Stumbling along in place and time – wondering about wandering in Vuosaari, part I

Being critical

Some weeks before formerly taken-for-granted pleasures like classroom teaching began to be curtailed, I sent an abstract to an ERC/UEF conference on sensory methodologies, for a paper I called ‘Meandering in modern landscapes’. I thought of it as a sympathetic critique of sensory methods. I imagined that I could base at least some of it on walks I would do with students in the Design Department at Aalto over the spring of 2020.

Instead, in the past months I have mostly walked with like-minded friends and I have read about walking. Fortunately I did get to walk with Lucy Davis, intrepid enquirer into migrantecologies and member of the Art Department at Aalto University, whose students have been doing a lot of walking recently, as I’ll explain below.

When I sent in my paper abstract last spring, I was particularly concerned with the way sensory research can slip into ‘romanticism’. I had noted that not everyone who is extolling the virtues of embodied and slow methods like walking has the (anthropologists’) luck of being familiar with the endless variety of ways that humans can arrange but also experience their worlds. Celebrating the human body and one’s own senses can, namely, lead to simplifying and parochial habits, like talking about human experience as if it were a transparent thing. I worried that sensory methods can forget one of the key lessons of the anthropology of the senses: the senses are made, not given (David Howes 2019).

This important lesson (that human life is culturally constructed) has been forgotten or, more exactly not appreciated, by many environmentalists. We European green types still channel heroic efforts from 200 years ago even, to get in touch with the most awesome aspects of nature in solitude, as if climbing up a rugged mountain were a route to universal insight. The standard example is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog. A typical experience of the sublime, I was indulging in it a few weekends ago here in Helsinki, with Lucy and Guy Julier, see the photo below. What a lovely afternoon we had. But though this kind of communing is rewarding, readers may know that it has been eloquently critiqued by William Cronon and other environmental historians.

Vuosaaren huippu January 2021 with colleagues

Sensory methods can also limit inquiry to the small scale and the low-tech. If, like me, you are interested in landscapes and lifeways that are largely shaped by capital-intensive digital infrastructures, that is a shortcoming.

In research around environmental politics more generally, turning away from the large-scale technical structures and related forms of mess left by modernity (to borrow from Kim Fortun), leads to dead ends, I think.

Where changing the world (for the greener) is part of one’s motivation for working on better research methods, there’s even a danger that disciplines favouring sensory methods (anthropology and design are those that I know) may become irrelevant if they mainly indulge in and celebrate our embodied experience. After all, to respond to real and shared threats like a heating climate, we unambiguously need seriously sophisticated extensions of the human senses – technoscientific apparatuses of one kind or another.

My immediate environment and those pesky global processes

Several critical voices, Alf Hornborg among them (e.g. here), are pointing out these problems. It’s fine to attend to the “sensory, perceptual engagement of humans with their immediate environment”. But those scholars promoting sensory methods, while also extolling the arts and critiquing academia as Tim Ingold has been known to do (e.g. in this paper), can end up downplaying “the abstract territory of global political economy” (from Hornborg). But it is this which has created the conditions we (sic) now experience as problematic. Power politics, from the most discursive (elite talk, say) to the most materially embodied (the production and consumption of digital devices, say) “increasingly constrain[] most humans from experiencing the world in the way Ingold advocates”, Hornborg writes.

By my reading, this would include the extra-linguistic involvements of sensory (or multimodal) methodologies and the emotional rewards of, say, climbing up snowy artificial hillsides with like-minded colleagues, as I did with Lucy and Guy.

There is also the problem that enquiry involving affect-saturated sensory methods will fail to connect with the hegemonic, often (digital-)data-driven, knowledge practices of those with the greatest technical and economic power, on the other.

A similar problem was picked up some time ago by my colleague, Cindy Kohtala, in a different context, sustainable design. (Her blog post should be compulsory reading for all who are going into that field.)

In it Cindy took aim at manifesto-like mainstream publications gushing about how lovely are the grassroots initiatives seeking alternatives to destructive practices. She exhorted junior researchers, perhaps themselves involved in those initiatives, to get out there and study the world beyond them. She also advised researchers to be precise about what sustainability means in their work. Specifically, she encouraged being clear about what one is studying, the “‘sustainability’ of a system, or participants’ beliefs about the sustainability of the system”.

Here, I suppose, is the core of my discomfort. While capital-intensive infrastructures and toxic relationships of all kinds continue to be rolled out through business-as-usual, creating patchy anthropocene landscapes around the world, as Anna Tsing’s research team argues, can sensory research engage in non-trivial ways with the design of collective futures? Isn’t it in constant danger of confusing beliefs and hopes on one side with actual processes on the other?

But wandering is often also wondering

Well, from my reading around the topic recently, beliefs and hopes, but more importantly, narratives, compose knowledge anyway. We all tell stories, including engineers, scientists and financiers. The infrastructure projects that have created the landscapes we now call home – the Vuosaari landfill, the international port next to it, the massive and rather recent transport infrastructure that dominates the route we walked – are all also the result of competitive storytelling.

And even as we all use our bodies, we all rely on technical apparatuses for knowing. I guess I’m trying to say that even as we use those apparatuses or draw on our specialist expertise, a kind of eclecticism and superficiality is always part of learning. It’s nurtured in particularly acute ways when you’re walking, and particularly walking with others. Everything is up to be focussed on, to be questioned and even marvelled at, whether natural or artificial.

So I’ve turned around on myself before even having written up that ‘sympathetic critique of sensory methods’, to say, we need it the walking and the sensory as well as the technologically mediated knowledge. We need it all!

Let’s then continue with the walking, the multimodal research, the burying ourselves into others’ texts, the conversations with the experts on whatever particular site concerns us at any given time.

Place and time matter for how things play out

Vuosaari, with its curious but not unique landfill-turned-recreational-area (landfills have long been turned into destinations), has now inspired me as well as Lucy and her students.

Next to Vuosaari’s new-ish port is also one of my favourite industrial buildings, Paulig coffee roastery. This ensemble is a handy visualization of globalization and its materiality – the port and railway taking stuff coming and going, the roastery fuelling our bodies with the energies needed to sustain lives as we have come to know them and bringing colonialism right into our very bodies on a daily basis…

So, Lucy also sent her students up the hill on what no doubt became quite fun ambulatory explorations. The thing is, she had given them very fine company: art historical perspectives on animals at Medieval religious sites, Eero Hyvönen, a local journalist who gave a talk, the Feral Atlas and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Lucy’s course is Art &/in Ecology, in the Art department, not in environmental politics. Yet I found the materials she shared from her teaching absolutely enthralling and totally germane to my own efforts to understand environmental conflict and management.

To those companions for the students, in a zoom lecture I added my own thoughts about how layers of history have been materialized in today’s Vuosaari. I also shared some of what we learned a few years ago when, with the Narratiimi collective, we did several walks in the area. We put particular emphasis on the beauty of walking together: side by side, walkers may come from different places but they are, for a while at least, moving towards and looking at the same thing. Makes for mutual understanding as well as opening up opportunities to learn from each other.

I hope I get to discuss the students’ walk or hike, and to learn how it has affected their explorations of Helsinki’s urban ecologies. To that end I have invited myself to tomorrow’s online session.

One of the students last week asked me if I’ve written about walking. Well, no, I’ve not. Hence, in part, this blog post. But lots of people have written about walking – in many, many ways. I will do a part II of this blog in the form of a short list of references. For now I’ll mention two new books. Both are about walking in the city and both contribute in important ways to filling out new, better, non-trivial narratives.

Cindy (mentioned above) gave me Matthew Beaumont’s (2020) The walker: on finding and losing yourself in the modern city. This is a great book of wandering and wondering, words and steps, navigating mostly English-language literature on urban walking. It draws generously from many writers and teaches, without being stolid or didactic, about pedestrian life and its value(s).

The other is Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson’s Urban Awakenings: Disturbance and Enchantment in the Industrial City, Melbourne in fact. Reaching across the divide that is pre-Covid and post-Covid, their ability to walk a city so designed for other modes of being is quite remarkable.

A relevant insight towards the start of their book, which serves as an endorsement to develop sensory experience more, not less, is this: “everyday modern life conspires remorselessly to stultify human sensibility and insight” (p. 32). Part of my teaching task will thus be making effort to counter this.

I wonder if I ever will write at length about walking, as sympathetic critic or otherwise. If I did, this quotation, from environmental historians Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin (eds) Grounding Urban Natures: Histories and Futures of Urban Ecologies published in 2019, would be a good starting point.

“If there is anything that the rich traditions of urban studies, critical environmental studies, and environmental history has shown, it is that place and time matter for how things play out.”

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