Changes afoot

While this blog and archive will remain here, most new blog posts will now be posted at http://www.hummingbirdculturechange.com

Feel free to join me there!:)

All the best,

Anthony

The He(art) of Care: Changing the Cultural Climate Equation

This is the text of a keynote address for the Enhancing Practice 14 conference for Practice Development in Toronto in 2014. A formal version of this talk will, all being well, be published in the International Practice Development Journal in the New Year.  

The audio recording of the talk is available here: http://soundcloud.com/dr-anthony-mccann/the-heart-of-care-changing-the-culture-change-equation.

***

The Heart of Care McCann p1

I’d like to thank Nadine and the organisers for the invitation to speak here today.

If keynotes are anything like giving a speech at a wedding, I suppose I’m obliged to start with a joke. Two fish in a tank. One turns to the other and says, “How do you drive this thing?”

My relationship with healthcare goes back a long way.

I was born in a hospital.

And I wouldn’t have been born at all if my Dad, a young seminarian training for the priesthood, hadn’t fallen in love with the good-looking nurse that tended to him while he was waiting for an operation.

And on behalf of my family, thanks to all of you who work in hospitals as nurses and doctors. You’re awesome. My wife is chronically ill and lives with a myriad of complications that come with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, and epilepsy, and we have two kids under two. Without the support of health workers our lives would be very, very hard indeed. You make our lives and the lives of many others less difficult and more meaningful. Thank you.

*****

Would you like a cup of tea?

Imagine we’re having a cup of tea and a chat, just you and me in a kitchen. We’ve munched through a few biscuits, or cookies if you prefer, and the tea in my cup has gone a little cold. I don’t like cold tea. If pushed, I can struggle through, but you’re sitting beside the tea pot, and chances are there’s still a drop of hot tea left in the pot. You’re beside the teapot. I’m not. From my perspective, you’re in an active position to be helpful on account of your possibilities of proximity. You are here, you are now, you are with, and you are near, and in a position to help, and likely to help, I would hope.

You are in a place of garaíocht.

I came across the word garaíocht while reading the Irish-language short stories of the Donegal writer Séamus Ó Grianna from the turn of the last century. It was a simple, colloquial word that I missed the first twenty times I read the text. Lately, however, it jumped off the page and called for my attention.

The word “garaíocht” tends to be used in the phrase, “bheith in áit na garaíochta.” It roughly means, “to be in the place where you are close enough to help.” The word “garaíocht” is derived from the adjective “gar”, meaning “near”, and possibly also from the noun “gar”, meaning favour, and then by extension from the adjective “garach” or “garaí”, meaning “helpful”. The “ocht” part also signals that “garaíocht” is a verbal noun, a noun with the quality of an action, something that you don’t get in English, meaning that garaíocht always-already involves action, activity, happening, participation.

This term “garaíocht” resonated with me, because I realised it could reach far beyond the kitchen table and serve to encapsulate the best of what I would like to think it means to be human.

Garaíocht has become for me a way to speak of a particular quality of relationship, a particular tone, atmosphere, disposition, or texture of relationship in which the most helpful aspects of the he(art) of being human are most likely to happen. Kindness, caring, generosity, gentleness, trust, nurturing, sharing, gratitude, honesty, creativity, gentle humour. All of these feel more appropriate in an environment of garaíocht. When garaíocht is present, they tend to simply happen. It’s a quality of being human.

I once had the privilege to spend a year with a Fulbright Award at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington DC. As part of the award, I was invited one night to attend a reception at the Irish Embassy. I wasn’t all that used to formal receptions, and I have always been quite nervous in crowds of people I don’t know, but I managed to get through the night clutching onto short conversations as one might clutch random flotsam and jetsam to stay afloat in the open ocean. Eventually I got to meet the Irish Ambassador, and he asked me what I was studying. I told him I was doing a Ph.D. focusing on the social and ethical dynamics in Irish traditional music, and that I was using the increasing influence of copyright thinking and practice as a way to highlight the ethics that I felt were now being displaced. As it happened, the Ambassador was a major fan of Irish traditional music. We had a nice chat, parted ways, and I eventually made my way home with that uncanny feeling that you get when you step from a formal evening event into dark and empty city streets, with just a little sparkly from the free wine and just an edge of hunger from the inability of canapés to truly hit the spot.

Soon afterwards, I was surprised to receive a personal invitation to join the Ambassador for drinks in the Embassy. He wanted to chat more about the traditional music and copyright issue, so I happily went along. It was an interesting evening. I had no idea how incredibly erudite the Ambassador would turn out to be. He was able to recite 18th-century poetry by the poets Antoine Ó Raifteirí and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin verbatim in the original Irish language. He would drop in proverbs in the original ancient Greek. And he knew how to pour Irish whiskey of excellent vintage.

A few glasses of whiskey into the evening the conversation turned to Irish traditional music. While playing a CD of his favourite musicians playing his favourite tunes, he spoke of the sublime beauty of the music and he turned to me with a degree of earnestness that immediately raised the intensity of the evening.
“Promise me,” he said “that you will tell people what’s beautiful about the music. Will you do that?”
Feeling slightly pressured, and slightly inebriated, and philosophically slightly resistant to the essential beauty of anything, but not at all in disagreement with the sentiment, I said, “I will.”

After all, I was an ethnomusicologist, an anthropologist of music. Surely it wasn’t unreasonable to expect that this was something I could do.

“Promise me,” he said “that you will tell people what’s beautiful about the music. Will you do that?”

I’ve loved tunes. I’ve loved songs. I’ve loved musicians. I’ve loved singers. Sometimes all of the above have broken my heart with a joyful, glorious, and beautiful sadness.

What I find most beautiful about Irish traditional music is something that isn’t at all exclusive to Irish traditional music. Studying the social and ethical dynamics among musicians and singers has opened my eyes to a powerful form of politics that persists at the heart of everyday life, a powerful form of politics that tends to remain largely unnoticed and unspoken, but which cradles the heart of what it means to be human.

What’s beautiful for me about Irish traditional music and song is what is also beautiful to me about watching my Mum hold my Dad’s hand in silence during his final year before he died, or watching my wife blow bubbles as our two-yr-old Aodan’s eyes light up, or watching that old lady in the café come up to our newborn son, Owen, smile, and place a coin in his hand for luck. Or the unquestioning love and support we have received from family members in times of difficulty. Or the help, support, and deeply personal care and attention we have experienced in visit after visit to the antenatal clinic and maternity wards of the Royal Victoria Hospital.

In some ways, I wouldn’t care if I woke up tomorrow and found all of the tunes and songs were gone, as long as we had retained the gentle, generous, uncommodifying qualities of relationship and social life from which they emerged in the first place.

While I can personally recognise and validate quieter, gentler, kinder and more patient practitioners of the art of being human, and personally value those beautiful moments of social encounter, in my studies I found it very hard to find anything in the serious books I was reading that allowed those people and those moments to be possible. Maybe I was reading the wrong books, but there was nothing that I could find in standard social, political, legal, and economic theory that acknowledged that such people or qualities of relationship that I had personally experienced and often loved even existed.

Gentle, generous, uncommodifying qualities of relationship and social life, the warp core of the he(art) of being human and of the he(art) of care more specifically, tend to suffer in orthodox social, political, legal, and economic theory from the triple silencing of cultural illegibililty, discursive invisibility, and political irrelevancy. What for many cannot even be possible within social, political, and economic theory cannot easily, then, become plausible as a viable option for transformative action in the discursive and institutional orthodoxies of regulated and regulating life.

I would invite you to close your eyes. Remember one of your healthiest and most helpful moments of relationship where you felt most comfortable, most welcome, most supported, and most generous within yourself. It may have been with other people. It may have been in the company of a favourite animal, or even in the company of a favourite object. You may even have been on your own. Try to feel again how it felt to be in that moment.

Garaíocht.

If we were to build our lives, our relationships, our organisations, institutions, and political systems on our understanding of such possible moments, what would they look like?

How would we get there from here?

Why would we want to?

For me, Garaíocht is the organisational form, or rather self-organisational form of human flourishing, where every moment becomes a moment of possibility, every interaction becomes a resource for collaborative and critical imaginations.

*****

There is a story often told in Ireland about these tourists who have managed to get themselves lost while driving around on Irish country roads. They have a map, but of course it’s not much help to them as most of the roads they’re on don’t exist on the map. Feeling a little panicky about the lack of signage and their inability to tell one hedge from another, one cow from another, one country lane from another, they keep their eyes peeled for someone they can ask for directions. Time passes, daylight starts to fade, and they are just about to lose hope when they spy an auld country farmer with a tweed cap, a walking stick, and, inevitably, a sheep dog. They bring the car to a stop and roll down the window.

“Good evenin’ to ya,” says the farmer, “tis’ a fine evenin’ to be out and about”
“Good evening. We were wondering if you could help us. We’re trying to make our way back to Belfast and we’re terribly lost. Is there any chance you might be able to tell us the best way to go from here.”
“Och,” he says, “to be honest, if I were you, and I was wanting to go to Belfast, I wouldn’t be startin’ from here.”

It’s an old one, and it’s a little hackneyed, but I can‘t help thinking that when it comes to leadership and culture change in the organisations and institutions of healthcare it’s a story that rings somewhat true.

For all the wonderful intentions of universal healthcare as an aspiration, we are the first generations of the human race to have successfully created and constructed systems for healing and healthcare which seem to be, by the logics of their very construction, culturally unsustainable. Not only that, but “healthcare” has largely become a synonym for sickness, illness, trauma, and death. Internationally, healthcare has also become a synonym for crisis.

On the way over on the plane I watched a movie called The Angriest Man in Brooklyn. It was uncomfortable viewing, as Robin Williams plays a man who has been told he has 90 minutes to live, and at one point his character jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge in an attempt to end his life. I found it a very sad and very bizarre last movie for Robin Williams to have made. The reason I bring it up, however, is because of the Mila Kunis character, a young doctor called Sharon. To the image of Sharon squeezing her way through the horribly crowded waiting room in a threadbare city hospital, Mila Kunis recites in third-person voiceover that Sharon went to medical school to save the world. “No-one told her,” the voiceover continues, “that care does not equal need; care being finite, need being infinite.”

That’s the kind of equation that can easily drive you to hopelessness.

If you were to design healing places, healing spaces from scratch you probably wouldn’t start from a centralised administration, make budgetary considerations the main priority, or design buildings that are more or less identical. You probably wouldn’t have people working 60-100 hours a week, putting in double shifts, or carrying extra workloads to cover for colleagues who are off work with stress and work-related illness. You probably wouldn’t use a trauma or infectious medicine model to frame and organise every level of healthcare. You probably wouldn’t consider lack of psychological safety as the regrettable but inevitable collateral of the healthcare battlefield.

The sensationalism of newspaper headlines aside, healthcare internationally is increasing being trapped in a bottleneck of enclosing industrial logics that are all-too-familiar in many other sectors – managerialism; bureaucracy; administration; accountancy; risk management; transactional and command-and-control leadership; neo-classical, neo-liberal, and neo-conservative economics; litigious legal consciousness; risk management; project management; the pharmaceutical industry; privatization generally. And many more.

If I were you, and I was wanting to get to a place of healing, I wouldn’t want to start from here.

Of course, we are starting from here, and you work hard to do your best with what you’ve got. And every now and then you do a great job. But you’d like to have the wiggle room to do a better job, one where being a healer is what you get on and do, not what you have to fight to defend.

If we want to get to a different here, one that feels differently most of the time, that works better most of the time for what we say we want to do, a hereness that is the best hereness for healing and support and helpfulness, a hereness where healing doesn’t take as much work and energy as it does now, then it’s important to have a clear vision, a clear understanding of how we want it to feel for ourselves and others when we get there, and how that’s significantly distinct from what we are already involved in. Otherwise, we have little to guide us in truly changing the cultural climate equation.

I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Edward De Bono: “Logic is the tool that is used to dig holes deeper and bigger, to make them altogether bigger holes. But if the hole is in the wrong place, then no amount of improvement is going to put it in the right place.” I think a lot of the holes we’re digging are in the wrong place, and it ain’t necessarily so.

There are lots of people trying to make a difference, but consultant’s report after consultant’s report we find ourselves with ever more detailed descriptions of what’s happening, with very little indication of how to do things differently in a way that truly makes a difference.

Audre Lorde famously wrote: “For we have, built into all of us, old blueprints of expectation and response, old structures of oppression, and these must be altered at the same time as we alter the living conditions which are a result of those structures. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. (Audre Lorde “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”). When thinking about culture change in healthcare systems, people are feeling stuck because, to echo Audre Lorde, the master’s tools will never heal the master’s house, and certainly not in the middle of a cultural climate traffic jam.

***

The most significant unhelpful changes in any environment aren’t usually heralded by drumrolls or the sound of trumpet fanfares. Although it would be terribly helpful if they were.

Frog soup.

It is widely reported that if you take a frog and drop it into a pot of boiling water it will immediately jump out of it before it has a chance to say “rebbit!” (I also do a very good donkey) Frog. Boiling water. Jumps out. However, if you were to put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly raise the temperature of the water in increments, the wee frog will swim about quite comfortably in the water, not noticing the subtle changes as the temperature rises, until such time as he’s not noticing anything at all, having been boiled alive.

I’m guessing this story may not have been tested under laboratory conditions, or even have been certified by the Humane Society, but the meaning of it is hard to ignore – if changes and escalations are small, slow, and subtle, it is very easy to miss the wood for the trees and not be aware of the bigger picture, that conditions can become harmful to us without us even noticing.

If we’re going to be frogs we need a temperature gauge.

Two fish in a tank. One turns to the other and says, “How do you drive this thing?”

That joke, which gets even funnier the second time you hear it, reminds me of two things. One, that we can start off just wanting to go for a swim and very easily find ourselves driving a tank. Two, that once we find ourselves driving a tank, we can easily just decide to get with the program and become better drivers of tanks.

If we’re going to be fish, we need to work out whether or not we want to be driving a tank, and what we’re going to do if we take a look around and find we’re already driving one.

It may be the world’s only culture change joke.

***

I’m not sure this needs to be said, but change isn’t the aim of culture change. Change happens: It just does. And it doesn’t stop. And it doesn’t always look like change. And it’s not always helpful. But it can be.

If change simply happens, then the aim of culture change isn’t change, but, rather, particular kinds of change – it is important to be clear about what qualities of change you want to happen, and, perhaps more importantly, what kinds of change you don’t want. If the purpose for culture change isn’t clear and transparent, the culture change process can be confused, frustrating, and divisive. The phrase should really be, “Helpful Culture Change”.

The unhelpful trajectories of cultural climate change are just as real and just as potentially catastrophic as the unhelpful trajectories of environmental climate change.

The sensitive presence of a healing relationship doesn’t flourish in just any environment. In some environments we get crushed; skin shrivels, muscles atrophy, blood thickens, trust collapses, collaboration founders, cynicism runs riot, ideas shut down, vulnerabilities are targeted, denied, or ignored. In some environments we fly; bodies shimmer with energy, hearts respond adaptively, muscles pulse, people build on each other’s insights, help each other out, nurture each other in a common spirit, make space for physical and emotional vulnerabilities.

It is important to know how and why this happens.

If we’re going to be frogs we need a temperature gauge.

I was born a theorist, so I got to theorising.

The task was to design a model that could handle transitions from the best of what it means to be human to the toxicities of humans at our worst and, maybe more importantly, transitions from our most toxic selves to the helpful transformations of human flourishing, and all points in between.

Cultural climate is the term I use for what most people refer to loosely and colloquially as ‘culture’ when speaking about organisations or institutions, for example, in terms such as ‘a culture of bullying’, ‘a culture of excellence’, or ‘a culture of misogyny’.

I make a clear distinction between culture and cultural climate.

To speak of “an organisational culture”, for me, is to speak of “what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in a particular environment (specified by location(s) over a designated time)“. This includes the everyday details of our organisational lives, an infinitely rich context of habits, gestures, norms, rules, learned behaviours, aversions, attractions, fears, hopes, language, beliefs, memories, expectations, values, and many other dimensions of being human, down to the clothes we wear and the food we eat.

This is incredibly broad, classically anthropological, and, of course, covers just about everything, It’s a lot to get your head around, and, analytically, it’s about as helpful as a squashed banana. So, to avoid getting overwhelmed, the most crucial aspect in the analysis of the cultures of organisations or institutions is the identification of appropriate variables on which to focus analysis.

How, why, and with what consequences do patterns of attitude, behaviour, and social interaction vary from situation to situation? What are the general principles which govern variations in thinking, feeling, and doing from situation to situation? What is the specific character of what is happening, understood in comparative relation to other situations, and why does it matter?

When I speak of “cultural climate” I speak of the dispositional quality, the tone, the texture, the colour, the temperature, the ‘feel’ of a particular organisational culture, considered in comparison to other organisational cultures or to other times or places within the same organisation. In colloquial terms, the cultural climate of an organisation here means, “what has tended to happen, what tends to happen, and what will tend to happen in a particular organisation (specified by location(s) over a designated time). Cultural climates in organisations differ in the way that each person has a different personality, that is, a dynamic pattern of variation in attitude, behaviour, and social interaction that tends to be consistent over long periods. The better you understand the personality of your organisation, the better you will be able to respond to the challenges you face within it.

I turned to sociolinguistic register theory to help me make sense of this.

As Michael Halliday has written:

“The notion of register is at once very simple and very powerful. It refers to the fact that the language we speak or write varies according to the type of situation. This is itself is no more than stating the obvious. What the theory of register does is to attempt to uncover the general principles which govern this variation, so that we can begin to understand what situational factors determine what linguistic features.” (Halliday 1978:31-32).

Register theory allows sociolinguists to compare particular qualities of language, and I found it provided a useful launching-off point for comparing particular qualities of relationship across different contexts. When transforming a theory of linguistic register into a theory of cultural climate I found it helpful, though, to take language away from the centre of the model.

The heart of my work as a coach and consultant is the identification of three key variables in situations which I regard as the most important governing variables in the structuring of expectation in social interaction, social environments, and social behaviour, and by extension, in cultural climate and culture change:

  1. Intensity of affect or emotion (ranging from more intense to less intense)
  2. Character of power or influencing (ranging from more directive to less directive)
  3. Discursive relationship to uncertainty (ranging from the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty to the acceptance of fluidity, ambiguity, and emergence)

The most important point in this work is that I have found these three variables to be direct correlates.

Cultural Change Trident Basic July 2013

For example, the more intense the affectual environment, the more appropriate highly directive influencing becomes, and the more ‘elimination’ of uncertainty thinking is likely to dominate within the situation. Likewise, the more ‘elimination’ of uncertainty thinking is used within a particular situation, the more likely it is that responses will be highly directive and the affectual environment will intensify.

In effect, it’s a map of human nature that is both dynamic and variable, pathologically particularist in it’s application. Or should that be mapplication? It can also be read as a map of escalation and de-escalation, mapping and tracking particular kinds of change, and mapping and tracking my own participation in and contribution to those changes.

As I use it, the notion of cultural climate implies that the most important questions you can ask might be, “how does it feel?” and “how do I want it to feel for myself and others?”

A core insight of my work is that within any particular cultural climate it becomes appropriate for only certain kinds of thinking, feeling, and doing to happen. A sensitivity to the poetics of appropriateness-to-context becomes one of the most valuable skills in analysis and leadership.

Cultural Climate speaks to how certain climates will foster, nourish, and sustain particular ways of thinking, feeling, and doing and render other ways of thinking, feeling, and doing inappropriate, illegible, irrelevant, and, often, invisible.

Most organisations committed to culture change focus on changing visible norms, customs, and behaviours within their organisation, which tend to have little impact on performance. A large number of small-scale changes may not effect the necessary shifts in the organisational environment to embed true, lasting, meaningful change.

Because the present is also pre-sent. The cultural climates of situations, places, and gatherings of people have always-already settled into emotional patterns that constrain and guide our expectations. Within institutions and organisations this is even more the case.

To transpose Karl Marx, we make our own organisations, but not quite as we please.

Within any particular cultural system, prolonged participation in the cultural climate has a tendency to prime people to reproduce the dynamics of that climate (either in that system or upon having moved to another). Within particular qualities of environment people tend to default to particular kinds of change. While it is possible to overcome this priming to a greater or lesser extent, for the most part in cultural priming people turn towards what I call “the adjacent probable.”

I’ve developed the term “adjacent probable” from the term “adjacent possible” in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex and adaptive systems researcher. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility, “the range of biochemical changes that any living system … could reach without destroying its internal organization.” (Peter H Jones 2013:324). As interpreted by Stephen Johnson (2010), “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

In the context of the Cultural Climate Framework, the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that are already dominant in the cultural climate we inhabit, and it doesn’t matter whether our intention is supportive or oppositional. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses in a particular situation, both tacit and explicit, that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant expectations in the cultural climate.

For me, cultural climate is not only the dynamic pattern of behaviour and expectations but also the key driver of behaviour and expectations within an environment. The biggest driver of change, whether helpful or unhelpful, is the dominant quality of relationship within an environment, the dispositional quality of an environment – how it feels.

In some environments we get crushed.

How does an environment designed for and, at least initially, conducive to healing and human flourishing become culturally unsustainable?

Enclosure.

The term “enclosure” is frequently used to speak of broad social processes and pervasive social change, and variously equated with commodification, privatisation, commercialisation, and the marketisation of everyday life. In this way, “enclosure” has become very much about the identification of the threat of unwelcome social changes, driven by often anonymous corporate agents, fueled by the expansionary logic of free-market capitalism.

For me, enclosure is the broader process in play when good situations go bad and when bad situations get worse.

Three primary drivers of enclosure stand out, which I have come to think of as the Enclosure Triad –

  • The Elimination of Uncertainty
  • Heightened Affectual Intensity
  • Heightened Directivity

While I have identified many more features of enclosing environments, these three are, for me, the primary drivers of unhelpful change within a cultural system. These features, more than any others, are what will most affect the relational climate of an organisation, being both symptomatic of and constitutive of the unhelpful dynamics of enclosure.

I’ve found that the process of enclosure, in turn, leads, beyond a certain point, to the emergence of what I call ‘environments of enclosure’ or ‘enclosing environments’. These tend to be culturally unsustainable, even toxic environments, which tend towards crisis.

February 2013 saw the presentation to parliament in London of the Francis Report into the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. As I’m sure you know, this was the last in a series of inquiries and reports responding to concerns of poor care and high mortality rates at Stafford Hospital.

Inquiries included, and I quote, “harrowing personal stories from patients and patients’ families about the appalling care received at the Trust.” As the report states clearly, “The extensive system of checks and balances intended to detect and prevent such failures did not work. Large numbers of patients were left unprotected, exposed to risk, and subjected to quite unacceptable risks of harm and indignity over a period of years.” (Francis Report 2013 Executive Summary para 73 p25)

Reports speak of,

“a lack of basic care across a number of wards and departments at the Trust; The culture at the Trust was not conducive to providing good care for patients or providing a supportive working environment for staff; there was an atmosphere of fear of adverse repercussions; a high priority was placed on the achievement of targets; the consultant body largely dissociated itself from management; there was low morale amongst staff; there was a lack of openness and an acceptance of poor standards; Management thinking during the period under review was dominated by financial pressures … to the detriment of quality of care.”

The epitome of an environment of enclosure.

Of crucial importance is the suggestion in the Francis Report that Stafford should not at all be considered an anomalous exception to current practice. Francis writes that:

“Stafford was not an event of such rarity or improbability that it would be safe to assume that it has not been and will not be repeated or that the risk of a recurrence was so low that major preventative measures would be disproportionate. The consequences for patients are such that it would be quite wrong to use a belief that it was unique or very rare to justify inaction.” (Francis Report 2013 Executive Summary para 76 p25)

Neither rare, unique, nor improbable.

There comes a tipping point in the escalation of dynamics of enclosure where human flourishing simply becomes inappropriate.

In many places, there seems to be little room for garaíocht in institutionally managed healthcare. As Ivan Illich phrased it, beyond a certain intensity, “what was meant to constitute health care will turn into a specific form of health denial”.

We have constructed institutions, organisations, and management systems for the purposes of healing, nurturing, and caring in which the qualities of relationship most conducive to healing, nurturing, and caring have increasingly come to feel inappropriate, improbable, unlikely, and a struggle to achieve.

The words of Peta Bowden back in 1997 still hold true, “The nexus of formal knowledge, authority and institutional control has characteristically overwhelmed the claims of personal, experiential and responsive caring that are so central to ethical excellence in nursing” 
(Peta Bowden, Caring: Gender-Sensitive Ethics, 1997:140).

This is deeply counterintuitive for people who are vocationally drawn to be carers and healers. Part of the core difficulty of national healthcare systems is that the need felt by a decent carer or a practised healer to reduce intensity, reduce uncertainty, reduce directivity, tends to be caged within practices, logics, habits, norms, and traditions designed in principle to increase intensity and increase directivity.

If the administrators, managers, and accountants within a health service system cannot conceive of themselves as healers, then they are in the wrong job.

The rhythm of illness is not the rhythm of documentation, spreadsheets, bottom lines, and project management. You do what you can when you can, as best you can. Often as patiently as you can. Life with illness is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

The three elements of the enclosure triad are frequently to be found in the heart of workaday orthodoxies in accepted organisational, institutional, economic, or political practice. The logics of the triad are embedded and nested within the language, habits, norms, and rules of much standard, recommended, and even “best” practice.

I have found that enclosure tends to be the underlying logic of “business as usual”, a structural logic that consistently undermines best intentions. When the tenor of the cultural climate is driven by goal-achievement, command-and-control, chronic high pressure, and financial growth rather than a more integrative understanding of cultural sustainability and systemic wellbeing, the intensifications of enclosure will follow like night follows day. The “adjacent probables” of goal-driven and profit-driven organisational, institutional, and political practice within an environment of enclosure are what take their toll on employee engagement, strategic direction, and the health of a system’s future.

Enclosure also frequently provides the underlying logic of first responses to the need for helpful culture change. The interventions of culture change are called for in times of difficulty, stagnation, or crisis. However, in culture change interventions within cultural climates of enclosure we often systematically reinforce and recreate the enclosing dynamics we are seeking to change. What seems like a good and very fresh idea at the time often ends up having very similar consequences to the thing you are trying to avoid.

To effect a dispositional shift in the cultural climate of an organisation or institution takes time. It also takes sensitive leadership. Until the cultural climate, the personality, of an organisation changes, nothing substantially changes.

The faster the change happens, the more likely it is that very little has changed.

Culture change is about people – what they think, how they feel, what they do. You can restructure, rebrand, and reorganise, you can change the language of the workplace and re-arrange the furniture; but if the cultural climate of the organisation doesn’t substantially shift, then all you are left with are a series of very expensive cosmetic changes, even higher levels of employee cynicism, most likely high levels of emotional estrangement (as people’s sense of how it actually feels goes against the grain of how they are professionally obliged to feel), and a greater culture-change challenge. In healthcare you are also increasing the possibility that people will get harmed or die.

Unless the assertion and declaration of positive values is met with dispositional change within people and across organisational policy and practice, then, in time, the enclosing gravities of organisational and institutional practice will come back around, moving cyclically through the exciting and inspiring semblance of revolution to eventually settle back into the rebranded reproduction of enclosing dynamics, now wearing a different and more attractive mask, but nonetheless the smiling mask of enclosure.

How can we helpfully respond to our participation in challenging environments in a way that reforms, reimagines, renews, and nurtures environments for optimal human flourishing rather than making them worse in spite of our best intentions?

How can we preventatively identify the threatening possibilities of unhelpful change before they start to gather speed and become all too significant?

The paradox of garaíocht is that you cannot prescribe, plan, or legislate it into existence. The harder you push to make it happen, the less likely it is to happen. Often efforts are made within an enclosing work environment to perform some equivalent of garaíocht as a visible behaviour before the necessary shift in cultural climate has taken place to support it as a lived experience. This is an easy road to emotional exhaustion and burnout.

Having outlined the Cultural Climate Framework and the dynamics of enclosure, I can now revisit garaíocht as:

“A dispositional quality of relationships and environments (i.e. a particular cultural climate) in which we tend to experience as probable a willingness, desire, and ability for sensitive, responsive, and adaptive presence, thereby influencing, supporting, sustaining, and nurturing helpful change. This optimal dispositional quality for human flourishing becomes most available when the “elimination of uncertainty”, heightened intensity, and heightened directivity do not dominate as dispositional qualities in any particular situation.”

To champion garaíocht as an aspiration in relationship is by default to adopt a position of critique, resistance, and response to the structural violences and dynamic hegemonies of enclosure.

Garaíocht, which in English I sometimes refer to as ‘ordinary ethics’, is a way to talk about the invitation of withness, being-with, the call to a culturally sustainable future.

After all of it, after all I’ve heard and all I’ve seen, what I’ve come to believe is most beautiful about Irish traditional music and song is something I neither hear nor see. It is something I feel. I have a word for it now. Garaíocht.

If defaulting to the adjacent probable of a particular cultural climate runs the risk of doubling us back into the dynamics of enclosure and further crisis, the need for interventions invites us to challenge the priming logics within the situation and within ourselves and to reach for the “adjacent unlikely” that will change the cultural climate equation.

To construct healing environments, the key is to create and maintain an environment in which the qualities appropriate to healing are felt to be the “adjacent probables” of personal endeavour, social interaction, and working life, as possible, plausible, and desirable in the quest to design optimal conditions for human flourishing.

It is possible for us to integratively design and engineer conditions that contribute to healing and human flourishing, across entire systems, that can persist without the threat of crisis, simply because we designed them that way.

But that calls for us to do more than damage-limitation work within environments of enclosure, as crucially important as that is.

Our responsibility to the generations yet to come is an enormous opportunity. I have a dream that across the world seven generations from now we will have universal healthcare that has been integratively designed from the ground up according to what appropriately supports and nourishes environments for healing. All that’s required is that we not succumb to failures of our imagination, plant seeds now wherever we can, and trust that most of what we want has already been imagined and is being practised somewhere, probably somewhere quiet, unnoticed, and undervalued.

There is plenty of hope. Remembering to remember the best of what it means to be human is the he(art) of care, the he(art) of culture change, and the he(art) of leadership.

You are here, you are now, you are with, and you are near, and in a position to help.

I’ll finish with two poems …

 

The He(art) of Care

Good morning, Sadie
How did you sleep?
The other 129 people I’m looking after have stories
Just as sad as yours.
Those are lovely flowers, did your daughter bring those in?
Just as courageous as yours.
Sorry, this vein’s hard to find. I’ll have to try that again.
Just as wounded as yours
Don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world. We’ll soon get you cleaned up.
Just as funny as yours.
Would you like me to bring you a cup of tea?
Just as feckin’ unfair as yours.
Looks like we might get some sun today.

And if I listen, really listen
Visit,
Stay a while,
Cradle the silences between us like I would a sleeping baby
Sit till the rhythm of my breathing matches yours

All of your stories
All of their stories
Will break my heart

So I just go about my business.
But not so much that you’d know.

Listen, really listen.

 

Bhí Mé Réidh Leis (a folklorist who cared) 

Bhí mé réidh leis,
Séamus the Folklorist wrote in his diary,
and left, off on his bicycle,
Leather satchel bulging at the seams,
off to the next
National Treasure
by the sea,
near a field
without a cow.

Bhí mé réidh leis.
Too easily translated as
“I was finished with him.”
Time spent.
Proverbs listed.
Songs recorded.
Stories transcribed.
Tunes notated.
Resources extracted.
Surveillance completed.
Primary target acquired.

Primo Levi once wrote:
“To give a name to a thing
is as gratifying
as giving a name to an island,
but it is also dangerous:
the danger consists
in one’s becoming convinced
that all is taken care of
and that once named
the phenomenon has also been explained.”

Double danger
When naming people.
When watching people.
When describing people.

Triple danger
When making a good living from
Naming people
Watching people
Describing people.

Bhí mé réidh leis,
Séamus the Folklorist wrote in his diary.

He could have meant
“I was ready with him,”
and stayed.
To talk like neighbours.
To keep good company.
To be with.
To sit in silence.
To chat about those near and dear to him.
To share a cup of tea.
To wile away the hours
Where words matter less
than the heart that dances.

I wonder if
Séamus the Folklorist
ever wished
(as he cocked his leg over his bike
and wiggled his bum
and uilleann pipes
into position for the rocky road)
that he was carrying
a leather satchel bulging at the seams,
chock-full of the sparkling delights of
proverbs unlisted
songs unrecorded
stories untranscribed
tunes unnotated.

For, in truth, he loved that man.
And sometimes
just sometimes
it didn’t feel right.

And sometimes, late at night,
He would stay behind
After a paperful day
And walk through the stacks
Drenching himself in the names
of old friends, dear friends,
Showering himself in half-glances
warm cups of tea
a devilish drop of poitín
a dirty joke
And a broad choir of grins.

And in the light of morning
In office hours
At the start of another paperful day
while walking his fingers through
the cabinet of the card catalogue
for references to that stirring tune
He would again feel a stirring of regret
that there was no card for “love”.

 

 

 

Opportunities of Resistance: Irish Traditional Music and the Irish Music Rights Organisation 1995-2000

This is the draft of an article that I published in 2012: “Opportunities of Resistance: Irish Traditional Music and the Irish Music Rights Organisation 1995-2000.” Popular Music and Society 35(5):651-681.

Introduction

Legal sociologist Roger Cotterrell has noted that for those not personally committed in some way to the legal system, personal experience of the law often only arises when the law is felt to impact directly, positively or negatively, on the individual’s personal conditions of life (184). Legal power, I would suggest, becomes available for analysis in moments of resistance and conflict arising from prescriptive assertions and demands for obedience. As the work of scholars such as Kembrew McLeod have made clear, the unsettled and unsettling moments of personal encounter and participation in the contexts of “music and copyright” can serve as valuable diagnostic tools whereby the expansionary dynamics and political consequences of doctrine can be made visible. Moments of resistance and contestation can serve not only as clear invitations to analysis and critique, but also as clear invitations to possibilities of empowerment.

In this paper I outline a series of encounters of resistance and conflict relating to the political and economic expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) during the years 1995-2000, with particular emphasis on the domain of Irish traditional music. IMRO administers licences[i] for performing rights[ii] in Ireland. In their own words, “The Irish Music Rights Organisation is the national body charged with administering public performance rights in copyright music in Ireland on behalf of songwriters, composers, arrangers of public-domain works, and music publishers. IMRO’s function is to collect and distribute royalties arising from the public performance of copyright works.” Musical performing rights entitle the copyright owner of a work to receive a royalty whenever their musical work is performed in public or broadcast.

The Irish Music Rights Organisation achieved independence from the English Performing Right Society (PRS) in 1995. In the period that followed, IMRO representatives intensified their efforts to increase the number of licences contracted with the company. Expansion, as a consequence, was the most significant aspect of the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation during the period 1995-2000. A series of controversies resulted during the second half of the 1990s, allowing for an eruption of suspicion, if not paranoia, about IMRO’s operations. Representatives of IMRO encountered fierce resistance as certain groups refused to comply with the purported need for IMRO licences, in particular, primary schools, publicans, and, the main focus of this article, supporters of ‘Irish traditional music’. By the year 2000, however, what had been one of the most notorious organisations in the country had become one of the most accepted, in a complete and almost miraculous turnaround. Presently, the organisation operates with full government sanction, full support of the legal system, and with an unchallenged economic monopoly position in the Irish jurisdiction.

Primary Targets

In one week at the end of April 1996 there was a short flurry of public outcry in the national media and in sessions of the Dáil (the Irish parliament)[iii]. The outcry arose as a result of The Irish Music Rights Organisation’s dogged pursuit of performance royalties in relation to primary schools. The IMRO position was that songs and tunes were being used in public performances, and the writers and composers of those songs and tunes were therefore owed royalty payments for use of their property. Teachers, politicians, and journalists condemned the move. IMRO’s demands to schools were heralded as a direct threat to the continuance of some of education’s most sacred rites, such as the school concert, disco, and even nativity play. The Fianna Fáil[iv] education spokesman of the day, and later Minister for Education, Micheál Martin, declared the demands “anti-music” and called on the Minister for Enterprise and Employment to change the 1963 Copyright Act so that school performances would be exempt from such charges. There was recognition of the fact that the representatives of the organisation were within their legal rights to pursue royalties from primary schools, but the morality of such actions was questioned.

Representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation argued that it was obliged under Irish and international law to collect royalties for composers and songwriters. One of the reasons that such demands hadn’t been made of Irish schools before was that the London-based Performing Right Society had, in IMRO’s estimation, been lax in their duties. Since attaining independence in 1995, Keena reports, the Irish Music Rights Organisation had “tightened up our affairs”. In an article entitled “Sing a Song o’ Sixpence, a pocketful of cash”, Sunday Independent journalist Declan Lynch denounced the organisation’s actions as “petty” and “anti-social,” also commenting on the “widespread odium” that had been generated against the Irish Music Rights Organisation, confirming these disputes as a public relations disaster (Lynch). Ultimately, however, the disputes were settled when, following negotiations, schools agreed to contract for performance royalty licenses at reduced rates. Following that week of controversy, IMRO were to have no more publicly-aired disputes with primary or secondary schools.[v]

If nothing else, IMRO’s brief dispute with primary schools increased brand recognition for the organisation. Described in an Irish Independent headline in 1994 as a ‘Music Rights group’ (Cullen), by 1996 IMRO’s name had reached a level of widespread infamy. Even bad publicity is publicity. All that was left for the organisation to do was to convince those in opposition that they were legitimate, and worthy of widespread support. A second major target for IMRO in performing rights disputes in the 1990s was the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI), an association of Irish publicans operating outside the Dublin area. Publicans objected to the amounts they were being asked to pay for performing rights licences and registered this objection in a campaign of non-cooperation with the Irish Music Rights Organisation. The Vintners’ Federation had been contesting payments to PRS-IMRO since 1984. 1996 saw an escalation of the ongoing disputes between the Vintners’ Federation and the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and a concentration of IMRO’s efforts to resolve them. By the end of 1996 the VFI were the only major music-using group with which IMRO had been unable to agree a tariff for performing rights licences.[vi]

It must be remembered that publicans, for the most part, weren’t arguing that performance royalties shouldn’t be paid to the Irish Music Rights Organisation at all, as had been the case with primary schools. Rather, what was in dispute was the level of the tariff which publicans were being charged for blanket licences. As in the case of primary schools, some felt that the Irish Music Rights Organisation’s pursuit of royalties was unnecessarily aggressive. Other reasons, or rather justifications, were given for opposition to IMRO; among them, that the organisation was undemocratic and unregulated, and in practical terms accountable to no-one. It was felt that the levels of payment requested from the publicans were arbitrary, ‘made-up’, and unjustifiable. IMRO had made numerous attempts to achieve an agreement with the Vintners’ Federation, and it was in their best interests to do so, both financially and from the point of view of public relations. The 1996 IMRO Director’s Report and Financial Statements, however, indicated that 900 court cases were still in progress for non-payment of royalties, mainly against members of the VFI. In 1996, the bill for the Irish Music Rights Organisation’s ‘vigorous pursuit’ of the outstanding debts owed by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland came to IR£361,293, or 14.7% of net operating expenses.

Irish Traditional Music Enters the Fray

The opposition that arose from among the supporters of primary schools undoubtedly provided the Vintners’ Federation with encouragement for their own opposition to the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and raised the emotional stakes in IMRO’s “vigorous pursuit” of royalties. What had complicated the issue tremendously by 1996, however, was the co-optation of ‘traditional music’ as a major issue in the Vintners’ negotiations. In October of 1996, for example, vintner associates threatened to boycott a music industry event, an Irish traditional Music Expo, ITMEX, in Ennis, County Clare, unless IMRO withdrew their participation. As Vallely comments: “this was akin to having a board meeting without the treasurer” (“Copyright”, 9). As the VFI continued to oppose royalty payments, they turned to the issue of performance royalties for ‘traditional sessions’[vii] to further justify their opposition. This issue provided the Vintners’ Federation with a justification, albeit a dubious one, for the reduction of tariffs for blanket licensing agreements, leading Hugh Duffy to claim that “the VFI are using the traditional music issue to lobby support for their reluctance to pay any writers’ royalties at all” (cited in Vallely, “Copyright”, 8). This was very likely the case. It is important to emphasize that the introduction of the Irish traditional music theme into negotiations was primarily an economic consideration. Although the justifications offered by the VFI were largely insubstantiable[viii], IMRO nevertheless conceded reductions in this regard as part of the deal secured. In retrospect, these concessions amounted to skilful negotiation and savvy public relations. What became clear during the course of these negotiations, however, was that for the people who played in the ‘sessions’ concerned, the issues extended beyond the merely economic.

The Rumble at the Crossroads

‘Crosbhealach an Cheoil – The Crossroads Conference’ (April 19-21, 1996), had been convened as an independent forum in response to growing commercial development within Irish ‘traditional’ culture. The call for discussion had been answered by forty one speakers, and by another three hundred or so conference participants. This was not your usual conference. For perhaps the first time in history, a conference had been called at which practising traditional musicians were in the majority. They had plenty to say, and they were going to make sure that they got to say it. Many were annoyed at a continuous stream of misrepresentation among documentary makers and the national media. Others were tired of those who continually trotted out the tradition versus innovation debate. Some were angry at what they saw as the dilution of the national race and its culture. Others just had a chip on their shoulder. Some were just there for the ‘crack’ [ix].

The Temple Bar Music Centre hadn’t been officially open for more than a year, and the building still had that vague mixture of promise and chaos about it. Inside, up there in a newly-painted room on the third floor, a room probably reserved for the storage of sound equipment at some later date, there was quite a buzz in the air. The room was jammed, packed to the rafters. In the absence of a place to sit I had seated myself precariously and rather uncomfortably on the top of my wooden bodhrán case. There must have been a good fifty people in a room which would have comfortably sat thirty.

The paper was to be entitled, “Irish Traditional Music – Whose Copyright?” William Hammond took a seat in front of the microphone at the table. As he did so, I was aware of the presence, not two feet from where I sat, of the Chief Executive Officer of the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO), Hugh Duffy. IMRO had been at the centre of a growing swirl of speculation and discontent among traditional musicians over the previous months, as IMRO had engaged with publicans around the country in pursuit of performance royalties for their members. This continued to cause controversy and confusion, many musicians feeling that one of the vital features of what they considered ‘traditional music’, the ‘session’, was now being placed under threat.

In his broad Cork accent, William Hammond proceeded to describe what he saw as a ‘tollgate’ on the ‘crossroads’ of Irish traditional music. Willie, known more for his prowess as a set-dancer and festival organiser than for his forays into legal difficulties, explained how, in his view, the life of traditional music was being hampered by overzealous collecting on the part of IMRO as they took on the publicans of the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland. The Vintners’ position was simple. While they respected IMRO’s right to property, they were unable to agree upon charges which, in their view, were inequitable and which, they felt, derived from IMRO’s monopolistic position.

Willie spoke quietly, and a little hesitantly, obviously not used to speaking in such terms in front of a crowd.

“You can picture the scene where a few lads and lassies who are fed up with competitions and fed up playing on their own, decide to find a place to play a few tunes on a Friday night, and they ask around, and one says,

– I’ve an uncle, he has a bar. He’ll let us play a few tunes for a few pints and expenses.

So the uncle, who pays all his bills to IMRO and PPI for the radio, is delighted to have a few tunes on a Friday night. He decides to put an ad in the paper. So, on the Friday night the group comes in and they take a seat in the corner of the bar for a night of music-making, working out tunes, and tune-swapping.

This is where the law steps in. The local representative of the collection society sees the advert and decides to visit the pub. The representative, seeing the live music, copyrighted music, visits the uncle the next day saying,

– Listen here, you’ve live music going on here. You have to pay £500 a year in advance for the session.

So what does the publican do in that situation?”

Willie continued, admitting that he found it difficult to find where all the pieces fitted into what was overall a very confusing puzzle. He admitted that even finding the smallest amount of information had been a time-consuming exercise. Questioning whether performance rights should cover traditional sessions, he claimed that musicians were finding it harder to find new places to play, and that publicans were cutting back on the number of sessions that they held each week. He expressed worry that the session, the “practice room of Irish traditional music”, was under threat: “No single person is responsible for that tradition. It’s the collective work of many generations of Irish musicians. What rights does it have? None.” Willie finished the talk with a suggestion that maybe it was time for a new society to be formed, a traditional music protection society. The room rang with considered applause. A number of hands were quickly raised to the chairman as people sought a place to speak in reply.

Dermot McLaughlin, then Music Officer for the Arts Council, was one of the first to speak. He expressed reservations about the tone with which the paper had been delivered. “The paper suggested,” he offered, “that copyright legislation is almost a bad thing, when, in fact, a fuller understanding of how the system works would actually suggest something quite different. I think the specifics of how traditional music fits in is actually catered for in law. I think the copyright agencies have certainly done, in my opinion, a fair bit of work to bring traditional music back into the mainstream, so that people who trade and who earn a living from it can do so, and can enjoy the full protection and remuneration that the laws have already put in place. They guarantee a future and an income for the music.”

Willie replied that his only area of conflict with copyright was where it interferes with traditional music. It was hard to hold Hugh Duffy of IMRO from speaking. He was obviously incensed. He stood up, barely waiting for permission to speak. Pointing out a number of inaccuracies in Willie’s presentation, Mr. Duffy sternly reprimanded that he had found a lot of the information very biased.

“Purists like yourself,” he began defiantly, “who defy innovation and question copyright-innovation have allowed the multi-national drinks industry to hijack you, and you are doing no service to the arrangers of copyright music! The arrangers of copyright have been pillaged for the last fifty years both in this country, in the UK, and in America. They haven’t got a penny out of it, and massive fortunes have been made.” “You make the case,” he continued adamantly, “about the poor publican. The publicans are in the business of selling drink. They’re not in the business of anything else …” He restated his accusation of misinformation, and pointed out the financial support that IMRO had provided for the conference.

Sitting next to Hugh Duffy was record producer, song collector and record label director, Robin Morton, now based in Scotland. He rose animatedly to make a number of points:

“I’ve been interested in this issue of copyright protection for twenty five years, and have been fighting the same battle that IMRO have won. I think there’s an awful lot of misunderstanding here of what IMRO’s about and the battle they won with an English organisation called the Performing Right Society. They can put an awful lot of money into an awful lot of people’s pockets in this country and they’ve done a damn good job, and you really should be talking to them. You shouldn’t be coming here!

“The picture you developed there was rather like the picture of an Ancient Ireland where we all sit around in the pubs, and I was nearly crying into my pint, and it was a very emotional scene you were drawing up! This man’s right,” he said, pointing to Hugh Duffy, “The pub owner, this guy’s uncle, is making a lot of money out of it, and you can rest assured that there’s absolutely no reason why that shouldn’t go back to traditional musicians. You can work out a system how that should happen and these people are open to it. I know, I’ve talked to them. They’re reasonable people. They’ve put up a battle for a lot of great musicians in this country to be properly paid. You really should be talking to them, not fighting with them. For Christ’s sake, get in there and talk to them and understand what they’re saying and let them understand what you’re saying!”

The Chair passed the right to speak to Tom Munnelly, a longtime folklorist and song collector from Dublin, now living in County Clare, a place often regarded as the heartland of traditional music.

“I live in an area of West Clare where there are quite a number of pubs and they do have music in them, and they supply a few pints. In fact, if the musicians were paid they’d probably be cheaper.” Laughter broke the tension somewhat. “But this is from personal experience. I am a great believer in ‘Public Domain’. I believe that traditional music and song genuinely belongs to anybody who cares to use it.” He detailed how certain songs he had collected from a singer named John Reilly, for example, The Well Below the Valley, Lord Baker, and the Raggle Taggle Gypsy, had been recorded by singer Christy Moore and the Irish group Planxty. This he had no problem with. “Where I do have a problem is when I get the Planxty songbook and I see ‘The Well Below the Valley, Copyright Phil Coulter.’ Now that pisses me off!”

Robin Morton jumped to Phil Coulter’s defence, saying that if Phil Coulter had not copyrighted the song the money would have gone to some corporation elsewhere. He also testified as a friend to Coulter’s good character, and insisted that there had been no malice intended in Coulter’s actions. “There’s money there to be earned,” Morton insisted, as the Chair repeatedly made attempts to call the session to a close on account of time restrictions, “For God’s sake, take the money from these big organisations! I think the real problem is that no-one knows where it’s coming from. It’s not a rip off!” At that the Chair called a halt to proceedings, joking that from that point on all were banned from speaking any more about this topic, as I raised myself gently from my bodhrán case.

In the context of such concerns, the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland’s fourteen-year dispute with the PRS, PRS-IMRO, and the later independent IMRO ended anti-climactically in late December, 1997. The written documentation of the agreement was accepted at a meeting in Tuam, County Galway, between the VFI President, Paul O’Grady, and the then IMRO Chairman, Brendan Graham. The negotiations had led to an agreed tariff for the collection of performance royalty charges from publicans outside the Dublin area, effective from the 6th January, 1998. Under the newly-agreed tariffs it was stated that “Irish traditional music in the public domain is exempt … but that copyright music will incur the full tariff. Disputes about matters such as the definition and categorisation of music, and the status of Irish traditional music, can be referred to the IMRO/VFI Arbitration Committee …” (Lyons 13). The agreement with the Vintners’ Federation meant that all of the groups that IMRO had targeted as the main ‘music users’ in Ireland had agreed tariffs with the Irish Music Rights Organisation. IMRO’s program of systematic expansion had, it seemed, been successfully completed. As the Irish Music Rights Organisation was to find out, however, the co-optation of ‘traditional music’ and the ‘session’ issue into the Vintners’ negotiations had a sting it its tail.

Musicians Take Note

A number of factors had contributed to the growing visibility of copyright as an issue within so-called ‘traditional’ contexts.[x] The growing popularity of what was labelled ‘Irish traditional’ or ‘Celtic’ music in music industry markets during the eighties and nineties created a climate in which PRS, PRS-IMRO, and then IMRO were called upon to meet the rising expectations of financial rewards from royalties. In turn, the growing recognition of financial reward for new compositions led to an increase in both the number of tunes being composed and registered, and in the number of arrangements being claimed as original and copyrighted. Until the mid-nineties, however, knowledge or awareness of copyright remained the preserve of those for whom financial considerations remained central to their experience of musical practice. For those who did not give much thought to commercial incentive, the issue of copyright remained irrelevant so long as it did not impinge on their lives. The tariff negotiations between the Vintners’ Federation and the Irish Music Rights Organisation made a difference. It still remained something of an esoteric issue, but copyright had begun to impinge.

The growing awareness of copyright and performing rights among musicians started to influence the choice of tunes in sessions at least by 1996. Working from understandings that were nothing if not confused, some musicians would refuse to play certain tunes suggested by other players at ‘traditional sessions’. This was because these tunes were considered ‘copyright’. It was thought that ‘copyright’ tunes couldn’t be played at a ‘traditional session’, as reported to me in 2001:

There was definitely that. I noticed that, that people were more aware of what they were playing and sort of said, ‘Look we’re not going to play any composed music, y’know, so we won’t be playing any Paddy O’Brien or Hammy Hamilton or …’ cause a lot of them would know the music. Yeah, I suppose it shows you that the musicians didn’t know anything about it if they thought that, like (Hammond).

Other musicians refused to play their own tunes until such time as they had been released on a commercial recording, for fear they would lose their copyright. This was very practically an issue of self-censorship in a new awareness of a dichotomy between ‘traditional’ and ‘copyrighted’: “the absurdity of that scenario for the musicians would be the equivalent of censoring pub conversation to exclude mention of ideas in contemporary Irish literature” (Vallely, “Copyright”, 6). Whether these concerns were based on correct interpretations of the law or on complete misunderstandings was of little matter. On the whole they contributed further to an atmosphere of confusion.

The initial reaction to the licensing of ‘sessions’ among many people was simple incredulity. They couldn’t see how the ideas of ‘copyright’, ‘intellectual property’ or ‘property’ of any sort could be applied to ‘traditional’ contexts, and specifically the ‘session’. There was a clear perception of a radical disconnect. This generally ran along the lines of: “But there is no copyright in traditional music?” It simply wasn’t considered to have anything to do with what ‘traditional music’ was all about. As Martin Hayes, one of the most respected Irish musicians on the commercial scene, commented in Seattle: “I mean, like, nobody owns the stuff. You can’t own this stuff” (Hayes). Another musician in Philadelphia phrased it similarly: “The music doesn’t belong to anybody, so if somebody’s trying to learn it and you can help them, it’s not yours, so it’s not like you can hold back because it’s not yours anyway” (Rogers). That the idea of copyright and performance royalties could be so far removed from musicians’ understandings of ‘traditional’ ways of thinking was exemplified by the colourful reaction of a commercially-successful and highly regarded Irish-American musician and composer to the news during an interview that ‘sessions’ in Ireland were deemed to be liable for performing rights licensing:

Get out of town! I can’t believe that. … Man that’s so sticky. Holy cow, though, I can’t even imagine them trying to pursue that. … Oh no no no. Wait a second, from a session? … So who pays? The pub or the musicians? So there would be somebody sitting there and marking down every tune that went by to see who it goes to? … How do they divvy it up? How can they decide? It’s bizarre. It’s really bizarre (Carroll).

Many people who played music and also compose tunes found it hard to reconcile the logic of copyright with the fact that they would be quite delighted if their tunes were played at ‘sessions’, even if no-one knew that they had composed them. The attitude of Maighréad Ní Mhaonaigh, fiddler with successful music group Altán, was typical: “The best thing is to compose tunes and not have people recognise them as newly-composed, that they slip back into the tradition. For me that’s the biggest thrill of all” (Ní Mhaonaigh). Vallely quotes fiddler Máire Breathnach, another commercially-active performer, as saying: “That kind of recognition is superior to any payment” (Vallely, “Session”), and elsewhere notes that many musicians and composers who welcome IMRO royalty cheques for their own work in overtly commercial contexts, are adamant that ‘sessions’ should not be liable (“Copyright”, 8). As one musician said to me rather bluntly: “You’re not entitled to a copyright if it’s being played in the session, because that’s alien to the whole culture to do something like that” (Hammond).

Save the Session

Some of the fears that ‘traditional’ supporters felt paralleled the concerns of the defenders of primary schools. There was concern, for example, that IMRO’s demands might discourage publicans from allowing ‘sessions’ on their premises at all. Some, like William Hammond (4), felt that IMRO’s actions were directly threatening the existence of ‘the practice room’ of ‘traditional music’. On the fourth of February, 1997, Fintan Vallely published a feature article in The Irish Times sensationally entitled “Save the Session”. It was the first nationally published statement on the matter, and the effect it had on conversations around the country, and, indeed, around the world, was swift. The issue of copyright briefly achieved celebrity status among musicians. The Irish traditional music mailing list on the internet, IRTRAD-L[xi], with about 600 members at any time, was informed of the article on the day of its release. A list-member posted the article in its entirety for those without world wide web access. For the next two days the list engaged in passionate discussion of the issues. “Save the Session” undoubtedly provided the clearest commentary on the issue to date. The main concern seemed to be clear, and echoed the concerns that had been voiced previously. IMRO was approaching publicans regarding licensing for performance royalties due to their members. Where ‘traditional’ music was concerned, ‘arrangements’ of tunes whose copyright had expired, played by IMRO members, were deemed to accrue royalties. Three things seemed to justify IMRO’s jurisdiction in this matter: these ‘arrangements’, the presence of newly-composed, copyrighted tunes at ‘sessions’, and the authority of legislation and international agreements. Many musicians expressed concern that this was inappropriate, and an intrusion, if not actually indirectly threatening the continuance of many sessions in pubs.

Rumours abounded that sessions were being shut down on account of pressure placed on publicans by representatives of IMRO. It is clear from the passage above that the Vintners’ Federation in no way sought to diminish these rumours.[xii] A number of publicans did not consider a ‘session’ a financial venture, but merely a favour to some local musicians. Were they obliged to think about it as a financial endeavour requiring a licence, they might well decide that not having a ‘session’ at all might be less hassle. But this would really only be an issue if no other music, of any sort, was ‘used’ on the premises. Any other ‘music use’ at all would require a blanket licence, rendering the ‘session issue’ largely irrelevant. All in all, the perceived threat to sessions was greatly exaggerated and largely erroneous.[xiii] It remained, though, a highly emotive and charged concern in the atmosphere of the Vintners’ opposition to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. Furthermore, it created a dubious cause and effect scenario which helped to justify negative impressions of IMRO’s role.

Blanketing the Issues

As noted before, however, it wasn’t necessary that IMRO consider the views of a disparate ‘traditional’ lobby at all. IMRO’s dispute with the Vintners’ Federation was purely a contractual and financial one, based on disagreements over the level of tariffs. To argue that IMRO had no jurisdiction in these contexts was hardly likely to faze an organisation that claimed absolute jurisdiction in all places outside of the family circle where there might be the possibility of even one copyright work being played. Sinacore-Guinn (29) reminds us that the licensing process is fundamentally adversarial – users and collectives ultimately wanting different things. There is no room to contribute to this equation unless one is either a licensor or a licensee. Furthermore, to argue that certain contexts were non-commercial was hardly likely to succeed in the face of an organisation whose representatives claimed that all contexts were commercial, and that the primary motivation of human life was economic.

Three binary oppositions were central to musicians’ confusion about the inclusion of ‘sessions’ within the regulatory authority of the Irish Music Rights Organisation: ‘traditional’ or ‘non-traditional’; ‘commercial’ or ‘non-commercial; and, ‘for profit’ and ‘not for profit’. Each opposition was based on an assessment of the social and contextual elements of what may have been considered ‘sessions’. Elements which might have been considered by someone seeking to make a judgement of a ‘session’ on the basis of such oppositions might have included whether or not any of the musicians were paid, whether or not the ‘session’ was amplified, or whether or not the pub-owner was seen to benefit commercially from the ‘session’.

Ultimately, however, none of these concerns were really an issue for the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation. The issuing of blanket licences, as well as the all-embracing logic of performance royalty collection, ensured that anything judged by IMRO to be a ‘performance’ of a copyrighted work outside of the family circle was to be adjudged a ‘public performance’. Any ‘public performance’ was a commercial concern, and therefore subject to a royalty payment. This was the case regardless of the musical genre. With the law on their side, it didn’t really matter what anyone else thought. From the point of view of the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation there is no such thing as a non-commercial, not-for-profit ‘session’, because musical activity implies ‘works’, which implies ‘commercial interest’. Moreover, with blanket licences the onus was on the licensed premises to show that only non-copyright music was being played. If this were not shown to be the case, IMRO could claim complete and absolute jurisdiction without needing to consider the nature of the social conditions, or the genre of the musical activity. For ‘traditional sessions’, the representatives of the organisation could indeed claim complete jurisdiction, given that the presence of even one performance of a copyrighted ‘arrangement’, of a tune or song not itself considered to be in copyright, constituted a justification for licensing. Again, the burden of proof demanded disproof.

Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Opposition to IMRO

No organised ‘traditional’ lobby group grew out of the diffuse resistance to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. However, the major Irish traditional music organisation already in existence, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ) (‘Association of Musicians of Ireland’), provided somewhat more structured opposition.[xiv] At the time that ‘traditional music’ became a focus of the VFI-IMRO dispute the official position of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann as an organisation was one of unequivocable non-communication with regard to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. The full-time Ard-Stiúrthóir or Director-General of the organisation, Labhrás Ó Murchú, insisted to the members of his organisation that to talk to IMRO was to acknowledge their role and authority. In 1996, the members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann overwhelmingly passed a motion at their national congress pledging non-involvement with the Irish Music Rights Organisation under any conditions. In the same year a representative of CCÉ’s subsidiary trade union, the Association of Irish Traditional Musicians, dismissed IMRO as “an English import”, while Ó Murchú himself could not even be drawn to make a comment on the matter (Vallely, “Copyright”, 9).

Labhrás Ó Murchú has been in charge of the operations of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann since 1968. The position he holds is a lifetime appointment, and one not included in the organisation’s constitution. Appointed as a trustee of the organisation, he also holds the position of main spokesperson for Comhaltas, and is the editor of the organisation’s journal, Treoir. In 1997 Ó Murchú was nominated and elected to the Culture and Education Panel of Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate. He was at the time of these issues a member of Oireachtas (government) committees on education, heritage and Irish language, and the deputy government spokesperson on these matters within the Seanad.

What particularly focused Ó Murchú’s attention on the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and what caused him to break his public silence, was the passage of the Copyright and Related Rights bill through the Irish parliament. Said to be the largest piece of legislation ever to have passed through parliament, it was the first time that the issue of copyright had been specifically addressed in Irish legislation since the Copyright Act, 1963. The new legislation was to be a significant revision and expansion of the 1963 Act in line with advances in technology, international obligations, and the laws of the European Union. A draft of the proposed bill for the new Copyright and Related Rights Acts was published in early 1998, whereupon lobbying interests began to make their case known through the voices of Senators in the Irish Seanad.

In his role as Senator, Ó Murchú lobbied against the Copyright bill, which inconveniently placed him in opposition to the official line of the Chief Whip of his political party, Fianna Fáil. At this point it is clear that Ó Murchú’s role as Senator and his role as Ard-Stiúrthóir of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann were not clearly distinguished from each other insofar as his representative capacity was concerned. In March, 1998, Ó Murchú attended a UNESCO conference in Stockholm, “The Power of Culture”, as a member of a delegation from the Oireachtas. Quite by accident, he found himself at a session which discussed issues concerning the encroachment of intellectual property rights upon traditional cultures. The concerns expressed at this session, and the widely-expressed need that certain protective measures needed to be enacted, provided him with internationally-sanctioned conceptual support for the anti-copyright stance of his organisation and his lobbying efforts.[xv]

Ó Murchú’s, and hence Comhaltas’, position against IMRO very much reflected the concerns generally expressed around the country. They had, he felt, no expertise or appropriate understanding of what might be considered ‘traditional music’. Furthermore, as far as the mandate of the Irish Music Rights Organisation was concerned, Ó Murchú claimed that the number of people in traditional music for whom copyright was an issue, whether they were commercially active or not, was negligible. He gave the clear impression that the vast majority of musicians involved in the commercial world would never even consider the issue of copyright, seeing traditional music as a free music, in the sense that everybody could play it, without restriction, without consideration of ownership.[xvi] The other side of that argument, which Ó Murchú was very clear about, was that the copyright ethic of claiming ownership on tunes and songs that IMRO was promoting was anathema to the spirit of generosity which had sustained the types of “traditional” musical activity which Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann represented.[xvii] While for representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation “traditional” primarily means “anonymous” and therefore in the “public domain”, Ó Murchú was adamant that this position was not one his organisation could go along with.

This clash of approaches to music or musical activity was fundamental. Because of it, the development and expansion of copyright as an issue, and the expansion of IMRO as an organisation, would lead, he felt, to certain behavioural changes and the self-imposition of restrictions among traditional musicians.[xviii] He considered it the duty of his organisation to contribute to the debate in the Senate “before it’s too late”. He believed that once the debate was opened up, and IMRO’s intentions made clear, that it would have a considerable effect on musicians and the ways in which they thought about what they were doing. he stated in interview with me, “Their intent, whatever about their mandate, is to expand and expand”. Ó Murchú was also somewhat concerned that the public relations efforts of the Irish Music Rights Organisation in this regard were contributing to a veil of positivity which made it difficult to focus on the issues of conflict which remained to be debated. The Irish Music Rights Organisation, for example, had been increasing the level of sponsorship for ‘traditional music’ events in a bid to increase levels of support for their project. Ó Murchú’s stated aim at this stage, however, was to try to ensure that the ‘corpus’ of music that was already there could be protected by legislation. He expressed a need to sit down with the Irish Music Rights Organisation to work out some of the problems, rather than “doing this across tables and across headlines” (Ó Murchú, “Eagarfhocal”, 1).[xix]

It is questionable whether Ó Murchú would have been interested in the idea of copyright at all had it not been for the aggressive manoeuvres of the Irish Music Rights Organisation towards venues and events which ran under the auspices of his organisation. The Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann committee in Clonmel was, in 1996, billed by IMRO for the ‘use’ of copyrighted music during the course of the festival. At around the same time a Comhaltas centre in County Clare, Cois na hAbhna, and another in County Westmeath, Dún na Sí, also received bills for the ‘use’ of copyrighted music:

It was good in a way that it happened as it gave me ammunition subsequently. Luckily enough each of those three contacted me. There could always be the danger that one of them could have written a cheque and sent it to IMRO, but they all contacted me, and I rang IMRO and I said, “Look, back off.” (Ó Murchú, “Personal interview”).

It was of great concern to Ó Murchú that the Copyright and Related Rights bill not allow for some legislative possibility that would severely impede the musical practices of those in his organisation and allow the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation to continue unimpeded: “If anything gets into that which is going to create a loophole for IMRO or any collecting agencies we’ve a problem” (Ó Murchú, “Personal interview”). Assurance had apparently been given in writing by Minister Tom Kitt, however, that “under no circumstances would the corpus of traditional music be interfered with” (ibid.).

Treoir magazine published an article entitled “Irish Traditional Music must not be licensed” in the second issue of 1998 (Ó Murchú, “Eagarfhocal”, 1). The article was an almost verbatim report of Ó Murchú’s spoken contributions to a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Heritage to which IMRO representatives had been invited to speak. No other contributions were registered in this article. Stating that it was imperative that IMRO did not “stifle or inhibit the natural momentum of Irish traditional music”, Ó Murchú championed his organisation for having “ploughed a lonely furrow to save our music from extinction”. “To ask our musicians to take out a licence to play their music,” he added, “would be the equivalent of asking a young lad to pay for the privilege of hurling a sliothar [sic.][xx]”. What was particularly interesting, and most definitely a sign of things to come, was the final line of the article: “The IMRO representatives gave an assurance that Irish traditional music, as outlined by Senator Ó Murchú, would not be restricted or hampered by IMRO.”[xxi] 

The Agreement

Following a series of private meetings, Shay Hennessy, then Chairman of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ard-Stiúrthóir (Director-General) of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, signed a ‘Letter of Agreement’ on the 21st December 1998. In this “wide-ranging agreement” CCÉ and IMRO agree to cooperate in the promotion of traditional Irish music, song, and dance, to the mutual benefit of members of both organisations. IMRO stated that they accepted that the provisions of copyright law “should not deprive Irish people of the right to make free use of music from their folk/heritage tradition in its original form”. According to this agreement, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann contracted with the Irish Music Rights Organisation for a blanket licence to cover all official Comhaltas functions and centres, excluding broadcasts, for the sum of £1,000 per annum. In return for the blanket licence, and allegedly in recognition of the cultural work that Comhaltas undertake, IMRO agrees to make a “financial subvention” to Comhaltas for the sum of £50,000 per year, commencing in January 1999. This sum is to be reviewed at the end of a five-year term. As part of the agreement, IMRO also agrees to refer all requests for support for Traditional music to CCÉ. An additional sum of money, a “financial subvention” of £25,000 per year, was also included, going to Brú Ború, a cultural centre affiliated to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in order to assist a “millenium project to encourage the creativity and development of composers and arrangers writing in the traditional idiom”. CCÉ, in return, agreed to support IMRO’s submission to the Irish Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in relation to the proposed Copyright bill.

The Agreement was announced in the first 1999 issue of Treoir magazine, under the heading: “IMRO and Comhaltas Sign Agreement” (CCÉ 6), and in the June, 1999 issue of the IMRO Members Newsletter, in an article entitled, “IMRO and Comhaltas Céoltóirí [sic] Éireann Sign Agreement to Benefit Traditional Irish Music” (IMRO, “June”, 6). Although mention is made in both articles of both the blanket licence and the financial contribution to Comhaltas, no mention is made of the sums involved or of any other details. The IMRO Newsletter simply states that: “In recognition of the work being done by Comhaltas, IMRO will provide financial support to help encourage and foster the creativity and development of composers and arrangers writing in their traditional idiom”.[xxii] It continues:

Speaking on behalf of Comhaltas, Senator Labhrás Ó’Murchú [sic] said that the agreement will result in very significant benefits to both organisations. He also stressed the importance of a copyright-friendly environment as the digital age develops and pledged his organisations [sic] backing to the submissions made by IMRO to the Department of Enterprise, Trade & Employment in relation to the proposed Copyright Bill (6).

The article in Treoir further reported that: “Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, Ardstiúrthóir, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, said that the agreement will result in very significant benefits to both organisations. ‘Traditional Irish music is winning new audiences all over the world and this agreement will contribute further to its development in all its forms’” (6). Although this was offered as having been said by the Senator, these were also the exact words found in the text of IMRO’s 1998 Annual Report and Accounts (15). The two representative voices of the organisations had truly become one.

Then Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Tom Kitt, published sanctioning remarks in issue 2 of Treoir magazine in 1999, which gave official legitimation to the agreement between IMRO and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. In an article whose title proclaimed “Pure Tradition Copyright Free”, his own remarks clearly placed his understanding of the word “traditional” within cultural nationalist and romantic discourses of “the folk”. His remarks contrasted that which is authentically traditional, communal, non-creative, non-original, and non-copyrightable, with that which is authored, individual, creative, original, and copyrightable.[xxiii] Furthermore, his hope was that the agreement which had been signed would go a long way to ensuring the eradication of conflict within “the music community”.

Initially, when no sums were disclosed, some members of Comhaltas inquired officially as to whether a licence-fee had been paid to the Irish Music Rights Organisation. Some were worried that the payment of a licence-fee would constitute recognition that the Irish Music Rights Organisation was a suitable licence-granting authority in contexts of traditional music, setting a significant precedent for similar organisations worldwide. They were assured by official representatives of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann that no licence had been paid for. This assurance was given three months after the agreement with IMRO had been signed, at which time the full sums of money involved had not yet become public knowledge. When they became public knowledge, it was understood that the licence fee of £1000 obviously constituted little more than a nominal payment. What was important about the licence fee, though, was that it officially granted the Irish Music Rights Organisation full nominal jurisdiction in the contexts of traditional Irish music, insofar as Labhrás Ó Murchú and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann were recognised by IMRO as being the primary authorities in those contexts.

It later transpired that none of the members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann had been informed in advance of the Ard-Stiúrthóir’s intention to sign an agreement with the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and in fact the first cheques were handed over before the official committees of CCÉ were able to approve the agreement as per the proper constitutional conventions of the organisation. As suggested above, neither were high-ranking members of CCÉ informed of the full financial details of the agreement until they had, in fact, become public knowledge following a series of possibly accidental information leaks.

One Year On

By Issue 1, 2000, of Treoir, the ‘Letter of Agreement’ had become “The Cooperation Agreement”, the first birthday of which had been reached by December 1999. In this article, “A Protection for Ethnic Music”, it was reaffirmed that ‘the Agreement’ “underlines the copyright-free status of Irish traditional music in its original form” (CCÉ, “Protection”, 19). This was stated despite any such claim being in the original letter of agreement. Neither had the agreement, or anything else for that matter, managed to arrive at a successful or adequate legal definition of what ‘traditional’ meant, never mind “Irish traditional music in its original form”. That the phrase used in the original agreement was “music from their [Irish people’s] folk/heritage tradition in its original form” simply added to the confusion. In the “Cooperation Agreement” article, more than a year after the agreement, there was still no disclosure of the sums of money involved, although at least now there was an admission that Brú Ború had received an undisclosed “financial subscription”. To mark the anniversary, the article reported, Shay Hennessy, then IMRO Chairman, and Hugh Duffy, then IMRO’s Chief Executive Officer, addressed the CCÉ Ardchomhairle (‘Advisory Board’). It was reported that the 27 member Ardchomhairle “unanimously[xxiv] expressed satisfaction with the relationship to date between Comhaltas and IMRO and endorsed the discussions which are ongoing between both organisations over a range of issues that are important not only to both organisations but to the future of Irish creators of all genres in the next century” (ibid.).[xxv]  At this meeting it was repeatedly stated during the IMRO address that the agreement had, indeed, achieved the “copyright-free status of traditional music in its original form”. [xxvi]

Ó Murchú was convinced that ‘the end of debate’ has been reached, that the ‘problem’ of copyright and traditional music has been solved, that the role of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann as representative of Irish traditional music has been vindicated and legitimated, and that all problems have been eliminated. He was to state during a presentation at the University of Limerick: “What we now have is legislation, the Minister on the record, and an agreement with the collecting agency that traditional music in its original form is copyright-free. And the second part of it, that we are not going to be interfered with in our activities” (Ó Murchú, “Lecture”). Likewise, the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation were satisfied that it had all worked out to the mutual advantage of both organisations. As the then-chairman of the organisation stated: “Comhaltas has about 37,000 members worldwide, which is a fairly large constituency of people, and certainly there are a potential 27,000 IMRO members in that constituency, or whatever percentage there might be of that 37,000, we’ll certainly be there assisting them and helping them to develop their creativity” (Hennessy).

Enclosure and the Diagnostic Opportunities of Resistance

I have discussed IMRO in the context of Irish traditional music communities before, in an article published in the journal Ethnomusicology (McCann, “All That is Not Given”). That article was structured with a binary opposition. On one side, I sought “to clarify the nature of the social relationships that are inextricably bound up with Irish traditional musical practice” (89). For this purpose I used the concept of the “musical commons”. I surmised that the social contexts of ‘Irish traditional music’ are “based on the idea of gift, which supports what could be seen as a characteristically non-commodified common property resource” (95). This “commons” of “gift” was presented as “inherently non-commodified” and “deeply embedded in cultural practice” (97). On the other side, in direct opposition, I placed the Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO), and the commodifying constraints of copyright. Having established that the practices of ‘Irish traditional music’ constituted a commons of gift, I argued for the usefulness of the concept of enclosure: “It would not be too difficult to then see the commodifying processes of neo-classical economics, commercialism in music, and of the conceptually-bound and conceptually-driven agency of the Irish Music Rights Organisation as an example of enclosure in a musical context” (95). In this line of thinking, it was only through an analysis of a “commons” that an understanding of enclosure could emerge.

In that paper, then, the concept of the commons provided an analytic and, explicitly, a defensive focus. In this paper, however, I am arguing that it is not through an analysis of any defensively-constructed commons that understandings of enclosure helpfully emerge, but, rather, through the identification and analysis of moments and situations of resistance and conflict. If expansion is the primary characteristic of IMRO’s operations from 1995-2000, it is only through an awareness of resistance to that expansion that such dynamics of enclosure are rendered politically visible.

The flavour of the most public resistance to the organisation’s operations was undoubtedly oppositional. “Resistance,” in all three cases offered here, referred to a manifestation of opposition to the expansion, that is, authority, of the Irish Music Rights Organisation in such a way as to hinder the licensing operations of the organisation. Resistance, in this sense, was an indication of a refusal to comply with IMRO’s contractual expectations. In the case of both the primary schools and the Vintners’ Federation, resistance was vociferous. The claims made by IMRO representatives were characterised in both disputes as being unnecessarily aggressive. In the case of primary schools, the claims to jurisdiction were even portrayed as being both inappropriate and immoral, though undeniably “legal”. In the case of the Vintners’ Federation, the most obvious resistance took the form of adversarial legal action in direct opposition to the demands of the Irish Music Rights Organisation. But the most important aspect of people’s representations of resistance in these circumstances for me is not their oppositional character, but the ways in which such resistance can draw attention to very particular modalities of power. Despite the apparent victories achieved by the Irish Music Rights Organisation, resistance does at the very least provide an analytic window through which to uncover the fragilities of their authority and the discursive character of their forever questionable assertions (as any assertions tend to be).

Performing rights provided, and continue to provide, the focus for their assertions. Performing rights provide one of the main financial supports for the international music industry. When you clear away all the legal jargon, and it’s difficult enough to clear away, the primary function of performing or performance rights, as gleaned from copyright theory, is that they act as a justification for prescriptive control, suggesting that it is legitimate for one person to prescribe the actions of another unless a fee is paid. I have suggested elsewhere that there may be little basis to the logic behind IMRO’s licensing of “uses” of “music” in public spaces other than: “Obey me! Pay me money! (or else!)” (McCann, “For A Song”). For IMRO to operate successfully, or even to operate at all, licences for “music use” must be enforced on the basis of either persuasion or litigation, and the claims to authority that the organisation makes must needs remain unchallenged. Without resistance, such enclosing dynamics might well lead everyone to believe that there are simply no alternatives.

One formal definition of ‘resistance’ presents it as: “The act, on the part of persons, of resisting, opposing, or withstanding. … Opposition of one material thing to another material thing, force, etc. … esp. in the physical sciences, the opposition offered by one body to the pressure or movement of another” (Onions, ed. 1807). Similarly, resistance in social life is often defined in terms of dualisms. One popular dualism is that of resistance in opposition to power or domination: “The orthodox assumption seems to be that resistance is against power and that effective resistance will eventually overturn power” (Cresswell 264). Analyses of resistance, therefore, have tended to focus on social movements, organised in opposition to dominant forces of state or multinational capital (see Sharp et al.). Dominant understandings of resistance constitute a prime example of oppositional definition, resistance being most often defined in relation to its ‘opposite’, that being ‘power’ or ‘domination’. In some cases, indeed, the ‘power’ is represented as being so ‘powerful’ that resistance is the work of the powerless, and hence futile (Sharp et al 2). It would seem, perhaps, that to equate resistance with opposition is an obvious way to understand the examples of resistance to IMRO’s expansion presented here. However, the well-trodden analytic path may not be the most helpful way to proceed. To illustrate some of the problems with a purely oppositional understanding of resistance to corporate expansion it is perhaps helpful to take a look at a cyclical model of expansion found in the work of John Ryan.

In The Production of Culture in the Music Industry, sociologist John Ryan details the history of the ASCAP-BMI controversy over the collection of performing rights royalties in the United States. Ryan follows the development of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) from its establishment in 1914, and the subsequent conflict between ASCAP and a rival firm, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). Ryan notes that: “ASCAP’s early history was a continual cycle of laying claim to a particular domain, a challenge to this claim by concerned music users, legitimation of ASCAP’s claim by the courts, followed by a new expansion of domain” (31). The correlation in this regard between ASCAP’s early history and the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation after 1995 are striking. The dynamic Ryan has identified I think of as a “cycle of expansion”. This could be used to speak of the fundamental pattern of IMRO’s expansionary activities during the period 1995-2000. It can be simply restated as a cycle of expansion, resistance, and legitimation, followed by further expansion. The term “expansion” is here used in two senses. It refers to an enlargement in the scale of IMRO’s operations, and also to an increase in the number of domains or areas in which the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation claim jurisdiction.

It is important, if Ryan’s model is to be used in the contexts outlined, that it be used only to describe but not explain the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation in the period 1995-2000. Were it used as an explanatory model, the analysis would then privilege the cyclical and inevitable victory of the expansionary force over any resistance offered, render acquiescence to IMRO’s claims to unquestionable authority inevitable and politically unremarkable, and enact analytic capitulation to the discursive power of the truth-claims being made. The expansion is a profoundly political achievement, involving particular people in particular circumstances. The dynamic of expansion is, at heart, a manifestation of personal investments in ways of thinking and ways of doing. This expansion might be helpfully understood, indeed, as the political extension of authority-as-certitude, accompanied by sustained acquiescence to rhetorical assertions of unquestioned authority.

Thanks to the work of Foucault, some have claimed that, “Resistance is in danger of becoming a meaningless and theoretically unhelpful term” (Cresswell 259). This is largely on account of Foucault’s statement that: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (95). Foucault has argued at length for the ubiquity of power. It follows, therefore, that he must also be arguing for the ubiquity of resistance. As Cresswell remarks, however:

Something that is applicable to everything is not a particularly useful tool in interrogating social and cultural life. … Everybody is so busy resisting always, and already, that little more needs to be done. One problem is that an act such as an armed insurrection or a general strike is equated with the act of farting in public or telling jokes about the boss. The word resistance can apply to all of these and yet they are clearly more different than they are alike (259).

If we ground Foucault’s understanding of the ubiquity of power in the affectual variabilities of any experience in social interaction, however, we can also perhaps reclaim the specificities and possibilities of resistance, without necessarily defaulting to either oppositional or hopelessly diffuse models. Resistance, I believe, can be helpfully understood as expectational difference, located in particular circumstances, lived and experienced by particular people, with very particular effects of power. This allows us to think of resistance in a way which is not necessarily opposed to power or domination. In many ways resistance, then, might be understood as the tension of difference within social life. Its ubiquity might render it totally useless were it not for the benefits of the identification of resistance as an invitation to diagnostic possibilities for the analysis of the dynamics of enclosure.

Cresswell’s use of resistance as a diagnostic tool stems from Lila Abu-Lughod’s anthropological fieldwork among Bedouin women. The complex realities of Bedouin life challenged Abu-Lughod’s search for resistance as the absence or incompleteness of power. The ‘romance of resistance’ with which she had originally approached her work had led her to foreclose her analyses of power and social life among Bedouin women. It was ultimately more useful to allow resistance to “tell us about forms of power and how people are caught up in them” (42). Tim Cresswell combines the work of Abu-Lughod with the insights of Foucault, thereby inverting Foucault’s dictum, that where there is power there is resistance, to come up with the slogan that “everywhere there is resistance there is also power” (265):

It is important that we do not stop thinking about everyday forms of resistance, but equally important that we do not romanticise and essentialise them. Rather than telling us how people are free or partially free from forces of oppression inscribed in space, resistance can be used strategically to reveal how people are caught up in a multitude of often invisible modes of power (266).

In my work I use manifestations of resistance, such as those above, to provide diagnostic opportunities (rather than ‘tools’), with which to identify the process and practices of enclosure. In previous work I have, like many others (see, for example, May), equated enclosure with commodification, and, indeed, have done so with regard to IMRO’s claims to jurisdiction in the realm of Irish traditional musical practice (McCann, “All That Is Not Given”). When I speak of enclosure now, however, I adopt a more social-psychological approach. I have come to understand enclosure as a broader social process, an expansionary social dynamic involving accelerative commodification of everyday life, emerging from dominant dispositional tendencies to “eliminate” uncertainty (McCann, “Beyond The Commons”). It is in this sense that I politically contextualize the discursive absolutisms of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and in this sense that I take resistance almost as a homing beacon for the identification of such discursive politics as a particular modality of power enacted in social relations. The expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation from 1995-2000 relied almost entirely on the assertion and extension of authority-as-certitude, that is, authority about which there was to be no doubt tolerated.

I proceed in the spirit of Stuart Hall’s remark that “The effects of power are particularly visible when attempts are made to fix meanings” (10).[xxvii] We might say that we are only able to identify the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the extension of the organisation’s authority-as-certitude, by identifying and highlighting the moments and sites of people’s greatest resistance to that expansion. Importantly, where authority-as-certitude is concerned there can be no middle ground. The claims of authority-as-certitude must be met with either acceptance or rejection. One of the primary features of resistance in situations of enclosure, then, is that it is characteristically negotiated within discourses of obedience and disobedience, loyalty and disloyalty, orthodoxy and heresy, truth and error. This is clearly evident in the polarization of legality and illegality that overshadows the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and, indeed, any operation reliant on the certitudes of legislation.

Hegemony

The representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation are now allowed to assert absolute authority to undertake activities and deploy strategies in all domains within the Irish state. This includes the unquestioned status of the meanings and prescriptions that they propagate in the name of copyright, performing rights, members, and market economics. With the accession of primary schools, the Vintner’s Federation, and Comhaltas to IMRO’s demands, the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation moved further towards an intensification of hegemony.  This includes the power of hegemonic definition (Anderson 130). One of the key features of hegemony, as developed in the Marxist tradition from the writings of Antonio Gramsci, is the political and personal force of very particular ways of making sense of experience:

It is different in this sense from the notion of ‘world-view’, in that the ways of seeing the world and ourselves and others are not just intellectual but political facts, expressed over a range from institutions to relationships and consciousness. It is also different from ideology … in that it is seen to depend for its hold not only on its expression of the interests of a ruling class but also on its acceptance as ‘normal reality’ or ‘commonsense’ by those in practice subordinated to it (Williams 117-118).

One of the most significant effects of IMRO’s achievement of hegemony is that the “unquestionable” authority of “self-evidence” comes to be vested in the organization. With the achievement of hegemony, the activities of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and the assumptions upon which they are based, become naturalized, assuming a patina of necessity and inevitability.  The existence of the organization “becomes experienced as an axiom, a fait accompli: children all too soon stop asking ‘Why?’” (Jenkins 107). With the self-evidence of the existence of the Irish Music Rights Organisation comes systematic reinforcement of the organisation’s authority-as-certitude. Something as simple as an IMRO sticker on the door of every commercial premises in the country quietly reinforces the position of the Irish Music Rights Organisation as a taken-for-granted presence in the social interactions of everyday life in Ireland. Many music festivals are sponsored by the organisation, increasing brand recognition and garnering bucketloads of positivity-by-association. IMRO showcase gigs are held regularly to showcase the musical talents of IMRO members in major Irish population centres such as Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, and Wexford. Such exposure allows the organisation to consolidate the unchallenged position it holds in virtually all contexts of Irish life. The unquestioned status of the organisation is perpetuated, the hegemony of IMRO’s influence maintained.

Such aspects are vital in considering the discursive implications of the expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation. As Bocock (63) notes, in hegemony the representatives of a group or organisation successfully achieve their objective of providing a dominant, prioritised, and centralised outlook that operates in all aspects of social life. The Irish Music Rights Organisation provides just such an outlook, at least insofar as copyright, music, and ownership are concerned.

By participating unquestioningly in the discourses of music and copyright we also participate actively in the accelerative commodification of musical practice. One of the key implications of IMRO’s resource management discourses is that they depoliticize the discursive terrain, immunizing IMRO against sustained ethical interrogation, frequently co-opting resistance by providing the scaffolding of more authoritative discourse as the only (near-sighted) horizon of possibility: “Past experience is encapsulated in an institution’s rules so that it acts as a guide to what to expect from the future. The more fully the institutions encode expectations, the more they put uncertainty under control, with the further effect that behaviour tends to conform to the institutional matrix: if this degree of coordination is achieved, disorder and confusion disappear” (Douglas 47-48).

The hegemonic dynamics of IMRO’s operations effectively sustain the impression of ‘the end of debate’; resistance to the foundation of IMRO’s authority is consistently rendered ineffective, politically irrelevant, and, especially now, discursively invisible. Law, legal doctrine, legal practice, and, by association, the role, activities, and expansion of bodies such as the Irish Music Rights Organisation are implicated in our everyday interactions and social relationships. Legislation, in any jurisdiction, consists of a set of prescriptions which specify the way in which legal subjects ought to behave. But law also “exists in the sense that it is embodied as a set of expectations or understandings about behaviour” (Cotterrell 155), and it “only ‘exists’ if the prescriptions of conduct actually have some effect on the way people think or behave” (9). The law, then, takes on a very palpable presence in our lives. However, it is always possible to raise questions even while the absence of questioning may have become the air that we breathe and the lifeblood of our financial wellbeing.

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[i] Enforcement of the property right of copyright can be exercised by other persons by licence or assignment (WIPO 1997b:5). When the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation identify that a premises requires an IMRO license the proprietor is approached, and asked to sign a standard public performance contract. The licence granted by IMRO permits the licensee “to perform copyright music from the IMRO repertoire on the premises, in return for paying royalties to IMRO according to the applicable tariff” (Lyons 1999:7). IMRO agents are granted a right of free entry, for monitoring purposes, to any premises which has been licensed.

Licensing constituted the primary activity of the Irish Music Rights Organisation during the period 1995-2000, for “the licensing of works is how collectives earn their money” (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:30). In 1999 licensing revenue for the Irish Music Rights Organisation came to IR£17,418,077. In 2000, the figure had risen to IR£19,457,780 (IMRO 2000:6). The performance royalty licensing rates vary greatly from premises to premises. They take account of the type and frequency of ‘performances’, the nature of the venue and other variable conditions. Royalties are paid annually and, in advance. This blanket licence[i] runs from year to year, until such time as the licence is cancelled. Most music users will not attempt to contact licensing collectives. Often they will only enter into a licensing agreement upon threat of litigation (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:36). As a result, collectives actively identify and pursue all potential music users:

It is an unfortunate fact of life that respect for the rights of creators is not the norm. A significant number of users avoid or even actively resist a collective’s efforts to control the use of its repertoire of works. It is up to the collective to assert its rights and the rights of its affiliated rights owners in a way that will cause compliance (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:39).

Strong-arm, coercive tactics, including litigation, are generally avoided, as they are costly and generate bad public relations. Nevertheless, licensing is the most debated and litigated area of collective administration worldwide (Sinacore-Guinn 1993). In 1993 the Irish Music Rights Organisation paid out more than IR£47,000 in legal expenses (Curran 1994). By 1999 IMRO’s legal, collection and professional fees came to IR£476,258, a rise from IR£413,453 the previous year. If someone refuses to pay for an IMRO licence when approached, then the organisation takes recourse to the Circuit Court. If a licensing agreement has been contracted but royalties are not paid, then the ‘music user’ is sued by the Irish Music Rights Organisation as a commercial debtor. The use of debt-collection agencies is standard practice for IMRO as the last attempt at resolution before more substantial coercion. The use of persuasion is preferable for the organisation, so significant efforts are made to convince users of the necessity for proper licensing. Often a performing rights society will undertake cultural activities, programs, and sponsorships in order to encourage the creation of new works, educate people as to the nature of creative rights, and garner support for those rights. The Irish Music Rights Organisation is very active in this regard. Such activities also perform the obvious functions of brand recognition and public relations.

[ii] According to the Irish Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000, “copyright is a property right whereby, subject to this Act, the owner of the copyright in any work may undertake or authorise other persons in relation to that work to undertake certain acts in the State, being acts which are designated by this Act as acts restricted by copyright in a work of that description” (17.1). Copyright, then, is a set of prescriptions on the actions of others in relation to a “literary or artistic work” which control what can or cannot be done by other people in relation to that “work”. According to the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000 (4.37), the owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to undertake, or authorise others to undertake, all or any of the “acts restricted by copyright”. A person is understood to infringe the copyright in a work if they undertake or authorise another to undertake any of these acts without the licence of the copyright owner. The acts restricted by copyright are as follows:

(a) to copy the work;
(b) to make the work available to the public;
(c) to make an adaptation of the work or to undertake either (a) or (b) in relation to an adaptation.

The “performing right”, although not specifically mentioned in the Copyright and Related Rights Act, is generally understood to pertain to (b), making a work available to the public. If the act of copying is the first act which requires authorization, then the second is the act of public performance: “The right to control this act of public performance is of interest not only to the owners of copyright in works originally designed for public performance. It is of interest also to the owners of copyright, and to persons authorized by them, when others may wish to arrange the public performance of works originally intended to be used by being reproduced and published” (WIPO 1997b:155). This ‘performance’ is often assumed (without much discussion) to be at least analogous to copying. This includes performing, showing or playing a copy of the work in public; broadcasting a copy of the work in public; including a copy of the work in a cable programme service; issuing copies of the work to the public; renting copies of the work; or, lending copies of the work without the payment of remuneration to the owner of the copyright in the work. Performing rights are statutory, that is, they exist solely and exclusively by virtue of the laws that create and recognize them (Sinacore-Guinn 1993:14).

[iii] “The Oireachtas or National Parliament consists of the President, a House of Representatives (Dáil Éireann) and a Senate (Seanad Éireann). The Dáil, consisting of 166 members, is elected by adult suffrage on the Single Transferable vote system in constituencies of 3, 4 or 5 members. Of the 60 members of the Senate, 11 are nominated by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister), 6 are elected by the universities and the remaining 43 are elected from 5 panels of candidates established on a vocational basis, representing the following public services and interests: (1) national language and culture, literature, art, education and such professional interests as may be defined by law for the purpose of this panel; (2) agricultural and allied interests, and fisheries; (3) labour, whether organized or unorganized; (4) industry and commerce, including banking, finance, accountancy, engineering and architecture; (5) public adminstration and social services, including voluntary social activities. The electing body comprises members of the Dáil, Senate, county boroughs and county councils” (B. Turner 2000:439).

[iv] Fianna Fáil is the republican nationalist political party in the Republic of Ireland.

[v] A similarly public outcry opposed the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers’ decision in the Summer of 1996 to approach Girl Scout Camps in the United States for performance royalty licences. The Wall Street Journal reported that ASCAP had informed camps across the U.S. that they must pay licence fees to use any of the four million copyrighted songs written or published by ASCAP’s 68,000 members. SESAC, another performing rights organisation, also announced their intention to ask camps for royalties. Rather than risk lawsuits, many camps were provoked into excluding copyrighted songs from their activities. The Wall Street Journal article left the enduring image of 214 Girl Scouts at the Diablo Day Camp 3 p.m. sing-along, learning the Macarena dance: “Keeping time by slapping their hands across their arms and hips, they jiggle, hop and stomp. They spin, wiggle and shake. They bounce for two minutes. In silence” (Bannon 1996).

[vi] As early, relatively speaking, as November 1993, IMRO had secured a licensing agreement with the Licensed Vintners’ Association (LVA), which represented publicans in the Dublin area (Lyons 1999).

[vii] ‘Sessions’ can be adequately or inadequately described, but never adequately defined, for the term ‘session’ can now be used as a label for any context in which two or more musicians or singers are gathered in social activity. In The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, Colin Hamilton describes a session as: “A loose association of musicians who meet, generally, but not always, in a pub to play an unpredetermined selection, mainly of dance music, but sometimes with solo pieces such as slow airs or songs. There will be one or more ‘core’ musicians, and others who are less regular” (1999:345). Scholars such as Hamilton (1977), and Vaysse (1996), have noted that the character of each ‘session’ ultimately arises from the personalities and social interaction of those engaged in the activity. In this sense, the meaning of the ‘term’ session can only really be adequately accounted for by looking to the particular circumstances implied by those who use the term. Some would look to the metaphor of casual conversation to characterise the musical activity taking place in what they would term a ‘session’: “Going to the pub, it’s just like going for a drink and telling stories, or telling jokes or whatever. We’re just telling tunes” (J. McCarthy quoted in Vaysse 1996:165). This view would be consistent with the view of Foy who, half-jokingly, describes a ‘session’ as:

… a gathering of Irish traditional musicians for the purpose of celebrating their common interest in the music by playing it together in a relaxed, informal setting, while in the process generally beefing up the mystical cultural mantra that hums along uninterruptedly beneath all manifestations of Irishness worldwide … an elaborate excuse for getting out of the house and spending an evening with friends over a few pints of beer (1999: 12-13).

Perhaps the most important word in this description, for the purposes of this article, is “beer”. A detailed examination of relatively recent manifestations of the relationship between public houses and the “traditional session” is beyond the scope of this thesis, but this has already been explored in the works of Laurence Vaysse (1996), Colin Hamilton (1977), Hazel Fairbairn (1993), and Moya Kneafsey (2002).[vii] To date, however, Reg Hall (1995) is the only person to undertake a detailed historical investigation of this type of music-making in pubs before this date.[vii] Interestingly, Hall’s study focuses on an English context. In a complex overview, Hall shows that among Irish immigrants in London such music-making was to be found in the local Irish pubs by the 1940s. Landlords who tolerated musicians carefully negotiated licensing laws that allowed only two musicians at a time, and, “As musicians became confident in their new surroundings and as publicans realised their music-making attracted custom, the one-off, risky session became institutionalised as a regular weekly event, expected and looked forward to by musicians, landlord and customers alike” (1995:5). As sessions became a regular occurrence in London pubs during the early 1950s a shift occurred: “it became common for landlords to pay two or three musicians for a session. The established practice of other musicians joining in was unchanged, and there was no embarrassment about some being paid and others not” (1995:7). Vaysse records that in Ireland payment for the ‘anchoring’ of sessions has really only become frequent since the 1970s (1996:86). As Hamilton notes:

As the session became a standard aspect of Irish musical life, publicans, keen to have their bars known as centres of good music, began, from around the middle of the 1970s, to pay one or two musicians to turn up on a regular night, to ensure that a session would happen. If this ‘seeding’ worked, the publican was guaranteed a regular core of perhaps half a dozen musicians at a small cost. Almost all the current regular sessions are based on this principle, but at festivals and other like events, sessions are still normally impromptu and non-commercial (1999:345).

As Fairbairn has found, however, payment is not always an issue, and often a more informal arrangement between musicians and publican “allows them an elevated status of desirable clients, rather than that of employees. This means that the landlord is beholden to the musicians, he knowns that the music attracts custom, but has no contractual security. In this way the musicians ensure good treatment” (1993:159). There are certainly some publicans with a personal fondness for particular musicians, and, indeed, with an interest and investment in what they consider ‘traditional music’. These ‘landlords’ are often well-known and well-loved, and are often musicians or singers themselves. Often the relationship with a publican is nondescript, but functional. Hamilton notes that “Even in cases where the host provides no encouragement to the players in the way of money or free drink, he at least provides a place for them to play” (1977:49). Many publicans, however, maintain a relationship with musicians that is at best business-like, and at worst testy and volatile. One city publican, for example, barred so many musicians from entering his pub during the 1990s that those nominated for prohibition gained a certain credibility among fellow musicians. That particular publican now runs a disco bar.

[viii] Why was the issue of ‘traditional sessions’ brought into the dispute at all? Ultimately, as mentioned earlier, the aim of the Vintner Federation’s negotiations with the Irish Music Rights Organisation was to reduce the level of tariffs for performing royalty blanket licences. Many publicans felt that the issue of ‘traditional sessions’ could lead to a reduction in payments for licences. It was assumed that the ‘use’ of ‘traditional music’ or the hosting of ‘traditional sessions’ were qualitatively different from other ‘uses’ of music. Two claims were made by publicans. The first was that they shouldn’t have to pay performance royalties for ‘traditional sessions’ at all. The second was that ‘traditional sessions’ shouldn’t be charged as much as other musical events.

The first claim made by publicans stemmed from the assumption that music that was considered ‘traditional’ was automatically ‘non-copyright’. This ran along the same lines as a much-repeated exclamation I have regularly encountered in conversation: “But there is no copyright in traditional music!” The answer that the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation offered to this argument was the following, from a letter to a publican:

I wish to explain that our interest lies in the public performance of copyright music and as traditional does not automatically mean non-copyright we are therefore pursuing royalties with you for these performances.

There are two ways in which this line from IMRO may be interpreted. One is to assume that the word ‘traditional’ refers to anything that for all intents and purposes ‘sounds traditional’, that is, sonic forms which seem to conform to the genre-limitations of what, in the opinion of the IMRO representative or the publican, is commonly considered to be ‘traditional music’. The other is to assume that the representative of the Irish Music Rights Organisation is equating ‘traditional’ with ‘anonymous’ and, hence, with ‘public domain’. In this scenario the IMRO representative would be referring to the practice in which some musicians engage in copyrighting ‘arrangements’ of ‘traditional’, understood as ‘public domain’, tunes or songs. They thereby secure a 100% performance royalty for any performance of the arrangement which they have recorded in some form, and, importantly, which they have registered with IMRO or some other performing right organisation. Every time they or someone else plays that ‘arrangement’, they are due a royalty. By contracting with IMRO for a blanket licence, the publican gains permission for the ‘use’ of the worldwide repertoire of copyrighted material. The onus, then, was on each publican to prove that not one copyrighted work or copyrighted arrangement of a ‘public domain’ work was ‘used’ on whichever night might be in question. This was an impossible task for publicans. They had no way of predicting or prescribing what might be played or sung after they had paid for the blanket licence in advance. Also, it was unlikely that they would bother to record and classify each incidence of music or song on the nights in question in order eventually to show that no copyrighted material was ‘used’. It was easier to pay the few extra pounds for the tariff.

The second claim, that ‘traditional sessions’ shouldn’t be charged as much as other musical events, stemmed from the understanding that the majority of tunes played or songs sung at ‘traditional sessions’ were ‘traditional’, implying that they were therefore ‘anonymous’, therefore ‘public domain’, and that therefore a reduction in the amount paid could be justified. It was also argued that a standard tariff for ‘sessions’ did not discriminate between different premises and the vast range of social contexts to be found in pubs. Vallely quotes the then Vintners’ Federation Chairman, Tadhg O’Sullivan, as saying:

The pub session is not full-blooded, public entertainment, and players’ arrangements are not new tunes … and anyway, the way that IMRO levies charges, why should a Kerry pub that has only a handful of customers at a session for the whole winter be obliged to pay the same as a similar premises in Dublin that is packed the year round? (quoted in Vallely 1997).

Again, with both blanket licences and the practice of copyrighting ‘arrangements’, there was no need for IMRO to concede a reduction in tariffs on this account, at least not on the basis of the publicans’ reasoning. It was interesting that an issue was made of ‘traditional music’ at all, or that the representatives of the Irish Music Rights Organisation were drawn into a discussion concerning it. If one were to follow the logic dictated by copyright there should have been no distinction drawn between one type of music and another on the basis of genre (see WIPO 1997b). Within the logic of copyright discourse a ‘work’ has either been copyrighted or it has not, is either in copyright or is not. If the status of a ‘work’ is in question, genre should not enter into the issue, in the same way that aesthetic worth should not be taken into consideration for a work’s originality requirement (Sherman 1995). Concessions, however, were granted to publicans, on a number of occasions.[viii]

The ‘session issue’ was arguably, then, only brought into negotiations by the Vintners’ Federation of Ireland (VFI) in order to seek further reductions on the blanket licensing tariffs which they were contesting with the Irish Music Rights Organisation.

[ix] As Terry Eagleton (1999) has noted, the word ‘crack’ or ‘craic’ is ‘rapidly approaching the status of ‘begorrah’. Most likely of Anglo-saxon rather than Gaelic etymology, the term most commonly refers in Ireland to an atmosphere of comfortable and pervasive conviviality, a complete absence of distrust in pleasant, relaxed, and relaxing company, most likely among friends. Heightened euphoria is not a necessary requirement. Those who wish to understand, participate in or experience ‘crack’ or ‘craic’ must commit themselves to its creation. Ciarán Carson indulges in a digression on the subject during his book Last Night’s Fun: “‘crack’… popularly and recently Gaelicised as craic and advertised in countless retro-renovated bars throughout the land, as in ‘Live Ceol [Music], Sandwiches and Craic’. Non Irish speakers in particular will insist on its ancient Gaelic lineage and will laboriously enunciate this shibboleth to foreigners who take it for a pharmacological rather than a social high. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary dates crack, ‘chat, talk of the news’, to 1450” (1996:83). Carson suggests that ‘crack’ as a term was, until fairly recently, primarily confined to the North of Ireland.

[x] It’s really only in the last ten years that the issue of copyright has become familiar to people in ‘traditional’ social circles. Before then it was of interest mainly to collectors and archivists, and to the commercially-viable performers who always seemed to learn more about copyright in the aftermath of a shady deal than they ever knew going into one. But even then, it wasn’t of any major concern to most people. As Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, remembers it: “One had heard various stories, say, about how Planxty were ripped off, and they weren’t making any money from their own records and that kind of thing, but that was so far removed from the experience of most people involved in traditional music. It was interesting but that was all it was. It wasn’t personally pertinent” (Personal interview, Dublin, 2000).

[xi] You can find IRTRAD-L at http://listserv.heanet.ie

[xii] The reasons that a publican might have for closing down a session are many and varied, and musicians would be as likely to find as many reasons to move on to another venue. Regular reasons include personalty clashes, changes to new ownership less appreciative of ‘traditional music’, or changes in the personality of an upwardly-mobile ‘local’ that gets transformed into a spacious and trendy ‘superpub’ in a bid to maximize income. Hosting a session might simply not be financially viable. A restaurant proprietor in Galway once expressed surprise to me, not that musicians were paid so little for a session, but that they were paid so much. Apparently, she felt, to offset the expense of musicians a publican would have to sell three times as much in value of alcohol to make it worth their while. For smaller pubs this is unlikely to happen. This would suggest either that musicians in these smaller venues would be unlikely to be paid. It might also suggest that any ‘traditional’ musical activity in these pubs at all is an indication that neither musicians or publican are particularly interested in framing the ‘session’ in terms of financial potential.

[xiii] According to one musician, the only direct knock-on effect of IMRO’s licensing demands on sessions was that many publicans placed a moratorium on new sessions. Even this attitude lasted for only a short period, however, and, following the VFI agreement, things pretty much returned to normal (Personal interview, Cork, 2001).

[xiv] An overview of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has already been provided by Henry (1989) and Vallely (1999a). A number of key points will be here drawn from these accounts, and from examination of the CCÉ Constitution (CCÉ 1996). The constitution of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann lays claim to nondenominational and nonpolitical status. The constitution indicates that membership is open to all who sympathise with the aims and objectives of the organisation, and who undertake to abide by its Constitution and Rules. Those whose actions are interpreted as being in opposition to the aims of the organisation are liable to suffer expulsion. The specific goals of the organisation, set forth in the constitution, are as follows:

1. To promote Irish Traditional Music in all its forms;
2. To restore the playing of the Harp and Uilleann Pipes in the National life of Ireland;
3. To promote Irish Traditional Dancing;
4. To foster and promote the Irish language at all times;
5. To create a closer bond among all lovers of Irish music;
6. To cooperate with all bodies working for the restoration of Irish Culture;
7. To establish Branches throughout the country and abroad to achieve the foregoing aims and objects (CCÉ 1996:3-5).

There are reportedly over 400 branches of the organisation in Ireland and internationally. The primary roles of these branches are the recruitment of new members and the teaching of Irish traditional music and dance. A series of competitions are held every year on a pyramidal county, provincial and national basis. The final competition is an annual festival called Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, or All-Ireland Fleadh, which draws competitors from an international catchment who have qualified from earlier rounds.

Administrative levels of the organisation include the branches, the county boards, and the provincial councils, all of which are overseen by a central exective council (CEC), based in Dublin. The CEC has a president, general secretary, five vice-chairpersons, a national treasurer, a national registrar, a competitions officer, a music officer, a public relations officer, and two delegates from each provincial council. Permanent trustees are appointed by the CEC. They are responsible for instituting any criminal or civil proceedings on the organisation’s behalf. The property of the organisation is vested in the trustees. The Central Executive council meets three times a year to direct the policy of the organisation and to decide on the venue for the All-Ireland Fleadh. Once a year a congress is held, which is attended by the members of the central executive council, two delegates from each branch, and two delegates from each county board.

[xv] In the editorial of the second issue of Treoir, 1998, it was stated: “At the Stockholm conference there was widespread concern at the possibility of a nation’s store of traditional music falling into private commercial hands as has already happened in some countries. This has obvious connotations for Ireland” (Ó Murchú 1998). What those connotations might be was not stated.

[xvi] “Now there’d be a very small section of musicians, and I’d say it would be very small, and particularly in more recent times, may see some advantage in a copyright-type situation but it raises huge questions, then, for the whole body of Irish traditional musicians” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xvii] “Now obviously a newly composed song could be copyrighted, if that is the wish of the author. Our hope would be that they wouldn’t do that, that they would contribute that song to the corpus of traditional music like they themselves had got their songs from previous generations. We’d be looking for a degree of generosity there” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xviii] “But once it becomes widely known through debate as to what the intention is, then I think yes there will be alarm bells set off in the minds of a lot of musicians each time they go to play a tune, whether they’re playing in a pub, or in a concert, or in a session, I think they’re going to say, ‘we can play the first two reels, but we can’t play the third reel’. Now you can see what that will do to music making” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xix] “I think it’s still vital that the individual musician feels free to hear a tune or tape it and replay it and not be wondering whether somebody is policing them and whether there’s a royalty involved. I think IMRO have to alter the equation. They tell us they have, IMRO are telling us there’s no danger to traditional music” (Labhrás Ó Murchú, personal interview, Dublin, 1998).

[xx] A sliotar is a leather ball, approximately the size of a tennis ball, which is used in the game of hurling, one of Ireland’s ‘national’ sports. A sliotar can also be referred to as a “hurley ball”. To “hurl a sliotar” is to hit the ball with a hurling stick (camán), which stands waist-high and is normally made of ash.

[xxi] This apparently did not stem the flow of opposition, however. In a representation to the Irish Senate in June 1998, Labhrás Ó Murchú likened the “inherent dangers in copyright law” to the decree by “a Queen of England” which called for all pipers and harpists to be hanged. This refers to a request made by Elizabeth I to Lord Barrymore to “hang the harpers wherever found” (see Thuente 1994).

[xxii] By October of 1999 the IMRO Members Newsletter extended the remit of the agreement in paradoxically more vague and more specific terms: “Under the agreement IMRO will provide sponsorship for various events and will make available its experts for lectures and curriculum design. CCE [sic.], in return, will support IMRO and its activities both nationally and internationally” (IMRO 1999a).

[xxiii] “Clearly, for pure traditional music which is, by definition, without an author, and for which the question of originality cannot arise, there is no reason primary copyright should attach to it at all. Copyright considerations would not affect the right of players to play music which is part of a genuine traditional community resource and over which no primary copyright interest can exist. … With regards to how disputes in this grey area might be avoided, I believe that interested parties, both in respect of traditional music and of music copyright, have a serious responsibility to behave sensibly and reasonably towards each other in asserting their respective rights. In this context, I welcome the recent demarcation agreement between Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the Irish Music Rights Organisation which should go a long way to ensuring that unnecessary and damaging disputes on such issues within the music community are avoided” (Kitt 1999:15).

[xxiv] The claim to unanimity was patently untrue, as some dissension had been voiced at the meeting, and the ‘ongoing discussions’ between the organisations primarily meant that Labhrás Ó Murchú was still communicating with officials from the Irish Music Rights Organisation.

[xxv] An interesting development in the discourse available to Treoir readers in this article was the presence of acronyms, phrases, and taxonomy more familiar to the members of IMRO than the members of Comhaltas. Using the rhetoric of ‘protection’, ‘challenge’ and ‘opportunity’ , in the space of three short paragraphs the article managed to shore up the joint activities of CCÉ and IMRO with the legitimating support of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) intellectual property negotiations, the EU (European Union) Rental and Lending Directive, and of Comhaltas members in the US and the UK. “The possibilities,” it reported, “of Comhaltas members in the US and the UK who create new music in these territories joining IMRO is at an advanced stage [sic.]” (CCÉ 2000).

[xxvi] The fact that this was simply a rhetorical phrase to paper over conceptual cracks and stop people asking questions, was certainly not a point that any of those leading the meeting were willing to dwell on. It remains a catchy phrase that doesn’t really change anything as far as copyright or legislation is concerned.

[xxvii] I am reminded of the words of poet John Clare, that “enclosure had a terrible but instructive visibility” (cited in E. P. Thompson 1993:180).

6 things I’ve learned writing poetry and songs

1. When nonsense make sense

When I’m finding it hard to write, I allow myself to get a little silly. It always helps. There’s a sparkle to nonsense that I love, the stretching of a word or notion that elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary.  Whether it’s the quasi-guilt that comes from discriminating against my clock on account of its tickiness, or the torturous tribulations of an agoraphobic psychopath and his inability to leave home to ply his desired trade, it’s the blend of familiarity and unfamiliarity that I treasure.

Sometimes, as in “Emailing Rachel” or “The Sasquatch Symposium,” the nonsense lands on my front step. My life is frequently bizarre, misshapen, and nonsensical. I love it when reality becomes somewhat less credible than fiction.

Sometimes, as in “Frankenstein’s Monster,” it’s just an excuse to milk a bad pun dry.

At other times, being silly can be as serious as anything. I wrote “Chance would be a fine thing” on the occasion of my wedding to Emma McNeil. Yes, it’s a silly and unabashed anthem of geek love, but it remains my favourite and most real love song. It captures exactly what I wanted to express on the day.

2. Don’t know what you think about something? Write!

Songs or poems can frequently be an opportunity to work something out. During the writing of “Once Alien Here,” for example, I was trying to work out whether I wanted to return home to Northern Ireland, having spent a period in the United States. The writing of the song helped me work out that it was time for me to go home. The title is taken from a poem by well-known Northern Irish poet John Hewitt, another meditation on home, place, and identity.

Similarly, “Between the Lightning and the Thunder (Apologia Pro Vita Sua),” was an opportunity for me to think through how I felt about my Catholic upbringing. My father was a Catholic theologian and my mother also a fervent believer. For all of my childhood I had expected that I would probably grow up to become a priest, and while that didn’t happen, religion and spirituality have always remained important to me. This song was a chance for me to acknowledge my debt to my parents while also staking a claim to independence.

3. Don’t be put off by creative writing groups

When I was in my first year of university I attended a creative writing group. I was a shy young lad, bookish and a little uptight, but I had been writing poems for a few years. I particularly loved rhyme. I loved the playfulness of it, the echoes and resonances awoken by parallel sounds, and the serendipities of possibility and opportunity as the words moved towards each other, doubling, sometimes even dancing.

Led by a published poet, there was an earnestness to writers in the group. I was hopeful that there might be support to be found in the gatherings around the table, that I might learn more about the craft of writing. I only went once or twice – I stopped going when the entire group tore someone apart for writing rhyming poetry. This gutted me, and I never then offered any of my own work. Nevertheless, I submitted my work to our poet-guru for a more personal response, proudly but tentatively offering a portfolio of my earliest poems. It’s a difficult moment for most, the moment you first offer your poetry to a recognised poet.

The response I got wasn’t what I had hoped for. He recommended that I might be best contacting Hallmark or another greeting card company. Not exactly the best advice for a young lad aspiring to be a poet.

As a direct consequence, I decided, for a time, that I’d rather write songs, as there was more joy in them thar hills. People were more likely to listen to a song, and less likely to make an issue of the rhyming. Despite the writing group, in time I renewed my love of poems and poetry.

Writing groups can be fun, and supportive. However, if they’re not, have confidence in your desire to write and learn your craft.

4. Truth can be a fluid companion

I sometimes think that I love creative writing because it allows us to explore what it might mean to be human without necessarily misrepresenting the life of an actual person in the process of exploration. I love that in creative writing it is possible to tell the truth without recounting the truth – what I mean is I believe it is possible to glimpse the truth of a moment, to take an emotional snapshot, to activate an impression of an experience, without ever claiming to accurately capture that experience in its entirety. As Van Gogh said, one seeks a deeper resemblance than the photograph. Real people may often provoke the work, but in the course of writing they can become explorations with a life of their own.

5. Let people nudge you into action!

Yes, some things I’ve worked on for years (I have plenty of unfinished work in the cupboard), but sometimes it’s best to just go for it and see what comes out. It helps to have external influence: my poem “Too Long on the Island” was written as an egg-timed three-minute response to a child’s picture at a conference. “Border” was written as a two-minute free-writing exercise at a workshop. The “poltergeist rap” was written and recorded in thirty minutes in response to a Facebook friend who was writing a parapsychology paper analysing the rapping of poltergeists.

6. Finding the world

I come back to the words of others particularly at times when I feel a little bit astray or lost, when I sense a subtle detachment from the world around me.

Among poets, I love the work of William Stafford for his wisdom and accessibility. I love Ogden Nash and Pat Ingoldsby for their sparkling irreverence. I love Naomi Shihab Nye for her insight and humanity. I love Seamus Heaney for his locality and the familiar cadence of his speech. I draw some poems close – “Daedalus, the Maker” by Thomas McCarthy; Pearse Hutchinson’s “Into Their True Gentleness”; William Blake’s “What is the price of Experience”.

Songwriters I treasure include Andrew Calhoun, Kat Eggleston, and Jim Page (all of whom I’ve been lucky to know personally), as well as Dar Williams, Randy Newman, and many, many others.

For me, there are certain key issues that stand out in life – the challenges of love, loving, longing and loss; the ever-presence of mortality; dealing with people you live with or beside; morality and spirituality; inequities and injustices in the world.

For the work I admire, what I think stands out for me is the deep personal investment of the poet or songwriter in their work. Whether raw and immediate, such as much of the work of Andrew Calhoun, or playing out the voices of various roles, such as the work of Randy Newman, all of the songwriters and poets I love manage to remind me of possibilities in the art of being human.

I value domestic detail, recognisable moments of the everyday. I trust that sometimes these can be bridges from the pathologically particular to the particularly universal. The details might not align, but I hope that for readers or listeners the impression may well be familiar.

As a writer, I find it important to keep that old cliché in mind – write what you know. As my wife reminds me, that doesn’t mean I’m an agoraphobic psychopath. But it does mean that I try to offer something of my own exploration of humanity in everything I write. W.H. Auden has written, “The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us.” Something like that.

Living with the heart of a folklorist

I have always worked under the assumption that the conversations, communities, and contexts of folklore can take their place as key players in the social sciences and in the world of practitioners in areas from design to conflict transformation.

I have consistently looked to folklore/tradition studies as a way to ground my social, cultural, political, and economic analyses, believing that, at heart, folklore can be an exploration of the art of being human. In this, I find folklore to have much affinity with transdisciplinary areas like social ecology.

Throughout my career I have been developing what I term a “critical vernacular ecology.” I have developed my critical vernacular ecology approach on the basis of four axioms:

  1. Vernacular (e.g., informal, non-institutional, tacit) culture tends to be theoretically illegible and discursively invisible within the orthodoxies of the social and political sciences – it has consistently been one of the roles of Folklore to redress this illegibility;
  2. Nevertheless, both the historical and contemporary study of vernacular culture provide fertile sources for new, relevant, and integrative cultural, social, political, and policy insight into the possibilities of human flourishing and the art of being human, for now and for the future;
  3. Vernacular culture also provides keys to understanding and addressing the dynamics of particular kinds of expansionary, intensifying, and generally negative cultural, social, and political change;
  4. Realising the theoretical and practical potential of vernacular culture as a tool in culture change, social and political action, cultural sustainability, and intergenerational learning requires the development of new theory from old wisdoms to make the transformative possibilities of vernacular life theoretically legible, discursively visible, and politically relevant. As folklorists, we are well placed to develop these new theoretical perspectives.

At the heart of this is the development of a political theory of transformative action emerging from a theoretical exploration of what I call ‘ordinary ethics’ (e.g., gentleness, kindness, hospitality, trust, compassion, generosity). I think as folklorists we get to hang out with the experts in ordinary ethics, and occasionally even practice such ethics ourselves. That matters, I think, more than we have imagined thus far.

In truth, I believe that the experience of folklorists and, more importantly perhaps, the people we work with, opens a window to the best of political possibility in its broadest sense, raising the quieter people to a position of respect, listening to people who do not tend to be listened to, and valuing gentle strength.

In passing, when I say ‘theory’ I mean ‘thoughtful practice’, in two main ways:

  • working to better understand what happens in order to reduce the possibilities of coercion, violence, domination, and oppression in this and future generations;
  • working to better understand what happens in order to increase the possibilities of optimal human flourishing in this and future generations.

Folklore, for me, includes explorations of creativity, entrepreneurship, power and politics, cultural sustainability, policy, education and learning, complexity, emergence, presence, parenting, community, quality of relationship, trust, generosity, hospitality, innovation, culture change, conflict transformation, poverty, indigenous politics, and much more more. Many of the key concerns in folklore are also key issues, questions, and themes in cutting-edge education, management, leadership, politics, design, activism, environmentalism and so on. If folklore as a discipline isn’t respected as a key contributor within the political and social sciences, it should be, but for that to happen we need to always find new ways to restate old wisdoms, to declare the relevance of what we do in ways that matter.

I think it is important for folklorists to have confidence in their place in the bigger picture, wherever they are, however they are employed or not employed. I don’t think living with the heart of a folklorist has very much to do with our position (or not) in an administrative structure. I think it can be an invitation to the heart of what it can mean to be human, a communicated invitation to others to continually reimagine their own possibilities for being human, and a clarion call for dignity and a deeper humanity. The folklorists I admire are people who care about people, who continually remember and testify to what human decency means. The folklorists I admire understand that the notion of ‘applied’ folklore is superfluous to requirements. Either we make a difference or we don’t. I assume that we always do.

A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The following talk was given at Peace House in Oxford on the 21st November, 2013, during a workshop on Gentleness, Trust, and Activism, as part of the Northumbria University project, “Effectiveness in Action: Exploring the role of the Durkheimian ‘sacred’ in motivating community action, using reflexive and gently disruptive co-research methodologies.” The talk includes discussions of:

– What I mean by gentleness
– What I mean by ‘power’
– What I mean by a politics of gentleness
– What I mean by enclosure
– What role the ‘elimination of uncertainty’ plays in enclosure
– What I mean by a ‘critical vernacular ecology’ and its relevance to the practice of everyday life

The following link will direct you to the soundcloud page where you can listen to the talk in its entirety:

A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The (slightly edited) transcription follows below:

Just to throw the cat among the pigeons, I am an advocate of gentleness.  I am not an advocate of non-violence.  I’ll explain that later, maybe, if you ask me.

Right, for many years I’ve been doing many things. I did a lot of ethnography among people who do Irish music and Irish singing for quite a while during the 1990s. During the mid-1990s I was very interested in social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musician, particularly the ways in which the social and ethical dynamics among Irish traditional musicians were under pressure from the encroachments of intellectual property thinking and copyright thinking. Around 1995 to the year 2000 was a real cauldron time for the commodification of Irish musical practice, in terms of commercialisation, in terms of education, in terms of performance, in terms of copyright. Lots of things between 1995 and the year 2000 coalesced, and that cauldron of change is, I suppose, the origin story for a lot of the work that I’ve since done.

My main interests at the moment are what I call cultural climate (which other people might call emotional climate), the quality of relationship, the quality of spaces that we have at various times, the ways in which these change from one way to another way, the way in which they might, in some people’s eyes, get worse and in other people’s eyes get better.

I’m also very much focused at the moment on the issue of culture change. When I talk about culture change I mean it very much from the perspective of what for me are the functions of theory.  And when I say theory I simply mean thoughtful practice. But I also mean theory in the sense that theory, thoughtful practice, hopefully helps me reduce the possibilities of coercion, violence, domination and oppression in my own relationships and, by invitation, in the relationships of others, and, secondly, hopefully allows me to come to a greater understanding of what the conditions for human flourishing might be and how we might work towards actually establishing those within our own lives, our own relationships, and, by invitation, in the lives or relationships of others.

At the heart of my work is this word “gentleness”.  I don’t have a definition for gentleness but I will say what I mean by gentleness.  What I mean by gentleness is the quality of relationship that happens when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate in relationship in a particular environment.  It is the quality of relationship that simply happens.  It’s the quality of relationship that we can trust will likely happen when the elimination of uncertainty in its various forms does not dominate in a particular environment.

And when I say gentleness I also work on the principal of “multiple vocabularies”.  I understand the concerns about the etymology of the term gentleness and its relationship to class structure and class histories.  So, one of the ways in which I talk about gentleness is with the idea of multiple vocabularies.  I might say “gentleness” but other people might say “kindness” or “couthiness” or “decency” or “generosity” or “hospitality” or “trust”. What’s of interest to me isn’t so much the word or the words that I use but the quality of relationship that is being spoken about behind or underneath those words. [Lift the words up and look underneath them]. And for me it’s that quality of relationship that comes from the withness and the hereness of people in space when the elimination of uncertainty does not dominate as an ethic within that space.

Now I imagine when I say the elimination of uncertainty that I’m not just talking in terms of kind of heady, cerebral philosophers like Descartes who seek to eliminate uncertainty and eliminate all doubt in everything they do, I’m talking about the quest for perfection, the quest for control, the quest for saturating, the quest to fix.  You know, many things which are frequently associated with patriarchal qualities but which can be found in many forms and many places and in my own life and many other people’s lives. That quality of the elimination of uncertainty, for me, is the driving factor of the shitty stuff. It’s the heart of what makes things crap.  It’s also the heart of what makes things-crap have an expansionary quality to them, and that is a core part of what I’m going to be talking about for the next few minutes.  It isn’t just that things get bad.  Is it when things are bad they get worse when they work within their own gravities and their own logic, and that is crucial to all of this. It’s why it’s not enough to just stand there and say, “I don’t like that”.  Things get worse if we don’t do something about them when they are based around the elimination of uncertainty.

The elimination of uncertainty for me is the engine of enclosure. When I studied enclosure for quite a number of years I tried to study enclosure historically, looking at enclosure of the commons, and I stayed away from the notion of the commons eventually because I noticed that a lot of the ways in which people would talk about the commons for me were actually versions of enclosure, so I found the rhetoric of the commons was frequently misleading and I sort of moved away from it. I’ve now moved back to it in a different form but I’ll maybe talk about that later.

The notion of enclosure for me refers to an expansionary dynamic that happens when the elimination of uncertainty ethic dominates. It involves a very key thing and something that is to be found across many different situations where things simply get worse. The expansion comes from … [I pick this up later].

I’d found a lot of people who described enclosure historically and currently. But in terms of explaining it … how will I know when I’m participating in it? That’s the key problem. How can I understand something psychologically enough that I know that I myself am participating in it, whether it’s enclosure or commodification or what have you. Show me somebody out there who talks about commodification in a way that I can understand when I am participating in it. I haven’t been able to find anyone. And so that was a part of my core quest as a thinker was to try and understand commodification and enclosure in a way that I could understand my own participation in it.  How was I making things worse when they were getting worse?  How was I making things worse when they were getting worse, even when I thought I was making them better?  How could I understand the misguided (sometimes) best intentions that I might bring to something, and still make things worse?  So that was at the heart of what I was trying to make sense of.

And at the heart of it as well, bringing us back to [talking to Clare Cochrane] your exploration of activism … at the heart of it for me was the assumption that there is no time when activism does not happen. There is not activism and non-activism. There’s not action and non-action. And this gets to the heart of what people might understand as the notion of power.

If you look at the literature you generally find that power means either the ability to control resources, or the ability to engage in goal-directed action, or the ability to control behaviour of others, or variations on those.  So, power is generally a very directive way of thinking about how we engage relationships with other people.

If you follow that line of thinking then you come to the first of what I think of as 4 points of a “critical vernacular ecology”. “Vernacular” in the sense of “ordinary-life” ecology.

First point is … if you go to the orthodoxies of political and social thinking, and economic thinking … the quieter forms of life, the people who are gentle, the people who are hospitable, the people who are generous, the people I have admired most in my lifetime whether as relatives or as friends, those people are not visible within social and political theory.  Not only are they not visible, they are not possible within social and political theory. They’re neither visible nor possible and they’re not possible because they’re not plausible. They’re not visible, they’re not plausible, they’re not possible, therefore they tend to be rendered automatically irrelevant to social and political theory in terms of the orthodoxies that are present in the academic world, and by association irrelevant to influence in governmental state politics and in various other forms of life.  And to our school system, and God knows what else.

One of the key things for me has been to think, okay, hold on a second, and this is the second point, that not only are these quieter forms of politics for me invisible, impossible, implausible,  and irrelevant for a lot of people, but they are also a deeply deeply human and deeply, deeply powerful, and I think the most powerful way of being human. They have deep within them huge potential for us to learn about the realities of politics, the realities of making a difference.

And at the heart of trying to understand that I came to a new understanding of power. To step away from the idea of control and step away from the idea of goal-directed action. To step away from the idea of controlling other people’s behaviour. To move towards something that doesn’t fall into the logic that says: only those who seek to control are powerful; those who do not seek to control are powerless. Therefore those people who I look to for power and influence and example within that framework would be powerless.  How [in contrast] could I work from a position where I would never be powerless, and the people I admire would never be considered powerless but would in fact be considered the height of power and the height of how we could and maybe should – that’s questionable – but how we could be making a difference in this world to achieve the optimal conditions for human flourishing in any particular environment.

And I came to the understanding of power as “the ability to vary experience”, whether the experience of oneself or the experience of others. That’s all. Power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or others, in an anthropocentric sense, but you could expand that, of course, to the environment and to nature and to everything else around us, but within a kind of a social sense, I understand power as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another. Like John Cassavetes, the filmmaker, who talked about “the power of small emotions”, or like Michel Foucault who talked about that sense of micro-politics, while also being really specific about it.

So this … [I move a glass on the table] is an act of power.  Silence becomes an act of power.  The interest isn’t whether something [or someone] is powerful or not, the interest is what the effects of power are. But saying somebody is powerless within that makes no sense whatever. So, the idea of powerlessness and powerfulness, and the idea of the state as the centre of power, for me, is just uninteresting. The question for me becomes … where is power happening? when is it happening? with what effects is it happening? and who’s involved?

Because within that framework we always-already make a difference, so to consider ourselves helpless is to misread the situation. The only question is, how do we make the difference that we make? How can we listen more to the possibilities of the differences that we might make within that situation? How can we identify the opportunities for making a difference in a more helpful way that increases the possibility of human flourishing and decreases and reduces the possibilities of domination, oppression, coercion and violence?

When I talked about non-violence earlier what I was referring to was the idea that for me the elimination of uncertainty is the core act of violence. It is a claim made in language about a reality which for me is always imbued with uncertainty and ambiguity and fuzziness and relationship and movement and flux. To eliminate uncertainty is to eliminate all of those things from your consideration. That for me is the core act of violence and I believe we always participate in it to some extent within the structures in our lives. So, for me, non-violence is not possible. Less violence is always possible.

For me, it’s about dominance. It’s about the dominance of the elimination of uncertainty. We can’t make ourselves pure and uncontaminated from a lot of the structures of violence that we find ourselves surrounded by, but we can reduce the influence of them within our own lives by becoming more self-aware and more community-aware in the way that we actually think about what we do.

So, one of the ways in which I was thinking about power was – I tend to think very visually … Generally when we think about power we think about power as control, usually in terms of state power and state authority. In terms of a centre of power. That’s very much the idea behind “speaking back to power.” When we say that, for the most part that’s the type of power that we’re talking about. We speak back to the centre of authority, the centre of those people who say things which shall not be challenged.

And [within this centre-periphery model of power] we occupy a very marginal place when we talk about the likes of gentleness or kindness or hospitality. We regard it as a very, very marginal part of the power conversation if it’s at all relevant. It’s probably actually way out here somewhere in this part [at or beyond the margin of the circle].

What I’m interested in saying is if you look at the vast majority of people and do an inventory of the amount of hours that people spend doing what they do, the vast majorities of people’s lives are spent, and this is crucially important to the education conversation, the vast majority of people’s lives are spent in informal [qualities of] relationship, in the quieter forms of life. If you were to do an inventory of what you do all day every day, most of it is pretty quiet and of low intensity. The vast majority of human life is informal, casual, non-institutional. That’s where most of the power in the world happens. That’s where most of the difference in the world is actually happening all day every day, and what we [normally] consider the centre of power is, actually, if you were to use a margins framework (which I’m not too happy about, but I’ll use it anyway), is marginal to that conversation of power [understood] as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another.

So it inverts the conversation about power, and it says that placing a piece of paper in a box once every 4 years or 5 years or 7 years depending on which election you’re talking about, in whichever country, that’s not the vast amount of the difference that you’re going to make, within a framework of making a difference.  I’m not saying democracy, I’m not saying citizenship. Within a framework of making a difference the vast majority of the power that you’re going to engage in will be in things like … when your husband is dying of cancer, placing your hand on his hand and wiping his brow … holding your one-year-old son’s hand as you walk across the road, saying “take daddy’s hand” to make sure he doesn’t get killed as he walks across the road, waking up every morning to find your son [staring at you lovingly] and then spontaneously giving you a big slobbery kiss because he doesn’t know how to close his mouth yet.

Times when people are making a huge difference in each other’s lives but are not counted, these are not put in the reckoning of Politics with a capital ‘P’.  What I would suggest is, that this [formal, institutional qualities of power] could be called politics with a small ‘p’, and this [quieter, informal qualities of power] could be thought of as Politics with a capital ‘P’. I think it is really important to continually reassert that in the ways that we think about things.

So that’s the second point, that this is a very fertile way for making sense of how politics can be reconsidered. The third point is that these forms of life, of relationship, these qualities of relationship are deeply powerful and deeply important ways of identifying, critiquing and challenging elimination of uncertainty in politics.

The elimination of uncertainty, enclosure, has an expansionary heart. The way in which expansion happens within elimination-of-uncertainty enclosing politics is the extension of authority-as-certitude.  Basically somebody comes along and says “this is the way it is”. you take something off the supermarket shelf of thinking and you go, “Oh yeah I’ll get that, it’s great. I won’t look at the ingredients list on the side of the can, that’s grand. I’ll just take that, consume it, eat it, go home, be grand.”  Or you say, “Hold on a second … Certitude is the absence of doubt, absence of uncertainty. That’s just misrepresenting, grossly misrepresenting the way the world works, the way that experience happens, the way that relationships happen.”

The identification of the elimination of uncertainty is about saying, “Hold on a second, I disagree, I think differently.” This first of all automatically identifies the expansionary quality of it.  If nobody turns up and says hold on a second then you will never know that expansion is taking place, you’ll get the gentrification without dissent, for example. With the expansion of enclosure you will get the complete change of a community, the displacement of people’s values and ways of life and of people themselves around the world in wars all over the place. As a result of that vast power of people saying, “This is the way it is,” and people acquiescing and they themselves again in turn saying, “This is the way it is,” and living “This is the way it is,” and that expansion happening person by person by person by person.

But that quieter quality of politics is a way to actually make that visible. It is only really through the quieter politics that you can make that visible in any way that changes the equation.

Generally people start with the idea of human nature. Human nature is self interest; human nature is altruism; human nature is whatever it is, social, whatever. This is a huge frustration to me. It is one of the big traps of thinking in the English language, the idea that something is such and such; that it’s an equation, human nature equals such and such.  It avoids the challenge of diversity, it avoids the challenge of variety and one of the things that’s crucial in any understanding of social life and politics is to understand that human nature can be many, many things.  Human character can be many, many things.

What I ended coming up with in terms of looking at different contexts, looking at how people work, looking at human behaviour, looking at environmental design, and various other things …  You can look at everything and drive yourself crazy or you can look at a few particular things and try and find key variables in what happens to make sense of stuff.  So I came up with 3 key variables.

The 3 key variables were intensity of affect or emotion, the way in which that changes from moment to moment.  The intensity of affect or emotion will change in different circumstances.

A second key variable is directivity, things being more or less directive, more or less pushy and pully in terms of the gravities they have, either within us or around us, or from us or to us.

And then the third one is the way in which we relate to uncertainty, our relationship to uncertainty in language and thought, remembering that the elimination of uncertainty is merely a language claim that we make about the world.

What I discovered, though, is that these are direct correlates. [see The Cultural Climate Framework]

The more we try to eliminate uncertainty the more intensity we generate. The more we try to be intense the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate. The more highly directive ways of doing things become appropriate the more we try to be directive in terms of obligation, law, should, must, need to, have to. The more intense it becomes, the more elimination of uncertainty thinking becomes appropriate.

It’s about appropriateness-to-context. The idea is that if you were in an environment, and this is where it becomes core to understanding, if you’re in an environment which is dominated by the elimination of uncertainty, be it a highly controlled, highly ordered, probably a very top down organised environment, what will feel most appropriate within that environment, whether you’re for or against it, will be elimination-of-uncertainty thinking.

Opposition is one of the key responses to whatever happens in such an environment.  Opposition tends to be an elimination-of-uncertainty response, the idea that somebody is not you, and that you will oppose them.

The gravities increase the more you move towards the elimination of uncertainty and intensify and double back into themselves. Crucially, because working with the elimination of uncertainty brings us to misrepresent what’s going on, the more we think in terms of elimination of uncertainty, the more we think in terms of enemies and targets and things to fix and so on an so forth, things to be erased, the more blind we become to what’s actually going on, and, more importantly, blind to our participation in what’s going on.

So, one of the things that I’ve been very interested in as a fourth point of the critical vernacular ecology is the idea that we need new theory.  We need new theory from old wisdoms.  We need new ways of talking about what’s going on based on understandings that we have already had. This is my attempt, my contribution.

Core to this is an idea that is very familiar within Aikido, the notion that to improve a situation you “sidestep, enter and turn.”  Sidestep – when there’s a truck coming down the road you get out of the bloody way because it will run you over.  So you sidestep.  Then you go back into the situation at a point of lower intensity and you move with the situation in a way which will bring it to a lower intensity.

I’ve taken advice from a friend in Australia many times, don’t plant trees where they’re going to get cut down.  Two strikes and I’m out, now three strikes and I’m out now.  I’ll try twice and if I find that the trees are going to get cut down I’m going to move to somewhere where it’s more fertile because the importance is to keep the energy at a high level in terms of being out there rather than going in to places where damage-limitation will suck you dry.

Damage-limitation is crucially important, but if you spend most of your time up doing that in elimination-of-uncertainty zones you’re going to burn yourself out. What’s really, really important is to make forays into the difficult places and find a way to keep yourself balanced and not burn yourself out. To keep that balance, work-life balance I suppose, in a sense, so that, when you make your forays, now you have your armour, you are prepared, you are able to, in a sense, engage in some sort of martial art when you do damage limitation work. But when you come out of it, you yourself are not being defined by the logic of that which you are seeking to make better.

There’s a guy called Simon Sinek who does leadership work and he talks about how most people in leadership start with what they want to do, and then they identify how they’re going to do it, and then they think, “Oh I’m kind of doing something some particular way, I’m going to think about why I’m doing it now.” Sinek went around looking at all the different leaders … Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, you know, , and he was looking at the way in which people who had a very clear purpose (“the why”) for what they were doing were often more successful in drawing other people to what they were doing.

Now I have misgivings about this because often people who are successful in drawing people to follow them are people who are all about the elimination of uncertainty.  I watched a documentary the other day about Hitler. He was a superb, a superb speaker. He was superb at drawing followers behind him. The faster your movement grows the more you should be suspicious of what quality it has. Very simple. Invitational movements grow really really slowly. Trauma happens really, really quickly but it takes year to actually heal from that trauma. The quicker what you are doing is spreading the more you need to question what you are doing. But what I would suggest, is what I call “How 2.0”, very pretentious of me. How 2.0 is not “how am I doing it?” but, “how do I want it to feel when it happens?”. “How do I want it to feel when it happens?” And that for me is the core. That is the core of this work.

In thinking about the elimination of uncertainty, and thinking about enclosure, and thinking about gentleness, or kindness, or whatever, when you lift the words up and look underneath, and look below those multiple vocabularies, the important thing is to think about “how do I want it to feel?”, and then when it’s happening “how does it actually feel?”. If it feels really, really intense than you’re into the “enclosure triad” – High intensity.  High directivity and elimination of uncertainty thinking. If what you are doing feels like that, it’s time to rethink.

Emotional and political possibilities of pedagogy in virtual worlds.

This is a working paper.

Abstract:

A lot of emphasis is currently being placed on the development of e-learning in Higher Education. Through innovations such as Second Life, Moodle, Blackboard, and other such developments, it would seem that e-learning offers the promise of interesting and innovative approaches to lifelong learning, Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and widening participation. E-learning, it seems, is a good thing.

In this paper I explore some of the pedagogic implications of the use of virtual learning environments. What might be the possibilities and limitations of such technological spaces and places with regard to qualities of relationship and learning? Could moves to emphasise the human face of online learning be a response to a degree of dehumanisation that may always-already take place when a move is made from face-to-face to online learning?

Further, what might be the implications of virtual learning environments for teachers, lecturers, and facilitators who privilege the affectual dimensions of pedagogic interactions? What might we mean by ‘learning’ when we speak of virtual learning environments? What might be the limitations and possibilities of virtual environments for thinking about helpfully transformative social, political, and personal education? What we understand as the conditions, limitations, parameters, and possibilities of learning as a process very much guide, and even at times determine, how we conceive of the structuring possibilities of virtual learning environments.  An exploration of the emotional and political dimensions of pedagogy in virtual worlds is important for understanding limitations and possibilities in our negotiations of those worlds.

Introduction: towards a pedagogy of gentleness?

I remain fascinated by the possibilities of affect, influence, and power in online environments and virtual worlds. In my research and teaching I am seeking to understand power and agency in ways that allow an attitude of gentleness, rather than an attitude of control, to be my default baseline. I do not make much of a distinction between online environments and so-called Real Life environments in trying to understand either the politics of attitude or the politics of gentleness.

What I understand “gentleness” as the dynamic that happens when the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be eliminated does not dominate in our relationships and in the situations we negotiate. One of the specific notions that I have been exploring is a “pedagogy of gentleness”. I believe it is both possible and desirable to reduce the extent to which people, whether as teachers or students, might seek to control, manage, or eliminate uncertainty within learning environments. From practice-based research I have drawn the following principles for my pedagogic practice, among others:

1. There is nothing more personal, political, or relevant for me than attending to the character of my own emotional attitude in my role as an educator. How I feel on the day will have a major influence on the character of my teaching. This is what Teresa Brennan (2004) referred to as the “transmission of affect”. As Teresa Brennan outlines: “By the transmission of affect, I mean simply that the emotions or affects of one person, and the enhancing or depressing energies these affects entail, can enter into another” (3). This is consistent with the later work of critical pedagogist Paolo Freire and his insistence on the importance of “being with” (Freire 1998). I also find it important to note Megan Boler’s insistence that: “A pedagogy that recognizes emotions as central to the domains of cognition and morality need not preclude intellectual rigor or critical inquiry” (Boler 1999:110).

2. It is important for me not to seek to prescribe the outcomes or direction of a classroom. The character and quality of the interaction in the room is of greater importance to me than a clear trajectory, and the quality I am seeking to foster is consistent with Mark Smith’s characterisation of “local education” practices: “Instead of aiming for particular changes in individuals, we look to the nature of the interactions we foster – we move from a focus on product to a concern with process and praxis” (Smith 1994:36). The emotional climate I seek to foster in my teaching and learning is very much a conversational one, with an openness to detours and divergences in direction. As Smith notes, “The specific goal may not be clear at any one time, either to educators or learners, yet the process is deliberate. Educators in these situations seek to foster an environment in which conversation can take place” (1994:63). Learning outcomes, then, are used for the module as a whole but are not used for each session. I am reminded of the words of Derrick Jensen:

“I cannot control what my students want or are able to learn, and I have no desire to. Nor can I control whether the students like the class, and I have no desire to do that either. Nor can I control whether they are at a place in their lives to learn from anything I have to offer. … What I perceive as the direction they need to head may bear no relationship to the direction they actually need to head, the direction they’re capable to heading, or the direction they indeed end up heading. And I need at all times to defer to that uncertainty, that mystery” (2004:109-110)

3. Confusion can be fruitful. In my pedagogy I offer students an invitation to “trust your confusion” in expectation of the conversational quality of the interactions. This can be unsettling for students at times, but it can also facilitate a space of creativity and opportunity; Megan Boler speaks of a “pedagogy of discomfort” in which students are invited “to leave the familiar shores of learned beliefs and habits, and swim further out into the “foreign” and risky depths of the sea of ethical and moral differences” (Boler 1999:181). This is very much in the spirit of what a colleague of mine, Paul Devlin, advises his students, that they find their place of uncertainty and build a house there. One of the challenges, of course, is to find a way to match the exploration and generation of confusion with the generation and provision of stabilities (but not certainties) that will balance that confusion for the students.

These principles become important markers for me in trying to make sense of teaching and learning, whether face-to-face in a classroom or in online environments and virtual worlds.

E-Learning: triumph and disaster.

Lewis and Whitlock have declared that; “It is no longer necessary to argue the case for e-learning” (2003:xv). Would that this were so, but my own experience tells me otherwise. At the end of one semester at my university I was ready to throw my computer in the bin and declare online teaching and learning a lost cause.

As a mature student doing online courses for professional development, I have grappled with buggy software, wrestled with unruly hardware, screamed in frustration as I discovered that my serendipitous and fluid personal study styles developed over too many years as a postgraduate left me ill-suited to the scheduled delivery modes of online teaching and learning.

In the same year I served as a Course Director for an online course. I learned to do the following, among other things: listen to students with similar frustrations as myself; calm students with angry complaints; work with people who had suffered family bereavements, without the benefit of face-to-face contact; chase a tutor constantly for what seemed at the time like absence and neglect, but turned out to be more complicated than that; work with librarians mid-semester to scramble together online-accessible resource lists; and work with the university tech people to manage software difficulties.

After these experiences as student and as teacher I was certainly not inclined to give online teaching and learning the benefit of the doubt. My experiences generally in face-to-face teaching and learning had been very positive. I had become increasingly able to let classes happen, to respond to the conditions of the classroom and the mood of the students, in and around the themes I had prepared in advance for discussion. Silences, pauses, and an ability to stand, listen, and let it go, were becoming powerful tools in my arsenal of techniques for teaching. I was concerned that the parts of teaching I enjoy most would not be available to me in an online teaching and learning environment. I was concerned that what I was developing as my own best practice was not going to be available to me as an online tutor. To become a good online tutor would require me, horror of horrors, to start from the beginning again, to rebuild through the frustrations and the difficulties, to come to a constructive position for the development of online modules.

In short, I had come to a place where the onus was on me to either argue the case for online teaching and learning or to avoid it altogether. I didn’t really have the option of avoiding it, though, as there was an e-pedagogy module to complete for the PG CHEP (Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Practice), and I had just been commissioned to provide 4 units for yet another online module. Not only that, but I was due to start as Module Coordinator for the provision of another online course in the year to come. Online teaching and learning, it seemed, had become my fate.

“Look at the screen … and smile!”

It is easy enough to feel awestruck in the face of the new technologies in universities. This would seem to be the case for students; Lewis and Whitlock have written that, “E-learning has proved a dispiriting experience for some learners: slogging their way through unattractively presented content on a screen, unsure of where they are going and how long it will take to get there (if they ever arrive), aware only that it all seems to be taking a lot more time than they ever thought” (2003:xv). I would suggest that the same could be said for the experience of a lot of teachers, although I imagine many of them can make more of a positive difference to their own experience than they maybe realise.

A lot of emphasis is currently being placed on the development of e-learning in Higher Education. It would seem that e-learning offers the promise of interesting and innovative approaches to lifelong learning, Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and widening participation. The student populations of university campuses are increasingly diverse, and there is increasing pressure on university resources. By offering e-learning platforms universities can also ostensibly offer more learning in part-time, distance, and other flexible models. E-learning, it seems, is a good thing. Lewis and Whitlock again;

“E-learning is no longer new. It occupies a growing role in most education and training organizations. It is making the lives of individuals easier: helping people learn whilst at work or in the home, flexibly and at times that suit them. … As technology and software improve, e-learning becomes faster, more reliable, more portable and easier to use. So, not surprisingly, e-learning is playing an increasing part in the lives of learners and of learning and training organizations” (2003:xv).

Jane Knight (2003) describes e-learning as, “The catalyst that is changing the whole model of learning in this century”. In an ideal world, e-learning is claimed to offer “a student centred learning environment which can be tailored to meet the learning needs of individual students”, with approaches to learning that are described as “active” (Kenya Education Network 2007). E-learning promises increased student-staff and student-student communication, frequent individual feedback, collaborative learning, and greater student motivation.

One of the biggest challenges for the continuing development of e-learning is, I believe, to temper this unbounded optimism with a large dose of reality. Could all of this optimism be little more than rhetoric, feeding into tired progress narratives about the benefits of technology and our unquestionable need to follow the latest developments?[i]

We can celebrate the emancipatory potential of learning technologies all we like, but as of yet there has been little solid research to substantiate the claims that are being made. In the context of people with learning difficulties, for example, Abbott notes that, “There is little published, peer-reviewed research related to the use of digital technologies to assist those with learning difficulties to learn more effectively and efficiently” (2007:7). There are not necessarily more educational possibilities available to us simply because technology is involved.[ii]

E-Learning and the challenges of pedagogy

The pedagogic challenges we face in e-learning are in large part the same pedagogic challenges we face in any context of teaching and learning – teaching one, by one, by one … ; inviting people to make sense of their lives; providing educational opportunities. The non-technical personal competencies among the competencies required for online tutoring (see Salmon 2000) are little different from those required for teaching generally. Calder and Milne (Date unknown) suggest that:

“The most compelling reason for using learning Technology is that high quality resources, implemented effectively in courses, have the potential to significantly improve the quality of teaching by enhancing student’s learning experiences and involvement in the learning process through: interactive learning environments; assessment and feedback ; facilitating student-staff and student-student communication.”

But surely any pedagogy, online or otherwise, would, I hope, seek to enhance students’ learning experiences and involvement in the learning process though greater interaction, more appropriate assessment and better feedback, and better student-staff and student-student communication.[iii]

There is a case to be made for the benefits of online education, and many voices in the literature make such a case, from Jane Knight’s techno-boosterism (2003) to some more measured approaches found on the JISC website (e.g. Abbott 2007). Hawkridge and Vincent (1992) put forward a cohesive and closely reasoned argument for the use of computers by people with learning difficulties, while also recognising the limits of technological determinism in this field: “Computers can ease learning difficulties,” they write, “They can help learners to overcome their difficulties. They cannot work magic. They are not necessarily the best solution. Because each learner’s needs are slightly different, there are few standard rules.” (Hawkridge and Vincent 1992:21)

People are working to humanise e-learning. Throughout online educational practice people are encouraging less interventionist and more communicative tutorial support; encouraging more dialogue between students and between students and tutors; fostering community in whatever what they can. But these attempts may sometimes amount to little more than a back-pedalling response to a degree of dehumanisation that always-already occurs in institutional education of any sort, if Freire (1970), Illich (1970), Jensen (2001, 2004), and many others are to be believed. Maybe more, maybe moves to emphasise the human face of online learning is a response to a degree of dehumanisation that may always-already take place when a move is made from face-to-face to online learning. This was the argument made in early research on so-called computer-mediated communication systems. It was assumed that Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) restricted or limited the possibilities of human communication when compared to face-to-face communication (see Herring 2002:133). For example, Daft and Lengel (1986) proposed a theory of “information richness”. For them, “lean” text-based CMC media make use of a single channel of communication, thereby being best suited to linear, concrete tasks such as scheduling. In contrast, they proposed that multiple channel media such as face-to-face speech are richer, and are more likely to be appropriate to complex and ambiguous tasks. Short, Williams, and Christie (1979) and Spears and Lea (1992) make the case that the text-based nature of CMC results in low “social presence”, and is thereby less-well suited to relational communication.

Virtual Learning Environments give us little obvious opportunity as tutors to work with  silence and pauses, often powerful tools in the classroom. E-learning gives us little obvious opportunity to work with the affectual dimensions of individual interactions or of a group interaction. To work with online technologies is for me to first of all acknowledge the limitations of those technologies with regards to relationship. As Brook and Boal have written, “… virtual technologies are pernicious when their simulacra of relationships are deployed societywide as substitutes for face-to-face interactions, which are inherently richer than mediated interactions” (1995:vii).

In acknowledging those limitations we can temper the enthusiastic hyperbole of e-learning evangelism and work towards more realistic and appropriate online pedagogies that recognise that online education is not a new dawn or a dazzling virtual reality separate from the dull one we ordinarily inhabit. Technology in and of itself does not constitute a revolution. It is important to stay grounded. Shapiro writes, “… it would be a mistake, conceptually and practically, to erect a barrier between online and offline activity. Cyberspace is not somewhere “out there,” a world apart from flesh and blood, asphalt and trees. Our actions online have (need it even be said?) a real impact on the lives of other human beings” (Shapiro 1999:31).

My own experience is that engagement with online teaching presents us with few opportunities for pedagogic reflection unless we explicitly allow for such opportunities. A JISC report from 2004 states that “Making the move towards new technologies presents practitioners with a complex set of challenges – they may need to develop new skills, embrace changes in the nature of their role, and then reassess the pedagogies they employ” (JISC 2004:7). But to be honest, very few of us get time to reassess the pedagogies we employ because very few of us get opportunities to really reflect on the implications of our pedagogies at all, whether online or face-to-face. We don’t really get the time or the headspace to reconceive our teaching roles or our understandings of pedagogy while we clamber awkwardly to cope with the latest online delivery software package or struggle to make sense of students who communicate solely through digital text. Administrating and monitoring online courses is hard enough as it is.

Yet, one of the key challenges in online learning is to remember that we are teachers and to underline the importance of the role of teaching. Online learning, or e-learning, is still online teaching and learning, but the dropping of the second word is significant. Erica Williams, back in 1991, warned of the bifurcation of teaching and learning, as ‘delivery’ was beginning to be preferred to the term ‘teaching’ and ‘instructional designer’ was increasingly being substituted for the word ‘teacher’. Pedagogy, paradoxically, was increasingly being used to erase teaching from learning. Voithofer applies Williams’ critique to online pedagogy where frequently, as Voithofer says, “a “teacher-proof” course that ensures predictable and exportable learning modules is part of the design objective” (2002:491). Passive tenses abound as teachers become less present in online environments, even to the point of becoming interchangeable – in this university, once we design units for modules they apparently become the intellectual property of the university and can be reused by any other tutor without consultation.[iv] So, in a very practical sense, the teacher could be anybody.

Deeply personal pedagogic approaches could easily become problematic as this happens, and people are likely to default to pedagogic approaches in which they are not terribly invested. This embedded interchangeability likely also encourages approaches to pedagogy which are more about information delivery than invitations to personal exploration and support of a journey of critical inquiry. This could, over time, profoundly distort the ways in which the possibilities of teaching are conceived in technological domains by teachers and also by students. As McConnell writes, “If tutors are moving towards a relationship that is peripheral, purely diagnostic and outside the actual productive work of the community, then they are likely to be seen by members as outsiders who exert control and unilateral power” (2006:194).

The Internet was not initially designed with teaching and learning practices in mind. As Talbott reminds us, “Often hailed as an unparalleled weapon against the establishment, the Internet actually grew out of a scheme for making military communications more secure.” (1995:1). Originally, the Internet was designed for the exchange of technical data, designed to facilitate computation and calculation. To use Internet and computer technologies unquestioningly in teaching and learning may be to risk allowing the quiet imperatives of code (see Lessig’s Code 2.0) and the powerful rhetorics of technological progress to determine the possibilities of our pedagogy. We do well to consider the words of Steven Jones, that “the Internet is a “piggy-backed” medium, one that follows paths we already know” (Jones 1997:8).

Blamires has noted that “the successful educational use of technology also requires rigorous thought about learning” (1999, p113). ‘What learning involves’ is often something which is very much taken for granted in discussions about online teaching and learning, even though our underlying assumptions about learning remain very influential but, most frequently, those assumptions also remain as surreptitiously silent partners in the development of online learning provision. As McConnell suggests, “our view of learning often determines the way we design e-learning events and courses, and … this has serious consequences for the learning outcomes of those students taking the courses” (2006:10). To quote Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, “Tools, of course, can be the subtlest of traps” (1997:141). What we understand as the conditions, limitations, parameters, and possibilities of learning as a process (i.e. our pedagogic approach) very much guide, and even, at times, determine how we conceive of the structuring possibilities of a virtual learning environment.

Take the following quotation from the JISC report, Effective Practice with e-Learning (2004:12); “A learning activity can be defined as an interaction between a learner and an environment, leading to a planned outcome. It is the planned outcome which makes learning a purposeful activity”. This is a very limited understanding of ‘learning’ which allows no room for learning to take place in a non-goal-directed manner, no room for serendipity, no room for exploratory detours, no room for the more interesting aspects of what the experience of learning can be.

Two aspects of this statement jump out for me: first, who has the power of definition in this instance? Undoubtedly the teacher. Second, who plans the outcome? Again, undoubtedly the teacher. Conceiving of learning activities in this way maintains a clear hierarchy between teachers who teach, plan, deliver, and students who learn as they are directed, get managed, and receive. There is nothing in this conception of learning which challenges tendencies within institutional education or e-learning towards ‘banking’ or ‘deposit’ educational models, where students are conceived of as containers to be filled with information. Online teaching and learning is always-already heavily circumscribed in terms of content and delivery. It is important that our conceptions of learning do not merely reinforce that circumscription with limited and limiting understandings of what it can mean for us to learn. As Voithofer writes:

“Following traditional instructional design models will lead to courses and curricula that teach standardized content through unresponsive pedagogies because they rest on assumptions that construct learners according to skills, knowledge, and performance rather than cultural factors that elude simple descriptions (conductive reasoning and ontological knowing), yet are no less significant to learning” (2002:494).

Students, in effect, can easily become interchangeable information clients, in a manner consistent with the increasing influence of neo-liberalism within the university sector[v], and in ways that facilitate views of education as little more than individually-oriented information processing or information management (as in ADDIE Instructional Design or Resource-Based Learning (RBL) approaches – see Mobbs 2003 and Maier 2000). It is crucial, therefore, that pedagogy in e-learning be understood as more than just the study of teaching practice or the promotion of best practice in teaching. E-learning practices are primed to spiral off into unrealistic and misguided rhetoric of a technoromantic (Coyne 1996) or technologically deterministic (Mackay 2001) character. Because of this, it is important that the need for critical questioning is not just located in the learning experiences of students but in our own reflections about the basic assumptions about learning, behaviour, time, and social change, that are always-already structured into the technological systems that we employ for our online teaching. These basic assumptions about the meaning and role of technology, the role of information in personal development, the nature of progress, and the place of the individual in society, in turn tacitly shape the limits of our pedagogic imaginations.

I am encouraged by some of the literature on online interactivity and course design (e.g. Clarke 2001). However, I do not regard computer interactions to be any more interactive than standard classroom interactions, indeed I regard them as much less so. It is commonly assumed by many that online environments are qualitatively or even essentially different from other non-electronic teaching and learning environments. Consider the following statement by Lewis and Whitlock, for example. “E-learning programmes should be interactive. This distinguishes them from textbooks, videos and other one-way media for transmitting information. The designer of the package achieves interaction by asking questions and posing problems” (2003:61). Again, as they frame interactivity, the designer initiates interaction, and frames the problems. Interactivity is assumed to be something other than that which ordinarily happens. E-learning technology is assumed to facilitate interactivity whereas other kinds of technology (e.g. books, videos, television) are assumed not to – computers are presented as essentially different in kind and consequence from previous technologies. Interactive learning, it follows, can only occur within an IT problem-based framework. I just don’t find that a helpful starting point for pedagogy.

David McConnell (2006) optimistically proposes that a new paradigm of learning is emerging in the development of e-learning, which he terms “networked collaborative e-learning”[vi]. For McConnell, two core features of this new paradigm are the emphases on both communities and identity formation as key features of attempts to make e-learning effective and productive. McConnell is concerned that the now orthodox focus on stand-alone e-learning packages that focus on individual student learning is too reliant on instructional system design [ISD] principles “that do not foster participative learning or critical analytical thinking” (2006:8). To encourage a broader pedagogic approach than that offered by “instructional system design” he draws attention to the work of the educational psychologist Vygotsky (1962, 1978). Vygotsky was keen to emphasise the importance of social context and the experiential dimensions of education in the development of understanding.

I’m not so sure that ‘networked collaborative e-learning’ (NCEL) constitutes a paradigm shift as much as it serves as a constant challenge to e-learning pedagogists. In my own experience it is easy to state that ‘networked collaborative e-learning’ or NCEL is occurring, and an awful lot more difficult to put it into practice. Talking about fostering community is a lot easier than fostering community; ask any UK government. To foster online community, it is important that personal contact be maintained at every opportunity, and that the tutor avoid at all costs the temptation to reduce the provision of a course to information delivery and merely interventionist tweaking of the course materials. As with classroom practice, online teaching and learning constitutes and is constituted by a series of relationships, which can be more or less disrespectful depending on the efforts made to maintain strong, clear, and frequent communication among the participants. Online teaching and learning always-already involves communication between and among people. The main issue is the quality of that communication and the texture of the attitudes and relationships that are facilitated by both that communication and by the collective level of virtual ‘social presence’ that the participants allow themselves to contribute.

Closing thoughts

Through the process of developing my online lectures I have become convinced that it is possible to work towards more humanised pedagogies in online learning. I am not convinced that the pedagogies of Instructional Design or Resource-Based Learning will get me where I want to go, but I do believe that there is plenty of scope for the introduction of radical or critical pedagogic approaches to online teaching and learning. I would say, though, that more helpful approaches would be facilitated by a more extensive consultation process among the people involved in the lecture design process, more consistent and explicit discussions of pedagogy generally across the university, and more time to prepare the lectures.

In my online work I aspire to, as Voithofer says, “… learning that is deeply personal and situated, taking into consideration local learning perspectives, while remaining historical within the narratives of the learner’s experiences” (2002:481). This will be difficult, I am sure, and may require considerable personal investment, maybe even more than in face-to-face teaching. Nevertheless, I am keen to explore the possibilities, at least for a while.

References

Chris Abbott. 2007. E-inclusion: Learning Difficulties and Digital Technologies. Bristol: Futurelab.

Mike Blamires, ed. 1999. Enabling Technology for Inclusion. London: Paul Chapman.

James Brook and Iain A. Boal, eds. 1995. Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information. San Francisco: City Lights.

Colin Calder and John Milne. Date unknown. “Introduction to Learning Technology” [online]. University of Aberdeen. URL: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/~ltu006/guide/ (accessed May 24, 2007)

Alan Clarke. 2001. Designing Computer-Based Learning Materials. Aldershot: Gower.

Richard L. Daft and Robert H. Lengel. 1986. “Organizational Information Requirements, Media Richness and Structural Design.” Management Science 32(5):554-571

Paolo Freire. 1970. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Herder and Herder.

Paolo Freire. 1998. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Neil Gaiman. 1997. Sandman Vol. 10: The Wake. New York: Vertigo (DC Comics).

David Hawkridge and Tom Vincent. 1992. Learning Difficulties and Computers. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Susan C. Herring. 2002. “Computer-mediated communication on the internet.” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 36(1):109-161.

Ivan Illich. 1970. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper and Row.

Derrick Jensen. 2001. A Language Older Than Words. New York: Context Books.

Derrick Jensen. 2004. Walking on Water. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Alan Jolliffe, Jonathan Ritter, and David Stevens. 2001. The Online Learning Handbook. London: Kogan Page.

Steven G. Jones. 1997. “The Internet and its Social Landscape.” In Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety. Steven G. Jones, ed. 7-35. London: Sage.

Kenya Education Network. Date unknown. “Why E-Learning?” [online]
URL: http://cbdd.wsu.edu/edev/Kenet_ToT/Unit1/WhyeElearning.htm (accessed May 24, 2007)

Jane Knight. 2003. “Why is E-learning so important?” [online] Sheffield: E-Learning Centre.
URL: http://labsel.pesarosviluppo.it/docindexer/Uploads%5C207-Why%20is%20e.doc (accessed January 11th, 2011)

JISC. 2004. Effective Practice with E-learning. Bristol: JISC. URL: http://www.jisc.ac.uk

Lawrence Lessig. 2005. Code 2.0. [online] URL: http://codev2.cc/ (accessed January 11th, 2011)

Roger Lewis and Quentin Whitlock. 2003. How to Plan and Manage an E-Learning Programme. Aldershot: Gower.

Hugh Mackay, with Wendy Maples and Paul Reynolds. 2001. Investigating the Information Society. London: Routledge and The Open University.

Pat Maier. 2000. “Resource Based Learning.” [online] URL: http://www.clt.soton.ac.uk/LTIndex/docs/rbl.doc (accessed May 24, 2007)

David McConnell. 2006. E-Learning Groups and Communities. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Erica McWilliam. 1991. “Introduction.” In Pedagogy, Technology and the Body. Erica McWilliam and Peter G. Taylor, eds. 1-22. New York: Peter Lang.

Richard Mobbs. 2003. “A Successful eLearning Approach.” [online] In What is eLearning & How to become an eTutor. URL: http://www.le.ac.uk/cc/rjm1/etutor/introduction/gettingitright.html (accessed May 24, 2007)

David Murphy, Robert Walker, and Graham Webb, eds. 2001. Online Learning and Teaching with Technology. London: Routledge Falmer.

David Noble. 1997. “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education.” [online] URL: http://communication.ucsd.edu/dl/ddm1.html (accessed January 11th, 2011)

Ros O’Leary. 2002. “Virtual Learning Environments Higher Education Academy Guide.” [online] URL: http://www.hea.ac.uk (accessed May 24, 2007).

Gilly Salmon. 2000. E-Moderating, the key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Page. URL: http://www.monash.edu.au/groups/hepcit/Presentations/2003/GSalmon/modcomp.doc

Andrew Shapiro. 1999. The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know. New York: Public Affairs.

Ormond Simpson. 2002. Supporting Students in Online, Open and Distance Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Stephen L. Talbott. 1995. The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly and Associates.

Rick Voithofer. 2002. “Nomadic Epistemologies and Performative Pedagogies in Online Education.” Educational Theory 52(4):479–494.


[i] David Noble (1997) warns of corporate promoters of online education who seek to create problem-solvers and technicians through distance education that will be well-suited to fit into the pervasive neo-liberal logics of everyday life. He argues that the drive for technological transformations in online teaching and learning is a camouflage for the increasing commercialisation of formal education, “a disarming disguise”: “…behind this effort are the ubiquitous technozealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them. With the avid encouragement of their private sector and university patrons, they forge ahead, without support for their pedagogical claims about the alleged enhancement of education, without any real evidence of productivity improvement, and without any effective demand from either students or teachers” (Noble 1997).

[ii] Indeed, it can be argued that technology has always been involved: “… the classroom itself is a technology, or comprises a set of technologies which we mostly take for granted – physical materials such as desks and chairs, black, white and green boards, chalk, pens, projection devices, worksheets, textbooks, notebooks, lighting and sound regimes and so on. It also includes social practices we have developed to manage these tools and settings: lectures, group activities, labs and field trips, for example. Technologically enhanced teaching and learning, in this view, is not new” (Murphy et al. 2001:2).

[iii] While I may have been more consciously aware of the interactivity of the lecture designs in e-learning, I do not regard computer interactions to be any more interactive than standard classroom interactions. Indeed, I regard them as much less so. It is commonly assumed by many that online environments are qualitatively or even essentially different from other non-electronic teaching and learning environments. Consider the following statement by Lewis and Whitlock, for example. “E-learning programmes should be interactive. This distinguishes them from textbooks, videos and other one-way media for transmitting information. The designer of the package achieves interaction by asking questions and posing problems” (2003:61). As Lewis and Whitlock frame interactivity, the designer initiates interaction, and frames the problems. Interactivity is assumed to be something other than that which ordinarily happens. E-learning technology is assumed to facilitate interactivity whereas other kinds of technology (e.g. books, videos, television) are assumed not to – computers are presented as essentially different in kind and consequence from previous technologies. Interactive learning, it follows, can only occur within an IT problem-based framework.

[iv] As Course Director of an online course I discovered this to be problematic, as the person who designed the course was not available for consultation.

[v] Note the increasingly common economic language with which discussions of pedagogy are framed, for example, “Learning outcomes help the various stakeholders” (Lewis and Whitlock 2003:62).

[vi] McConnell believes that this shift in e-learning pedagogy correlates with what some (eg. Sklar and Pollack 2000) have identified as a shift in Internet usage. Where once the Internet was deemed a vast reference source or virtual encyclopaedia within the framework of knowledge-based economies, now it is being predominantly used as the home for a myriad of virtual communities; “communication between people has become the dominant mode of use” (McConnell 2006:9).

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