A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

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

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

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

A Politics of Gentleness: towards a critical vernacular ecology

The (slightly edited) transcription follows below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Gentle Ferocity: An Interview with Derrick Jensen

As published in Dark Mountain, Vol. 1

Once, while living in Washington DC a few years ago, I went along to a talk by an ecological activist that I had heard a little bit about, Derrick Jensen. I arrived at the talk and found a few people starting to gather for the event.  Being a little shy, I moved on through and headed for the carrot sticks and cucumber at the back. I dawdled there for a while, rocking on my heels, waiting for the talk. I noticed that there was another guy standing quietly in the corner, keeping to himself, dressed in dark colours, not taking up very much space in the room. I generally feel more comfortable meeting people one-on-one, and I sidled over to say hello. It was Derrick Jensen.

Derrick Jensen is an amazingly prolific writer. From early works like A Language Older Than Words (2004) to more recent publications like Endgame (2006), Derrick’s writing offers us a sustained series of meditations on the possibilities of the personal as the political. I would find it hard to think of a writer who inscribes his thoughts with such a delicate combination of vulnerability and purpose. Whether you agree with him or not, one thing that cannot be fairly questioned is his integrity. His words sear with the honesty of his explorations of what it might mean to be human, and what it can mean to make a difference in the face of social, political, and environmental violence and catastrophe.

Although sometimes caricatured as an eco-warrior dam-buster, Derrick’s views are most often subtle, nuanced, and worked with the blood, sweat, and tears of someone who takes their responsibility as a writer very seriously indeed. For me, to read Derrick’s work is often to feel the presence of beauty in the crafting of thoughtful anger. The focus of Derrick’s ire is what he calls “the culture of civilization”, and this critique of “civilization” has been influential in the development of the Dark Mountain manifesto and the “uncivilisation” project at its heart.

As Derrick writes in Endgame, “I would define a civilization … as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined … as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.” In this analysis, the Tolowa, on whose land he now lives, were not civilized, as they lived in villages and camps, as they did for the last 12,500 years without destroying the place. This culture, on the other hand, Derrick explains, has destroyed the place in 150 years. Civilization, for Derrick, is a way of life that is inherently unsustainable: “If your way of life is based on the importation of resources then your way of living can never be sustainable. If you require the importation of resources it means you denuded the landscape of that particular resource. The way to live sustainably is by not harming your habitat, to improve your habitat by your presence. It’s what salmon do. It’s what Redwoods do. It’s what indigenous humans do. You don’t survive in the long run by exploiting your surroundings. You survive in the long run by actually improving your surroundings. Dolores LaChapelle taught me that it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the fit – how well you fit into your surroundings. What I’m saying to people who live in the cities or the country is this way of living is not sustainable, and we’re pretending it is. Denial doesn’t help anybody on this, except maybe to let you pretend that by changing light-bulbs that’s going to make a difference. And the real world is at stake here, so the very least we can do is attempt to be a little bit honest.”

Two things stood out for me as Derrick was speaking. The first was this notion of “survival of the fit”, and its emphasis on the principle of appropriateness-to-context. Another related point was something which I have always found very powerful in Derrick’s work, particularly in his work on teaching, which is an appeal to specificity. In Walking on Water (2004), Derrick writes that “specificity is everything, it’s the only thing we’ve got.” Is that sense of actually being present, being in place, and being connected to what’s around you, is that one of the core challenges, then?

“Yeah, I think one of the core challenges is to first acknowledge that place actually exists. The fundamental difference between western and indigenous ways of being is that westerners generally view the world as consumable resources to be exploited, as opposed to other beings to enter into a relationship with. The notion that the non-human world has anything to say is central to every indigenous culture, and it’s absolutely anathema to this culture which believes that we’re the only ones who have subjective existence. There’s a great line by Canadian lumbermen, “When I look at a tree I see dollar bills”. If all you see when you look at trees is dollar bills, then you’re going to look at them one way. If you look at the trees and see trees, you’ll look at them another way. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about trees or fish or women. If I look at women and see orifices, I’m going to treat them one way. If I look at this particular woman and see a particular woman, I’ll treat her differently. How we perceive the world affects how we behave in it and this culture has systematically driven us insane. John Livingstone wrote about how people perceive cities as being a place where you get overloaded with sounds and sights, but he believes it’s the opposite and I agree, that actually they’re places of sensory deprivation. In this moment, right now, look around and ask yourself, how many things do you see? How many beings do you see? How much of what you see around you, how much of what you perceive is either created or mediated by human beings as opposed to how much of what you see right now is not created or mediated by human beings? Right now I see a closet door, I see a bed, I see crutches, I see a dresser drawer, I see a computer, I see a sewing machine, I see a window. Out the window I see some Redwoods, and that’s through a glass. I hear a fan, I don’t hear any non-humans right now. And how many machines do you have a daily relationship with versus how many wild beings, plants or animals you have a daily relationship with? The point is that we’re living in an echo chamber, and you can start to believe your own hallucinations. And I agree with John Livingstone when he says that most of our ideologies are hallucinations. What’s real? What’s real is the real physical world.

“In order to survive the real world must be primary. I feel like an idiot having to say this, because it is still fundamental, and it is still stupid to live with anything else. The real world is what’s real, and the humans that come after are not going to give a shit about whether we were pacifists or not pacifists. They’re not going to give a shit whether we voted democrat or republican, green, whig, tory, whatever. They’re not going to care if we recycled. They’re not going to care about any of that stuff. What they’re going to care about is whether they can breathe the air and drink the water. What they are going to care about is whether the world can support them. The world is primary, because without the real world you don’t have any social system. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone and we are long past an emergency situation. We’re fighting for life on the planet here, and people are worried about the economy? It’s stunningly dishonest and it is insane.”

Derrick’s views have brought him quite a bit of attention, some adulatory, some dismissive, some spiteful. Some follow him as a visionary, some peg him as an extremist. I wondered about some of the reactions that he gets to his work. “I routinely get 400-600 people at talks, and I routinely get notes from people saying ‘Thank god, I thought I was the only person thinking these things, and I’m so glad’. I get these every day. Most of the hate mail I’ve gotten frankly has been from, has been horizontal hostility. I’ve gotten more than a thousand pieces of hate mail over the past ten years, and only two of those were from right-wingers. The others were from vegetarians because I eat meat, anti-car activists because I drive a car, pacifists because I don’t believe in pacifism. Basically, one way or another, lifestylists. Anarchists because I’m not anarchist enough for them, whatever. In one sense or another, they’re all lifestylists – people who believe that lifestyle change equals social change, and that’s where most of the vituperation towards me has come. The response has been almost entirely favourable.”

“But there’s no way that anyone can argue realistically that this culture is not killing the planet. This guy came up to me after a talk I did and he said, “You know, my friend (wink, wink), my friend says that it’s not time to fight back yet.” I said, “Well great, 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone – you tell me when your friend thinks it would be okay to fight back – 91%? 92%? 93%? 94%? 95%? 96%? 97%? 98%? 99%?” And he said, “I don’t think it would ever be time to fight back”. And I said, “In that case we have nothing to talk about, do we?” At what point is it okay to fight back? Give me a threshold. And I think we really do need to put those thresholds in, because fundamentally we are all being driven insane by this culture. We should have stopped this culture long ago. I can’t imagine anyone of good heart who can’t see that this culture is effectively killing the planet. What’s the threshold?

One possible response to Derrick’s work is fear – fear of the future, fear about what we might do next. One of the key questions he asks in Endgame is, “Do we believe that our culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?” It seems quite obvious that his answer to this question is “definitely not!” Is it any wonder, then, as he has written elsewhere, that the most common response he has got from environmentalists is “We’re fucked!”?

“Which is good. That’s great, because we can’t begin to … hold on a second … I handwrote this the other day. “Before we can begin to use power on our own terms we must realise we are powerless on theirs. Much of the brilliance of the democratic experiment is “to con the powerless into believing they have power”. What has finally become clear to even the most obtuse is that we the people are powerless in this great democracy. The next turn of the screw was to con us into believing that our power lies in our power to consume, or in our inner power to be enlightened. But only when we realise that we are powerless in all these ways, will we be moved to use power in ways that do affect change.” One of the things I’m trying to do is to help form a culture of resistance that will move us towards effectively stopping this culture. Because, once again, we’re talking about life on the planet here. This is not some fricking computer game.”

There seemed to be an acknowledgement in Derrick’s handwritten statement that the dominant understandings of power tend to render us invisible and politically irrelevant in terms of their own logics. But was there also a glimpse of his trying to revalue the notion of power, trying to find other ways of thinking about power that will be helpful to us?

“I think one of the things we need to do, is we need to ask ourselves, what do we want? What is our goal? And that will help determine the ways we can manifest power and the ways we want to manifest power. I think for a lot of mainstream activists, their goal is to attempt to maintain civilization – they say so explicitly. I’m very clear in what I want. I want to live in a world with wild salmon. I want to live in a world with wild sturgeon. I want to live in a world with migratory songbirds. I want to live in a world with more large fish in the oceans every year than the year before. I want to live in a world with less plastic. I want to live in a world that has less dioxin in a mother’s breast milk. So that’s the first issue – I want people to think about what they want. And the next question is, how do you get there? What are the steps to getting there? We have to make some conscious choices. Right now I am choosing to talk to you on the telephone instead of choosing to blow up a dam, or instead of choosing to do anything else in the world. Whether I make it a conscious choice or not, it is a choice. This is one of the areas where I have got into it with pacifists because every moment we are making a choice and I am choosing to write over other forms of resistance but that doesn’t alter the fact that I am making choices. My point is there is culpability in inaction as well. Standing in the face of a complex situation and doing nothing or acting in your own personal way does not absolve you.”

For me, these discussions about specificity and the culpability lead us right to the heart of Derrick’s critique of hope. He has written that “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. It means you are essentially powerless.”

“That definition is one I really like, and it’s how we talk about hope in everyday language. I don’t hope that I eat something today, I’m just going to do it. On the other hand, the next time I go on a plane, I hope it doesn’t crash, because I’ve no agency once I’m on a plane. If it’s going to crash it’s going to crash, there’s nothing I can do about it. You can do all the writing you want, I can do all the writing I want, we can all theorise however we want, but that doesn’t alter the fact that there are still dams standing. At some point the dams have to go. It’s doesn’t matter how they go, whether they go because you file a lawsuit, or whether they go because you take a sledge hammer or you blow them up, it doesn’t matter. The problem is the physical infrastructure of the dam. Yeah, there’s the personal stuff, too, the psychological stuff, but the fact is it’s not attitudes that are killing salmon, it’s dams, and yes there are attitudes that lead to dams (for god’s sake I’m a writer, I fully understand that, that’s why I was saying that we need to change perspective), but that doesn’t alter the fact that we don’t need to merely change perspective. We need to change physical conditions as well.

“And about the hope thing, I’m not a hope fascist. I attempt to be very clear. What I’m trying to get at with the whole hope thing is what we do and don’t have control over, what we do and don’t have agency over. A friend of mine whose brother was dying of cancer said to me, “So you’re telling me that I can’t hope that my brother survives”, and I said, “No, of course you can hope that your brother survives, but what I’m saying you can’t do is stand there with car keys in your hand and say ‘dear brother, I hope you make it to the hospital’. You drive your brother to the hospital”. So what I’m trying to get at is figure out what we do and don’t have agency over, and to expand the areas over which we do have agency but don’t perceive. Because one of the central points of any oppressive system is to attempt to get you to believe that you are powerless.”

It is well known that Derrick is committed to physical sabotage in principle. Could it not be said, though, that the blowing up of dams to save wild salmon, demonstrates the same kind of false hope that he critiques amongst mainstream environmentalists? Very few people are ever going to do this kind of thing, and if they do they will be caught and jailed very quickly. Eco-sabotage has been tried before many times. How could it ever reach the stage where it starts to bring civilization apart or even succeed on its own terms?

“Well, first off I can guarantee that if you have a defeatist attitude like that, it’s never going to happen. The best way to ensure it doesn’t happen is to pretend it can’t happen. Second, it actually is working right now. I have eight words for you. Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. MEND. People in Nigeria have been able to reduce oil output by up to 40%, and they’ve done this by sabotage and kidnapping oil workers, and they’ve done this against the full might of the Nigerian government, oil companies, and of course the support of other governments around the world. It’s absolute nonsense to say that sabotage doesn’t work. What about the Pankhursts? Look at history? What about the IRA, for god’s sake? What about resistance against the Germans in World War II? The single strongest turning point in the French Resistance in World War II was a recognition that the German military was not invincible. As long as people propose that myth of the absolute omnipotence of the oppressors, we will remain oppressed to precisely that degree. I’ve a friend, and he’s great, he’s just this normal guy who didn’t like the coverage of the invasion of Iraq and so instead of just complaining about it, he went and filled a hole in his corner. What I mean by that is he just went to Iraq, and started reporting what was happening. I love this. Instead of sitting on his ass and thinking ‘they can’t do it’, he just did it himself. That goes to the heart of the whole hope thing. There’s this line by Thomas Jefferson, “in war, they shall kill some of us, and we shall destroy all of them”. And that’s one of the reasons that the dominant culture always wins, because that’s the attitude that they have taken, always, and the attitude the resistance has taken has been the one you mentioned – oh, if they do something they’ll catch us. Well, you know what? Fuck that, because there will be casualities in war, but we need to take on the attitude – “you know what, they may stop me, they may stop you, but we’re going to take out every last dam, we’re going to take out every last corporation.” What happens if we match their relentlessness with our own? Because the truth is, they want to win more than we do. That’s the bottom line. They have this insatiability. Most environmentalists don’t know what the fuck we want. What do we want? Maybe we want to live in a world that uses a bit less electricity and the electricity is made by wind farms, never mind what that does for bats? Let’s get clear on what we want, and let’s do it. And there will be generations. These struggles last a long time, and that’s how any social change comes about – you lose, you lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win. I mean that was the Suffragettes, the suffragettes were generation after generation. The Pankhursts went three generations. There’s generation after generation in the Irish struggle. There’s generation after generation in the civil rights struggle. The leaders of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties were the grandchildren of the Pullman Porters, and they themselves were the children and grandchildren of slaves. We have to dedicate ourselves to the struggle and we have to say, hey, yes, we’ll have setbacks, but it time it will be you that grows tired.

Given my own background, I felt drawn to reply to his use of the Irish example. “One of the things about the Irish example, which you’ve brought up yourself, is that for many of us living here, talking about “the Irish struggle” is so incredibly simplistic and it fits too neatly into the binary oppositions of war metaphors, it fits too neatly into-“

“I don’t give a shit about war metaphors. There is an enemy, and those enemies have names. James Inhofe, the capitalists in general, the capitalist system, and that’s one of the things we need to do. The first thing we need to do is we need to decolonise our hearts and minds. Salmon don’t get conflicted. Indigenous people I know don’t get conflicted, “oh we can’t get into a binary system of us and them’. It’s like, fuck that! Tecumseh knew who the enemy was, and yes, there is a binary system. The enemy is the capitalists, and the first thing we need to do, and every indigenous person says this to me, the first thing we need to do is to decolonise our hearts and minds, and as soon as we do that, as soon as we switch our allegiance to where we live, it becomes very, very clear. You can’t trump this by saying that’s a war binary metaphor or a war binary image. So what? It’s true, there are enemies, and they are my enemies, and the capitalist system, and the capitalists themselves are my enemies, and I’ve got no problem saying that.”

This raised a question for me about possible consequences of Derrick’s position. One of the many explicit assumptions in Endgame is the notion that “violence always flows in one direction”. I do sometimes wonder whether taking that stance can sometimes immunize us against critique of our own enactments of violence, maybe even guaranteeing that we are always on the side of the angels. Isn’t it important to leave more of a space for the critique of what we’re at?

“Gosh, do you think that after fifteen books I haven’t thought of this? Oh my god. Frankly the last few minutes have been really bugging me. I deal with this at length. In how many books have I mentioned Robert Jay Lifton’s “claims to virtue”? I talk about this in most of my books because it’s absolutely necessary. But Robert Jay Lifton talks about how before we can commit any mass atrocity you have to convince yourself that what you’re doing is actually in fact beneficial, and so the Nazis had themselves convinced that they were not committing atrocities, that they were not committing genocide against Jewish people, that they weren’t committing mass murder against Eastern Europeans, they weren’t killing homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, etc. Instead what they were doing was purifying the Aryan race. Likewise, capitalists can convince themselves that what they are doing is not destroying the world, instead they’re developing natural resources. And this is true on a personal level. I myself have never once in my life been an asshole. Every time I’ve been an asshole I’ve had it fully rationalised. I am fully aware of the fact, and I write about this in every book. I am fully aware that one can rationalise atrocities and can convince oneself that one is actually doing good when one is actually doing harm, and that’s one reason why I’ve tried so hard in my books to attempt to develop a morality to figure out what can one base a morality on? And one of the things that I came to in Endgame is that clean water is the basis of a morality, because without clean water you die. And so, if something makes drinkable quantities of clean water, that’s a good thing, you can build up a morality from there. On the other hand, I realised that was actually not sufficient, because you can have a water purification system that temporarily creates, at a cost of great energy, temporarily creates drinkable clean water. That’s when I realised that the real question is, do you leave the real physical world a better place because you were born? Just because I recognise there are enemies of the planet that doesn’t mean I don’t remain open and fluid in my analysis.”

One of the reasons that I was enthralled by A Language Older Than Words was precisely because of it’s core of self-critique, its open exploration and critique of the logics of committing violence against violence, on a deeply personal level. It was easily the most honest self-interrogation I had come across. It was someone very clearly trying to make sense of their own experience of thinking and feeling and doing, within a context that was very clearly their own context. I think one of the reasons I was prodding him further on these things was very much because I value the courage in his work. Clearly Derrick self-identifies as a writer, not least because he is so incredibly prolific. Why is writing so powerful for him?

“One part of it is, as a friend of mine says, what are the most pressing problems you can help to solve given the gifts that are unique to you in all the universe? And I have a gift for writing and I need to use that. Like I was saying about my friend in Iraq, I saw a hole in discourse and I tried to fill it. I remember years ago talking to my friend Jeanette Armstrong about an essay that Ward Churchill had written attacking Jerry Mander, and I asked Jeanette what she thought about it and Jeanette said, “If Ward didn’t like it he should have written his own damn book”. That was probably fifteen years ago, and it has really stuck with me. If I don’t agree with somebody or another’s approach, what I should do for the most part is I should write my own damn book. I’ve been blessed to have a really active muse, and my muse is as frightened as I am of circumstances and is willing to push me as hard as I’ll go.

“I like to tell a story … I was watching The Battle of Algiers with a friend of mine. it’s a great movie about the Algerian resistance against the French, and I said to my friend, “So, who would I be in this movie?” And my friend said, “Oh, you’d be dead.” I said, “Oh, thank you very much.” “No,” he said, “you’ve been dead for thirty years and you’re books are on the bookshelves of the insurgents”. I have grown very clear over time about what my role is. My role is to put little pieces of wood and kindling and paper, to pile them up, and to put them just so, and to put some lighter fluid on that, and it’s somebody else’s job to light the match. My job is to get bringing down civilization to pass the lab test, you know? So that’s why I write, that’s what I’m good at. I was doing a video presentation for a class maybe a month ago, two months ago, and one of the people in the class said, “You know, I don’t buy it. Why are you really writing, because you should be out blowing up dams. I don’t buy that you do this because you’re better at writing than you are at chemistry.” (I stink at chemistry). I said, “Well, how many writers have you encountered who are actively calling for us to bring down civilization?” And she said, “one”. I said, “That’s why I write.” You know? There’s nobody else doing this work. One of the things people should do is find the place where you see a hole and fill it.

In 2007 Derrick wrote an extended preface to Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology, a book which directly addresses the question of whether violence is ever an acceptable tool to help bring about social change. The preface provides a short introduction to themes and issues explored at greater length in Endgame, with a particular focus on “dogmatic pacifism”. Point by point he addresses what he sees as the crucial weaknesses of pacifist positions, “deconstructing pacifist arguments that don’t make any sense anyway”. I wondered about his well-documented position on pacifism.

“I have a good time bashing pacifists in Endgame, but the truth is that pacifists were very, very important to the abolition struggle, for example. Harriet Tubman carried a gun, but many of the people in safe-houses along the underground railroad did not. They were run by pacifists. And my problem is not with someone being pacifist at all. I don’t give a shit what someone’s personal proclivities are. The important thing is, I think, to recognise that we need a range of resistance which includes everything from military resistance to absolutely non-military resistance. I was sharing the stage with this friend of mine, Carol Rathensberger, who’s a pacifist, she’s great, and at one point when we’re on the stage, she’s talking about, “Oh, you know a sustainable community would look like, and smell like, and here’s how we make decisions in a sustainable community”, and she went on and on, and she’s great, but I’m fidgeting in my chair the whole time, and she looks at me and says, “obviously you want to say something, Derrick, so what do you want to say”, and I said, “I love what you’re saying, but those in power are sociopaths and the culture itself is sociopathological, and how do we get there from here?” And she smiled at me really sweetly, and said “That’s your job to figure that out, Derrick.” I did a talk years ago at Bioneers, and it was really frustrating for me because as far as I know I was the only person there who was talking about either power or sociopathology. Lots of people were talking about all these groovy things you can do to relocalise and that’s great, but what are you going to do when it ends up there’s a resource on your land that those in power want? At some point we need to talk about self-defence. I’ve known some transition town people who combine relocalisation with firearms skillshare, and with making self-defence on both a personal and a community level a priority. I think that’s great. That’s the thing, you know, really, I’m suggesting with all this that we need it all.”

When Derrick talks about varieties of resistance, it seems important to me that we also talk about varieties of internal resistance. One of the things that I think is crucially important about Derrick Jensen’s work for pacifists is that if they don’t take his work or Peter Vanderloos’ work or Ward Churchill’s work seriously, then how are they going to realistically clarify their own positions?

“I agree totally. The same thing has happened the other way. I’ve been able to hone a lot of these arguments by having those disagreements with pacifists, or whatever. That’s one of the reasons I wrote Endgame, because I got in so many arguments with pacifists that I just wanted to write out the arguments once and for all so I could be done with it. I really like the definition of violence that violence is any act that causes harm to another. And I really like that because it shows the ubiquity of violence, and it demystifies it, and it leads to other questions. So, every time I defecate I’m killing gazillions of bacteria and every time I eat a carrot I’m killing a living being there, too. I think that most of us under most circumstances would agree that it’s morally acceptable to commit an act of violence against a carrot, to eat it. I think most of us under most circumstances would agree that it’s not morally acceptable to commit an act of violence against a human being. I think that’s pretty clear. What I want to find out is where do we individually, where do we collectively draw those lines, and that’s the discussion that I think is really interesting about violence. Is it morally acceptable to kill a carrot? Is it morally acceptable to raise a carrot in a factory farm situation? Is it morally acceptable to kill a chicken? Is it morally acceptable to raise a chicken in a factory farm situation? Is it morally acceptable to kill Ted Bundy? Is it morally acceptable to kill Sarah Palin? Is it morally acceptable to kill me? Where do you and where do I and where do we as a collective in our communities, and whatever social groups we want to talk about, I would like to make those as conscious as possible. That’s one of the things I want to do with my discussions. And if somebody says it’s never acceptable to kill a human being under any circumstances, it’s like, okay, let’s start throwing out … what about Hitler? In 1939, Georg Elser’s assassination attempt. And then to round the stuff out, because out discourse surrounding violence is just so squishy and ridiculous, and harmful, frankly.”

One of the things that Derrick has written is that he doesn’t “provide alternatives because there is no need”. But what I suggested to him was that one of the strongest parts of his work is that he is constantly providing alternatives, not necessarily in terms of what we should do, but in terms of other ways of looking at things. Is he inviting people to a more honed ethical awareness?

“Well, thank you. I really like that. That’s one of the nicest things you could say, and I don’t disagree with that at all. Yeah, I probably am not being clear that when I’m not telling people what to do. There are a few reasons for that. One of them is that I don’t know people and frankly I’ve been approached by some people who want to blow up dams who are either crazy, literally crazy as in think they’re Marie Antoinette or something, or who are very young, and there are many reasons why I would never suggest what that person do, one of which is that I don’t know them. Another is, that it’s one thing to talk to an adult, to talk to someone who is capable of making decisions for themselves, to have a discussion with them, and it’s quite another thing to have a discussion with someone who is either very young or otherwise has problems. I used to say that I’m a recruiter for the revolution, but then that’s not true. And one of the reasons it’s not true is because of what military recruiters do, where they basically try to con people into joining the military. And what I want people to do is to make informed decisions about what they need to do with their life.”

I suppose that’s one of the challenges of being a writer, I suggested. A lot of his work could very easily be taken as a banner for people to wave or a clarion call. I’m a great fan of lifting up words and looking underneath them to see what the attitude of the person is behind the words, beyond the words, but one of the challenges of writing is that many times readers don’t do that, they often just take the words and run. They might not be particularly interested in the bigger picture that the words suggest, taking  a particular page, or a particular sentence, or even a particular word and making of it what they will.

“There are a couple of things about that. One of them is, absolutely, I get misinterpreted all the time, and I used to take that more personally until I realised that I actually do that, too. I’ll read somebody else’s work and I get confused, and so I can see how that will happen. But people misinterpret me. I can say something that I think is pretty clear, and somebody will just take it wherever they’re going to go, and it’s like “gosh, I never actually said that”. I get pegged a lot of times as a violence guy, but I’m not at all, cause I recommend so many times that what we need is a full range of resistance.”

Derrick speaks a lot about the horrors of civilization, but what about the deconstruction of civilization? As his book Walking on Water (2004) showed, he also identifies very deeply as an educator. What role do we have as educators of each other in the unweaving of civilization?

“It’s like I said, that one of the first things we need to do is decolonise, and I think that we can help each other through that process, and it can help to have validation, to have a friend with whom you can have a conversation, and say, “Hey, the stock market went down three hundred points today”, and say “Yes, that’s great”, as opposed to having to explain why that’s not bad. I don’t have any friends any more with whom I have to revisit ‘Civilization Is Bad 101’. There was a time I kept questioning that, and I remember asking Jeanette Armstrong, who was one of my mentors many years ago, “do you ever question that everything you are thinking is wrong?” She said, “I used to question, but I don’t any more.” And I’m at that stage, too, where, you know, I used to question whether maybe I was just wrong about all of this stuff, but probably around writing Culture of Make Believe (2004), I thought, no, my analysis of the culture is right-on. There are other things that I still question, but I don’t question that any more, and part of that is being surrounded by friends with whom you don’t have to say why it’s bad for a creature to be driven extinct.”

Something that comes across in Derrick’s writing is that he is a person who loves life, a person who is also really very gentle in many ways, in spite of the intensity of his themes. I’ve stood in his presence, I know him to have the presence of what I would consider a very gentle person. It’s also interesting that I have heard him characterised by people who don’t know him as anything but gentle.

“It’s pretty funny, when Endgame came out I did this radio interview and about ten minutes into the radio interview, there were two hosts, they just burst out laughing and said, “You’re a nice guy! We were kind of expecting you to be pounding and spitting.” It’s pretty funny. On a personal level, I’m pretty non-violent. I’m not naturally a bellicose person. It used to kind of disturb me that I was writing about these issues, but then I thought, no, actually, I think I’m the person who should be writing about these issues, or one of the people who should. I’m not actually inherently an angry person at all. I’m pretty even tempered. I can get annoyed or whatever, but I think I’ve only shouted at two people, and one of those was my sister. Somebody said in a review of one of my books, and I really liked it. They said that I was almost pathologically unsentimental, and I like that. Not unemotional, obviously. I don’t really know what it means, but I like it.”

Special thanks to Derrick Jensen for agreeing to do this interview while recovering from surgery. 

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

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

Hello.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do I do the work that I do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deciding without decisions

I’ve been trying to work recently with the idea, ‘when in doubt, wait it out’, basically working around the thought that if you come to a difficult situation sometimes it’s helpful to just trundle along until the circumstances change just enough to clean the windows of possibility for me again. Sometimes waiting dissolves the windows entirely so that the possibilities simply present themselves. Sometimes waiting just reminds me that sometimes I am not always a patient person. Maybe true patience dissolves the sense of waiting? What does it mean when people say, ‘they tested my patience’ or ‘there are limits to my patience’? How can there be limits to patience? With true patience I imagine there is nothing to limit, being an attitude and all. I don’t know.

I think I’d link this idea into my recent (and often inadequate) attempt to not make too many decisions in my life, my felt need for a decision often indicating that I haven’t been gentle with either the situation, with others, or with myself. Decisions, I have found, are often born where gentleness doesn’t feel at home.

Maybe an urgent felt need to make a decision comes from me not having listened closely enough to the situation I find myself in? Maybe if I listened closer I’d not feel the need to make a decision but might rather find myself moving towards some things and away from other things on the basis of whether it feels right or not. Does decision-making sometimes get in the way of intuition? Maybe sometimes it’s less about being decisive and more about waiting it out.

http://www.anthonymccann.com

A Politics of Gentleness in the Practice of Coaching: The dynamics of enclosure and the possibilities of ordinary ethics.

Presented at EMCC Research Conference, Trinity College, Dublin, June 2013

Abstract

Following a brief analysis of some of the literature on presence I conclude there is need for clarity, many positions moving seamlessly between, on the one hand, the valuing of presence in and of itself and, on the other, the valuing of a particular quality of presence. I turn to the notion of relational field and offer a brief outline of a theoretical system of relational analysis, including: the method of register analysis; the dynamics of registers of enclosure; and an overview of what I term “ordinary ethics” and a “politics of gentleness”. I conclude with brief reflections on the relevance of this theoretical work for coaching practice.

Introduction

I entered coaching more by intuition than by decision. I found myself drawn to a professional practice that aligned with my 15-year academic journey in exploration of the political possibilities of gentleness. For me, coaching can be a gentle art, when practised ethically and sensitively. Coaching can invite people to the richness of possibilities in the art of being human. Coaching can, at best, invite people to a deep and shimmering embrace of the ineffable. Coaching also sits as a practice in that space between individual change and collective change, having the potential to catalyse those kinds of changes that ripple out through the pulses and echoes of individual hearts and human relationship. Unlike psychotherapy, coaching does not reach back into the darkness and stir. Sometimes it’s as simple as introducing someone to themselves, their possibilities, and the more hopeful realities of their life. To practise the profession of coaching is to practise a hopeful art.

Back in the 1980s I remember that visiting a supermarket tended to be a fairly unthinking activity. We would take down cans of food, or what approximated to food, and place them rather carelessly in the shopping trolley, before carting them home and eventually consuming the mysteries within. These days we tend to be quite a bit more discriminating about what we buy. Checking the ingredients list on the side of a can or a packet has become almost automatic; we now seem to have developed a keen sense that what we eat has an effect on our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our quality of life. And we don’t stop there; we also check where our food has come from, in light of anything from airmiles to sweatshops to the policies of nations.

Sometimes when I think of theory I think about shopping in a supermarket. In mind of the spirit of Marx who commented that we make our own history but not quite as we please, when we think our thinks we do indeed think our own, but not quite as we please. We are born into conditions of thought not of our own making, and, for the most part, we tend to take our cans of ready-packaged thought down off the supermarket shelf with little regard to content or provenance or ethical import. Ready-made thought, ripe for consumption. We often give little thought to the ways that particular kinds of thinking can affect our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our quality of life. And they can.

What, then, do I mean by “theory”? I understand theory as thinking about your own and other people’s thinking, feeling and doing … to reduce possibilities of violence, coercion, domination, and oppression in everyday life … and to increase the possibilities of human flourishing and enhance our understanding of the art of being human.

Literature review

“Presence” is a term that is gaining caché in coaching, and one which I find useful to explore as a gateway to my reflections on gentleness. Interestingly, as a positive term it seems to be finding more fertile ground in reflective professional practice (for example, in coaching, the performing arts, management, and healthcare) than in the more abstracted realms of philosophical academic thought. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the emphasis in professional practice on literally ‘being present’ in the company of another or others. Professional practice, practised ethically, invites a pragmatist immediacy of grounding and response on account of the quality of work-calling-to-be-done in and through relationship.

Writing on presence and presencing seems to fall into two main camps, which might be characterised as optimistic and pessimistic respectively.

In the optimistic camp, writers present presence as an available quality of existence and relationship in the here-and-now. For such writers, presence is both possible and desirable. It tends to be experienced in gradations; more presence, it is assumed, is better. Presence can also be cultivated; it is something we can train ourselves to do better. This is exemplified, for example, by the writings of Silsbee, Topp, or O’Neill within the field of coaching. Elizabeth Topp (2006) writes that “Presence” is “one’s quality of relating to the here and now or present-moment”. Silsbee likewise writes, “Presence is a state available to all of us at any moment. While acquired habits and tendencies greatly constrain our experience of presence, our access to it can be intentionally and systematically cultivated” (2008, p. 3).

The pessimistic camp provides a useful foil with which to temper the possibility of romanticism. In the pessimistic approach, those who consider presence desirable are doomed never to achieve it, as we can never fulfill the promise of an unmediated or non- representational existence. As Cormac Power writes, in discussing the work of Derrida, Fuchs, Blau and others in the context of theatre studies, “Perhaps the idea of presence – of whatever kind – is itself a kind of fiction, an example of theatre’s capacity to create the ‘powerful illusion’ of the ‘unmediated’” (2006, p. 128). A more developed version of this approach can be found within philosophical discourse on “metaphysics of presence”, as found within poststructuralism and deconstructionism, building on Heidegger’s critique of temporality within Western philosophy from Aristotle to Nietzsche. Derrida and others characterise and critique the “metaphysics of presence” as the foundationalist tendency to anchor truth, reality, and being in a privileged fixed point of presence, essence, or identity.

From the perspective of coaching practice, such critiques cannot be brushed off lightly. Indeed, even within the work of presence-based coach Doug Silsbee there is a hint of circumspection about the stability of access to presence, “Realization, and the state of presence, disappears as soon as we observe and name it” (2008, p. 53).

My own position lies somewhere between the two camps.

I am happy to optimistically think of presence as a way of talking about the proverbial water in the lives of the proverbial fish. Two little fish are swimming along, and a big grouper swims by slowly, saying, ‘Good morning. The water’s lovely and warm today, boys.” The grouper swims out of sight, and one little fish turns to the other fish and says, “What’s water?” For me, presence is the water. I take presence to be an available quality of existence and an existant quality of relationship. I don’t, however, consider presence desirable. It’s not that I think we are doomed never to experience or achieve presence, it’s just that I don’t see any point desiring that which you cannot avoid.

I find it helpful to step away from the notion of presence as being helpful in and of itself. For me, presence is a more or less descriptive term, referring simply to the qualities of hereness (‘being present’) and withness (‘being with’) that I assume are part and parcel of the experience of being human. Any claims made for presence beyond hereness and withness are, for me, not only beyond the scope of the concept but also distract us from the more political dimensions of relational life. If presence is always-already present, then it is not so

much a background of presence itself that interests me as a coach but rather the variable quality of the relational field, couched in presence, that is in play.

When people write optimistically and aspirationally about presence in and of itself, they seem to me to be more writing about a particular quality of being present, a particular quality of awareness, a particular quality of relationship, a particular quality of participation in relationship. Take this statement from psychotherapist James Bugental, for example,

“Presence is a name for a quality of being in a situation or relationship in which one intends at a deep level to participate as fully as she is able. Presence is expressed through mobilization of one’s sensitivity – both inner (to the subjective) and outer (to the situation and the other person(s) in it) – and through bringing into action one’s capacity for response” (1987, pp. 26-27).

Bugental is advocating not just being present, but a particular way of being present with someone, a particular attitude with a honed awareness and a deep quality of listening, listening both to one’s self and to one’s situation.

Similarly, executive coach Mary Beth O’Neill speaks of presence in the context of the coaching relationship as a particular kind of orientation. She writes that presence involves the development and sustenance of tolerance for “ambiguity, daunting challenges, the anxiety or disapproval of others, and your own personal sources of stress” (2007, p. 20). For O’Neill, the cultivation of presence is also the cultivation of courage and strength in the face of challenges. In the context of a framework developed with the aid of systems thinking, what she calls “signature presence” is the quality of being most yourself when your self is most needed, “moving through these moments in your own unique way, thus making the most of your own strengths, interests, and eccentricities” (ibid).

The Relational Field

It seems to me that something more than “presence” is needed to speak of the variabilities of affect, power, and movement at play within relationship. One way to think about different kinds of presence, or different qualities of being present, is to consider presence (hereness and withness) in the context of a relational field. Within coaching literature relating to presence we find the concept of relational or social interactional field in the work of both Doug Silsbee and Mary Beth O’Neill. O’Neill’s understanding of the term is the closest I have come to my own understanding of the term:

When any two or ten or one hundred people interact with one another over time, they create a social interactional field. It operates through the relationships of those involved, but it develops a character, shape, and set of rules transcending any of the individuals who contributed energy to its creation. … It has its own anchor points, resiliency, and breaking point, and it is most often invisible to the members within it. When anyone within the field moves, all members feel the effect, though differently, based on their positions. Other metaphors for the interactional field are the gravitational and magnetic fields. We are immersed within their invisible forces and we feel their influence, though most often that influence is unconciously experienced (2007, p. 49).

The relational or social interactional field, then, is a way to speak about the continuous play of influences in a particular situation, the dynamic poetics of difference and differentiation whereby the personal experience of hereness and withness combines with a dynamic and relational ‘nearness’ of attraction and aversions, movement and currents.

I am reminded here of the Irish-language 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 a verbal noun, a noun with the quality of an action, and is derived from the adjective “gar”, meaning “near”. It communicates, then, that quality of hereness-withness-nearness and response-ability. For me, “garaíocht” is the epitome of the relational field.

Methodology

The method that I use to make more specific sense of the relational field is “register analysis.” I draw the term “register” from sociolinguistics (e.g. Halliday, 1978; Butler, 1999). 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. It is a fundamental property of all languages that they display variation according to use; but surprisingly little is yet known about the nature of the variation involved, largely because of the difficulty of identifying the controlling factors.” (1978, pp. 31-32).

The study of register, then, tends to allow for analysis of context and the structuring of expectation that occurs within any context. Through a study of linguistic variation, for example, it is possible to come to a more nuanced understanding of how some linguistic forms might be considered appropriate-to-context within a particular situation and others might not.

Register theory allows sociolinguists to compare particular qualities of language, and I find it provides a useful launching-off point for comparing particular qualities of relationship within the play of influences of a relational field. In using register theory to make better sense of our experience of structuring of expectation, and of our participation in structuring of expectation,

I find it helpful to take language away from the centre of the theoretical model of register. Instead of a language focus, I am interested in architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing. I want a theoretical model that will allow me to better understand how those architectures and dynamics vary from situation to situation. How and why will one coaching session with a client feel so completely different to another? What distinguishes the dynamics of a coaching session from a casual conversation with a friend? What are the general principles of appropriateness-to-context which govern variations in thinking, feeling, and doing from situation to situation?

There are certain assumptions that I bring to this work. These are drawn from the range of my disciplinary explorations (see McCann, 2003), and might be characterized as social interactionist in inclination:

  • our experience of uncertainty is both present and variable;
  • to assume that uncertainty can be or should be ‘eliminated’ is to deeply disrespect the character of that experience;
  • humans respond to their environment on the basis of associative, cumulative, adaptive, and structuring meanings that emerge for them as social individuals; these meanings are modified through individual negotiation within social interaction;
  • as our experience of meaning is reconfigured, so, too, is our discursive relationship to uncertainty, our experience of affect, and our experience of power.

The heart of the framework is the identification of three key variables in the relational field which I regard as the most important governing variables in the structuring of social interaction:

  1. Intensity of affect (ranging from more to less intense)
  2. Character of influencing (ranging from more to less directive)
  3. Discursive relationship to uncertainty (ranging from the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty to
    the acceptance of uncertainty)

The important point in this work is that I have found these three variables to be direct correlates. For example, the more intense the affectual environment, the more appropriate 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 directive and the affectual environment will intensify.

I use a register-based framework, then, to identify and evaluate the governing dynamics of structuring of expectation and, hence, of culture change to assist me in making sense of the coach-coachee relationship and the challenges of coaching practice. Every day we move in, through, and out of different registers or environments of expectation. The differences in our experience of everyday life, the multiple transitions from one kind of situation to another, are so commonplace as to usually evade analysis. But it is precisely those differences that make us who we tend to be, and it is precisely their commonplace character that invites analysis. To reduce this to very simple terms, register analysis can be understood as a way to “listen to yourself, listen to your environment; listen to your client, listen to their environment.”

An important concept here is what I call “the adjacent probable”. I have developed this term from an insight in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex systems researcher. As reported by Stephen Johnson (2010), Kauffman’s work on evolution and self-organisation gave rise to the notion of “the adjacent possible”. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility:

“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 register analysis, I take the concept of the adjacent possible and move it towards a notion of “the adjacent probable”. What 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 already dominate in the situation we find ourselves in. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses, both tacit and explicit, in a particular relational field that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant register of that relational field.

Discussion

One of the primary reasons for the development of this theoretical work has been to allow me to more readily identify and respond to architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that contribute to the possibilities of increased violence, coercion, domination, and oppression in relationship. Through more helpful identification of such architectures and dynamics we might come to a clearer understanding of the political possibilities for human flourishing.

Key here is the identification of what I call “registers of enclosure”, that is, relational fields in which the expectation that uncertainty can be or should be ‘eliminated’ has become dominant. Registers of enclosure become highly toxic and deeply unpleasant environments of interaction, and they tend to be (among other features):

a)  expansionary – they spread
b)  accelerative and intensifying – they get worse
c)  Highly commodifying – involving dynamics of commodification
d)  dominated by discourses and practices of resource production and management
e)  dominated by chronic heightened intensity
f)  dominated by chronic heightened directivity

Within these characteristically chronically intense and chronically directive environments, the adjacent probable of the corresponding relational field becomes the discourses, practices, and dynamics of enclosure. What that means is that what people will tend to reach for as a response within an enclosing environment will tend to make that environment worse. Discourses, dispositions, and dynamics characteristic of enclosure become normalized as the way things are, and frequently, at least rhetorically, as the way things must be.

I would argue that the institutionalised orthodoxies of academic disciplines, and of political and economic practice, can be characterised as registers of enclosure. Most of what people generally consider ‘powerful’ or ‘authoritative’ interaction takes place within enclosing environments, where the enactment of ordinary ethics and the nourishment of human flourishing becomes incredibly difficult. Further, deeply unhelpful, enclosing understandings of human nature, power, agency, learning, and change are what become most available to us within the dominant, institutionalised discourses and practices of social, political and economic practice. Much of what we reach for from the supermarket shelf of thought throughout our professional lives will tend to double us back into enclosing dynamics; often despite our best intentions, and sometimes because of them.

Ordinary Ethics: Towards a Politics of Gentleness

Registers of enclosure also tend to be characterised by a significant chilling effect. Not only do the architectures and dynamics of enclosure come to feel appropriate, but architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that might help the situation become less enclosing come to feel inappropriate – “the adjacent unlikely”.

In practical terms, this means that in registers of enclosure it becomes increasingly unlikely that people will turn to the generosity, hospitality, nurturing, caring, gentleness, compassion, kindness, or trust that tend to be characteristic of human flourishing. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that the entire range of what I call “ordinary ethics”, the social glue of human flourishing, will become “the adjacent unlikely” of environments of enclosure.

This where a “politics of gentleness” comes in. What I call a politics of gentleness is a political positioning on behalf of the crucial importance of ordinary ethics. Advocating a politics of gentleness is, for me, to advocate for the vital importance of building and maintaining the optimal conditions for sustainable human flourishing. These conditions will simply happen, I believe, if we allow space for them to happen, if we trust in the hereness-withness-nearness that is available to us.

How is it a politics? Very simply, it involves a re-imagination of the notion of power. Instead of power being understood as the ability to control others or the ability to manage resources, power is here understood as the ability to vary the experience of oneself or another. Power, then, is ubiquitous, dynamic, and specific in its effects, with a very sizeable nod in the direction of Michel Foucault (1990). Agency, then, becomes the exercise of power, understood as response-ability. Agency is our ability to respond in every moment by virtue of our experience of presence combined with the relational field, our experience of hereness- withness-nearness. Garaíocht.

Where others have written optimistically about the possibilities of presence, I write optimistically about the possibilities of ordinary ethics and a politics of gentleness. I believe ordinary ethics to be an available quality of existence and relationship in the here-and-now, both possible and desirable. The greater the possibility for ordinary ethics in relationship, the better. Ordinary ethics and a politics of gentleness can be cultivated; it is something we can train ourselves to do better.

What is crucial here, though, is that the desirable condition of gentleness is not defined as a state which we are working to achieve, but rather as an orientation, an approach, an invitation to a consistency of response to relationship and the world. Gentleness, the optimal quality of the relational field for ordinary ethics, is here understood as the uncommodifying quality of relationship (hereness-withness-nearness) that becomes most available when the “elimination of uncertainty” does not dominate as an expectation in any particular situation. In this way, discernment, evaluation, and political critique are built into this understanding of gentleness. Not only this, but self-discernment, self-awareness, and self-critique come along with it, too. Understanding one’s own contribution to the elimination of uncertainty dynamics within a relational field is the sine qua non of response-ability in the cause of ordinary ethics.

An environment suffused with ordinary ethics provides an informal, uninstitutional, and uncommodifying realm of vernacular ethics that supports us in generating subtle and spontaneous responses of possibility. When the conditions are right for ordinary ethics to flourish, those same conditions will support human flourishing more generally. The relational fields we shape also shape us. When the conditions are not right, when we maintain environments where ordinary ethics becomes the adjacent unlikely, we reduce our possibilities for helpful change and hamper our work as catalysts of the art of being human.

Implications for research and practice

Unfortunately, there is not room here for a full discussion, but there are certain issues that I see as important in the discussion of enclosing dynamics within the coaching profession. The allure of the gravities of the ‘elimination’ of uncertainty are strong. They have been experienced time and time again by each profession as people seek to stabilise the community they have created. Among the issues that come to mind are the following:

  • Codification, Certification, and Professionalization: the gravities of bureaucratization and administration are strong, and sometimes appropriate. It is important to keep the purpose of codification, certification, and professionalization in mind, and never to allow them to become ends in themselves;
  • Complicity within enclosing institutional environments: often in executive coaching we find ourselves working within organisations which are, to say the least, unhealthy. As coaches it is important to clarify our role and influence as catalysts within enclosing institutional environments, and to signal our potential complicity as cogs within institutional systems that offer much less than the optimal conditions for human flourishing;
  • Quietly manipulative techniques and techics: As the character Dream says in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Chronicles, “Tools, of course, can be the subtlest of traps.” Tools are used a lot in coaching. It is important to know where tools come from, from values are embedded within their quiet directivities, and whether the particular tools we choose may, indeed, be more in line with the dynamics of enclosure than we might wish;
  • Excessive goal- and solution-focused language/practice: both the goal-that-must-be- achieved and the problem-that-must-be-solved are classic elimination-of-uncertainty structures in thought and practice. The language we use can either foster and facilitate the dynamics of enclosure or it can allow us to challenge them;
  • Excessive branding, trademarking, and proprietary practice: with professionalization comes a concern for individual commercial protection. However, it may be that branding, trademarking, and proprietary practice have become adjacent probables in the coaching world. When this happens it can run counter to the openness required for the healthy development of a community of research and a recognised discipline;
  • Enclosing theoretical models: theoretical models are tools, too. Where do they come from? Why do we choose the ones we choose? In what ways might they limit or facilitate our research imaginations? I have stated above that the institutionalised orthodoxies of academic practice tend to be enclosing in character. This goes for theoretical models as well;
  • Personal dispositional inclinations: we only ever make the contributions that we make, and the disposition we bring to our work will characterize that contribution. Be the change that you want to see.As noted above, the approach that follows from the register analysis above could be summarised as “Listen to yourself, listen to your situation; listen to your client, listen to your situation.” Coaching can be an enclosing art. Like any profession, it can be practised badly. We have the potential to do harm. It is not enough to know that we are on the side of the angels. I work to find a more subtle theoretical model to understand the governing dynamics of attitude, behaviour, and interaction so that I might be less likely to do harm.Coaching can also be a vital change tool for a more hopeful world. Through a coaching relationship people can be invited to become more themselves, in the sense that they can come to a greater awareness of the part they play as actors and agents in the conditions of their lives. Coaching draws people into an alchemist’s cauldron, where transformations are not only possible, but expected, remembering that “When all is said and done, the only change that will make a difference is the transformation of the human heart” (Joseph Jaworski, in Senge et al. 2005, p. 26). To practise the profession of coaching can indeed be to practise a hopeful art, a gentle art.

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