Comfort Viewing: Detectorists in an Age of Anxiety

In the final, pitch-perfect episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, as the protagonists ready themselves to leave their Western-Front trench and take the fight to the enemy, George – the eager and idealistic lieutenant – is suddenly struck by fear and nostalgia. Recalling the enthusiasm with which he and his fellow Cambridge recruits had signed up at the outbreak of war, giddily leapfrogging one another to the recruiting office, George realises that he is “the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the Golden Summer of 1914”. “I don’t want to die,” he tells Captain Blackadder; “I’m really not overkeen on dying at all, sir”. If only for a moment, we have all – at some point in the last year or so – been George: apprehensive about the future and longing for the perceived certainties of the past. The COVID-19 pandemic has, perhaps indelibly so, divided the chronology of our lives into two distinct periods: before and after. Rarely in peacetime has everyday life been so disrupted and made so unpredictable for so many people at the same time. The fundamental uncertainties that the pandemic has brought in respect to health, money, and family and social life, has necessarily seen us seek comfort and reassurance in things that feel safe, familiar, and predictable. For many viewers in Britain and internationally, Detectorists has been a source of that assurance. In what follows, I consider why this might be so and what it might tell us about the programme’s continuing relevance and possible longevity.

“I’m the last of the tiddlywinking leapfroggers from the Golden Summer of 1914”.

In the middle of March 2020, as the world went into lockdown, Joanne Norcup and I were finalising the text of our soon-to-be-published edited collection, Landscapes of Detectorists. As we made a final round of phone calls to the rapidly emptying offices of cast members’ agents, striving to secure the permissions necessary to reproduce screengrabs in the book, we had a shared and growing sense that we had missed our moment: that, from the rapidly changing perspective of 2020, Detectorists seemed suddenly dated – a swiftly fading echo of the culture of a pre-pandemic, pre-Brexit Britain. Yet, in creating the temporal disjuncture that marked out Detectorists as coming from the “before” times, the socio-political events of 2020 served in unexpected ways to renew the programme’s relevance, both for existing fans and for new viewers. The advent of the pandemic, and the arrival of its associated lockdowns, was marked by a proliferation of articles in print and online offering advice on how best to navigate the “new normal”, many of which, in providing lists of recommended viewing, sought to guide readers through the vast range of entertainment available to them via television streaming services. Detectorists featured prominently in many of these lists.

Beyond its obvious comedic qualities, Detectorists was often recommended as a visual treat – a bucolic escape from the domestic confines of lockdown. For the journalist Paul Kirkley, for example, Detectorists represented “a whole new genre of television – the pastoral sitcom”. While there are undoubtedly earlier examples of this genre, such as Green Acres in the US and Last of the Summer Wine in the UK, Detectorists is perhaps unique in the degree to which the rural landscape is central both to the programme’s narrative and to its visual identity and distinctiveness. “Watching the show,” Kirkley noted, “is like stepping into a landscape painting, with flat Essex fields laid out beneath vast Eastern skies, while bees and insects buzz drowsily in the cowslip and foxglove”. Here, Detectorists is seen to have value in relation to its visual spectacle – a quality more often associated with the cinematic rather than the televisual. The scholar of film and television Helen Wheatley has shown, however, that a wider cycle of “landscape programming” has seen television increasingly deliver the immersive viewing experience more ordinarily associated with film. For Wheatley, series such as Coast and Britain’s Favourite View, while depending for their success partly on the visual fidelity of high-definition film and broadcast technology, address a desire amongst audience members for a less frenetic and more contemplative viewing experience – a desire often associated with the so-called “slow television” movement. Detectorists sits firmly at the intersection of these trends, its visual richness matched by its measured tempo.

The first pastoral sitcom? © Chris Harris Photography.

The pacing of Detectorists is, by design, gently meandering – a choice that mirrors both the unhurried approach to life which Lance and Andy assume (often to the understandable frustration of their partners) and the leisurely and deliberate nature of the hobby they pursue. On the rare occasions during which this lack of hurry is subverted in the programme’s narrative, it is for comic rather than dramatic effect: think of the incomprehensibly rapid delivery of Kevin Eldon’s auctioneer or the chase sequence in which Lance and Andy in the TR7 pursue Paul and “Art” on an underpowered scooter. In Detectorists, speed, in all its guises, is rendered absurd and unnatural. The rural setting of Detectorists certainly plays into this construction of slowness as natural – the programme’s action (such as it is) unfolds in a landscape where time is marked out by the passing of seasons and the rhythms of nature. While the reality of rural life might not correspond with such an imagined ideal, the apparent slowness of Detectorists was, for many viewers during the pandemic, a source of its appeal. Together with programmes like Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, Detectorists was espoused by online commentators as a source of almost meditative calm – a tranquilising retreat from an anxiety-inducing world. Described variously as gentle, tender, sweet, and pure, Detectorists was seen by many to embody qualities that appeared otherwise elusive in a global culture defined increasingly by antagonism and hostility.

The rural setting of Detectorists, and the importance of landscape to its storytelling, has, of course, long been recognised by critics as central to the programme’s lure. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2015, for example, Robert Lloyd argued that Detectorists was “a pastoral comedy in which characters (philosophers, lovers, clowns) go from the town to the country and into the woods, to be translated, deepened, changed, improved or beloved, as in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ or ‘As You Like It’”. Adam Mars-Jones, writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 2017, concurred with Lloyd’s analysis and heaped further praise on the programme in declaring it to be “the best pastoral comedy since As You Like It”. For audiences in lockdown in 2020, the pastoral qualities of Detectorists took on a new significance as a visual replacement for the landscapes to which their physical access was temporarily denied. Writing in Square Mile magazine – a publication targeting residents of the highly urbanised City of London and Canary Wharf – Max Williams called Detectorists “the perfect show for these troubled times,” on account partly of its calming and transportive visual qualities. “Gorgeous imagery abounds,” he noted, “imagery that makes you think, or perhaps realise, that tree leaves sparkling with the morning rain might be the most beautiful sight in creation”.

Our collective Golden Summer?

The cinematography of Jamie Cairney and Mattias Nyberg succeeds in capturing the mythical “Golden Summer” invoke by George in Blackadder Goes Forth. While such a vision of Britain, and of England specifically, might be dismissed as tritely nostalgic (a visual resonance of John Major’s “long shadows on county grounds”), the summer landscape of Detectorist comforts precisely because it elicits memories, real or imagined, of an earlier time. Redolent of the seemingly endless summers of childhood, landscape in Detectorists transports us not only in space but also across time. Detectorists is an escape because it takes place somewhere else but also, in effect, at another time in our collective past. Writing on Twitter the day after the UK entered lockdown in March 2020, the novelist Linda Grant captured this sense of the programme’s comfort: “I assert that it is the perfect diversion from our troubled times, in which everything is ordinary, the skies are blue and nothing bad happens”. It is, of course, not true that nothing bad happens in Detectorists – relationships are repeatedly strained and tested, individuals are lied to and hurt, and a priceless Roman mosaic is destroyed. Rather, it is truer to say that wrongs are generally righted in the end and that, by and large, the characters’ lives become richer and more fulfilled as the series progresses. Like our childhood summers in this respect, the programme becomes a comforting memory when considered in retrospect: its narrative ups and downs are smoothed out in the process of remembering.

While the gentleness of Detectorists might be understood pejoratively as tweeness, it is both more subtle and more important than that. Gentleness is not only the absence of violence and aggression, it is also the presence of empathy and care – both for others and for the world at large. Gentleness, in this sense, is evident in the actions of many of the programme’s characters: in Andy’s attentiveness to the welfare of wildlife, in Terry’s unswerving devotion to Sheila, and in Lance’s capacity to bury the hatchet and extend the hand of friendship (albeit one holding a glass of Sheila’s lemonade) to “Art”. Their gentleness does not mean, however, that the characters of Detectorists lack flaws – rather it shows that, despite their ordinary human faults, they retrain a capacity for decency. Gentleness is evident, too, in the way the programme deals with what might otherwise be considered difficult themes. This tendency is perhaps best exemplified in the subtle but deeply poignant way in which Sheila’s heartbreak over the presumed loss of a child is revealed to the audience. Disguised in words of support and reassurance to Lance, Sheila hints, much too delicately for Lance to realise, at a hidden personal tragedy, the precise details of which remain unspoken. Sheila’s pain is, as a consequence of her selflessness and of the programme makers’ gentleness of touch, turned into a gift of comfort for Lance. Gentleness – as a character trait and as an approach to storytelling – strikes a chord with viewers because it seems to run against the grain of so much of contemporary cultural and political life, in which a ruthless emphasis on individual difference feeds social polarisation and the erosion of compassion. Gentleness matters because it is a deeply humanising quality.

“But what you’ve got going for you now is that she’s met you, Lance, and you’re lovely, so she’s bound to come back when she’s ready”.

As much as Detectorists might appear so idiosyncratically British so as not to travel well as a cultural export, the positive international reception of the programme – facilitated by its availability across a range of streaming platforms and the provision of subtitling in various languages – has shown that its appeal is neither linguistically nor geographically specific. Whilst the pandemic is responsible for having created a shared context in which the programme’s intrinsic qualities became topically appealing, the way Detectorists deals with generic themes of friendship, belonging, and the search for meaning in life are arguably so universal that they are immediately relatable. Across the world, viewers have found comfort in Detectorists and a surprising sense of kinship with the DMDC. Taking to Twitter, one viewer in France epitomised the thoughts of many in describing the programme as “un petit cocon de bein-être [a little cocoon of well-being]”. That Detectorists has succeeded in transcending linguistic and cultural barriers is at least in part attributable to its hybrid status as a comedy-drama. For every reference to Blankety Blank or Linda Lusardi that might fall flat with international viewers, the character-driven nature of the programme presents a fundamentally relatable human story; we do not need to be from north Essex to care about, or to understand, the residents of Danebury and their hopes and their fears.

For all that the pandemic has brought new viewers to Detectorists, it has also encouraged many existing fans to return to the programme, often multiple times. The pleasure derived from the repeated viewing of a favourite television programme is well documented in the academic literature. Writing in the journal Television & New Media, Anne Gilbert – a scholar of popular culture – has argued, for example, that enjoyment in repeated viewing derives from the predictability and familiarity of the programme in question. Rather than a disincentive to watching again, knowing what will happen is precisely the reason for doing so – it is a guarantee of the temporary absence of uncertainty. In this respect, Detectorists sits alongside other sitcoms like Friends and Frasier in functioning for many viewers a self-prescribed treatment for anxiety – a safe and certain window of time in which there is no jeopardy, only predictability. Detectorists is one of those programmes that, for some viewers, has become more than simply a sitcom; it has become a lifeline. For one Twitter user writing in March 2020, the programme’s therapeutic value was clear: “When I find myself faced with a terrifying, unstable world, gripped by fear and anxiety, there’s one thing I can always rely on to make me feel safe: Detectorists”.

That Detectorists has become what the American journalist Ben White has called “an anxiety antidote”, goes some way to explain its cultural significance in 2020. Three years after the series ended, it acquired – as a consequence of the most exceptional of global events – both a new audience and a new meaning. When so much in the future can feel frightening – with climate change, democratic instability, and social polarisation making it difficult to feel optimistic about what is to come – we seek comfort in the things that counter that trepidation, in things that make us feel reassured and hopeful. For those who wish for a gentler and more inclusive world, Detectorists offers that reassurance – it is not a lost fragment of the “before” times, but rather is an image of what we might wish to see in our collective future. For as long as we live in an age of anxiety, Detectorists will remain relevant and will be there to comfort us.

Innes M. Keighren

This essay originally featured in issue no. 2 of Waiting for You: A Detectorists Zine, published by Temporal Boundary Press.

The Kumaon Himalayas and British route-surveys in the 1840s

In October 2021 we welcomed Himani Upadhyaya to Landscape Surgery. Himani is a visiting PhD student from Ashoka University. Her research examines surveying and map-making in British Kumaon in the central Himalayan region of Northern India and investigates knowledge-production under 19th century colonial rule.

Himani began by introducing us to Pundit Nain Singh, named on the walls of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) Kensington Grove entrance as a recipient of the Society’s Gold Medal in 1877. This demonstrates a rare case of the medal going to a non-European awardee. Nain Singh was a Bhotiya (a tribal community living in the Himalayan belt) from the Kumaon region and received the award for his success in completing the secret surveys of trans-Himalayan routes to Tibet. Singh was trained by military officials of the Great Trigonometrical Survey (GTS) of India, and British geographers and surveyors have held his surveys in high regard. Nain Singh’s nephew, Pundit Kishen Singh, was also a surveyor and their busts are displayed at the Survey of India HQ in Dehradun to remind visitors of their extraordinary achievements.

Pundit Nain Singh (left), Pundit Kishen Singh (right). Photograph taken by Himani Upadhyaya during a visit to Survey of India, Dehradun (India), in 2019

Bhotiyas from Kumaon, Mani Singh and his cousin Nain Singh, were among the local inhabitants selected for training in surveying technologies at the Survey of India’s HQ in 1863. When geopolitical tensions arose in central Asia, the GTS turned to local inhabitants and employed them as ‘native surveyors’ to secretly survey areas outside of British territory. Himani stated that with a few exceptions, scholarly discussion on Bhotiyas has mostly centred around Pundits Nain and Kishen Singh.

For this seminar, Himani focused on the route surveys of Kumaon in the 1840s before Bhotiyas were formally trained by the officials of the GTS. Scholars have argued that there was a gradual move away from exploratory and observational modes of doing science in the 19th century and that by the 1860s and 70s travelling modes of conducting science were almost over. However, Himani’s ongoing work suggests that even though there might have been a shift in knowledge producing technologies and institutions of the colonial state as the 19th century progressed, reliance on local networks in this Himalayan frontier continued throughout this period.

Map showing the research area in the Kumaon Himalaya

Surveyors in the Himalayas were routinely assisted by the patwari (a local  official  with multifarious duties including land revenue)  for his knowledge of the boundaries, names of villages and other information essential for the surveys. The British surveyor, Captain Montgomerie, indicated that the office of the patwari helped maintain British influence in the high-altitude villages of the Himalayas where there was little permanent European presence. Mani Singh was patwari between 1851 and 1863 which made him a suitable candidate to be trained as a surveyor. As patwari, he frequently assisted civil officials, military officials and scientific explorers who arrived in Kumaon en route to Tibet and central Asia. Mani’s influence on colonial officials led to Nain Singh securing a place to assist surveyors, and subsequently later being employed as a surveyor too.

Himani positioned the Strachey brothers as important individuals in explorations in the Himalayas in the 19th century. Henry Strachey, who was a military official of the Bengal Infantry, visited the region in 1846. His brother, Richard Strachey, had an influential imperial career, holding powerful positions in India and as a member of the imperial council. Richard conducted route surveys in Kumaon between 1846 and 1849, collecting scientific specimens and producing essays and maps on the geology and physical geography of the Himalayas, which were then presented to the Geological Society and RGS in London.

In 1848, Richard, alongside the botanist J.E. Winterbottom, was ordered by the government of the north-western provinces to conduct an official mission of scientific research in the Himalayas. They spent two months in the Himalayas and Tibet collecting a range of botanical and geological specimens. These specimens were compared to named specimens in the botanical collections in Europe and between 1852-53, the Herbarium was distributed in Europe. A plant catalogue of this herbarium was later edited and published, and interestingly, many species were associated with the Strachey family name. Colonial power shaped the order and arrangement of the plant specimens in the mountainous Himalayan regions. Vernacular names were ignored and absent from the catalogue as the plant specimens were placed within the Linnaean system of scientific names, often dedicated to European personalities. However, unlike Richard, Henry was more attentive to the vernacular local terminologies.  

The Catalogue based on Strachey and Winterbottom’s collections can be found here.

Figure 1 Specimen of Allium stracheyi associated with the Strachey family name. Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew, CC BY 3.0

Himani argued that a lack of attention given to regions where famous geographers and surgeon-naturalists did not travel to has resulted in little research into the interactions between local and European knowledge systems. There was a large reliance on the resources, influence and networks of local communities, such as the Bhotiyas, by influential military officials during the travels to the Himalayan frontiers of the East India Company’s territory. Despite this, little is known about these communities who are only partially visible in travel accounts. For example, of the sixteen Bhotiyas accompanying Strachey and Winterbottom on their travels, only two were named by Richard in his account.

Although Bhotiyas were characterized as ‘intelligent’, ‘loyal’ and ‘civilised’ colonial subjects, not all surveyors developed the same relationships with the Bhotiyas. Some Bhotiyas were simply indifferent towards the English officials. Locally posted colonial officials of Kumaon often observed that many of those who were described as Bhotiyas did not self-identify with this term, and resented this extraneous identity label. Himani argues that histories of scientific knowledge production in the Himalayas in the 19th century need to pay closer attention to such complexities, with new histories of 19th century science and exploration requiring investigations into more local and regional founded sources.   

We would like to thank Himani for sharing her inspiring research and look forward to hearing about the discoveries she makes during her time researching in the archives in London.

Written by Beth Williamson

Edited by Cynthia Nkiruka Anyadi 

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Plumbing a vertical path through the planet – Social and Cultural Geography responses to the climate crisis

NOAA-19 S 75W 2021-07-20 12-18 GMT pristine from NOAA APT 1.3.0.png
NOAA-19, London, 20 July 2020, 12:18 GMT
Source: open-weather CC BY 4.0

What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. The region is warming three times faster than the global average and staying within 1.5 degrees temperature increase has been top of the news agenda. To coincide with COP 26 in Glasgow, Landscape Surgery showcased three projects that capture responses to the climate crisis; from China, from the depths of an underwater cave and from outer space.

Liling Xu, a historian in the third year of her PhD at Royal Holloway, has been tracking China’s national security policies alongside accelerating climate change impacts. China has been experiencing increasing numbers of extreme weather events, threats to food security and other emergencies. A central focus of Xu’s work has been to investigate if, and how priorities have changed in China since the United Nation Security Council‘s first debate on the impact of global warming on global peace and security.

China became an observer in the Arctic Council in 2013 and as part of her research Xu has been looking for the “missing link” which connects China’s national security policies to more frequent climate impacts. Early policy papers use vague wording, “affects” and “impacts”, to refer to extreme weather events in parts of China.

China has significant interests in the Arctic. The shipping routes through the Northwest Passage are like a Polar Silk Road. Nevertheless, even in 2018 a policy paper outlining those concerns used slippery language when mentioning threats to national security due to the impacts resulting from global warming, says Xu.

Images such as the vertical map visualise China’s positioning as a growing economic powerhouse. Europe is represented as an outpost, squashed up at the top of the world while China opens out to a vast and ice free Arctic, criss crossed with shipping lanes that reduce the distance between the markets of the East and the rest of the world.

A Chinese ‘vertical world map,’ showing the world in a different perspective from the Eurocentric view that has mostly dominated cartography. Credit: Prior Probablity.

Shifting away from the Arctic and geopolitical narratives of the climate crisis, the next presentation plunged us deep underwater. An ongoing collaboration between artist Flora Parrott and writer Lindiwe Matshikiza centres a moment of encounter between a cave diver and a previously unknown species of cave fish, which has seemingly adapted itself from a surface dwelling species of loach. In the video, we follow the dim light of the divers as they swim deeper into the cave system. In those murky underground habitats, different imaginaries emerge as humans find themselves surviving only by means of technology and scuba skills. Perhaps when we emerge again at the surface we find our reflections bubble with new ideas and a rethinking of human relationships to environments.


Soaring upwards once again, this time beyond land and sky, and into space, Sasha Engelmann let us into a secret… It’s not that hard to photograph space…. With a bit of know how and a radio antenna, Open-Weather (Sophie Dyer and Sasha Engelmann) alongside Rectangle (Lizzie Malcolm and Daniel Powers), created a global network of citizen-artists to collectively image earth.

When I image the earth, I imagine another‘ is a global weather report made up of snapshots taken by people engaging in the project from all over the world. Operating DIY satellite ground stations, citizen-artists from Buenos Aires to Abu Dhabi captured a collective snapshot of the Earth and its weather systems: a ‘nowcast’ for an undecided future.

On the eve of COP26 (October 31st 2021), tuning into transmissions from three orbiting National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites, members of the network captured their images and submitted their fieldnotes. Combined, these contributions generate a polyperspectival (from many angles) image of the earth as experienced from Japan, Mauritius, Los Angeles and countless other locations.

Satellites transmit in analogue and the signal can be encoded mechanically into a radio wave. The radio environment can interrupt the signal and Engelmann described how the movements of the photographers were inscribed in the images. Swirls and patterns from multiple perspectives and many situated positions, helped to close up the gap between a detached and politicised understanding of the climate crisis and the everyday experiences of people. Weather fronts forming far away, at the edge of earth entwined with the familiar, intimate experience of someone in their balcony, arm outstretched and holding a radio antenna.

A participant in Glasgow captured an image of a cyclone passing over the city and their field notes describe the moment in time when they took the picture. The artwork is a feminist experiment in imaging and reimagining the planet in an era of climate crisis and, I think, a collection of images and words that spark enchantment and hope.

More about When I image the earth, I imagine anotherhere

Written by Viveca Mellegård

Edited by Evie Gilbert

More information on; China’s geopolitical imaginations of the Arctic, explorations into how climate change has been embedded into China’s imaginations, representations and practices in foreign policy, academic research, popular culture and domestic tourism:

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Introducing the new Landscape Surgeons

This year the Landscape Surgery welcomes five new editors joining Royal Holloway’s Social, Cultural, and Historical Geography (SCHG) research group as postgraduate researchers. Find out more about us and our work, and please feel free to get in touch about our research!  

Beth, Cynthia, Vivi, Evie, & Eva

Beth Williamson 

I am interested in the recording of place names by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. My work aims to investigate how the RGS tackled the problem of “orthography” and to reveal how geography and linguistics, and politics and diplomacy, shaped the way the world was brought to “order”. My PhD is supervised by Dr Innes M. Keighren and Professor Veronica Della Dora at RHUL and Dr Sarah L. Evans and Dr Catherine Souch at The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers). 

Cynthia Nkiruka Anyadi 

My research is focussed around material culture and transnational memorialising practices, looking specifically at how Igbo Nigerians in Nigeria, England, and Germany are negotiating grief and memory across fractured deathscapes. A key aspect of my work is around ensuring  that community accessibility and accountability are at the centre of this research. My PhD is supervised by Professor Veronica Della Dora and Professor David Gilbert. 

Viveca Mellegård

My project revolves around indigo dyeing both as an embodied practice and a storehouse of indigenous knowledge and skills with the potential to transform human-nature interactions. In partnership with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Royal Holloway I’ll use an ethnographic approach to document and visualise embodied practice – the tacit knowledge and skills – embedded in the cultivation and production of natural indigo dye in Bengal, India. My PhD is supervised by Professor David Simon at RHUL and Professor Mark Nesbitt at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Evie Gilbert 

My research focuses on the speculative future of work for female garment workers in Cambodia. A key part of my research revolves around vocational education and the demand for upskilling in the face of a new wave of automation (Industry 4.0). I will be researching how the perceived future of work influences current policy on vocational education for women and their potential for economic empowerment. My PhD is supervised by Professor Katherine Brickell and Dr Laurie Parsons.  

Eva Barbarossa 

My research focuses on language use to define and create underground and netherworld spaces, ritual and cosmologies. It explores the embodiment of language and the ways in which linguistic understanding is beyond the visual or aural, to the felt and sensed. My PhD is supervised by Professor Harriet Hawkins.  

And a warm welcome to Mako who is a MRes Cultural Geography student joining Landscape Surgery this year. 

Mako Miyaji 

I am a MRes Cultural Geography student from Japan. My research interests are place attachment of migrants, displacement, visual analysis such as drawing, and supporting migrant children after natural disaster. 


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Mapping Memory: Cartography in Contemporary Holocaust Culture

On the 25th of May, Michael Holden – who has recently joined Royal Holloway to work on the AHRC-funded Music, Migration, and Mobility project – shared with us his recently completed PhD work that explored the ways in which authors and artists have responded to the legacy of the Holocaust through the use of cartography, both literally and metaphorically.

Setting the scene for his focus on contemporary Holocaust culture, Michael began by explaining to us the historical association between the Holocaust and mapping. Often underappreciated beyond the academic study of cartography is the ‘non-neutrality’ of maps, and in the context of Nazi Germany and occupied Europe, they were often utilised to maintain and expand the power of the Nazi state and the oppression of the continent’s Jewish population. They were used, for instance, to portray the (historically inaccurate) migration of Jews as an ‘infestation’ and report on the geographical distribution of their ‘extermination’ in ways that legitimised and emboldened their murderous racist ideology.

‘Jewish executions carried out by Einsatzgruppe A’, taken from a report by SS-Brigadier General Stahlecker, February 1942. (Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Archives, 2015)

However, maps, in various forms, were – and continue to be – just as significant to the victims of the Holocaust. For those in the concentration camps, the process of mapping was often a matter of life or death, whether in relation to the micro-geographies of their position in the soup queue or the production of a sketch map, from memory, by escapees from Auschwitz. But since the end of the Second World War, the Holocaust has remained inextricable from the places in which it occurred. Playing a significant role in shaping this continual process of memorialisation are cultural works such as novels, comics and art that too have used such maps to guide the reader’s interpretation of space and consequentially, the broader narratives of the Holocaust that they create.

Sketch map of Auschwitz-Birkenau created by two escapees, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler for the Allies. (Source: Foregger, R. (1995) ‘Two sketch maps of Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Camps’, The Journal of Military History, 59(4), pp. 687-696

Often left unacknowledged, this was where Michael’s own research came in. Using the notion of maps and mapping to encapsulate both cartographic images as well as movements and itineraries, the framing of geographical knowledge, and the tracing of roots and landscapes, he has analysed a range of comics (or graphic novels), novels and artworks to shed light on the ways in which they are used to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust.

To illustrate some of the findings of his work, Michael took us through a number of examples. Focusing specifically on her 2013 graphic novel Letting it Go, he began with the drawings of Miriam Katin; a Hungarian-born American novelist and graphic artist who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the Hungarian countryside with her mother. In this work, maps were used by Miriam to reflect on her changing attitudes towards her son’s choice to apply for Hungarian citizenship and live in Berlin after the decision sparked an uncomfortable reckoning with the past. In the early stages of the text, the depiction of a map within her head symbolised the ways in which her anxiety towards Germany was fixed and frozen in memory. Later, she draws herself tracing the route that her son and his partner will take to work events in Slovakia from the perspective of her past and the places that hold so much of her trauma. But as the narrative progresses, and after she has taken trips to Berlin, maps are used to express a gradual thawing of her reluctance and the realisation that the Europe of today is no longer the Europe of the past.

Three illustrations from Miriam Katin’s 2013 graphic novel ‘Letting it Go

In contrast, Michael also discussed Amy Kurzweil’s graphic memoir Flying Couch as an example of a piece written and illustrated by a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. Here, he explained, cartography played two distinct roles in the story. Rooted in the present, they help to ‘navigate’ questions of identity and the relationship between the three women in her family; herself, her mother, and her grandmother, who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto. However, they also represented her grandmother’s testimonies and memories, but in a way that attempted to impart something of the affective and embodied spatiality of her experiences in the ghetto and her wanderings across Poland rather than the precise locations of such events.

One of the illustrations in Amy Kurzweil’s 2016 graphic novel ‘Flying Couch’, affectively depicting the claustrophobia of incarceration within the ghetto

To round up the discussion, the final case study touched on the linguistic use of maps as a ‘structuring device’ in the novels of W.G. Sebald. As Michael argued, Sebald’s texts – which explore the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust – are fundamentally map-like in character. At the heart of his narratives are a plethora of rural and coastal landscapes and urban environments which are tied to real places and through which his characters wander and depart upon their extended meditations on memory and history. As Michael concluded, Sebald – along with Katin and Kurtzweil – all demonstrate the fluidity and imagination in which maps are included in contemporary Holocaust culture. However, while they may have believed that were including them to authoritatively signal something about the spatiality of their narratives, they nevertheless inject a degree of subjectivity into their recreation.

We would like to thank Michael for sharing with us this fascinating, yet sobering, research, and we look forward to hearing more about his current work exploring the lives of migrant musicians from Nazi-occupied Europe in the future.

Written by: Will Barnes

Edited by: Rosie Knowles

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A Monster Outside of Human Laws

This lively, entertaining and extremely thought-provoking Landscape Surgery session was led by nnull (aka Toby), an artist, researcher and educator, who gave us all an introduction to their work via their latest short film, which was released in February 2021. This film is a documentation of change, particularly around the events they were going through in 2019 surrounding immigration and changing citizenship, and how these processes intersect with being a trans person. In particular, it explored how gender identity and transitioning affected their immigration process alongside their ability to voice these issues in a new country. The phrase ‘Monster Outside of Human Laws’ comes from Hannah Adrent’s work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). The film “draws from the works of Hannah Arendt as a stateless person who contemplates on the bigger picture of personal events after gaining status.”

Watch nnull’s film here: (duration 14.21 mins)

By way of introduction, nnull says: “A year ago I found myself at a difficult crossroad when their UK visa was due to expire. I had to choose between migrating economically and seeking asylum. Each route would ultimately determine the possession of extremely different rights. In this film I unpack the disparity in rights we possess and acquire through immigration and how this is ultimately tied to capital. I reflect on how my situation reveals contradictions in the narratives that surround the European Migration Crisis.”

Some of the key points within the film show that the struggle for freedom – earned through a visa or passport – to obtain an identity is always worth it. It discusses how diminished rights of any kind affects lives, especially where authorities question your ‘belonging’ and where a system ranks you or gives you rights according to your economic value to a country. Identity, citizenship and belonging are all addressed in this film. Nnull asks, when the voice of the immigrant is not to be trusted, who can speak for you? Most people have never had to assert their human rights or prove their value. Many assumptions are made about a person in the immigration process, creating ‘monsters’ who can’t speak for themselves. These processes force people to see each other in an unhelpful and unequal way.

The struggle for identity and rights (copyright: null)
(from: A Monster Outside of Human Laws:

Immigration and labour have long been tied to economic value, especially during the colonial period. Framing these issues using maps and mapping has been an ongoing project for Toby, who describes their work as nnull as like a form of journaling or “slightly autobiographical”. This ongoing project revolves around mapping their family history and the British Empire to create a story of immigration. Importantly, they also view these issues through the lens of the value placed on people.

Their family history investigation led to the discovery that their father had grown up in an internment camp in Malaysia, which their family had never discussed. A study of Malaysian maps led to investigating how they were used for military and political purposes to justify internment camps and counter-terrorism operations, and protect resources from a British standpoint.

Toby is descended from Chinese immigrants who originally worked in Malaysia as labourers in the mining industry. It was mainly people from the Chinese community who were placed in these internment camps. “In a way I was looking at how Malaysia was constructed through colonial hands and how its multiculturalism is a result of colonialism and indentured labour”. Maps are very revealing in showing what is chosen to be included as useful knowledge. One such map, produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, adapted and featured in the film, shows emigration occurring across the world and population flows. But this is only part of the picture as this map shows the emigration of essentially only ‘white colonists’ to British Empire colonies. People of colour are not counted as emigrants; they did not have ‘freedom of movement’ but were moved by authorities. Tellingly, the table alongside the map describes colonies in terms of their fiscal potential, e.g. fisheries, mining etc., advertising countries as part of a quest for “global extractivism”. It is, of course, always worth questioning for whom maps were produced, for as an audience, it is useful to know what their views and value systems were. A map such as this shows there were two types of immigration occurring at this time, one for the master and one for the slave. How we view, map and imagine the world and claim land and resources is important. This is the world viewed through the lens of resource extraction and domination, but also in terms of ‘the monster outside of human laws’, or the value assigned to people and power.

Emigration Map of the World
(second image adapted by and copyright null )
(from: A Monster Outside of Human Laws:

Toby finds the quantification of such power through giving people and objects value and the (game theory) logic used to justify conquest or cruelty of any kind fascinating. They discussed how game theory is used in many disciplines and in governing so much of our world, and how we behave to others “in a way that literally is the formula that rationalises cruelty”. Translating this back to maps, Toby described how it could reveal much about tensions over, for example, land ownership and Indigenous title claims in, for example, Australia. They ask us to think about the possibility of a world without “numbers or values, where something is just an expression of itself” and perhaps where land is viewed as an expression of the “different narratives of many generations”, and how a points-based system of value is something we should work against.

Toby then brought the discussion back to their own experience and the “battle” with the points-based system of value as an immigrant, where they inhabit an in-between imaginary space defined by paperwork and have been viewed as ‘the untrustworthy other’ who cannot speak for themselves. They say that much of the work they are doing now is around migrating and transitioning genders, re-describing their birth and the value placed upon them by pieces of paper. That is why they chose the pseudonym “nnull” to describe an origin point where something is not measured or yet had a value placed upon it. “If you are undescribed or undefined there is some freedom associated to it”. Ascribing values onto people can create inequality and injustice, and Toby sees their “mission” to re-evaluate identities and values.

A lively discussion by the group followed (which Toby’s dog also joined in!), with comments on how documents, maps and official processes can have geographical power or force, which came across in the film shown at the beginning of the session. The group explored how paperwork can box a person in to become a physical barrier that affects your identity. In Toby’s case, paperwork such as a birth certificate (which they described as ‘empty’), created a legal identity and existence that they knew was contradictory– assigning values onto people even as babies can be problematic. Nationality and gender are placed upon you at birth.

Migration and transition were discussed as journeys and passages of existence. For example, as members of states, everyone could be seen as property whether they like it or not. This brought up many questions about human rights and what defines them, and how different narratives about a person can be woven into a value being placed upon them. The discussion ended on thoughts from several people in the group and Toby about the dichotomy of ‘human’ and ‘monster’ and what it is to be human and have real rights.

See nnull’s other work at

(For information:

Written by Christina Hourigan

Edited by Katie Vann

Site-Writing Workshop

At this week’s Landscape Surgery we were lucky enough to hear from Professor Jane Rendell, about her work, practice and current projects. We were also given the exciting opportunity to participate virtually in interactive site-writing activities. Jane Rendell is a Professor in Critical Spatial Practice for The Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. Jane’s research is transdisciplinary and since 1994 has focused on exploring the relationship between architecture and other disciplines such as feminist theory, architectural history, art and architecture, autobiographical writing, psychoanalysis and criticism – through individual and collaborative international research projects.

Jane began by explaining the concepts of site-writing, as a critical and ethical spatial practice that draws attention to the situatedness of criticality, as a way of performing criticism. It brings together history and theory, as writers reflect on their own subject positions in relation to their particular objects, fields of study and how audiences may engage with their sites of research. Jane first coined the term ‘critical spatial practice’ in 2003, to describe works that bridge both art and architecture and cross disciplinary boundaries to critique embedded power relations in sites. Through writing ‘about’ various art and architectural practices Jane became aware that criticism is itself a form of critical spatial practice, and in response she developed ‘site-writing’ as a form of situated criticism. Since 2001, Jane has used ‘site-writing’ as a pedagogic tool for specific site-writing courses at the Bartlett.

Jane’s recent work is concerned with the practice of ethics and she is developing a mode of critical spatial practice to critically engage with institutional structures which position writing subjects, from places of home to those of work, for example, the university itself. She explores using site-writing to weave together textual materials concerning university strikes and uses it to critically reflect on issues relating to pensions, as well as issues relating to funding from fossil fuel companies to fund university projects on sustainability. In this case, site-writing is being used to practice an institutional critique concerned with ethics, equity, labour, work, care and precarity.

Drawing by Jane Rendell ‘Practising Ethics’

Jane shares with us she is also particularly interested in transitional spaces, as site-writing provides the opportunity to explore these spaces. For example, she has created a series of blossom paintings, created at the start of the pandemic and annotated with the level of Covid-19 deaths at the time. She explains she wishes to explore the idea of the holding space, with the home becoming a transitional space of the holding. It becomes both a space of comfort, security and reassurance and paradoxically a space of restriction and entrapment in the pandemic.

Jane further outlines to us a project she worked on, a 40 book series, called Lost Rocks. The project was commissioned, curated and edited by ‘A Published Event’. Jane’s contribution was SILVER a fictionella which explores publishing as a form of art and the relation of ethics and poetics through her own auto-biographical writing. SILVER was a narrative drawn from visits to multiple sites connected to the Barrier Ranges of South Australia, where large amounts of silver were discovered in the late nineteenth century. In 2017 SILVER was reworked to include a site in West Tasmania, which was a mining town founded on silver. This added new multi-vocal narratives as layers to the fictionella.

Jane then moves on to explain a different project, ‘Confessional Construction’, which consisted of photographic and written documentation of a text installation for the ‘BookArtBookShop’, London, 2002. Bridgid McLeer curated the installation and included 12 responses from different artists, displayed for a period of one month each. Jane’s installation is a physical construction of text, as a page on the wall. The text grappled with what it means to confess and how confessions are constructed, with three voices intermingled and a series of blockages disrupting the autobiographical confession. The footnotes read from bottom to top, to signify the building of a wall. Jane read out the text to us during the session, and the piece sounded beautifully disjointed with the ruptures in the language somehow making sense.

‘Confessional Construction’ Image © Jane Rendell
‘Confessional Construction’ Image © Jane Rendell

‘Alien Positions’ was the final project Jane shared with us; a text which was written to accompany an exhibition by artist Bik Van Der Pol called ‘Fly me to the Moon’ at the Rijksmuseum in 2006, where a fragment of moon rock was exhibited. The catalogue relates Jean Laplanche’s (1999) Essays on Otherness to the destabilising effects of envisioning the cosmos and the impact on the psyche, along with Freud’s theory of self-centring and the destabilised ego, for exploring the implications of the psyche going astray, and how this links to wandering stars. Jane links Laplanche’s explorations of the unconscious ‘alien inside me’ to the moon rock, to explore how theory can be brought into practice. She explained to us her theory of two alien positions using the moon rock example by asking a series of questions, such as: where did the fragment come and what is its history outside me? How does the fragment see me?

After having been introduced to this array of work, Jane then led us through an interactive writing exercise. As surgeons, we were encouraged to bring along a visual item relating to our site, such as a photo, drawing, audio recording, film, map or artefact, and we explored the possibilities of shifting our approach from ‘writing about’ to ‘writing as’ our sites. Encouraged to not overthink or over theorize. we were given 1 minute each for three exercises that involved 1) writing down your first initial responses to the item, 2) writing from a different angle or position and 3) finding a phrase or word we had repeated and change it, for instance in tense or positionality. For the final part of the session, Jane asked us to change our medium, whether that was a different writing style or the use of drawing, painting or other visual methods.

We would like to thank Jane for such an interesting and inspiring talk and site-writing session. It was really amazing to hear about all these exciting projects and even participate in our own site-writing. It was so great that Jane was able to get us into the creative zone, especially virtually in the pandemic, where sparking creativity is difficult. I think we have all come away with new ideas and possibilities for our own research and feeling a new surge of creative potential!

Written by: Rosie Knowles

Edited by: Will Barnes


Laplanche, J. 1999. Essays on Otherness. London: Routledge.

Sensing the intruder: the non-relationality of life after loss

This week’s Landscape Surgery consisted of a fascinating presentation and discussion from the cultural geographer and documentary film maker Vickie Zhang. Vickie is a PhD student in the School of Geography, University of Melbourne, where she has just submitted her thesis. Vickie began the session with an insight into her research and practice, engaging with workers affected by coalmine closures in regional Australia and China. Vickie explores experiences of loss and embodied transitions after workplace closure.

Image © Vickie Zhang

For this session, Vickie focuses on her thesis ‘Sensing the intruder: the non-relationality of life after loss’, to outline what kind of relation is loss and how events of loss can inform us about the nature of relation. Vickie highlights the tensions and questions surrounding the potential nonrelation of a sudden absence, breaking relations and perhaps re-conceptualising thinking about loss as a relation to an enduring and lingering memory. The examples from Vickie’s doctoral research, in particular the story of coal miner Phil, enables these questions to come to the surface through tracking the abandonments and intrusions caused by job loss and the subsequent embodied experience and renewed sense of everyday life in the wake of loss. Vickie probes the limits of reality to ask: at what point does a relation meet its limit, falling into the limits of the non-relational? And, conversely, how might the impasse of a non-relation end, folding over to allow new relations to begin?

Image © Vickie Zhang

Here, the ‘intruder’, other or stranger, as a concept, is defined by the force of the impact on the self and the emotional and physical reaction it can cause – which can be likened to a physical illness. The intensity of an intolerable intrusion, such as a loss of a job or career through no fault of your own, can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Facing foreign, strange or intolerable forces can create different responses in different people – some repel, some adapt, some absorb. Meanwhile, facing new, unfamiliar territories within an unknown future alongside a loss of control can cause a sense of turbulence, disorientation and feeling out of place in your own body.

Image © Vickie Zhang

Discussions of relationality have long been central to human geography research, including actor network debates, sense of place literatures, and in connecting embodied everyday experience and non-representational theories into broader geographical thinking. Vickie draws upon the work of Paul Harrison (2007) to discuss the potential importance of acknowledging proximity of the nonrelational in defining the relational. Vickie outlines that exploring the nonrelational is important to situate the breaks, gaps, tears and ruptures which characterize loss and job loss. In particular, she is interested in how relation unfolds in feeling and emotion with the non-relational. Loss creates an absence which can in turn unfold an unknown future and present difficult transitions for people, this rupture of unpredictable unknown territory is arguably nonrelational. These losses may lie beyond the relations of the feeling self, leaving the body disconnected and unable to resonate.

Vickie relates what loss can encompass, including a loss of connection where proximity is not the same as connection, where there are multiple transistions of feeling, and the reaction to loss can be proportional to and based on past experiences. However, some had come to realise that life after loss is not a vacuum or an extension of the past. It is a reorientation.

Image © Vickie Zhang

Vickie gives us a useful insight into her research by showing videos of herself interviewing her participants as part of her ethnographic methodology. We are able to be visually transported to the moments of sharing these events of loss. Vickie uses the example of coal miner Phil to explore the tensions raised between stranger and self. The constant precarity of work and multiple job losses, causes a repeated form of abandonment of self and the continual decomposition of relations. Each new job creates new environments, skills, tasks and introduction of strangers. This search for work disrupts practices, rhythms and habits, and relies on the self to emerge again now in the company of new strangers, intruders and others. Vickie argues these cycles of precarious work owe themselves to some forms of relationality, but they are subsequently repeatedly ruptured and must be situated against these nonrelational tears and breaks. These nonrelational intrusions and losses vary in impact based on an individual’s tolerability and bodily capacities of rhythmic change. Vickie notes Phil and his wife were more resilient and used to these events, compared to others who were more vulnerable.

The session then moved on to an interesting discussion involving the Landscape Surgery group. The discussion involved exploring the use of film as an ethnographic method for representing narratives and embodied experience. Vickie explained the methodological benefits and complexities, resulting from in-depth ethnographic work and the differences in the relationships she was able to build with different people. The notion of the intruder also applies to the research methods, as positionality is key in being aware of your own intrusion as a researcher in often sensitive issues integral to people’s lives. The videos enabled Vickie to re-live the experiences and write through the encounters, enabling her to gain further insights into people’s emotions, behaviour, body language, gestures, facial expressions and conversations after the event. This enabled her also to be more in the encounter at the time. The discussion ended with a final debate on the relational and the nonrelational as a concept, with some arguing everything in the world is inherently related. This brings to light the need for perhaps more relational toolkits in geography to theorise shifting relations, and how they are held towards one another, or if there are indeed more relations than non-relations. The discussion extended to explore relations between intruders and the self, as either part of the self, engulfed and internalised emotionally, or experienced on the surface of the skin (drawing upon the work of Sarah Ahmed (2001)). These different configurations of other, stranger and intruder can potentially be experienced either on the surface or at greater depth at different registers on or in the body. These different scales of register are interesting to think about in how loss and intrusion is experienced. We would like to thank Vickie for such a beautifully eloquent and fascinating account of all these conceptual complexities and tensions, drawing upon such interesting case study examples and creative methodologies.

Written by: Rosie Knowles

Edited by: Christina Hourigan


Ahmed, S. 2001. Thinking Through the Skin. London: Routledge.

Harrison, P. 2007. ‘How shall I say it . . . ?’ Relating the nonrelational. Environment and Planning. A, 39, 590–608.

Locked-down labour: the impact of COVID-19 on the precarity and wellbeing of creative freelancers

On the 9th February, Jack Morton and I presented in a session chaired by Oli Mould on the topic of the global pandemic and its consequences for the precarity and wellbeing of creative freelancers.

The stranglehold that the coronavirus has had on the world over the last year has choked the creative industries, and its freelance workers – who account for nearly half of the workforce – have felt the squeeze the most. Although playing a crucial role in ‘stitching together’ the sector, Jack explained how their project-based work is exceedingly precarious, characterised by a lack of economic security, low levels of unionised representation and exploitation. Nevertheless, these precarious conditions have not impeded the attraction of such work. Many freelancers see these ‘risks’ as liberation from corporate control and enjoy the flexibility and autonomy of their jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had severe implications across the world for many forms of labour, but as Jack pointed out, “the precarious nature of freelancing … has left these workers at the mercy of the coronavirus impacts much more than others”. With many unable to enrol for Government support due to moving in and out of contracts, taking on unpaid roles and working concurrently in other sectors, borrowing money has become rife. The Government may have announced a £1.57 billion support package for the creative industries in July 2020, but it only contained a passing reference to freelancers. Not only have 50% of freelancers lost at least 60% of their income, but 50% are also considering leaving the industry for more secure work in a bid to ensure they can pay their bills, support their families and survive.

As a result of this, Jack raised serious concerns about the possibility of a labour crisis in the creative industries in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the shock the economy is experiencing. Labelled as a ‘cultural catastrophe’, the Creative Industries Federation are reporting that over 400,000 creative jobs – that’s 19% – could be lost; 290,000 of which are self-employed jobs. Referring to his own research he explained that, while freelance labour has been cut by firms in a hope to survive the impacts of COVID-19, their labour will be needed again as soon as restrictions are lifted and there are concerns that the labour pool will not be big enough to meet the needs of these firms and ensure their survival in the industry too.

Millions of pounds in bursaries and grants may have been made available by NGO’s, but are disproportionately spread across the creative industries, with the majority concentrated in the TV and film industry. Even though unions have been providing information and advice to the Treasury, the Government is yet to address the reality that the support packages fail to acknowledge and encompass the heterogeneity of freelance work, and the detrimental impact this could have on a flagship sector of the UK economy.

“They have fallen through the gaps in government support, and it is a scandal that they have been ignored by the government so far.”

Philippa Childs, Head of Bectu (Broadcasting Entertainment Communications and Theatre Union)

Placing more emphasis on their personal experiences, I took the opportunity to focus in on what all this has meant for the wellbeing of these creative freelancers. Prior to the pandemic, it was clear that there were benefits to being self-employed. Usually attributed to the greater autonomy and freedom they experience and the type and diversity of work they get to do, it is believed that the self-employed have a higher level of job and life satisfaction than employees. However, the precarity often experienced by these independent workers has been connected to work-life conflict issues and mental health problems in the form of nervousness, anxiety, depression and psychological distress.

Creative workers are often romanticised figures and are portrayed as being mentally and physically fulfilled by their work, but the validity of these narratives has also been called into question. While studies have found that those in more traditional art sectors experience higher levels of subjective wellbeing than those in non-creative jobs, the opposite is the case for those in ‘new creative economy’ sectors such as marketing, film and TV, and IT. Creative work does often enable self-expression and fulfilment, but this is often used as a reason to pay workers less for long hours and precarious working conditions which, along with a pressure to reach high standards and a lack of appropriation recognition, is the reason why they are three times more likely to suffer from greater mental health problems than the average person.

Back in March 2020 when the first national lockdown was called, many creative freelancers found themselves working from home for the first time. Since then, a significant number of them are likely to have experienced mental health problems as a result of the blurring of boundaries between their work and home lives, and poorer relationships at home if faced with inadequate workspaces. Childcare and the homeworking set up has been found to stifle the productivity and the sense of purpose of creative freelancers, and for those that have attempted to remedy this by working evenings, additional psychological stresses have come to a head.

Isolation and loneliness of freelancers and homeworkers were already a concern before restrictions on our everyday lives were put in place. Now with many confined to their homes and starved of any social interaction at coffee shops, co-working spaces, meetings and non-work social activities, the picture looks even bleaker. Studies of creative workers specifically have discovered loneliness to be the most widespread source of stress, and the social contact with colleagues and other professionals greatly missed.

“I am by nature, a hugely social musician. I get my wellbeing from meeting a lot of musicians and working with them and seeing something develop from stage A to stage B and feeling perhaps some responsibility for that process. And sitting in your study, looking at your text, doesn’t do that in quite the same way.”

Freelance musician quoted in May et. al. (2020)

But the main message of Jack and I’s presentations was that the precariousness of these creative freelancers is the biggest issue. A loss of work and income has led directly to financial difficulties and a decline in living standards with psychosocial, stress and anxiety related repercussions in tow. But a loss of work has also resulted in a loss of structure and the mental stability it brings, and a loss of enjoyment and meaning compounded only further, for some, by a potentially necessary change of career. As they see their community decline, they feel unsupported, forgotten, and a sense of despair at the impact the state of the arts sector will have on the rest of society.

Written by: Will Barnes

Edited by: Katie Vann

Tagged , , , , , ,

Authoritarianism, astrology and Adorno’s anti-fascist geography

This week’s Landscape Surgery was organised by Dr Thomas Dekeyser (British Academy Post Doctoral Fellow), who invited Professor Chris Philo of the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences at the University of Glasgow to present his paper, ‘Authoritarianism, astrology and Adorno’s anti-fascist geography’.

For this session, Chris focused on a project that he will start in December 2021, titled ‘The Anti-fascist Geographical Imagination’, tasked with imagining anti-fascist thought geographically, and conversely, of imagining geography anti-fascistically. Chris shared his directions for the project, at the heart of which is the work Theodor Adorno, a leading figure of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.

Jacob Chansley pictured inside the Capitol building during the January 6 riot. @AFP via Getty Images

The discussion began by looking at QAnon shaman Jake Angeli (Jacob Anthony Chansley), made infamous in the storming of the US Capitol on the 6th of January by Trump supporters challenging the outcome of the 2021 Electoral College vote. After discussing Angeli’s blend of Native American spiritualism, occultism and a belief in QAnon conspiracy theories, Chris drew parallels with Paul Routledge’s 2011 paper, ‘Sensuous Solidarities: Emotion, Politics and Performance in the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army’.1 In this paper, Routledge discusses affective politics and embodied possibilities of resistance, suggesting that pantomime can be used as a mechanism to speak truth back to power, and Chris questioned whether there are parallels with Jake Angeli’s actions at the Capitol. 

Chris then introduced the 1950 book, The Authoritarian Personality, and presented to us the qualities Adorno and his team had found to pre-dispose Americans towards authoritarianism and fascism.2 The authors combined survey data from seven thousand people with a smaller number of clinical interviews and numerical analyses to produce a series of propositions comprising their “F Scale” (or “fascist” scale) personality test. Chris discussed the array of propositions developed for the test, including beliefs in supernatural power, mystical determinism, astrology, conspiracy theories, stereotyping and a predisposition to think in rigid categories. Notably, the “F Scale” allows for inconsistencies in personalities; for example, there are those who waiver toward authoritarian submission while others are characterized by authoritarian aggression. As Chris points out, there are important parallels between Adorno’s surveys and contemporary American politics.

The discussion then turned to Adorno’s essay, “The Stars Down to Earth”, which features a detailed analysis of the contents of an astrology column produced by the LA Times’ Carroll Righter in the 1950s.3 Chris discussed his preliminary findings from Adorno’s essay and data, noting that Righter’s column encouraged readers to adopt a “bi-phasic” or “two-sphere” approach to organising their time, space, activities and relationships. For instance, readers were encouraged to divide their time between workdays and evenings and space between work and home, an approach that Adorno suggests masks the irrationality of labour in a capitalist economy. Chris proposed that Adorno’s work points to people’s acceptance of astrology or “big” authority rather than engagement in the complexities and irrationalities created by the systems they live, in this case, in America’s emerging capitalist mass society. To encourage an anti-fascist geographical imagination, Chris proposes that we build from Adorno’s conclusions and resist the reduction of the complex to the simple that is inherent to the mechanisms of fascism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

The paper’s final part explored Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life.4 In this book, Adorno builds on broader Marxist critiques on how intellectual life and science are perverted and subverted under capitalism. Referring back to Jake Angeli’s beliefs, Chris noted that Adorno’s work highlights a tendency for people to displace the difficulties of life onto the stars – that are not analysed critically or scientifically – to get advice on moving forward. The end of Adorno’s essay touches on a discussion of the irrational displacement of the here and now into another realm of being as a very problematic move, which connects to his prolonged debate with Hegel and Heidegger about the nature of being. Adorno’s concern is that theories of being contain irrationalism and mysticism that continually turn these issues into another set of problems that ultimately have no purchase on what is real. From this, Chris suggested that we might use Adorno’s critique of astrology’s relationship with authoritarianism to develop our own critique of phenomenological and existential geographies.

Chris’s paper drew attention to the relevance of Adorno’s work in the wake of the US Capitol insurrection on the 6th of January and raises questions about whether these protestors and rioters’ authoritarian beliefs arise as much from their own predispositions as it does from individual leaders. We want to thank Chris for a thought-provoking exploration of the continuing relevance of Adorno’s work, the forces that are driving historical events in US politics, and how we might learn from them to configure an anti-fascist geographical imagination.

Written by: Katie Vann

Edited by: Will Barnes


1 Routledge, P. (2012) ‘Sensuous solidarities: emotion, politics and performance in the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army’, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 44(2), pp. 428–452

2 Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J. and Nevitt Sanford, R. (2019). The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Verso Books

3 Adorno, T. W. (2001) “The Stars Down to Earth” and Other Essays. Abingdon: Routledge & CRC Press

4 Adorno, T. W. (2005). Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life (Radical Thinkers): Reflections on a Damaged Life. New York: Verso Books

Landscape Surgery News Items:

  • On the 27th of January, the Department’s Angela Chan and Emily Hopkins spoke at the event, The CCIs: pathways beyond economic growth – webinar 4, organised by Pathways Beyond Economic Group. Find out more.
  • On the 27th of January, Dr Oli Mould joined CCIMSS for a discussion on the ills of self-interest and the merits of a collective common creativity in a talk organised by SOAS.
  • Professor Harriett Hawkins shared her work with the Chilean group, BioGeoArt, a project investigating relationships between nature and humanity. Find out more.