Minor Theory: A workshop with Thomas Jellis and Joe Gerlach

For our third Landscape Surgery of the term, we were delighted to host visiting speakers Dr. Thomas Jellis, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford and Research Fellow at Keble College, and Dr Joe Gerlach, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Bristol, who put together an engaging workshop to discuss the growing necessity to reinvigorate geographical dialogues with the ambiguous investments of minor theory.

 

Part one:

Keen to establish an agenda from the outset, Thomas foregrounded the conversation by dissecting certain perceptions of theory that have developed in the study of Geography of late. Central to this argument stands the impression that human geographers have begun to express a deep scepticism towards conceptual work. A somewhat surprising notion given the on-going explosion of theoretical engagement that rings throughout the scholarly field. For Thomas, this scepticism is couched within a general feeling that hegemonic and widely cited bodies of theory are becoming overstatements or parodies of the issues they were originally devised to overcome. For others, he suggested, there is a fear that the discipline has become so engulfed in faddishly adopting and critiquing the work of mainstream theorists that we have begun to take all theory (namely Major totalising theories “bent on mastery” (Katz 1996: 488)) for granted.

Or perhaps more problematically, the issue lies in a focus on the ‘wrong kind’ of theory, meaning we are now drowning in an abundance of work which fails to coherently shape politically robust and passionate senses of the world around us. Particularly at the expense of gendered, racial, class-based and LGBTQ+ accounts. With these vehement concerns in mind, Thomas critically questioned whether we have exhausted all working parameters of credible theory, leaving us at an awkward stalemate of doing theory purely for the sake of theory.

If this diagnosis is true, what does this mean for theory as a whole? As a discipline, are we now suffering a disengagement with theoretical work because it is seemingly impractical, impenetrable, and politically inflexible? Or does this position give us more incentive to recapture and reclaim theory, forcing us to think beyond impact and to reshape how concepts are used so they cannot be reduced to the stagnation of stability?

More decisively, Thomas deliberated what these concerns have to do with minor theory. His answer put briefly- everything.

Whilst this is undoubtedly an intimidating prospect, we cannot begin to unpack this claim without revisiting our elemental understandings of the minor. Following Thomas and Joe’s own work on micropolitics and the minor (Jellis and Gerlach 2017), we can begin to comprehend the minor as an innately ambiguous assemblage that teeters along the edge of knowing, allowing it to avoid the constraints of definitive conceptualisation. As a basis, we should appreciate that “both the micropolitical and the minor cannot be allied to any particular scale or register of significance” (Jellis and Gerlach 2017: 564). Alternatively, as uncertain as it seems, we need to view the minor as uncommitted or unbound to any political spectrums. “If anything”, they write, “the minor ‘demands a ‘letting-go’ of the left and the right as political axioms, as much as it requires an abandonment of the affixation of labels ‘radical’ and ‘critical’, imposed by way of intellectual vogue. Instead, micropolitics and the minor are always, already present; it is what one makes of it as a mode of action that matters. Part of this mode of action is, simply, to ask awkward questions’’ (Jellis and Gerlach 2017:  564).

Offering further clarity, Cindi Katz aimed to push the threshold of what constitutes the minor by pondering how it could be apprehended as a tool to both expose and debunk the major.  Put briefly, Katz (1996) comments that the minor does not exist merely on the peripheries or in total opposition to the major, but fundamentally offers different ways to work with theoretical material. This is largely because the minor is not about naming or labelling something as solid or definite, but rather is about engaging with a language or vocabulary that feels uncomfortable and unsettling, making the minor an unstable form that is both “relentlessly transformative and inextricably relational” (Katz 1996, p489) to the major, rather than its direct antonym. For Thomas and Katz (1996) alike, there is enormous power in this relationship, allowing us to re-work, re-structure and re-negotiate the major from within, without wholly dismantling it.

Certainly, many scholars over the years have similarly tried to navigate this tumultuous terrain, producing new and eclectic retorts to popular bodies of theory that assertively demand we problematise the normative. Non-Representational Theory (NRT), for instance, critiques mechanic theories that have the inability “to do anything other than hold onto, produce, represent, the fixed and the dead” (Harrison 2000: 499), meaning that they fail to “apprehend the lived present as an open-ended and generative process”. Dewsbury et al. (2002: 438) similarly suggest that such approaches ultimately drain the vitality of the world around us “for the sake of orders, mechanisms, structures and processes”. Expectedly then, leading NRT thinker Nigel Thrift (2000) stresses the need to abandon the embalming fascination of believing theory is capable of fabricating totalising solutions and answers. Therefore, rather than seeking worldly explanations from theory, we need to consider new ways of experiencing, observing and practicing the “responsive and rhetorical” (Thrift 2000, p223) realm of encounter, and in order to do so, we must view all theory as a toolkit or supplementary resource that helps to co-produce the world, rather than exclusively rationalise it.

Isabelle Stengers’ equally provocative work with the minor contemplates the linguistic frictions that arise when dealing with theoretical abstractions and propositions. For Stengers (2008), theory often falls into the trap of ‘adequacy’, in which our ideas or perceptions are inherently shaped by inhibiting linguistic interpretations. Her resolution is not to apprehend experience as devoid of interpretation, but to redesign language in such a perplexing and disarrayed manner that nothing can be entirely defined by a specific noun or adjective. As such, theoretical abstractions for Stengers (2008: 95-6) “are not ‘abstract forms’ that determine what we feel, perceive and think, nor are they ‘abstracted from’ something more concrete, and, finally, they are not generalizations”. They are “lures” enticing our attention “toward something that matters, vectorising concrete experience […] to induce empirically felt variations in the way our experience matters” (Stengers 2008, p96). Resultantly, luring abstractions (propositions) act as a mode of the minor. They are theories in the making that are not bound to unbending binaries of ‘true’ or ‘false’, or even ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because they are not entrapped within the judgements of language. Propositions are therefore novel theories always under construction, that critically have the potential to collapse thought patterns, individual feelings and more ferociously; social order (Stengers 2008).

To summarise this section of the session, Thomas highlighted a common denominator in the semi-tonal shifts that aim to rework the language of the major, allowing for reconciliations and apprehensions of the ways in which we encounter the trajectories of life to become fully realised. Considering this, it is evident that the minor is always interlaced within the fabric of the major, disrupting its standardisation and questioning its seemingly stable structures. As the minor’s inert instability courses through the major, resisting crystallisation and oscillation, we are forced to interrogate the rigid political axioms of representation that the major aims to preserve. In essence, the minor is perhaps best understood as a moving target that collides with, congeals, and rearranges our geographical imaginations. It insists on deterritorialising a spectrum of universal truths presented to us by the major, and offers a chance to decolonise our thoughts, senses and articulations of the world in ways that cannot be anticipated. Perhaps a consequence of Thomas’ evident passion, or indeed the minor’s own capacity to dislodge prior judgements, it is evident that a minor theory has radical potential that is too important to be ignored.

 

Part two:

Before leading onto the closing conversation, Joe and Thomas prepared a workshop task designed to play on the notion of a ‘Landscape Surgery’. Presented with a collection of fragmented and detached statements about the minor, the session convenors asked us to collectively and forensically recompose our own diagnosis of the minor, for the minor. Joe and Thomas then asked us to write a postcard of our final assemblage and address it to someone or something. This assignment saw a number of expressive outputs from our surgeons, from postcards addressed to Freud and the RGS, to more tangible dismemberments and reconfigurations of the collection of snippets offered to us. Below lie a few examples of our surgeons’ efforts:

 

Part three:

In the final discussion, Joe took the opportunity to offer some further thoughts on the composition of the minor in relation to thematic geographic concerns. Echoing earlier conversations, Joe reinforced the view that the minor does not derive from its essence, but comes from the act of minoritizing, and whilst the push to minoritise is becoming increasingly urgent, neither he nor Thomas is certain of what actually it looks or feels like. Their goal, nonetheless, is to contemplate biography, fieldwork and ethics in order to begin to trial new ways of doing minor theory in practice. Of course, to outline a manifesto would be entirely oxymoronic, as once the ethos of the minor is sedimented within strategy it loses the potency of its desired resistance. Instead, this segment sought to pitch several loosely bound techniques of minoritisation that amplify the minors disruptive micropolitical affectivities.

 

Biography

For Joe, biography and geography are indivisible notions. On the surface, their prefixes are similarly rooted within some kind of worlding, a coming together of life, being and earth. But they become even more inseparable when their theorising becomes composed within the minor. However, as Joe commented, it is difficult to write a biography in a minor tenor, particularly when the passions and indifferences of life become swallowed in the oscillating macropolitical experiences of intensity and monotony- an erroneous pitfall that many authors have succumbed to. Joe singled out the epitaph’s suspiciously vivid plot, suggesting the temptation of reputation and fame often surpasses rectitude, but all is excused as nothing is ever as it truly seems anyway.

So how can we allow the minor to apprehend biography? Can we alter the pathways of these (ropey) life-stories to make way for minor lines of flight?

Following Guattari’s (2012) psychoanalytical work, Joe argued that we can try to write a minor biography by staging a series of spatially and temporally fragmented accounts of inexplicit encounters that narrowly avoid the threshold of consistency. Through doing so, we can suspend biographies in a limbo of sorts, a space devoid of taxonomic distinction between the virtual and the actual, the real and fiction – a flamboyant schizoid style that decentres the biographer with intent to disrupt the status quo (Guattari 2012). As Joe indicated, such an approach allows biographies to become stories of existence that aren’t merely the colourful tales of a single author, but hijacked encounters that are strung together through a collective resonance of an event (Manning 2016). The force of a minor biography is therefore highly unstable and its trajectories uncertain, reified only by its relation to other bodies, objects, sensitivities and energies.

 

Fieldwork

For Joe, all fieldwork is bound into major structures of application, empiricism and impact, leaving opportunity for a minor fieldwork meditation to critique the problematic nature of empirical work more generally. Non-representational geographies for example, have sought to expand the parameters of what counts as empirical fieldwork by playing between the boundaries of reality and representation, although Joe admits that this has gotten somewhat lost in the asphyxiation of the theory into brand name ‘NRT’. Alternatively, Didier Debaise (2009) aimed to liberate the terms ‘impact’ and ‘applicability’ to ponder what they might mean under speculative or minor empiricisms. Here, Debaise (2009) suggests that the contrived nature ‘applicability’ places not only a heavy burden on fieldwork to account for the all-encompassing epistemologies of experience, but also increases the relational aperture between subjects and objects. Resultantly, he urges the need to move away from a vocabulary of ‘applicability’ to one of ‘adequacy’. This does not pertain to commenting on the competencies of fieldwork to accurately testify experience, but to the pragmatics of thought, thinking and theorising that occur in experiential fields during empirical work.

By tuning into these subtle variations in experiential and elemental conditions, Joe hinted that the minor can become foregrounded as its own unique methodological technique. As such, minor fieldwork is less about identifying a particular category or case study to investigate, but about detecting the minute folds in our existence. For Joe, minor fieldwork is therefore pivotal in conceptually energising, enlivening, and charging the dimensions and details of the world. As ever, the minor in this geographical motif is not about mastery, and will not add any clarity to empirical work, but instead intervenes with and valorises the meaning entrenched into all aspects of fieldwork encounters.

 

Ethics

Ethics served to be the most problematic of the three geographic concerns to minoritize for Joe, as its stubborn political contexts seem to ardently reject the minute tonal shifts exerted by minor energies. Keen to probe the plasticity of this resistance, Joe sought to examine the frequently coupled tropes of morals and ethics that have become something of a well-established obligational concern within social scientific ethical fields. Ethics, he argued, shouldn’t be about willing or controlling certain events to happen smoothly, nor is it about resenting lapses in their ability to adhere to expectations. Instead, ethics is about building certain ontological capacities through the performance of bodies, spaces, temporal zones, geographic imaginations and embedded histories that exist within ethical contexts of an event.

As such, minor ethics relates to post-humanist thought because it speaks to the anthropogenic concerns of ontological vitalism. In this sense, it would be comfortable to construct a minor ethics that contemplates the willing of events expressed via the affective nodes of the human body, anticipating how this affectation subconsciously predisposes, and on some level controls, the outcomes of ethical procedure. Yet, a minor ethics is one of composition, a coming together of multiple sensitivities, tangibilities and sensibilities, and whilst a somatic speculation of an event is necessary, it paints an incomplete picture of the minor’s capacity; silencing the importance of value when aiming to disrupt major ethics.

In a return to earlier claims to resist the major’s totalising mastery of theory (Katz 1996), Joe argued that we must abandon popular theories that hold concepts hostage in suffocating hierarchies of value, and instead use a minor ethics to reassess the transformative coupling of ontology and judgement (Hemmings 2005). Indeed, as Brian Massumi (2002) hints, we need to move away from the ecologies of power produced within political and economic domains that necessitate a quantitative relation to value, and now focus on the affective force of value regardless of how unsettling it may feel. Value should therefore be about attuning our registers to the elemental – the aesthetic and the atmospheric qualities of ethics – rather than its assumed agency and power (Engelmann and McCormack 2017).

 

In an attempt to summarise this deeply provocative surgery, Thomas and Joe suggested that the minor should be thought of as a ‘productive paradox’; a working methodological and theoretical practice that seeks to mainstream the minor whilst simultaneously minoritising the mainstream. Importantly, a call for the minor is not about imploring temporary engagements within dominating bodies of work, nor is it about soliciting haphazard cosmetic overhauls of their theory. For Thomas and Joe, an embracing of the minor is about shifting the mechanisms of the major to conjure new articulations, imaginations, languages, and possibilities for the discipline of Geography. Certainly, the analytic dimensions of the minor must be practiced, its nebulous style rehearsed through extensive performance to allow for the dubious politics of the major’s totalising universalisms to be questioned. After all, as Joe romantically postulated, minor flourishes have the capacity to change the shape of the universe, and as a discipline it is crucial that we are well equipped for major ruptures inevitably caused by the minors’ cosmic waves.

 

We would like to extend our warmest thanks to Thomas and Joe for sharing their critical work with the minor with us, and for creating a surgery that was both engaging and insightful. We wish you every success for the forthcoming release of ‘Why Guattari? A Liberation of Cartographies, Ecologies and Politics’ as seen in the image below (Jellis, Gerlach and Dewsbury 2019).

9781138183490

 

References

Debaise, D. (2009) The Emergence of a Speculative Empiricism: Whitehead Reading Bergson. Deleuze, Whitehead, Bergson, pp.77-88.

Dewsbury, J., Harrison, P., Rose, M. and Wylie, J. (2002) Enacting geographies. Geoforum, 33(4), pp.437-440.

Engelmann, S. and McCormack, D. (2017) Elemental Aesthetics: On Artistic Experiments with Solar Energy. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 108(1), pp.241-259.

Guattari, F. (2012) Schizoanalytic cartographies. 1st ed. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Harrison, P. (2000) Making Sense: Embodiment and the Sensibilities of the Everyday. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18(4), pp.497-517.

Hemmings, C. (2005) Invoking Affect: cultural theory and the ontological turn. Cultural Studies, 19(5), pp.548-567.

Jellis, T. and Gerlach, J. (2017) Micropolitics and the minor. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 35(4), pp.563-567.

Jellis, T., Gerlach, J. and Dewsbury, J. (2019) Why Guattari? A Liberation of Cartographies, Ecologies and Politics. Routledge.

Katz, C. (1996) Towards Minor Theory. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(4), pp.487-499.

Massumi, B. (2002) Parables for the virtual. Durham: Duke University Press.

Stengers, I. (2008) A Constructivist Reading of Process and Reality. Theory, Culture & Society, 25(4), pp.91-110.

Thrift, N. (2000) Afterwords. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 18(2), pp.213-255.

 

Written by Megan Harvey, edited by Jack Lowe, Alice Reynolds and Ed Armston-Sheret.

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