A Dance with Defensiveness

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019Artist Scarlet Hall reflects on defensiveness as an embodied response to being implicated in patterns of oppression. Using movement improvisation to decentre habitual narratives and open space to attend to relationships, Scarlet is seeking ecological perspectives on defensiveness.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes  


This blog is a conversation piece midway through a short practice-based research inquiry. I am using dance improvisation to explore the affective and sensate aspects of defensiveness. Different definitions of defensiveness circulate and mingle in society. For example, in psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a set of mechanisms through which we protect ourselves; in neurobiology is it an expression of a threat state in which the nervous system is activated; and in popular articles on overcoming defensiveness, it is a cognitive verbal strategy in response to a self‐perceived flaw being brought to light by another person.

Defensiveness circulates as a concept and as a thing in social movements — my main research focus. For example, recent responses to decolonial critiques of Extinction Rebellion and responses to critiques of transphobia have both been described as defensive. In this context, defensiveness is used to describe an unwillingness to engage with how we might be implicated in patterns of oppression. What all these different approaches share is a tendency to locate defensiveness in the individual. The individual is taken as the starting point, and then defensiveness is located. Following Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions — in which she looks at how emotions work to create the very boundaries and borders that constitute subjects — I want to turn this around and take defensiveness as my starting point, and then look at how it shapes bodies and spaces.

Defensiveness - on the floor Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
On the floor
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

To do this, I am working with a small group of participants in a movement improvisation research practice. I chose movement improvisation to decentre the narratives which people are critiquing or defending and to make space to relate to how defensiveness ‘impresses’ and changes bodies. I worked with improvisation scores; sets of precise short instructions to focus movement.

Thinking ecologically

Through attending to how defensiveness moves in and across bodies, we bring an ecological perspective into view. My hunch is that an ecological perspective changes both our concept and experience of defensiveness. As we look in more detail at the happening of defensiveness, the happening becomes livelier, richer. This happening takes place across bodies and is as ecological as the local nature reserve. As with other ecologies, it can be more or less diverse, more or less homogenous. As we attend to this felt experience of defensiveness in our bodies, as part of a wider ecology, perhaps this richness becomes more visible, and the discomfort more interesting and even creative.

These creative speculations need to be kept in step with the problem of defensiveness as it arises in social movements trying to transform oppression. Defensiveness, and what to do with it, is a recurring problem in transformative anti-oppression work. People of colour and white anti-racist activists know how cautiously they must navigate conversations about racism with white friends if they are to avoid defensiveness. Trans folks and trans allies know sharply how people arrive to a conversation already defensive to the idea that they might be transphobic.

Avoiding or soothing the mainstream’s defensiveness is full-time work for people in the margins wishing to try and transform oppression as it manifests. An affect of defensiveness is to exhaust people who constantly face it whenever they attempt to push back against their marginalisation or ‘invisibilising’. There is much good reason to criticise defensiveness and demand that those in the mainstream transform their defensiveness.

I have tried to change this in myself for many years. And I still fail repeatedly. I have tried telling myself repeatedly to not be defensive, to extract from myself a more open response. But it is a stubborn creature. The mere whiff of wrongness and it starts to gather force in me. It will not be changed by reason, by will or the mind. Descartes’ philosophy, which splits mind and body and then valorises the mind over the body, is redundant for this task. I turn to his contemporary Spinoza, and more recent process philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Erin Manning and Hasana Sharp as more hopeful and practical philosophies which might assist in transforming defensiveness.

Process philosophy, or process ontology, suggests that bodies are always being made through relations. There is no body that can choose to enter into relation or not, rather we are constituted through a complex array of affects which are always jostling with each other. Affects, or simply the capacity to be affected and to affect, is how bodies are composed. These affects are sensate, organic, inorganic, cognitive, emotional, or ideal. Affect refuses the binary dualisms of nature/culture and body/mind and instead sees life constantly in the process of emerging through these intensities.

A trio: two humans and a ball of defensiveness

Dancing with process philosophy, I notice that how this research approaches defensiveness is already to affect and be affected by it. My choice to explore it through movement was in part to avoid it manifesting in violent intellectual ideas. And once in the studio, there was no escaping it. In one score I marked out in small steps a five-metre large circle in the studio and introduced this as a ball of defensiveness. I noticed that once its edges were marked out and its inner force noticed, there was no way to not be affected by it.

In the studio, participants were guided in their movement by improvisation scores. My writing in the studio describes one score in which dancers were asked to move in relation to each other and to an imagined large ball of defensiveness filling a third of the dance space.

Two bodies circle it slowly, touching and recoiling from its edge. They face each other across this affect of defensiveness. One steps in and the other hides a face under the arm. She steps in again, head dips and hips swing, she turns, faster and faster, head lifts upwards, upturned lips. The other shifts back and forth along the edge, jolts and shakes as they rub up with the ball. Suddenly she is gone across the room, legs pull her outward and she ducks down frozen. The turner carries on turning but her gaze momentarily searches out the other. She steps out the circle and kneels hands outstretched towards defensiveness. Fingers bend backwards under the weight of it. The frozen one is alive again, creeping forward, feet shuffle with the floor and the ball of defensiveness is at her shins. She bends and outstretches her hands and fingers fall back under the weight. They make eye contact and fingers curl upwards followed by palms slowly lifting.

Defensiveness - moving away Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving away
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

In my writing later, remembering the dance, I have different noticings, or movements of thought:

The intensity of defensiveness was surprising and strong. Participants’ movement pathways were affected by the suggestion of its presence. The sensations and intensity are not only felt during reactive habitual moments of daily life — it can also be felt in the safety of the studio.

The sensations and intensity differ depending on one’s relation to it. When participants were inside the ball of defensiveness there was more dynamic movement, more energy. When movers were on the outside of the ball of defensiveness, there was shrinking, hiding, cowering and aversion. It was more disabling.

“Going inside it — having thought it was [a] horrible, awful thing and sticky emotion to be in it, and then being in it, it actually felt exciting and dynamic and joyful, and there was something about, like it’s  sticky in the shadows but letting it go all around you, being in it it was very different to what I imagined it to be.” (Lucia)

There was uncertainty about how to approach it, what it would do. Being outside the ball of defensiveness was also moving with defensiveness. The sensate experience of defensiveness is habitual, with sensations following familiar pathways. In psychotherapy defensiveness is characterised as a refusal to acknowledge feelings. I consider this refusal as still ecological. And this refusal manifesting as movement and as felt sensation. When one was invited into this movement of refusal there was an intentionality and creativity. When one was on the outside of the ball, there seemed to be more doubt and uncertainty.

It all changed when participants attended to each other as well as the ball.

“It was something in common, some sort of complicity, we both know this thing is here. I am learning something about you, from seeing how you interact with this thing that we both know is there. It drew me into more intimacy with her as I felt feelings about how she felt towards that thing.” (Participant B)

These affects between the ball and between the movers was always shifting. While defensiveness is a sedimented and habituated pattern of sensations and relations to sensations, the event around defensiveness always exceeds these habits. There is always more going on than that which is recognisable and categorisable. 

Staying in relations

These movements of thought are uncomfortable. They are not what I hoped to say. They are not my argument. And yet I am trying to think between and with three distinct spheres: the problem of defensiveness in anti-oppression work; a curiosity towards concepts emerging from process philosophy; and a desire to research through movement in order to bring the body into conversations about transforming defensiveness.

Defensiveness - moving towards Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019
Moving towards
Photograph: Scarlet Hall © 2019

If we are to approach both thought and emotions as ecological, as always in dynamic relation with what they come into contact with, this seems to require us to stay in the relations and get quite messy. It seems to be suggesting loosening a focus on clarity, structure and argument and moving from the middle of the unknown of things.

Madelanne Rust D’Eye, a somatics trauma therapist, suggests that defensiveness, or the refusal to be curious about new ideas, is a fear of unfamiliar intensities in the body. Indeed, this seems to map across to what I witness in defensive thought — a turn to stable conceptual ideas, such as man/woman or black/white, or right/wrong. Defensiveness is a means by which we restrict and control the sensate experiences of our bodies to ones that are more familiar. Defensiveness in one body has a capacity to affect other bodies, such as marginalised folks being exhausted by meeting defensiveness when they talk about oppression.

While there are different modes of being affected by difference and uncertainty, defensiveness is a particularly common affect at present. This affect usually feels like a blocking of relation, a separation and pushing away between two bodies. When defensiveness gets characterised as a refusal this can tend to reinforce humanist ideas of the individual. Instead by dancing with defensiveness I am reminded of just how relational this separation is. Furthermore, dancing is a means to actively attend to it, to get in the middle of it with our moving responsive bodies rather than rushing to transform it. A means to attend with care and curiosity. Through attending to the experience of defensiveness, new possibilities of sensate experience and relationality become possible.

I am back in the studio with my participants shortly and intend to return to the noticings and see what movement has to say to them.


Find out more

Sara Ahmed’s work on emotions is explored in her book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Psychology Press, 2004). 

You can read work by Madelanne Rust D’Eye on somatics and whiteness in her blog article, Body-Informed Leadership: A Somatic Allyship Practice.

Scarlet’s previous ClimateCultures post, You, Familiar, was a video presentation of her poem narrated over photos of clay sculptures used in a Coal Action Network action outside a government department in London, and accompanied by text from fellow CAN activist Isobel Tarr.

Space for Thought

Dramatist Julia Marques reflects on her research for an MA in Climate Change: Culture, History, Society, and the role that theatre can play in opening up space for us to take in what climate change means for us. 


approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes  


“The sources of our disagreement about climate change lie deep within us, in our values and in our sense of identity and purpose.”

– Mike Hulme, Why We Disagree About Climate Change (2009)

Throughout the past year, when I tell people that I’ve been studying climate change, there have been some responses that have prevailed over others.

  1. “What’s the conclusion – is climate change real?”
  2. “What’s the solution?”
  3. “Are you going to save the world?”

And, inevitably, certain world leaders also crop up fairly regularly. (On this point, I would like to quote Mike Hulme, who rightly states that “One man does not control the world’s climate”).

I want to discuss why these responses are difficult to give a simple and straightforward answer to, and also how they reflect why climate change is a complex concept that is more than just extreme weather.

Greenland, directed by Bijan Sheibani production images for the National Theatre, Jan 2011. Photograph: Helen Warner
Greenland, directed by Bijan Sheibani production images for the National Theatre, Jan 2011
Photograph: Helen Warner © 2011

Truth and values

First of all, the fact that people are still asking this (Question  #1) — in spite of the fact that the majority of scientists agree that it is — indicates that there is more going on here than merely deciding on which side to support. People form beliefs according to their cultural values, and if an idea threatens those values, then people are, understandably, wary of it. Therefore, even if you trot out the mountains of evidence for climate change, this does not automatically result in a change in view on the matter. This is frustrating, of course, but, as Dan Kahan points out, more focus needs to be placed on how we communicate the science that will appeal to people from diverse cultures. Once this has been cracked, then we can better understand why people feel and react differently to climate change instead of simply rejecting those who do not agree with us.

“The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values, then holding their heads underwater is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence”

– Dan Kahan, Fixing the Communications Failure (2010)

Making meanings

Secondly, is climate change really a ‘problem’ that needs “solving” (Question #2)? Framed in this way, it is easy to talk of solutions to climate change, and to declare war on it as if it were a sentient being which had chosen to attack human beings in particular. This discourse of war appears to pervade into every sphere of life; the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war on poverty — to name but a few. For some reason, humans love declaring war on things. Especially large-scale hard-to-comprehend things.

Mike Hulme proposes climate change to be an idea, and, in this light, it certainly does not require any ‘solutions’. This somewhat relieves the pressure that climate change exerts whenever we see extreme weather events and melting ice as only more evidence of the destruction we are wreaking on the world. This is not to say that we can sit back and do nothing but, for me, constantly searching for a quick-fix solution is not helpful when it comes to climate change. 

What we need is space to consider our options and what climate change means for us individually. Yes, we know about the stronger storms, the higher sea levels, the increasingly severe droughts, the mass migration, etc. But what does this mean to me, to you, to the person sitting next to you on the train, to the couple with the baby you passed in the park, to the old lady you saw at the bus stop? What meaning do all of these people give to climate change?

This ties in with my evolved focus of my research. In it, I ask myself if theatre can be an alternative site of meaning-making around climate change that allows people to have space to think about the idea of it that is being re-presented in the performance space. I want to get away from a didactic version of theatre, which is oh-so-easy to fall into when considering concepts as huge as climate change. I want to give people the option to decide, to make up their own mind about it, rather than offer solutions to it. We need to give ourselves space to think. I argue that both the plays I am using as empirical examples in my research create this space in different ways — whether through staging, lighting, sound, dialogue or action. This is the beauty of theatre — it offers the flexibility of its various techniques to be used in a multiplicity of ways to create manifold effects.

The two plays that I studied for empirical examples of this space were Greenland (2011) by Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne and Earthquakes in London (2010) by Mike Bartlett. Both plays did create space, but with differing techniques. As can be seen from the Greenland photos, the stage was a vacuous darkened space most of the time, thus creating physical space. Earthquakes, by contrast, is a chaotic play with little physical space, but pause in dialogue was the source of space for thought on climate change instead.

In a city like London, space is at a premium, and I’m sure most people would appreciate having a little more of it. We are constantly bombarded with information, advertising, people and sound. How can theatre be a place of respite from this, to focus our thoughts on one particular aspect of our intricate lives and allow us then to mull it over without the pressure to make an immediate decision on it?

Greenland, directed by Bijan Sheibani production images for the National Theatre, Jan 2011. Photograph: Helen Warner
Greenland, directed by Bijan Sheibani production images for the National Theatre, Jan 2011
Photograph: Helen Warner © 2011

Practical imagining

To conclude, ‘saving the world’ is a rather grand and complex task (Question #3). My MA course was not, as I had hoped, a series of classes on how to stop environmental degradation and limit our carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, it presented me with far more questions than answers. Climate change tends to be a rather gloomy subject, I have found, but it also highlights the potential of what can be done. 

As George Monbiot says, “What appear to be hopeless situations actually are not hopeless at all. All you need to do is to imagine a better future and then put that imagination into practice”. My aim is not quite to save the world, but to give it a chance to stop, take a breath and ponder what can be done. And then go out and do it.

“I know two days is just a blip but . . . that’s what it is, a pause, a breath, where we can look at it. Bear witness, my boss says – where we can really think, is this the future that we want?” (Lisa – student/activist – Greenland)


Find out more

Mike Hulme‘s book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (2009) is published by Cambridge University PressAnd Julia refers to MIke’s blog post (7/6/17) One Man Does Not Control the World’s Climate

Dan Kahan‘s paper, Fixing the Communications Failure (2010, Nature 463, 296-297) is also available at Climate Access.

You can see George Monbiot talking about how “What appear to be hopeless situations actually are not hopeless at all” in his video on YouTube, which is well worth watching despite its unimaginative title, This is Why Donald Trump Can’t be Human.

Questioning immediacy? Space for creative thinking...  

"How do you find or create space to help you or others to resist the 'pressure to make an immediate decision' on difficult questions? How would bring a predicament like 'climate change' into this space?" 

Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form or write a response on your own blog and send a link!

On Symbols of Hope for the Future

Artist Mary Eighteen discusses powerful associations of hope she sees between the 20th-century art of Barnet Newman and a 21st-century technology that will protect Venice and its Renaissance heritage from some of the impacts of manmade climate change.


approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes  


In his essay, The Sublime and the Avant Garde, Jean Francois Lyotard refers to the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman, stating that “In 1959-51, Barnet Newman painted a canvas measuring 2.42 m by 5.42m which he called Vir Heroicus Sublimis. In the early sixties, he entitled his first three sculptures Here 1, Here 11, Here 111. Another painting was called Not Over There, Here, two paintings were called Now, and two others were entitled Be. In December 1948, Newman wrote an essay entitled The Sublime Is Now.

Vir heroicus sublimis, 1950 – 1951 Artist: Barnett Newman © 1951 https://www.wikiart.org/en/barnett-newman/vir-heroicus-sublimis-1951

In order to explain a point regarding the physicality of experience in Newman’s painting, Vir Heroicus Sublimis, I want to recall a visual encounter I experienced on a trip to Venice on a cold evening a few years ago.

On this cold and still February night I am with friends, poised on the Canal Grande. There is a feeling of lingering melancholy for which Venice has become legendary. There is a smell of decay generated by the water. The smell is not invasive, more a lingering odour of oldness that infiltrates the senses with eerie persistence. It is an odour that caresses, like a whisper softly spoken, its essence apparent in each wave and ripple that skims the water’s edge. Venice touches my soul like nowhere else on earth, like an inner sanctum of ethereal magic.

Amidst the dark, I see the church of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori, rising like an apparition against the darkness of the night. The whiteness of the front façade, designed by Palladio, is almost phosphorescent. It looms against the sky as if to affirm a past still deeply rooted within the here and now. It mingles with the ever-pervading odour of oldness, transcending the story of the past into the world of the present with an intoxicating pungency. Looking at the ghostly apparition of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori at night, I am reminded of the vulnerability of Venice to the sea. Venice has a history of flooding but the idea of the city sinking into the sea is more than most people could tolerate, and much money has been spent to avoid this ever happening. But this is no less a conundrum than climate change, our own vulnerability to rising sea levels and their future effect on humanity.

Newman’s zips and Palladio’s facade 

Like my encounter with the melancholy of Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori at night, so Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis was designed to be a physical experience. Palladio’s fine front façade, in raised vertical splendour, emanates a celebration of hope for the future in a city that transcends both past and present in equal measures.

Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori
Photographer: Unknown

Newman’s paintings do the same. He referred to the stripes that dominated many of his paintings as ‘zips’. I look at a Newman painting and I see the same encounter with hope as I experienced with Chiesa San Maggiori that cold still night in February in Venice. I have spent a lifetime loving Venice and being fascinated by water, but I did not know then as an artist how involved I would become with ocean toxicity and the future of our seas. Within this scenario, Venice resonates a certain fragility in its relationship to the water.

Mose: Venice’s flood barrier inspiring the future

While Newman’s paintings and Palladio’s façade transcend hope within the dark, there is 21st Century hope within the ground-breaking Venice Flood Barrier, known internationally as the Mose Project. Newman and Palladio inspired a future generation of painters and architects; Mose inspires the future in terms of protecting Venice from rising sea levels.

Mose Project Flood Barrier, Venice
Photograph: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

The flood barrier is positioned along three sections of the lagoon: the Lido Inlet, the Malamocco Inlet and the Chioggia Inlet. The barriers form an integrated system of mobile gates that, as it were, step into action in times of rising sea levels that will cause flooding. While there are controversies regarding the Mose Project, it is there to protect. The yellow structure, spread horizontally over the lagoon like a brilliant yellow Barnet Newman Zip, is indicative of not just hope for the future of Venice, but the hope that is represented vertically in Newman’s messianic Zips and Palladio’s facades. 

If I were once again standing in Venice on a cold February night looking over the lagoon, I would ponder the yellow Mose Barrier. For within its stretch there lies a paradox. While the barrier protects Venice from the sea for however long that will be, it is also indicative of mankind’s continual disruption of the environment, which is causing the rising levels of the sea, and our need to protect that environment, and in particular our oceans and seas, from us.

Newman’s Zips and the vertical façade of Palladio’s Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiori gave hope within the optimism of post war American Abstract Expressionism and the humanism of Renaissance architecture. Similarly, the new Venetian flood barrier straddles the lagoon as a symbol of defence that is a reminder of our duty to defend against rising sea levels by vigilance and human responsibility.


Find out more

You can read Jean Francois Lyotard‘s essay The Sublime and the Avant-Garde in The Lyotard Reader, edited by Andrew Benjamin, Blackwell Publishers Ltd 1998

Barnet Newman‘s The Sublime is Now is in Theories of Modern Art, by Herschel B. Chipp, University of California Press.1998

You can read about the Mose Project in this 2015 article from the Guardian, “Inside Venice’s bid to hold back the tide“.

Questioning Symbols? Space for creative thinking...  

"How do objects obtain their symbolic power and what role can this play in orientating us toward hopeful futures?" 

Share your thoughts in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form.

Festival of the Dark – Dark February

Festival of the darkArtist Jennifer Leach introduces Reading’s year-long Festival of the Dark, whose purpose is to gently lead people into the darkness — a place of stillness, mystery and contemplation, and a locus of the unknowing and the unknown.

approximate Reading Time: 4 minutes 


Some months ago, I had a very graphic dream involving barbed wire, entanglement and injury. In my dream, as I was trying to ameliorate the situation and minimise pain, the message came through loud and clear, ‘Cut the wire!’. What exactly this wire is, I have since been seeking to understand. It kept presenting itself to me as a subversive notion, an act of daring sabotage.

The question has proved seminal to the progress of Reading’s Festival of the Dark. The seed for the festival was sown at the TippingPoint Doing Nothing is Not an Option conference, and the endeavour initially moved with great flow. Its purpose is to gently lead people into the darkness — a place of stillness, mystery, contemplation, locus of the unknowing and the unknown. To face and embrace the ultimate fear that is fuelling our electrically-lit lemming stampede over the cliffs of ecological destruction. Since the launch, and once the Arts Council funding came through, there has been, at best, a general indifference towards the festival; at worst, there has been a clear closing of the official ranks towards it – business, church and media. Surely not because they sense something of a challenge in its message? Grin! A message that was possibly not so apparent when they first pledged their support. The churches – with their great venue potential in a town with few suitable spaces – have been particularly disappointing (see the notable exception below). The response from one church in Reading, whose hall we wished to use for a general meeting of arts organisations: ‘As an evangelical Christian church we believe passionately that Jesus came into this world to bring light into the darkness.  As this belief is the foundation on which the Church is built it would be inappropriate for us to be involved in such an event [Festival of the Dark].’ Badgers, night-scented stocks, stars and moonlight? – that naughty co-creating Devil!

Monkey
Photographer: Jennifer Leach © 2017

Vision

It has been a painful journey for myself and the small band seeking to realise the Festival’s vision. I have been bemused, wounded, short-tempered with my family, deep-soul exhausted. And yet…

From the moment of the Festival’s inception, there has been a supportive network holding the vision and the importance of the work. I marvel at it – quite literally spread across the whole of the UK. Actively rooting for us. Travelling down to create thoughtful, thrilling events for us. Bringing their fire, love and magic. To Reading! There are visionary businesses in Reading who are supporting us, Reading Buses being the most extraordinary. There are beautiful individuals making madcap ideas reality. With humour. There is one church so far – the Catholic church of St James, with Father John – who is open to working with us, most particularly in the light of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, ‘Laudato Si’.

So much to sing about; what we need to do is change tack. A friend I have worked with and whom I greatly admire shared with me yesterday what she asks for with her work: Take me to the hungry. For me it was a conversation that has unlocked the mystery. I realized that the metaphysical cutting of the wire was not a subversive act of sabotage, but an empowering act of liberation. There is no point in trying to convert patriarchy to a more meaningful system, or to try and engender a new spirit in people who are sated, if not content. Working with those who, with us, are spiritually hungry, eager for new ways – this is the way forward. The wire that needed cutting belonged to the imprisoning fence holding us all within ‘the system’, the critical and the non-critical alike. And so I ‘cut’ the wire, crawled through the fence, and lay face down on the earth, studiously avoiding the cowpats, breathing in the fresh rich energy of the Earth and the Universe.

Festival of the Dark
Photographer: Jennifer Leach © 2017

The Night Breathes Us In

The personal feeling of liberation is calmly satisfying, and the way forward for the Festival – although as unknown as ever – feels right. I suspect the Festival events will be small, and different to our initial conception. Yet embracing this is now effortless. Exciting. And who knows, hundreds of Reading-ites may yet surprise us and turn out in force for our next event, The Night Breathes Us In with the wonderful Dark Mountain Project, on 25th March. It would be lovely if you joined us.


Find out more

Festival of the Dark at Outrider Anthems

 

Interstices of Things Ajar

intersticesMark Goldthorpe explores interstices — a “space that intervenes between things, especially between closely spaced things; a gap or break in something generally continuous” — and associations with birds that play off his fascination with two mythical ravens.


approximate Reading Time: 8 minutes 


The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines an interstice as “a space that intervenes between things, especially between closely spaced things; a gap or break in something generally continuous; a short space of time between events”:

‘You don’t need to read between the lines to understand the history of interstice; its etymology is plain to see. Interstice derives from the Latin interstitium, which is itself formed from the prefix inter-, meaning “between,” and -stes, meaning “standing.” Interstices are the cracks and crevices of life, and the word is often used for both the literal and figurative gaps of the world. In modern uses, interstice can even refer to gaps in time or to special niches in the larger expanse of something else. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould used it, for example, to comment, ‘Dinosaurs held sway for 100 million years while mammals, all the while, lived as small animals in the interstices of their world.’

I first discovered interstices in Robert Frost’s On a Bird Singing in its Sleep:

A bird half wakened in the lunar moon
Sang halfway through its little inborn tune.

It could not have come down to us so far,
Through the interstices of things ajar,
On the long bead chain of repeated birth,
To be a bird while we are men on earth,
If singing out of sleep and dream that way
Had made it much more easily a prey.

Philosopher Gaston Bachelard maybe saw the value of getting into the “space that intervenes between closely spaced things” when he wrote of “The minuscule, a narrow gate, opens up an entire world.”

In a review of Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in The Independent, landscape writer Ken Worpole explains that “Bachelard was a phenomenologist, holding the view that there was a dynamic interplay between an active mind and its surroundings.” In a passage that seems to suggest something for our approaches to the Anthropocene, Worpole describes his conversations with architects designing hospices:

“Architects will tell you that designing intimate buildings is much more difficult than erecting monoliths. Those I have talked to in writing a book about the new hospice movement have employed Bachelard’s vocabulary of intimacy; they have described the need to create distinct psychological thresholds between open and closed, inside and outside, arrival and departure … places of contemplation and a gathering-in of memory and self-discovery.”

When metaphors take flight

When I reread Mike Hulme’s article Why We Disagree About Climate Change for Culturing Climate Change, his repeated use of ‘circulating’ became ‘circling’. Memory carrying me to buzzards circling over my local woods quickly triggered an image of a bird high above a group of desert exiles. Oblivious, the humans are trapped in arguments about where they are, how they got lost and which way to go. A second bird joins the first. More gather, their shadows crossing and recrossing below. The arguing wanderers don’t notice until their patch of land is completely shadowed. Circling, birds wait for humans to … what? Fight themselves into extinction? Give in to weakness and fatigue? Finally act together? Fanciful, but the birdish metaphor stuck with me, and slipped into the cracks where I was busy dividing up ‘culturing climate change’ into wickedness, uncertainty and navigation.

These associations play off my fascination with a reference to ravens in Anticipatory History – a creative glossary on landscape and wildlife change. In one entry, Birds, writer and radio producer Tim Dee evokes the nearly supernatural skills that the power of flight gives birds in many of our myths:

“Two ravens tumble from the sky cronking and surfing towards the shoulders of Odin, the man-god. One is called Hugin, the other Munin. One whispers into Odin’s ears what it has seen; the other, what is to come. They fly with the world’s past and its future held in their black eyes. Later, ravens were thought able to predict the outcome of a battle because of their uncanny habit – it seemed – of coming around armies waiting to fight. How did they know? We read them as able to foretell what was to come; in fact, they read us based on their knowledge of how things had been in the past.”

Appearing in the 13th century Norse Poetic Edda, Hugin translates as ‘thought’, Munin as ‘memory’: twin abilities (or afflictions), bringing both futures and pasts into mind. Such troubling powers, perhaps, that myth puts distance between them and mere humans, gifting them instead to gods and animals…

Raven Banner
Artist: Skydrake 2014
Public Domain: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raven_banner#/media/File%3ARaven_Banner.svg

Over the next few days, birds kept cropping up. Browsing the BBC archives for late night listening, I found Radio 3’s Is Birdsong Music? What is the relationship between what the 4,000-or-so species of songbirds produce and what we think of as music? Are they ‘simply’ speaking, or actually singing? As presenter Tom Service says, “This is all territory that skirts boundaries of language, music and anthropomorphic wish fulfilment.” Many composers have tried to capture the sound of birdsong in musical notation; an attempted translation that’s doomed to fail, but fails beautifully. Birdsong is too fast, too high and uses notes that don’t exist on anyone’s piano, operating “in a different scale of time and meaning than any humanly produced system of sounds, whether we’re taking about music or language.” Meanwhile, in 1889, 8 year old Ludwig Koch recorded his pet Indian Shama onto a wax cylinder: 128 year-old birdsong.

The Great Animal Orchestra by sound recordist Bernie Krause has featured as Book of the Week on Radio 4. He chronicles how human sound (anthrophony) drowns out the biophony and geophony of the (rest of the) natural world. Maybe a small part of that deluge is recordings of long-dead birds… Krause also appears in Is Birdsong Music?, explaining how we should always hear the sounds of any species in the context of what else is going on in the local soundscape: “birds fill the niches left empty by other species in that particular habitat … where there’s no other acoustical territory being occupied by other creatures.” He suggests that humans learned the art of orchestration from the structure of sounds in the animal world, where each species has to find its niche in the overall ‘animal orchestra’: Nature as ‘proto-orchestra’.

He was there again, in The Listeners, a series about people whose professional lives revolve around listening. Krause’s work reveals a different facet to extinction than ‘simply’ eradicating the species: “Of the 4,500 hours of marine and terrestrial habitats that I have recorded, 50% are altogether silent or can no longer be heard in their original form.”

In Raven, presenter Brett Westwood and bird rearer Lloyd Buck go blackberrying with Brann the raven. Lloyd takes Brann for a flight every day and likens him to a ‘flying dog’. In the Mabinogion, Bran The Blessed — a Celtic king associated with ravens — was killed by invaders and his head buried on a hill, facing south to defend the land from further invaders. Clearly, he fell asleep on the job, as that hill became the site for the Norman invaders’ White Tower: the Tower of London. Bran’s association with ravens has led to the legend that if they ever disappear from the Tower, England will fall (a legend revisited in White Ravens, a Second World War re-interpretation of the Mabinogion tale from novelist and poet Owen Sheers).

Raven also told how when sound recordist Chris Watson saw a woodcut of Odin in Reykjavik’s Sagas Museum, there were Hugin and Munin on the Raven God’s shoulders, whispering in his ears. Remembering his own encounters with the call-and-response of roosting ravens, he says “I was struck by what I’d heard in that forest in North Wales, because I really felt as if I’d heard some of these conversations that Hugin and Munin must have had with Odin in the halls of Valhalla.” Watson later created a raven-based sound installation, Hrafn: Conversations with Odin, in Northumberland’s Kielder Forest: a twenty channel speaker system in the forest canopy. When he led his audience through the darkening forest to hear the sound of 2,000 ravens returning to roost, everyone was silent, the ravens’ conversations with their god the only sound.

Psychologist, and Scientist in Residence with the Rambert dance company, Nicky Clayton studies how ravens and other corvids “think in terms of movement rather than words.” She’s interested in the ‘mental time travel’ abilities of Hugin and Munin:

“the ability to remember the past and to think about the future. So you could see this as being memory and forethought. You might think that these are different skills but actually the two are interlinked. Specifically, our ability to remember the past, to project oneself in time to remember what happened where and when, that kind of memory really evolved for the future. So these are memories of the future, memories of tomorrow, and that’s why they’re linked to forethought. Ravens and corvids in general have absolutely stunning memories of past events, and they are one of the few animals other than us who are known to be capable of forethought, of being able to plan ahead.” 

But ravens can’t remember everything. They cache many small food hoards across their territories, to return to when food is scarce. But some is never recovered, and seeds take root. In Corvids Could Save Forests From the Effects of Climate Change, journalist and fiction writer Annalee Newitz summarises recent research on how this rather haphazard behaviour might help forests survive climate change, given the inconvenient fact that trees can’t ‘up sticks’ and move themselves. “Over millennia of evolution, this arrangement has become mutually beneficial” and now conservationsts make use of this ‘ecological silviculture’; encouraging corvids to cache seeds in areas needing reforestation. Newitz says:

“Corvids have unwittingly become a key part of a virtuous cycle. By planting seeds, they lay the groundwork for entire ecosystems. Many plants thrive in the shade offered by trees like oaks and pines, and animals flock to the area as well. Finally, forest floors are excellent carbon sinks. Scatter-hoarding corvids are, in fact, guardians of the forest – or, as the researchers put it, geoengineers.” 

When I started seeing birds circling in my mind, I was thinking back (and ahead) to Hugin and Munin and their ability to help Odin navigate past and future. Ever since I first read Anticipatory history, this has struck me as a hopeful metaphor for our potential to cast ourselves back and forth in time and geography, to imagine ourselves beyond the impossibilities of climate change. So it was a natural bridge between the Culturing Climate Change and what was going to be a second part, on navigating complexities. Somewhere in my nighttime podcasting, I’d heard someone mention that Vikings used ravens to guide their ships far from shore: birds as real navigational aid(e)s, not simply metaphorical ones. But, listening again while I made my notes, I’ve failed to find this reference. Maybe I saw it somewhere else, or dredged up some other association, or just missed it on the second hearing? Memory has let me down, appropriately enough. But Wikipedia did offer a brief reference; Flóki Vilgerðarson, the first Norseman to (deliberately) sail to Iceland, took three ravens with him. When the first flew back to the Faroes, Flóki knew he wasn’t yet halfway. The second bird circled and returned to the ship. When the third raven headed northwest and didn’t come back, Flóki followed it to Iceland.


Find out more:

Miriam-Webster Dictionary, Interstice

Robert Frost, On a Bird Singing in its Sleep and other poems are available at The Hypertext Poems

Ken Worpole, Book of a Lifetime: The Poetics of Space, The Independent 23rd April 2009

BBC Is Birdsong Music?  The Listening Service, Radio 3 19th June 2016

BBC The Listeners, Series 2 Episode 2, Radio 4 18th August 2014

BBC Raven – Natural Histories, Radio 4, 14th November 2016

Tim Dee – Birds, in Anticipatory History (edited by Caitlin deSilvey, Simon Naylor & Colin Sackett) Uniform Books 2011

Bernie Krause – The Great Animal Orchestra – Book of the Week, Radio 4 April 2012, rebroadcast on Radio 4 Extra February 2017

Annalee Newitz – Corvids could save forests from the effects of climate change, Ars Technica, 8th February 2016

Owen Sheers – White Ravens, Seren Books, 2009

Chris Watson – Hrafn: Conversations with Odin

Wikipedia – Bran the Blessed

Wikipedia – Flóki Vilgerðarson