‘We don’t need journals’…? The future of our past.

Open Access is here to stay and it is in many ways a force for good.  It opens up knowledge, and it has already started to change the world of publishing.  But it is only a stage in the development of the organization of knowledge and it has consequences, unintended or otherwise, which we need to grapple with.  In this article, based on remarks to RLUK’s 2022 annual conference Mapping the new open for research libraries, I would like to reflect on these consequences, and specifically for periodicals.

I have taken several quotes from Robert-Jan Smits’ and Rachael Pells’ recent Plan S for Shock: Science. Shock. Solution. Speed.[1]  Here is their account of the dilemma facing a researcher, which is intended to explain the attraction and necessity of open access.

“You write a paper. Now you have a dilemma – where to publish it? Clearly, you want to submit your precious work to the most prestigious, well-known academic journal that you can. A journal that, if your paper is accepted, will score you plenty of points for credibility among the big names in science, ultimately helping you climb the ladder towards promotion. For in the world of academia lies a toxic cycle: many funders will assess your future grant applications based on which outlet you are successfully published in, and your university or research centre will assess your performance and appraisal using the same metric.

Oh, but there is a catch – if you choose to publish in that famously prestigious journal, only a tiny proportion of people will ever become aware of your work, let alone read it. Sure, you could be a big fish, but you would be left in a very small pond. Your work would be underappreciated and underutilised by the vast majority of the planet. Most people would never know about it, because they do not know about or have access to that journal. Some may even go on to do the same experiments and learn the same things over and over again, without you.”

The dilemma is even worse for the taxpayer who has paid for the research:

“…let’s not forget, an estimated 72 per cent of the world’s research remains hidden to the majority of readers behind a paywall. You have essentially purchased something at great expense that you are not allowed to look at.”

Is this actually true?  Or better, is it remotely plausible as an argument? To what extent are the vast majority of people on the planet clamouring for technical papers leading to REF submissions?  And REF is blind to place of publication and UKRI is working on narrartvie CVs which may circumvent that admittedly perverse focus – but it is a product of peer review as much as it is of periodicals.  

Some of the claims made, including the attractions of medical self diagnosis, strike me as dubious.  I remember a medic asking me to take old medical journals off the shelf of our library because they were dangerous.  And whilst specific research outputs may be difficult to access, the mutual attraction between research and innovation means that taxpayers do see the value of that research, but in tangible form (vaccines being a fairly obvious example, and again, it’s not the scientific publishing model which is preventing unrestricted vaccine production).  And great expense is interesting; the UK government aims to reach 2.4% of GDP on R&D, but we haven’t got there yet, and the £20million the government has announced for research and innovation spend is only just over 2%  of tax receipts. 

Taking a different tack, is it enough to be open or does it matter that you are read – and read with understanding?  Where is the concern with legibility?  The vast majority of research is written in a very small number of languages.  A lot of it is highly technical, and that’s not just science – quite a lot of arts and humanities is fairly impenetrable.  Openness is not just about a method of dissemination.

There is another issue – and it’s key, and that is the expense of some journals.  The eyewatering costs of some periodical subscriptions, driven by a few major publishers, are one of the main reasons why many of us have supported open access.  So why do we have periodicals at all?  

Smits and Pells write:

“It was not until 1665 that the world’s first recognisable scholarly journals appeared in their early forms: the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and the Journal des Sçavans, launched in London and Paris, respectively.”

“It was not until…” understates I think the extraordinary triumph of the organization of information which is represented by the periodical, and organization of information was, is and remains an enormous challenge. 

The periodical is an amazing achievement.  Starting from the desire of communities of knowledge, albeit small and highly privileged,, to publish and share knowledge, it went on to become an absolutely critical mechanism of curating information and stewarding disciplines.  The world of periodicals brings knowledge together and has done so – increasingly – in more discrete and coherent containers.  One of my great joys has always been to go into stacks and look at the physical swell and spread of a periodicals run – they have a sort of majesty, as Peter Reid from Aberdeen said to me recently. But not everyone would agree…

Robert Kiley, head of strategy Coalition S, is quoted in Plan S for Shock as follows:

“‘We don’t need journals. Journals were really useful in an age where we had to physically print things to distribute them. Since the 1990s, we’ve had something called the internet … what do we still need journals for?’

While some may argue otherwise, it is certainly true that the printed journal is very much a convenient luxury in the modern age rather than a necessity when digital copies can be created in an instant. But what about the concept of the journal itself, digital or not? The value of the curated document, Kiley says, is ‘only to say this is the stuff worth reading. We certainly don’t need the 30,000 or more journals that currently exist.’”

I don’t disagree about the proliferation of expensive journals, and I have battled myself with the massive drain on space.  But I would disagree with the idea that the value of the curated document is ‘only to say this is the stuff worth reading.’  Actually direction is critical in an information age. The rate of production of digital content is going up 20% a year I am told; it has been predicted that the world’s data will grow to 175 zettabytes in 2025.  If you attempted to download 175 zettabytes at the average current internet connection speed, it would take you 1.8 billion years.  Although much of that is not scholarly, the point remains – saying what is worth reading, for all the problems of gatekeeping, is critical to combat pseudoscience and develop information literacy.

This seems to me to pose the problem of the difference between ‘open’ and ‘curated and connected.’

How do we find our way through the labyrinth of contemporary knowledge, and how do we connect it when it is so fragmented?  In my view the key answer lies in building communities of knowledge.  For me that is an absolutely central role which librarians already play, and it relates to the way we produce knowledge. 

Even in the Open Access world, not everyone agrees with Robert Kiley:

“Brill director Jasmin Lange points out that, even if the printed record ceases to exist, a journal is so much more than the paper copy that sits on the library shelf – particularly in the smaller and more niche research fields.

‘What a journal does is build community,’ she says. ‘It’s a social thing, a platform for discussion which we as a publisher have put together with the editors and are continuously working on to improve by seeking out new authors and also new readers. One thing with OA is that we still need to look for readers for that community – because there is a huge information overflow, which makes it hard for people to find online the information that’s relevant to them.’”

Information is complex and combinatory, and I would argue it requires context.  Moving beyond information to understanding is key; we have to foster the ability to make sense of what is out there.  Again, not all seem to agree.

“As Marc Schiltz sees it, ‘everyone knows data is the asset of the future’. But, more than this, open science has the power to turn traditional research practices on their head. ‘There is so much data generated now, we are seeing this paradigm shift in science,’ he explains. ‘We used to be hypothesis-driven – so you have the idea and you go and collect data to test it out. Whereas now we have this huge amount of data available and it speaks for itself. The hypothesis is found later. It’s an entirely new approach to research which is really exciting.’”

I don’t doubt the excitement, but I really worry about the argument.  Data without narrative seems to me to return us to a decontextualized ahistoric view of science which is troubling.  How do we manage pseudoscience if we think data speaks for itself?  It doesn’t; it needs a narrative of explanation, and it needs a context – it needs to be connected.  Any article without those fundamental features of argument seems to me likely to be weak.

And we can draw the context more widely still.  One thing I think a periodical does is to give a sense of the ongoing narrative of a discipline.  Two really standard pieces of advice for graduates in my day were to read the article next to the article you were directed to, and to read the run of a periodical.  Both are ways of saying – understand your narrative and your data in context.

But how can we do this in a world of zettabytes and open access?  The answers I think will lie in communities of knowledge and team science – and that applies to arts and humanities as well as physical or medical sciences now (though we aren’t necessarily good at realizing that).

It’s only when we build or rebuild in the contemporary period the communities of knowledge which were represented in part by the organization of disciplines around periodicals that we can manage moving from open data to connected data

For me connection is critical.  It’s about connection of data across time and space through the skeins and webs of narrative, through the tests and resistances of argument.  But it’s also about how data, narrative and argument connect us as researchers and readers, make us part of a community in which we crowd in knowledge and insight with rules of rigour and methodology. 

Openness in other words is really not the goal in my view – the capacity to contextualize the flow of data is.  When openness is taken to be the desired goal it potentially cuts across the ambition of better data and better science.  Science is about connection more than it is about openness, if openness simply means that something is on a billboard for no-one to read.

In this context it becomes essential to ask “What replaces the journal?”

To a degree the answer may lie in a sort of self-curation.  And research tools now offer all sorts of opportunities for one to produce one’s own journal if you like, and it’s one of the things librarians of course are teaching more and more.

But the risk is when this isn’t set into context, when it doesn’t become part of the ongoing conversation.  For every self-taught genius who changes the world of knowledge there are thousands of keyboard warriors churning out arrant nonsense without scientific validity, without context, without story, but often with prejudice.

My view in sum is that we need to get past the open agenda and get to the connected agenda.  For that to happen we need to accept and support the fact that transition arrangements for some scholarly journals may last a while, that a mixed economy remains crucial, that diversity of practice has value, and that the specialist periodical which is affordable, and curates debate will have a role for a while to come.  We need to be open to the significance of research which isn’t quite as open to the rest of the world at point of creation, but is open to constructive challenge and debate because it is placed in the context of a community of knowledge, and then translated into public discourse.

We need to find again the mechanisms that allow debate and discussion to flow over time; a defined arena in which to test the rules.  For nearly 400 years the periodical has been one of those spaces and one of those mechanisms and for all the oddities, strangenesses and quirks, and the cost on financial and physical resource, it has been the place where we have tested science before bringing it to the world. 

So in our passion for the open let’s not lose the need for connection.

In this uncertain future, one thing is certain for me – this future will happen in a library.  Whatever the library looks like, physical or virtual, libraries are and always will be the place where we will build these essential communities of knowledge.

This is where we need to situate openness I think.  Openness should not be about ‘my article’ or ‘your article’ but about how we make the barriers to entry lower – or better how we signpost the labyrinth.  When I think of sharing knowledge, I think of Prometheus who gave us fire, that is skill and knowledge.  He didn’t give us an open access data set.  He shared a secret, made the natural legible, helped us help ourselves. 

That’s what libraries do.  It’s why libraries matter.  It’s why we should care passionately about libraries and vigorously defend them, from community libraries to school and university libraries and in the cyberspace and across the world.  And it’s why we should join them up.

So for me the new open is the new connected open – and we will find it in a refreshed understanding of the library. 


[1] Smits R. & Pells R. 2022. Plan S for Shock: Science. Shock. Solution. Speed.. London: Ubiquity Press. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bcq

Pottery, poetry, therapy

Pottery is an extraordinarily enduring and widespread cultural achievement, and the durability of baked clay means that it survives in archaeological contexts all over the world.  I am fascinated by how far pottery reaches into our societies and how as a craft it intersects with our lives.

Magdalene Odundo and Ladi Kwali

Many origin stories have the first humans formed from clay, just as they return to it; so it is for Enkidu in the epic of Gilgamesh.  God is a potter and humanity his clay throughout the Bible.[1]  Long before these texts, the very first fired earth artefacts seem to have been not containers but sculptural images; this “Venus figurine” from Dolní Věstonice (31–27,000 years BP) in Czechoslovakia has the fingerprint of a child, who touched it before it was fired.[2]

Pottery often accompanied our ancestors to their next life.  From the miniature houses of iron age Italian burials early in the first millennium BC to the extravagance of the terracotta warriors of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China around 200 BC to the Moche portrait vessels from Peru in the first millennium AD , objects from everyday use to those specifically made for the purpose were interred with the dead.

Moche Portrait head, British Museum

This historical connectedness of pottery, the long skeins of tradition, its symbiosis with humans, and its durability, have been celebrated recently in exhibitions of the work of the brilliant ceramicists and makers, Magdalene Odundo and Theaster Gates.[3]  Both show a curated sample of historical pottery along with their own work.  The Whitechapel Gallery brought them together in conversation late last year.[4]  Gates said in the conversation that ‘clay is a kind of evidence that we exist,’ and Odundo spoke of the universality and humanity of clay.

Magdalene Odundo
Theaster Gates

The craftsmanship involved, the necessary repetitiveness is inspiring.  Richard Sennett wrote “Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.” In his work on the craftsman he notes how widespread and how necessary this practice is; it is an embodied practice, it is work, and as Odundo noted, it is a form of performance, not unlike dance.[5]

The materiality of ceramic art, the deep knowing as Gates put it, is so much part of the craft that it acquires a profound metaphorical weight.  I have written before of the traditions of breaking and mending, of the way the imperfection of broken pottery and the visible labour of repair, for instance in the Japanese art of kintsugi, can stand for the reparation of broken lives.  But pottery is also profoundly social.  The word comes from drinking, it is about the act of commensality.  The study of pottery is so often the study of whole societies, whether that be as archaeologists build up their understanding from this most enduring of materials, or as historians trace its production and consumption.  In his life of Josiah Wedgewood, Tristram Hunt can trace from the potteries of Stoke whole revolutions of taste and economy, networks of slavery and enlightenment, geographies of local change and global connectivity, the embrace of classical imagery on innovative new materials.

Pottery then is a craft which we have lived with and which contains narratives of our lives and our times.  But it is of course not the only craft to do so.

The early creation stories which included those refences to clay were poems and there is a more than casual relationship for me between pottery and poetry.  A poem, from the Greek, is a thing that is made.  It is crafted.  In Homer there are comparisons with weaving and textiles, a skill that has fascinating interconnections with pottery.  It is also a craft. 

The relationship between pottery and poetry was beautifully described by M. C. Richards, a potter and teacher, who worked at Black Mountain College.  Her book, Centering: In Pottery, Poetry and the Person, is a fascinating account of her highly distinctive and spiritual approach to education and personal growth.  She was also inspired by and a friend of the great dancer Merce Cunningham, and John Cage the musician, and of course Charles Olson the poet.[6]

Centering begins with an act of creation on the potter’s wheel:

M C Richards

‘Centering: that act which precedes all others on the potter’s wheel.  The bringing of the clay into a spinning unwobbling pivot, which will then be free to take innumerable shapes as potter and clay press against each other. The firm, tender, sensitive pressure which yields as much as it asserts.  It is like a handclasp between two living hands, receiving the greeting at the very moment that they give it.  It is this speech between the hand and the clay that makes me think of dialogue.  And it is a language far more interesting than the spoken vocabulary which tries to describe it, for it is spoken not by the tongue and lips but by the whole body, by the whole person, speaking and listening.’

Richards brings together quite magically materiality, touch, sight, hearing, dance, dialogue, all towards a spirit of openness – ‘to be open to what we hear, to be open in what we say…’  The goal of a centred life is both inward-looking and outward-facing; ‘Toward self-definition and toward community. Toward ethical individualism and toward social justice. It is this fusing of the opposites that Centering enables.’

Richards also wrote, ‘Poetry is probably the most plastic of all materials.  Like the surface of water on which shadows play…’  Through Odundo I have come to know a little of the pottery of Ladi Kwali, the great Nigerian potter, and the play of light and image across the surface of her pots for me speaks back to this passage. 

Ladi Kwali

Pottery and poetry for Richards then stand in a similar relationship to the rhythm of life: ‘Centering the clay on the potter’s wheel and then using it all to make whatever shape one makes; hearing the poem in the exactitude of its words and syllables and lines and in the economy of its total fusion, these are the same story.  To bring universe into personal wholeness, to breathe in, to drink deep, to receive, to understand, to yield, to read life.  AND to spend wholeness in act, to breathe out, to mean, to say to write, to create life. It is the rhythm of our metabolism…’

Richards writes from a specific set of experiences and a highly individual philosophy, but she captures somehow not only the relationship between pottery and poetry, but also in this notion of inward centering to meet the world an expression of the essence of the social work of craft and its history.  Odundo and Gates, in very different ways are deeply political artists; both insist on narrative through their craft, both talk about healing, which takes me to the therapeutics of craft.

Pottery, poetry, dance all feature in the contemporary lexicon of therapy, and the cultural reflection in popular television programmes.  This is serious play; in various ways and at various levels of seriousness this is a recentering towards self and society.  Whether in physical or mental healing, in restoring physical strength and co-ordination or mental well-being and stability, therapy is our way of restoring our dialogue with ourselves and others.  It is no accident that these are crafts which are deeply embedded in our history at the level of locality and species.  Biologically, historically and geographically, these are part of our fractured and damaged but still continuous wholeness and humanity.

Recently, it has been reported that the local authority in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of the Potteries, the centre of our national ceramic production from the eighteenth century, is faced with a dilemma between funding social care or keeping on museum curators in some of the pottery museums and has launched a consultation.  I think the consternation created is partly related to an awareness of this metaphorical value and valence of the ceramic tradition. 

I know nothing of the unenviable choices the council has to face, or its wider plans, and the outcome is still unclear, but the fact that there is a recurrent dilemma between social care and historical memory and curation of social space, which I would describe as care of society, is troubling.

We know that we are in desperate need of healing and care.  We speak currently of long COVID; I have started to think of deep COVID, the way this experience has reached so far into our social and personal lives.  The pandemic is in the very marrow of our collective being now, through the generation that is marked by isolation, loneliness, physical and mental trauma, and the divisions which have been revealed so starkly in terms of health and economic inequality.  Just when we need to muster our every effort as a society to face the consequences of our changing climate and unsettled world, we are deeply wounded and scarred, and will be for years to come.

We are in need of that centering which looks inward to our own wellbeing and out to the care of our society – ‘toward self-definition and toward community. Toward ethical individualism and toward social justice’ as Richards put it.  That centering is inseparable from the care for our past and our place; it is the only way to counter the effects of these deep wounds and threats.

Social care and care for society cannot find themselves as mutually exclusive options.  We need both.  We need the inside and the outside – that, fundamentally, is what pottery is about – it is a form that contains space and defines space around it.  As Odundo says, it is in this sense a form of architecture.[7]

Two and a half thousand years ago, one of the greatest philosophers, Socrates, worried at what it meant to be truly alive as an individual and what it meant to live well in society.  He saw politics as a craft, and we might think again of Sennett’s dialogue between concrete practices and thinking, the rhythm between problem solving and problem finding.  And he spent much of his life talking to craftspeople in the Kerameikos, the Athenian potters’ quarter.

We need to learn a craft of therapeutic politics.  We cannot find our centre unless we do, and that demands that we find a way to sustain ourselves and our societies, our current life and the traditions we draw on to rebuild a future in our damaged lives and times. 

We need to spend time with the potters and poets.


[1] As an example, the beautiful verse “But now, O Lord, thou art our father, we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we all are the work of thy hand” (Isaiah 64:8).

[2] Králík, M., Novotný, V., & Oliva, M. (2002). Fingerprint on the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. Anthropologie (1962-), 40(2), 107–113. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26292601

[3] https://fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/visit-us/exhibitions/magdalene-odundo-in-cambridge; https://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/theaster-gates-a-clay-sermon/; https://www.vam.ac.uk/event/GgXZ8EDk/theaster-gates-slight-intervention.

[4] https://www.whitechapelgallery.org/events/big-ideas-theaster-gates/; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5p6H7dEyfF4&t=540s6] Richards

[5] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Allen Lane 2008

[6] M. C. Richards, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person, Wesleyan University Press, 1989. On Richards at Black Mountain College, see the centenary celebration https://www.blackmountaincollege.org/mcrichards/. On dance more generally see the resources at https://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/areas-of-research/centre-for-dance-research/. On Wedgwood, see Tristram Hunt, The Radical Potter: The Life and Times of Josiah Wedgewood, Allen Lane, 2021.

[7] In a similar way, Sennett’s trilogy of books, The Craftsman (2008), Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (2013) and Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City (2019) moves from craft to the rituals of co-existence to the architecture of an ethical city – from craft to rituals such as commensality to care for society.

Haphazard by starlight

After decades of planning and a tense morning, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launched on Christmas Day and began its journey to a point in space from which it can look out on, and reflect back to us, light from unimaginably far away in time.  Its long journey into the cold is the culmination of an extraordinary coming together of scientists and engineers, an act of collective creative imagination.  It is a gamble for sure, but it’s a gamble for knowledge, a bet on exploration into what we can do together, and on what we might discover.

The chance to see the very birth of stars, planets and solar systems is remarkable given that it is less than 500 years since Copernicus and Galileo rewrote our place in the universe and less than a century since we first put a human-made object into space.  And it is easy to concentrate on the astonishing technical skill involved, and to lose track of a deeper meaning.

This is my attempt to find words, some of them very old, to express a sense of profound wonder.

There have been other stories of space related exploration this year, notably the excursions by billionaires and celebrities into the upper atmosphere, which have been justified by reference to our need as humanity to step beyond the earth.  The irony of using finite resources to escape from a world of diminishing resource has not been lost. 

And with some prescience, the wonderful poet J. O. Morgan wrote his sequence of poems, The Martian’s Regress, imagining a Martian returning to an earth destroyed then abandoned by humanity; which has now destroyed Mars too.[1]  A recurrent nightmare of environmental destruction and technological overreach has never been more sharply described:

We had the filters running day and night
Everything was pure by the time it got through to us
All this had been foreseen, such cycles are predictable
And we took the impetus, we rushed up to meet it
The planet may have been going downhill
But we were forging ahead, we were leading the way
We might have stayed for several millennia more
But there’s much to be said for a change of scenery.

At the beginning of her great work The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt reflected on the accelerating space race with the launch of Sputnik 1:

“Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?”

Space exploration for the sake of human self-aggrandisement is not a new thought, or the province of the mega-rich.  The UK has an ambitious national space strategy, as do other countries.  We rely on this technology for much that we consider essential (communications and defence for example), but it ought not to be an ethics-free zone.  It is extraordinary that we litter our skies with ever more debris, and we have already changed the face of the heavens with satellites.  A right to dark skies, as UNESCO has defined it, is not just about light pollution on earth; the impact of human-made objects is a growing cause for concern.[2]  Our abuse of the oceans and land, bewailed but not repudiated, should be not a template but a lesson in our responsibility to our solar system.

In Arendt’s argument:

“The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly natures, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move without effort and without artifice…This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.  There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.  The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in tis direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.”

Arendt is not against science; indeed part of her point is that our current desire to know our place in the universe has roots as deep as philosophy itself.  She celebrates our capacity to create things – works and deeds and words.  But she appeals passionately against thoughtlessness – we must “think what we are doing.”

In contrast to space tourism, the James Webb Space Telescope seems to me to occupy an intellectual niche of potential thoughtfulness.  It is of course open to critique, and if in a few days’ time something goes wrong, we will hear that criticism mount, but I see it as a testament to a desire to know more than a will to own, and that makes this a different kind of adventure.

T. S. Eliot wrote

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.[3]

The James Webb telescope may take us closer to that stillness than we have ever been before. 

The results will come in the language of science, and are the product of a history of skills and ingenuity.  This is part of Arendt’s long history of how humans came to the astonishing ability to see themselves in and apart from the universe; “man’s ability to take this cosmic universal standpoint without changing his location” at a time when “men would have to live under the earth’s conditions and at the same time be able to look upon and act on her from a point outside.”  For Arendt, writing just shy of a decade before the first colour images of earth from space, this was part of the replacement by doubt of the sense of wonder.  But I think that we now risk the language of science superpowerdom supplanting the recovery of wonder.[4] 

Today’s science is tomorrow’s history, as Arendt shows.  The story of the James Webb Space Telescope (even down to its desperately unimaginative name) is already being told, and it is a story of ingenuity and perhaps more importantly collaboration – according to NASA “Thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians from 14 countries, 29 U.S. states, and Washington, D.C. contributed to build, test, and integrate Webb. In total, 258 distinct companies, agencies, and universities participated – 142 from the United States, 104 from 12 European nations, and 12 from Canada.”[5]  

But it is also about the emergence of new myths.  The origin of the universe will be conceptualized more compellingly by writers and artists than in scientific papers.  The birth of galaxies will be animated and imagined, and integrated into our own understanding of our place in the world both as observers and as participants.  Bede tells the story that an advisor to King Edwin of Northumbria in 627 AD described human life as:

“like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day… This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”[6]

The whole span of human history is less than a sparrow’s flight in the unimaginable length of universal time, yet we will come to a know a little more of its beginnings and possible futures; and even in the face of such immensity, the sparrow’s flight of those we love and those we lose retain a vital and not a selfish importance, because they are our way of finding a home.  And once we recognise that our home is this improbable tiny blue planet, it becomes the more wondrous.  As Carl Sagan, one of the greatest exponents of the wonders of science, puts it

“everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam… this distant image of our tiny world… underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”[7]

Earth, from Voyager 1.

So JWST is not just about our science, it’s about our story – and that story will and should become our myth.  Myths are, beyond all, complex stories which bind our small selves and our widest context.  Wendy Doniger uses a metaphor which is highly appropriate here; for her myth is the human microscope and the cosmic telescope. 

“The myth allows us to look through both ends of the human kaleidoscope at once, simultaneously to view the personal, the details that makes our lives precious to us, through the microscope of our own eye and … to view the vast panorama that dwarfs even the grand enterprises of great powers.”[8]

JWST is just such a story.  The cost may seem high – equivalent to a century of funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council! – but the value of wonder is beyond measure.  As Arendt showed, to lose wonder is to gain merely doubt – a very poor trade. 

Here’s one new story.  I find it immensely moving that JWST set out to discover the oldest light on the day that, in an enduring myth, light came into the world.  John’s Gospel weaves a complex and rich set of Hebrew and Gnostic imagery into its prologue:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”

John the Evangelist has Genesis in mind of course

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.”

And the notion of the early creation of light is wonderfully old and perennially meaningful.  The Sumerian epic, the Enuma Elish, one of the oldest stories we have, tells of the creation of light.  A Greek author in the first century AD quoted ‘let there be light’ from Genesis as an instance of the sublime in writing.  Dante makes his ascent into Paradise, guided by Beatrice, a voyage into light, drawing on medieval optics and setting an agenda for art for centuries to come.[9]  And as JWST peers back towards a time before the stars were made, I think of Milton intuiting from his own blindness the emergence of light before the sun was created:[10]

“Let there be light; said God, and forthwith light
Ethereal, first of things, quintessence pure,
Sprung from the deep, and from her native east
To journey through the airy gloom began,
Spher’d in a radiant cloud, for yet the sun
Was not; she in a cloudy tabernacle
Sojourn’d the while. God saw the light was good;
And light from darkness by the hemisphere
Divided: light the day, and darkness night
He nam’d. Thus was the first day even and morn.”

Hunting for the light ethereal, for the stillness between two waves, listening for the echoes of time before time, this is truly a human endeavour of wonderment.  And if the story is told well, it will lead us to a better and more humble understanding of ourselves, not the world of science superpowers, but something more lasting and more profound.

U. A. Fanthorpe wrote a lovely poem called BC/AD about the strangeness of a moment in time which changes everything.  Set within the banality of politics and the realities of oppression, a birth, a shifting in perception. It will surely be the unexpected that will catch our breath in JWST’s long solitary sojourn in the cold darkness, and bring us light.

“This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.”


[1] J. O. Morgan, The Martian’s Regress, Cape Poetry, 2020.

[2] A recent article in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters addresses this; https://www.darksky.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Kocifaj-et-al-2021.pdf; the earlier UNESCO report is https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000246131.

[3] T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, from Four Quartets.

[4] The political quotes at https://www.ukri.org/news/james-webb-space-telescope-launch-celebrated-by-uk/ pull the focus back to earth every time, from the universe and its galaxies to the UK, its jobs and its strategic position. They look inward not outward.  In the season 2 episode, “Galileo” of the TV series, The West Wing, the team prepare the President’s speech to schoolchildren waiting to see an unmanned vessel land on Mars.  The speech takes us from the eyes of those watching, to the spacecraft to Mars.  As Bartlett remarks of Sam Seaborn’s lines, ‘He said it right.’   

[5] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/nasa-s-webb-telescope-is-an-international-endeavor.  JWST blasted off from French Guiana off the coast of South America (a place with its own interesting history of colonial appropriation, a warning perhaps against thoughtless approaches to the unknown).

[6] Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica 2.13; Old English translation at https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2012/05/venerable-bede-and-blink-of-eye.html.

[7] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot. United States: Random House USA Inc. 1997, 6-7.

[8] Wendy Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth, Columbia 1998, 25.

[9] See now Martin Kemp, Visions of Heaven: Dante and the Art of Divine Light, Lund Humphries 2021.

[10] John Milton, Paradise Lost, 7.243-52.

Ethical research

When we think of research ethics, we tend to think across a range of separate areas – the behaviour of researchers towards their material (plagiarism, falsification etc.), towards other researchers (harassment, discrimination etc.) or towards the human or animal subjects of their research (physical or psychological harm or distress, social or economic damage, invasion of privacy or betrayal of confidentiality and so on).

Alex London’s important new book focuses very much on the third area, and specifically on medicine.[1]  His substantially elaborated case for research ’for the common good’ is largely framed within a medical context and with reference to low and middle income countries. 

His strong claim is that the research enterprise should be understood on fundamentally social terms.  “It is a division of social labor between a diverse range of stakeholders that requires the exercise of social authority and the utilization of social resources in order to fulfill a distinctively social purpose… the moral purpose of this social enterprise is to generate the knowledge and the means necessary to enable the basic social institutions of a community to effectively, efficiently, and equitably secure and advance the basic interests of their respective members” (17).

Although this claim is generalised here, most of the book reverts to participant research with a strong emphasis towards medical examples, and it is none the less impactful for that.  

I am interested in working through what this means for research more generally however, and specifically arts and humanities.  What are the consequences of this argument?

London develops his argument further towards the end of the book: “research stands in a special relationship to the basic structures of a community because it produces a unique public good. This public good is the information and means necessary to understand threats to the basic interests of community members, the causal processes involved in the lifecycle of such threats, to understand and develop alternative means of addressing those threats, and to clarify the relative merits of possible preventative or restorative strategies” (387).

Here the argument has moved on from the moral purpose of a social enterprise, that is research, to its place as a public good.  Now it is relatively straightforward to see this operating in medical research and the volume is timely in the context of COVID-19 and has evident consequences for the fair and equitable distribution of vaccines.

If one frames the question as to how arts and humanities research is a public good, the argument risks becoming an instrumentalization of what we do, and there are plenty of examples of research twisted to relevance, misshapen by a determination to demonstrate impact that is hard to discern or prove. This is true of some scientific research too, in fairness.  But I am keen to reframe the question altogether.

London does not (I think) quite make this argument, but his enterprise suggests that the trade offs and decisions necessary to deliver research that produces a public good are located precisely in the combination of arts and humanities and social sciences with sound data.  The answers will not be straightforward but a matter of fruitful debate, the terms of which are grounded in ethical, historical and social circumstances.

When London concludes by saying that research is embedded in complex social systems “into which it feeds, and that influence the incentives for stakeholders who advance the many different objectives out of which the larger tapestry of cooperation is woven,” (422) he begins to hint at the very broad notion of scientific research which is necessary to deliver the public good he has identified.

To be more concrete, our disciplinary boundaries are at their starkest when we fail to ground research sufficiently in the broadest systemic design.  To talk about health without talking about economics, or well being; to talk about health disparities without talking about historical inequalities; to talk about health systems without talking about the politicization of the body, and the differential value placed on life is profoundly limiting at best.  Indeed it would be better to say that you simply cannot talk about science without a deep historical and cultural contextualization of the object of science as well as an ethical one.

We can I think go further.  If we consider two of the crises we currently face, one from a pandemic and the other from climate change, it is easy to see that from the perspective of history, geography and economy they are closely linked.  The spread of the virus was swift because of the nature of our mobility, which was the product of a system which has contributed greatly to climate change.  The virus has exposed disparities and fractures in society which are themselves also products of economic systems which have contributed to our current predicaments; but these are also the ruptures in our social fabric and contract which are most likely to be exacerbated by a worsening climate.  And the tensions which arise are already affecting us all; water and food shortages are a geopolitical threat.

It is not that arts, humanities and social sciences have all the answers, but I would contend that they offer the critical and methodologically rigorous context and connections that bring research agendas together.  We have to think of systems not of individual problems; we must raise our sights to see how the common good which London identifies is not attainable without this broader view.  The social systems in which research is embedded are only explicable through the application of cultural, linguistic, historical, economic and philosophical lenses.

London’s argument therefore offers an interesting reframing of what an ethical scientific framework should look like.  It demonstrates that we need to bring all our insights to bear for research to deliver genuine public good. 

The answer is our appreciation of the interconnectedness of our past and our future, our study of human life and everything and everyone both present and future with which we share it, and of the richness of the notion of human flourishing which it is our privilege to explore.


[1] Alex John London, For the Common Good: Philosophical Foundations of Research Ethics, Oxford 2022 and available open access at https://www.cmu.edu/dietrich/philosophy/people/faculty/london.html.

Reparative readings

How can one read oneself through a time of emergency?  There is every reason at present to feel on a precipice, with pandemics, climate change, threats of violence and intimations of political rupture.  There are signs of temptations again towards a backward look to a fictitious past – when we were great, pure, on the verge of freedom.  Conspiracy narratives are coupled with sheer tiredness to fuel a refusal to take the hard steps forward.

In the 1990s Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote of paranoid reading and reparative reading in the midst of the AIDS pandemic.[1]  Most of the essay is about paranoia, conspiracy theories and defensive modalities which forestall pain by assuming the worst.  Paranoid reading makes sense of the nonsensical and random, creates a club of the supposedly knowledgeable, and finds an ‘other’ to blame. 

As Olivia Laing points out in Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, Sedgwick has less to say about reparative reading.  Sedgwick’s key passage is as follows:

“to read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new; to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise. Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. Hope, often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience, is among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organize the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates.  Because the reader has room to realize that the future may be different from the present, it is also possible for her to entertain such profoundly painful, profoundly relieving, ethically crucial possibilities as that the past, in turn, could have happened differently from the way it actually did.”

And Laing takes this as her starting point in her essays to find surprising potential even in utter horror, from Trump to Grenfell, the victims of AIDS to a young man losing half his life in the surreal ghastliness of detention centres.[2]

Sedgwick worried that we did not have a sufficient theoretical language for reparative readings, that “the vocabulary for articulating any reader’s reparative motive toward a text or a culture has long been … sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary.”  Her best definition is highly personalized;  reparative reading “wants to assemble and confer plenitude on an object that will then have resources to offer to an inchoate self.”  Interest in elaboration and aggregation on the one hand and interest in the marginal and fragmentary on the other, both lead to possibilities for rich and multiple readings that offer pleasure but also the potential for surprise.  Reparative reading seems to encourage openness where paranoid reading always seeks to close the loop; reparative reading gives even the vulnerable a place to stand.

What is increasingly interesting to me is negotiating a glide from reparative to regenerative thinking, a phrase adopted by the RSA as a new platform for action.  As Josie Warden defines it,

“A ‘regenerative’ mindset is one that sees the world as built around reciprocal and co-evolutionary relationships, where humans, other living beings and ecosystems rely on one another for health, and shape (and are shaped by) their connections with one another. It recognises that addressing the interconnected social and environmental challenges we face is dependent on rebalancing and restoring these relationships.”[3]

This approach contains implicitly or explicitly some notion of a unified system, of interconnection, of a logic that sits over and across relationships, but it shares with reparative as opposed to paranoid thinking an expectation of surprise, a valuing of error and a desire to allow mistakes to support learning, and a willingness if not a determination to rewrite past present and future.  It is open to the irruption of hope into cycles of prediction and teleologically reductive notions of human nature.

It is unsurprising in this context that Graeber and Wengrow’s attempt to redraw early human history as more surprising, unexpected and capable of reversing away from hierarchy and exploitation has struck a powerful chord.[4]  And its action-oriented mission places it within the aspirational aims of mission-driven thinking and socializes the individually reparative within the socially regenerative.  As Sam Rye argues in his fieldnotes on complexity, ‘relationship building is the work.’[5]  Through reading clubs and advocacy groups and numerous other mechanisms, regenerative thinking may offer a way to create more rigorously tested methodologies to counteract the ‘sappy, aestheticizing, defensive, anti-intellectual, or reactionary’ theories which Sedgwick resisted.  If so, we need to think about how out academic practice not only supports this but also embodies it, and not only in hermeneutic practice but also in our relational work and scaling up.

That then may drive us to look at culture – to a field of activity which arises from and responds to individual images or events.  One person who knew the value of making culture work was Vaclav Havel, who died just a decade ago.  His determination to see the possibility of culture as a mobilizing force for the many sits within his overarching goal to encourage ‘living in truth,’ a truth which might be open ended and contested but was by necessity and in its hopefulness reparative. This truth broke the closed lie of a totalitarian mindset, which is the ultimate in paranoid thinking.

Havel wrote:

“Being happy if five thousand rather than five people can read a good text or see a good painting is, I think, a wholly legitimate expression of understanding the meaning of culture – even when that joy comes from the perception that “things are beginning to move.” Or is not precisely some “beginning to move” – again in that deeper, existential sense – the primordial intent of everything that really belongs to culture? After all, that is precisely the mark of every good work of culture: it sets our drowsy souls and our lazy hearts “moving!” And can we separate the awakening human soul from what it always already is, an awakening community?”[6]


[1] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick,. “4. Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You”, in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, edited by Michèle Aina Barale, Jonathan Goldberg and Michael Moon, New York, USA: Duke University Press, 2003, pp. 123-152.

[2] Olivia Laing, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, London 2020, citing Sedgwick at 5 and 114-16.

[3] https://www.thersa.org/comment/2021/11/what-does-regenerative-thinking-mean

[4] D. Graeber, D. Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything, London 2021; an early response at https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/10/25/on-first-looking-into-the-dawn-of-everything1/.

[5] https://www.samrye.xyz/fieldnote-the-so-what-of-complexity-part-iii/

[6] Vaclav Havel, Living in Truth, London 1986, 135 from a speech made in Hrádeček in 1984.

On First Looking into The Dawn of Everything[1]

I confess I had not heard of the hero of David Wengrow and the late and much missed David Graeber’s bestseller, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. It is a safe bet that he is about to become rather famous.

Kandiaronk was a 17th century Huron or Wendat chief, who appears in the memoirs of an impoverished French aristocrat, Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce de Lahontan, Baron de Lahontan.  He probably visited France and Lahontan translates him into a character in a dialogue, Adario.  Rameau turned this into an opera, and the anti-clerical rationalist legislation from the New World left a long and deep impact.[2]

Kandiaronk / Adario’s critique of Christianity and French society is usually taken as an entirely fictitious example of the noble savage trope.[3]  Indeed in the earlier part of the last century, it was a matter of doubt in the western tradition as to whether the whole account of his voyages was fabricated, a scepticism less common now.  Graeber and Wengrow ask what follows if we accept that Kandiaronk’s account of his own society and their rational approach to wealth, law and deliberation was in fact accurately transcribed by Lahontan?

So one consequence is a retelling of the Enlightenment.  In this story, the world outside Europe, is not the exotic construct through which Europe reconfigured itself, but is actually the source of Enlightenment thought.  It is not that thinking about the other allows the Enlightenment to happen; rather, the Other is the source.[4] 

Much is made to ride on this because if the so-called primitive turns out to have been actually a great deal more politically and philosophically sophisticated, perhaps we need to rethink our categories.  For Graeber and Wengrow a number of critical conclusions follow, amongst them:

  • At no stage should we assume that human society – and that includes all human society[5] – was incapable of thought, imagination and reason.
  • There is nothing inevitable about the trajectory of human history
  • We should therefore take more seriously the possibility for humans to make different choices.

What follows is not a review of this remarkable book, a task for which I have no competence.  Instead I want to worry about the use of sources, suggest that this weakness is not fatal, but perhaps has a subtle awkward consequence, and to try to situate better what are called heroic societies, and especially, the one that interests me most, archaic Rome.

It is true that our assumption that Adario is simply a cipher for Lahontan’s views, and can be discounted as evidence, is potentially dismissive.  But it is not to be underestimated how powerful the paradigms were in which Lahontan wrote.  Moreover, if Kandiaronk did know as much of the western world as is suggested, why should he not have absorbed some of its ways of thinking, at least sufficiently to be able to turn that reasoning against them?  What is more troubling is that this literalist reading of Lahontan’s account of Adario is neither a good nor a strong framing of the wider argument, and risks undermining one of the core arguments of the book, that human societies are much more diverse and unlike each other than we tend to think.  Kandiaronk is made to respond with effectively western logic to a western problem, the role of Christianity.  Jesuits of the time claimed the native Americans could make nothing of Christian doctrine.  For them this was a sign of their ignorance; it would be equally possible, and perhaps more legitimate, to regard it as sophisticated bewilderment at patent nonsense; believing Lahontan on Kandiaronk may do a disservice to the admirable strangeness of Huron thought.  We will come back to the consequence of incommensurable world views.

Although Graeber and Wengrow were clearly taken with their framing, it seems to me to do little heavy lifting.  The action is somewhere else – even the account of the Huron does not really depend much on Lahontan.  So whether or not it stands is not fatal to the rest.

What might be more difficult is the argument which I suspect will be levelled at the book, that it tilts against elderly windmills.[6]  Evolutionist thinking, the kind which produced a ladder of human societal development from band to tribe to chief to state, is very much the target of the book.  Graeber and Wengrow argue that even if this is now outdated, the notion that once one was on the ladder, the direction was largely inescapable, still holds.  Their version of history allows human societies to get off the ladder time and again, and not just because of disaster.  Sometimes, it seems, societies spent a very long time not getting on that ladder, or not even recognising its existence.  And when they did make choices, the outcomes were often very different.  Thus, although Graeber and Wengrow identify control of violence, control of information and individual charisma as three axes of domination (I would prefer power), different societies combined these differently.[7]

But before we all congratulate ourselves on being cleverer than The Dawn of Everything makes us out to be, I would argue that Graeber and Wengrow are absolutely right to detect that the declaration that we don’t think this way is firstly partial (quite a lot of scholarship on the Mediterranean still does) and secondly skin deep.  It is very difficult to read most scholarship on archaic Italy and not bump up against the awkward fact that there is a deeply ingrained teleology and one which struggles more with the archaeological reality than it admits. 

Here I think we hit a tricky problem.  For The Dawn of Everything, there is a range of societies which display a number of kinds of flexibility.  Their formal existence may be transient – order and hierarchy may be seasonal, and then lapse.  They may be large and extended but actually relatively non-hierarchical.  They may have very different ways of expressing value.  The upshot is that there is no such thing as “the state”; and there is a good question as to whether the states we come across are really comparable.  The question not quite raised is whether and how comparison is helpful – what is at stake by forcing different communities across wide spans of space and time to be set against each other along certain baseline expectations – specialization of markets, intensity of production, existence of slavery or not – when those societies thought of themselves in entirely different ways, and when even adjacent societies may have developed through what Graeber and Wengrow call schismogenesis, a conscious and far-reaching process of differentiation? For Graeber and Wengrow comparison reveals difference, even of the fundamental values of society; too often, though, it is used to flatten distinctions in the search for common denominators. At least one consequence of this book should be to make that approach less appealing.

Most of the book therefore uses the diversity of society to challenge the idea that we only had one way forward.  That is where the problem of the Enlightenment project comes in by asking the question of how we got stuck, if life was either better before, or heading towards perfection, and if on either reading we aren’t in a good place now.  The two obvious answers are that actually this is a super time to be alive, much better than the alternatives and so we are not stuck, or that this is a terrible time, but we aren’t as stuck as we think.[8]

On either reading, the question arises as to when we became stuck, or were persuaded we were and that we could not change.

I may have missed it but I am not sure that Graeber and Wengrow quite answer this question, though there is a grumpy section on Roman law.  There is an interesting minor thread which runs through which notes that bureaucracy is more pronounced in small scale so-called heroic societies – like Mycenaean palaces.  Moreover, power in terms of violence rapidly dwindles over space, and heroes are nothing if not charismatic, though the fascination may be rather twisted.  And reading the Roman law argument again from this standpoint is interesting.

What Graeber and Wengrow argue is that one way of seeing indigenous American society was as caring for those inside, but dominating to those outside.  Roman law, driven by the notion of ownership of res mancipi, land, houses, slaves and four footed beasts of burden, brought the notion of domination into the household, thus breaching the distinction between equality of care of those inside and brutality to those outside.

I want to make three observations here.  First, the concentration on ownership as a critical vector of social development is correct.  Elsewhere, Graeber and Wengrow focus on the relationship between the sacred and ownership, and much Roman religious practice is indeed, as Yan Thomas pointed out, a matter of property law.  Second, I find the work effected by this comparison between care and domination both unpersuasive and troubling; I am just not sure I can follow it to a helpful conclusion.  The part of the equation that refers to equal care within society seems to be optimistic as a description of most societies and possibly even the Wendat (it rests on Jesuit descriptions in part), and the outcome of a comparison of in-groups and out-groups is unappealing.  But third, and here is my main interest, I think it pushes the issue of the shift back to the foundation of Roman law, which again is effectively in the archaic period – the first Roman law code is from the fifth century BC and by definition encodes what was already in practice.

Graber and Wengrow nicely call the archaic a ‘chronological slap in the face.’  But for the Mediterranean area, they slide a bit between archaic and heroic.  And from this comes an interesting challenge.

What is liberating about this book is the way it repeatedly opens up interpretation and challenges any notion of fixity.  But the insidious thought that the origins of all that went wrong lies in the archaic definitions of Roman law makes precisely the literalist error that I worry applies equally to the account of Kandiaronk.  The very little we know of ‘heroic’ society has to be read against the grain of much later texts and demands to be subjected to exactly the same radical questioning that Graeber and Wengrow apply to everywhere else.

Once one does this, then Rome starts to look odd – or rather, our traditional notion of Rome looks odd.  Rome can be and often is seen as a society which evolves from clan to state.  Along the way it has kings.  But those kings leave barely anything that looks like a palace, and what they do leave is completely overshadowed by works of civic benefit; a paved piazza, temples, a storm drain, walls.  The clans are assumed to be old, original almost, but it’s equally possible that they are the products of and responses to political change.[9]  Rome has no real tradition of heroization. And the kings are stranger kings – almost all outsiders, and most are killed.[10]   For now let’s leave aside the impact this had on how modern ethnography understood kingship; the fact is that Roman authors in the Republic construct a model of power which is circumscribed, socially beneficial and highly rational until, with the last king Tarquin the Proud, it isn’t, which is when it is discarded.  Rome then survived without any palace right through to the middle of the first century AD and the construction of the absurdly overblown and shortlived Neronian experiment.  It is really only in the late first century AD that Rome develops a highly demarcated stable central bureaucratic space on the Palatine.  Prior to that, insofar as Rome had a central space, it was in the complex interplay of a temple and an assembly space (Capitol and forum), power subjected to the gods and to the people. 

It is welcome to have a universal history that isn’t obsessed with Greece and Rome.  But a next step in the argument may be to dismantle more effectively the intellectual history which created the evolutionary model itself.  One pillar is a classical teleology, but it is one which can be shown not to work in its own case.  Nicholas Purcell characterised cities as political and social philosophy in action and yet they are often not very Aristotelian.  The myth was already at odds with reality; the multiplicity of forms and models, even across a congested landscape, is as evident as the consistency which emerged from using the same sorts of materials and living in similar ecological niches.

Romans may have constructed a myth of Rome evolving from primitivism but just as Lahontan’s Adario / Kandiaronk may be a highly sophisticated but unreliable narrator, so we have to reckon with the Romans being similarly unreliable narrators of themselves.  Once one starts to unpick Rome’s story of its origins, what may emerge is stranger and more exciting.  In  particular, there opens up a story of much more fluidity and of the sorts of movement in and out of forms of power (seasonality, differentiations of power inside and outside the city, complex negotiations of care and sovereignty, debate and heterarchy, and the deep and profound significance of the sacred) which allow us to read archaic Rome against the grain of the texts, and posit the texts as doing a particularly kind of foundational work which may ultimately have been a form of entrapment.   The elaboration of a model of kingship which never existed proved useful for others who wanted to be kings.

And if we push this to its ultimate expression, we might wish to argue that the Enlightenment and subsequent thought used Rome, and Greece too but in different ways, as a foil which expressed their own conservative tendencies – tendencies which included a notion of the exaltation of care for the ingroup (notoriously expressed by Saul, later Paul of Tarsus, declaring civis Romanus sum to avoid arrest) and justified rapacious conquest of the outgroup.  This became far more pronounced with the creation of Roman history and law as a discipline in the 19th century.  The prison we are living in would therefore be of very recent manufacture.

So Graeber and Wengrow have given us a new history and it is brilliant, necessary and liberating.  No part of our history licenses the belief that we cannot be free of history.  My suggestions are that if we do not trap ourselves into literal reading of texts, but investigate a little more carefully the dire consequences of the dominant intersection between Darwinian biology and models of social evolution specifically in the study of Greece and Rome, we may find that the mythic structures that have been trapping us are even more implausible and even more modern. 

Armed with this knowledge, and with the stimulus of this fascinating and challenging book, we may be able to write both a better history of the Mediterranean and one which adds to the impetus to believe in human freedom, and our capacity to change our world for the better. 


[1] D. Graeber, D. Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, London, 2021.  The title of this blog obviously hints at Keats, whose reference to the heroic world of ancient Greece and the conquest of the New World are both pertinent to the book.

[2] The impact of the dialogues can be traced through Montesquieu, Diderot and Voltaire and countless other depictions of the noble savage.  Lahontan himself tells us he travelled with a copy of Lucian, and the supposition, without much demonstration, is that he borrowed Lucian’s figure of the noble and wise ‘barbarian’ Scythian prince Anacharsis as a model.  This is no doubt partially correct, on any reading, but notably in advance of the ore famous treatment by Barthélémy.

[3] D. A. Harvey, The French Enlightenment and Its Others: The Mandarin, the Savage, and the Invention of the Human Sciences, London 2012 is singled out.

[4] Actually, some of this is foreshadowed and rather better contextualized for a slightly different set of accounts by J. Osterhammel, Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia, Princeton 2018; https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2018/08/07/unfabling-the-east/

[5] Graber and Wengrow work hard to recover female agency and wisdom for prehistory.

[6] Conversely one of the book’s many admirably enjoyable features is the thoughtful rescue (without undue rehabilitation) of figures such as Hocart, Clastres, Gimbutas, Canetti, Steiner. The figure who lurks most productively I suspect is Lévi-Strauss, but that will require another essay.

[7] For a book that struggles with taxonomy, this is an odd choice, which seems instigated by the desire to arrive at the modern notions of sovereignty, bureaucracy and competitive politics.  Even a book which wants to resist genealogical thinking struggles to break free; the consequence is a lapse into a more reductive comparative analysis than operates elsewhere.

[8] The first is the predominant mode of global history from Diamond to Morris to Pinker and so on; the second is the conclusion of this book and much of Graeber’s work, summarised by his now famous line “The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

[9] It is a nice coincidence that Morgan, whose account of ancient society inspired Engels and underlies a good deal of the teleology Graeber and Wengrow seek to overthrow, was a student of the Iroquois and almost certainly read them through the lens of Roman law, this creating a picture of archaic society which was in fact merely a reflection of contentious Roman speculation about themselves.

[10] Terminology and observations taken from D. Graeber and M. Sahlins, On Kings, Chicago, 2017.

History’s flow

On 15 June 1878 the East London Observer reported the case of one Eliza S–, whose infant children had been taken into care.  She blamed her husband, who was by then deceased.  He had been an Italian who made bird cages, and had had difficulties with debt.  Eliza survived her conviction to die an old woman in a workhouse.  From this story, Judith Willson has woven an extraordinary poetic meditation, Fleet, named after the river which fed into the Thames.  Much of the book takes place up and down the Thames, a confluence of exotic birds, migrants and washed up detritus in the mud and marshes, and towards the end of the book, the gaze broadens out to Ancona, the home of the Italian dealer in ‘foreign birds and curiosities.’[1]

The collection includes a series of children’s songs, acute and oblique views of life, but in playground rhythms, which have such deep roots.  It also reflects on the technological capture of the past or of distance – the first recording, early photographs, maps, archives, telescopes.  The collection is pervaded by a profound sense of the unknowability of the past, but its vitality nonetheless

‘Time is a process of coming into being’

not a memorial stone                     a story

neither remembered                     nor imagined

a saltwater creek                             its vagaries

silt-water             silk-mud               mirror-mud

Eliza’s circumstances are largely unrecoverable, except by a process of imagination shaped by the fragments of the past.  She slips away, even her grave is not preserved:

‘she left nothing                               not even her death.’ 

In one of the most haunting moments Willson imagines the court scene, recorded in the papers:

The prisoner said

the only words she spoke in her life

that anyone recorded,

pressed into lead.

What moves through her

is invisible, silent

as the dark between the stars.

Yet for all that Eliza is elusive, missing, unknowable, she is also an amazingly vibrant presence, imagined at the laundry, warming her hands, listening to the songbirds, ‘a breath exhaled between numbers,’ a presence half glimpsed, finding her independence in her ungraspable particularity, finding her place in the water, ‘riding the tideway into the eye of the wind.’

There are many ways to read this wonderful book; one is as framing what the work is that history does.  From the tiniest scraps of archives, a newspaper, court records, a cross for a signature, the map of where a grave once was, we get a partial vision of something which happened, which can be analysed but which is still elusive.  These fragments are like the scraps Willson finds on the foreshore by Rotherhithe

Neck of a bottle

                                                                freckled earthenware

                                                                plump as a song thrush

Chunk of fogged glass

                                                                moulded nubs and trails

                                                                unreadable under my fingertips

But the challenge of unreadability, the act of translation and transmutation that goes on in imagining and performing, the capture of the glimpse of voices and faces is the work of history:

each of us walking through our muddled days

muttering in our own dialect

twisting it into shapes to hold some wild flapping creature

in all its improbable colours

What is missed too often in debates over culture and history at present is that polyphony is at the very heart of history.  History is fundamentally aggregative, connective; like water it flows into gaps and seeks out new channels.  If history does not flow, become renewed by new approaches and voices, it becomes stagnant.  The addition of Eliza’s voice, the bird cage maker of Ancona, the history of the docks and implication in empire, the slaughter of birds for a market in feathered trinkets, the broken debris, the migrant and the prisoner – and the poet joining them up over time – is the work of history.  The more voices we hear, the richer our histories, and our shared lives. 

It is inconceivable to me that the addition of voices should be understood as the replacement or cancelling of voices.  History that has just one note is nothing but a dessicated voiceless bird in a cage.

I am writing this a mile or so away from where Eliza and her Italian husband lived in a shop, perhaps crammed with sailers’ curios and exotic birds, watching the Thames flow. 

Rotherhithe looking west

There is a moment when Willson is looking at the same part of the Thames and writes

Impossible to believe

we never touch anything

We make it all up out of particles

a shimmer at the boundary          a story

that travels on the tides

But make it up we do, and must; our humanity depends on finding ways to imagine the connections between us, and that is why arts and humanities as disciplines have such a critical place in our world.  We mend, we sing,[2] we tell stories so that our aloneness joins that of others to make sense in the flow of time.  Our disciplines find their greatest strength and relevance in their openness to helping voices be heard.


[1] Judith Willson, Fleet, Carcanet Press, Manchester 2021. The online book launch can be viewed here.

[2] On mending and singing, see my previous blogs https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/03/28/magic-and-the-mastery-of-non-mastery/ and https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/03/08/breaking-fixing-wondering/.

Magic, and the mastery of non-mastery

When and how is the world most alive to me?  When I am most in tune with it or most at odds with it?  As a fundamentally clumsy individual, I am frequently put in mind of, and awed by, those who show genuine dexterity and competence.  What sometimes rattles round in my head as I drop screws, fumble for tools, lose and break things is Heidegger’s notion of the carpenter and his hammer.  Heidegger alludes to the way that a craftsman and his tool (the Heideggerian world of carpentry is inescapably and unforgivably male) can be so at one with each other that the tool withdraws from visibility – the skilled worker barely knows the hammer is there or separate from him in his work.  ‘Handiness is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself initially a theme for circumspection. What is peculiar to what is initially at hand is that it withdraws, so to speak, in its character of handiness in order to be really handy.’[1]  This example draws attention to a particular state of absorption. It is deliberately based in the world of physical labour which Heidegger felt he knew from his own woodworking and practical knowledge, and thereby is set in deep contrast to the rather unworldly speculations of his philosophical opponent Ernst Cassirer, who one supposes had spent little time contemplating hammers. It also goes fully against his old master Husserl. Heidegger says ‘The less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly it is encountered as that which it is—as equipment. The hammering itself uncovers the specific “manipulability” [Handlichkeit] of the hammer. The kind of Being which equipment possesses—in which it manifests itself in its own right—we call “readiness-to-hand” [Zuhandenheit].’  Whereas Husserl spent a lot of time staring at things, describing objects and representations of them, Heidegger insists you have to pick the hammer up and hit something with it to have the basic intuitive relationship with it.[2]

Hammers

However, things go wrong even for the best of carpenters.  The tool is misplaced; the hammer breaks; it becomes unhandy.  At that point, the carpenter begins to look around the world and see the complexity of relationships in which he and the hammer were entangled.  Things become more conspicuous in themselves and in their relationships.  The carpenter notices his workshop in a different way when it ceases to be the perfect extension of his activity.

Nursing the toe on which I had dropped a heavy piece of a desk chair I was trying to assemble, I could get behind the notion that unhandiness discloses the world in a sharper way.  But this Heideggerian progression, which as always is never really explicit, has troubled me for a while.

In the first instance, it’s not at all clear to me that we can speak of some sort of primordial perception.  There’s more than a bit of a sense of an idealized, but not terribly reflective, early humanity.[3]

Happisburgh hand axe

In the second instance, there’s something just a bit too easy about that slide from functional invisibility to dysfunctional visibility.  Is it really the case that we can make such a distinction?  Can one not consciously enjoy being in tune with the world?[4] 

And thirdly, what is the goal of all this?  Being and Time, whatever else it is, is an assertion of an individualistic capacity to be authentic, which, in part, comes from an absolute determination to face up to the irreducible certainty of one’s own death.  But it’s not a book about death; it’s a book about the irreducible mine-ness of life and its questions (Jemeinigkeit).  Heidegger’s carpenter is at the centre of the world – his hammer, his workbench, his hut on the hill, his history, his people, his destiny.   

Heidegger’s hut

When at the famous debate between the two philosophers at Davos, Cassirer asked if Heidigger was willing to give up objectivity, he touched on the core of the debate, and specifically the core of the function of our anxiety.  Cassirer sought liberation from anxiety through culture and thought, through the role of symbolic form;[5] Heidegger was driven by anxiety to the rejection of all palliatives; authenticity is found in nothingness and finitude.  Cassirer seemed out of his time already at Davos; he is perhaps even further from our thinking now, and that is unfortunate; it’s good to see a new translation of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. 

Cassirer and Heidegger at Davos, 1929

But whereas Heidegger is more recognisable, his aggressive appropriation of the centre of the world into the little mountain hut meant that whereas he spoke the language of care, it’s not clear to me that the object of care was nearly as important as the carer.  Heidegger’s anxiety trumped and triumphed over all.  Whilst Heidegger was writing Being and Time he was also in a relationship with Hannah Arendt; he famously said to her (using Augustine), volo ut sis – I want that you might be.  It’s perhaps telling that his indicative wanting grammatically trumps her subjunctive existence.[6]

Heidegger had not yet done with his carpenter’s eye view.  Much later in life, he returned to the network of entangled relationships that woodworking revealed. He imagines the apprentice working to the instructions of the experienced carpenter:

‘If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood—to wood as it enters into man’s dwelling with all the hidden riches of its essence. In fact, this relatedness to wood is what maintains the whole craft. Without that relatedness, the craft will never be anything but empty busywork, any occupation with it will be determined exclusively by business concerns. Every handicraft, all human dealings, are constantly in that danger.’[7]

In this later formulation, Heidegger is closer it seems to me to the Spinozists or new materialists, and this leads to the sorts of language which Hartmut Rosa has started to develop in his expansive new synthesis Resonance, in which he says ‘When we love these things [sc. the people, places, tasks, ideas, objects, and implements that we encounter and with which we interact], there emerges something like a vibrating wire between us and the world;’ and it is along these axes of resonance that our contentedness is to be found.  This is about a kind of ‘right relationship’ and Rosa is pulling together an enormously complex tradition in so doing.[8] 

I want to move on by contrasting early Heidegger and his contemporaries with a different sort of thinking, which is part of Rosa’s inheritance, and that is the rejection of the notion of mastery as a goal.  For it seems to me that what unites three of the four magicians of Wolfram Eilenberger’s recent group biography is a fundamental belief that the aim of a philosophical life is mastery, the final attainment of some sort of language or technique that offers truth.  And this powerful deduction of a necessary development from skill to mastery to truth, the attainment of a techne, is exactly what I find so difficult.

In Heidegger, the notion of a primordial skill in which the world withdraws is replaced by the idea of an anxiety which gives the individual a degree of centrality within the network of increasingly visible (ready-to-hand) relationships.  Although Heidegger and Cassirer ended up in disagreement, Cassirer sought a similarly universal account – and if Heidegger’s centre was his Black Forest hut, Cassirer’s was Warburg’s library.  And the third figure is Wittgenstein, whose commitment to understanding language takes us round from Heidegger’s practical thinking, Cassirer’s historically informed synthesis to the world as it is constructed through the way we speak: ‘To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions). To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique’ (Philosophical Investigations #199). 

The Warburg Library

The odd one out is – as so often – Benjamin.  Benjamin is far less convinced of the efficacy of technique, or rather, for Benjamin, where technique goes wrong is where it entails an instrumentalism which is designed to master the world.[9]  In The Work of Art in its Age of Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin argues that technique is the medium through which humans give shape to the world. He too has a ‘primordial’ and a ‘modern’ version of technique; the first entails ‘the maximum possible use of human beings, [whereas] the latter reduces their use to the minimum. The achievements of the first [technique] […] might be said to culminate in human sacrifice; those of the second, in the remote-controlled aircraft which needs no human crew. The results of the first [technique] […] are valid once and for all (it deals with irreparable lapse or sacrificial death, which holds good for eternity). The results of the second are wholly provisional (it operates by means of experiments and endlessly varied test procedures).’  Benjamin, so prescient, sees different and terrifying extremes of instrumentalism, from the human as experiment to non-human play. The latter, importantly is a distancing from nature and a withdrawal from the world, the endpoint of which is the drone and all its guiltfree murderousness.  The balance for Benjamin is technique as “the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man” (To the Planetarium).

Walter Benjamin at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1937

In other words, we are back to resonance, but even Benjamin was not immune to the notion of mastery.  We have to look forward to the later twentieth century to find accounts of language which insist on the need to distance ourselves from the world as subordinated to a sort of descriptive tyranny.  One of the most striking expressions comes from Maurice Blanchot, who writes

‘We are tempted to think that the language of the poet is that of the master: when the poet speaks, it is a sovereign speech, the speech of one who has thrown himself into risk, says what has never yet been said, names what he does not understand, does nothing but speak, so that he no longer knows what he says. When Nietzsche asserts: “But art is terribly serious! … We surround ourselves with images that will make you tremble. We have the power to do it! Block your ears: your eyes will see our myths, our curses will reach you!” it is the speech of a poet that is the speech of a master, and perhaps this is inevitable, perhaps the madness that overtakes Nietzsche is there to make masterly language into a language without master, a sovereignty without contract. Thus Holderlin’s song, after the over-violent outburst of the hymns, becomes again, in madness, that of the innocence of the seasons. But to interpret the speech of art and of literature in that way is to betray it. It is to mistake the demand that is within it. It is to seek it not at its source but, drawn into the dialectics of the master and the slave, after it has already become an instrument of power. We must, then, try to grasp again in the literary work the place where language is still a relationship without power, a language of naked relation, foreign to all mastery and all servitude, a language that speaks only to whoever does not speak in order to possess and have power, to know and have, to become master and to master oneself – that is, to a man who is scarcely a man.’ [10]

Blanchot offers a different sort of perception of the world through literature.  The critical recognition of the presence of power and hierarchy even within the way we describe the world and the determined effort to escape it is at odds with Heidegger’s hammer, or his vortex of anxiety that wills a description of the world as is; or Cassirer’s laborious description; or Wittgenstein’s mastery of the game.  It is closer to Benjamin’s play. 

There are consequences to all this.  Rosa extends his theory of resonance across to education:

‘Education in the sense of resonance theory … is aimed not at cultivating either the world or the self, but rather at cultivating relationships to the world. The goal is not refinement of the individualistic or atomistic self, nor disengaged mastery of the world, but rather opening up and establishing axes of resonance. Children are not vessels to be filled, but torches to be lit. Whoever the original source of this insight is – whether Rabelais or Heraclitus is unclear – it is correct.’

In a previous post https://anatomiesofpower.wordpress.com/2021/03/08/breaking-fixing-wondering/ I argued that the value of the humanities may not be in fixing things, but in unfixing them, freeing them.  In her brilliant account of reading, Sarah Wood writes ‘Reading asks us to reread, to forget our first understanding, to not understand and begin again.’[11] 

Our tool is not the hammer, but the song; our aim is not to order the world but to encourage its continuous reimagination.[12] 

Eilenberger’s calls his four protagonists ‘magicians.’  It is a direct reference to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a book which prefigured in so many ways the debate between Cassirer and Heidegger, even to the extent that both feature the mountain town of Davos.  Cassirer, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Benjamin were playing with dangerous magic; and in a few years that magic would lead to an implosion of their world.  Cassirer fled to America, Heidegger promoted the fascist regime, and lived out his life in a degree of disgrace, Wittgenstein worked in hospitals in Britain, and Benjamin took his own life on the French Spanish border in September 26, 1940.  None mastered the world as they thought they might; Benjamin was at least unsurprised.  But we have maybe still not appreciated the damaging roughness of their magic, how disruptive of our resonance with the world it could be.  As I have been thinking through these anxieties over some months now, if I began with Heidegger’s hammer I end with another magician’s renunciation of his staff of mastery and the attendant gift of freedom.

But this rough magic

I here abjure, and when I have required

Some heavenly music, which even now I do,

To work mine end upon their senses that

This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,

Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,

And, deeper than did ever plummet sound,

I’ll drown my book.


[1] M. Heidegger, Being and Time, rev. tr. Stambaugh, SUNY Press 2010: I.3.

[2] See for the relationship between Heidegger and Husserl, R. Safranski, Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil, Harvard 1994; W. Eilenberger, Time of the Magicians: Wittgenstein, Benjamin, Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Decade That Reinvented Philosophy, London 2020; more detail in P. E. Gordon, Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos, Harvard 2010, 77-82. The image is taken from H. Read’s Art and Industry: The Principles of Industrial Design, published in 1935.

[3] For a brilliant prose poem on flint knapping, see Rod Mangham, Knife, https://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=9328. For a radical rereading of Neanderthal tool making (‘Stone tools were the atoms of Neanderthal life’) see R. Wragg-Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, London 2020.  The illustration is the Happisburgh hand axe, which is the oldest hand axe found in northwest Europe, found in Norfolk and some 500,000 years old. For the archaeology of entanglement see especially I. Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things, Chichester 2012.

[4] Seamus Heaney begins his poem Clearances with this beautiful account of the enjoyment of skill learnt from his mother, related then to the production of poetry:

She taught me what her uncle once taught her:

How easily the biggest coal block split

If you got the grain and hammer angled right.

The sound of that relaxed alluring blow,

Its co-opted and obliterated echo,

Taught me to hit, taught me to loosen,

Taught me between the hammer and the block

To face the music. Teach me now to listen,

To strike it rich behind the linear black.

[5] He quotes lines from Schiller’s Das Ideal und das Leben:

But free from the ravages of time …

Would’st thou freely soar on her wings on high,

Throw off earthly dread.

Flee from narrow, stifling life

Into the realm of the ideal.

[6] The original phrase is in Augustine’s eighth sermon on the first letter of John.  Augustine’s point is that one should love an enemy for their potential to be turned by God: You love not in him what he is, but what you wish him to be, non enim amas in illo quod est; sed quod vis ut sis.  Heidegger in a letter to Arendt on 27 December 1927 turned this into volo ut sis. And it’s easy enough to be charitable and translate as ‘I want that you be who you are’ but that’s absolutely not what Augustine meant, and certainly Arendt did not read the passage that way in her dissertation, where she wrestles with this passage (H. Arendt, Love and St. Augustine, Edited and with an Interpretive Essay by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark, Chicago 1996).  She clearly recognised that Augustine was arguing for a love that was grounded in some level of self-denial: “It also means that for the neighbor as well love is merely a call to isolation, a summons into God’s presence. The lover turns the beloved into his equal. He loves this equality in the other whether or not the beloved understands it. In self-denying love I deny the other person as well as myself, but I do not forget him … This denial corresponds to “willing that you may be” and “carrying off to God.” I deny the other person so as to break through to his real being, just as in searching for myself, I deny myself’ (95-6).  At the end of the dissertation, things are a lot more complicated, because Arendt recognises that this whole process of loving one’s fellow person all too easily gets turned into a love for an individual and that threatens the basis of communal life; and moreover the indirectness inherent in loving someone only for their relationship to God ‘breaks up social relations by turning them into provisional ones’ (111-12).  See also R. Coyne Heidegger’s Confessions The Remains of Saint Augustine in Being and Time and Beyond, Chicago 2015, 67 for Heidegger’s not entirely convincing reading of Augustine in The phenomenology of religious life, with which Arendt is engaging.   Arendt just about rescues Augustine by the end (though she underplays the fact that Augustine was simultaneously in Letter 93 to Vincentius justifying coercion against the Donatist heretics as part of the same principle of ‘tough love’), but I can’t help but think that she knew that Heidegger’s volo ut sis was a bad reading of Augustine and a poor basis for a relationship. (This note is indebted to Lyndsey Stonebridge’s 2021 David Ceserani Holocaust Memorial Lecture).

[7] M. Heidegger, What is Called Thinking? Quoted at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/

[8] H. Rosa, Resonance: A Sociology of our Relationship to the World, London 2019.

[9] J. Sieber, Walter Benjamin’s Concept of Technique, Anthropology and Materialism: A Journal of Social Research 2019.4. https://journals.openedition.org/am/944. My title is taken from M. Taussig, Mastery of Non-Mastery om the Age of Meltdown, Chicago 2020, which discusses Benjamin.

[10] M. Blanchot, The Book to Come, Stanford 2003, 33. For a powerful reading of the inherent violence in language see Julietta Singh, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements, Durham-London 2018.

[11] S. Wood, Without Mastery: Reading and Other Forces, Edinburgh 2014.

[12] In Theories of German Fascism, Benjamin argues that technique “gave shape to the apocalyptic face of nature and reduced nature to silence – even though this [technique] […] had the power to give nature its voice” (SW 2, 319).

Breaking, Fixing, Wondering

1995.  Two years after his return from the United States to China, Ai Weiwei, who had been collecting antique vases from markets, is photographed holding a Han dynasty vase, some 2000 years old.  He stares at us, impassively.  In the next shot in the triptych, he has moved his hands apart and the jar is falling, and in the third shot, it is smashed on the floor.  Ai Weiwei’s face has not moved a muscle; his hands gesture asymmetrically, one facing down as if pushing the vase downwards, the other facing out as if in surprise.  Even in its entirety the vase seems asymmetrical.  The only thing that appears symmetrical is the artist, dead centre against a brick wall.[1] 

Much lay behind this deliberate act of destruction.  Ai Weiwei’s father, the poet Ai Qing spent the Cultural Revolution in exile in Xinjiang, and forbidden to write.  He was himself cancelled as a writer, as so much else was destroyed.[2]  Mao claimed ‘The only way of building a new world is by destroying the old one,’ a phrase repeated by Ai Weiwei in response to criticism of his work.  Ai Weiwei’s appropriation of the Maoist rejection of the past was guileful; his gaze out at us provokes and challenges notions of value.  But it’s the smashed vase which I keep turning back to.  The fabric is thick and it has broken into large pieces – the body is smashed but the neck is largely intact.  You feel it could be picked up and restored.  In its fractured state, it remains recognisable.  And if the act appears wantonly destructive, Ai Weiwei’s gaze forces us to answer to the question of what value was in the past, what destruction we commit, what meaning we can make of breaking that is reconstructive of value.

We are used to looking at reconstructions of ancient vases.  It’s not uncommon to see more or less clumsy examples in museums.  The notion of repair is not modern though and there are striking examples of quite simple and cheap 5th century BCE Athenian vases which, transposed into Celtic society, had acquired such additional value that they were mended with gold.  The gold is far more valuable, intrinsically, than the cup itself, but the cup presumably acquired value by associations with a foreign exotic cultured world.[3] 

It is difficult not to think of the much later Japanese practice of kintsugi.  Here, cracks and breaks are repaired with a plant-based adhesive lacquer, mixed or marked with silver or gold.  Thus whereas museum repairs of Greek pottery sometimes seek to conceal the break, the Japanese examples, also often applied to pottery imported from China or elsewhere, draw attention to repair.  Moreover, they are often viewed explicitly as symbolic of the passage of time; they are used especially in autumnal tea ceremonies, which mark the cusp of winter, the communal acts of support in preparation such as reroofing, and the awareness of value in a time of impending scarcity.[4]

The emotional effect of this act of repair is clear, and sometimes highlighted by accompanying poetry.  In an essay on kintsugi, Christy Bartlett wrote, ‘Mended ceramics foremost convey a sense of the passage of time. The vicissitudes of existence over time, to which all humans are susceptible, could not be clearer than in the breaks, the knocks, and the shattering to which ceramic ware too is subject . This poignancy or aesthetic of existence has been known in Japan as mono no aware, a compassionate sensitivity, an empathetic compassion for, or perhaps identification with, beings outside oneself. It may be perceived in the slow inexorable work of time (sabi) or in a moment of sharp demarcation between pristine or whole and shattered. In the latter case, the notion of rupture returns but with regard to immaterial qualities, the passage of time with relation to states of being. A mirage of “before” suffuses the beauty of mended objects.’[5]

These examples have made me think about the ambivalence of the notion of fixing.  We like to fix things that are broken, fix problems – it is perhaps a basic human desire.[6]  Perhaps it’s why I want to pick up Ai Weiwei’s vase. But inherent in that notion of fixing is a sense of mastery, our control over the material world, and Ai WeiWei’s act of destruction and the practice of kintsugi both draw attention in different ways to the fragility of this notion. 

Our notion of fixing, as in repairing or making good, is a modern one.  It is a shift in meaning in the 17th and 18th centuries from the earlier semantic concept of ‘fixing in place’ or ‘fastening’ – what they share intriguingly is an inherent desire to capture stability through halting movement or returning something to an original functional state.  To fix in the earlier sense is to make something static, to freeze it – and both breaking, and visible reparation which draws attention to damage, are in opposition to that work of reversing damage, reversing time.  They rather draw attention to time’s flow; they seek to open up possibility rather than close it off.[7]   Situating the material world within its temporal flow is a way of refocusing, fixing our attention if you like to that which is not fixed, but which is constantly loosening.  And it is here, precisely, that new meaning can be found.  As the famous song goes, ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’

Once one starts thinking about fixing in this way, the process is not so much of resolution as of creation, the process of making anew, and bringing new questions to light, which takes me to a wonderful and well-known passage by Derek Walcott, in his Nobel Prize Lecture.[8]

‘Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places. Antillean art is this restoration of our shattered histories, our shards of vocabulary, our archipelago becoming a synonym for pieces broken off from the original continent.’

For me, the work of the humanities is driven at least partly by the desire to understand and embrace brokenness and the fragmentary through acts of restoration and restitution.  This is not to devalue the fantastic work of those who are more solution oriented including in our own communities, but it gives credit to our constant need to rethink, fit in another piece of the puzzle, present a new whole.  Breaking and drawing attention to the unevenness of the reconstituted whole has the potentiality of being creative.  It resists fixity and lets new voices be heard.  The crash of the artist’s vase is an answer to the silencing of the poet’s voice.

And that answer takes us back to our curiosity, and to wonder, and my last vase is part of another dialogue across time.  The great American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti died, aged 101, almost exactly 200 years after John Keats, who was only 25.  In one of his greatest poems he alluded to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, in which the lover is perpetually in pursuit of the beloved:

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;

       She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

               For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ferlinghetti’s great allusive poem I am Waiting plays with the constraints of tradition and the potentiality of breaking through into a new world.  It is as destructive in its humour and irreverence as it is liberating in its incantatory force.  It draws attention to time, voices unheard, injustice and the chance to reimagine the world.  And it offers the hope of breaking another vase and letting wonder flow.

and I am waiting

for the last long careless rapture

and I am perpetually waiting

for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn  

to catch each other up at last

and embrace

and I am awaiting  

perpetually and forever

a renaissance of wonder


[1] Ai Weiwei’s approach to politics and history are intriguingly explored in a comparison with Andy Warhol in M. Delany, E. Shiner (eds.) Andy Warhol Ai Weiwei, National Gallery of Victoria 2015; see especially Gao Minglu, ‘Political and artistic legacy in Ai Weiwei’s art,’ 117-40.

[2] For Ai Qing, see G. B. Lee, China’s Lost Decade: Cultural Politics and Poetics 1978–1990.  In Place of History, Brookline, MA, 2012: 38-77, with thanks to the author.

[3] https://www.laits.utexas.edu/ironagecelts/kleinaspergle3.php

[4] M. Kopplin (ed.) Flickwerk – The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics, Cornell – Munster 2008, http://annacolibri.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Flickwerk_The_Aesthetics_of_Mended_Japanese_Ceramics.pdf

[5] C. Bartlett, in Kopplin (ed) The Aesthetics of Mended Japanese Ceramics, 11.

[6] Ottoline Leyser wrote recently “Curiosity, a desire to understanding things, a drive to fix problems and make things work better are very basic human activities that everyone does every day. They involve creativity, imagination, joy, frustration, success, failure and all the things that make us human.” Viewpoint: Research’s ‘lone genius’ image is unhelpful – UKRI

[7] Similar thoughts are provoked by Ai Weiwei’s painting over Neolithic pottery with industrial paints, or Coca-Cola logos.

[8] https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1992/walcott/lecture/

“Paradise, no doubt, is just a huge library.” (Gaston Bachelard). 

(This paper was delivered as a keynote address to Research Libraries UK on 5 November 2020).

I am delighted to be speaking to members of Research Libraries UK.  This is my first public outing as Executive Chair of the AHRC, and I honestly cannot think of a more appropriate event for me or for AHRC, as part of the UKRI team.

I have spent a lot of my life in Libraries, and they have always had a touch of paradise about them for me.  I can remember my first visits to the Library of the Societies for the Promotion of Roman and Hellenic Studies, now bound up with the School of Advanced Study in the University of London, when I was still at school.  I’d never seen so many books in my life and I can still remember the amazement but also the realization of what scholarship meant as I tried to navigate my way around a library that was bursting out of its then confines.  All those runs which ended obscurely and started again in another corridor.  Books with uncut pages and unlearnt languages.  It was a complicated heaven.

When I started teaching at St Andrews, I would take students to the Library and plant them in front of the reference section which they never referred to; and the only time I completely overcame the worldly scepticism of an Honours class was in front of Sigonio’s 1555 edition of Livy.  I even line managed the Library for a while.  I lived above the Library of the British School at Rome, Britain’s leading arts and humanities research institute overseas, for eight years.  I got to know all the Rome libraries one way or another, including their irreplaceable photographic archives.BSR

Libraries are, then, my mental safe space; I love and care for them because it feels like they have loved and cared for me.  I know many of you will have faced difficult challenges and choices in what you can do in the physical space of your libraries – and I can only express my thanks on behalf of every researcher in the UK for all you have done to maintain services, and keep things running.  And I’d like also to say that we have heard some distressing stories, and the AHRC unequivocally condemns any and all aggression or abuse towards colleagues in library and archive services.

helsinki Laitio in Helsinki said that “Libraries have this incredible promise—that you can build your future in here. You can be your best person inside this building.”  I think there is something very powerful about the notion of the library as enabling one to build oneself – it has that element of the argument underpinning one’s mental development and spiritual growth which is so critical.  Much of what I have talked about relates to the library as a personal cultural space.  I can describe and analyse my personal relationship to physical libraries much better than I can describe my relationship to the virtual library, but of course the virtual library is really coming into its own now.  Yet both physical and virtual – and everything in between, collections, catalogues, interfaces, informatics and so on – are economic, social and political spaces too.

This makes the Library a critical object of research as well as a means of research, and that is a challenge which we need to face up to.

The study of the library over time and space is well advanced.  There is a significant body of scholarship on libraries in the Greek and Roman world.  It is a source of great joy when one has access to someone’s library or even their library borrowing record and can assess what they might actually have read.  I supervised a brilliant PhD thesis which was based on what James Wilson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a signatory of the United States Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, read in the Library of St Andrews, where he was  student.  We have his borrowing record, and you can find a lot of his reading of Cicero infusing his belief in the necessity for a powerful popularly elected president balanced by natural justice:

JusticeJamesWilsonThe President, sir, will not be a stranger to our country, to our laws, or to our wishes. He will, under this Constitution, be placed in office as the President of the whole Union, and will be chosen in such a manner that he may be justly styled the man of the people. Being elected by the different parts of the United States, he will consider himself as not particularly interested for any one of them, but will watch over the whole with paternal care and affection.

Well, what is he thinking now, I wonder?

I suppose it’s possible that we will reconstruct a modern scholar’s intellectual biography from her JSTOR record, but I rather doubt we shall.  And here is the challenge  – we know so much about print culture, circulation, history of collections and so on in the past, and we can map that onto major trends in access to literacy, education, the changing nature of the university, of teaching and curricula and so on.  But how will we research the contemporary library in all its bewildering distributed complexity, and what will it tell us?

I don’t know the answer to this and I hope librarians will tell us.  I also hope we will be funding that research, because it seems to me vitally important that we have a critical grasp on how we are managing the business of research – and that word critical is intended to do some heavy lifting.

As we think increasingly in UKRI not just about equality – ensuring the playing field is level if you like – and more about equity – what are the reasons why somebody never gets directions to that field at all, let alone the kit and invitation to play, the research library can look a little bit like the last rung on a ladder which is multiply broken from the very bottom.

This seems to me to be a challenge and one we will have to face up to increasingly in the very tight world of university financing.  How do we ensure that the promise of the flow of resources across the system is actually fulfilled?

For arts and humanities, then, the 21st century Library offers challenges then that are rooted in economic and social considerations which need careful study.

The biggest challenge of all is around access.  Here I do not actually mean open access as we currently tend to argue about it.  Arts and humanities have a complex relationship with open access, and I hope you will forgive me avoiding dealing with this head on.  There’s a significant conversation which will have to happen around monographs, as well as all the other trickiness around Plan S and so on.

We will take a position but most of the passes are won or sold depending where you stand.

I want to argue a rather different point, which is that we have been significantly distracted by the questions around delivery – how do you ensure that paid-for research is delivered without cost, or how do you shift that cost around the system.

The obvious problem is that a paper which you can summon onto your computer in your kitchen or sitting room is not thereby accessible.  Hence the Bonn Declaration on Freedom of Scientific Research recently stated that ‘science has a responsibility towards society to ensure clarity, transparency and comprehensibility when sharing and communicating research findings, and to explain the difference between non-scientific opinions and scientifically verifiable findings.’[1]

So the key question that follows for me is, what is it we are hoping to enhance access to?  To specific publications?  To scientifically verifiable findings?  Or to the capacity to develop reasoning to understand the debates at large?

We see across all countries rising proportions of people who do not believe in climate change, think telephone masts give you viruses, and are incapable of conducting sophisticated arguments, and some make it into legislatures.  For twenty years we have argued about open access; more information is freely available than ever before; yet the quality of civil discourse is grim; and the distance between the processes of thinking scientifically and the processes of public decision making seem to me to be as great as ever.  I should stress that this is not, or not just, about COVID. It’s about the extent to which we are prepared to understand the limitations of the processes of argumentation which lead to decision making.  We don’t have and do not deploy good parameters around what the Bonn declaration called opinion and scientifically verifiable findings; and I would argue that even that dichotomy is so banal in its description of the embedded nature of knowledge, outside a few uncontested eternal verities, as to be potentially misleading.

Most of what we create in research is the product of a history of reasoning and questioning which is socially embedded and culturally constructed.  This has a huge impact on what we know, what we care to know, what we choose to ignore.  And if you don’t understand the processes which construct the knowledge world in which any given piece of research was created, you risk misunderstanding its significance and lessons.

To recognise that, you only have to ask why we are having crucial debates about slavery, race and ethnicity now that were inconceivable thirty years ago, and at the same time realize that much of the scholarship of thirty years ago has incontestable merits as well as enormous blind spots.  At least in arts and humanities, but I would argue also in social sciences and much more science than is sometimes admitted, the difference between opinion and fact doesn’t cut it as a picture of what is produced in research libraries across the world.

How far does the research library rise above this contested fray to be a disinterested instrument to be used or misused?

Well, not very far I suspect, and I imagine they wouldn’t wish to.

Research libraries seem to me to be doing everything they can to try to overcome these issues by explicit and profoundly self-critical engagement with improving methodological literacy.

In this, if we return to our wider analysis, they fight against a tide of fragmentation of knowledge which is itself a product of political, economic and social forces.  And this takes us directly to the issue of how our knowledge has changed.

I am going to refer here directly to the brilliant sociologist Andrew Abbott, and specifically a lecture he gave entitled “The Future of Expert Knowledge” in 2017.[2]  He speaks there of objects, subjects, results and activities of knowing.  It’s too long an argument to summarise and actually I disagree with bits of it, but by focusing on the process of knowing (not knowledge as such), and then seeing knowing in a variety of different lights, Abbott forces us to acknowledge that what we know and who does the knowing are intimately connected, and socially inflected; they then impact on what is known (and not known) and this has a result in terms of the activity of knowing.

Abbott argues that

  • increasingly the object of knowledge is details about ourselves;
  • increasingly the knowing subject is a group (people learn socially) or an organization;
  • this has encouraged the commodification of knowledge, so that the conclusion is more important than the argument;
  • and the consequence is that what people think knowing is, is increasingly about finding not thinking.

The very process of finding out is commodified, and, Abbott argues, universities then reinforce all this by encouraging social learning of facts rather than the artisanal work of learning of how to think.

Abbott ends saying that the 20th century attempt to build knowledge, and democratise it, has worked – the problem is that it’s over, and we are going over old ground with ever decreasing effect.  We need a new form of knowledge.

There is a whiff of the jeremiad to all this, but there is also a sting of truth.  But he grinds to a halt on the verge of the future, and I want to say that for me the research library remains the lab where this new knowledge must be found.  It’s hugely interesting to read Urszula Pawlicka-Deger’s recent article on the library as an infrastructure of engagement; she has the beautiful line that “A laboratory is far more than just a place with instruments and equipment. It is a highly epistemologically and culturally charged concept that implies a specific way of thinking, experimenting, and seeing the world. [It is an] infrastructure of engagement.”[3]

So when one thinks, as I tend to do, of the library as a humanities laboratory, and one which critically intersects with community and with new forms of knowing, we perhaps find ourselves touching on ‘the transformation of audiences … into practitioners’, as Pierluigi Sacco describes ‘Culture 3.0.’  In an ideal world, research spills naturally into engagement and into co-creation.

Open access properly understood – that is access to thinking – and transformative knowing meet in infrastructures of engagement.

One of the key places where that will happen is or should be the research library.  If the political, social and economic conditions of the research library increasingly place it beyond the democratised world of knowers, because of different kinds of barriers to access that are far sharper than access to facts because they are barriers to the capacity to make discursive and contextualised arguments with facts, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Version1-2-9-2020That’s why it’s so important to me that UKRI has insisted in its latest vision and mission on the significance of the research ecosystem as being a much broader and more inclusive concept which requires funding throughout.  We have to get away from the idea that we at UKRI give money to the researcher and that nothing in between really matters except as a slightly resented consumer of overheads.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Our failure fully to recognise the intricately interconnected and diverse ecosystem has led to the combination of underfunding and devaluation which then in turn diminishes the system further.[4]

To return to Abbott’s taxonomy in a slightly different way, because we have excluded the connections and emphasised only some parts when defining the objects of funding, we have exacerbated the isolation of the subject of knowing into an insufficiently diverse set.  It’s not surprising that that set of knowers tend to keep on knowing the same things, and those things may tend to be increasingly divorced from innovative discursive reasoning.

Put the Research Library as an infrastructure of engagement, and the research librarian as its essential leader, and suddenly by changing the object of funding, you change the set of investigators, change the kind of questions that might be asked and refresh the process of research.

How radical is this?  I am not sure – and I’d love to know what librarians think.  The risk is it might become a more radical ask over time.  We know that libraries generally are under pressure, and whilst I welcome the commitment of research libraries to reach to the wider library infrastructure, as that infrastructure weakens, your job becomes much harder.

At the same time, universities are perhaps becoming more embedded in their communities, and more conscious of shifting from equality to equity.  This is by no means a battle lost.  Rather it’s a challenge to be understood, a battle to be won.

It rests heavily on our preparedness to sustain libraries.  I started with a wry quote about the paradisiacal library, and I have included a reference to the library as a physical space for personal growth.  But I wanted to end with a quote about the library as a place for the here and now, which express my own conviction that if we are to build back better, libraries will be part of the solution.

Georges Duhamel in 1937 wrote “If humanity were to lose its libraries, not only would it be deprived of certain treasures of art, certain spiritual riches, but, more important still, it would lose its recipes for living.”

Again and again we come back to the library as a place which critically has to be seen as a part of the ecosystem of learning and engagement which supports argument not fact, context not certainty, the connectedness of knowledge not fragmentation into facts.  This is an argument about science in general.

Arts and humanities has an obligation to make the argument most strongly because we use more of the full spectrum of what a library is than other disciplines, and the understanding of the political social and cultural context of knowing is one of our key concerns.

So I hope my time at the AHRC will be characterised by a deep conversation between the library in all its manifestations and research across the spectrum, and let’s hold on to those recipes for living which we will need for reimagining our futures.

Thank you.

[1] https://www.bmbf.de/files/10_2_2_Bonn_Declaration_en_final.pdf

[2] Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSFkljMNegY.

[3] U. Pawlicka-Deger, 2020. A Laboratory as the Infrastructure of Engagement: Epistemological Reflections. Open Library of Humanities, 6(2), p.24. DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/olh.569

[4] UK Research and Innovation Corporate Plan https://www.ukri.org/about-us/what-we-do/corporate-plan/