The philosophy of walking

Update: Phil Smith on GrosWhy we walk and Why walking helps us think (The New Yorker, 2014)

Frédéric Gros’ A philosophy of walking (Amazon), published in March 2014 and translated by John Howe, is a primer for the Gallic Romantic strain in walking. Gå!, a Danish translation published by Kristeligt Dagblads Forlag, appeared in July 2015, inspiring a vandringsessay by Kim Skotte in Politiken. 

Gros is a “prodigious walker”. While the book charts the many different ways we get from A to B (the pilgrimage, the promenade, the protest march, the nature ramble…) it is more concerned with exploring the power of walking as a “necessary weapon in the era of speed, efficiency and consumption” – and what it tells us about our experience of time, pleasure and solitude.

Back in 2014 I Storified @VersoBooks’ #philosophyofwalking stream, starting with a playlist in January, livetweeting the book launch and finishing up with Gros in conversation with sculptor Richard Wentworth at Tate Modern on 15 May. See the foot of the post for a trio of bon mots.

I made some inroads via a library copy in autumn 2014, getting about halfway, or as far as  Thoreau. Then I read On going for a walk, which made the unassailable point that the book’s focus is fairly narrow, favouring walking silently and solitarily in pristine rural landscapes with scant attention given to walking in urban settings. At this point I moved into scan mode, never a good sign. to be sure to finish it off before it was due back to the library. (Another factor was Carol Cadwallader on the portraits: “they’re all men; it’s unclear if women don’t walk or don’t think”). Maybe it depends which walking primer you start with – for me, it was Nicholson (who also appreciated Cadwallader’s take).

I have now invested in a copy for the bookshelf via Verso’s Xmas 2016 offer – below is a summary of my key points. (See also Laurence Coupe’s 10 insights). While very French, tending to the abstract with many a rhetorical turn (or just French rendered in English?), the opening salvo already makes the whole thing worthwhile. Other sections to come back to are Schelle’s Promenade als Kunstwerk (19:164-7) and indeed the section on urban walking (21:178-180).

The book consists of 25 shortish chapters each headed by a woodcut. Seven of the chapters are about individual thinkers who saw walking as integral to the creative life: Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Rousseau, Thoreau, Nerval, Kant and Gandhi.

  1. Walking is not a sport: no specialised equipment here: “Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found…If you want to go faster, then don’t walk…Once on his feet, though, man does not stay where he is.”
  2. Freedoms: a process of self liberation, the suspensive freedom that comes from walking and rediscovering simple joys, throwing off the yoke of routine and illusions about the essential; “disentangled from the web of exchanges, no longer reduced to a junction in the network redistributing information, images and goods”; a liberation from time and space, alienating you from speed; this is usually only a temporary ‘disconnection’, but one can also follow the call of the wild on the ‘vertical axis of life’, escaping from the idea of identity and recovering our animal presence; the third stage is the freedom of renunciation and perfect detachment, leading to an intensity of presence. (Echoes here of Ludvig Feilberg, Denmark’s philosopher of walking.)
  3. Why I am such a good walker (Nietzsche): walking was Nietzsche’s element, the precondition to work; he hated to sit: “think of the book as an expression of physiology. In all too many books the reader can sense the seated body, doubled up, stooped, shrivelled in on itself. The walking body is unfolded and tensed like a bow: opened to wide spaces like a flower to the sun, exposed torso, tensed legs, lean arms”. Books by authors “grafted to their chairs” are like fattened geese, “on the level of recopying”. Writing with our feet means the potential for “reversals of perspective…exclamations where something else is observed”.
  4. Outside: “walking means being out of doors, outside, ‘in the fresh air’. When you go ‘outside’ it is always to pass from one ‘inside’ to another: from house to office, from your place to the nearest shops. You go out to do something, somewhere else. Outside is a transition: the thing that separates; almost an obstacle between here and there…Outside hardly exists: it is like a big separating corridor, a tunnel, an immense airlock..It is some space that takes some time.” Major walks invert this – ‘outside’ is no longer a transition, but the element in which stability exists. The big separation between outside and inside is turned upside down by walking, as  you live in the landscape.
  5. Slowness: a good slowness, not exactly the opposite of speed: an “extreme regularity of paces, a uniformity…a bad walker may sometimes go fast, accelerate, then slow down…large involuntary movements, a new decision every time the body is pushed or pulled…Hurrying means doing several things at once, and quickly…time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer in which you have stuffed different things without any attempt at order. Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one…this stretching of time deepens space…a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar.”
  6. The passion for escape (Rimbaud): never having studied French I have a big gap here; like Nietzsche this isn’t exactly a happy tale, but glad to have made his acquaintance; “I’m a pedestrian, nothing more” – a sense of walking as flight, leaving behind, departing.
  7. Solitudes: ought one really to walk alone? Nietzsche, Thoreau, Rousseau, the Dane, all thought so. “Being in company forces one to jostle, hamper, walk at the wrong speed for others…the right basic rhythm is the one which suits you.” So much for group walking, although up to three or four may allow moments of shared solitude, “like bread and daylight”. More than four and people “form groups which soon become clans. Everyone boasts about their equipment…it’s hell.” However, one is never entirely alone, not least because of the constant dialogue between the body and the soul.
  8. Silences: just as there are  several solitudes, so there are several silences; the silence of walking itself, of woodland, of tough summer afternoon walks, or.  early morning, through the snow, of night. Silence in walking is the abolishment of chatter, the dissipation of our language. “One should beware of those expedition guides who recode, detail, inform, punctuate the walk with names and explanations to give the impression that everything visible has a name, that there is a grammar for everything that can be felt.”
  9. The walker’s waking dreams (Rousseau): like Nietzsche, Rousseau claimed to be incapable of thinking properly, of composing, creating or finding inspiration except when walking. Another recurring image is the homo viator, walking or pilgrim man, the natural man not disfigured by culture, education, art – the absolute primitive.
  10. Eternities: “when you walk, news becomes unimportant”…more of the same, if perhaps a nod to the issue of unconnected facts.
  11. Conquest of the wilderness (Thoreau): opens with the factoid that Thoreau was the third child of a pencil manufacturer; otherwise, by now, familiar territory.
  12. Energy: sources of energy: the heart (self), the earth, landscapes.
  13. Pilgrimage: a codified form of walking with its own conduct, termination and purpose, however a pilgrim (from peregrinus, follower or exile) is essentially one who is not at home where he is walking, but is a stranger or foreigner; “every man is a pilgrim in this vale of tears…his true dwelling place can never be reached here below”; rather than peregrinatio perpetua a metaphor, perhaps a contemplative retreat or a visit to a sanctuary, can suffice.
  14. Regeneration and presence: the myth of regeneration, citing Mount Kailash, and the utopia of presence, transfiguring the day when you arrive at your destination.
  15. The cynic’s approach: as in the Greek Cynics.
  16. States of well-being: joy, pleasure, serenity, happiness…
  17. Melancholy wandering (Nerval): of pet lobster fame, one of Richard Holmes’ subjects; walking as part of an active melancholia: “the streets are an excellent environment for maintaining, nourishing and deepening the illness…the drumming of thousands of feet on the pavements”.
  18. A daily outing (Kant): aka the Königsberg clock, who emerged from his house for his brief constitutional every day at 8 as a distraction from work; he never left his native town, found change unbearable and “displayed no caprice or oddity…his life was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper”; his route became known as the philosopher’s walk; Kant’s walks highlight three important aspects of walking: its monotony, which liberates thought, the role of regularity and repeated effort in creating an output, built up stone by stone, and the inescapable nature of ritual, a mastered inevitability, a destiny of will.
  19. Strolls: or promenades, “less suited to grand mystical poses, metaphysical frauds and pretentious declarations”; of three types: as an absolute ritual, the creation of a childish soul; as free relaxation, mental recreation; as rediscovery. HT to Karl Gottlob Schelle’s Die Promenade als Kunstwerk (1802), which established that walking produces a relaxing effect on the body – it could stand up straight, but “it was really the mind which rejoiced most”. Walking means defying the constraints, choosing your route, place, representations (see pages 164-7).
  20. Public gardens: musing on the Tuileries.
  21. The urban flâneur: via Benjamin, a form of strolling which presupposes three elements: city, crowd and capitalism.. an experience far removed from Nietzsche or Thoreau; the urban stroller subverts the crowd, the merchandise the and town, along with their values; not a matter of opposing but of evading, deflecting, altering with exaggeration, accepting blandly and moving on; the flâneur subverts solitude, speed, dubious business politics and consumerism (pages 178-180).
    • the city: imposes an interrupted, uneven rhythm; urban concentrations where you can walk for hours without seeing a piece of country, passing through districts like different worlds, separate, apart; cities with enough scale to become a landscape
    • the crowd: among and through the nameless masses, representatives of the new civilisation; everyone was in a hurry and everyone else was in their way, a competitor, with contradictory interests – anonymity is the norm
    • capitalism: as in the reign of merchandise, extending beyond industrial products to include art works and people; now: “spaces where strolling is compulsory are being made, but no one has to go there”
  22. Gravity: the experience of walking is always a perception of gravity, an invitation to die standing up.
  23. Elemental: the useful, the necessary, the elemental, revealed as fullness of presence; ” to walk without even the necessary is to abandon yourself to the elements”.
  24. Mystic and politician (Gandhi): and protest marcher
  25. Repetition: the need to distinguish between monotony and boredom

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Experimental walking (and writing): Surrealists and Situationists

Brief notes kicked off by the chapter on experimental walking in The art of wandering: the writer as walker.

Francesco Careri (Walkscapes) has identified three moments in art history when an experience linked to walking represented a turning point:

  • the period of transition from Dada to Surrrealism (1921-24)
  • the emergence of the Situationist Movement from the Letterist International (1956-57)
  • the movement from Minimal Art to Land Art (1966-67) – Fluxus, non-object-based art as exemplified by Richard Wentworth, Janet Cardiff and Francis Alÿs; with the rise of performance art the act of walking itself has become art

Dadaist and surrealist walks

On 14 April 1921 in Paris, at three in the afternoon, in the rain, eleven Dadaists conducted a ‘lay pilgrimage’ to the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, the first in a proposed series of urban excursions to the ‘banal places’ of the city (p183-4) – it was not a success, and remained the sole example. However they had an influence on getting people to look and look again, to notice and how to notice what you notice, daring to leap into the abyss and explore things in a different way.

In May 1924 the three founders of surrealism set off haphazardly on foot on a ten day stroll from Blois, a town picked at random from a map. Largely they “resolutely followed their lack of itinerary”, composing automatic texts during rest stops.

This and further déambulations, practised on the outskirts of Paris, found expression in three novels:

  • Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) – describes two places in Paris in great detail, providing a realistic backdrop for surrealist spectacles such as the transformation of a shop into a seascape
  • André Breton’s Nadja (1928) – “one of the iconic works of the French surrealist movement”
  • Philippe Soupault‘s Les Dernières Nuits de Paris (1928)
  • see also Readux’s A little guide to the 15th Arrondissement, “a playful piece of surrealist flâneurie and psychogeography” by Roger Caillois, translated by Ryan Ruby; see article

For the surrealists walking was about chance encounters and irrational meetings, an inspiration for their experimental writing (source).

The Lettrists and the Situationists

A generation later, after WW2, the act of walking shifted from aimless strolling to revolutionary subversion.

The Lettrist International (1952-7), the product of the earlier Lettrist Group (1948) and a forerunner of The Situationist International, identified the act of walking as a means of challenging the status quo, but like later movements such as CoBrA and the Imaginist Bauhaus was hampered both by a lack of direction (irony alert) and, more crucially, members.

Step forward the Situationist International (1957-72; SI Online | archives | Internationale Situationniste in English) under the firm/tyrannical grip of Guy Debord.

Debord coined the term psychogeography in his Introduction to a critique of urban geography (1955):

the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals

This replaced R/romantic notions of walking as an artistic practice with the concept of a scientific experiment, the results of which would be rigorously analysed and form the basis of a new cartography characterised by a disregard for traditional and habitual practices.

This experiment was, of course, the dérive, as outlined in The theory of the dérive (1956).

The dérive “has the potential to transform the everyday, to illuminate and challenge narratives of privatisation, commodification and securitisation of space, and navigate increasingly blurred boundaries between public/private”. The ideal outcome was that “pedestrians would become more aware of their overlooked urban surroundings and begin to see new possibilities of experiencing everyday life in the city” (source).

The purpose of a dérive is as much to derive or document the psychogeographical contours of an urban space as to uncover alternatives. This can be in the form of artistic maps, drawn not in Cartesian gridlines but according to a subjective navigation scheme, or through subversions of pre‐existing maps. Both kind of map exemplifies the détournement, a ‘diverting’ or ‘rerouting’ of pre‐existing elements, with an ultimate outcome such as the utopian city (source).

Debord’s Psychogeographic guide of Paris (1955)/The naked city (1957; same??) replaced the ‘official’ map of Paris with 19 cut-out sections rearranged and connected by red arrows indicating the flow of energy around certain ‘pivot points’ (source). Map users choose their own route by using a series of arrows that link parts of the city together.

Further tactics:

  • one city to the map of another – wander through one city following directions from a map of another city (I’ve never quite got how this would work in practice)
  • cities as historical landscapes – being aware of how your surroundings can draw you towards the past
  • here’s a reverse dérive – The naked city mapped onto a Google map of Paris

Hence strolling becomes drifting and detached observation becomes a critique of post-war urbanism (Elkin p18) – there was nothing aimless in Situationist drifts; they wanted to transform everyday life.

Debord became increasingly dogmatic in his insistence upon a rigorous examination of the Society of the Spectacle (1967; more), a society whose seductive surface belied the repressive realities of capitalist consumption. The essential emptiness of modern life is obscured behind an elaborate and spectacular array of commodities, leading to a world of rampant consumerism and regimented monotony. Shucks.

See The Situationists and the city | Andrew Hussey for more.

Debord and Jorn

Denmark klaxon! In 1954 Debord met Asger Jorn (1914-73), a Danish polymath who had worked with Le Corbusier on the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux for the 1937 Paris World Exposition. Jorn was a co-founder of CoBrA (1948-51) and involved in one of its offshoots, the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus, which in 1957 fused with the Letterist International and the London Psychogeographical Association to form the Situationist International (SI). Enough already.

It’s not quite clear to what extent Jorn had a hand in The naked city, but their collaboration resulted in the production of two art books critiquing the Society of the Spectacle.

Created in 24 hours at the printing house Permild & Rosengreen after a single visit to a local news stall, Fin de Copenhague (1957) was composed using the technique of détournement. The book consists of fragments snatched from other books and magazines in a collage linked by colourful splashes. Intended as a critical engagement with urbanism along with advertising and consumerism, it “satirises gemütlich Europe in general, the author’s native Copenhagen in particular, and Le Corbusier in passing”:

Copenhagen is satirised not only as a seat of ancestral boredoms, and in other standard terms, but also for being a ‘well-planned city’, in the sense of making a pretty pattern of black and green in the planner’s report – only in this case the pretty pattern is produced by applying place-names to patches of mechanical tint superimposed on (apparently) and action-painting that has run.

a spread from Fin de Copenhague (1957)

More: Wikipedia | Situationist map of Denmark

Debord and Jorn’s second collaboration, Mémoires (1959; in English), also employed the latter’s situlogical technique, but is now perhaps best known for its sandpaper cover.

Mémoires (1959)

A founder member of the SI, Jorn resigned in April 1961 believing it had become ineffective, but remained in friendly contact.

In 1960 Jorn’s brother, Jørgen Nash, set up the Situationist Bauhaus, later the Second Situationist International, on Jorn’s farm in southern Sweden. Most famous among their actions was the decapitation of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid in 1964.

Other Scandi SI members included Peter Laugesen (article), friend of Dan Turèll; in his time attracted to the dérive, but expelled in 1963 for refusing to give up poetic practice.

For more on Scandinavian Situationists see the Situ-Research & Archive | Scandinavian Situationism | Cosmonauts of the Future.

Experimental walking today

In 2005 Lonely Planet published a Guide to experimental travel, conceived by Joël Henry (of Latourexsome examples):

Experimental tourism is a novel approach to tourism in which visitors do not visit the ordinary tourist attractions (or, at least not with the ordinary approach), but allow whim to guide them. It is an alternative form of tourism in which destinations are chosen not on their standard touristic merit but on the basis of an idea or experiment. It often involves elements of humor, serendipity, and chance. (Wikipedia)

Here the “imposition of arbitrary restrictions serves to heighten the tourist experience”. It can also heighten the local experience – see Counter-Tourism, A mis-guide to anywhere, Pattern walking, the Temporary Travel Office and Ways to wander, “54 intriguing ideas for different ways to take a walk” collected by Claire Hind and Clare Qualmann.

I have the Lonely Planet guide and stake my claim in that we have often travelled to the end of a metro line for the hell of it. A particularly memorable example was in Istanbul, a world away from the Blue Mosque. It took hours to get back. Sadly I can’t find the website of the group who travel to the end of metro lines in Moscow on the last Sunday in the month, otherwise I’d be there.

On the everyday level my walks more often than not make use of suggestion 15 from the LP guide: Dog’s Leg Travel:

If you don’t normally walk a dog, take one for a walk and be led by what interests the dog.

Ludic performances and tours which “subvert space in creative and exciting ways” abound in the experience economy, with the game often the key element. See Play the City Now or Never |

Meanwhile, is walking (or marching) as political dissent about to make a comeback? On 17 February Senate House Library and the Passage project held a one day conference on Radical walking (more), presenting the historical perspective.

Opening keynoter Katrina Navickas (interview) shook things up a bit on ‘the problem of the flâneur’ and critiquing literary studies’ ongoing obsession with walking:

walking – using the eyes of history to examine the traces and parallels in the past – is an activist practice, and one connected directly with politically activist histories

the flâneur seems to privilege the elite perspective of the landscape viewed from a distance

For me it’s the anonymity of the flâneur (of/in the crowd), the observations and perspectives of the outsider, which appeal (exclusive can also mean excluded) – it’s an explorative tool I use. See also under What gives? in my post on #walkingwomen. BTW Wikipedia on the flâneur is worth a look, not least for “how the same language can differ depending on the location” (source). It’s an intriguing combination of immersion and openness.

But I’m with her on the obsession with nature writing at least.

Next stop: more cultural geography, Doreen Massey.

Oulipo and Perec: writing with constraints about place

Oulipo (Ouvroir de litterature potentielle/Workshop of Potential Literature; Wikipedia), founded in 1960, is a loose gathering of (mainly) French writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques.

Members seek out “new forms and structures that may be used by writers in any way they see fit”, founded on the paradoxical principle that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated. The resulting work may be ‘complete’ in itself, but it will also gesture at all the other work that could potentially be generated using that constraint; exhaustion being the ‘necessary corollary’ of potentiality.

More than tricksy gimmicks? Compare the rules of classical tragedy with the poet who writes that which comes into his head…a great Oulipian work is both a statement of what it knows and a gesture toward something infinitely larger than itself – see for example Queneau’s Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, ten sonnets printed on perforated paper.

The French avant garde loves a game, with rules of engagement and an unknown outcome – but for Oulipo it has to be capable of producing valid literary results. The constraint is not an arbitrary choice but a technique adopted to explore, to the point of exhaustion, a subject within its given parameters. It creates an environment in which creation can be helped along – instead of a blank page the Oulipian can begin with a project. The challenge is to find the virtue in the constraint, a seriousness of purpose.

In Oulipo Lite, her essay in The end of Oulipo? Lauren Elkin asks whether its brand of “ludic literary experimentation” pursued through “wit, humor and public performance” has a future. Like a writer’s workshop exercise inspired by a prompt, Oulipian writing today is all too often mechanical and formulaic, even derivative. The group has become inbred, as concerned with archiving its history and carrying on its traditions as making new literature. Has Oulipo exhausted its potential by becoming a societe de spectacle? Or is it an antidote to “writing programs which produce fully competent and easily forgettable books”?

Sources: Oulipo: freeing literature by tightening its rules | The end of Oulipo? An attempt to exhaust a movement

Perec and s/p(l)ace

Anything vaguely Oulipian I’ve encountered up to now has lacked heft, but when it touches on place and space things get more interesting, due in the main to Georges Perec (1936-82; Wikipedia).

One of those irresistible figures (see pieces by Tom Payne and Lauren Elkinthe cat pic), there’s a further personal appeal due to the librarian within me. With temporary jobs in market research giving early experience in classification, Georges worked as a research librarian (“a low-paid position”) from 1961-78. His taxonomies of the everyday “use excess to slip the bounds of realism” (Elkin) and draw attention instead to the infra-ordinary.

His writing goes beyond the merely quirky. See the Gdn’s best of Perec, or this non-exhaustive list:

  • Portrait of a man (1959; rediscovered 1993, published in English 2015)
  • A void (1967; Wikipedia/La disparition) – uses a lipogram, ie the novel does not contain the most common letter (e) in the French language; the missing e, pronounced eux (them) in French, refers to all those (including Perec’s parents) who went missing during WW2; as Dennis Duncan put it on R3’s Free Thinking, the most difficult way to write is without an E, while the most difficult way to live is without the m/paternal
  • The Art and Craft of Approaching Your Head of Department to Submit a Request for a Raise (1968; in lib)
  • Life a user’s manual (La Vie mode d’emploi, 1978; Indy) – ‘to exhaust not the world’ but ‘a constituted fragment of the world’
  • The winter journey (1979) & Winter journeys
  • La Boutique obscure: 124 dreams (Joanna Walsh) – a ‘nocturnal autobiography’
  • on crosswords

In 1974 Perec spent three days on the Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris observing what happens when nothing happens, resulting in An attempt at exhausting a place in Paris (Lauren ElkinKarl Whitney | Jacket2: “a nonambulatory flâneur” | Soundlandscapes: “a contra-flâneur” | Jimmy Lo’s 2010? attempt at re-exhausting the same place | James Riding’s Writing place after conflict: exhausting a square in Sarajevo, forthcoming, on Academia.edu | Mitch Karunaratne in Milton Keynes | writer Tom McCarthy was born OTD).

the Place Saint-Sulpice (3 Jan 2017)

An attempt… is part of Lieux (Places) a grand projet aimed at systematically recording memories and descriptions of twelve Parisian locations over the course of twelve years, one of those self-imposed personal projects which all too easily slide…

Perec

(from Eight glances past Georges Perec, p25)

Perec’s/Perecquian geographies have become a thing, with a conference at Sheffield in May 2016, and his influence is noticeable in much writing about place. Perecquian fieldwork in Copenhagen awaits, with lots more to plunder in the collection Species of spaces and other pieces/Espèces d’espaces (Amazon; Angela Last | Toulisan).

Update, June 2017: the latest issue of Literary Geographies (vol 3 no 1) has a focus on transdisciplinary approaches to Perec, examining the impact of in particular Species of spaces on approaches to space and place in the visual arts, dance and music.

Tempting titbits:

  • home vs not-home, the ambivalence between two different modalities: feeling at home, connected to a place, and feeling not-home, in a place that has to be conquered each time
  • map streets on an x axis and level of alienation/mood on a y axis

Oulipo in Denmark

In 2015 Oulipian Jacques Jouet (article) sent 101 poems to random residents in Aarhus over the course of nine days as part of Fresh Eyes 2015. The poems were published in book form at Fresh Eyes 2016 (På…/En…event | review | another | yet another).

Jouet (RU sure that’s yr name?) is also known for his Poèmes de métro (Subway poems), and once spent 16 hours in the Paris metro on a route taking him through all 490 stops – the CPH metro is rather more limited, however fans/emulators include Martin Larsen (CPH Metrodigte), Danish artist books curator Thomas Hvid Kromann (see arkiv uden titel, ditto in Paris) and Christian Yde Frostholm, author of Paris en brugsanvisning (2013; inspired by Life…) and translator of Espèces d’espaces et al (2016).

In Eight glances past George Perec, his essay in The end of Oulipo?, Scott Esposito is cutting in his critique of the metro poems:

the least pleasurable kind of automatic writing…of little literary value; the quality is so middling that I find it all too believable that Jouet hurriedly jotted them on the train…his conceits are simple, beguiling creations that enable his followers to believe that they too can create literature, just like he does…the only grounds on which the metro poems might be interesting as art is as conceptual art

#FLdigireading: Reading literature in the digital age

Updates for 2017: New technologies challenging author and reader roles: “how online social networking technologies enable authors and readers to interact in ways that were previously not possible [and] how this can impact understanding of a written work, and how it can shape an author’s ongoing or future work”…Reading on reading, copious links from the new Reading on Screen (@onlinereaders1) project

Reading literature in the digital age from the University of Basel, on FutureLearn, ran from 28 March for six weeks. Led by Philipp Schweighauser, Head of American and General Literatures.

How do we read literary texts today? Learn new ways of interpreting texts, from time-tested methods to computer-assisted practices such as distant reading.

In the course you will:

  • learn how to interpret a work of literature without using any contextual information
  • reflect on the costs and benefits of online reading
  • encounter a method for reading thousands of literary texts with the help of computer algorithms
  • think hard about the feel and smell of books

How we read today: different media

Offline and online, print book and ebook…reading always implies the use of a specific medium of reading, and  the technological possibilities of the medium fundamentally shape our reading experience with far-reaching cognitive and social effects.

Reading habits have changed substantially over the last three decades. A National Literary Trust 2013 survey found that today’s young people “are now much more likely to prefer to read on a computer screen rather than a printed book or magazine”, while a 2015 survey found significant gender and ethnic divides between online and offline readers: “girls continue to outpace boys in their enthusiasm for reading outside school at all age levels, with black girls in particular showing a prodigious appetite for literature”.

How do the new forms of reading impact the cognitive processing of the texts we read? When we read texts online or as ebooks, do we get as deep an understanding of them and remember as much of them as we do when we read a print book? See Anne Mangan’s 2014 study, which suggested that ebook reading impacts our cognitive processing negatively.

See posts on ebooks and digital literature, reading long form and reading the Berlin ebooks.

In our learning community, ebook readers and print books seem to be the favorite reading media. A sizeable minority has abandoned reading print books altogether, be it for reasons of space, mobility, or money. A majority treasures print books for their sensuous and aesthetic qualities, valuing their look, touch, and smell…reading literary texts in different media means reading literary texts differently. We could even say that it means reading a different literary text.

How we read today: new strategies

See post on different ways of reading.

Lay reading techniques, products of and responses to the digital age. What do you do when you read texts online?

  • hyper reading – unlike ‘linear’ reading takes us into multiple directions which cannot be foreseen at the beginning of the reading process
  • social reading – a collaborative form of online reading that incorporates discussion into the reading process and turns it into a communal experience; see post on tweeting about reading

Professional reading techniques:

  • close reading – deliberately ignores all historical, social, political, and biographical contexts to focus on the text itself, zooming in on the words on the page and teasing out all the subtleties of the literary forms, and devices, and structures that make up a text; as practised on #FLHouseLit; see Sarah Dillon on R4’s Open Book (also connection with digital reading techniques in its forensic intensity, perhaps)
  • historical contextualization – placing texts in their literary-historical context – part of which is the literary-geographical context – see stedssans category and page, #FLwordsworth and #FLfairytales
  • distant reading – Moretti; surveys, analyses, and describes even thousands of literary texts to identify general patterns and large scale historical developments across centuries and national borders, drawing on the methods of the natural and the social sciences; some of the most interesting outputs are not interpretations but visualisations (graphs, maps, trees); relationship with text analysis
  • surface reading – also not interested in interpreting literary texts, but focuses on a variety of things inc the materiality of books: some interesting stuff here; relationship with experimental writing

Close reading is one of the most widespread scholarly methods in literary criticism and constitutes an indispensable tool, the bread and butter, for professional readers. Formalist, ahistorical, too strenuous, too reductive, relevant to scholars only, not well suited to the digital age with its information overload, or a useful tool for interpreting literary and other texts?

Developed from a 1920s experiment by English literary critic IA Richards, but today more closely associated with the (American) New Critics, who dominated literary scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s. Poems that bear out such a close examination are characterised by multilayered relations between words, sounds, and meanings, with ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies, and tensions contained within the organic unity of the text. Literary texts don’t need to serve any psychological or social function, to educate us or strive to make the world a better place – instead, they carry their value in themselves.

My classic 1980s degree in German was studied almost exclusively through close reading, although no one ever called it that. A module on the literature of the Weimar Republic, employing historical contextualisation techniques, was considered rather risqué and not quite proper.

Hyper reading is the type of reading you perform when you look anything up on the web, eg skimming webpages, following hyperlinks, downloading files, cutting and pasting text you find useful. See James Sosnoski’s 1999 essay, Hyper-readers and their reading engines, classing hyper reading as screen-based, computer-assisted reading practices. Hyper reading takes place online and is a non-linear form of reading, where hyperlinks can take us into any kind of direction, instead of proceeding smoothly from page one to page two, and so on. (Hmm not convinced this only takes place online.)

Sosnoski’s eight hyper reading strategies:

  • filtering – selecting what texts or what parts of the text you read; with the help of search engines we filter the countless pages that make up the web and select but one or a few
  • skimming – locating the parts of a text you find most interesting, eg via a table of contents
  • pecking – a less structured and more random activity; randomly reading a bit here and a bit there, without respecting a text’s internal structure or coherence
  • imposing –  we attribute less coherence, unity and authority to hypertexts than eg a poem or a novel; we impose our interest on the text and use it for our ends, imposing our own specific significance on it
  • filming – privileging visual materials over texts; hyper readers film hypertexts
  • trespassing – ‘textual burglars’ raid hyper-texts and cut and paste whatever they find interesting; the danger is plagiarism and related
  • de-authorizing – authorship on the web is often difficult to determine; hyper readers don’t really care who authored a website and tend to treat them as if they were completely in the public domain; any link a website has to another website is an act of de-authorizing that website by putting it to one’s own uses
  • fragmenting – breaking texts into smaller units, relevant to purpose, thus fragmenting the text

Two more from Katherine Hayles’ How we think: digital media and contemporary technogenesis (2012):

  • juxtaposing – opening two windows, placing them side by side to eg cut and paste text; reading across two or more texts
  • scanning – rapidly reading through a website to identify interesting parts

Which of these go beyond stating the obvious? But still useful for typology lovers.

How does constant exposure to hyper reading affect us and what we can do about these changes?  Benefits and risks:

  • several studies show that people read less print, and they read print less well (Hayles)
  • other studies find that people, including digital natives, are reading more novels again – how to convert the increased digital reading into increased reading ability, and how to make effective bridges between digital reading and the literacy traditionally associated with print’ (Hayles)?
  • Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994) warns against the disappearance of ‘deep reading’, the experiential equivalent of close reading, the cognitive and emotional effects that solitary, close, concentrated reading has on readers
  • much more of this from Nicholas Carr and The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains (2010; article); continual on-screen reading changes the neuronal structures of readers’ brains

Can online social reading sites turn reading into a whole new communal experience? “Social reading is a form of collaborative reading that takes place online, incorporating discussion into the reading process and thus turning it into a community experience”. Hmm…depends v much on the ‘community’ – not ideal for the anti-social.

See Glose, SocialBook (and the Open Utopia pilot project), The Golden Notebook Project (2008), book clubs…and Bob Stein’s (founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book) essay A taxonomy of social reading: a proposal.

  1. Does the collaborative practice of social reading truly enhance our understanding of literary texts?
  2. Does social reading allow for a free exchange of equals?
  3. Will social reading ever replace solitary reading?

How can historical contextualization help us understand a literary work? Investigating the historical contexts of a literary text is one way to make sense of it. The literary-historical contexts of a work include, among others, the institutional aspects of its publication, its relation to the dynamics of various literary and artistic movements, and the connection of its author to other authors.

New Historicism has been a leading theoretical school in the humanities over the last three decades. New Historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt and Jane Tompkins developed a new historical approach to literature and culture.

New Historicists no longer believe that any historical era is dominated by one worldview shared by all – any era is shaped by competing worldviews and ideologies. History is neither progressive nor teleological. The world is not continually improving, for if that were the case, something like the Holocaust could have never happened. Likewise, history does not move toward a telos, an end or a goal. A teleological view of history would for instance argue that eventually, all the world will resemble Western liberal democracies, while New Historicists propose that history is much rather shaped by competing forces and changing power relations.

Historians’ desire to fully know and understand the past is illusory. The past is the past and as such, never directly accessible to us. Louis Montrose: the historicity of texts and the textuality of history. When we read literary texts we need to take into consideration that they were written and read at a specific moment in history, at a specific time and place whose social and cultural configurations were different from our own. The texts that historians and literary scholars write are also shaped by their time and place.

The textuality of history means that the past is the past and as such, never directly accessible to us. In most cases, the past comes to us in the form of surviving texts. Those texts that historians call sources. The texts from the past that historians call sources always already interpret the past, provide a certain perspective on the past that needs to be interpreted by us. New Historicists also note that the texts from the past that we actually have access to today are only a minute fraction of the texts that were actually produced and only give us certain perspectives on the past.

Perhaps the most important notion of New Historicism is cultural work (Jane Tompkins), going against the idea that literary texts simply mirror or reflect the world. For New Historicists literary texts are an integral part of the world in which they are read. They negotiate, comment on, and intervene in social and political debates of the time. Hence historical contextualisation is also good at providing opportunities to deal with questions which are related to literature only indirectly but which nonetheless strongly influence our perception of it.

Distant reading is a quintessentially digital method of analysing literature, relying on computer programmes. In many ways it is not reading at all – or at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Moretti: “We know how to read texts. Now let’s learn how not to read them.”

Computer programmes, with the help of methods borrowed from the social sciences and natural sciences, are breaking new ground in dealing with literary texts and provide fascinating insights about literature. This strategy, developed by Franco Moretti, represents an attempt at utilizing big data analytics for the purposes of literary scholarship.

Three main arguments for distant reading:

  • not “years of analysis for a day of synthesis” (Marc Bloch) – instead of embarking on close readings of the semantic and syntactic intricacies of single individual literary texts literary scholars can now use large databases, scan thousands of literary texts and identify recurring patterns and large scale historical developments
  • traditional literary scholars tend to focus on a rather narrow selection of literary texts written by eg dead, white males; distant reading promises to pry open the canon to also include largely forgotten works of literature
  • a promise of greater objectivity – traditional literary scholarship tends to be subjective in the end, shaped by the literary scholar’s own norms, values, and prejudices

Try out the Google Ngram Viewer (about) or Euterpe, an examination of French scientific poetry from the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 20th century, led by Hugues Marchal. Or not.

Surface reading is not unitary method or a school of thought, but rather a general attitude towards literature that manifests itself in a set of heterogeneous practices linked by common presuppositions about the nature of cultural experience in general, such as the one claiming that by focusing on the meaning of literary texts we exclude and lose sight of another important dimension of literature.

Is the medium the message? To what extent do different media determine or preconfigure our reading experience and our interpretation of individual texts? The medial, material and technological preconditions of all communication forms, including reading.

The emergence of new media has a transforming effect on both society and the human psyche. What is the message of your cell phone? What psychological and social consequences does it have? How has it changed the way we think and act? How has it affected the structures and interactions of local, national, and global communities? What is the message of ebooks? Health effects, how the reading experience is enhanced or diminished by features not available for print books, the legal, political, and economic consequences of the increasing distribution and use of ebooks.

Why does the materiality of books matter? Since the 1980s scholars of modern literature have begun to devote increasing attention to those features of books that medievalists and Renaissance scholars have always considered crucial: the stuff that books are made of (their size, weight, type of paper, and binding) and the texts that surround the text proper (the cover, the copyright pages, marginalia).

  • in 1997 French literary theorist Gérard Genette coined the term paratext to name all those texts; paratexts are the portals through which we access the text proper, ‘thresholds of interpretation’ ‘thresholds of interpretation’ which significantly shape our reading experience, including our attempts to make sense of what we read
  • in the 1980s and 1990s Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Ludwig Pfeiffer invited us to focus on the ‘materialities of communication…all those phenomena and conditions that contribute to the production of meaning, without being meaning themselves’
  • in a more recent special issue of Representations (108.1 (2009): 1–21) Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus introduced the term surface reading to name a kind of reading strategy that focuses on the surfaces of texts, ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.’

How is print culture responding to the challenges posed by digitalisation? One way is via remediation, the dynamic relation between older and newer media and the way they refashion and adapt to each other. In 1999 J David Bolter and Richard Grusin published Remediation: understanding new media, aiming at updating McLuhan’s insights for the 21st century. One of their central claims is that new media do not simply replace older media. Instead, they rework and redeploy older media, retaining some of their features and functions while discarding others. Media history is, in other words, not a series of radical breaks and ruptures, but rather a series of continual refunctionings and redeployments of older media by new media.

Remediation is defined as ‘the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms.’ It’s not only that new media remediate old media. Old media such as films and books also remediate new media such as computer games and hyper texts (retrograde remediation).

See eg McSweeney‘s Issue 19, Old Facts, New Fiction, & a Novella, which imitates and puts to new uses the multimedial quality of newer media:

By giving us the freedom to read these various texts and images and look at them in any order, this literary cigar box gives us the freedom to combine text and images in multiple ways. And that’s precisely the kind of freedom that we have learned to appreciate from hypertext. But this literary object here, all of this together, does something more than imitate hypertext and the world wide web.

It also does something that these newer media cannot do. It gives us a very sensuous and haptic access to these texts, these images here. We take these various artefacts into our hands, marvel at how well they’re made, and position them on the table next to each other, combining them in various ways. So McSweeney’s meets the challenge of new media by creating beautiful tangible literary objects. These material haptic qualities are well-nigh impossible to reproduce on the computer screen. McSweeney’s takes up the glove and competes in the medial arena, following its own maxim to create ’little, heavy, papery, beautiful things’.

Bolter and Grusin outline two major strategies in the medial competition between old and new media:

  • hypermediality – a ‘style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium’; an early example of hypermediacy would be medieval books of hours, which contain beautiful illustrations that draw readers’ attention to the materiality of the book itself
  • transparent immediacy – where the goal is to make the reader or viewer forget the medium and give in to the illusion that what they experience is immediate and direct, eg 3d movies and fantasy novels

Verdict: the number of linked posts on reading and related shows that much of this was useful revision. An efficient FutureLearn MOOC, then, if not groundbreaking for me. My strategy remains curated reading, the introvert appropriate approach to social reading, which all too often though tends towards half-reading.

Update: interestingly, the Digital Reading Network‘s Simon Frost picks up the idea of curated reading from the other side with the concept of the ‘Net Work’, capturing “the idea of the work as an event which consists of people, places and bibliographic objects”. See also Reading the age of the Internet (Language and Literature 25(3)).

A related issue is the dissemination of literature in the digital age, as seen at Danish public libraries. See IVA’s Ditte Balling and CROWD, including its INTRE:FACE conference (posts), for more.

#FLwordsworth and place

Updates: see The Romantic poets and Bristol, with 23 new Lyrical Ballads, a series of Coleridge Lectures inc Kathleen Jamie on Poetry, the land and nature and Melissa Harrison on Reimagining the city, a nature writing day and a walking guide (app; papers by Rebecca Hutcheon)…series of historical walks at Being Human 2015, fab…Romantic landscapes: geography and travel (event report)…the Wordsworth Trust’s Wordsworth Countryside app (article)…the Lake District as world heritage site

More new projects and finds: Geospatial innovation: a deep map of the Lake District (@LakesDeepMap)…Re-Imagining Wordsworth in Ulster (storymap; @NBWordsworth)…Reading and mapping Swallows and Amazons in the digital ageMapping Wordsworth’s residence in London…Alex Cochrane on walking with ColeridgeMapping literary visions (The Age of Innocence)…@RomanticismEHUWilliam and Dorothy Wordsworth: ‘All in each other’ reviewStanding up for the curmudgeon in tweedsRomantic LondonBy Duddon’s SideLiterary mapping in digital space (HuffPo | Chester)…

William Wordsworth: poetry, people and place (courseTwitter), from Lancaster, on FutureLearn, started on 7 September for four weeks.

Explore the influence of the Lake District on Wordsworth with this free online course, filmed at his home…Through readings and discussions focusing on Grasmere and the landscape of the Lake District, the course will explore why this location was so important for Wordsworth.

Wordsworth lived at Dove Cottage in Grasmere from 1799 to 1808, producing much of his greatest work, including ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (aka Daffodils) and The Prelude. As an intro we are invited to pen a poem about a favourite place in the Romantic style and share it on #some tagged #NaturesPoets. So it looks like it’s more about the poetry, which I hated at school, than (the) place, which as a Scot I find rather tame, but we shall persevere, in particular as one of the team, Sally Bushell, was behind Mapping the Lakes (and v2) and is writing a book on reading and mapping.

Introducing Wordsworth and Lyrical Ballads

Week 1 is made up of 16 steps, yikes. Most useful is Sally on key principles of the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1800), identifying Wordsworth’s four key ideas:

  • the poet – “a man speaking to men”, ie a communicator speaking on behalf of others representing ‘the common man’, speaking directly to all rather than a writer, no different from you or I
  • subject matter:
    • the everyman, equally capable of feeling deeply and responding to the world; “it is not just gentlemen who have strong feelings…those living a rustic life have a truer, more authentic relationship to the land”
    • common things and situations
    • place, ie the world around you – celebrating the power of the mind to internalise the natural world and be strengthened by it, asserting the power of a subjective, individual response; Wordsworth liked a private space, where he could pace up and down as he wrote his poetry; he often wrote poems on the spot, in a direct response to the natural world
  • language – as close to everyday speech as possible, but with a certain colouring of the imagination to freshen the experience
  • “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”; it should communicate directly and to the heart

Also a useful PDF on close reading poetry and a vid on how to read and interpret manuscripts, stressing context and their uniqueness.

Sadly the two poems for the week have simply served to remind me of my issues with the Romantics, but it’s all very well done, even with a ‘make your own manuscript’ task. Best takeaway so far has been the brief account of Will and Dorothy’s trip to Germany in 1798 – I have a feeling he visited Copenhagen too. (Hmm…at the very least he wrote a poem called The Danish Boy and owned a copy of Molesworth. Maybe have a closer look at Romantikstudier.dk.)

‘Spots of time’: childhood, education and memory in The Prelude

The week 1 round-up states that “Wordsworth has evoked powerful responses, not all of them favourable” and Sally admits in the summing up vid that he is uniquely polarising, so I feel partly vindicated in skipping the pomes. Maybe I will re-visit epi 3 of The Trip, which I haven’t watched yet this year. There’s more than one form of engagement in these changing times…

OK, week 2, with The Prelude and its 24 manuscripts spanning over 40 years.

Central to The Prelude are the two themes of childhood and memory. While much of the poem describes Wordsworth’s childhood adventures in the Lake District, the poet is equally concerned with how he remembers these episodes and what ongoing influence they have in his adult life. Wordsworth describes his most influential childhood episodes as ‘spots of time’…key moments in our life that continue to have an important influence on us, especially if we reflect back on them.

‘Spots’ are powerful memories where you can’t quite get to the root of that power, often involving an element of transgression, making you see the world differently – plus a process of defamiliarisation or even distortion when remembered. The spots themselves are often visual, and not a continuous memory.

From the week 3 email and summing up vid it’s clear that the team just love the Padlet exercise for the week, seemingly FutureLearn’s new thing: “Wordsworth’s concept of ‘spots of time’ has been inspirational for many of you and we’ve been particularly struck (and sometimes moved) by participants’ descriptions of their own ‘spots of time’.”

There’s also a make your own Goslar Letter task, which asks:

  • How does the letter-form affect your response to the poetry?
  • What difference does it make to read the poem in this context?
  • How important is Coleridge (the recipient of the letter) to Wordsworth, as the first reader of this poetry?

The letter was a joint production from William and Dorothy to Coleridge, and is named after the German town in which it was written. It contains passages of poetry that would eventually be included in The Prelude. Very nice! In particular that the MOOC isn’t all about discussing.

‘Michael’ and Greenhead Gill: Wordsworth and the importance of place

Week 3 visited Greenhead Gill near Grasmere, the setting and inspiration for ‘Michael’, Wordsworth’s tale of a shepherd, first published in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800):

About half a mile from Wordsworth’s house, it was also the place in which the poem was written. At the opening of the poem Wordsworth invites us to come to this place and think about the poem being set and written there – it’s very space specific. He describes the fields and hills as a living being even more than his own blood. It’s almost as if Michael is a human embodiment of the landscape…

Wordsworth wrote the poem in a sheepfold. He takes this sheepfold, an ordinary, everyday object we might take for granted or overlook, and turns it into the key symbol for the poem, loading it with human meaning and emotion and significance. The poem makes you notice the sheepfold – it makes you think about it, an ordinary thing. So loading that ordinary object with meaning is making it stand for something greater than itself – it becomes a symbol. The role and meaning of the sheepfold as symbol changes throughout the course of the poem…

Is Michael’s relationship to the place unique and special or universal? Think about the ways in which we connect to the place in which we live, or the place in which we were brought up, and how this shapes our identities.

It’s a tragic tale, and by the end of the poem there is no trace of Michael’s cottage – nothing remains except the poem telling the story. (They weren’t called the Romantics for nothing…)

Next up, a personalising place exercise (NFM) to be posted on this week’s Padlet wall, while in manuscripts corner we looked at Wordsworth’s difficulty in writing the poem as well as writing outside. By linking the writing of the poem in the sheepfold to the representation of place in the poem he creates multiple layers of meaning:

He doesn’t just wander about aimlessly or roam the hills. He does have very specific sites and also he likes to walk up and down, sort of pace up and down, and various critics have make the point that the rhythm of the poetry that he’s writing is then sort of matched to the rhythm of his walking.

How important is setting and context for writing or working well? Can you think of examples in your own life of working better in one place than another, or of needing certain things around you or having particular rituals before settling to write?

Being Dorothy

Week 4 (24 steps!) explores the process of homemaking and engages more fully with Dorothy’s life and work.

The siblings arrived in Grasmere in December 1799 and established a household at Dove Cottage – see from Goslar to Grasmere. They made it into a ‘true home’ through their domestic arrangements, through cultivating the garden and through their writing. They also established a sense of community, frequently visited by friends.

Their writing included letters, such as one written by William to Coleridge on Christmas Eve in 1799, which is compared and contrasted with his unpublished poem, Home at Grasmere:

What differences in response to the Wordsworths do you experience between reading the account of coming home in prose and in poetry? What does the writer choose to emphasise, and why, in each case? How does the form (a private letter a poem written for publication) and sense of audience (to a close friend; to all readers) affect the writing?

See Letters of Note and Davy Letters for more letters, plus:

Think about how important letters have been in your own lives. Are there particular letters that you remember vividly? What role did letter writing have in your life and has this role been taken over now by email and social media? Is there something different about the experience of writing and receiving a letter to these forms of communication?

William and his friends are generally referred to as The Wordsworth Circle. In the summer of 1802 William, Dorothy and their close friends, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mary and Sara Hutchinson, carved their initials into a rock face, aka ‘The Rock of Names’ – the importance of inscription and the naming of places as a process of settling in to somewhere.

Marking local objects is important for the Wordsworths in developing their sense of home. The rock, now in the garden of Dove Cottage, was halfway between the cottage and Coleridge’s lodgings at Greta Hall in Keswick, hence a literal meeting place and personal landmark, symbolic of their friendship and illustrating their relationship to landscape…Have you created any names or nicknames for special places? Think about the type of places you named, how you named them and who uses these names.

Other Wordsworth places that took on special meanings:

  • Sara’s Gate – named after Sara Hutchinson and described in a joint letter
  • John’s Grove’  named after William and Dorothy’s younger brother
  • Wordsworth’s Poems on the naming of places – marking local objects, naming them at a particular site where they can see a very nice view of the landscape, maybe along a favourite walking route or where a particular memorable incident happened (see also William Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (1810/35), reviewed by Virginia Woolf, and Longfellow’s Poems of places anthology; 31 vols)

What do you notice about the process of naming? What different elements are involved? How do you think the different stages involved in the naming process contribute towards place-making? Naming as a kind of ‘possession of the local’ – what do you think this means? What are the positive and negative elements of taking possession of the local landscape and of local meanings?…

[Inscription] marks our being in a particular place at a particular time, celebrating a code of the private known to a few… a kind of possession of the local…relying on the fact that people won’t know them…it’s about personalising place…ordinary objects that could be easily overlooked…

So their relationship between landscape and writing is operating at a number of levels here. They’re marking the landscape, carving their names into it. They’re naming the landscape, giving these particular places special names, and they’re also writing about the landscape…for the Wordsworths, a sense of place and particularly home is something that has to be made, and it has to be practised. And it also has to be shared by a very close group of friends, and it requires a very active relationship between the landscape and those that use it…a shared use of landscape can enhance friendship and friendly experiences in places can bring forth feelings of togetherness, community, and a sense of home…for Dorothy, these names are particularly important because she uses them in a very specific way to recollect feelings of friendship – the names are as important as the places.

Dorothy wrote a journal in Grasmere (new illustrated edition) between 1800 and 1803, recording her and William’s life in Dove Cottage, writing about the natural world, the people she met and those who lived in the village, and about William’s poetry. The MOOC concluded with that old favourite, a comparison between her account of seeing daffodils in 1802 and William’s account of the same incident in his most famous poem, ‘I wandered lonely’, written in 1804 and published in two versions (1807 and 1815).

How would you describe the way that Dorothy’s journal entry is written? What does she tell us in this passage about her daily life, her social circle, and the mundane physical experience of walking? Consider the encounter with the daffodils particularly. How does Dorothy come upon them? What is her relationship to them? How does she describe them? Do you think that there are aspects of this journal entry that are poetic? Do bits of it seem more like poetry than prose?

The wrap-up vid explored the importance of walking to the Wordsworths, for example as offering a sense of arrival after an epic and memorable event (on arrival in Grasmere), but also as an activity they chose for its own sake. Walking in (and into) the Lakes was part of their process of ‘claiming’ and (place)making a home. Also, in 1790 while at Cambridge William walked 1000 miles across Europe over the course of three months, taking in not least Revolutionary France, but also Switzerland and Italy. Some of his poetry (and Coleridge’s) has the meter of a walking pace within the lines.

Thorougly enjoyable and thought provoking throughout, even without going near the dreaded poetry!

For the record, there was a fair amount of Wordsworth (and Coleridge) at Placing the author. See also Mapping ‘Wordsworthshire’: a GIS study of literary tourism in Victorian Lakeland. And while we’re touching on poetry, here’s CAMPUS Poetry School, the social network for poets.

Notetaking, life writing – and Virginia Woolf

Updates: having just discovered biographer extraordinaire Richard Holmes, suddenly material is everywhere: Stanley Spencer, Flaubert…and here’s a piece on the commonplace bookDear diaryMapped: all Virginia Woolf’s novels & Virginia Woolf’s LondonLife writing projects, experiments with new forms of life writing grouped under headings (clothes, body, books and place)…why take notes? The Guardian view on knowledge in an information age. What type of note taker are you?

#corpusmooc and #flfiction14 gave different perspectives on writing and notebooks.

Key points from #corpusmooc (full post archived):

  • aka “update your journal”, reflective practice
  • tools used: handwritten notes (absorb more and retain it, cf Walter Benjamin – as long as you can read your writing), Wikipad, Evernote, mindmapping, Docear (‘academic literature suite’ offering PDF highlighting, a reference manager and mindmapping); me: endless bulleted lists and VideoNot.es
  • categories: ‘Stuff I really need in my head and not on paper”, “Stuff I can come back to or refer to’, ‘Stuff I’m unlikely to understand’

An infographic on notetaking techniques offers some insights into the recording and retaining of information:

  • only 10% of a talk may last in your memory, but if you take and review notes you can recall about 80%
  • notetaking systems (who knew?) include the Cornell System with a cue column and notetaking and summaries areas, the outline system and the flow based system
  • writing vs typing – writing engages your brain while you form and connect letters helping you retain more – typing gives a greater quantity of notes

Here’s an article on student notetaking for recall and understanding.

Key points from #flfiction14:

  • there are no rules
  • looking through your notebook may give you ideas, reawaken your creativity (or act as procrastination?)
  • it’s a personal running commentary, a map, a collection

More from #flcuriosity (full post archived):

Effective note taking means identifying the information which is relevant without noting everything down. Using appropriate academic reading skills can save you time. When note taking, where possible put the information in your own words and, if you don’t, make sure that you have a system that makes this clear otherwise you could end up plagiarising.

Note taking tools:

  • blogging and mind mapping
  • annotating – highlighting, underlining, writing in the margin; summarise afterwards to avoid plagiarism
  • Docear – imports and organises PDFs with notes into a mind map
  • Read Cube, Scrivner and Zotero – all show PDFs in one half and a notebook on the other half to take notes while reading
  • a notebook – half-processed writing

My blogging is my notetaking for something or other, but are notebooks something we should be collecting and (digitally) curating, or are they only of interest to ‘scholars’? Is archiving, dissecting them a form of over-analysis? (Like archiving Twitter.)

Writers and their notebooks featured on R3’s Free Thinking back in May 2014, along with a gallery and commissioned piece A junkyard of the mind by Lawrence Norfolk (more by him on writing):

a notebook is an act of triage on the world outside…accumulates its value slowly, line by line and page by page…work passes through it on the way to becoming something else

Guest Bidisha wondered whether “less [sic] notebooks might have meant more novels” – she described her notebooks as low grade matter, the result of a psychological impetus and the precursor to a published (read: completed) work  rather than writing with a narrative form. But different from a diary, which is way too personal. Sometimes the notes can be as/more interesting than the finished article, or are they just everyday detritus?

BL bod Rachel Foss saw blogs as the new notebooks, but are digital notebooks just too easy – putting pen to paper is a much more conscious act. It’s like smartphone photography – since I got my iphone I’ve been snapping away with the rest of them. This is one thing which makes digital different, but is it affecting the way we think?

The British Library’s Discovering Literature site has put “huge swathes of writers’ and poets’ personal archives” from the Romantics and the Victorians online, but it’s not that easy to find a notebook per se.  They are also archiving writers’ website, to Bidisha’s chagrin.

From notetaking to life writing (vs place writing)…

The BBC has just run the light but lovely Life in squares (James Norton!) and I just finished Alexandra Harris’ Virginia Woolf (review). I left the ribbon bookmark by this quote (pp109,111), unfashionably in praise of the car:

She wanted to translate her money into life-enhancing thingsTo the lighthouse bought a car. Like the excellent lunch in A room of one’s own, the car encourages the expansiveness of mind that might result in good writing. We can feel the effects of the Woolfs’ Singer car (called The Lighthouse) in the pages of Orlando. Scenes flash by, the world opens up…the car made Virginia feel freer than ever before.”

Not much of a Bloomsbury-ite up to now, I have A room of one’s own and Flush; next stop may have to be essays, eg Street haunting (aka the pencil story; BL), Portrait of a LondonerXmas shopping on Oxford Street

Diving into the industry we have:

Back to life writing:

Literary heritage may traditionally speak of the preservation of authors’ manuscripts, belongings and houses, but it also must include interpretation, understanding and the relationship of the artefacts to the individual, the community and the culture as a whole. (source)

Three related conferences have just taken place:

Links:

Place writing now

On 18 November 2014 the London Review Bookshop held an event on Place writing now:

It’s not about travelling across the world to exotic places: it’s about digging where you stand.

Writing about place – a sub-genre of travel writing that subverts it by being about staying put, rather than moving – has been enjoying an extraordinary vogue of late. Three of the genre’s finest practitioners joined us at the shop to discuss its significance and future. Philip Marsden’s Rising ground explores the small part of Cornwall to which he has recently transplanted himself; Julian Hoffman, in The small heart of things finds home around the shores of Greece’s Prespa lakes, and Ken Worpole in The new English landscape, a collaboration with the photographer Jason Orton, proposes a new paradigm for topographical beauty based on the post-industrial landscape of the Thames estuary.

My notes from the recording:

  • place vs space: place is distinctive, space is characterised by sameness
  • one person’s space is another person’s place, cf self geographies – we all make our own maps
  • landscape vs place: place has an element of (cumulative) experience, tradition, and hence time
  • to live is to live locally, ie to know the place you live; to belong?
  • home has a concordance with place
  • Julian Hoffman (@JulianHoffman) – had no connection with the place, wrote to engage more deeply with it; stories came out of the place, helping him discover who the land is  – and who he is; when he comes back to the UK he feels closer to it; you make a new topography, unravel it and open it out; see also interview for Elsewhere | interview in Ecozona
  • Ken Worpole – the aesthetics of the post-industrial landscape; you can’t erase the past, how should you represent it and articulate it in the present; can’t level the past; time is crucial, but the present dictates all, with place as a framing device
  • what you can walk to in a day/year; our reference is small scale, but moved from vertical to horizontal when we became area of the shape of the world (see below); regions and nations are constructs, the place is our frame of reference – this is a universal response (so why travel?); mobility is an issue…we are hunter-gatherers, not farmers controlling the land
  • urban environments are characterised by diversity and displacement
  • we are moving but staying still – kestrel image, need an awareness even when on the move
  • maths of existence – we can only know a limited number of places
  • what awakens your perception, what is your trigger? time, place…
  • see also What is place?, an event report from @waymarksblog

Similar ground was covered by R4’s Start the Week on sense of place (29 December), looking at why we react so strongly to some places, look for meaning in them and build up stories about them over time. What makes a landscape (eg a particular site), essentially a blank canvas (space?), significant? Three cases: Tintagel, Glasto, Cornwall (the shape?). A sense of place, rootedness, magical places, wandering…communities create maps to create a sense of belonging.

Landscapes are not just somewhere you pass through – they have a human history which means something to us, which is experienced, not learnt (a sense of belonging again). We find way to a sense of being through landscape, a search for meaning which acknowledges myth and the unconscious. Rural landscapes are bare, the past is not suggested, but hidden, while urban landscapes have visible layers. (The built environment takes on new social, cultural and economic importance as a repository of collective memory – in tension with the increasing threat of erasure through new development.)

Guests:

  • Philip Marsden on place as a concept, we are defined by the place we live in, it’s like falling in love, intensity etc
  • Scottish artist Victoria Crowe has been painting the Pentlands for 30 years; people have over time responded to the same forms and shapes; that response can be powerful, creating eg Stonehenge
  • Ian Bostridge on performing and analysing Schubert’s Winterreise, where s/p(l)ace is endless, empty, featureless – see his Schubert’s Winter Journey: anatomy of an obsession
  • Joanne Parker on the maps we make in our mind; we map our private, hidden places in our heads; our personal map of eg Britain is a bit  like a self-geography; for more see Britannia Obscura and the Past in its Place project (more, now finished, with three books to come, one on each strand); update: at Living Maps on 10 May 2017, exploring five alternative maps: the caver’s map, the canal map, the aeronautical map, the ley-hunter’s map and the megalithic map of Britain

Philip Marsden also popped up yet again on Ramblings on 26 Feb, and is still doing the rounds as his Rising ground: a search for the spirit of place (Granta interview | AmazonGdn & again) has been nominated for the Wainwright Prize. Essentially it’s about how travellers come home – here are my notes from an extract (the first two chapters):

  • Heidegger in Building Dwelling Thinking (1954) and its example of a 200 year old farmhouse in the Black Forest, combining religious belief, domestic life and local topography
  • Dwelling means much more than just living in a house – it described a way of being in the world (in Old English and High German the word buan, meaning both ‘building’ and ‘to dwell’ is linked to the verb ‘to be’, so “To be is ‘to be in a place‘. Only by knowing our surroundings, being aware of topography and the past, can we live what Heidegger deems an ‘authentic’ existence. His ‘dwelling’ does highlight something we’ve lost in our hyper-connected world – the ability to immerse ourselves in one place.”
  • the effect that physical surroundings have on individuals and communities can be direct or symbolic and mythologised, as in the persistence of a lost homeland
  • the difference between ‘place’ and ‘space’ (p29-30): place is somewhere distinctive, where people react to and live with the particular topography around them, while space is an idealised location, absolute, unlimited and universal; a stress on the latter has led to the “abiding sameness which characterises contemporary life” and “an insensitivity to the significance of place”
  • space as the absolute, unlimited and universal, place the particular, the limited, the local and the bound (Escobar, 2001)
  • the long-term emphasis on space has led to monoculture in farming, homogeneous housing, duplicated shopping malls and the destruction of habitats – the abiding sameness that characterises contemporary life (vs Somewhere vs Anywhere), the result of insensitivity to the significance of place (Relph, 1976)
  • see also Tim Cresswell (2004) and Edward Casey (1996) quotes
  • Yi-fu Tuan‘s Topophilia (1990, but coined by WH Auden in 1947, for John Betjeman’s Slick but not streamlined): two different ways of seeing the world (p31): vertical and horizontal; the ‘vertical’ conception of a world based around how far one could walk in a day and a polytheistic belief system meant that places were coloured by the gods which inhabited them or even took the shape of places; around 1500 this gave way to a more ‘horizontal’ perception populated by more distant places

More! Interview in The Clearing, June 2015, and me on travel vs place, May 2017.

Courses on place writing and related: