Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

One Way

Gungahlin town centre clock, one way sign, and construction barriers.I spent some time today with a group of people working – loosely – on issues relating to heritage, neighbourhood character, and “place making” in a community facing massive demographic change. One of the persons present had been involved in the creation of the ACT Cultural Map, and presented some highlights from that project as grist for discussion. The presentation highlighted a number of features from the Gungahlin town centre design – a greenfield development that, according to the presentation, recruited a local artist to create designs based on stories collected during community consultations. Developers have begun to incorporate these designs into new structures in a variety of ways – from patterns on manhole covers, to distinctive bus shelter designs, to etchings on glass doorways in the town centre – to create a distinctive sense of place while commemorating elements of the area’s history. Much of the presentation centred on visual images of the design elements created through this process.

This kind of commemoration always has a strange, haunted character for me, as it effectively celebrates what has been destroyed by the development process, and tries to build a sense of the distinctiveness of the new community by pointing to what is no longer there – as though the new community is expected to coalesce around what it has displaced. The discussion today centred on images of various design elements – themselves generally quite attractive, and spoken about, initially, just in terms of their visual appeal and distinctiveness. The mood in the room was playful, excited about the possibility of creating similarly unique visual elements in new communities locally, and the discussion revolved around the aesthetic merit of the designs, viewed as communal art.

At one point, however, the content of the artwork suddenly broke through what had, until that point, been essentially a discussion of form, and there was an almost tactile wrenching and reorientation of the mood in the room. The shift took place as the presenter displayed an image of the grates used around the base of new street trees, and the group puzzled over what the grates – which at first glance just looked attractively functional – were meant to represent. The presenter, excited and enthusiatic, explained:

They’re tree roots! Do you see? Because beautiful old trees were cut down – and their roots were everywhere, knotted together – and they’re gone now…

The presenter suddenly paused, thrown out of the presentation by registering – as the rest of us also were – the fundamental strangeness of surrounding these spindly new trees, all planted in their isolated and orderly formation, with artwork representing the mesh of mature root systems from trees that had grown old together, intertwined, and had then been destroyed to make way for the development process. No one voiced or telegraphed any criticism – the mood in the room was poignant, not critical. The presenter paused for some time, not really knowing what to say. Then quietly, almost reverent:

Well… at least we’ve got the memory of them…

I’ve committed to writing a conference paper loosely organised around the issue of how we understand the concept of “community” in a dynamic social context. Tentatively, the paper will discuss the “problem” of post-traditional communities as a foundational issue for classical sociology, make a few gestures at contemporary planning theory discussions on “community”, and then explore the ways in which some of these concepts play out in a couple of case studies from my field research. I may periodically toss up fieldnotes of this sort, as I try to work my way into what, exactly, I plan to write – the draft paper will eventually make its way onto the site. Happy as always to receive feedback on the theoretical or empirical dimensions of the piece.

[Note: image of the Gungahlin town centre clock modified from the one Cfitzart posted to Wikipedia. The original image - and therefore this one - is posted under the terms of a GNU Free Documentation License.]

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2 responses to “One Way

  1. Joseph Kugelmass January 19, 2007 at 7:29 pm

    This post made me think of all the things which are cultural memory, but which are forgotten as such; the way in which a massacre or a gold rush settlement or a steamboat line will be preserved in some usually unread detail of the landscape. It’s how, I think, many contemporary novels read the supernatural figure of the ghost — as a symbol of remainder detached from memory.

    Good for you for capturing this moment in print.

  2. N Pepperell January 20, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    I always struggle a bit with how to capture these sorts of moments from my fieldwork – my writing skills for this kind of material need to become stronger and more clearly “voiced”…

    In a couple of fieldwork related presentations in late November, which dealt with somewhat similar material, I received quite contradictory feedback. I had a very strong challenge from a few folks who thought it was inappropriate – in the sense of ethically problematic – for me to present things like this without being more critical of the people being discussed – without making a stronger sort of moral condemnation of the events described. I also had a couple of people insist that – regardless of what I claimed to be doing – I was in fact clearly suggesting that I wanted readers to make a condemning moral judgment – and who then suggested that I was abusing my relationship with my “informants” by describing them in such an unflattering light.

    My sense is that either my writing must have been quite inadequate, or the second lot of folks must have read their own critical reaction into my text – I think the first lot were closer to the mark in perceiving that I’m not particularly taking up a critical attitude toward the people I’m writing about. I’m still a bit confused over the demand that it’s somehow incumbent on me to be critical (critical, in this case, in the sense of making a moral judgment, rather than in the sense of being analytical) when I discuss my field material: the way in which this was expressed in the Q&A after my presentations was in terms of the need for me to “take sides” – “what side are you on?”

    I’m extremely ambivalent about this demand, partially because I use the field material, largely, to illustrate dynamics that I think transcend the situations being described – I lift specific field material up for examination precisely because it casts light on a conflictual dynamic – the stories and the people on whom I focus are, as a result, rarely easy to interpret in a one-sided way – as “good” or “bad” people… I was a bit surprised, to be honest, at the level of criticism this drew down (not that, overall, I received a lot of criticism for my presentations – the response was generally quite positive – it was just that, before I had presented, I would never have expected that this would be the specific issue that drew fire)…

    I should apologise, as my comments here don’t relate in any direct way to your own – please hear this as my taking the opportunity to reflect on my interlocutors from some months back, rather than as my hearing their positions in your comment… It’s just something I’m trying to understand, in thinking about how I want to use field material in further writing…

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