Fiber Metaphors Weavers Don’t Hate: An Interview with Tim Ingold
Keeley Haftner: So to begin I’d like to go way back. You’ve been the Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen since 1999, but when you first embarked on your education you began with the study of natural sciences. Your father was the famous mycologist Cecil Terence Ingold, which piqued my interest as a closet wannabe mycologist. As our readers may not know, you have a fungus, Ingoldian Fungi, named after you on account of his research!
Tim Ingold: I do, yes!
KH: I was wondering if Terence’s profession had any influence on your latter academic interests, particularly with regard to ecological approaches to anthropology?
TI: It had a very strong influence, although he wouldn’t admit it. My dad, who considered himself to be a good empirical scientist and a very firm atheist, never really understood why I went into anthropology. Yet he really loved his microscopic fungi. He was completely in love with the beauty of nature and wanted to celebrate it through drawing and researching, through examining all the mechanisms by which they worked. He was a very rational man, so he would have never accepted this idea. So that’s what rubbed off on us as his children. We didn’t learn about the technicalities of the fungi but we learned what it meant to be to be in love with the things we study in the world. Two other lessons come to mind: the first being that he was one of the first to emphasize the importance of field study in botanical sciences when he was teaching in the 1930s. In those days everything was done in laboratories and students studied things pickled in jars, and the idea that one would go out and look at plants or fungi in their natural habitat seemed rather strange. So obviously that’s something that I picked up. The other thing is that there is a very close relationship, I think, between mycology and anthropology.
KH: How so?
TI: Because in the botanical sciences mycologists are the awkward squad. Fungi don’t behave as organisms are supposed to; they’re very weird. They do odd things, you can’t describe their boundaries easily. It’s difficult to talk about them as if they were bounded organisms surrounded by an environment, because they’re just all these fibres that go every which way. If the fungus had been taken as the prototype for a living organism, then the whole of botany would be different. So if you’re a mycologist you have to think in rather unorthodox ways about boundaries and relationships. Moreover, the critique that mycology makes of mainstream bioscience is almost identical to the kind of critique that anthropologists make of the standard model of mainstream social science. Because anthropologists are also saying that when we’re studying people, we can’t think about them as bounded entities. They’re just bundles of relationships. I wrote an article in the mid-nineties in which I introduced a notion of the “mycelial person” and tried to draw a parallel between the fungal mycelium and they way we think about relationships in anthropology.
KH: I saw you speak at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts where you described your research regarding architecture as a form of weaving, which of course relates to other metaphors you’ve used from fiber arts like thread lines and knots. Can you talk about your weaving analogy, and what thinking about architecture in this way does to shift our perception of the built environment?
TI: Well, I got into architecture by accident. I started doing this work on lines in the mid-2000s for reasons that had nothing to do with architecture. I was interested in writing and the history of musical notation.
KH: Yes! And you’re a cellist as well, is that right?
TI: Yes I’m a cellist as well, which also comes into it. So this stuff on the boundary between anthropology and music is what really got me into lines in the first place. But then, people would say to me, “do you realize that what you’ve been talking about is architecture?” I didn’t, but people from architecture departments kept inviting me to talk, so I learned about it through experience. I was also supervising a PhD student from an architectural background at the time, namely Ray Lucas, now a distinguished scholar in his field, so we had lots of long discussions about lines and architectural drawing. I discovered that a big issue for architects is that mainstream architecture was still thinking in terms of building blocks, whereas I was into weaving and knotting. Then I discovered, as every student of architecture knows, that this debate goes back to one in the nineteenth-century, between Gottfried Semper and his opponents. Semper was actually the first to assert that architecture begins with weaving. His work had been sidelined because it went against the mainstream, but is now being rediscovered. So this whole discussion has quite a pedigree in architectural history. Well-known writers in architecture like Kenneth Frampton have been writing on “tectonics,” and Japanese traditional architecture is of course very much a woven form. I went to Japan to speak to architects, and discovered that there is much interest in these ideas in contemporary Japanese architecture as well. So I found an open door to the architectural imagination of the moment, which was quite exciting.
This affects the way we think about the built environment by forcing us to rethink the nature of the ground and of surfaces in general. If you have building blocks, then you think of the ground as a kind of platform, and you put things on it like a child building with bricks. You want to build a big tower, so you start with a level base, and then you add brick after brick and build something up. That’s the standard model. But if you start with the idea that you’re not “building” but “weaving with lines,” than the ground ceases to be a baseline or foundation. Instead you get a unity of earth and sky. And where they meet is not just a simple surface, but a very complicated and interesting place where everything is happening. So all these things come together in thinking about fibres and lines and knots.
KH: Looking at your research in a broader perspective, it seems you have always had a fairly interdisciplinary approach to writing. You began early on with focus on the intersection of what you’ve called “The Four As”: anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. It seems to me that this sort of intersectionality is very critical in our twenty-first century, and one would hope that more researchers understand the importance of disciplinary overlap. As someone who has been thinking about this for a long time, have you seen a shift toward interdisciplinary thought since embarking on this research, or do you see academic research as remaining quite siloed on the whole?
TI: Yes and no. The negative part of the answer is with anthropology, in that the last people to show any interest in what I’ve been doing, by and large, are my anthropological colleagues.
TI: They’re stuck in a kind of rut and I often get the feeling that they’ve gone in one direction and I’ve gone in another. A lot of this comes down to a separate debate we’re having at the moment, concerning the relation between anthropology and ethnography. I’ve tried to argue that these are quite separate things. I’ve argued that anthropology is fundamentally a speculative discipline concerned with the conditions and possibilities of the human world – how we could live and should live – and therefore that it can adopt an experimental approach. The classical approach in anthropology has been ethnographic, which is largely retrospective. An experimental approach is more speculative, more artistic in that sense, and part of the argument about linking anthropology to art and architecture was to show that we could think about future possibilities and not just past states. Classically, art and archaeology point in quite different temporal directions. I’ve been trying to turn that around, but there’s still a long way to go with anthropology. All the interest has come from art and architecture. They’re very happy about it, because they think anthropology is great!
KH: Yes! In my own experience, your ideas have really entranced a lot of artists and architects. I’ve been thinking about that seduction, and why makers respond to your work. So I’m wondering firstly, did this come as a surprise to you, or was it obvious to you early on that cultural producers might respond to your ideas?
TI: The answer is that I was completely taken aback. It was a great surprise. I’ve always felt slightly in awe of artists and architects – that I’m a mere anthropologist. So when they started getting in touch with me and saying “I’m interested in what you’re saying,” I was delighted! The level of interest did come as a surprise because I had no background in either discipline, and I don’t really know much about them. I felt a bit like an intruder. But is seemed to be an intrusion that was welcomed, and that was very nice.
KH: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s very surprising to me. From my position one of the reasons your research is so seductive to makers is because you place such an emphasis on thinking through making, which is something that artists have always done, whether they’ve had the words for it or not. Your research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board was undertaken in conjunction with a fine art department in Dundee, and very directly combined approaches from fine art and anthropology using a practice-based approach to learning and making. Did you find your students responsive to this approach, and did it lead to any surprising outcomes?
TI: It goes back a long way, to when I was still based in at the University of Manchester. I was there from 1975 to 1999. During the mid-1990s, a number of our PhD students in anthropology also happened to have backgrounds in architecture or fine art. So we thought we’d form a little group and have an informal seminar, which was very exciting. During that seminar we discovered that if wanted to talk about issues on the border between art, architecture, and anthropology, we would have to be doing something practical. Otherwise you just get stuck in a rut. So we started doing practical things, and that’s where it all came from. Then I moved to Aberdeen in 1999 to develop an anthropology program and a department of anthropology from scratch. I had to build this thing up, so I needed some sort of vision for what it was going to do. I had two ambitions for it: that it would become the leading centre in the world for anthropology of the northern circumpolar peoples, because that’s my other hat. My northern circumpolar hat…
KH: Yes, I’m aware of this hat. (Laughs)
TI: (Laughs) And the other ambition was to continue with this project that was started in Manchester. The project you mention was a joint effort between us in Aberdeen anthropology and the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, and it ran from 2002 to 2005. My undergraduate course on “The Four As” was developed as part of the project. Students were reading from all four disciplines, but we also made models, went into the field, did trips and so on and so forth. Obviously there were lazy students who thought of these as fun things to do, but there were good students who produced amazing work. They tended to comment on how different this was from any other course they had done. Many things came from it: further grants, various PhD projects, and so on. It is hard to pin down particular findings. The thing I would stress is how it’s affected my understanding of the relation between research and teaching. This interest in education was the topic of my most recently published book, Anthropology And/As Education (2017).
KH: I can say that coming from what has historically been the production side of human culture, we artists often fall victim to conventional ways of thinking of matter as material onto which we can impose form. You’ve spoken about metallurgy and attending to the flow of materials – that this is a creative process that is more like dialogue than dictation. Can you talk briefly about the “hylomorphic” model of creation, and why it is important for us to view matter in a different light?
TI: I think it’s very important to view matter in this light! There’s a particular diagram somewhere toward the beginning of my book Making (2013), where I show the difference between thinking about objects and images and thinking about material flows and flows of awareness. It means turning things around ninety degrees. Instead of thinking of an interaction between an object and image, you consider the object as just one pent up moment in the flow of materials, and the image as just one pent up moment in the flow of awareness, and then see how those two flows correspond. Now I can look back and it seems obvious to me where these ideas came from; you can even find chapters in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari where they’ve said such things already. In the old days nobody took materials seriously, and material culture scholars were only interested in objects. The idea of moving from objects to materials was very controversial when I first came up with it. Now it is old hat.
It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what triggered this idea, but it probably goes back to my reading of Henri Bergson. Everybody’s talking these days about Bergson, and also Whitehead, but I read him in the early 1980s and was completely bowled over. This guy said everything I had been trying to say! His ideas sank so deep into my consciousness that I’ve been thinking with them all these years without realizing that’s what I’ve been doing. Originally I was looking for something else in the library and discovered his Creative Evolution by accident. When I first opened the book I started sneezing, because nobody had opened it for decades. The dust! (Laughs)
KH: (Laughs) Well, as you say, these ideas are becoming more and more fashionable. You’ve said that “things are not reducible to objects,” which seems to me to echo ideas found in Object-Oriented Ontology, New Materialism, and Speculative Realism. Many of these theories are attempting to do away with an anthropocentric viewpoint. Do you align yourself with contemporary writers like Timothy Morton or Graham Harman, or do you see yourself as quite distant from what these philosophers are up to?
TI: I see myself as very distant from them. I don’t like Object-Oriented Ontology! I think it’s dreadful.
KH: Tell me about it! I want to hear more about that. (Laughs)
TI: (Laughs) I don’t like Graham Harman’s writing, and Timothy Morton’s drives me insane. I met him once and I found him arrogant and pretentious – like his writing. So I’m definitely not in that camp. I’m not quite sure how to start with it… It’s partly just that I think this kind of philosophizing is tedious and unnecessarily obscure. It’s just not rigorous. You name something, whatever you feel like, and it’s an object. The rain, my curtains, this thing that I put my coffee cup on… ah, what the hell … it’s an object. This seems to me utterly pointless. But more than that, the kind of world the Object-Oriented Ontologists conjure up is fossilized. Nothing moves. There seems to be no sense of ontogenesis, of the development of being. Thinking of things ontogenetically is absolutely key to my thinking, which also resonates with that of Gilbert Simondon, another philosopher whose work is coming more to our attention these days. As far as I can see, in OOO there is no understanding or consideration of ontogenesis at all.
Thus the world they’re displaying is fundamentally dead, whereas I think the world we should be interested in is fundamentally alive. I read something by Harman, where he said anything you like can be an object, except time. Time is not allowed to be an object. He was talking about rain falling on a tin roof, and saying that the rain is fundamentally in itself and the tin is fundamentally in itself. But so far as I can see, the rain is not just drops of water; rain is drops of water falling down. It has movement. You can’t have rain if drops of water are standing still! As soon as you bring the movement in then this whole sense of “things in themselves” no longer makes any sense. So it’s like the world is completely frozen, which seems wrong. And I think its wrong politically as well. It leads to what has happened rather similarly in anthropology with the so-called “ontological turn,” where you can more or less name anything and it’s a world for you, and you can have as many worlds as you like. I’m very insistent – and I’ve written about this – that there aren’t multiple worlds. There’s one world, and it’s the only world we’ve got. We need to look after it, and everything we do matters for it. I’ve really been trying to push the notion of “one world” – not in a British Airways or corporate capital sense – but one world of infinite difference. It’s full of difference and yet one world all the same. You can have a world of difference because things are forever becoming. And that’s really terribly important to me.
KH: I’m glad to hear you speak from that perspective! At the beginning of your speaking about OOO you began talking about this trouble with language, one which I think perhaps all academics share, which is the problem with, in your words, the “overwrought, puffed up and self-serving phrase-mongering of so much that nowadays passes for scholarship” …
TI: Absolutely! (Laughs)
KH: (Laughs) I’d say, comparatively, that the accessibility and clarity of your writing feels like a breath of fresh air. Does intellectual obscurity and protectionism still dominate in your own field or the fields in which you research, or have you noted a shift toward legibility?
TI: I don’t know; I hope for such a shift! It’s hard to say if it is happening or not, because as always there’s good writing and bad writing. I couldn’t say if the proportion of good writing has increased or of bad writing decreased. I’m a little pessimistic. I do believe there is a crisis in academic writing. It’s not just obscurity, although there’s plenty of that. It’s a crisis that’s been brought on to some extent by pressures that are beyond the control of individual academics. We have pressures in the United Kingdom for research assessment and demands on productivity. Basically, if you’re a young scholar and you want a job, you have to pump out papers for publication in approved journals, which means these papers have to take on a particular form, and have to be packed with bibliographic references so that none of the peer reviewers can complain that you’ve left something out. This is utterly destructive of any kind of literary creativity, and it’s doing terrible damage to academic writing. People know it. Scholars know it. They would like to write differently, but are sometimes bullied – certainly pushed and pressured – into producing their journal articles. And once they’ve done that, once they begin teaching, they don’t have any energy left. So yes, there is a crisis.
Much academic writing is appalling. It doesn’t carry any sense that it’s really the author who is writing it – no sense of their hand or their heart! It sounds detached and phony. We have a lot to do to fix it – part of what I’ve been trying to do is find another way so that we can say “this writing is scholarly,” even if it isn’t academic. But to do that is to work against the institutions of the academy and the politics that hold these institutions up. I think we have it worse in the UK, but it’s spreading to other countries.
KH: One of the ways in which your own writing is humanized, besides through language and content, is through the use of examples, artworks in particular, to describe and in some cases to illustrate your ideas. I’m thinking about your use of Henri Matisse’s “Dance” (1909-10) to describe the importance of lines and blobs in social connection, and your writing about the work of an artist like Carol Bove – her “The Foamy Saliva of a Horse” – a piece you’ve included in your recent collection, Correspondences (2017). You’ve called yourself a fan of art, and I’d say perhaps you’re a bit more than that, but I’m wondering what leads you to choose the particular artworks that you do, and why is art a useful demonstrative tool for you?
TI: A lot of art is not. (Laughs) It’s the same for everybody. There are some kinds of art that one responds to, art that speaks to you and that you feel you could have a conversation with, and there are some kinds that just don’t register at all. You can’t ever generalize about art. It’s such a variable thing. Some kinds of art, I think, are intuitively very anthropological, even though they don’t announce themselves as such. But most of the art that quite self-consciously calls itself anthropological doesn’t really work. Often the artists that I come to work with or write about are people to whom I’ve been introduced, not of my own initiative but on the initiative of someone else. A curator might get in touch with me and say, “we’re doing an exhibition of this artist and I think you’d like it,” and usually they’re right. They know something of my work, they know something of the artist’s work; they’ve seen a connection. For example, about a year ago I went to Turin to visit the studio of Giuseppe Penone, a renowned founder of the Arte Povera movement. A curator for an upcoming exhibition of Penone’s work in Philadelphia had asked me to write an article about his work. So we arranged for me to meet him, and I found it enormously interesting. I got lots of ideas from it because he was working particularly with trees and aspects of the growth of trees. With Carol Bove, the people running a gallery in Glasgow called The Common Guild got in touch with me and said “we need a couple of people to write for the catalogue for this work.” So I went along to look at the exhibition, and indeed, I found it enjoyable to write about. In my Correspondences book there are several others like that. So I’ve had artists chosen for me.
KH: Right! That’s very convenient. You don’t have to wade through the muck like the rest of us. (Laughs)
TI: I don’t have to waste my time, making lots of mistakes!
KH: Well Carol Bove is one of my favourite artists, so you were well met on that. Is there anything else you’re working on, recent or otherwise, you’d like to mention?
TI: As I mentioned my newest book, Anthropology And/As Education, has taken me into the field of education, which is where I’m going now. It is the result of all the things I’ve been doing up to now, to try and break down the boundary between teaching and research, and to recognize the fundamental pedagogical issue of what education is. I didn’t think at the beginning that this was going to be such a fundamental issue, but it is certainly fundamental now. At the moment I’m finishing up a big project funded by the European Research Council, entitled Knowing from the Inside: Anthropology, Art, Architecture and Design. It is a five-year project that ends this May. So I have to wrap that up, and then the big plan is that I’m going to retire this year. Of course that doesn’t mean I’ll stop doing stuff. But I can stop carrying all these administrative responsibilities so that I have more time to do my own thing. The plan is that once I get all this art and architecture stuff out of my system, I shall I go back to being an old- fashioned ethnographer. I’ll go back to fieldwork in northern Finland I did in the 1980s, and write it up properly.
KH: (Laughs) But I thought that was a bad word, ethnography!
TI: (Laughs) It’s not a bad word in itself. The problem is mixing it with anthropology. I’m going to simply write a historical book about this area that I got to know rather well, because I owe it to the people who live there. It’s been a guilty thing that I’ve carried with me for decades, and people have been wondering why I haven’t done it. So I need to do it. (Laughs)
KH: (Laughs) Alright, so you’re tidying up matters so you can properly play!
TI: I’m tidying up, yes.
KH: A well-deserved retirement. Take care!
TI: You as well!
Tim Ingold is an anthropologist based in Aberdeen, Scotland. You can find his complete bio here.