R. M. Francis was recently interviewed for Wombwell Rainbow. Read the conversation here: https://thewombwellrainbow.com/2019/01/16/wombwell-rainbow-interviews-r-m-francis/
From April to June 2019, I've been the inaugural full time David Bradshaw Writer in Residence. In memory of Modernist and Evelyn Waugh Scholar, Professor David Bradshaw, this is a collaboration between the Complete Works or Evelyn Waugh Project, Worcester College, Oxford, and the Bodleian Library. During the residency I was tasked to produce place specific writing, based in Oxford and inspired by the life and work of Evelyn Waugh.
You can find more information about the project here - https://www2.le.ac.uk/projects/evelyn-waugh/david-bradshaw-creative-writing-residency
During the residency I blogged about my experiences. You can read these here:
Drifting into Heritage: R. M. Francis’ Week 1 of David Bradshaw Creative Writing Residency, 2019
Getting Lost in Oxford: Dr Rob M Francis’ psychogeographical explorations as David Bradshaw Creative Writer in Residence
Writer as Intellectual and Physical Drifter
Slavoj Zizek has quite recently identified one of the many issues with tolerance, diversity and multi-culturalism, and why it may not be working - Ah! I hear the SJW sickles being sharpened from here. Hear me out, please. Zizek coins the term, Decaffeinated otherness.
Now, Zizek’s a funny guy and a self-proclaimed antagoniser, so a certain amount of salt needs to be pinched into his ideas at times. That said, let’s take this idea of decaffeinated otherness and run with it.
What Zizek is criticising here is the unthought-through virtue signalling of statements like ‘we’re all the same’, ‘there is no race’. You see, we cannot have diversity as well as this level of complete acceptance of similarity. If we’re all the same and there is no race then there’s no diversity. True? You can’t have both. The same can be claimed in terms of gender, sexuality, class. There’s an increasing trend of people who want a kind of totalism on these ideas - and a hypocritical one at that.
So what is decaf otherness? In short, this is the desire for diversity without conflict. We want total acceptance of otherness to the point that the other becomes obliterated, yet, at the same time, we want to cling to diversity. We want the signs of diversity without the divergence of diversity. With it just being the sign or the performance of diversity, It is a simulacra, and can never be more than that.
Diversity and tolerance are, by necessity, fraught bedfellows. Let’s take them by turn and see.
Diversity insists upon a smorgasboard of contrasts and differences - in the way one looks, speaks, behaves, thinks. It is only natural that conflict comes from this. Not isolated conflict, of course - I have black friends - oh god did he just say that? - but non-the-less conflict is present. A Priest or Imam won’t face a crowd of gay, pro-choice, buddhist feminists, without at least internal and / or unspoken conflict occurring. A liberal won’t sit with members of the EDL without at least some spoken/acted or unspoken/unacted clash. Diversity may well be very good in a great many ways, but it is definitely not without ripples, without collision, clash. There is no diversity without divergence.
These collisions and conflicts are okay though - we just practice tolerance. Cool. Let’s just pick this scab a wee bit too to make sure we’re not just going blind. Tolerance, at a core level, is about accepting behaviour regardless of its difficulty. It is, again, fraught. Tolerance requires the same level of differentiation and divergence. It requires otherness. To tolerate is to say: “I don’t agree, but I allow”. In this, we are keeping the other at a safe distance, we are accepting their difference and tolerating it through distancing, muting, blinkering. Tolerance then, is merely muted intolerance. Not too far removed from Zizek’s Decaffeinated Other.
Another impact this has is one of identity. To what extent do we extend tolerance in the face of intolerance? Can tolerance of one thing act as a negation of self or community?
There’s been tons of thinkers, writers, philosophers and psychoanalysts who have constructed (yes I use the term constructed with thorough knowledge of its implications in these cultural identity issues) theories around our sense of self, our subjectivity and how it is formed through, at least in part, a recognition of difference. Kristeva, for example, suggests that the subject comes into being through a series of distancing acts that separate the I from the Other. Lacan’s Mirror Stage is rooted in the subject’s recognition of themselves as separate from the mother, an entity that is cut away. Foucault has laid bare how sense of difference and otherness is fundamental to the regimes of truth that enable self-awareness and our negotiation with our cultures. Kenneth Burke argued that Man is the creator of the negative, how we understand life through good/bad, right/wrong, straight/gay, black/white dichotomies.
So, otherness and difference is fundamental to our sense of being, our sense of community.
This is a blog, we don’t have time to pick apart all of these theories. In essence, I want to argue that part of self-identification, our sense of being, is based on the recognition of difference or otherness. For example, I recognise my gender, class, race, sexuality, along with many other markers of my identity, in part, by noticing it as different in/than others. So, in order to maintain a sense of individuality, of being, the act(s) of differentiating / separating is a linchpin. If we are all the same there is no self, if there’s no self there’s no order - or totalitarian order in the case of Stalin et al. We might well end up like the pool of perverse flesh, fucking and devouring itself at the end of Brian Yuzna’s classic body horror, ‘Society’ (1989).
This is a case for diversity - we cannot be without the other, the other upholds the self. It is also a case for clash, collision, divergence, for this too upholds the self, upholds the community.
Now, I’m not calling for unfettered intolerance, or seeing intolerance as a potential radical politics. Just a call to arm ourselves against unthinking on these matters. We cannot get a truly diverse, multi-cultural system to work without embracing the fact that significant clashes and conflicts are intrinsic to it. Without that embrace, we risk losing our sense of culture, of place, of community, of sexuality, race, gender. It doesn’t matter if we see these things as biological or cultural constructions, the result is the same - we risk the makeup of our identity.
One accepts freedom, especially here in the West, as a sort of utopian goal, and also as a birthright - one which we, the privileged, are allowed to exist in. What we rarely do well, however, is question where this state comes from and what it is bound upon.
Just re-read this first paragraph. In here, you see the terms: allowed; accept; bound. As such, we already uncover an interesting issue just in terms of definition. Freedom is something we accept, as such we’re automatically unaccepting of non-freedom. Freedom is bound by this dichotomy and contradiction.
Just re-read this first paragraph again. In this I ask where this state comes from and speak about freedom as a goal, as a state. Here’s another issue, freedom is something that is manufactured. It is set up through the structures of power that organise society / societies. It is organised and dissipated through the constantly moving set of symbols that constitute truth, reality and order. What are these symbols? Political, educational, religious, familial and so on and so on. So, we, the West, say We have freedom, but, must be alert to how that freedom is set up through the institutions that structure and organise power. This is nothing new, this was set out by Father Foucault and his merry band of post-structuralists.
Here’s an example. The UK is free - in the main we’d probably agree with this statement. We have ostensible freedom of speech and movement, we can choose our fields of work, modes of transport, diet, toothpaste, band of american pop drinks, which newspapers to ignore - yes, we are free. Silly jokes aside, we accept a type of freedom (oh lord, isn’t that loaded with more issues), a type that perhaps doesn’t exist for North Koreans, for example. Let’s pick this UK specific freedom apart a bit. Much of our attitude towards what makes us free is tied up with choice, we tell ourselves that choice provides freedom - we have rules but, we can make choices that measure up to our expectations of being. Right now, I am allowing myself, because of the life choices I’ve made, because of the privilege of my life, to write, in my dressing gown, drinking loads of coffee - I am free to do this (I’d rather be having sex but, as far as freedom goes, this morning is pretty good). So, choice is something that is afforded to those who can earn choice, i.e. a homeless man cannot earn enough to afford the choice of what to eat, where to sleep etc, as such he cannot be given / has not earned the freedom to vote, to have his voice counted and so on and so on. (I know there’s an argument to suggest the homeless man may have consolidated all of life’s issues into one or two, and is in fact, ‘more free’, but that’s not my point, and, you know, tell that to him next time you ignore his methadone shakes on a midnight in winter). What I’m suggesting here is that UK type freedom is intrinsically a late-capitalist model - one of hierarchy and one that is powered fiscally. So, if we trace where the UK’s wealth comes from we could arguably pin point where we source our choice-based freedom from.
Check any twentieth and twenty-first century list of UK trade partners, now check how many war crimes, genocides, humanitarian crises these countries have on their hands (by the time you read this we probably won’t be in the EU anymore so this exercise should be pretty easy). If you can’t be bothered with this, let’s use another example. At the time of writing, (5th April 2017) Theresa May, our current Prime Minister (in charge of UK Freedom) is in talks with leaders from Saudi Arabia. We’ve done tons of trade deals with these guys, they’re friends of freedom. In lots of ways, they contribute to the UK’s wealth, as such, they’re partially responsible for our sense of freedom, our choice-inspired freedom. So, when we’re being free (watching TV or wasting oil or something), we can thank the same system where no-jury trials sentence gay people to death by 1000 lashes and where women are stoned to death for the crime of ‘being raped’. This supports our freedom - this forms part of the structures of power, that enables our freedom.
This links back to my previous comment about how freedom exists as a form of acceptance. By freeing / accepting one thing, we are imprisoning / neglecting another. Freedom is a myth.
In the interest of balance here’s another extreme example. Not too long ago a London art gallery put on an exhibit of Right Wing artists’. This started a plethora of protests and social-media based anger. The main argument from those angry protesters was this: the artwork was offensive, racist, inciting hate, and should not be on display. Essentially suggesting that this kind of freedom of expression antagonises their sense of freedom.
Freedom of expression is fundamental to our freedom-based ontology, yet, it can only be expression which is permitted within our value structures. Our freedom then, is not based on unconditional acceptance, it is ruled and forged by a liberal morality that does not allow for the freedom of non-liberal morality.
The trouble with freedom is it undoes itself. It is a state (which is fixed to start with) where one is ostensibly unaccountable but, in fact, is so only under the framework of the acts and values that underpin freedom. Freedom relies, on one hand, on the acceptance of anything, and on the other, on bringing those who disrupt that acceptance to account. Freedom can never be, as it exists entirely on definitions that are always relative, always binary, as such exclusivity and elitism conduct its nature. To say, 'I am free' or 'I have freedom' is to acknowledge the order of freedom and one's subjugation to it.
This drifting blog aims to talk about one of the difficulties facing the artist in academia - in terms of the position they hold - between critic and artist. It is taken, in part, from a paper I presented at the University of Wolverhampton's Postgraduate Research conference.
One of the difficulties facing the practice based researcher is finding the balance in the positions one has within the academic environment: a space that sits between artist and critic.
In their essay, "Agnostic" thinking: creative writing as practice-led research, Jennifer Webb and Donna Lee Brien look at the differences in knowledge outcomes between artists in academia and academics who deal with the criticism of existing products. They begin by acknowledging the divide between creative and critical outputs, saying:
“as artists, we need to produce work according to the logic of the field of creative production: work that is autonomous (made "for art's sake") and critically respected. We also need to produce work according to the logic of the field of knowledge production [...] i.e. with attention to a more traditional approach to methodically uncovering a piece of knowledge".
"Focus on the production of a fine artwork can give precedence to aesthetics at the expense of knowledge. Focus on the production of knowledge can generate art that is didactic, and 'academic'".
What is called for, according to Webb and Brien, is an acceptance of the ambivalent and fluid quality in knowledge that comes from the product itself. They refer to the poet, Keats’ ideas in “Negative Capability”, suggesting that the understanding of produce directly arising from creative practice needs to be understood within its own language. They say, “Negative capacity is like negative space: that which is available to be filled [...] it is not a refusal to establish meaning, but is rather a refusal to be irritated when facts and reason are not immediately evident”.
For Webb and Brien this is "agnostic research",and is formed from two major principles: “first is the basic philosophical view that "truth value" is unknowable”. The second is borrowed from the IT industry; “it is important to have "agnostic" systems - those that don't depend upon a single model, but can operate in a number of places and ways, and for a number of users”.
So, an agnostic researcher embraces the multi-disciplinary and understands that whatever is produced can be knowledge - just not a fixed, quantifiable knowledge.
This is particularly pertinent to the practice-based / led researcher because “artwork is rarely undertaken on a sufficiently systematic basis, being more about exploration, chance and intuition than hypotheses and laboratory systems [...] instead applying an approach that is closer to agnosticism. [...] one less committed to linearity and logic, and more committed to "going around" a problem”.
It’s reasonable then, I’d argue, to accept and engage with a drifting or magpie approach to research when undertaking this sort of exploration. It is reasonable (and arguably best) to use and link local history, archive maps, Wikipedia, overheard conversations, newspapers, myth, the lyrics of Geezer Butler - cut them up, re-map them and produce something larger than the sum of its parts.
One good example to illustrate this is psychogeography. Guy Debord defined psychogeography as, “The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotional behaviour of individuals.” It focusses on Urban Wandering, “the imaginative reworking of the city, the otherworldly sense of spirit of place, the unexpected insights and juxtapositions created by aimless drifting, the new ways of experiencing familiar surroundings”.
So, the psychogeographer no longer walks to work and says this is the library - a place for books, this is the lecture hall - a place for teaching. The psychogeographer drifts and allows a reimagining of space and thus the structures of power that are at play within those spaces.
In his Pocket Essentials to Psychogeography, Merlin Coverley argues, “The city must be rebuilt upon new principles that replace our mundane and sterile experiences”, and that the way this can be done is through this Urban Wandering, essentially becoming, one who “remakes the city in accordance with his own imagination […] that seeks to overthrow the established order of the day”. One could see this as almost taking a pick and mix approach to looking into one’s sense of place, space and history, drawing conclusions on how it affects the community and / or how it might be challenged.
If we accept that psychogeography works, then isn’t it just as viable to be a psychohistorian or psychosociologist – essentially giving oneself the power to re-write our histories and our links with community. Fundamentally we may be approaching an instinctual, rather than intellectual, approach to assessing who we are and where we’re from. Certainly this is problematic, as it leads to the potential for unsubstantiated intellectual leaping, however, this subjective act can also work in a similar way to how schools like post-colonial literature or queer writers have re-written or undermined master-narratives. So this subjective act can be a political or radicalised act too
In terms of my own argument here, I'm suggesting several things:
Clearly the best way forward for the creative writing researcher is to adopt an agnostic or drifting approach. One that understands that what has been produced is not a solid, quantifiable piece of knowledge, but one that lingers, brings about its meaning through a slow, passive infiltration. Like Webb and Brien say, “the creative arts disciplines must understand that artist-researchers typically produce not fact but artefact, not unique prototype but novel example, not truth but possibility”.
Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography: Pocket Essentials, (Harpended: Pocket Essentials, 2010)
Jennifer Webb and Donna Lee Brien, Agnostic Thinking: creative writing as practice led research, https://www.herts.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/12434/WPIAAD_vol5_webb_obrien.pdf