“Crafting Gentleness: The Political Possibilities of Gentleness in Folkloristics and Ethnology” – an amended transcript

Presented at Reflecting on Knowledge Production: The Development of Folkloristics and Ethnology, an international conference organised by the Estonian Literary Museum and the University of Tartu Department of Literature and Comparative Folklore. May 17-19, 2007.


[I was nervous. I wasn’t reading from a page this time. Some notes, but no set text to work from. I told myself that I should have some idea what I want to say after eight years of researching this. They looked friendly enough. But I’m not standing up and speaking any more. I’m writing now.  Déanaimis teangmháil. Let’s connect. Let’s communicate. Let’s get in touch. Well, no, no touching. Looking. Reading. I’m not really with you now. Am I?]

Why don’t I just leave all those people alone?
Why don’t I just stay at home and read?
Why don’t I just let all that stuff go? I’ve already got too much stuff in my life; too many books, too many things; why don’t I just let it all go?
Why do I have to remember everything? Why do I have to write down everything other people remember? Why do I have to even bother talking to people?
Is my desire to collect greater than my desire to respect?
Is my desire to record greater than my ability to just be present with people?
Is my desire to write greater than my desire to listen?
Is my desire for knowledge greater than my desire for wisdom?

An Irish fiddler, Paddy Cronin, was being interviewed at a summer school called the Willy Clancy Summer School a number of years ago, and he was asked what he thought about young people playing traditional music and he said something like, ‘they’re not playing traditional music, they’re collecting tunes’.

Jean Ritchie was up for a National Heritage Award in the United States and as she was accepting the reward she was asked something to the tune of, would she like to be remembered as a singer?, and she said, no, she wouldn’t like to be remembered as a singer, she would like to be remembered as a person who sings.

[Juxtaposition. Little wordpictures alongside each other. They’ll do quite a bit of shimmering on their own if I allow them to hold the space together. I tell myself that it’s an exploration of poetics – poetics, not just causality. Poetics, not just causality. Stories can rhyme too, rhyme and chime. Sound them out. A little bit of  shadowplay.]

I was working with some students this year on a folklore course and a number of them came from an Irish language speaking district of Donegal, an area that had been the focus of a lot of collecting work in the nineteenth century, and I introduced them to the philosophies of a number of the people who had been doing the collecting. I introduced them to the idea that a number of these people considered people from their own communities as ‘resources for tradition’ as ‘raw materials for the nation’ and a couple of my students got very angry. They thought that quite a number of people at that time in the nineteenth century might have got very angry if they had known that that is how these people, the ones doing the collecting, thought about them and their lives, and about what was important to them.

I was reading an article recently by Ríonach Uí Ógáin, a folklorist based in Dublin, and she’s been doing a lot of work on the field diaries of Séamus Ennis, and she recently published a book, a magnificent book, which is mainly in the Irish language, the diaries of Seamus Ennis. But she has this very nice article published in Béaloideas, the Irish folklore journal, about the relationship between Séamus Ennis and Colm Ó Caodháin, who was a person who lived in Conamara who Séamus identified as someone with whom he could work to collect songs and stories and various other things from. But there’s one line in the article, and in the diaries of Séamus Ennis, which sits with me and makes me very sad. Séamus Ennis had a wonderful relationship with this man by all accounts. By the accounts of the diary he was a great friend of his. He more or less lived with him on many occasions and was invited by Colm to live with him semi-permanently at one point. But there’s one point at the end of his diaries in relation to Colm where he says, ‘Bhí mé réidh leis’. ‘I was finished with him.’ He’d done all the collecting that needed to be done; it was time to move on. ‘Bhí mé réidh leis’.

The ethnomusicologist Kofi Agawu has a line in the middle of an article that he wrote, where he says, ‘the imperial urge dies hard’.

I was once speaking to someone, I was working as a music journalist, and I was speaking to someone about various things, and interviewing her, and in the middle of the interview we stopped talking about what we were talking about and the attention turned to myself and my own family, and I let it slip that my parents didn’t sing traditional songs or play any instruments, and she goes, with a little disappointment, if not disdain, ‘Oh. I thought you came from a traditional family.’

[That set me off, although I said nothing at the time. I’ve learned since to make it more obvious when something annoys me. I must have spent a year thinking about what this woman said, mulling it over in my head, wondering why it had irked me so, wondering what I understood by the term ‘traditional’]

I was sitting beside the sociolinguist Joshua Fishman at a conference a number of years ago and it was about a year from the end of my Ph.D. and he turned to me and asked what I was working on, and I babbled my Ph.D. abstract back at him in rather large prose. In the middle of it he just put his hand up in a sign for me to stop, and said, ‘Speak to me as if I’m your grandfather.’

I had two grandfathers. One grandfather was named Joe; he worked in quarries; he worked as a postman; and a baker at one point; a quiet gentle man by my Dad’s account. My other grandfather was called Johnny; a farmer, apparently a very smart man, with a sharp wit; he sang many songs, many long songs. I didn’t know him very well because when I was growing up I was scared of old people, and he was an old person. But I’m guessing that neither of my grandfathers and neither of my grandmothers would have much time for people who couldn’t communicate with them respectfully. And part of the work that I’m trying to do at the moment is, in a sense, to honour them; to honour the relationship I have with grandfathers Joe and Johnny; with my grandmothers, Kathleen Edith and Mary; with my parents, John and Teresa; and with the rest of my family who are too numerous to mention. And I think that’s very, very important for me at the moment, to consider this relationship with the people in the communities where I live, the people in the community of family in which I have grown up. It’s important for me to consider the ways in which, as an academic, I have been conditioned and trained to write in ways which could often be regarded as very disrespectful if I were to be standing here speaking to them.

[I suppose part of the point is that I’m often not standing here speaking to them. But I’d like to be. Maybe it will take a while. Any disrespect was never meant. There are simpler ways to say what I’d like to say, although it may take me many more years to come down from the abstractions that I love so much. I’ll give it a try, anyway. And I’ll practice. And I’ll be more patient with myself, maybe take fewer shortcuts on the way to my next potentially unnecessary insight. Is é an bealach mór an t-aicearra. The main road is the actually the shortest way there.]

Why do I do the work that I do?

I don’t regard myself as a folklorist, I don’t regard myself as an ethnomusicologist, I don’t regard myself as an anthropologist. I regard myself as a person who sings songs. I regard myself as a person who practises some of the methodologies of anthropology, ethnomusicology, and folkloristics. But one of the reasons that I do the work that I do is because I regard any academic position, any role as a professional thinker – someone who is paid to think thoughts about life and about human beings – to be a very, very privileged position, and to be one which is deeply political whether we like it or not. We’re the professional thinkers. We get time to think about the world. We get time to think about life. Not many people get as much time as we do. There’s a lot of violence in the world. There are people getting blown up. There are people getting murdered. There are people getting raped. There are people dying all the time. People die. It happens. But I think we do have an opportunity as professional thinkers to really take that responsibility very seriously, that we do have a part to contribute to the diminishment, the lessening of dynamics of violence, coercion, fear, anger, hate, domination, and oppression in the communities in which we live.

[As I read back on these words, I am drawn to mention Derrick Jensen’s book, A Language Older Than Words. It’s a book I recommend with caution – it’s a magnificent piece of work, but it demands a robustness from you as you read it, an emotional vulnerability with armour at the ready. Where does our impulse to commit violence against violence come from, and how can we come to a better understanding of our participation in violence, silence, and denial? How can we come to face the destruction we so specialize in as human beings? I’m not sure I would follow Derrick in some of his more recent conclusions, but in this book he raises questions that are important to sit with, and respond to.]

In our disciplines [speaking to an audience of folklorists], many of the practices that have been undertaken in the name of the things that we do have contributed to domination, to oppression, to anger, have not helped a lot, and there’s a lot of damage reparation and damage control that tends to go on in the work that we do. And the silences and exclusions that have been a consequence of the work that, for example, folklorists have done, and the silences, exclusions, and blindnesses that tend to be structured into the work that we often continue to do, are not accidental. They tend to be a consequence of the epistemologies that we use, and we talk about epistemology quite often, but we don’t really have any open discussions about epistemology.

[A did a little digging in the last few weeks, for another discussion in another place. I was looking for discussions about epistemology in anthropology, particularly in relation to the notion of ‘participant-observation’. There’s not an awful lot out there. What I found quite interesting, though, was that most things labelled ‘epistemology’ were really just cloaked discussions about methodology. What’s with that?]

Epistemology is sort of like pedagogy. We’re teachers, but we very, very seldom talk about what pedagogy means for us and what it can mean for us. Similarly, we very, very seldom talk about what epistemology might mean. [I didn’t really say much about this myself in my original talk. What I mean by the term is the study of how we know what we know, or what we understand as ‘knowledge’ or the knowable. Some might even go as far as to say that it’s the study of our basic assumptions about reality, but I’m not sure I want to push it that far today.] And too many times our epistemologies are still grounded in Kantian, Platonic, Hegelian, etc. etc. etc. Euro-American, ‘Western’, whatever you want to call them, models which are deeply fragmented at their heart, in terms of subject-object dichotomies, in terms of various ways of thinking about the world which, from our starting assumptions, often shut down the heart, shut down any sense of holistic relationship and often leave us in a position where our very starting points desiccate our work. And what I’m interested in is the way in which, in thinking about trying to honour the people I live with, work with, admire, love, in what ways have our epistemologies, in what ways have our methodologies, in what ways have our discourses made the people I admire and love not only discursively invisible but politically irrelevant?

[My Dad, reading this over, was quick to point out that I was falling into the ditch of disrespect that I had already said I was going to try and avoid. Not much speaking to anyone as if they’re my grandfather here! Maybe there are other ways to talk about epistemology, methodology, discourses, or dichotomies. Maybe I’m so steeped in jargon that it’s going to take me a long time to reground myself. And even then, maybe I’m too fond of the wordy familiarity? I don’t know. I need to think about it for another while.]

What I’ve been looking at in my work are two themes; one is the theme of ‘enclosure’, the other is the theme of gentleness.

When I talk about enclosure, I’m talking about expansionary social dynamics that involve accelerative or intensifying commodification of everyday life, emerging from the dominance of the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be eliminated. What I’m looking at in my work is the way in which certain unhelpful dynamics of social change are driven by these tendencies we often have to eliminate uncertainty.

[Talk about wordy. Need I say more? Probably. What I was trying to say was that, for me, ‘enclosure’ is a word I use to talk about really unhelpful ways of relating to each other that we often fall into when we try too hard to eliminate uncertainty. I feel that we do that if we place too much value on control, or perfection, or purity, or truth, or righteousness, or status, or … many other values by which we try to convince ourselves that the elimination of uncertainty is not only possible, but also desirable.]

I work with the assumption that uncertainty is a constant and variable aspect of my experience. So to seek to eliminate uncertainty, for me, is to deeply disrespect the character of that experience. Historically, seeking to eliminate uncertainty has also often meant seeking to eliminate the aspect of emotion from our work. The idea of the ‘objective scientist’ is very much at the heart of this notion of the elimination of uncertainty. Often it very much involves simply eliminating people from our work, because people can be unpredictable and uncertain and keeping people and their biographies, keeping people and the richness of their lives away from the heart of our work (actually, the heartlessness of our work, sometimes) is actually a very, very interesting process for me.

[I remain astounded by the obviousness with which people producing folklore collections in the past have often sucked the people they worked with out of their collections of songs and stories. What we are often left with are pages and pages of songs and stories that could have been sung or told by anybody, to anybody, anywhere, at any time. I would hope that we don’t leave that impression for our children. We’re getting better at it, but silences, profound silences of absent humanity, continue to structure some of our most valued collections.]

But these enclosing dynamics, as I think of them, arising from the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty, for me they can be identified in two particular ways. One is in the dominance of discourses of resource production and management, and another is in the privileging of sight and sound in the discourses of our analysis.

[I need to work on this. It says what I would like to say, but it may not communicate what I would like to communicate. I hope what follows makes some sense. If you would like it to make more sense, you can always try to track me down and ask me to clarify something. I’ll do my best to keep it simple.]

In terms of discourses of resource production and management, just think of the ones that we use. ‘Heritage’ is a property metaphor. ‘Property’, that’s a property metaphor too. ‘Data’, ‘that which is given’. ‘Information’. ‘Knowledge’. ‘Capital’. ‘Resources’. Tradition as a resource. Etc. etc. etc. Most of the words that we use at the core of our work are resource metaphors.

Discourses of sight and sound tend to be privileged in what we do. We tend to talk a lot about aesthetics. We tend to privilege text. Again, the privileging of sight and sound. We tend to do a lot of surveillance work – that’s what we do, we monitor people, we go, we record, we monitor. And there tends to be a lot of emphasis on spectacle, on performance.

One of the consequences of the elimination of uncertainty as an ethic, or of discourses of resource production and management, or of the privileging of sight and sound, tends to be a profound depoliticisation of what we do, and of how we think about what we do, and of how we think about the possibilities of what we do. Primarily because what we’re left with, and this is what the orthodoxies of most fields are left with, is that our understandings of power are reduced to the idea of power as control, or power as intervention, but power as some form of resource production or management.

Also what tends to happen, particularly with regard to the privileging of sight and sound, is that there tends to be an emphasis on descriptive analysis, analysis that simply describes what’s going on, without really explaining how a situation happens to be the way it is and not some other way. Further, often without allowing for any participatory analysis, in terms of how might we be participating in the dynamics that we analyse?, or how might we be participating in the dynamics that we seek to critique?

As far as my interest in gentleness is concerned … what I’m interested in doing is not identifying what gentleness is, or what gentleness looks like. What I’m interested in looking at is the way in which the elimination of uncertainty as an ethic can draw us away from the possibilities of relationship.

If we only think of power as control then those who seek to control have power and those who do not seek to control are powerless. Those who seek to be gentle are powerless and are in fact irrelevant to politics.

What I’m interested in is the way in which the gentle people that I’ve worked with, the gentle people that I’ve admired and loved – in line with work in eco-feminism, in line with work in certain aspects of gentle anarchism, in line with aspects of certain Buddhist and quasi-Buddhist approaches to thinking about politics – these people are living deeply powerful lives. These people are living lives that we [folkorists] can learn from. And I think we are in a deeply privileged position. We get to talk to people as a job. We get to talk to people that we can learn from about what it means to be human.

And when I think about the archives that we have … When I go to a zoo it makes me sad, but I still keep going to zoos because I keep thinking that it’s a good thing to go to a zoo. But every time I go to a zoo I go with hope and aspiration, and I come back feeling very sad. Archives increasingly make me quite sad, because for me they’re records of missed opportunities. They’re records of missed opportunities for understanding what it means to be human. We’ve had a chance a chance to talk to so many wise people, historically speaking as folklorists, and we have so little wisdom in the archives. We have lots of stories and songs, but in terms of what it means to be human, the emotional intelligence, the emotional wisdom, the emotional university that has been there, we don’t have access to that, because we weren’t listening well enough, and I think that’s one of the opportunities that we have now, is to really privilege those aspects in our work and to not think of ourselves merely as archivists. I think archives are important, if we ground them in the social responsibility of reimagining the power of small emotions, reimagining that folkloristics is actually in a very privileged position. You have eco-feminism, you have activism, you have all these things, but we’re the ethnographers. We’re the ones who get to actually sit down and spend time to work out what do people think are helpful ways to make sense of being human. We can ground our work. We can substantiate our work. And for me that’s very much at the heart of the gentleness project.

I’m just going to stop there and open it up to the conversation.

Comment/Micheál Briody: First, Séamus Ennis’s comment that he was done with Colm Ó Caodháin. Yes, I’ve come across other comments like that, and there’s one interesting aspect in Delargy’s diaries when he’s finished his East Clare collection, it’s in the bag, it’s done with and over, but that’s partly due to the rushed nature of the collecting. When Delargy first started learning collecting he spent two years working with Seán Ó Conaill without collecting anything, just listening to him. He wasn’t ever able to do that with anyone else, just because he had his mission and he liked to collect so much. There was a much more humane approach originally before it became this sort of production stage, I would call it mass production folklore. That’s one thing. You get that a lot, and in Estonia in the 50s and 60s you get a lot of folklorists talking about ’emptying’ an area, sending out a team of collectors to ’empty’ it, and again you get that in Delargy’s report, emptying an area. It’s very much there. But, yeah, I think though, Delargy, to give him credit, he often said that the only experts on the folktales were the narrators, you know, and unfortunately he didn’t follow that through entirely because one thing he never got around to was sending out a questionnaire on storytelling. He intended sending out a questionnaire about storytelling but he never got around to it. There was a great deal of information collected, nonetheless, from many storytellers about the tradition and all of that, so he did … sometimes it was just lip service, but he always sort of humbly said they were the experts. Now maybe there was pretence involved to some extent but I think myself there was a gentle nature in him. I think there wouldn’t be the big collection without that, but it somehow got left aside because of the ambition of making a very large collection and then also of saving it, even if you might say emptying it, but, you know, in many cases if he hadn’t emptied it, despite what you say about archives being places like museums or zoos that are not so pleasant, if we hadn’t it you might be standing up here and saying, you know, why don’t we have archives, and zoos, and museums, so we can’t really have it both ways. But there is that absence of gentle approach, maybe.

A: Well I think what you’re saying is really, really important, in that most of us, pretty much all of us are in this field because we care about people, you know? And I think Delargy and Ennis and all of these collectors were doing what they did because they cared, they really cared. Perhaps they cared too much in some ways. And I think that for me is part of the challenge, that we get drawn in because we like spending time with people, we like talking to people, we value that aspect of what we do perhaps more highly than we value anything else. We value what we learn from these people as human beings. We value spending time with them. We don’t necessarily talk or write about those aspects of our work, instead we privilege the collecting aspect, but I think what we can learn from the likes of that experience that Delargy had where he goes from spending lots of time to spending very little time with people, is to become more aware and more discerning of the influence of institutional imperatives on the work that we do, and to clarify for ourselves what is actually important to us? Regardless of what the institutional imperatives are, what’s important to us as human beings, each for ourselves, and as we go in and do our work how can that be reflected in the work that we actually do?

Comment/Regina Bendix: It’s very nice that you’re able to talk like that. I would like to suggest context as a very important component of evaluating where our predecessors were. I mean that sort of sadness or frustration that you report about your students thinking about the nationalist paradigm of the nineteenth century, I have been helped a lot in doing historical work to recognise that they were also caught in whatever political or academic forces there are, and so the sadness or frustration is not as productive as recognising where individuals are caught. I think the connection between yours and the previous paper is very powerful as a recognition of allowing ourselves, in doing research, to recognise our body, our mind, our emotions. But the link that’s missing there is acknowledging that you’re not just researching or spending time with people, you’re also sitting in this highly institutional, regimented professional life. You’re little episode with Joshua Fishman, here you found a human who wanted you to talk ‘unprofessionally’, so to speak, and I think we have not done enough legwork in our own professional worlds, because our own professional worlds are the realm that is unexamined, are the realm which we slide into, and we appropriate its mores, and its pressures. And because we have not done enough of that kind of deconstruction work you feel isolated when you feel the way you do, maybe also the way Janika [Oras] feels, when you dare to come out and speak that way and act that way, the pressures around you … there are not enough of us who do this, you know? And as a result you get ‘fringed’ unless you participate also in the deconstruction of the professional life.

A: As I do, and that’s why, for me, pedagogy and radical pedagogy is actually very much at the heart of trying to challenge the institutional structures and the institutional values in the places in which I work. I align myself with social ecologists across the world more than anything else, and there is a growing community of people out there, even within university structures, that are doing work like this, that are privileging the human.

And I don’t have to be an academic. If I get too frustrated within the university structures, I will leave and do something else. I can always do something else. I will continue writing and I will continue researching. At the moment I find the university I’m in does facilitate the work that I want to do, and I hope that continues.

Comment/Valdimar Hafstein: Thank you for your talk which I found thought-provoking in many ways. The elimination of uncertainty you spoke about as an ethic and as a social program related to such things to coercion and violence and domination. I found myself being somewhat uncomfortable with this and think perhaps you’re not giving the elimination of uncertainty its due. There is another way of understanding the elimination of uncertainty, and that’s to do with such things as social security and the welfare society, in fact the elimination of uncertainty as an ethic, as a political and social programme has been the programme with the most powerful movement in western societies in the 20th century. The labour movement, its political arm, the elimination of uncertainty has been its programme to create a more decent and just society. And I think that it perhaps another aspect of the elimination of uncertainty that is under-acknowledged in the way that you present it.

A: In looking at movements like the labour movement, for example, for me, discourses of the elimination of uncertainty tend to pervade most political movements. Although I think it’s important to make a distinction between the provision of stability and the elimination of uncertainty. Because the elimination of uncertainty can never happen, as far as I’m concerned. It’s a discursive claim, it’s a claim that people make about what happens. In terms of the welfare state and those sorts of political achievements, in a sense, that’s about the provision of stability, the reduction of uncertainty in often crisis situations. The reduction of uncertainty or the provision of stability for me are quite different from the elimination of uncertainty, which tends to be a[n unsustainable] discursive claim about the way the world is, a declaration that this is reality, and what is and must be in terms of how we think about reality. So I think what you’re talking about are very helpful in many respects, but I would also suggest that in those political movements, if you look where people are claiming the elimination of uncertainty rather than the reduction of uncertainty, you are likely to find very unhelpful dynamics around those aspects of what they do.

Comment/Kristin Kuutma: I would think there is still some hope in the human encounter with the folklorist and the people that they meet because very often there is quite a long interaction and very often the people that folklorists talk to they kind of are indoctrinated into this process of creating wisdom, so they are inside this process. This is a different kind of wisdom, but they know what the folklorists might know, or if the interaction is long enough the folklorist has explained what he or she is looking for so the person talking to the folklorist gets a certain status from being inside this process and producing the knowledge for the folklorist, as they take it down, record it. So there is another side to it as well, whether we ask them what they personally think about things, but I’d say there is a positive side to it as well.

A: I think there’s a positive side to any two people being in the same room together even if they’re hating each other. In thinking about this, I am thinking from a deeply hopeful perspective, and for me hope works better when it’s here, rather than somewhere else that you’re aiming for. I think the mere recognition and acknowledgement of the lives of people who have experienced what might be described as marginalization, or have felt as if they are in situations of oppression, or felt like nobody listens to them any more, that nobody cares about what they care about, these people that we live with and work with, I think it’s very, very important that the mere acknowledgement that they exist and that somebody wants to listen to them is a very positive thing. I don’t think it’s enough. I think that any status that might be accrued from that for them is a very small gift, as far as I’m concerned. I think we can be far more respectful, even in that. I do wonder … at the moment one of my big questions is, is it more respectful for me to visit people and not record anything they say? It’s a very serious question for me. I think of Delargy and his two year visit. Maybe we can be professional friendly people in a true sense, with the powerful character of friendship and relationship that we can bring with ourselves. But there are a lot of interesting things going on there.

Comment/Diarmuid Ó Giolláin: Do you think you can make distinctions between different disciplinary traditions there. It seems to me, for example, that at least the stereotypical folklorist in the last couple of generations as someone who goes in search of particular genres, say, and who perhaps in a sense scratches the surface, and on the other hand the anthropologist who tries to delve deeper, seeking social structures and so on. Often with the folklorist there’s a sort of exaggerated pietas to the tradition, with the anthropologist … there have been a couple of cases in Ireland where the anthropologist was the one that caused the most problems. I’m thinking about that highly respected book by Nancy Scheper-Hughes called Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics. I mean, can you elaborate on that perhaps?

A: For me it’s a question of what’s more important, the disciplinary boundaries, methods, narratives, or making use of the privileged positions we have to make sense of what it means to be human. For me, the second is more important. I am in a privileged position, I am a professional thinker, I get paid to teach, which is the most wonderful opportunity that anyone can have on a daily basis, and I get to research what I want to research, which is not what everybody gets to do, particularly in the current research environment. But I have a chance to try and make sense of my own experience in a way that I think can help me towards more helpful relationship, in the sense of what’s going on. This for me involves both a critique of unhelpful dynamics in the world, or in my experience, and a reconstructive approach to relationship. And wherever I can find disciplinary help in terms of peopled, heart-filled, respectful ways of thinking, whether in anthropology or in social ecology or in folkloristics, wherever I can find them, I’ll try and use them, and see to what extent they work or do not work depending on the epistemological grounding that they come from. But at the end of the day I do regard myself as being in a privileged, institutional position at the moment, which facilitates the kind of work that I want to do and wherever I can find it, in whatever discipline I can find helpful support for that, I’ll go there and I’ll look to that. I’m more interested in inviting the idea that we can think about what we do and say, okay, we’ve got where we are, we’re in a position, we’re professional thinkers, how can we act most helpfully in the world as human beings, while still doing what’s important to us, while still doing things we care about?

Comment/Diarmuid Ó Giolláín: It’s not a romantic search for community?

A: No, not at all. Because that potentially leads us back to eliminating uncertainty through the utopian imagined community. For me community is expectational resonance, it’s the sense that you can have with anyone at any time to some extent, but also conflict as expectational dissonance that’s always present too to some extent. It’s about being more discerning of the conflict and community opportunities that are available to us at any particular time, being aware that at all times there are traps of romantic communalism, traps of arrogant academicism, and so on.

[Déanaimis teangmháil. Let’s connect. I find that hard sometimes. I’m still pretty shy, and meeting new people still takes quite an effort. Disconnecting is easier. And harder.

Why don’t I just leave all those people alone?
Why don’t I just stay at home and read?
Why don’t I just let all that stuff go? I’ve already got too much stuff in my life; too many books, too many things; why don’t I just let it all go?
Why do I have to remember everything? Why do I have to write down everything other people remember? Why do I have to even bother talking to people?
Is my desire to collect greater than my desire to respect?
Is my desire to record greater than my ability to just be present with people?
Is my desire to write greater than my desire to listen?
Is my desire for knowledge, money, and status greater than my desire for wisdom?]


Bhí Mé Réidh Leis (a folklorist who cared).
Anthony McCann, 2013.

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 “Na Ceannabháin Bhána”
He would again feel a stirring of regret
that there was no card for “love”.

Double Listening

I am interested in the coaching possibilities opened up by Winslade and Monk’s mediation technique of “double listening”. Drawing on the work of Michael White, they make note of the “absent but implicit” story of hope that sits alongside the voicing of a story of conflict:

“Mediators can give this story of hope for something better a chance if they first of all hear this absent but implicit hope and then begin to inquire into the story that it is a part of. The story may often by subordinate to the story of the outrage and pain, but it perhaps speaks to the person’s better intentions in relation to the other party. If given the chance for expression, these better intentions can give rise to a different story of the future” (Winslade and Monk 2008:10-11).

The expression of pain and suffering through remembered events and feelings can become a seed for hopeful reflections, not as a utopian aspiration, but as an awareness of the desire for a more positive experience that the pain and conflict reveal. I think the lessons of this “double listening” are not just relevant to formal mediation, but are also helpful in invitations to transformation more generally. What Winslade and Monk’s work draws attention to is how stories of the past also shape our stories of the future. It may be that “double listening” can further open up what John Paul Lederach (2005) calls our “moral imagination”, allowing for even deeper understandings of the complexities, paradoxes, and possibilities of being human.

In very simple terms, double listening opens up the notion that ‘complaint is a window on aspiration’, that every complaint that I utter can also be turned on its head as an aspiration to a better situation, an improvement on what is. Staying with the complaint and hanging out there can lead to a lot of negative energy that can easily suck hope dry. Turning a complaint on its head to work out what it tells me about my aspirations, hopes, and values can provide me with an opportunity for reflection, a window to the otherwise, a doorway to new possibilities.

Complaint or conflict can become, then, a diagnostic opportunity for new perspectives, rather than the direct route to blame and denigration that they can often be.



John Paul Lederach. 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: OUP.

John Winslade and Gerald Monk. 2008. Practicing Narrative Mediation: Loosening the Grip of Conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Other Stories

“What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives” (Heil-Brun 1988, p. 37, Writing a Woman’s Life) (In Connolly and Clandinin 1990:2).

Maureen Heatherington has written, “Within the field of peace building in Northern Ireland, it has become apparent that the ‘healing work’ has not been adequately dealt with” (2008:51). Even though different groups have competing versions of history in Northern Ireland, it could be argued that those competing narratives have in themselves become our “single story”, “… the conflict-saturated relationship narrative in which people are often stuck” (Winslade and Monk 2008:8). This is understandable. In Northern Ireland, between 100,000-140,000 people live in households where someone has been injured or killed in a Troubles-related incident (Fay et al., 1998, p. 59).

It has been suggested that 12% of the Northern Ireland population may be diagnosable with PTSD (Healey 2008:59). A more recent study suggests that figures may be higher, and that Northern Ireland may have the highest levels of PTSD in the world: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-16028713. Personally, I feel this is playing very fast and loose with the notion of PTSD, which, as my wife Emma reminds me, is a complex clinical diagnosis, and one which even a psychiatrist would be loathe to label someone with too readily.

People often speak of the last forty years in Northern Ireland as ‘The Troubles’ or ‘The Conflict’, characterising this time as a continuous experience of intense conflict. Most recently, this was highlighted by the opening of “The Troubles Gallery” at the Ulster Museum. For me, this easy shorthand influences us with a subtle gravity that often leads us, in our retellings and characterisations of life in Northern Ireland, to frequently and predominantly place the emphasis on hostility, trauma, and on incidents and contexts of violence. By doing this I would suggest that we pay the high price of effacing many other aspects of our lives. More helpful aspects of everyday life over the past forty years have been rendered discursively invisible.

Of course, people did experience hostility, trauma, violence, and violent death. It is crucial to acknowledge and respect this in any work that might be undertaken. But I think it is also important to acknowledge and respect that to remain exclusively or predominantly focused on difficult experiences would be to misrepresent the character and texture of the everyday lives that people have led in Northern Ireland over the last forty years. In this light, work such as that undertaken by Henry Glassie (1995), Ray Cashman (2009) or Anthony Buckley (1982) draws attention to other ways of being, other dimensions of everyday life in Northern Ireland during the last forty years. In each case tensions, hostility, and conflict are acknowledged, but as part of a broader spectrum of lives lived and relationships forged.

Where people suggest that the authentic experience of living in Northern Ireland is that of hostility and violence, when people characterise the last forty years glibly and euphemistically as “The Troubles” or “The Conflict”, then we can all too easily establish a hierarchy of authenticity. The experiences and narratives of trauma and victimhood easily become privileged as more valid and representative than the experiences and narratives of people for whom trauma and violence were not a dominant aspect of their daily lives. Similarly, a geographical hierarchy of authenticity becomes quickly established, whereby certain locations take on symbolic and iconic significance for being flashpoint or interface areas, for example, the Bogside or The Fountain in Derry/Londonderry or the Falls Road and the Shankill Road in Belfast, while other areas assume major importance on account of individual events of violence that occurred on single days, for example, Omagh or Warrenpoint (where I grew up).

Maureen Hetherington has also noted that “Because of the nature of the conflict, there is no one individual or collective voice that can speak for everyone” (2008:49). Could it be argued that, nevertheless, a single collective voice has emerged, one that speaks a single history of violence, even if the complexities of the violence and the details of the story remain contested? Has violence, in effect, become the Single Story of Northern Ireland?

This is where story work comes in: “Through the physical recording of stories and an ongoing storytelling process, opportunities for individual healing and societal healing may emerge, as well as providing a forum for a shared and diverse history” (HTR report cited in Kelly 2005:4). Paul Thompson has written that oral history “gives history back to the people in their own words. And in giving a past, it also helps them towards a future of their own making” (1978:226). Through story work we can challenge some of the ways that many people’s voices can easily get silenced by the lumbering simplistics of Single Stories casually told as definitive histories.  As Johnston McMaster has written: “The lost voices and lost stories not only give us permission to ethically remember and to critically commemorate, they provide us with a counter-story to the dominant discourse of the time” (2008:132).

It is within this context that story projects such as An Crann and Towards Understanding and Healing have been developed. At the heart of such projects people trust in the power of story, storytelling, and the voicing of stories in “positive encounter dialogue” to open to the door to the possibilities of change and transformation in the wake of conflict. Story work can provide “a safe space for people to begin to articulate personal stories and also to listen to other stories, or “truths,” in a way that does not diminish their own experience” (Hetherington 2008:42).

A colleague of mine recently commented to me, however, that he felt that dominant thinking in relation to storytelling projects in peace and reconciliation work might be leading us into a blind alley. He had been involved in many storytelling projects as a facilitator, and was concerned that they were becoming repetitive, falling into a cycle of telling and re-telling, of traumatization and re-traumatization. He was also concerned that people could sometimes all too easily play the role of victim, when perhaps it might be more helpful in some circumstances to challenge self-identification with victimhood in order to open up spaces for helpful transformation. In the conversation I mentioned research I had come across, by Eva Illouz (2007), that spoke of the rise of what the researcher termed the “cold intimacies” of “emotional capitalism” and the prevalence of intense emotional public confessions, particularly on television chat shows. Was there any possibility of a connection between this and the rise of confessional modes of storytelling in peace and reconciliation work? Might there be differences between the “cold intimacies” Illouz identifies and the “warm intimacies” of much of the storytelling work that is currently being undertaken. Might there also be food for thought in the critique Frank Furedi made of “Therapy Culture” (2003)?

As we talked, we wondered whether there might be a way for people not only to tell their stories, but for people to think about how they might also tell other stories. We don’t have just one story to tell about ourselves.[1] Might there we ways in which we can facilitate spaces for people to explore how we craft stories about ourselves? Often we live with stories about ourselves that are many years old, constructed under conditions different to the ones we inhabit now. I like what Connolly and Clandinin have written, that “education is the construction and reconstruction of personal and social stories; teachers and learners are storytellers and characters in their own and other’s stories.” (Connolly and Clandinin 1990:2). How might we become more present with ourselves and our contexts in the stories that we tell about ourselves and our histories? Are there ways to respect our pasts and the sense we have made of our lives as we lived them, while also respecting that other ways of telling stories are always possible? How many different stories might we tell about the lives that we have lived, while still feeling that the stories remain relevant and appropriate to our experiences? Might we explicitly commit ourselves to challenging Single Stories?

It is important to remember, as Jessica Senehi notes, that “storytelling, of course, is not inherently good or peaceful” (2009:203). She makes an important distinction between “destructive storytelling”, storytelling practices that can intensify conflict and reinforce social and political inequalities and divisions, and “constructive storytelling”, storytelling practices which tend to emphasise dialogue, mutual recognition, consciousness raising, and which offer alternatives to relations of domination (ibid.). It is possible to recognise the violent histories of people’s experiences in this place, and also to suggest that the dominance, replaying, and reinforcement of exclusively histories of violence may be destructively contributing to what Hutchinson calls “colonisation” of social imagination, or “restrictions on creative thought and creative action in relation to potential reality” (Hutchinson 1996:34). We can challenge the “single story” of Northern Ireland as “a history of violence”. We can imagine differently.


[1] I learned this with some immediacy when I started dating a few years ago after not doing so for quite a few years – the life story I told about myself during one of these dates was one I had previously told many years before, and I had changed so much in the intervening years that the story no longer fitted me. More, I felt like I was misrepresenting who I was and what was important to me, projecting roles that I no longer identified with. The protagonist whose story I had told was no longer me.


Chimamanda Adichie. 2009. “The danger of a single story.” Ted.com October 2009. URL: http://www.ted.com.

Brennan, T. 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Anthony D Buckley. 1982. A gentle people: a study of a peaceful community in Northern. Ireland. Cultra: Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Ray Cashman. 2009. Storytelling on the Irish Border. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

F. Michael Connelly and D. Jean Clandinin. 1990. “Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry.” Educational Researcher 19(2):2-14

Frank Furedi. 2003. Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age. London: Routledge.

Henry Glassie. 1995. Passing The Time in Ballymenone. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Arlene Healey. 2008. “Holding Hope When Working Towards Understanding and Healing.” In Stories in Conflict: Towards Understanding and Healing. Liam O’Hagan, ed. 55-70. Derry/Londonderry: Yes! Publications.

Maureen Hetherington. 2008. “The Role of Towards Understanding and Healing.” In Stories in Conflict: Towards Understanding and Healing. Liam O’Hagan, ed. 39-53. Derry/Londonderry: Yes! Publications.

Francis P. Hutchinson.  1996. Educating Beyond Violent Futures. London: Routledge.

Eva Illouz. 2007. Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism. Oxford: Polity Press.

Gráinne Kelly. 2005. ‘Storytelling’ Audit. Belfast: Healing Through Remembering. URL: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/victims/docs/kelly0905storytelling.pdf

J. P. Lederach. 2005. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford: OUP.

Johnston McMaster. 2008. “Ethical Remembering: Commemoration in a New Context.” In Stories in Conflict: Towards Understanding and Healing. Liam O’Hagan, ed. 127-138. Derry/Londonderry: Yes! Publications.

Report of the Consultative Group on the Past. 2009. URL: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmselect/cmniaf/171/171.pdf

Jessica Senehi. 2009. “Building Peace: Storytelling to transform conflicts constructively.” 201-214. In Handbook of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Dennis J.D. Sandole, Sean Byrne, Ingrid Sandole-Staroste and Jessica Senehi, eds. London: Routledge.

Paul Thompson. 1978. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

John Winslade and Gerald Monk. 2008. Practicing Narrative Mediation: Loosening the Grip of Conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Community Dialogue http://www.communitydialogue.org/

Towards Understanding and Healing http://www.thejunction-ni.org/towardsunderstandingandhealing.htm

The danger of a single story

Our lives are saturated by stories in which we play a part. In the words of Roger Simon: “The stories we tell, the narratives that give coherence and meaning to our lives, set the terms within which we are able to formulate the possibilities of existence” (1992:60). Coaching can invite people to find a deeper presencing in the stories they tell about themselves. In October, 2009, a talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie was posted on the Ted.com website.

The Danger of A Single Story – Chimamanda Adichie

In this brief presentation, entitled ‘The danger of a single story’, Adichie addressed our vulnerability in the face of stories. In particular, she addressed the power of “single stories” – stories that masquerade as the final truth about people and their lives. Adichie spoke of the stories that represented Africa as “a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness”, a place of human catastrophe. “To insist on only these negative stories,” she said, is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me” (Adichie 2009).

Coaching allows us to invite people to get unstuck from their own Single Stories, to move away from those stories that allow us to represent ourselves as a “place of negatives, of difference, of darkness”. With ill-fitting stories we distance ourselves from ourselves, and we feel this to be true, while frequently also denying this to be the case. An acknowledgement of flattened and flattening stories through coaching dialogue gives rise to the hopefulness of recalibration, as we come to a greater awaress of the ability of the stories we tell about ourselves to awaken our deepest possibilities and invoke the shimmer of the ordinarily extraordinarily.


Chimamanda Adichie. 2009. “The danger of a single story.” Ted.com October 2009.
URL: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html (accessed 25th July, 2013).

Roger I. Simon. 1992. Teaching against the grain : texts for a pedagogy of possibility. New York: Bergin &​ Garvey