Derrida, Deleuze and difference in the Sumak Kawsay debate

by Dylan Inglis

As governments worldwide struggle to find alternatives to unsustainable modernist models of progress, a glimmer of hope flickers by way of the integration of the Andean cosmovision-cum-concept of Sumak Kawsay – under the denomination Buen Vivir [living well] – into Ecuador’s national constitution. An alternative cosmology which confers rights to the more-than-human and is based on axioms of responsibility and reciprocity, Sumak Kawsay (SK) swims against the general global current of neoliberalist individualism and its integration into policy has provoked much debate over its semantic and epistemological contours. It is demonstrated that the calls to preserve a faithful working understanding of the Andean philosophy in theory and policy are in delicate (perhaps incommensurable) tension with contrasting accusations that defending a certain version of the concept runs the risk of re-creating romanticised or archaic essentialisation of indigeneity. I take Cuestas-Caza’s (2018) article on epistemic communities in the Sumak Kawsay debate as an example of how scholarship can enrich discussion on issues of meaning and the legitimacy of knowledge but can also contribute to impasses in the academic episteme around the legitimacy of research and knowledge about Sumak Kawsay. As the moralistic nature of such work is totalising and often destructive, I instead follow recent speculative scholarship (Alonso González and Macías Vázquez, 2015) in suggesting the potential force of a turn to ontology in the Sumak Kawsay debate. Viewing the notion of ‘difference’ as key in this context, I outline how the scholarship of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida can offer a reappraisal of ontological difference. Pursuing post-structural difference reasserts the responsibility of academic work to suspend judgement around the integrity of interpretations of Sumak Kawsay and instead stretch the uneasy aporia of the incommensurability of these debates. Rather than staying debate based on static essences and binary structures, a post-structuralist view of difference points to the immanent multiplicity and absence of being and shifts interest from the identity of Sumak Kawsay as an essentialisable floating concept, to a view of it as a dynamic assemblage whose transformative potential should be maximised.

Sumak Kawsay

Although humans have always altered their environments, current global consumption rates are endangering the very life systems upon which humans depend (Daszak et al., 2000). Growing recognition of the limits to ‘progress’ has precipitated political allegiance to sustainable development, which allies improvements in quality of life with the recognition that these improvements must respect the finiteness of natural resources (Parris and Kates, 2003, Sachs, 2012). Nonetheless, it is widely recognised that pledges towards sustainability uphold a notion of progress incommensurable with maintaining the health of natural systems (Banerjee, 2003). It has been posited that ways of understanding ‘the human’ and ‘nature’ in asymmetrical binary terms is at the core of the socio-environmental crisis, and a slew of alternative projects have emerged since the 1970s that re-work this binary, with degrowth and feminist movements adopting strong anti-modernity discourses, although these movements have seldom been embraced in mainstream politics (Demaria et al., 2013, Warren, 1990; Escobar, 2015).

One notable exception in the political arena is Sumak Kawsay and its adoption in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution (Conaie, 2007). Translated into Spanish as Buen Vivir, Sumak Kawsay has its roots in non-Western Andean cosmologies based upon principles of communitarian, ecological and cultural harmony (Gudynas, 2011). Also defined as ‘living in plenitude’, Sumak Kawsay must thus be understood bearing in mind the cosmovision and political project of indigenous populations based on an intense reciprocity of kinship between human and more-than-human beings (Macas, 2010; Viteri Gualinga, 2002). This means that the Ecuadorian constitution confers rights to nature alongside the rights of Ecuadorian human subjects and thus gives legal standing to environmental health and equilibrium (Martinez and Acosta, 2017; Estermann, 2013). Although the lack of a political voice has historically furthered the marginalisation of autochthonous Andean populations in the Ecuadorian constitution, a combination of the impending environmental crisis, pledges from foreign actors to assist monetarily in Ecuador’s protection of natural resources and a wider discontent with the unkept promises of modernity and progress, have culminated in Ecuador becoming a symbolic standard-bearer for the protection of nature (Acosta, 2015). Sumak Kawsay is also a post-colonialist venture: following a history of violence and marginalisation of indigenous populations, recognising local ways of knowing hopes to restore justice to indigenous populations and foster social equality (Santos, 2015).

However, despite early euphoria around the political attention afforded to Sumak Kawsay, academic research has highlighted contradictions between the maxims of Sumak Kawsay and the devastating extractivist agenda of the Ecuadorian government (Beling, and Vanhulst, 2014). It has been argued that in translating the way of living of Andean people into a part of the national constitution, Sumak Kawsay has become something else altogether, and that rather than underpinning care and reciprocity, it has been used as a smokescreen for a business-as-usual approach on the part of political leaders (Hollender, 2012). Thus, it has been posited that Ecuador is engaging in ‘cognitive extractivism’ of certain aspects of Andean cosmology and appropriating it to gain and retain political power (Simpson and Klein, 2017; Vanhulst and Veling, 2014). Academic research has also identified problems on a conceptual level, with Fierro (2009), for example, criticising political and academic efforts to equate Sumak Kawsay with Western philosophies of self-realisation such as Eudaimonia, which makes the human subject the core centre of concern and thereby invisibilises the Sumak Kawsay’s emphasis on communitarianism and relationality with the more-than-human (Ryan and Martela, 2017; de Zaldívar, 2013).

Another conceptual problem highlighted in relation to Sumak Kawsay revolves around the issue of essentialism and binary difference (Acosta, 2013: Gerlach, 2017). The idea that there is an essence to the concept of SK is a core assumption that anchors debate, and it is suggested that the retention of the ‘original’ meaning of the term in policy is crucial to avoid surrendering the concept’s identity to an unfaithful or over-diluted application in mainstream neoliberal government (Bretón et al., 2014). Yet, over-ardent fidelity to the ‘indigenous essence’ of the term is problematic on various levels, most notably because it reproduces a staunch binary between Western and Indigenous epistemes (Radcliffe, 2017). There is no simple divide between cosmologies in Ecuador, and the loose categories of indigenous and non-indigenous populations can rarely be simply drawn. Emphasising the primacy of indigenous knowledge and definitions over Western re-appropriations is an important part of social-justice movements (Valverde, 1999), but is haunted by the risk of re-creating the indigenous ‘other’ as existing in a pre-Modern vacuum, rather than as a highly heterogeneous group of people that challenges simplistic notions of indigeneity (Hornberger and Coronel-Molina, 2004). This essentialisation of the origins of Sumak Kawsay and indigenous Ecuadorians has disdainfully been labelled ‘pachamamismo’ by some local academics, as it serves as a warning of the dangers of prioritising indigenous knowledge and an over-zealous search for origins in Sumak Kawsay (Recasens, 2014). More recently, the seminal criticism levelled by Cuestas-Caza (2018) against the political and academic appropriation of Sumak Kawsay challenges the legitimacy of much of this scholarship on the grounds that the authors’ linguistic background and conceptual interpretations contradict the ethos of SK.

The contribution of Cuestas-Caza

While the critiques are numerous, Cuestas-Caza’s important 2018 article on the semantics and epistemology of Sumak Kawsay constitutes the intellectual springboard of this essay, informing the angle of my theoretical approach in three ways. First, the case made that scholarship under the banner of ‘Buen Vivir’ is more compliant in ‘epistemic neo-colonialism’ (Gudynas, 2011) or in the ‘intellectual liquidity’ of a worldview borne in the Quechua language led to me employing Sumak Kawsay to refer to Ecuadorian ‘living well’. Cuestas-Caza develops a rigorous epistemic categorisation of actants or positions on the issue, specifically suggesting that socialist-statist and post-developmentalist epistemic communities dilute the meaning of SK according to their dominant desires and narratives. But Cuesta-Caza’s approach was also heavy-handed in criticism, be it through reducing the multiplicity of academic scholarship into Sumak Kawsay into two largely pejorative epistemes, or through undermining scholarship using the term ‘Buen Vivir’. This latter point ignores the fact that most literature on the Andean philosophy has preferred to use the Spanish translation, and that the diversity of motives under which it was employed and varying conclusions drawn defy totalising simplification. Thus, the second way in which Cuestas-Caza’s article has affected my own work is that it has alerted me to the dangers of broad-brush moralistic judgement of scholarship on Buen Vivir. Adopting his vocable ‘episteme’, I believe that an ‘academic episteme’ composed of Western and Andean academia can be a fertile ground of debate and knowledge production about Sumak Kawsay and wield significant political significance (Haas, 2015). However, rather than focusing on the epistemological and semantic aspects most fiercely debated, I follow Alonso González and Macías Vázquez (2015) in looking for different theoretical angles to challenge the current epistemological impasse. This is because, for all their merits, such studies looking into Sumak Kawsay invariably draw upon previous scholarship, but – reflecting the authors’ own transcendental moral codes – re-organise the meanings and relations between the components of Sumak Kawsay and claim a new totality of ‘truth’, or the closest approximate to adequate and correct meaning. Such a stalemate in value terms is recognised by Jean-Paul Sartre as the barrier to all constructive debate, as actants’ conflicting value systems foreclose cooperative decision (Sartre, 1946).

Ontology and post-structuralism

In the face of this theoretical cul-de-sac, joining Alonso González, Macías Vázquez (2015) and Gerlach (2017), I advocate for a move to ontology or ‘from words to things’ (Husserl, 2012). The turn in philosophy from epistemology to ontology (that is, to the fundamental substances or aspects of being) has been made by many ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers in the face of the inadequacy of the dominant structures of thought historically shaped by Rene Descartes and Saussurian structuralism (Garber, 1992). Structuralist thought is underpinned by ‘Western metaphysics’, which entrenches differences between human essence and non-human essence and between the agential subject and the static object, therefore rendering humans as the all-knowing observers of reality from a neutral pedestal provided by their transcendental capacity for ‘reason’. Although alternative non-transcendental ontologies have been explored since Descartes (Spinoza, 1992), it was not until Martin Heidegger that Western thought committed to the study of being and ontology (Heidegger, 2014). For Heidegger, things are not defined by their essence, but by their intrinsic absence and thereby the irreducible relational formation with all other ‘beings’ over space and time (Berciano, 1992). This simple premise undermines metaphysical assumptions that things are stable and codable. Various post-structuralist thinkers deepened Heidegger’s work, and although they build upon the core principle of structuralism that ‘signs are defined by their relationship with other signs in a system’ (Saussure, 2011: 67), they emphasise the interminable play of signs by which meaning and being are forever suspended and unstable (Wiley, 2006).

In the second half of this essay, I will mine the re-thinking of ontology developed by post-structuralists Deleuze and Derrida, with specific focus on how their conceptualisation of ‘difference’ can inform the Sumak Kawsay debate. The concept of difference is chosen as the focus here because it is inextricably linked with how we interpret change and repetition and because its re-formulation by Deleuze and Derrida offers powerful new conceptual tools through which to reappraise the potential and future of Sumak Kawsay (Cisney, 2018). This approach will constitute a primary effort to parse Sumak Kawsay through the explicit introduction of post-structural difference, while also being the first ontological venture in the debate to wed the aporic finality of Derrida’s deconstruction of language with Deleuze’s materialist project of immanent becoming.

Derrida’s negative difference

Following Heidegger, Derrida understands all being as defined and composed by absence – that is, the essence or meaning of any thing is always deferred through differentiation over time and space (Derrida, 1982: 13). Derrida’s negative difference is perhaps best understood in the context of his deconstruction of transcendental philosophy and specifically through the conferring of primacy and vibrancy to speech over writing in Western thought (Garrison, 1999). In the asymmetric binary between the written and spoken word, writing has been framed as the cause of distance and miscommunication due to the way in which it fixes language, thus constituting an obstacle to clarity of thought and transmission of ideas (Derrida, 2003). This view chimes with the modernist view that meaning obtains its authority from its originary [past] being, and consequently differentiation from the essentialised form is seen as an undesirable loss of the identity of the thing or concept in question (Grillo, 2003).

This negative view of change and difference characterises the view of many academics on the origins and evolution of concepts because the debate is in large part informed by notions of binary between indigenous lived orality and Western written codification (Kamuf, 1991). Derrida counters such a binary, however, by attacking the insipient ‘logocentrism’ that defines it (Lamont, 1987), with logocentrism referring to the idea that concepts possess an essence independent of the semantic context of their relationship with other words and things (Wortham, 2010). Yet rather than absolute truth being locatable in language, Derrida emphasises that signs are constructed in dynamic relation, and are thus defined by novelty – not by their substance or stability – and by their ever-changing positioning in language (Moati, 2014). A word or concept always retains a ‘trace’ of the semantic meaning it has possessed in the ‘passed’ (passé), but this trace is itself always foregrounded by the absence of essence, rather than by the presence of any concrete, irreducible form (Derrida, 1994; xviii). Indeed, for Derrida, the systematic tracing of differences between signs in time and space is never-ending, and even if thorough study can allow one to better comprehend a concept’s conditions of existence, any resultant privileging of certain meanings never attains absolute truth, as any transcendental judgement is the fruit of an ultimately arbitrary conferral of a fictitious ‘absolute’ presence over time or space (Derrida, 2003: 367). This ‘moment of madness’ (Derrida, 1990: 968) where one traces a totalising line of representative difference is both disastrous and crucial. It can never be avoided, only delayed.

Derridean deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence is a powerful critique of the mystical authoritarian foundations conferred to essential origins of things and ideas (Herzfield, 2001: 70). One great virtue of Derrida’s appraisal of negative difference is that it does not culminate in a transcendental judgement, rather its finality is characterised by aporia – Derrida’s term for logical paradox (Derrida, 1993: 1). This aporia must be overcome through making an informed decision, but the focus on aporia in this approach can act as a catalyst for more stayed critical thinking which delays judgement, as well as kindling an ethos of theory premised by the impossibility of ever attaining absolute truths – thereby rendering the theorist more cautious with their conclusions. Nevertheless, and without forgetting the import of Derrida’s negative difference in the quest for amore stayed critique of ontology, I believe that the linguistic critique of difference can, and perhaps must, also be informed by a more positive project of immanent difference which may foster an unstable, speculative ontological foundation through which to re-think issues of representation. This will be provided by Gilles Deleuze’s materialist ontology of becoming.

Deleuze’s immanent difference

Drawing upon Spinoza, Deleuze emphasised the monism and relational becoming of all things on earth. This immanent ontology is often contrasted with transcendentalism, as it collapses the subject-object divide and posits that all beings are situated on a plane of entities which cannot be fundamentally separated, with all possessing the ability to affect and be afforded the role of ‘subject’ (Bryant, 2008). Like Derrida, Deleuze focuses on the fundamentals of reality prior to representation, but the foundation for Deleuze is multiplicity. Through this lens, true difference is foundational to all being and thus always existent prior to essence. Although Deleuze concurs with Derrida in judging difference as ontological, the concept of difference-in-itself contrasts with Derrida’s difference-as-deferral and negative-differentiation because it constitutes a core concept on which Deleuze forms an affirmative ontology focused on the relational becoming of being rather than the impossibility of knowing the world, which is the theoretical conclusion held by Derrida (Sokoloff, 2005).

Deleuze’s immanent ‘difference-in-itself’ has revolutionary potential for thought (Cockayne, 2017). Firstly, rather than differentiating between process and product, a Deleuzian approach foregrounded by immanent difference posits that process is product (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977; 6). As such, the prevailing view in traditional Western metaphysics of reality as ontologically ‘static’ is replaced by the affirmation that being is constantly ‘becoming’ and would be better defined in terms of movement (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 385). Following this logic, the change of a concept could be considered as inevitable and potentially positive. Second, and in conjunction with the first consequence, immanent difference means that concepts are understood in terms of an irreducible multiplicity as opposed to any single transcendent sovereign form, with Deleuze claiming that the constant repetition of things entails the re-assembling of the assemblage of related things and meanings which compose them (Deleuze, 1994: 11). Therefore, this differential repetition brings the negation of the previous version and of its copy, ensuing the endless creation of novelty (Deleuze, 1994: 55). This diverges from critiques that judge the adequacy of a representation according to criteria of faithfulness to an ‘original’ version. As a result, the wriggly maxim proposed by Deleuze in his political project of immanent difference is to ‘maximise the force of bodies’, where a body is not defined by its form or essence, but by its relationship with other bodies and its capacity to create more forceful, vibrant confluences of energy (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 125).  

Post-structural difference in Sumak Kawsay scholarship

The exposition of difference in the work of Derrida and Deleuze provides analytical tools that can reinvigorate the debate round Sumak Kawsay, and Derrida’s immanent difference has the added advantage of presenting an alternative ontology which could further novel understanding and critical scholarship, imagining alternative meanings and criteria for success (Smith, 2007). It is a philosophy based primarily not on opposition, but on mapping new worlds (Boundas, 2006). Thus, in addition to exercising paradox in the Derridean line, post-structuralist appraisals can also be mobilised to map more powerful relationships that can maximise the affective capacity of politicised semantic-material assemblages like Sumak Kawsay. It is thus not a question of working for the reactionist protection of concepts or of installing sovereignty around language. Rather, the kind of power or affect advocated by Deleuze can be broadly represented by the distinction in French between ‘pouvoir’ and ‘puissance’, which both translate as ‘power’ (Pelbart, 2002). ‘Pouvoir’ is understood as force over human or non-human subjects and is broadly understood as finite. In contrast, ‘puissance’ is theoretically infinite as it is the process-product of relations between bodies (Phillipe, 2006). Therefore, whereas for ‘pouvoir’ to be claimed it must be subtracted by other actants, the force of ‘puissance’ is sourced from the coming-together and intensification of assemblages of bodies of all kinds.

Derrida and Deleuze’s rejection of structural sedimentation of thought based on form, essence and sovereignty of meaning undermines the most frequent debates about the successes and perils of the precarious socio-political project of Sumak Kawsay. In addition, both philosophers stress the intrinsic multiplicity of existence, be it through the essence defined by absence of being according to Derrida or through the irreducible multiplicity of intensities of Deleuze’s difference as immanent to being. I argue that Derrida’s oeuvre can challenge the modus operandi of the morally premised academic work that contributes to the semantic and epistemological impasse in scholarship about Sumak Kawsay. Derrida’s work is highly divisive in the social sciences and humanities and has often been discounted and rejected as nihilistic (Powell, 2006: 136) or applied in a ‘light’ model of deconstruction. This ‘light model’ approach has been adopted already by Hildago-Capitan and Cubillo-Guevara (2017) in the Sumak Kawsay debate, but arguably misinterprets the praxis of Derrida’s project, as it misconstrues the term Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ as mere synonym of ‘critique’. While such scholarship contributes to the debate, it is problematic in that by creating new transcendental typologies through which to understand Sumak Kawsay and then enacting moral judgement regarding them the authors make precisely the move that a more Derridean analysis would bemoan, by divorcing the sign from its semantic context and ‘floating’ it in a different analytical context underpinned by a specific approach of epistemological critique. In contrast, I believe that a productive post-structural critique of semantics and epistemological debates around Sumak Kawsay as outlined in this essay could benefit from pursuit of the uneasy aporia at the heart of a debate defined by incommensurability.

Conclusion – an ontological turn towards more synergetic scholarship

In conclusion, although issues of epistemology and semantics as described by Cuestas-Caza (2018) dominate discussions of Sumak Kawsay in academia, I have suggested that a re-appraisal of the ontological foundations of the debate through post-structuralist critique could engender more constructive and rigorous approaches to debate. The turn towards ontology through Deleuzian and Derridean notions of difference is advocated in the knowledge that the intricate socio-political context surrounding Sumak Kawsay perpetuates the need for debates on the semantic contours of Sumak Kawsay and the legitimacy of its employment in policy and public discourse (Quijano, 2010). The issue of legitimacy is at the core of the debate. Drawing from the corpus of two white, Western, bourgeois philosophers to further theoretical commentary on the nature of Sumak Kawsay may elicit critique, as Deleuze and Derrida’s projects emerged in the same lands and intellectual traditions that justified the attempted genocide of non-Western peoples and which inform the current manifestations of unsustainable consumerism and individualism that are accelerating degradation of the natural conditions of life. Nevertheless, greater focus on ontology implies more rigorous, affirmative notions of difference and may promote the much-needed suspension of implicit or explicit transcendental judgement based on a semi-arbitrary moral code. Therefore, Deleuze and Derrida’s post-structuralist thought beckons a potential alternative way of approaching the sensitive and saturated debate around Sumak Kawsay.

Debates around what constitutes the ‘true’ meaning of an indigenous concept in the academic and political arena can also be a highly complicated venture, as preservation of indigenous difference has been accused of being based on essentialism. An ontological turn in academic focus on the issue augers productive theoretical work, although in practice it will complement semantic and epistemological research undertaken in a contemporary context that is tensioned with conflicting interests and propelled by an underlying institutional push for concrete, measurable work. A post-structural focus on ontology reserves judgement on issues of legitimacy of definitions and applications of Sumak Kawsay or its relationship with indigenous people. Thus, rather than being premised on the protection of an imperilled concept, a turn to Deleuze and Derrida foregrounds the affirmative role of the theorist to map out new affective potentialities in the debate. Although the emphasis on generative force or ‘puissance’ as the monist material at the centre of such a project may appear overly abstract, it has the potential to direct scholarship to a more adventurous, innovative avenue of study by enabling the concept to gain traction through emphasising the primacy of difference. This approach is based on a staunch resolve to resist the moralistic circumpossession of theoretical exploration of the issue in scholarship that is based on preconceived moral codes and designed to transcend previous scholarship in rigour and pertinence. Rather, a post-structural approach will, in theory, delay the ‘moment of madness’ in positing one’s opinion about the ‘legitimate’ semantic and epistemology topography of Sumak Kawsay, and has the potential to re-map the entangled web of beings and meanings as possessing an inherent dynamism that is indicative not of despair, but of hope.


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Illuminating the nonhuman through audio-visual storytelling; a political actor invoking hope and resilience in yet another lockdown. An experimental process of creativity, reflection, and critique.

by Hannah Williams

Throughout this second lockdown I was tasked with telling my story. An opportunity to reflect on my own experience and, through audio-visual storytelling, relay my experience to my friends and peers. Throughout this process we, a Human Geography master’s cohort, intended to critically reflect on our peculiar and personal stories, the role of methods in creating and telling these stories and, adopting Katz’s (2001) counter-topographical method, the political processes present during lockdown. This process of pre-production, filming, editing, sharing and reflecting has been an insightful and creative experiment to research the COVID-19 pandemic.

This blog post acts as the final stage to this experimental research project, a chance to reflect, critique and analyse the individual stages of this process. In doing so, I hope to move between scales, from the intimate and personal subject, to the collective, and to the political (Pratt, 2009). This processual reflection and critique will be carried out in three parts. Firstly, a critical discussion of audio-visual methods as a posthuman methodology and their potential to contribute to researching the pandemic. Secondly, a reflection of the methods used to tell my ‘topography’ (Katz, 2001) and the political role of storytelling in bridging experience and expression (Cameron, 2012). Before finally, connecting my story with those of my peers through
Katz’s (2001) counter-topographical approach. Additionally, imbedding stills of my own and other’s stories aims to interweave the analytical and critical with the reflective, demonstrating both filming as a material and embodied process and the event of sharing and watching our films as affective (Ernwein, 2020).

These three phases highlight the potential for audio-visual storytelling to illuminate the presence of the nonhuman and consequently the nonhuman’s role as a political actor during the pandemic (Lorimer, 2010). Through both topographical and counter-topographical analysis, connecting to wider social, cultural and political meaning, the transformative potential of the nonhuman to invoke hope and resilience across disparate experiences is evident.

Creating my story
Choosing to use audio-visual methods to express my experience of lockdown was a new and slightly daunting endeavour, with no prior experience or knowledge beyond ‘point-and-shoot’ I was conscious not to bite off more than I could chew. Therefore, I decided to create my small story using nothing other than an iPhone. Thus, adopting a non-representational and posthuman approach that regards filming as an embodied material process. This process illuminated me to audio-visual method’s potential to make visible the nonhuman and highlight the multiple affective actors involved in my everyday practices during lockdown.

Audio-visual methods, within a posthuman paradigm, have the potential to engage with nonhuman difference and demonstrate qualities of non-representational practice: “vitality, performativity, corporeality, sensuality and mobility” (Lorimer, 2010; Vannini, 2015: 318). A posthuman methodology decentres the researcher which makes room for “alternative subjectivities” (Cameron, 2012: 575) and aims to capture “novel aspects of contemporary social and cultural life” (Williams et al., 2019: 637). It is a methodology that is both experimental and creative in its becoming, that awakens new ways of producing geographical knowledge but also stimulates our geographical imaginations to the material (Gerlach and Jellis, 2015). Being sensitive to the transversal requires a reconsideration of practice, theory, empiricism and
specifically new ways of creating and recording research encounters (Williams et al., 2019). With technology offering new ways of seeing the world (Rose, 2016), audio-visual method’s sensitivity offers potential for this “sensuous observation and reflection” (ibid: 322), acting as a micropolitical tool for engaging with the nonhuman.

“An ethnographic gaze aided by the new technologies of photographic reproduction could portray and indeed create ‘specimens’ with precision” (Crang, 2010: 5)

Taking my iPhone with me in the everyday was both an intentional and experimental practice, allowing the camera’s own agency to help govern and bring to life material and empirical data. Enabling the participant to research themselves, as I did, transforms visual methods into both a decolonial and feminist form of research (Crang, 2010), overcoming the principal critique of visual methods as representational. Representative and constructive filming reproduces positivist knowledge and dictates who and what can be seen (Gregory, 2003; Crang, 2010). This is a colonial act that further separates individuals and creates concern over produced and reproduced power relations (Haraway, 1991). However, this was overcome by viewing my iPhone as an extension of my own subjectivity and material form (Haraway, 2010 (1985)). Filming became an instinctive affective activity, a lens through which to see the world and capture my everyday material social practices, where my urges to film and record were valuable data in themselves; “deciding where to point the camera at any particular moment was part of the process of learning in the field, becoming a tool for thinking, seeing and representing materialities”(Richardson-Ngwenga, 2014: 295). This understands the body of the researcher to comprise of the individual and the filming technology, regarding the camera itself to have agency (Lury and Wakeford, 2012). Be it coming close to a squirrel (Fig. 1a) or feeling the wind on my face cycling over the bridge (Fig, 1b), or listening to the birds sing along my road (Fig. 1c), these moments were recorded impulsively rather than intentionally and thus are more reflexive and embodied in practice; a reaction to my more-than-human encounters (Williams, 2020). This posthumanist understanding, that deciding what to be filmed is an affect of material assemblages and beyond
our full control, renders audio-visual methods as an experiment that brings to the fore “cocreation experiences” (Richardson-Ngwenga, 2014: 296). Through making visual what sparks attention, “evocative ways of communicating more than human materialities” are enabled (Richardson-Ngwenga, 2014: 296).

Figure 1: Stills from my iPhone footage (Williams, 2020)

Telling my story
Reflecting on the footage I’d captured during my week of filming, it was clear how my life had transformed during the pandemic: increased monotony, far less socialising and a lot more outdoors. Using audio-visual storytelling to relay my personal topography, an “accurate and detailed delineation and description of any locality”, the value of the nonhuman in my everyday experience became evident (Katz, 2001: 1214). Using only iMovie, this revelation was made even more apparent by using a montage technique. This process has illuminated the role of audiovisual storytelling in disrupting hegemonic narratives and has made visible the transformative
potential of the nonhuman to invoke resilience and hope in everyday practices of lockdown.

With no former film or production experience, I decided my story was to be experimental and creative, acting as an additional means of discovery. Storytelling, as posthumanist knowledge production, regards a story as a “heterogenous assemblage of memories, practices, and materials within which one can identify particular narratives” (Lorimer, 2003: 577), or more simply the “relationship between personal experience and expression” (Cameron, 2012: 575). This offers interpretation and insight into the social, cultural and political, understanding storytelling as
performing a political ontology (Gibson-Graham, 2008; Lorimer, 2003).

My main goal in writing my story was not to transform or recompose meaning, but to translate how I felt, what I experienced, and the processes involved (Cameron, 2012; Rose, 2006; Whatmore, 2003). Filtering through my weeks’ material, I was hesitant to manipulate, edit or remove footage, eager to remain non-representational and avoid reproducing knowledges. However, given the constraints of my institution’s ethical requirements, all footage containing human participants (audio and visual) had to be removed, greatly reducing my data. Whilst frustrating, this intentional removal of the human increased awareness of the presence and role of the nonhuman.

To ‘tell’ my story, I used a montage process, “a cinematic rearrangement of lived time and space” (Suhr et al., 2012: 287). Using a montage as a sensory mode of writing, combining raw unedited footage in chronological order maintained a balance between the visual and visuality (Rose, 2016). This makes visible what is previously invisible, “moving away from humanised cinema” and highlighting alternative realities (Suhr et al., 2012: 284; Williams et al., 2019). Using this method thus mobilised the nonhuman and engaged with vital materialities, making us more
attuned to these encounters; “imagines nonhuman materialities as animated by dynamic and lively capacities to affect change and to participate in political life” (Richardson-Ngwenya, 2014: 294).

“As a representational art, film screens nonhuman nature as both revelation and concealment” (Pick and Narraway, 2013: 2)

Through embodied and intersubjective experience, stories produce knowledges, which in my instance illuminated the role of the nonhuman in a national crisis. The nonhuman as an actor has promoted hope and resilience; from the constant companion of my single paned Georgian window and house plants (Fig. 2a), to interacting with a swan (Fig. 2b), the more-than-human has played an expansive role in being a friend, a mediator, a social space, a gym and a place of refuge (Fig. 2c) over the last month (Williams, 2020). Whilst my singular story is just one lockdown account of billions, for Cameron (2012) this knowledge that I have created still has
political power, “it is precisely in small, local storytelling that political transformation becomes possible” (p.588). It is through these small and individuated stories that knowledges can be disrupted and imaginaries awoken and materialised. An audio-visual story, through being told and being embedded in wider culture can demonstrate social difference, through the “interweave with the social, structural or ideological”, with potential for “transforming dominant narratives” (ibid.: 574). In expressing my story, the transformative potential of the nonhuman, encouraging
and enabling my adapted practices, demonstrates the nonhuman to be a micropolitical actor that has been highly influential in my lockdown experience. This has the potential to produce knowledges that disrupt nature-culture divides and promote imaginaries that are vulnerable to the multiple affective forces that have been present during lockdown.

Connecting my story
Sharing, connecting and analysing my lockdown experience with my peers was an affective and emotive experience, enabling us to reflect on what for many has been an uncertain time of change and transformation but also growth, gratitude and appreciation for what remains. Incorporating Katz’s (2001) counter-topographical approach, we could identify the rhizomatic threads between our individual stories, connecting our disparate experiences to bring to the fore wider processes happening across scales. Adapting this methodology to the confines of just our master’s cohort, the politics of resilience and hope that was first observed in my own topography
became prominent in others. Whilst the micropolitical actors involved in these processes varied, the significance of the nonhuman as a transformative force remained prominent.

Katz’s counter-topographical approach, as a metaphor, was designed to analyse the broader socio-political and environmental processes emergent with globalisation and capitalism. It extends her principle of ‘topography’ as a material concept to be able to critically analyse across geographic scales, developing a “translocal politics” (Katz, 2002: 710).

“countertopographies involve precise analyses of particular processes that not only connect disparate places but also in doing so enable us to begin to infer connections in unexamined places in between” (Katz, 2002: 722)

By connecting distant sites or experiences analytically we are able to form a “spatialised understanding” of processes as “simultaneous and intertwined” (ibid.: 725). This provides a three-dimensional analysis whereby “contour lines” insight new political imaginaries (Katz, 2001: 1229). By constructing a counter-topography, individual topographies are placed into broader context “offering a means of understanding structure and processes” and to render visible “intersections with material social practices at other scales of analysis” (Katz, 2001: 1228). This
process of connecting and drawing lineages is often critiqued for being a positivist homogenising process which totalises knowledge production. However, such critiques misconstrue Katz’ intention, for her endeavour is to highlight degrees of commonality to promote learning, a “transnational politics”, and “insurgent change” (Katz, 2002: 719; Katz, 2001: 1232). By ensuring a highly detailed topography, a counter-topographical comparison “retains the distinctness of the characteristics of a particular place and builds on its analytic connections to other places along
contour lines” (ibid.:721).

Whilst on a much smaller scale, the process of sharing and connecting our individual
topographies, or stories, follows the principle of Katz counter-topographical method. Through sharing our individual films, we were able to glean more about the similarities and differences in our transformed material social practices in light of the disruptive pandemic. Combining methods of audio-visual storytelling and counter-topography, the political value of our new knowledge and geographical imagination became apparent.

“in other words, the way in which an image can ‘open up’ – an emotion, a memory, a new understanding, a new critique, even a new subjectification, a new politics- is a process that cannot be captured as a positivity for social science not least because it is not something that is in our control.” (Vikki Bell in Lury and Wakeford 2012: 161)

Connecting my story with my peers, I was able to envision the ‘contour lines’ between our lockdown experiences. Most evidently, the nonhuman as an agent of discovery, adaptability and comfort linked our individual practices. For many of us the second lockdown had been a period of discovery; Nianmei (Yang, 2020) trying new recipes (Fig. 3a), Ceara (Webster, 2020) searching for closure and new joys (Fig. 3b), Reuben (Grivell, 2020) using cycling to explore new parts of Bristol, and Emilia (Hermelin, 2020) allowing herself to pause and reflect.

“I’m enjoying the silence, enjoying the stillness, hearing other sounds of the city, it’s not just getting on the bus or being in a busy supermarket… I’m sitting with my own quiet… it’s a different landscape”- (Hermelin, 2020)

In addition, this disruption to our daily lives has tested and proven our master’s cohort to be adaptable. The showcase of our films demonstrated everything from using halls of residences as indoor gyms and turning cleaning into daily exercise (Fig. 4a), to using the supermarket as a way of seeing friends (Fig. 4b) and using social media as a platform to reach out to others and stay in contact (Fig. 4c) (Costa, 2020; Yang, 2020).

Whilst our films all valiantly depicted lockdown in a courageous and brave light, it was clear how each individual had resorted to individual comforts. Courtenay’s (Crawford, 2020) reflection on light as a way of making abandoned places still feel alive with human presence (Fig. 5a) demonstrated how these small forces of the nonhuman have created some stability and normality whilst all our other everyday practices have changed. This was echoed in Joel’s (Davies, 2020) experience, where through erratic transitions between shots, he interspersed moments of stillness and tranquillity created by the nonhuman throughout images of masks, instructions, rules, regulations and constraints (Fig. 5b, 5c); showing the potential for the nonhuman to provide refuge and companionship. It is this companionship that Ceara (Webster, 2020) speaks of in her reading of ‘Nature-Cure’, for when in assemblage with the nonhuman there can be strength in isolation, for we are never truly alone (Fig. 5d).

These individual stories/topographies, whilst different, inform the same subject. They’ve drawn contours between the transformed material social practices that have emerged in light of the second lockdown. Through discovery, adaptability and finding personal comforts we have all offered examples of how the nonhuman, a constant during lockdown, has been a political actor in invoking resilience and hope. We have all connected, rather emotively, on the different affective assemblages we’ve been a part of, and most importantly, have been so reliant upon.

“There is optimism in this break from hegemonic times… hope and optimism created in the interdistance of the pandemic” (Grivell, 2020)

“I am not as anxious as I thought I would be, I just try my best to stay happy and healthy but when your life and your things become unusual it is really a strange feeling. However, I hope and believe we can go back to normal again soon” (Yang, 2020)

The political value of our individual stories is extended by a counter-topographical approach, as across broader socio-political and environmental scales “just getting by in the face of the oppressive and increasingly mean-spirited circumstances” demonstrates resilience on the powerful level of the collective (Katz, 2004: 244). Transforming and reworking, overcomes “structural constraints” and offers the potential for hope as an antithesis of fear (ibid.: 251). Hope is a force that paves the way for new possibilities, a political affect that can transform practices. As illuminated through our audio-visual stories, the nonhuman has proven to play a
powerful transformative part in keeping us going and smiling during another very bizarre month of uncertainty, isolation and change.

This blog brings to a close a two-month process of self-reflection, creation, experimentation, and sharing, by offering a critical and analytical reflection of the three stages involved. It has been yet another opportunity for discovery, applying academic explanation to what in the field was instinctive.

Analysing my research experience through a posthuman philosophy, this final means of discovery has exposed the potential for audio-visual storytelling to make visible the nonhuman. Through embodied filming, use of visuals, and a montage compilation, I was struck by the significance of the nonhuman in my new transformed material practices. It was only by seeing my own experience in front of me on a screen did this knowledge become accessible.

Finally, analysing the counter-topographies of our shared experiences illuminated the political force of the nonhuman as an instigator of hope and resilience during lockdown. Sharing our experiences of discovery, adaption and comfort illuminated the role of the nonhuman as a constant companion. Throughout the turbulence of this ongoing pandemic, from closures, to isolation, to cancelled plans, the nonhuman has been a stable presence. Using individual audiovisual storytelling and collective counter-topographical analysis, the political role of the nonhuman has been exposed, broadening our geographical imagination and knowledge.

Cameron, E. (2012) ‘New Geographies of Story and Storytelling’, Progress in Human Geography, 36(5), 573-592.

Costa, G. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of
Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Crang, M. (2010) ‘Visual methods and methodologies’ in D. DeLyser, S. Herbert, S. Aitken,M. Crang and L. McDowell (eds), The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Geography. London: SAGE, 208-224.

Crawford, C. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Davies, J. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of
Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

Ernwein, M. (2020) Filmic geographies: audio-visual, embodied-material, Social & Cultural Geography, DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2020.1821390.

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Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2008) Diverse economies: Performative practices for ‘other worlds’. Progress in Human Geography, 32, 613–632.

Gregory, D. (2003) ‘Emperors of the gaze: photographic practices and productions of space in Egypt, 1839–1914’, in Ryan J., and Schwartz J. (eds) Picturing place: photography and the geographical imagination. London: I.B. Tauris. pp. 195–225.

Grivell, R. (2020) Film: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of
Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

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Hermelin, E. (2020) Podcast: Another experience of lockdown, University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

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Lorimer, H. (2003) Telling small stories: Spaces of knowledge and the practice of geography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 28, 197–217.

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Geographical Sciences, unpublished film, Bristol

‘(Counter)topographical’ Reflections with Grief

by CIW

Life is populated by landscapes including those of fear (Tuan, 1980), loss (Hockey et. al., 2001), and mourning. As of the 9th January 2021, 1,906,606 people have died from COVID-19 worldwide (WHO, 2021). These deaths intensify the mark of a dark smudged thumbprint violently pressed against our foreheads1. This is the reality to which we must admit defeat and continue to live. This is what mourning is, “admitting defeat” (Flynn, 2007: 111) by Death. The story of my topography is a reflection on the oceanscape of grief and the landscape of mourning. The methods I used to investigate these topographies were film, photography, and participatory interactions with non-human actors (trees). In the film, I particularly used the absence of sound (silence) to communicate, alongside imagery, the significance of Death and death I was reflecting on during the November lockdown. The countertopography of lockdown is one of crisis, both global and personal, political and existential. Countertopographies that illuminate the restrictive impacts of lockdowns on mourning practices have been effective in driving demand for increased bereavement support, while creative pursuits, like film, have widened and digitised mourning’s dimensions. Mourning is a landscape that colours the background of the contemporary world in a more palpable way because of the acute prevalence of Death and death at this time. This piece is dedicated to the ‘work of mourning’ – trauerarbeit (Freud in Min, 2002: 245) – and argues that it is an essential process to experience, in combination with an evisceration of SARS-CoV-2 cases and increase in vaccination capacities, for the pandemic to be resolved. Without trauerarbeit, in person or through digital methods, we will be ‘Generation Lost’, a spectra of peoples who continue to fear the great closure of life.

Figure 1.2

Topographies of grief and mourning

“Grief is the sequence of affective, cognitive, and physiological states that follows directly after an irretrievable loss; mourning, on the other hand, is a complex and lengthy process that begins with denial of the loss and, in its optimum course, proceeds toward the acceptance of both the external loss and the integration of multiple intrapsychic shifts” (Graves, 1975 in Graves, 1978: 875).

Grief is an ocean, vast but deeply personal. It “comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate daily life” (Didion, 2005/2006: 27 in Cornell, 2014: 302). Sometimes that watery grief spills out from your eyes. Other times it stays inside you, filling your lungs and eradicating your ability to vocalise. There is no one way to feel grief, but it is a feeling known and dreaded by all.

Mourning is a landscape whose shores we ebb closer to as the process of letting go, remembrance, acceptance, and surrender begins. We stumble across mourning until we reach new horizons for life’s encounters or new oceans for relapses into grief or new grief. And on the cycles goes ad infinitum. Mourning is work, active, kinetic. Grief can be perceived to be stasis, necessary to prepare for trauerarbeit. The journey is a cyclical movement of stasis and kinesis, which colour our map and shape our perceptions of the world.

The method of filmmaking as processual mourning

What is it one mourns? Death with a capital ‘D’ is the loss of physical life (Flynn, 2007: 108). Whereas deaths – lowercase – are the “many radical changes over which the individual” has no control (Flynn, 2007: 108). They “precede the Death that ends our becoming” (Flynn, 2007: 108). These can be things such as puberty, pregnancy, pandemics, or intellectual development. The small death is, therefore, transformation. These transformations occur whether the individual wants them to or not.

There is no one way to mourn, but the goal of ‘acceptance’ is commonly considered the conclusion of mourning. For Flynn, “it is possible to admit defeat [to the inevitability of Death] without accepting it or feeling peaceful about it” (Flynn, 2007: 111). Being able to remember deceased loved ones through images, memorials, and story sharing “signals the relocation of the knowledge about a person from present-tense to past-tense” (Flynn, 2007: 112). However, this is something prevented by the pandemic, when families cannot memorialise their loved ones. The mind, may, in these cases become stuck in grief, unable to move around towards mourning. Processes such as creation and co-creation of audio-visual pieces can be a step towards trauerarbeit. They allow a documentation of feeling, a sharing of images, something to mark and memorialise the dead.

I did not realise I was using film as a mechanism through which to mourn until I revisited my creation. Film worked well to etch the contours of grief and mourning because “mourning is a creative force” (Carel, 2007: 85). The particular techniques of my film that this analysis focuses on are silence, the lack of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, its interplay with darkness, the role of the more-than-human in facilitating the mourning process. My film is a particular kind of “thick description” (Geertz, 1973). Topographies “are simultaneously the detailed description of a particular landscape and the landscape itself” (Katz, 2004: xiii). As a research methodology, topography produces “‘thick descriptions’ of social relations, material social practices, and the construction of meaning…” (Katz, 2004: xiii). In my case, the topography is the description of the interactive oceanscape and landscape of grief and mourning, respectively through film. It is a singular experience within a countertopographical experiential web. With that in mind, let us walk into the silence and darkness together.

Silence, darkness, and the more-than-human

During editing, I found disturbance in the film’s original audio. I removed all audio with the intention of adding in a score alongside narration, but when it came time to edit in non-diegetic sounds I reconsidered. I wanted the viewer to feel as though they were not hearing me tell them about my thoughts, but as they read the subtitles in their inner voice, the thoughts were simultaneously inside them and me. These thoughts, shared across time and space, contained infinitely differential meanings depending whose ‘mind’ is turning them over. Thus, the lack of audio is not inherently analogous to silence.

“A genuine emptiness, a pure silence, are not feasible — either conceptually or in fact…the art-work exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence. Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech…and an element in a dialogue.” (Sontag, 1966; 2009: 11).

Though my voice is absent, I can still be heard. Images move us which we feel at the corporeal level. When images inspire emotions, affects, and thoughts we must continue “to the end of each emotion or thought. And after the end, what supervenes…is silence” (Sontag, 1996; 2009: 23). Through this immersion, watcher and creator die (transform) alongside each other. The synthetic removal of diegetic sound, creates acoustic space for thought-words, not spoken ones. Together, viewer, creator, deceased ancestor, and all the little deaths float together on silent waves, with only our thoughts to accompany us. We transform. Cultivating silence, stillness, is itself a task and, like mourning, is work.

The reason for addressing the auditory dimension first in this piece is that there exists an ocularcentrism in Western European life (Jay, 1993) which privileges the visual as “the noblest of the senses” (Jay, 1993: 31). Modern knowledges in Western culture “depend on a scopic regime that equates seeing with knowledge” (Rose, 2001: 7). To create images without using pictures to represent personal Deaths I encountered in 2020, I used a black screen with the word “(Good?)bye” (figure 2) which explores the interplay of darkness and silence.

Figure 2

The darkness of November yields the unknown but makes it simultaneously intimate, enveloping the body. Even though light can symbolise hope, it can also be exposing. When we feel grief, it feels as though the world darkens, the pandemic may be considered a ‘dark time’, but in Crawford’s (2020) Fear of a dark lockdown, darkness is inverted. Her topography notes how darkness can instead incite rest, creativity, and transformation. Darkness, therefore, is an opportunity for restoration and creation. Themes that colour the backdrop of this frame.

This frame plays smoothly when viewing, but in editing was spliced into four to represent the four familial (extended and immediate) Deaths that occurred during 2020 for me. The reason no distinction was made between the four is because memories blur into one as Death has permeated every moment of the cycles of lockdown. This intra-cyclical shot compresses the Deaths and their temporalities into visual and orthographic representation to mirror that there were no spoken goodbyes.


Perhaps, there is no need for speaking. Western cultures suffer from the social compulsion to speak for the sake of speaking (Connerton, 2011). Indeed I question (“?”) the adjective “good” in goodbye – the main word we are supposed to say – because bidding adieu to loved ones never feels good. And yet, the Death of another family member resurrected a stream of connection with my cousin that had broken down a decade ago. Even in the elimination of the earthly body, an individual may die twice. Once, with their Death and again, with the Death producing a death (transformation), bringing people together again. There is no ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to the ‘bye’ – just an intimacy that touches us in different ways.

The most intimate Death, my grandmother’s, happened in May. However, upon the Death of my grandmother, I had not died (transformed) though a mark in time – a distinction between life with and without her physical presence – had been made. My death came a year earlier, when I returned home early from my travels to care for my grandparents. I became ‘woman’ through this role reversal of care-receiver (child) to care-giver (adult). This was in amongst and upon the background score of the pandemic. It throbs, the new soundtrack to these years of life, with grief and mourning providing healthy and painful melodies.

Indeed, when looking across to other topographies in the countertopography of lockdown, deaths are represented almost entirely with sound, through voice and melody. Inglis’ (2020) piece focuses on duality of walls and screens as incarceration and shield (figure 3). It greatly juxtaposes my own topography, with words articulated through song. His melancholic expression of the small deaths (the transformation of walls and screens) is achieved through the melodies and French, Spanish, and Basque vocals which provide him with escape, his own lamentation of the death of freedom.

Figure 3. Inglis (2020). The duality of transformation (death).

Upon rewatching and re-exploring my own topography, I realised how I embraced letting go through non-verbal conversations with the more-than-human. I was experiencing a trans-species mourning. In a small grove a tree leaned over, split open all the way from base to crown (figure 4). The empirical landscape has its own audio-visual markers of Death and decay.

Figure 4.

I sat listening to its creaks and groans as it told me its story without words. A cracked body, invaded by a fungal pathogen, soon to return to humus. This type of injury is grave for a tree. Though it may appear alive for many more decades, it is dying.

I remember wanting to restore its health, but the damage is so severe. I had to accept that it would die, but visual methods have allowed me to immortalise this tree in pixels. The shared experience of Death across species boundaries brought acceptance and a sense of surrender to the inevitable. We sat silently talking for a long time.

This trans-species interaction features in other topographies. Thomas’ (2020) audio work describes listening to a fig tree as he tracks its journey into being: “climbing up the wall from past to future” (2:09). These ancient guides teach us what it is to be and to die. This realisation was ‘magical’ (Millner, 2013) to me in that “‘magic’ is what happens when we allow the more-than-human world to invite us into participation on its own terms” (Millner, 2013: 39). I noticed the tree because the tree noticed me.

Interacting with the more-than-human has brought me to the realisation that there is no forward. Only around and across the oceanscape of grief and the landscape of mourning, while this journey edges us closer to some semblance of acceptance or surrender.

Limitations of topographies and countertopographies

Topographies have a situated nature which, like situated knowledge, “assumes knowledge at a single point, the knowing subject, and the particularity of that subject’s vision is both its strength and its downfall” (Katz, 2001: 1230). My rendering of grief and mourning is a particular experience, but it is limited if unconnected with another topography. Connection is also essential in mourning; it is made easier by the “understanding and accompaniment of another” (Cornell, 2014: 308) and so other topographies that represent the different deaths and Deaths encountered during the COVID-19 November lockdown depict – in audio or visual senses – the commonality of acute D/death. Countertopographies that dialectically speak to one another can be healing for creators in addition to the catharsis individual topographies may provide.

What unites the topographies of the November lockdown is that they all – through their varying techniques – showcase an element of the countertopography of crisis. However, perhaps a strong limitation of countertopography is that one may identify a common experience in different localities that manifests differently, but in the matter of a pandemic (as unique as it is) these topographies are just as isolated as their creators. The pieces do not intimately interact in and of themselves with another creative piece. Had, however, they had exposure to one another and then revised versions were produced to generate comparative countertopographies, the project could incorporate the uniqueness of an individual’s qualitative lockdown experience and the solidarity individuals find in sharing a commonality with one another. This is not the same as retroactively finding links between topographies.

Without the communication between topographies, there is a significant risk that the knowledge of the countertopography’s existence is only known by the researcher. The countertopographical method would only therefore be meaningful to someone who presupposes there is a countertopogaphy to analyse, which may score deeper the divisive lines between researcher and researched.

Political value of co-created countertopographies

Countertopography was invented to be subversive and the political aim of countertopography is to “link different places analytically and thereby enhance struggles in the name of common interests” (Katz, 2001: 1230). Countertopographies are meant to counter something, which, here, would be the November lockdown. So, if the countertopography is that of the lockdown one needs to ask what exactly about the lockdown is it countering? The lockdown rules? The homogenisation of the experiential dimension of lockdown? It is not clear and so the political value remains elusive. However, when topographies are located in a theme – such as grief and mourning – it becomes clear where a political value can be found.

In their paper, Aguiar et al., (2020) documented that family members could not visit other terminally ill family, corpses were not able to be dressed for burial but were kept, naked, in waterproof bags (Aguiar et al., 2020). Family members who could attend funerals could not demonstrate physical affection to their family who were in distress (Aguiar et al., 2020). Indeed, standing beside my aunt and sister at my grandmother’s funeral and not being able to hug them as they cried felt like a cruelty. We all stood in our grief, only able to hold ourselves. A result of this separation is that it is “more difficult for the bereaved to grasp the reality of the loss” and, because of this, “grief reactions may intensify” and adjustment to this new reality is more difficult (Aguiar et al., 2020: 543-544). Due to this though, new ways to grieve and mourn may be found (digitising mourning for instance). In healthcare, Aguiar et al., (2020) recommend that “written material for follow-up contacts, the availability of hospital and/or community-based grief support systems, mental health services as well as spiritual and religious care should be considered” (544). These novel supports are being created and demanded in response to the conditions under which people were having to mourn in the beginning of the pandemic. The countertopography of grief and mourning pushes for institutional change.

Commonly “the process of mourning is so often forestalled, medicated, or pathologized. It so often seems easier to hope for a quick recovery, to look away and avoid the anguish” (Cornell, 2014: 309). Being able to be beside the Dead compresses grief in reassuring and uncomfortable ways. It allows us to say goodbye and reminds us of our own eventuality. Being silent slows time (Sontag, 1966; 2009: 17); it “is a practice of emptying, of letting go…hollowing ourselves out so we can open to what is emerging” (Weller, 2015: 96).

Mourning ‘around-ward’

There is no end to this reflection. It is a phase in my trauerarbeit. What has arisen out of the exercise is a realisation that those pains of grief punctuate the experience of life. Pain shows us how people touch us, how they move us, how, despite all our best efforts to convince ourselves of our independence, we need people and we need nature too. The pain of grief is a temporal, affective marker that reminds us of the alive-ness, value, and contribution to the earthly life of those Dead creatures and people. It reminds our bodies, by being something we feel, to appreciate that pain as much as the joy. It is what it is to be alive. To laugh, to cry, to hurt, to feel.

Until we meet again, in the next life and as the dust of the Earth…

This creative process and visual methodology has allowed me to start to say







1The cycles of birth, death, and rebirth are recognised in many cultures and religions. This particular imagery refers here to the dictum: “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:9).

2 Figures which are shots from my topography are deliberately untitled. The reader is invited to read it in relation to their own affective response.


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