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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:


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.


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?


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
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”.




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.

Emotional and political possibilities of pedagogy in virtual worlds.

This is a working paper.


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.


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: (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.

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URL: (accessed May 24, 2007)

Jane Knight. 2003. “Why is E-learning so important?” [online] Sheffield: E-Learning Centre.
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JISC. 2004. Effective Practice with E-learning. Bristol: JISC. URL:

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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: (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: (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: (accessed January 11th, 2011)

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Gilly Salmon. 2000. E-Moderating, the key to teaching and learning online. London: Kogan Page. URL:

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).

Humanising Music and Copyright

“… copyright stands as an unknown continent that music researchers must explore …” (Franco Fabbri 1993:159). 

“[Clearing the samples] is very tedious. We have to sit there and basically break out every single component of every track that we do and make a list of the sources for everything. We go through every little blip of sound and decide what’s significant enough that we need to contact the owner. From there, it’s a whole bunch of lawyer craziness” (Michael Diamond of The Beastie Boys, in Steuer 2004:186).

 “It is becoming increasingly harder to be an ethnomusicologist with a tape recorder today than it used to be because people are always suspicious, even when we have no commercial intentions”  (Anthony Seeger, cited in Lin-Eftekhar 2002).

In the disciplines of Ethnomusicology, Musicology, and Popular Music Studies, it’s hard to operate in ignorance or apathy about “music and copyright” anymore (see Frith and Marshall, eds. 2004). The disciplinary imperatives of permission contracts potentially foster and facilitate a relational architecture of distrust as we engage with people in our fieldwork. Copyright concerns are apparently having to become increasingly important to both ourselves and the people we work with. Confusion over what does or does not constitute “fair use” or “fair dealing” in relation to copyright restrictions reminds us of the quiet behavioral gravity of normative legal instruments in our research and teaching. It tends to be supremely important to us now that we protect “stuff” as we seek to respect people … and obey the Law.

Law, intellectual property, and copyright have, in only a few years, assumed unprecedented prominence as themes in our lives. Rosemary Coombe notes that what people imagine “the law says” may be a shaping force in the practices of our lives, even though the standards and sanctions involved may be self-imposed or misinformed: “People’s anticipations of law (however reasonable, ill informed, mythical, or even paranoid) may actually shape law and the property rights it protects” (1998:9). Often what is most important is not so much the letter of the law as people’s understanding of it, and our reactions to legal meanings based on that understanding. For example, how many of us respond to the declaration of copyright restrictions in university libraries with detailed study of the law? How many of us simply ‘get with the program’ in an attitude of benign obedience, ignorant of legislation and deferent to restriction? Law, then, can often be understood as “a … diffuse and pervasive force shaping social consciousness and behavior” (12). Neither just a collection of rules, nor a collection of social effects, law can be understood, as “a complex interpretive activity, a practice of encoding and decoding social meaning that merges imperceptibly with rhetoric, ideology, “common sense,” economic argument (of both a highly theoretical and a seat-of-the-pants kind), with social stereotype, narrative cliché and political theory of every level from high abstraction to civics class chant” (Boyle 1996:14).

I write this in my capacity as an ethnomusicologist. In 1992 the field of Ethnomusicology was criticized from within for failing to recognize the need for substantial practical and theoretical engagement with issues of law, and specifically with issues of “music and copyright.” Anthony Seeger noted a “theoretical predisposition to ignore juridical concepts related to music in our research, an uncritical (and perhaps unconscious) re-elaboration of the concepts of twentieth century copyright law in our writings, and a lack of intellectual engagement with the globalization of the world’s economy and its implications for the objects of our research” (1992:345-346). By neglecting these issues, Seeger stated, ethnomusicologists were impoverishing their discipline. They would increasingly find it difficult to contribute significantly to dialogue about musical practices which were increasingly being shaped by the very processes that ethnomusicologists seemed to be ignoring. In 1993, Franco Fabbri was able to note that “copyright stands as an unknown continent that music researchers must explore” (159). Seeger again, in 1996, reiterated the failures of musicologists and ethnomusicologists to consider the implications of local, regional, national, and international legislation for their research in the face of “the transformation of all music to potentially for-profit “intellectual property” throughout the world” (88). He argued that this academic negligence ran the risk of compromising the relationships that ethnomusicologists so delicately foster while doing fieldwork: “Our failure to act both intellectually and practically in this area can only vitiate our analyses, damage our reputations, and make us suspect in the communities in which we wish to work” (ibid.).

Any failure in this regard would not be without consequence. Law, legal doctrine, legal practice, and, by association, the role, activities, and expansion of bodies such as The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) continue to play a vital role in the production and generation of meaning, power, and knowledge in the social interactions of our lives. By accepting the meanings that structure discourses of law, intellectual property, and copyright, we also allow those same meanings to structure our expectations and our social relationships. Scholars working within the Anthropology of Law (see, for example, Falk Moore, ed. 2004; Darian-Smith, ed. 2006; Donovan and Anderson 2006), the Sociology of Law (see, for example, Cotterrell 1984; Aubert, ed. 1969) and Critical Legal Theory (see, for example, Hutchinson, ed. 1989; Fitzpatrick and Hunt, eds. 1987) have drawn attention to these processes. Legislation, in any jurisdiction, consists of a set of prescriptions which specify the way in which legal subjects ought to behave. Law thus assumes a very palpable presence in our lives.

Research in the area of “music and copyright” can only be enriched by humanised and humanising perspectives. Despite the exponential growth of this increasingly contentious, and increasingly bizarre area of study, to a large extent discussion continues to stagnate in and around issues of access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection. From digital file-sharing to folk and traditional musics, “Who owns the music?” has become the prime question, with “How do we protect the music?” coming a close second. “What are we allowed to do with the music?” and “Where does the money go?” follow close behind. Research, then, has been dominated by the exegesis of litigation and the analysis of economic conditions, as people trace the movement and management of ‘things’, and follow the money. That can be very important, but scholarly debate seems largely to have stalled as a series of descriptive discussions about the management of legally-constituted musical resources rather than tending towards more explanatory approaches that might allow us to understand the impact of discourses and practices of intellectual property within the broader qualitative, social, and emotional dimensions of musical life. The ‘stuff’ becomes all important, people’s personal stories tend to be somewhat less so.

This explanatory weakness, this overwhelming emphasis on commodity transaction, would be for many deeply redolent of the general character of orthodox legal discourses. The apparent separation of law and, in particular, legal doctrine from the contingencies of social and political life is, in fact, one of the prime assertions of orthodox legal theory and one of the most influential foundations of legal practice (Hutchinson, ed. 1989; Fitzpatrick and Hunt, eds. 1987). For many people, law, the doctrines of law, the workings of law, the institutions of law, the concepts of law, seem to be separate from, and only tangentially relevant to, the everyday interactions of their lives. This is largely because law, and practices legitimated by law, are often characterised by specialist legal practitioners as autonomous, self-sufficient, value-free and politically-neutral (Blomley 1994), a strategy referred to by critics as “legal closure”.

As we enact the discourses and practices of copyright and intellectual property in our work, we can be assured that, in very practical ways, the workings of law are not ‘neutral’. Unger would argue that the great power of law is that “it enforces, reflects, constitutes, and legitimizes dominant social and power relations without a need for or the appearance of control from outside and by means of social actors who largely believe in their own neutrality and the myth of legal reasoning” (1986:5). As ethnomusicologists we have this “power of law” at our disposal insofar as we claim it and that claim is accepted by others as valid. One of the achievements of strategies of the aforementioned process of “legal closure” is that “The rule of law … appears rational, benign, and necessary” (Blomley 1994:9). As Peter Jazsi has commented: “The whole structure … is grounded on an uncritical belief in the existence of a distinct and privileged category of activity, that generates products of special social value, entitling the practitioners (the “authors”) to unique rewards” (1991:466).

Law, for the most part, then, “appears as an arcane world of professionalism centered on a body of esoteric knowledge which is intimidating to the uninitiated in its bulk and obscurity” (Cotterrell 1984:17). This is perhaps especially the case for copyright discourses, a complex nexus of legal, economic, and literary doctrinal orthodoxies sustained by a declaratively erudite register of concepts and productive inclinations: property, rights, authorship, public and private interest, public and private space, utility, consumption, production, incentives, possessive individualism, originality, creativity, freedom, and progress. When esoteric knowledges of music scholarship, always-already sustained by many of the same Euro-American orthodoxies, are added to the mix the result can be a heady maelstrom of mutually-reinforcing and profoundly-abstract discourses of obedience, regulation, and resource management. Little wonder that people might consider “music and copyright” to have little relevance to the personal politics of their everyday lives. The gravity of legal closure tends to invite political detachment, facilitated ably by enthusiastic analysis of sonic minutiae and the intricate management of musical commodities. We hardly need to turn to the likes of Marx, Lukacs, Simmel, or Weber to remind us that relationships between people can be easily and formally rendered as relationships about ‘things’ and money. The more approaches to “music and copyright” approximate a sort of musical accountancy, or an exercise in advanced legal classification, the more our attention can be quietly drawn away from the analysis of personal experience, social context, and social change.

This is important, for as the discourses and practices of law increase in technical complexity, and are deemed by many people to be more and more irrelevant to everyday concerns, they tend to intrude more and more into our lives as “increasingly detailed regulations relate [the law] more and more concretely to particular narrowly defined situations and relationships” (Cotterrell 1984:186).  Discourses and practices of intellectual property and copyright have long been associated with expansionary dynamics and with processes of accelerative commodification. Bettig (1996) would argue, for example, that it is almost impossible to separate intellectual property from its role as an instrument of commodification within capitalist systems. It has been shown that the development of capitalism and intellectual property have been concurrent (Rose 1993, Woodmansee and Jaszi 1994). The appearance in the eighteenth century of ‘things of the mind’ as transferable articles of property matured simultaneously with the capitalist system (Jaszi 1991). It is no coincidence, then, that an accelerative, commodifying, expansionary logic should infuse the discourses and practices of intellectual property. But effective legal closure and an overriding emphasis on commodity management both serve to depoliticize the climate. They systematically occlude particular characters of personal experience, social context, and social change, immunizing against critique of the expansionary character and doctrinal representations of law and legal practice by allowing both expansion and doctrine to remain unremarkable, invisible, and analytically unavailable.

Discourses of commodity management are fostered and facilitated by the persistence of the “musical work” as a philosophical and legal concept. The concept provides much to support and little to challenge resource-management models in music and copyright studies. In recent years, sustained attention has been drawn to various discursive and philosophical constructions of the “musical work” by Lydia Goehr (1992, 2000), Ingrid Monson (1996), Michael Talbot et al (2000) and many others.[ii] In discursive practice, the musical work remains for many the central resource, the central transactable commodity of “music and copyright” discourse. I don’t wish to declare “the musical work” or considerations of access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection irrelevant or unimportant. My emphasis, indeed, is a direct response to the real importance of these themes in “music and copyright” discourses. Access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection remain vital themes with which to make sense of the management of works as “musical resources”, and they remain crucial concerns in the combination and recombination of sonic motifs, phrases, and tunes. Such ways of making sense of things matter to many people. As Reinhard Strohm notes, for example, “The work-concept … is as ‘real’ as any aesthetic idea can be, and many generations of musicians have believed in it” (Strohm 2000:128). Often taking someone to court in direct adversarial engagement over the “things”, the “works”, might be the only obvious option that people have available to them in the context of litigation (see Soocher 1998). From a strictly legal standpoint it sometimes seems there is no other way to make sense of the issues. What I do seek to do is to underline, however, that, as analysts, we can do better. We can supplement or even supercede this narrow, enclosing, and often dehumanising focus on property, rights, musical works, and sonic form. We can move towards analysis that is more socially-sensitive to the “absences and inaudibilities in contemporary cultural spheres” (Coombe 1998:9), more sensitive to particular characters of personal experience, social context, and social change.

As copyright and intellectual property become more and more familiar aspects of discursive and musical landscapes through increasingly technological, standardized, specialist, universalised, and universalising practices, those same practices are increasingly regarded as legitimate, or, at least, unremarkable. The solid status of copyright and the justifications for all practices relating to copyright are taken for granted by many of us not only as the way things are and the ways things ought to be, but as the way things must be. Increasingly, as music scholars we often find ourselves in climates where we place the discourses and practices of intellectual property and copyright beyond debate, acquiescing, perhaps unknowingly, perhaps enthusiastically, to rather grandiose narratives of progress, authorship, necessity, and inevitability. In small ways, in our interactions with colleagues, students, and the people we work with in the field, the dictates of legal doctrine are increasingly taken as given, if not absolute. As this happens, the details and internal complexities of doctrine, the features of sonic form, and the politics of ownership can become the focus of inquiry rather than the social, political, personal consequences of acquiescence to doctrine as doctrine. When we can so easily allow the influence of absolutes to cascade throughout our lives, it is important that the interpretive practices of law be deconstructed and revealed as interpretive practices. Hardened narratives of law, intellectual property, and copyright suffuse the practices of intellectual property organizations, universities, academic departments, and libraries. From a scholar’s perspective it is perhaps more helpful to consider that the orthodoxies of “music and copyright,” whether “legal” or “musical,” do not simply reflect “the nature of things.”

It is important to remember that every situation concerning disputes about “music and copyright” serves as a nexus for personal stories and an opportunity for understanding complex emotions, meanings, and relationships of power, authority, and resistance. Focusing on the specificities of history and on the particularities of circumstance allow us to disclose social and political aspects of “music and copyright” debates as, importantly, always-already humanized encounters.  Legal structures are not just to be found in legislation and the workaday rhetoric of lawyers. Insofar as music scholars also acquiesce to the discourses and practices of intellectual property and copyright, or work unquestioning with those who do, we contribute to the privileging of the legal as a key structuring value in the ways in which we relate to each other.

Humanising approaches to “music and copyright”, for me, means challenging legal closure to look at the broader social and political context of debates about access, control, allocation, ownership, and protection, in terms of ‘what is going on’; in terms of particular experiences of authority and power dynamics in particular situations: What’s important, and to whom? Who gets to say? Who is dealing with whom and on what terms? Who is claiming what, and how do they justify or legitimate what they say? How do people feel about what is going on? How do people respond in different ways to situations in which copyright is an abiding concern? What principles are people willing to defend? Is there a point beyond which people in a situation feel unable to challenge the status quo on account of the pressures and certitudes of necessity and inevitability, market and law, national and international government? Is there more at stake than scrambles over who owns what and how much we will allow others to do? By accepting copyright, what might we be allowing to happen to the character of our relationships with each other? To ask such questions is to assume a position of some skepticism with regard to claims that are often made to the natural and unchallengeable status of copyright law. It is helpful to challenge those ideas which are accepted as ‘given’, self-evident, ‘common sense’, ideas that are “so obvious that the question of their origin may seem unreal because to not accept them seems unthinkable” (Cotterrell 1984:121). It is precisely because ideas associated with law are largely unquestioned that they must be examined as having developed in and through particular social formations and social practices.

It behoves us to take responsibility for our own education with respect to copyright law and its relevance to the practices of Ethnomusicology, Musicology, and Popular Music Studies. As R. M. Cover has written: “Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live” (1983:4-5).


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Nicolas K. Blomley. 1994. Law, Space, and the Geographies of Power. New York: The Guilford Press.

James Boyle. 1996. Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Seán Burke, ed. 1995. Authorship, From Plato to the Postmodern: a Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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Ronan Deazley. 2004. On the Origin of the Right to Copy: Charting the Movement of Copyright Law in Eighteenth Century Britain (1695-1775). Oxford: Hart Publishing.

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Franco Fabbri. 1993. “Copyright: The Dark Side of the Music Business.” In Music and Copyright. Simon Frith, ed. 159-63. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Steven Feld. 2000. “A Sweet Lullaby for World Music.” Public Culture 12(1):145-172.

Peter Fitzpatrick and Alan Hunt, eds. 1987. Critical Legal Studies. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jane L. Florine. 2001. Cuarteto Music and Dancing from Argentina: In Search of the Tunga-Tunga in Córdoba. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

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Reebee Garofalo. 1997. Rockin’ Out: Popular Music in the USA. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Lydia Goehr. 1992. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
—. 2000. “‘On the Problems of Dating’ or ‘Looking Backward and Forward with Strohm’.” In The Musical Work: Reality or Invention? Michael Talbot, ed. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

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—. 1982. “Towards a Humanizing Ethnomusicology.” Ethnomusicology 26(3):411-420.

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—. 2005. Peking Opera and Politics in Taiwan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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—. 1994. “On The Author Effect: Contemporary Copyright and Collective Creativity.” In The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature. Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi, eds. 15-29. Durham: Duke University Press.

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—. 2003. Beyond the Commons: The Expansion of the Irish Music Rights Organisation, the Elimination of Uncertainty, and the Politics of Enclosure. Ph.D. University of Limerick.

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[i] More famous, perhaps, is the work of Foucault in this regard. See Burke ed. (1995) for this and other key contributions to discussions on “authorship”, and Burke (1998) for an extended discussion of the work of Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida in this regard. A collection of essays more focused on the relationship between authorship and copyright can be found in Woodmansee and Jazsi, eds. (1994). A useful summary of various approaches to authorship and copyright can be found in Halbert (1999). For an interesting discussion of “originality” in relation to copyright see Sherman (1995). For a discussion of authorship, ownership, and intellectual property law see McLeod (2001).

[ii] In 1992 Goehr, for example, challenged the naturalized status of the work-concept in musical discourses, noting that, “speaking about music in terms of works is neither an obvious nor a necessary mode of speech, despite the lack of ability we presently seem to have to speak about music in any other way” (243).

A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition”.

Anthony McCann. 2010. “A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition”.” Ethnologie Française 41:323-341.


In the mid-nineties in Ireland, the terms “tradition” and “traditional” became public fulcrums for contention, debate, and conflict. At the heart of this were two media events: Riverdance, a broadway-style dance production based on “Irish traditional dancing”, and A River of Sound, a seven-part television series, that offered an overview of “Irish traditional music”. In both Riverdance and A River of Sound, “tradition” became merely an expedient notion, in two clear senses. First, the concept of  “tradition” offered a contrasting foil against which people could claim superior status as transgressive, innovative, modern, creative purveyors of discontinuity and distinction; second, the concept of “tradition” also became a way for people to legitimate their activities in rhetorics of continuity and community. What was important in each case was not that “tradition” had a clear and stable meaning, but that the concept fulfilled a rhetorical function.


A Tale of Two Rivers: Riverdance, A River of Sound, and the Ambiguities of “Tradition.”

A Tale of Two Rivers

In the mid-nineties in Ireland, the terms “tradition” and “traditional” became notoriously public fulcrums for debate, and at times even vicious conflict, at least where music was concerned. This period heralded what BBC’s head of music programmes dubbed an “uncivil war for the soul of Irish music” [MacRory, 1995 : 8]. At the heart of the storm were two media events: the dance show Riverdance, which first exploded into consciousness in 1994, and A River of Sound, a seven-part television series, first broadcast in 1995.


The most internationally-famous catalyst for debate about “tradition” in Ireland in the mid-1990s was Riverdance. On the 30th April, 1994, the seven-minute interval entertainment for the Eurovision Song Contest stole the show. It was watched by an estimated 300 million viewers.[i] The impact of Riverdance was enormous, and has been documented elsewhere [e.g., Wulff, 2007; Ó Cinnéide, 2002]. Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole wrote that: “It became customary to talk of Riverdance as an act of reclamation, a taking-back for popular entertainment of a form that had been prettified and stultified” [O’Toole, 1996 : 149]. There were at least three ways in which Riverdance could be seen in this light: first, as transgression against rigid ideologies of cultural nationalism; second, as an act of transgression against rigid sexual mores in Ireland; third, as transgression against “tradition”.

The latter part of the 19th century saw the rise of a distinctly cultural, rather than political, nationalism in Ireland. In sport, music, and song, highly-regulated and regulating forms of bodily practice came to be designated as symbols of a pure Irish national identity (usually meaning ‘not-English’). This also happened in dance.  From local dancing classes to All-Ireland and World competitions, organisations such as the Irish Dancing Commission established complex regimes of authority, authenticity, and control throughout the twentieth century [see Wulff, 2005, 2007; Hall, 2008; Brennan, 1999]. These came to be symbolically represented by the caricature of stiff-backed, stiff-armed dancers with rapid-fire footwork.

Riverdance enacted a clear challenge to the embodied disciplines of cultural nationalism in Irish dance. For most Irish people, from the moment lead dancer-choreographer Michael Flatley leapt to the stage from the wings, the performance of Riverdance presented something radically new and distinct.  Riverdance’s visual legacy was provided by the iconic “eighty-strong chorus-line of Irish dancers liberated from the constraining folk uniforms and rigid upper body posture of traditional dance” [N. O’Connor, 1999 : 171]. Even with the regimentation of the chorus-line, Riverdance was indeed seen by many as liberation, as a triumphant act of transgression against the confines and constrictions of perceived atavism and moral conservatism.

Challenging the strictures of cultural-nationalist bodily prescription in dance could also be an act of transgression against strictures of sexual morality. Throughout the twentieth century, life in the Republic of Ireland was lived within a complex nexus of Catholic Church, State prescription, sexual morality, and cultural nationalism, whereby moral purity was, for many, inscribed into the project of national identity formation [Smith, 2004; Ferriter, 2009].

Riverdance served as a catalyst for at least symbolic transgression. The producers of the show didn’t shy away from suggestions that Riverdance was just plain sexy, claiming: “Of all the performances to emerge from Ireland in the past decade – in rock, music, theatre and film, nothing has carried the energy, the sensuality and the spectacle of Riverdance – The Show” [Riverdance Press Pack, 1995]. Choreography and costume for Jean Butler, the female lead, conformed readily to the standard expectations of a feminine role within the cultural-nationalist imaginary – pretty, delicate, twirly, balletic. What was different, though, was that Jean Butler and the other female dancers were dressed to be feminine and sexy; poise and balance, leg and lace. The male dancers got leave to perform as masculine and sexy; strength and vigour, control and speed. So what if the binaries of gender and sexuality within cultural nationalism in Ireland were barely touched; with Riverdance eroticism was raised from the shadows of cultural nationalism to take centre-stage.

Riverdance also became a catalyst for statements about “tradition”. The most blatant and oft-quoted claim in this regard was made by the producer, Moya Doherty: “I wanted to show a modern image of Ireland … not the green pastures. Irish dance is frozen in tradition, and I thought it’s time to thaw it out” [quoted in Duffy, 1996]. With this, the producers of Riverdance placed themselves among the transgressive champions of modernity, modernisation, and urbanity, distinguishing themselves as the sun of enlightenment in the face of undesirable tradition. Yet, the producers also spoke of the show as “drawing on Irish traditions, the combined talents of the performers propel Irish dancing and music into the present day giving it a relevance, which captures the imagination of audiences across all ages and divides” [Riverdance Press Pack, 1995]. So, Riverdance directly challenges tradition, and draws on tradition. To confuse things further, there was also some degree to which Riverdance was itself presented as traditional, as Adrian Scahill has noted [Scahill, 2009 : 70].

The rhetoric that placed Riverdance in an antagonistic relationship with “tradition” seems to have come largely from the show’s producers, from journalists, and, latterly, from academics [e.g., Flannery, 2009]. The level of popular engagement with such antagonism seems minimal.  As was noted at the time, “Riverdance brought a flush of pride and admiration from most musicians, and at worst a shrug of the shoulders from the rest” [Crosbhealach/Crossroads, 1996].

Riverdance drew the limelight, but failed to establish clear terms for debate about “tradition” – it was a song and dance show, not an academic treatise. In discussions about Riverdance, “tradition” became little more than a rhetorical cypher with which people could position themselves with elevated status in an intensely commodifying field, whether in contrast to “tradition” as a negative foil to validate a politics of transgression, or by using “tradition” as a badge of legitimation in contexts where that might prove useful. Either way, the discursive field had been primed.


A River of Sound

The seven-part series A River of Sound [AROS 1995], was produced by Philip King’s Hummingbird Productions, and broadcast at prime-time in Britain, Ireland, and in a shortened version in the United States. An unprecedentedly well-produced series of programmes, it focused on the genre of “Irish traditional music”. Music professor, composer, and pianist Ó Súilleabháin wrote and presented the series (in collaboration with Philip King and Nuala O’Connor), lending it an air of academic authority.

A River of Sound was part documentary, part academic lecture, part music video. It seemed to provide a straightforward introduction to the genre, musicians, and singers of Irish traditional music. It also foregrounded a small group of experimental musicians. The message seemed to be that these musicians, rooted in tradition but moving beyond it, were stretching the boundaries of the art, leading a latter-day avant garde movement in Irish traditional music, under the symbolic leadership of Ó Súilleabháin himself. As if to reinforce this, the series also showcased Ó Súilleabháin’s own compositions in a series of set-piece performances, built around his roles as conductor and pianist.

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin used two water metaphors to explain how he himself made sense of the series. The first and most obvious one was the metaphor of the river, which ran as follows: the young experimental musicians are at the head of a river of sound which is the river of tradition which is the river of Irish traditional music. The second was the metaphor of the “Third Stream”, drawn from the jazz writings of Gunther Schüller, such that: the young experimental musicians are on a different course that veers off the mainstreams of Irish traditional music and jazz to form a new river of their own.

The source for the structuring metaphor of the river in A River of Sound is found in the work of Ó Súilleabháin’s teacher, composer Seán Ó Riada. Ó Riada was one of the key figures in the commercial and professional development of the genre of Irish traditional music in the 1950s and 1960s [O’Shea, 2005, 2008]. Ó Súilleabháin made it clear [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995] that the river metaphor in A River of Sound was a direct reference to radio lectures that Ó Riada presented on Raidio Éireann in 1962 entitled Our Musical Heritage [Ó Riada, 1982]. In the introduction Ó Riada states: “You might compare the progress of tradition in Ireland to the flow of a river. Foreign bodies may fall in, or be dropped in, or thrown in, but they do not divert the course of the river, nor do they stop it flowing; it absorbs them, carrying them with it as it flows onwards” [Ó Riada, 1982 : 19-20]. Operating within a nativist, nationalist paradigm that privileged Irish distinctiveness and maybe even Gaelic purity [see O’Shea, 2005 : 1], Ó Riada’s river of tradition flowed with a current that was clear and strong.

Ó Súilleabháin stretched the metaphor of the river further than Ó Riada, pushing it to become more of an analogy, around which A River of Sound was constructed. He outlined the analogy at the 1995 Ó Riada Memorial Conference:

“… the origins of a music are equated with the river’s source; the containment within the riverbanks represents the identity of tradition; the ability of the river to manoeuvre through the contours of the countryside is akin to music’s engagement with non-musical forces amidst social history; the force of the current at different times and places relates to the rate of change manifested at different points in time; the ability of the river to take foreign objects without disturbing its flow reminds us of the process of acculturation, …. And the final moment, when the river flows through the estuary into the ocean, represents, at least in the series A River of Sound, the present process of Irish Traditional Music entering the arena of the emerging idea of World Music” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995].

This appeal to the riverness of tradition left Ó Súilleabháin with at least one narrative thread in A River of Sound that clearly championed an avant-garde in Irish traditional music. This came about because of two clear consequences of the river analogy: first, the presentation of “Irish traditional music” as a unified (though not necessarily homogenous) imaginary whole, and, second, the subsequent placing of “Irish traditional music” within a linear historicity, that fostered and facilitated hopes and fears about the future of the music.


A River of Sound provided a forum for many voices. The clearest statement in A River of Sound on “tradition” is offered by Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin. Carolan talks about the “tightrope that traditional music walks … between tradition, receiving what you got from the past and adhering to it exactly as you received it, and innovation, taking in new influences that come to you as a person in your time, and that no ancestor of yours, no father, no grandfather, ever received” [AROS, 1995]. Many others use the term “tradition” in the series, but no one else says what they mean. The viewer is left to work it out on the basis of context and implication.

Of all participants in the series, ironically Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin makes it least clear what he understands by “tradition”. For Ó Súilleabháin, the term “tradition” seems to act as a cypher, an emptied category. At no point does he say what he means by the term, but often uses it declaratively, as though the meaning could be assumed as a taken-for-granted given. For example: “Tradition may come out of the past, but it’s in the here and now that tradition exists, and as long as that continues, traditional music will always be a contemporary music” [AROS, 1995]. Without discussion about the meaning (or meanings) of “tradition”, this last statement mystifies and obfuscates. Ó Súilleabháin’s role as declarative narrator and his role as recognised academic make it easy, however, to assume that a meaning has been imputed.

“The Tradition”

There is a more definite sense in which the term “tradition” is used in A River of Sound. Psychologist and broadcaster Maureen Gaffney is the first of those interviewed to use a definite article, “the tradition”, referring, it seems, to an overarching genre classification that includes music, song, and dance: “I was always very struck by performers, that when people would sing a song, I think that’s the part of the music that I like the most, the part of the tradition that I like the most, they would always say where they got it from” [AROS, 1995]. Harmonica player Brendan Power also uses the definite article, but for him “the tradition” seems to mean a canon of style and a body of tunes: “My main interest … is to learn the traditional tunes, … the ones that I like, on the harmonica, but also to compose new tunes that fit into the tradition, but come out of the harmonica and maybe bring some of the influences that I’ve assimilated along the way, so, I try and make new music that still sounds Irish but has also got something different about it” [AROS, op.cit.].

There is a sense in Brendan Power’s statement that “the tradition” refers to a way of sounding, a characteristic set of sonic genre markers, a way of playing an instrument. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin sometimes uses the term in this way: “And this came out of an instrument that wasn’t traditional. I began to realise for the first time that between the written note and the sound was where the tradition flowed. And I also began to appreciate that perhaps if I listened to that sound carefully I could begin to construct a traditional way of playing on the piano keyboard” [AROS, op.cit.]. Fiddle player Eileen Ivers also speaks of “the tradition” in these terms of performance style and technique: “I feel very strongly like the real way to get into Irish traditional music is learning the tradition. You can’t come in from outside. You have to understand the rhythm of it, and the simplicity of it, of that rhythm, without putting in all these ornaments, without getting too fancy too quickly” [AROS, op.cit.].

There is a confidence within the series, from many voices, that there is such a thing as “the tradition”, a confidence that there is an assumed, stable, and shared meaning. Musicians and academics commonly refer to whatever is meant by “Irish traditional music” as “the tradition”. It is perhaps a confidence trick. In Dan Ben-Amos’ 1984 article, “The Seven Strands of ‘Tradition’,” Ben-Amos cites folklorist Edward Ives, who says that “Students of folksongs have been talking about “the tradition” and how songs either “entered” it, were “altered” by it, or perhaps “rejected” by it for so long and with such confidence that we have come to think of it as something that’s really there, when of course it is nothing but a convenient abstraction” [Ben-Amos, 1984 : 106]. It is also one which undermines critical analysis in Irish traditional music studies, leaving uninterrogated the dubious notion of a singular, indivisible entity as the primary object of discussion and analysis.

Cultural critics in the field of Irish Studies speak openly about “the Irish Tradition”. Claire Connolly has noted that it remains very unusual for academics “to conceptualise a postcolonial Ireland which does not have the singular and indivisible Irish nation as its terminus” [Connolly, 2001 : 308].  I would suggest that A River of Sound similarly relies for much of its effect on the uninterrogated structuring assumptions of a quite orthodox nationalism.

This might seem a little incongruous. Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin publicly positioned himself as “post-nationalist”.[ii] The choice of people interviewed within A River of Sound echoes Ó Súilleabháin’s leanings – many of the musicians and singers included in the series aren’t obviously Irish, coming from places like the United States, New Zealand, and Australia, in a clear gesture towards a broad sense of identity within the communities of the so-called Irish diaspora. However, Helen O’Shea’s words ring a note of caution: “Implicit in … popular accounts of the musical achievements of Irish emigrants … is the assumption that, despite geographical dislocation and musical innovation, an essential Irishness remains intact, in both music and musicians” [O’Shea, 2005 : 21-22].

Although not explicit, and at times even disavowed, I would suggest that much of the symbolic power of the river analogy in A River of Sound derives from what I think of as a “phantom nationalism”. When a phantom limb persists in the wake of amputation; the effect of the limb remains as real as ever. To draw a more musical analogy, sometimes singers of unaccompanied song who are used to singing with guitar accompaniment effect a regular rhythm and sporadic breathing style, as if the guitar were still there. This would be regarded by many as stylistically inappropriate for the genre of unaccompanied singing, known more for its free rhythm and steady breathing. Some people have started referring to this as the “phantom guitar” effect. The guitar is not there, but the regularising effects of the guitar persist.

This operates in a very simple way – “the tradition” is frequently used as a direct synonym for the phrase “Irish traditional music” (my emphasis), which clearly relies on at least rudimentary assumptions about national identity and identification. “The tradition”, in this context, arguably always refers to “the (Irish) Tradition”. Of course, the metaphor-analogy of the singular river also does nothing to challenge and plenty to reinforce the singular imaginary of the nation, especially given its source in Ó Riada’s nativist nationalism. The Irish Nation arguably persists as the silent partner of the river-as-tradition analogy. The distinction between abstracted “tradition” and the definite imaginary of “the tradition” is never explained or explored, but it’s a crucial distinction. The notion of “the tradition” is, for me, the key that unlocks the avant-garde narrative that structures A River of Sound.

“Third Stream” or Avant-Garde?

At the Seán Ó Riada Memorial Conference at University College, Cork, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin suggested that “we were seeing the fragmentation of the tradition into three voices” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. The first voice was the mainstream tradition, “a communal tradition par excellence”. The second voice was the popular commercial Irish traditional music forms of the 60s and 70s, which, for Ó Súilleabháin, remained “terribly conservative in their structural elements all the time”. The third voice, a “Third Stream”, was the emergence of a new genre in which musicians were seeking to stretch and even break the musical structures of “the tradition” in a spirit of investigation.

Ó Súilleabháin acknowledged that he had drawn the term “Third Stream” from jazz. The term comes from the work of Gunther Schüller. For Schüller, jazz and classical music constituted “long, separate traditions that many people want to keep separate and sacred” [Schüller, 1986 : 115]. He was keen to recognise the right of musicians to preserve the “idiomatic purity” of both traditions. He was also interested in establishing a “new genre” that attempted to fuse “the improvisational spontaneity and rhythmic vitality of jazz with the compositional procedures and techniques acquired in Western music during 700 years of musical development” [Schüller, op.cit. : 115]. What was crucial for Schüller, though, was that this new genre, this “Third Stream”, was conceptualised as a separate development, an experiment whereby “the other two mainstreams could go their way unaffected by attempts at fusion” [Schüller, op.cit. : 115]. Another important dimension of the “third stream” concept was that it sought “to embrace, at least potentially, all the world’s ethnic, vernacular, and folk music. It is a non-traditional music which exemplifies cultural pluralism and personal freedom” [Schüller, op.cit. : 120].

Ó Súilleabháin explicitly claimed to be at ease with Schüller’s sense of “Third Stream”. Ó Súilleabháin used the term to refer to a growing number of increasingly experimental young musicians coming from the contexts and communities of “Irish traditional music”. Many of them were registered as students in university campuses, and had been taught by Ó Súilleabháin, or by students of Ó Súilleabháin. Their experimentation involved exploration of other sounds and genres from around the world, in a classic “fusion” approach, echoing the values of global pluralism and personal freedom that Schüller had championed.

The quintessential musical hero of Ó Súilleabháin’s “Third Stream” was fiddle player Tommy Potts (1912-1988). From the working-class neighbourhood of the Coombe in Dublin city, Tommy Potts worked at various times as a plumber, a fireman, and a rent collector. By all accounts an introverted and isolated musician, Tommy Potts’ frustration with regularity, and a desire for what he called “development”, led him to explore alternative structurings of dance tunes, and to incorporate intertextual borrowings from other genres (see Ó Súilleabháin, 1999). Potts recorded his explorations on a series of “experimental tapes”.[iii]

Ó Súilleabháin has, more than anyone, promoted Potts as a radical cause célèbre, a prophetic musical voice. Potts was, in his view: “a rare genius, the ultimate subversive agent, he dismantled Irish traditional music from inside” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. But there is a confusion at the heart of Ó Súilleabháin’s re-presentation of Tommy Potts. He presents two versions of the prophecised future, establishing a tension which highlights the confusions at the heart of A River of Sound.

In one version, Tommy Potts is presented as the precursor, if not originator, of Ó Súilleabháin’s “Third Stream”, the forerunner of a musical tradition distinct and separate from Irish traditional music, running parallel to “the tradition”. Ó Súilleabháin stated in 1995, for example, that “Potts generated the philosophical and psychological possibility for the emergence of … the Third Stream” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. In the other version, within the river analogy, Tommy Potts is reframed as an avant-garde hero of “the tradition” who “moved the music from its communal base to one of individualism” [Ó Súilleabháin, op.cit. : 177]. In a piece written during the production of A River of Sound, Ó Súilleabháin places Potts as the latest in a line of heroic Irish musical avant-garde iconoclasts over the last three centuries [Ó Súilleabháin, 1994]. In this light, he represents for Ó Súilleabháin the historicist futurity of the avant-garde, an exemplar of “innovation”.

A New World of Sound

Rivers start somewhere and go somewhere. This linear structure supports the avant-garde narrative of A River of Sound; the river becomes an analogy for “Irish traditional music” and “the tradition”. The “Third Stream” musicians were actually at the head of the river, navigating in the spirit of Tommy Potts. To leave us in no doubt that the direction of the entire “tradition” was in question, A River of Sound was subtitled “The Changing Course of Irish Traditional Music”. No longer were these musicians just experimental and academically inclined – now they were the future of the music, leaving the past behind in the wake of their transgressions. As Ó Súilleabháin addressed the camera: “this is a time of great transition for traditional music. Out of an old world, a new world of sound is being formed.” [AROS, 1995].

What was this “new world of sound” to be like? In the commercial video release of A River of Sound, edited down to 86 minutes, the answer was made clear by an edit that was not present in the original series [AROS video, 1995]. As Ó Súilleabháin speaks the words “a new world of sound is being formed”, the camera cuts to the performance of the titular musical composition, “A River of Sound”. Composed by Ó Súilleabháin and Donal Lunny, this is the symbolic core of the series from the point of view of performance, and its summary statement in terms of narrative, appearing in the final episode. Its eleven minutes and eight seconds make it at least seven minutes longer than the average time allotted to other musical pieces in the series.[iv]

African Kora players, a man and child, are silhouetted; a Kora is lightly plucked, then both accelerate into a steady rhythm around a central melody. The camera fades to show fiddle player and violinist Nollaig Casey who picks up the melody, which starts to take colours of Irish melodies with a classical music feel. The picture fades to members of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. Harpist Laoise Kelly takes up the role of the Kora players in the melody, and Casey and Kelly are joined by Brendan Power on harmonica, Evelyn Glennie on xylophone, Kenneth Edge on Saxophone, Mel Mercier and Frank Torpey on bodhráns, as well as co-composers Lunny, on bouzouki and bodhrán, and Ó Súilleabháin, on piano and harpsichord. The melody provides a repetitive groove around which the players improvise with a light jazz feel. The piece ends with the plaintive singing of the African child playing gently on the Kora.

Ó Súilleabháin explained the import of the piece: “As part of the final programme of the television series A River of Sound, Donal Lunny and myself co-composed an instrumental piece that was supposed to have represented in some way a personal view of the river of traditional music meeting the ocean of world music” [Ó Súilleabháin, 1995]. In a magazine interview, Ó Súilleabháin commented: “I had a poetic notion of a traditional river going into a river of globalisation, estuary and source, etc. It was a mythological thing” [Clayton-Lea, 1995].

The composition “A River of Sound” becomes, in the words of the inlay card of the CD, “a piece of music which signals the position of Irish traditional music as it enters into its third millenium” [AROS (CD), 1995]. These players and this piece are explicitly offered as the representation of the present, or indeed future, of Irish traditional music; commercial and academic performers, performing a newly-composed piece written in a “fusion” genre. That which might have been considered marginal becomes central; that which might have been considered apocryphal becomes representative. Irish traditional music becomes part of the great global sea.

When Ó Súilleabháin first suggested the “Third Stream” notion at the Ó Riada Conference, A River of Sound had already been broadcast. This is important, because if the “Third Stream” had been a foregrounded narrative in A River of Sound, outlining a separatist and somewhat marginal development within Irish traditional music, it would have caused little controversy. Without it, A River of Sound can easily be understood as both a vehicle for avant-gardist claims and as a showcase for Ó Súilleabháin himself, both ushered in under the auspices of a general introduction to the genre of “Irish traditional music”. It is little wonder that A River of Sound caused consternation.

A River of Sound and Fury

As one critic expressed it, A River of Sound “[bred] a disquieting air of confusion and uncertainty as to the future of Irish traditional music” [Corr, 1995]. Many people across Ireland were hurt and angered by the disconnect between what they felt “Irish traditional music” was all about, and what they were seeing represented as “the tradition” in A River of Sound. Some were angered at the suggestion that the experimental musicians highlighted in the series were allegedly to be the future of Irish traditional music. Some felt that this not only showed a lack of respect for older musicians, but for the generations and generations of (mostly unpaid) musicians that had gone before, and to whom the musical “tradition” owed its existence.

In an infamous audience discussion at the end of a The Late Late Show pre-broadcast special to launch A River of Sound, RTÉ producer and musician Tony MacMahon voiced concerns about the series, and about the central “River of Sound” composition. He was shouted down by other audience members. Following the controversy of The Late Late Show, Tony MacMahon received 168 letters and phonecalls from musicians all over the country:

“What really struck me about the tone and content of these letters and phone calls was their frustration, anger and upset. They expressed various degrees of sadness at changes that are taking place in the performance and interpretation of traditional music today, they expressed anger at what they saw as the selling of these changes to impressionable young musicians, they expressed frustration at the media ….” [Mac Mahon, 1999 : 115].

“Tradition and Innovation”

In response to A River of Sound, many took a defensive position in which a clear definition of “tradition” or “traditional” was now required as what they felt the music meant to them was under threat. For many, discursive representation of what they might mean by “tradition” was now necessitated in the face of widely-distributed misrepresentation. Journalist Tom McGurk put it succinctly in his review of A River of Sound: “While it doesn’t matter what you call it, it does matter what it is supposed to mean” [McGurk, 1995 : 25]. People who were more interested in the non-commercial contexts, communities, and relationships of “Irish traditional music” could and did express what was important to them in and through conversation, among themselves. But most had no recourse to (or, perhaps, no desire for) a media-savvy or academically-validated discourse to represent their interests. This left many with little option but to fall back on emotionally- and ideologically-charged understandings of “tradition” and “traditional”, which had often been tempered by years of rigid cultural nationalism and atavistic morality, as mentioned above.

Ó Súilleabháin offered a confusion of narratives in A River of Sound. Widespread resistance to the avant-gardism of at least one of those narratives primed conversations to slide into the binary terms of an antagonistic “tradition and innovation” debate. It would be easy to see the controversies in terms of a binary opposition between “tradition” and “innovation”, as merely a struggle between traditionalists and innovators [e.g., Moriarty, 1995]. This dichotomy makes little sense, though, without the avant-garde rhetoric which Ó Súilleabháin embedded within A River of Sound. It was an oppositional framework which Ó Súilleabháin was keen to encourage: “The response which the series evoked in some quarters was a direct challenge by the traditional side of the equation to the innovation side”[Ó Súilleabháin, 1999 : 197].

Within the Irish context of the mid-nineties, discourses of “tradition” and “innovation” came to presuppose each other analytically within the circular formulations of the “uncivil war for the soul of Irish music”. “Innovation”, for Ó Súilleabháin, clearly meant university-based, experimental performance practice. Ó Súilleabháin notably used the term “campus-trad” as a synonym for “Third Stream” at the Ó Riada Conference in 1995. The “tradition and innovation” dichotomy, in Ó Súilleabháin’s hands, thus became a vehicle for narratives of modernisation, globalisation, and academicisation, premised, of course, on the eternal victory of “innovation”.

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin stated in A River of Sound that “The story of traditional music will always be told by the musicians themselves” [AROS, 1995], while narrating a particular version of that story from a position of academic and media privilege that undermined such a declaration. The critical response to the series indicated that many musicians felt there were also other stories yet to tell, from other perspectives.



It seems to me that neither Riverdance nor A River of Sound provide me with any clear guidance for thinking about “tradition”. I would like to be able to think of “tradition” as a concept with clear critical, analytic potential. In both Riverdance and A River of Sound, “tradition” became merely an expedient notion, in two clear senses: first, the concept of  “tradition” offered a contrasting foil against which people could claim superior status as transgressive, innovative, modern, creative purveyors of discontinuity and distinction; second, the concept of “tradition” also became a way for people to legitimate their activities in rhetorics of continuity and community.

What was important in each case was not that “tradition” had a clear and stable meaning, but that the concept fulfilled a rhetorical function. Not only did it not have any clear and stable meaning, but it seemed to operate with most rhetorical power when no meaning was assigned to the term at all. That’s a rather sobering thought for anyone engaged in critical academic analysis.


A RIVER OF SOUND – The Changing Course of Irish Traditional Music, 1995 [AROS], Philip King (dir.), Nuala O’Connor (prod.), Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (pres.), Dublin, Hummingbird Productions for BBC and RTÉ.

A RIVER OF SOUND – The Beauty and Power of Irish Traditional Music, 1995 [AROS video], Philip King (dir.), Nuala O’Connor (prod.), Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (pres.), Dublin, Hummingbird Productions for BBC and RTÉ. BBCV 5819.

A RIVER OF SOUND (Various Artists), 1995 [AROS CD],  Audio CD, Hummingbird Productions/Virgin, CDV2776.

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[i] You can see clips of various Riverdance performances online at Riverdance is also well-represented on websites such as

[ii] “For a young person growing up in Ireland in the 50s, or perhaps even the 60s, which was a great transition era, very often you felt that traditional music was coming to you in some kind of pack, a package, and it was definitely coloured green, and it was very suspicious” [Late Show, 1995].

[iii] Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin was so taken by this approach that he undertook a Ph.D. thesis examining Potts’ life and music, completed in 1987. Since then, Potts has been central to the development of Ó Súilleabháin’s thinking.

[iv] It is listed as track 8 on the A River of Sound CD.