Places for Paying Attention

At the beginning of this month I presented a paper at the City as a Commons conference at the University of Pavia. Formidably well-organised by Ioanni Delsante and others it connected to and overlapped with a summer school (also organised by Ioanni with others) on the same subject.
Ambitiously, it attempted to cover the territory of both commons scholarship and activism in a very compressed time frame – I think it worked extremely well. There were three vastly different but complementary as well as inspiring keynote presentations; the first by Elena de Nictolis and Christian Iaione, the second by Doina Petrescu, and the last by Stavros Stavrides. I won’t attempt to describe the lectures, but here are elevations I sketched during each of them:

Keynote 1 1Keynote 1: Elena de Nictolis and Christian Iaione
Keynote 2 1Keynote 2: Doina Petrescu

Keynote 3 1Keynote 3: Stavros Stavrides


I want to single out 3 ‘conference chums’ in particular for their excellent company and their daunting commons expertise: Jacqui Alexander from Monash, Nick Temple from Huddersfield and Olivia Hamilton from RMIT. One brief conversation about practices of love and friendship between Nick, Marina Skarpeti and me in Fabiano Micocci’s session was memorable and, to me at least, important.

These were (more or less) the slides and notes from my presentation:

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia1          This is what the programme says the title of this paper is.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia2          It’s not wrong but in the process of writing it in detail it kind of morphed into this.
From a paper about how all forms of commons are both tangible and intangible it became instead about how all forms of commons are really arenas for paying attention.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia3          I’m involved in an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research project called Wastes and Strays: the past present and future of English urban commons.
In particular want to single out Emma Cheatle who was instrumental in developing and making this project happen and who should be here with me but couldn’t make it.
Those shapes are the 4 case study urban commons: Mousehold Heath in Norwich, The Town Moor in Newcastle, Valley Gardens in Brighton and Clifton Down in Bristol.
The project runs over three years and the an extensive – a really frighteningly extensive – programme of events and activities which are going to happen in these places.
So when we as a team talk about urban commons we mean these kinds of physical places which were and in some case still are UK registered common land.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia4          But in this paper I wanted to stray away from this just a little bit.
This is Newcastle Town Moor – its past and present I suppose.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia5          This is also its past, but represented in this way, zoomed in, it seems so present. Kind of eternal too, maybe.
Something is happening here, but it’s not really clear what exactly. Some kind of clash of cultures or ideas or ways of understanding the world maybe. But it feel really intense, really personal.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia6          This is The Level, part of what is now called Valley Garden in Brighton.
There’s a rather sedate looking fair or something going on. If you zoom in it’s actually to celebrate or mark the death of the Duke of Wellington.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia7          But I prefer this painting. It’s a close-up of a depiction of a cricket match, again on The Level. The full painting looks like they’re looking at the painter or perhaps at us. But close up they seem to be paying more attention to each other.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia8          This is Mousehold Heath. Very peaceful, almost bucolic now and indeed in the nineteenth century.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia9          This is a depiction of Kett’s rebellion on and around Mousehold Heath – a bloody protest against the enclosure of common land in 1549.
This etching is from a long time after the rebellion but all the same these guys are definitely paying attention to one another.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia10          Here’s Clifton Down.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia11       I don’t want to labour the point but last winter this happened.
The largest snowball fight in the UK, apparently.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia12       I think it’s possible lift up the bonnet a little on what’s happening in these places, these pieces of urban common land. But also more generally when we perform acts of commoning.
Bruno Latour talks about statements, propositions and offers, a kind of economy of relationships.
For Latour a statement is a relationship which confirms the gap between language and the world – it reinforces difference, “words severed from world”[1] as Latour puts it.
A proposition on the other hand is “the ontological sense of what an actor offers to other actors” “granting entities the capacity to connect to one another through events”. [2]
For Latour, a proposition is a relationship between entities which welcomes and plays upon difference, thus emphasising resemblance and existing in complete opposition to the statement, which, instead, emphasises the gap or lack between entities or terms.
The proposition then, is a network of meaning-generating relationships or, as Latour would have it, “offers” between disparate objects or notions which are given that meaning through the contexts of their surrounding networks.

In A Well Articulated Primatology Latour describes how primatologist, Thelma Rowell, had commented in relation to her work;
I tried to give my sheep the opportunity to behave like chimps, not that I believe that they would be like chimps, but because I am sure that if you take sheep for boring sheep by opposition to intelligent chimps they would not have a chance.[3]

Then relating this observation back to his system of propositions and statements he says;

propositions are good or bad depending on whether they are articulate or inarticulate. ‘Boring sheep are boring sheep’ is an inarticulate proposition since it repeats tautologically what a sheep is […] ‘Sheep are intelligent chimps’ is an articulated proposition since it offers to establish a connection between two completely different entities that will give meaning to both […] The first sentence is a repetition – A is A. The second is, to use a philosophical term, a predication – A is B – that is, something else, on which it now depends to gain its meaning.[4]

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia13       Latour’s analysis of this novel way of understanding behaviours between different animal species is not as a statement of difference which merely confirms a gap or a lack, but is a series of propositions, which “offer” this difference as a kind of gift to the other since a proposition, even in common parlance, is always suggested freely even as it implies reciprocity. Latour’s diagram of the proposition emphasises the prevailing directionality of the manufacture of meaning as it flows from actor to actor and as the articulation of each proposition describes a diagonal motion across propositional forces and a responsiveness to them which lies in direct opposition to the gap-obsessed statement.
Barbara Stafford puts it this way:

As the name indicates, a proposition does not pertain to language, it is not a statement. Rather, it is an offer extended by one body or thing to another inviting it to relate in a new manner. Each entity is forced to pay attention to the other, and, in so doing, both diverge from their customary paths to venture onto territory which, although it appears foreign from each of their unique vantage points, nonetheless belongs to an interdependent existence.[5]

I think the space of the commons and commons discourse allows something like this to happen.

Zambelli_Wastes and Strays_Pavia14        Here’s me participating in my other main strand of research – architectural and archaeological interdisciplinarities – but it works quite well here.
This land is owned by Hanson UK but it is also land over which archaeologists have rights to dig in spite of that ownership – just like feudal common land (in fact Hanson generously allowed much more excavation than they need have).

I also love this photo because these practitioners from different disciplines [I’m an architect, Lizzie Middleton is an archaeologist] are, through the medium of drawing – a shared practice – paying attention to one another.


[1] Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope : Essays on the Reality of Science Studies  (Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Harvard University Press, 1999), 309.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bruno Latour, “A Well-Articulated Primatology: Reflexions of a Fellow Traveller,” in Primate Encounters: Models of Science, Gender, and Society, ed. Shirley Strum and Linda Marie Fedigan (Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 368.

[4] Ibid., 374.

[5] Barbara Maria Stafford, Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting  (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 1999), 183.

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