a Christmas gift was part of the exchange, in this way we work through materials.  He positioned the problem rather with financial systems that work with money that is the property of the workers in the form of pensions and such.  These notions are best explained such writers as Gordon Clark, and Michel Lewis but Miller asked what is speculative capital based on and who controls this?  For Miller the focus on the materiality of the situation and the power involved should reside in these questions and less so in the link to some idea of a ‘commodity free society’ as his research suggests that commodities are far from the symbols of de-humanising greed but often the conduits of human relations such as love and care.  Miller also stated the need for material, concrete, real examples of best practice citing Norway as an example of a string economy with a string welfare state at the scale of level and companies such as John Lewis and Waitrose as worker inclusive capitalism and a smaller level.  For Miller these concrete examples show a material realisation of best practice and demands can take the form of regulation to encourage such forms of social relation. 

On the Saturday [12/11/2011] David Harvey gave talk to a sizable crowd.  His talk noted the success of the appropriation of the public space as being one that is truly public space, one that is political and rejects its privatised legal status.  This he said was the fundamentals of the matter.  The terms of debate here rest on questions that generally end in ‘for whom?’.  This is Private land ‘for whom?’, This is a Crisis ‘for whom?’, austerity ‘for whom?’.  Harvey drew links between the inequality of wealth with the inequality of political power quoting Mark Twain who said of the US “we have the best congress money can buy’.  He stated that we need to stay and demand, link ourselves globally to movements in the rest of the world citing Chile, amongst others as strong campaigns.  He linked the shadow of Pinochet, Regan and Thatcher as casting us into a neo-liberal economic trajectory that needs to be reversed as the globe reaches a saturation point of growth.  He suggested a radical imagining of a 0 growth economy and that the camp should reflect the fact that it values humanity, love and ‘the festival of life’ as its terms of debate not the %growth rate fixation. 

In conclusion the events of the last week has shown how society always has ‘terms for the debates’ about the system of social relations it conceives of as just, positive and legitimate and those that are not.  These terms range from the forms of representation of space and phenomena used in de-limiting debate to the performance of bodies and power, legal and social status of place and the configuration of space itself, amongst others.  So the fact that I marched down a street on a map does not show the bodily emotional experience of this on the day, the energy I felt and the politics of this.  This energy was taken by the slow, stop start, cattle like march but returned in full by Tom Morello.  The legal status of St Pauls land does not represent the value inactions it is involved with in wider society and so on. 

Danny Miller’s talk explained how the talk of growth and the finance sector set the terms of debate when really if we ask where are these things, how does it work through the materiality of the world situation and what is the politics for this, perhaps then we can start to understand what to take nad what to leave from capitalism. 

David Harvey showed how the ‘terms of debate’ must be set in a way that shows clearly and relevantly what you consider important.  With this it is clear that why Mr Cameron considers the occupy movement ‘not particularly constructive’ it is perhaps because it is not trying to construct the same thing he is trying to construct.  Further the terms of debate are spatial, they link people globally through the effects of economic policy and locally through the fight for the ‘right to the city’.

So for geographers and anthropologists, (I consider myself a bit of both) there are many ways the things we consider is related to the very real politics of the above events.  Events that are fundamentally about the ways in which we structure and understand social relations.  We have a role here in opening up the ways of thinking about, and being in space and the association of the politics of social relations that work through it.  In doing so we can also move beyond debates of which type form of representation should be used, and recognise abstract and human space, occupation and habitation as forms of understanding that draw upon particular political capacities of space for particular ends.  In doing so we can reflexively select our tools to build a truly ‘human space’.