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Wednesday, 24 February 2016

You are the land, the land is you

This summer (late June through to the end of August) as the principle part of my PhD fieldwork, I shall be walking the Camino de Santiago from Le Puy-en-Velay in France right through to Santiago, exploring the relationship between pilgrims/hikers/walkers and the landscape through which they pass, to explore the ways in which the landscape might perform in a manner that might be considered spiritual or religious. I'm posting details on another, research-specific blog: but I'll also be sticking them on here - see below:
I'm looking for research participants to join me en route, for part or the whole way, from all faiths, genders, ethnicities, ages and none. Get in touch, if interested.

In a nutshell, it’s all about landscape. It’s about landscape and what it does to people when they move through it; how it moves them, impacts on them in both body and mind in a way that might be considered spiritual or religious. It's about becoming-in-the-world as opposed to simply being-in-the-world. Crucially, it’s about the relationship between landscape and movement – on foot, both spatial and temporal – and how that movement produces spiritual or religious responses to the landscape, such as the one I experienced on the Camino de Santiago back in 2012, so there is a strong personal – autoethnographic – strand running through the research. I’m asking whether the landscape ‘performs’ in way that might be considered spiritual or religious and I’m wondering whether others, from different backgrounds – for example, atheistic – experience the same performative affect. Here I shall fend off any snide insinuations that I’m merely rehashing – and not adding much to – existing research on pilgrimage in general and the Camino de Santiago in particular by tossing into this already bubbling melting pot a heady mix of experimental geographies, of creative and innovative approaches to experiencing and – crucially – representing landscape, of dealing with affect and emotion.
Finally, putting on my theological hat and wearing it at a jaunty angle to look like an academic dilettante, I’m going to explore that tierra desconocida where geography and theology collide. A spiritual tectonic boundary, if you like.
So, the first question I’m asking myself is how does this ‘feel’ for the landscape - this landscape experience - come about; how is produced and how might it be described. There are numerous ways to go about it this but I want to begin by returning to my first encounters with landscape studies, as an undergraduate in Dorset - the capital of geography - back in the 1980s. Not just an exercise in nostalgia or a comfortable trip down memory lane, but a reassessment of what I learned then in the light of what I’ve learned since returning to academia because hindsight, as you know, is a beautiful but dangerous creature. This is part preamble, part literary review, part setting out my stall. Here is where my story begins and this is how I got here. We might call this the starting point, even though the narrative has no beginning or end but is a work in a state of constant creation and re-creation.
The second question. To be a pilgrim. Or not, as the case might be. I’ve introduced the idea of affective landscapes, now I want to discuss ways in which landscapes might perform: geographies of mobilities and, more specifically, walking. There’s a lot to tease out here and a rich seam of contemporary literature to mine: when does the pilgrim become a hiker and vice versa; walking as ritual; walking as dwelling; walking as a temporal as well as spatial immersion in the landscape; walking as a conduit from the profane to the sacred. Walking for the sake of walking, a means without an end.
The third question: pyschogeography and ‘gonzoid’ geography. You can tell I’m getting trail-fit, comfortable with the terrain and adapting myself to its needs rather than the other way round; questions of subject and object arise here. As it’s nigh on impossible to say what pyschogeography is I’m going to outline how a psychogeographic approach ties in with post-phenomenological and more-than-human geographies of landscape – where the likes of Dewsbury and Deleuze come up against Nick Papadimitriou whose Scarp is one of the texts which been fundamental in helping to define this research (inasmuch as it can be ‘defined’, of course). Scarp brings autoethnography and landscape experience together to the extent that it’s difficult to make out where the one ends and the other begins – you are the land the land is you, we are the land, the land is us.
But pyschogeography is a largely urban practice, Anglo-Saxon and predominantly masculinist. What might a more feminist or queer pyschogeography that focuses on spiritual spaces look like?
The fourth question, and a protuberance of significant academic import not just to surmount but to surmount convincingly, with gusto and panache. This is the first real challenge, an engagement with theology that takes in geographies of pilgrimage and sacred space/place but goes further. Here is the tierra desconocida: the unknown land where the geography and the theology come together. And because it’s a tierra desconocida I can, at present, only outline what it might look like; although it’s not a product of my imagination it’s a landscape shaped by a creative and radical theological and geographical imagination. It’s a landscape in which encounters with theologies of liberation play an important role.
And here I want to make a detour/deviation to address how the ‘geographical imagination’ might manifest itself within the realms of this investigation; an embodied, affective imagination, spiritually-inclined but with intimations towards some sort of socio-political agency (as per liberation theologies).
The fifth and final question follows on from the previous one; takes us right off the straight and narrow and into realm of spiritual landscapes. It is the end, if you like, of the first stage; reminds me of reaching the Alto de Perdón on the Camino Francés, just after leaving Pamplona. From this ridge one can look back towards the Pyrenees and see – perhaps marvel – at how far one has walked. And one can look forward with a sense of anticipation and, perhaps, enchantment at the path meandering ahead, apparently into infinity. And one thinks of Kierkegaard, about how life can only be understood backwards but must be understood forwards.
I don’t expect the fifth and final question to beget answers, only more questions that will, in turn, inform and shape the fieldwork which also take me back to the Camino Frances to reconsider and reappraise. These questions might attempt to define and/or redefine what is meant by spirituality and/or religiosity, particularly within the context of the Spanish landscape (and an explicitly ‘Catholic gaze’ which might be compared with other types of spiritual/religious gazes). They might also address the ways in which the spiritual and the religious might manifest themselves in the landscape, are they prompted by faith or do they occur involuntarily, without faith as a precondition. And they might also ask how we deal with and represent the spectral and the unexperienceable, the messy excess which defies quantification and categorisation.
I do expect the fifth and final question to answer itself with an assertion; an insistence that however elusive definitions might be, spiritual landscapes should not be dismissed as romanticised attempts to reconstitute the primitive or prelapsarian. Rather that the spiritual is as tangible as the human and physical and, in some ways, might represent an attempt by the former to make sense of the latter.

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