Fiction as Orienteering

On the 3rd May 2019, I hosted a panel on ‘Fiction as Orienteering’ as part of the 5th International Irish Narrative Inquiry Conference at Trinity College Dublin. The theme of the conference was on “exploring creativity in narrative inquiry“. I took the conference as an opportunity to outline a pattern that’s been developing in my research around fiction in relation to ‘smart’ technologies, specifically the idea that fiction can work as a mode of orientation. I invited three researchers together to speak about how they work with narrative and story in relation to their individual research in the fields of geography, digital humanities and literature: Dr. James L. Smith, Prof. Rob Kitchin, and Joanna Walsh.

The conversation that followed the presentations was rich and gratifying (for me at least). We were lucky to have an engaged audience to support our discussion. There is definitely more to be explored around dashboards, deep mapping and digital storytelling in an age of ‘smart’ technologies. It was also wonderful to have Trinity’s Dean of Research, Prof. Linda Doyle, in the room, along with the conference’s Key Note speaker Prof. Patti Lather who commented informally afterwards that our collective work was ‘the future of research‘ (the kind of encouragement every transdisciplinary researcher needs!) Below is the script of my introductory remarks to the audience and panelists, contextualising my pattern making. The slides of the presentations are available at the end of the post. Read on!

FICTION AS ORIENTEERING

“The map is known to somebody else,” my father tells me. We are chatting on the phone, late one rainy night. The map, he says, “is a way of exploring territory unknown to you but not unknown to somebody else… its not unknown to the person who drew the map.” I’m asking him what he remembers about Orienteering. This is me opening up a process of research-creation through conversation – I’m tapping into family experiences and memories to help me make sense of ‘smart’ technologies and their underlying infrastructures and narratives. More specifically, I’m trying to orientate myself in relation to these things. I’m looking for a metaphor, a model, that I can work with as a context, a thing to put things in, that will help to generate insights on the technologies and technological thinking surrounding, motivating and informing the development of smart cities and communications networks.

In my art-based research, I explore how, by attending to the presence and function of fiction in relation to technologies shaping smart cities, it might become possible to tease out and narrate, in more plural ways, the actually existing conditions of living through what media theorist and anthropologist Shannon Mattern calls the “urban ‘enlightenment’”. That is what she calls the development and deployment of networked technologies as services, resources or tools, from “open-data initiatives and urban-informatics projects to aid in way finding, traffic flow, service discovery, even the location of hazardous cracks in the sidewalk(Mattern 2015: x).

I’m interested in exploring whether engaging with the processes and poetics of fiction can support and enlarge the kinds of embodied awareness, criticality and situated knowledges necessary for individual and social agency, at a time when, as Mattern argues, there is a “pervasive sense of our loss of control over the proliferation and often uncritical application of technologies” (Mattern 2015: xii). But this sense of a loss of control could just as easily manifest a pervasive sense of submission to the proliferation and uncritical application of technologies in everyday materials and situations – the kind of suspension of disbelief that is earned by detailed models of reality, whether they be rendered through equations, maps or fictions. I’m interested in finding ways to perceive and negotiate what architect Charles Eames refers to as a ‘fiction of reality’ (Schrader 1970: 12), and very often I find myself drawn to existing models that seem to yield enough ambiguity to allow for critical adaptions and applications. Which is why I am making late night phone calls to my father, asking about his experience of orienteering. It’s a model I want to adapt.

I am looking for ways of making and telling what novelist Ursula K. Le Guin, in her essay on The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, calls ‘the life story‘. In contrast to “the linear, progressive, Time’s-(killing)-arrow mode of the Techno-Heroic,” what Le Guin calls ‘the killer story’, the life story involves narratives that “redefine technology and science as primarily cultural carrier bag rather than weapon of domination” (Le Guin 1996: 153). The life story, Le Guin writes, is more akin in mode to “a sack, or a bag.” The life story employs forms that carry, that hold: “A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us” (p.153). Le Guin asserts that “It is the story that makes the difference. It is the story that hid my humanity from me, the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero” (p. 152).

What is at stake in Le Guin’s essay remains relevant: the power and politics of narrative and storytelling in relation to applications of science and technology. “Science Fiction,” she writes, “properly conceived, like all serious fiction, however funny, is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack…” (p. 154). So, if it is the story that makes the difference, as Le Guin argues, then it becomes important to pay attention to the ways in which, as literary scholar Robert Eaglestone argues, “We are made… complicit with something that we don’t yet understand” (Eaglestone 2013: 92), whether it be technology or science or narrative or politics.

Eaglestone argues that today “technological thinking” is the ‘killer story’, a mode of thought that imagines all aspects of the world, whether animal, mineral, vegetable, spiritual or elemental, as “a potential resource for use… a tool for doing something” (p. 82). (The proliferation of quantitative smart phone apps and data-hungry internet-of-things devices in the space of consumer electronics testifies to the normality of this way of thinking.) Le Guin’s ‘carrier bag theory’ orientates us towards narrations of ‘the life story,’ offering us a way to creatively resist and challenge the kinds of technological thinking that serve to hide our humanity from ourselves.

The impetus behind this panel is a desire to bring different forms of narrative inquiry and storytelling into relation. None of the speakers today have positioned ourselves formally in relation to the field of narrative inquiry, and I take full responsibility for any abuse of the field or term we may unwittingly be perpetrating here! I have translated the term ‘narrative inquiry’ rather bluntly to mean that we are each in one way or another engaging in processes of inquiry that are more or less involved with narrative practices that are inflected by digital technologies. I’ve invited three quite different researchers from across the spatial humanities (Dr. James L. Smith), cultural geography (Prof. Rob Kitchin) and literature (Joanna Walsh), to share an aspect of their work that might help us to open up a conversation on forms of narrative inquiry and creativity that are in some way inflected by fiction, technology and/or a critical sense of orienteering or orientation.

So, at this point, I’d like to offer a few provisional remarks on what I’m thinking when I use the words fiction and orienteering; or at least what I imagine these words might hold or afford. And I’m hoping that by the end of our conversations today, these words will be holding and meaning a lot more!

Fiction

In her paper on ‘Narrative as Inquiry’, Petra Munro Hendry says that “the word narrative means ‘to account’, and dervies from the word gno, meaning to know” (Munro Hendry 2010: 72). She says that from the beginning of human culture, narrative has “embodied multiple ways of knowing”, multiple ways of giving an “account” of experience (p. 72). I consider fiction to be a part of this process of relaying multiple ways of knowing. I understand fiction as a process of invention, fashioning, shaping, forming, and devising in embodied intra-action with the world and its inhabitants. It is a kind of poetics; a process that produces artifacts, and those processes and artifacts both produce effects and affects in the world.

In their introduction to their edited book Fiction as Method, Jon K. Shaw and Theo Reeves-Evison argue that “there is a great deal at stake in finding ways to turn toward these unexplored, under-explored, and often denigrated territories of thinking and awareness. These stakes concern the role of fiction in moving us beyond the impasses of the present, in opening to the radically new, embracing or reinvigorating the incoming future, and of turning toward the abstract, even numinous, outside” (Shaw and Reeves-Evison, Eds. 2017: 8).

When I employ the term fiction, it is in a processual, compositional and improvisational sense that is strongly related to what narrative theorist Christine Bold describes as a set of devices employed in order to make meaning (Bold 2012). And this process of making meaning is in turn strongly related to how we, as individuals, communities and society, are physically and imaginatively orientated in our attentions, in our customs; and subsequently in our politics and our ethics.

Orienteering/Orientation

Feminist scholar Sarah Ahmed argues that “to be orientated is… to be turned toward certain objects, those that help us to find our way. These are objects we recognize, so that when we face them we know which way we are facing. They might be landmarks or other familiar signs that give us our anchoring points. They gather on the ground, and they create a ground upon which we gather” (Ahmed 2006” 1). Ahmed turns our attention towards ‘orientation devices’ such as the table and chair of the philosopher or writer, but we can include here maps, narratives and stories, and also of the computational and data-based media platforms through which these are frequently made, transmitted and received. As Ahmed elaborates, “orientations shape not only how we inhabit space, but how we apprehend this world of shared inhabitance, as well as ‘who’ or ‘what’ we direct our energy and attention toward” (p. 3).

To be orientated is to be consciously embodied in time and place. The tools or devices we use to accomplish such a sense of orientation may vary from physical features in a landscape to a proximity with known others. Narratives, stories, objects and maps of various kinds can function as a ‘handrail’ that offers orientation, like a thread through a maze. This metaphor of the ‘handrail’ emerged during my recent late-night phone conversation with my father, about the adventure sport of Orienteering. “The hand rail concept,” my father says “is quite useful.” It involves “finding a feature that is predictable and reasonably straight in your map that you can keep sight of.” Such features act like ‘handrails’, “something to keep you safe, orientated right.”

Even at the scale of a seemingly innocuous game of Orienteering, the power of inscribing features as ‘handrails’ on a map is palpable, in this instance reflecting a particular ethics of care – the handrail is highlighted as “something to keep you safe”. But is this the case with all maps, with all orientation devices? The question of who maps the features and identifies the handrails remains charged. And when Sara Ahmed writes that “Even in a strange or unfamiliar environment we might find our way, given our familiarity with social form, with how the social is arranged,” (p. 7) it becomes relevant to ask under what conditions is it possible to become disorientated by ‘handrails’? How might we make our own ways under such conditions? Adapting the improvisational and interpretative skills of orienteering to navigate contemporary digital conditions might offer some support, metaphorically at least. As my conversation with my father trails off, he tells me that when orienteering“you have a map in your hand and you’ve the map in your head… and the better a map reader you are the more they are close to one another”.

***

The panelists speaking here today are involved in navigating and narrating the various gaps between the maps in our hands and the maps in our heads. Their work, whether explicitly or implicitly, employs techniques of fiction as a way of critically and creatively orienteering the temporal and spatial realities of water, cities and digital subjectivity.

In my conversations with James, Joanna and Rob over the past number of months, we have spoken about the challenge to create poly-vocal, plural, feminist and decolonising approaches to the ways we collect and compose, display, distribute and narrate the larger and intimate realities unfolding in a period perforated and persuaded by ‘smart’ technologies and their attendant databases. We share a growing awareness that, as Donna Haraway and others emphasize, it matters what ideas we think other ideas with, that it matters what stories tell stories. As Le Guin says, it is the story that makes the difference.

You can read about Dr. James L. Smith‘s presentation at his Digital Derg project website here. Follow the links to learn more about Prof. Rob Kitchin‘s work with the Building City Dashboards project and with fiction writing. And you can read and explore Joanna Walsh‘s work at Seed-Story.

Bird Song on the Panel

If you want to learn more about this ongoing research or have any questions, please contact me at Jessica.Foley@mu.ie or @JessicaDFoley. Thanks for reading.