27th April 2020: Reading: Being Alive – Prologue: 1: ANTHROPOLOGY COMES TO LIFE (Tim Ingold)

As I’ve been thinking about the idea of wandering as a way to approach my research process. I decided to read some Tim Ingold as the idea of ‘wayfaring’ is one that he has spoken about. Written in 2011 Being Alive begins with a Prologue chapter in which Ingold briefly summarises his journey in developing his thinking.

He begins by thinking about production, arguing that it should be seen as a intransitive term, as opposed to a transit term (one which requires an object to act upon):

“… once we dispense with the prior representation of an end to be achieved as a necessary condition for production, and focus instead on the purposive will or intentionality that inheres in the action itself – in its capacity literally to pro-duce, to draw out or bring forth potentials in the person of the producer and in the surrounding world… Producers, both human and non-human, do not so much transform the world, impressing their preconceived designs upon the material substrate of nature, as play their part from within in the world’s transformation of itself. Growing into the world, the world grows in them.” [p. 28]

This idea of production as intransitive leads Ingold to the idea that history itself is an interwoven network of paths, each path being the process of ‘becoming’ each entity goes through in the course of its existence (human, plant, animal etc). This leads Ingold to consider the concept of dwelling, returning firstly to the idea of production as intransitive, he compares a building perspective – making tangible a pre-existing idea – to a dwelling perspective, one which works with the materials and brings forth the form. He also uses weaving as a similar metaphone, writing:

As building is to dwelling, so making is to weaving: to highlight the first term of each pair is to see the processes of production consumed by their final products, whose origination is attributed not to the improvisatory creativity of labour that works things out as it goes along, but to the novelty of determinate ends conceived in advance. To highlight the second term, on the other hand, is to prioritise process over product, and to define the activity by the attentiveness of environmental engagement rather than the transitivity of means and ends. Whereas the building perspective sets the maker, as a bearer of prior intentions, over and against the material world, the dwelling perspective situates the weaver in amongst a world of materials, which he literally draws out in bringing forth the work. He is, in that regard, a producer in the original sense of the term. [p. 35-36]

However, I see a problem with this idea, and I’m not sure if this is a misunderstanding of Ingold on my part or Ingold’s misunderstanding of the weaving (or any making) process. It seems to suggest that weaving is an improvisation, when in fact weaving, like many other making processes, requires meticulous planning and preparation – I’m thinking here of weaving diagrams (like those of Anni Albers) and the amount of planning and time needed to set up a loom ready for weaving. It requires the ability to conceptualise the final object before it’s making, informed by an understanding of the materials and process. Admittedly, the ability to improvise is a vital one in any process in which you work with materials, as they often do not behave in the way you expect and you have to adjust either your initial intention, the process or the materials in the moment. Maybe I’ve misunderstood Ingold’s meaning here, but if, as he suggests, the weaver is simply improvising and reacting to the materials, wouldn’t that render the weaver essentially irrelevant? Meaning that if a weaver, or any other maker, is simply reacting to the materials to ‘draw out a form’ then any other weaver (of similar skill) would bring forth the same result. It seems to me that the process of making is actually more nuanced than Ingold conceptualises, setting up intention and improvisation as two opposing points, when in actuality the process of making, whether building, weaving, embroidery or any other hand-made practice, is an oscillation between these two points – beginning with an intention, informed by the makers understanding of the materials and processes, and improvising during the process in reaction to the materials.

I feel I need to read more on Ingold’s ideas around making – but regardless, there are further ideas of dwelling he outlines here that I feel have some relevance.

He goes on to discuss dwelling as movement, returning to the notion of paths, drawing on Gibson’s ideas of ‘affordances’ and motion, and Merleau-Ponty’s idea of ‘sentience’ (that is, our perception of the world is the world’s perception of itself), Ingold describes dwelling as “a movement along a way of life” [p. 39] and so the “perceiver-producer is thus a wayfarer, and the mode of production is itself a trail blazed or a path followed. Along such paths, lives are lived, skills developed, observations made, and understandings grown… wayfaring is the fundamental mode by which living beings inhabit the earth.” [p.39]

So, if life is a path interwoven with all the other paths, then Ingold’s final idea (influenced by Deleuze) is that these paths can be thought of as lines and these lines affect and are affected by one another. He likens these effects to a bridge over a river, the bridge being a transitive line from point to point, crossing the intransitive line of the river, pointing out that, though we may concentrate on the bridge, it’s form is dictated by the shape of the river cutting through the landscape.

“To regain the river, we need to shift our perspective from the transverse relation between objects and images to the longitudinal trajectories of materials and awareness.” [p.41-42]

My summary is a little jumbled, but there are some key ideas here that resonate with my own thinking. I’m drawn to Ingold’s basic premise that existence equates with production and that theses paths and lines affect and are affected and how this creates the ‘weave’ of our lives. I’m thinking about this in terms of embroidery, how embroidery is a path – one that travels on both surface and subsurface, the visible points intrinsic to the invisible in a contiguous line, patterns and structure created by the interplay between surface and thread. I’m also thinking about how much of what is made is emergent from the materials and how much is due to the decisions of the maker, digressing from Ingold in my thinking that the intention and interpretation involved in making are more complex and nuanced than he allows for (though I am aware that this might be a misreading on my part). I’m also thinking that, if each of us is in and of the world, with our understanding based in our interactions with other entities and the environment, then the idea of an objective experience become difficult – instead, perhaps, all we can do is offer our own experience for others to find resonances and dissonances with?

Phew! That was a lot of thinking for one afternoon and a very short prologue! Let’s see where the rest of this book takes me….


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