From different positions, and for different reasons: how do we challenge the efficiency and separation that govern our lives, and the places in which we live?

On the move

When I was young, I was constantly on the move, like many children who clamber, climb, crawl and run about, getting used to the brilliance of their bodies. As I’ve aged (though I’m not that old), I’ve given less time to carefree motion, and focused more on other things, things that either require comparatively little movement or movement that is largely functional. The day I started this piece, I cycled to a hospital appointment, to a café to do some work, and then to see my physio, who is helping me recover from a medial collateral knee ligament sprain. Each of these stages of motion were buffered by extended periods of sitting, and tapping away at the keys on my laptop, or reading my book. This dividing up and slowing down is also partly down to biology. Our metabolisms and cell-regeneration slow as we get older, joints freeze. We get more niggles and injuries that erode the firmly held confidence we once had in our bodies. However, there is also a sense that we have increasingly designed an absence or compartmentalisation of movement into the structures that govern our lives.

This design has not always been deliberate, but humans have generally found that compartmentalisation and its relatives – specialisation and standardisation – are reasonably good at increasing task efficiency or keeping out the unwanted stuff. A clay tablet letter dated 539 BCE from a Babylonian to the king of Persia attests to the existence of a place separate from the pollution of the city centre, what we might now call suburbia: “Our property seems to me the most beautiful in the world. It is so close to Babylon that we enjoy all the advantages of the city, and yet when we come home, we stay away from all the noise and dust.”[1] More recently, as part of the process of industrialisation, standardisation of movement was housed within specific spatial structures, aided by machines that had no need for the monotony of repetition to be softened by access to other freedoms. There are similarities and differences we can identify with different time periods, but the key commonality for me is that different types of separation offer us a window onto our relationships with the world, by revealing how we organise our societies. From the agrarian to the industrial revolution, these changes symbolised fundamental alterations to how we perceived and arranged things, and thus how we lived as individuals, societies, and as a species.

Author’s photo. In the distance, the financial factories of the new millennium replacing old industrial heritage.

Permanent cultural revolution

The cultural theorist Stuart Hall once claimed in the 90s that, culturally speaking, we are in a state of ‘permanent revolution.’ He was speaking at once from a personal perspective, being of mixed heritage, and more generally about the movements from place to place that formed the basis for contemporary culture, in addition to the societies that had come into being because of forced transit from one place to another – from Africa to the Caribbean and South America – and the brutal displacement of indigenous peoples. It is still possible to trace Anglo and Eurocentric influence (mainly from the US and UK, but also France and Spain) in global cultural patterns; the political infrastructure inherited from colonial regimes, the relative prestige of US brands in a global economy, the invisible lines bisecting continents drawn by men from a different era. However, the world is increasingly multipolar, both culturally and geopolitically, and whilst its edges sometimes continue to be redrawn and transgressed at the behest of tyrants, they are also collectively negotiated.

In the context of culture, some might say it has always been multipolar. Culture is simply defined as the social behaviours and norms found in human societies. In my eyes, it means the many ways in which people interact – with each other, with objects, animals, plants, the world – and the structures that guide those interactions. The present and the historical record offer examples of profound cultural diversity across the globe – Philipe Descola’s The Spears of Twilight is an excellent ethnographic account of the culture of the Amazonian Achuar people, in which dreams and visions have played a central role in cultural formation. The Japanese reputation for pacifism, whilst linked to Shinto Buddhism, may be in part down to a constitution written by idealistic Americans who sought to neutralise Japan’s ability to wage war in the future. The former culture challenges the notion of an opposition between itself and nature, its composition so intimately affected by the rhythms of the jungle, whilst the latter appears to be an outcome of a peculiarly violent interaction between two heavily mechanised and militaristic forces.

‘Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Dome’ by themonnie. Japan’s constitution was primarily written by American officials.

Pluralism, universality and new spaces of interaction

Culture, in this light, is an emergent phenomenon, the result of interactions between people (and objects, animals, plants, the world) within a specific environment, the borders of which become more clearly defined as a result of these interactions. These environments can be large or small, and they can contain within them distinct places in which subcultures emerge. Cities contain many sub-cultures and enclaves of cultural homogeneity, whilst often maintaining heterogenous characters. Bristol, for example, has its Caribbean communities centred around St Paul’s and there are pockets of white working-class culture in places like Knowle and Hengrove. Clifton is conspicuously affluent, Gloucester Road is thronged with students, and Bedminster – like many parts of the city – is in transition, its poorer residents displaced by wealthy newcomers.

When you begin to dig deep down, you find that most cultures are heterogenous. Which begs the question: What makes a Bristolian a Bristolian, a Londoner a Londoner, or a Parisian a Parisian? In the world of urban branding, marketing strategies are devised which play upon the heterogeneity of these cities, somehow reinforcing the strength of a particular place’s identity through a simple juxtaposition of bewildering pluralism and symbolic universality. It is a conceptual flip that positions diversity as central to the emergence of a particular place and its culture. To use an old cliché; people, cultures and places are in constant flux. Yet, there are narratives streaking this instability, fault lines of convergence, invisible currents that have shaped and continue to shape the spirit of places. These narratives are contested. They are added to when the culture of one place interacts with that of another, for example, the murderous mercantilism of British slavers and the places, and cultures of eighteenth-century Africa. Culture, just like its symbolic objects, is portable, rather than static, and places attach themselves to us just as we become attached to them.

Black Lives Matter Protest, Bristol UK by KSAG photography. A new culture of defiance and resistance?

Generational change also engenders shifts. New perspectives are created that more clearly take note of the paradoxes of the cultural landscape. In the decades following the second world war, there were successive challenges to a kind of deferential, colonial British culture that justified and upheld acquiescence to the wisdom of certain leaders. New cultures of defiance and resistance emerged that were joyous, rebellious, and critical, from Punk with its chaotic, visceral flamboyance, to Rastafarianism with its roots in Afrocentric spiritualism. Perhaps these cultures of resistance were given fertile ground on which to grow by the obliteration of the promise of modernism and the hubristic belief of its adherents in the power of mechanised industry to bring about collective good. Two world wars threw this into sharp relief. Modernism, deference, and racist nationalism had each occupied different overlapping cultural realms, exercising power over followers and non-followers. With the war and their eventual collapse, gaps appeared.

By claiming a ‘permanent cultural revolution’, Hall may well have been drawing attention to the fact that these gaps provided the spaces in which different interactions could and did occur, and many (though not all) of the most important sites of contest were in cities. The urban space encouraged human interaction. It was a space in which ideas could germinate (and occasionally ferment) and areas be occupied, acting as the foundation for individual expression and collective autonomy. In Europe and the US, 1968 was, perhaps, the apogee of this post-war resistance, with uprisings in Prague and Paris, the civil rights movement in full swing and anti-Vietnam-war marches in the US and elsewhere. This came at the end of two decades in which a whole slew of former colonies in Africa and elsewhere gained independence, changing the geopolitical make-up of the globe.

Anti Vietnam War Protestors by ABC Archives. The late 60s and early 70s were marked by significant protests and anti-establishment movements.

Nature, culture, and the collapse of stable categories

I write about cities because I was brought up in one, but some of my most distinct memories from childhood involve running up mountains, leaping over waves by the sea, wriggling out of my sleeping bag and hearing the kettle whistling on the camping stove. We – I speak as a Westerner, but I think this holds for some other cultures – can’t seem to help but think in terms of dualisms and categories. It simplifies things and is embedded in our attitudes towards the world. There is no question that my experiences camping in Normandy, seeing the dew roll off the Cabanon tent, were very different from my experiences of summer in London, and not only because I was on holiday, away from home. Nature and culture, natural and artificial, the city and the country. This has been my way of speaking about and conceiving of the difference between places. ‘Nature’ is a particularly powerful sign, as is ‘culture’, but like cities, these signs encapsulate an unquantifiable degree of difference which breaches both conceptual and physical boundaries. That is why I am so fascinated by edges, by contact and porosity, by the ways in which apparently stable entities collapse into one another.

Our linguistic structures allow us to easily understand and communicate with one another. The physical structures we inherit and create separate and package certain associations and actions.  We have offices in which we work, gyms in which we work out, shopping centres (or malls) in which we shop, synagogues, mosques, temples, and churches in which we pray, schools in which we study. All these places can be said to contain their own culture, and I want to bring together the humanistic and biological understanding of this term, because all these places are to varying extents ‘mediums’ where cultivated action occurs. Actions that appear to upend notions of ‘correct’ behaviour are discouraged. Yet, these structures and institutions are only fragile segments of the continuum of our experience, just as words are not the limit of our vocal capacities. When these are challenged – by novelty, by distraction, by pandemics, by war, by climatic and ecological crises – our ability to orient ourselves is also challenged, and sometimes completely lost. From this point we often search for a way to recreate those lost conditions, ignoring the fact that this loss, whilst not insurmountable, is not recoverable.

Author’s own photo. The Eden Project: a mix of nature and culture.

Challenging the value of efficiency: How do we orient ourselves in the world?

Movement – of one kind or another – is essential to our ability to orient ourselves, and our movement is shaped by our values. These values have contributed to the construction of the places in which we live. A key value that has defined human movement for centuries is efficiency. It underpinned the industrial revolution. Some would say it is a biological or evolutionary imperative, a survival instinct, as much as a co-constructed value. At various scales and in various contexts it is how we measure success: How can we use the smallest amount of energy or resources to produce the most effective result? Whilst the uneven development of urban areas has had unequal outcomes – from beautiful structural oddities to the sprawl of uncoordinated DIY settlements subsequently destroyed in slum clearances – efficiency has been a central (though not universal) feature of this, interpreted and practiced differently. Perhaps because of its centrality to the way we currently live, it is almost sacrilege to challenge efficiency – especially when there are growing stresses on scarce resources – but that is exactly what I want to do. I do not want to do this in order to dispense with it, but to draw attention to how this value governs our thoughts, actions, and relations, how it informs the way we orient ourselves in the world, its changing shape over time.

How can efficiency be combined with movements that reinforce our sense of connection to each other, animals, plants, and the world? This question attains greater resonance when you consider that increasing efficiency is often an attempt to curtail ‘unnecessary’ waste, or loss. I am no fan of waste, having been steeped in utilitarian logic from a young age, but maybe we need to reorient ourselves in relation to loss and waste, both collectively and as individuals, especially in the context of a capitalistic efficiency that cannot be disentangled from increasing and unsustainable levels of consumption. Whilst efficiency is meant to reduce waste, it often increases consumption. Perhaps, efficiency – separated from the other values that motivate us – pushes us to leap from place to place, from position to position, without allowing us to navigate the routes via which we leave and arrive, the edges and border zones of our continual experience, increasing our sense of disconnection. We are continually distanced from the things which allow us to occupy the positions we do.

Author’s own photo. How do we navigate the routes via which we leave and arrive?

Walking and connecting our atmospheres of separation

I once had a conversation with a colleague who said their friend thought that some – though clearly not all – people in Bristol travelled by car because they believed their destinations were further away than they were. When it would take 15 minutes to walk somewhere, people instead spent longer getting in their cars, navigating one-way systems, sitting stationary at traffic lights, and trying to find parking spaces. There is a psychological paradox at work here. Perhaps, the choice to travel by car – even urban distances that are more easily walkable – is made because of the associations we have with the vehicle. Think how often adverts show motorists breezing through empty towns, or along isolated roads in the country. People feel freer making certain choices, even when they are not, though of course there are other reasons why they’d choose to drive instead of another form of transport.

Travelling in this way also excludes the grounding and connecting experience of walking, in which the links between places are more tangibly traced. No wonder many cities have made their centres car-free. Doubtless zoning, which saw the urban space split up into parts reserved for different things (industry, leisure, residence), has contributed to an atmosphere of separation, along with the occasional maze-like quality of cities in which geographically proximate locations are separated by rivers, major roads, railway lines, or large constructions around which weave an elongated network of streets and alleyways. I bring up these examples because they articulate the ways in which efficiency and the city segment our experience (sometimes to the detriment of both), parcelling it up in the shape of a grid. Days, weeks, and months go by as we shift through pieces of time and space, or slow as we dissolve the edges between our activities and try to occupy a position that might feel uncomfortable, odd, and occasionally soothing, in contrast to the simplicity of prefabricated structures.

Author’s own photo. How do efficiency and cities segment our experience?

Thrown into things, moving towards each other

When thrown into or against this, it is often difficult to know where we fit in. We carve out our own spaces and discover, as Hall argues, that there is power in ‘mobilising’ behind an identity, drawing in others who also feel disenfranchised by society’s structures. Whatever that feeling may be based on, it is rarely disingenuous. This is the flavour of that permanent cultural revolution alluded to by Hall; a process that has been accelerated by the internet and digital connectivity, which facilitates the occupation of an amorphous space defined by pages, hyperlinks, clicks, likes, exposure. As the pandemic forced homes to become workspaces, gyms, shops, and venues, this further complicated our spatial relationships, the internet’s enervating fluidity seeping into quotidian experience. Working from home, especially, is a poisonous luxury. The deliberate construction of alternative spaces and the disorienting seepage of amorphous space and time into a previously clearly defined world provides – in the language of consultancy – an opportunity, a chance to challenge the injustices of previous systems. However, at the same time we should not forget that we do not just throw off the past. We inherit it, it seeps into the present, like so many microplastic particles. Despite Francis Fukuyama’s assertion[2], which seems increasingly odd, there has not been an ‘end of history.’ The third industrial revolution has as much likelihood of reproducing and magnifying current divisions, as it has of overcoming them.

What, then, can be done to challenge efficiency? How can we reclaim time that has been divided into parts and crammed into this logic? How can this reclamation be open and inviting to all, rather than available predominantly to those who come from positions of privilege? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I do think we can ask them of ourselves and the organisations or institutions we belong to. They involve trying to better understand the spectrum of our experience and overcoming the dissonance in reconciling apparently opposing categories, like culture and nature, us and them. Though it is tempting to fall into, I think we should avoid over-simplistic narratives of oneness. Admitting the distinctness of individuals and individual objects does not throw up unsurpassable borders between us. Distinctness is a quality maintained by its position on a continuum, and connection is experienced by two or more distinctthings that relate to each other and, in this relation, share properties. Whilst I am distinct from you, we are both a member of the human species. We occupy different positions on this continuum, but we can move towards each other.

Movement is key in all of this. It is our ability to move – to access forms of movement – that helps us form relationships and create shared understandings. There is movement in all forms of communication: in speech, in dance, in emails. Movement from place to place has formed my own character. I would not listen to as much Fabrizio De Andre if I hadn’t lived in Bologna for seven months. On a more general and historic level, various peoples and animals are conscious – in divergent ways – of the role of movement in surviving and flourishing, whether this be literal or structural. In both major pieces of research I have completed, movement – specifically walking – has been an explicit, important part of my methodology. This, admittedly, is not the most efficient methodological approach, and substantially blurs the lines between researcher and research topic, between controlled research space and the chaotic world. I grew a little tired of the comparison with Steve Jobs’ walking meetings, probably revealing my own unease at merely parroting a figure whom I have no great affinity with. We both walk, but from different positions, and for different reasons.


[2] He has now reversed his position, History is back on.