Moving with thought: An ecological encounter with medieval poetry.

By Ollie Dawson

How can encounters with art produce new knowledge? What is our responsibility as researchers to the encounter with art as the site of knowledge production? These questions were brought to the fore in my recent field work at Ledbury Poetry Festival, where I attended Fair Field, a five-part theatrical production based on a 650 year-old poem. Below I offer some thoughts on how philosophical and ecological approaches to art also require a renewed attention to the practice of art-based research in human geography as the means by which we can participate in the relations which produce thought and knowledge.

Wedding Procession
Wedding procession of Lady Mede (money) and False. L-R: Musicians; DJ Reason; False; Conscience; Will; Lady Mede. (Still from author’s own video).

By means of the material, the aim of art is to wrest the percept from perceptions of objects and the states of a perceiving subject, to wrest the affect from affections as the transition from one state to another: to extract a bloc of sensations, a pure being of sensations.

(Deleuze and Guattari What is Philosophy? 1994: 167)

Fair Field is a theatrical adaptation and reimagining of William Langland’s 14th Century poem, Piers Plowman. The project took place across several indoor and outdoor locations in and around the town of Ledbury, Herefordshire, as part of the Ledbury Poetry Festival. Langland’s poem is a journey that takes place in sections called Steps, through a series of dreams or visions that rely on allegorical characters personifying human traits.  In the reimagining by company Penned in the Margins, we are presented with a ‘cycle’ of five ‘movements’ from the poem which roughly correspond to the Prologue and Steps 1-7. Beginning with his vision in the Malvern Hills of a “fair field full of folk” caught between an elegant tower (Truth/God, heaven) and a dark dale (the Devil, hell), everyman Will resolves to set out and find Truth via a journey through the dark dale and all who live there. The performances progress through an outlandish marriage between Money and Falsehood; the confessions of the Seven Deadly Sins, presented by gameshow host, Repentance; the ploughing of a field, where Will meets Piers the Plowman (“a tenant farmer, a contractor, but also sort of a Jesus figure”) and explores the politics of labour and food production; and a final showdown with the Devil at the Tower of Truth.

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Scene from Will’s Vision – Malvern Hills (Author’s own image).

The odds of getting to grips with this expansive work as a site for geographical research seemed daunting to begin with. Prior familiarity with the poem was practically non-existent, and my knowledge of Middle-English and theology, similarly lacking. I also uncovered an intimidating medievalist scholarship surrounding the poem that I hadn’t a hope of making a meaningful contribution to on its own forensic terms.  Nevertheless, I was drawn to the project as a site for geographical research precisely because of the poem’s re-emergence in an altered form, in the here-and-now. This seemed to me to constitute an event of sorts – by which I mean something that is not reversible, but processual – a qualitative change.  This suggested to me not only the impressive endurance of the art work as a monument, but also its capacities for transformation, its ability to lodge itself in the cross-currents of contemporary life. We can think of reading any poem, watching any film, or visiting any exhibition as capable of producing an event, meaning a change, something that cannot be anticipated.  My intuition, however, was that the specific circumstances that had produced the mutation of Piers Plowman into Fair Field also held particular promise for new forms of knowledge emerging. The challenge I had set myself was to try and apprehend these new formations, in the moment of encounter.

My approach, then, draws on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who favour an attention to the emerging relations produced in any encounter with art as a route to new knowledge. A knowledge grounded in sense, rather than in established categories of representation.  This approach allows them to articulate the universe as a radically open system in which the relations between bodies and objects are primary to the bodies or objects themselves. This opens up a way to talk about art that does not reduce it to the object or human subject, but looks instead to the relations of force (thought being one such force) that are not captured easily by language.

What does this philosophy do in relation to our understanding of Fair Field? As the quote that I began this piece with alludes to, we might say that Piers Plowman has untethered itself from the specific material and semiotic conditions which produced it, extracting from these moorings a ‘bloc of sensation’, the affective forces which produce thinking, feeling subjects. This affective bloc now possesses an autonomous agency in the world. It can affect us in unpredictable ways, nudging our dispositions or habits along new paths.

The idea of artworks being autonomous bodies with agency is not the same as saying that Piers Plowman has ‘universal values’, applicable across the centuries. This is equally untrue of Shakespeare, though often said. Such pronouncements rely on essential definitions of the human, when in fact our understanding of what it means to be ‘human’ is historically, geographically and conceptually contingent. From this perspective, the human is better understood as in a constant battle for equilibrium at every level: the social, the individual body/mind, its organs, its bacteria…all the way down to the molecular [1]. Any balance achieved is only ever provisional and everything really does remain in-play. This plasticity at the heart of our existence might initially seem at odds with the ability of literary works from Renaissance or medieval times to still resonate today, but it is in fact the key to such an ability. Art is one way in which the plasticity of our body is put to work; art forces new thoughts and sensations upon us, jolting us out of our familiar forms of captivation and putting us into peril once more.

On one level, though, Piers Plowman describes a clear unambiguous path to the good life under God, progressing from the collective and social to the personal and individual. It is a journey which Will dutifully follows. Yet the potency of the work, I suggest, lies not in the proscribed solutions it offers, but in the set of relations it brings together. These autonomous relations present in the artwork Piers Plowman are what produce the trajectory – a flight path, if you will – which has intersected with our present day as Fair Field, and in such a way as to produce new relations and possibilities. The expressive return of the force of these relations – like a fractured musical refrain – presents us, the contemporary audience, with different choices to those of Will. This in turn highlights our responsibility to the encounter as a generative event.

The question of responsibility to an encounter (as opposed to an individual, or a set of pre-determined rules) can usefully be thought of in ecological terms. Given the plasticity of the human species – its ability to affect or be affected by other bodies or forces – there is no reason why the same cannot be said of what Guattari (2011) calls incorporeal species: simply, beings without bodies, such as poetry, solidarity, honesty and humour. Incorporeal species are prone to the threat of extinction in much the same way as bodily species: through our relations with our environment and other beings.  For example, wasn’t the relentless persecution over many years of the incorporeal species of solidarity revealed to us on the night of the Grenfell fire? Similarly, Fair Field opens with a radio news bulletin from the 1380s, in which a newspaper editor proclaims to the interviewer “All England is drunk, Kevin. The fells reek of stale booze and fetidness. The stench of the weak and the worm”. He continues:

“And let us not forget the homeless problem; Twenty percent of the population of this land destitute and crawling beneath the hedge. So noble, closer to God, I’m told – after all, the poor will always be with you…How long, is all I ask? How long can the poor be supported? What is their purpose? What are these men for? I mean if there is some argument to be made, I have forgotten it. I have forgotten it long ago.”

(Penned in the Margins. Wills Vision: 30/6/17 from author’s field notes)

Just as feudal lords sought to extinguish solidarity through suppressing wages and movement of labour, so too is this incorporeal species threatened by the austerity agenda of global capital, which forgets the poor and provides the rationale for the incineration of people in their beds in order to balance numbers on a spreadsheet.  In Fair Field it seems we are always in (at least) two places at once. Consequently, our responsibility to the instance of expression feels doubled.  Fair Field affectively connects us to political unrest, rampant consumption and endemic corruption in medieval England by making it strikingly similar to our own predicament. It says to us: here is an environment in a crisis of relations, and it is your environment. But it also asks us: how might those relations be composed differently? What might be the flight paths for our thoughts and actions produced in such instances? The question that immediately follows this is: Do we wish to follow them?

Thinking in terms of incorporeal species (in some ways the Other of the corporeal personification of the human good and bad qualities in Piers Plowman) is part of what Guattari (2008) terms ecosophy – the interrelation of social, mental and environmental ecologies. It is about far more than drawing simplistic historical parallels. Rather, it is for inhabiting a radical movement of thought that operates out there in the world, largely independent of any human subject or linear time, but nevertheless producing subjectivities, which shape our possibilities for existence. Though this may sound rather abstract at first, at its heart ecosophy is a creative practice that seeks to disrupt settled formations and categories of knowledge by working restlessly, pragmatically and messily across disciplinary boundaries. It is an attention to how knowledge is formed, what it does and how it can be put to work in different formations that might resist capture by dominant forms of power.

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The Tower of Truth (Author’s own image).

How might ecosophy enable us to grasp some of the affective forces at work in Fair Field? In the fourth movement, for example, Will ploughs the half-acre for Piers the Plowman. There follows a debate about whether those who cannot or will not work should share in the riches of the harvest. Hunger (personified, of course) makes an appearance on the horizon, taking increasingly gruesome forms as it approaches. Eventually Piers, the boss (but also, problematically, Jesus), relents and gives the starving some food. In this movement, a diagram of thought emerges between relations of capital, food production, social harmony, hunger and death, with the reluctant charity of Piers only delaying a looming environmental apocalypse caused by methane emissions from cattle and intensive farming.  As with much of Fair Field, the audience finds itself in a liminal place, somewhere between the past and the present/future. Denied the possibility to historicise, we are instead opened up to a future we are creating, on a scale significantly greater than a half-acre. Linear history feels almost irrelevant in such a space where the future was already present in 1384. This durational fragmentation is one such way that the force of thought as relation makes itself felt in Fair Field.

The ecological basis of our existence is further underscored when in the fifth movement Will reaches the tower, where an individualistic quest for Truth is revealed finally as a bureaucratic sham. Into this space – seemingly vacated by God – it is the collective undercommons which reasserts itself instead, radically and spontaneously. That, and the musical refrain, the ever-present murmur at the edges of Will’s experience, now suddenly – or perhaps always already – the primary determinant of his journey, pushing him onwards to new horizons. Several weeks later, that song still won’t leave me. It cajoles and agitates, insisting that there is yet more to think. Amongst the fair field, thought continues its movement. It is up to us whether we follow its line.

Epilogue

Passus [2]

A wet mist          drapes a wetness             over the sides

of the Saddle     halfway to Worcester     from Ledbury

 

awaken                on damp earth                 catch a breath

on the air            a song   people                 coming

 

singing a              long the road                    of a future

a sickness            already here                      in your dreams.

 

Lullaby:                refrain of sewers                             a field

holy church        a merchant                        the Truth –

 

almost                 certainly unlikely to                       be actual

so for now          gather                                feral       forces

 

stay awake         pick a line                          and strike out.

 

In art and particularly performance-based art everything is happening in real, generative time. As researchers we need new experimental techniques to apprehend the movement of thought present within such encounters; new ways to follow its leaps and twists rather than old models and methods designed to arrest such movements in their tracks.  In research as practice, our responsibility must be to the event and the potential fields of relation it opens up.  I therefore make no special claims for the quality of the poem above, but as a researcher it is one technique I am experimenting with as a means of making new channels for thought to travel through. A poem is a contraction of thought and a conductor for new knowledge to emerge. As one waypoint in a practice dealing with the imperceptible and speculative within an art encounter – qualities no less important or real for being so – a poem might be picked up or put down according to its ability to act on thought. It is a form of participation or intervention that might reveal, or enlarge or push across the traces of any empirical encounter.  As such, I always hope for more, and better.

 

References

Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari 1994. What is philosophy? London ; New York: Verso.

Guattari, F. 2008. The three ecologies. London: Continuum.

Guattari, F., and J. Johnston 2011. The Vertigo of Immanence: Interview with John Johnston, June 1992. In: E. Alliez, and A. Goffey, eds. The Guattari Effect. London: Continuum, 25-39.

Massumi, B., 2009. “Technical Mentality” revisited: Brian Massumi on Gilbert Simondon. Parrhesia, 7(1), pp.36–45.

Notes

[1] Philosopher Gilbert Simondon, whose work Deleuze and Guattari are influenced by, uses the term ‘metastability’. Brian Massumi offers this useful definition: “Life lives on a moving threshold of metastability, of fragile, provisional equilibrium that is subject to constant perturbation, from whose jaws it must repeatedly snatch its homeostasis…Its homeostatic equilibrium is not a simple self-maintenance, but an ever-renewed achievement.” (Massumi, 2009: 42).

[2] Latin, meaning step or pace.

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