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Notes on the Periphery: Series Introduction


This piece of writing, which may change slightly in its final iteration, will be included in each of the books in a series that explores the idea of the inheritability of intergenerational embodied memories of place.  It outlines the intention and method used in the research.  Each book in the series will focus on a particular family line from which I am descended and the place/s where they lived.  The first family group will be the Andersons who migrated from Scotland to Australia in the early 1830s.




This book is part of a series titled ‘Notes on the Periphery’.  The overarching idea that holds the writing and photographic research together, is that our bodies remember the places where our relatives lived over a long period of time, and that for subsequent generations, a form of recall occurs as an experience of an uncanny sense of familiarity, when we unknowingly return to the places where they lived.  It is inexplicable and felt rather than consciously understood—sitting on the margins of language, yet still deserving of an attempt at description.


Put simply, it's the idea that when people walk the same streets day in, day out for years on end, their bodies develop a memory of the camber and incline of the street, the number of steps from one corner to the next, and the effort required to move from one place to another.  This is what is called ‘proprioceptive’ spatial awareness—the experience-based understanding that a body has of the space that surrounds it.  It is a form of memory, which is implicit, produced from repetitive movements of the body, like learning to play the piano, rather than explicit, which pertains to the recollection of a specific event in time and place.


Like a memory of the domestic space that we grew up in, an embodied memory of an environment—specifically in this context, the urban environment—becomes encoded within the somatic nervous system, within our movement, posture, and gait, through habituated repetitive movements of the body.[1]  The argument is that this form of embodied memory of place becomes both heritable, meaning that it is passed on through behaviour, and inheritable, meaning that it is passed on epigenetically. [2]

 

My interest in these ideas stems from my own experience of a place that felt strangely familiar, even though I had never been there before.  In September 2018 I travelled from Adelaide, South Australia, to present a conference paper at Birkbeck College, University of London, on the use of rephotography in phototherapy.[3]  That research developed initially from an interest in finding ways to ameliorate the residual effect of trauma, using photography and storytelling.[4]  While I had been to Europe on eight previous occasions, this was my first trip to London.  Whenever I've travelled to Europe, North is South, and South is North, and the jet lag can be brutal.  However, as fatigued as I was when I arrived in London, North was North, and South was South, and I felt as if I knew my way around with little need of a map.  Any disorientation that I felt, came from this uncanny sense of familiarity.


Acknowledging the field of cultural and collective memory developed from the writing of Maurice Halbwachs in the early to mid-20th century, which asserts that a sense of familiarity that accompanies our experience of a place can come from literature and other media,[5] this was something else.  Knowing which way North and South are, and having a sense of how to get from a to b speaks more to a complex embodied rather than cultural form of memory.


After returning to Australia, I discovered that nine of my sixteen Great Great Grandparents had lived in or near the East End of London prior to migrating to Australia in the mid-1800s.  Some lived in London for a few years after moving from further afield, while others had a connection to the city dating back to the 1500s.  Some lived further north in Hertfordshire but had siblings who lived in the centre of the city—their understanding of London second hand, but none the less significant.  Thinking about this through the lens of intergenerational embodied trauma that I had been researching for the conference paper,[6] this revelation about my family’s past caused me to speculate that the uncanny sense of familiarity that I had with a city that I had never been to before, was in fact an inherited embodied memory of place.  If there is a mechanism within the body for the passing on of intergenerational trauma, and there is a significant body of research which argues that there is, then there may also be a mechanism for passing on other phenomena of lived experience, such as that which relates to place.  As stated, if generation after generation walk the same streets, day in, day out, for hundreds of years, then subsequent generations may inherit an embodied proprioceptive memory of that environment.  Place becomes marked within the body—more specifically, within the somatic nervous system.


I researched the areas that various family members were from, and then returned to London in September 2019 to engage in an expanded rephotography project.  Conventional rephotography compares an old photograph of a place with a new one taken from the same vantage point.  Within an expanded method, the old image consists of an inherited embodied memory image rather than an actual photograph, presenting itself as a latent and uncanny sense of familiarity.


The second trip to London was an exploration of method, of reflecting on how embodied memory manifests itself within the act of walking, taking photographs, reflecting, and writing.  The new image is produced through the affective sensations that are triggered when walking through place, stopping, pausing, and framing a view with the camera, then taking a photograph.  Rephotography serves as both analogy and as method.  The specifics of time and place and how they may relate to past family historical experiences are then reflected upon in the writing process.[7]  Although it can present itself as a distraction from the primary concern of theorising the intergenerational inheritability of embodied memory of place, developing an extended understanding of family historical relationships to place is crucial.  Walking and writing are thus inseparable within this research project.


A further extension of this method that presents itself primarily in the form of writing, is the reflection that takes place within the process of daily journalling.  In writing up and reflecting on events that have occurred, a set of strange coincidences start to emerge.  There have been times when I have taken for granted knowing the location of a particular place and how to get there.  It’s only later that I start to question how it is that I knew how to get from a to b, when I haven’t looked at a map.  There are also times when I get completely lost, when the logic that I’m trying to develop of inheritable embodied memory fails.  And then I’ll find myself being drawn to a particular place, only to find later that a relative used to live there.  Revelations—when they do occur—would slide away if it weren’t for the everyday practice of journalling with a specific focus on writing about my own movement through the urban environment. [8]


It is perhaps no coincidence that my developing interest in the urban environment and the embodied relationship that I have had with certain places, sits alongside a family history in which a number of relatives were architects, civil engineers, surveyors, ground workers who dig the foundations for buildings, police officers who walk their beat, council workers working for the Roads Department, train drivers, station masters, and farm labourers who knew the relationship between the weather and the terrain when carrying their produce through the Adelaide hills to market on foot.[9]  Tragically, some were explorers mapping out terrain to be stolen, claimed and colonised.[10]  All had a close relationship with the surface of the land that they moved across and through.  They moved around on foot as much as horseback, dray, cart horse, or train, and so their experience of place had rhythm and effort—an intensity at the point of interaction between interoception, proprioception, and place.[11]


I'm interested in reflecting upon what I might term latent inherited proprioceptive gestures—which are the embodied memories of repetitive movements of the legs, torso, arms, etc, as well as the smaller but nonetheless significant movements of the eyes as they scan back and forth from the centre to periphery, rhythmically checking for threats as well as ease of passage through the dynamic space of the streets and alley ways.  Dr Arielle Schwartz writes in ‘The Vagus Nerve and Eye Movements: Tools for Trauma Recovery’, (2021) that,


‘Our eyes naturally move from side to side as we walk through the world; it is a way of observing our environment.  From an evolutionary perspective, this action is necessary for survival for it allows us to scan the world for food and potential predators.  This action evokes the neurochemistry of courage because the pairing of physical movement and lateral eye-movements appears to suppress the amygdala’s role in initiating a fear-response while simultaneously signaling the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps increase a felt sense of pleasure and reward.’[12]

 

Schwartz is here describing the basics of EMDR, a form of trauma therapy that makes use of the deep connection between eye movements and the rest of the body whilst walking.[13]  The underlying argument is that repetitive left/right/left... movements of parts of the body stimulate the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This phenomenon, our embodied proprioceptive awareness of space, and our movement through it, sits off in the periphery of our attention and conscious understanding.


Analogously, something similar happens when we look through the viewfinder of a camera.  Our primary attention is given over to the framed ‘view’, while at the same time we are aware of what sits off to the side, barely glanced at in the periphery of our gaze.  In the process of framing the view, our eyes move rapidly back and forth between the periphery and the frame.  Later, when viewing the photograph that we took, what was in the periphery returns to us as a series of sensations that re-establish a sense of place beyond what is now contained within the framed view.  Sometimes these sensations can be phenomenon that are less tangible, relating to non-visual senses, like temperature and sound.  If it was cold when the photograph was taken, the sensation of feeling cold might return later, when viewing the photograph.  Acknowledging that definitions of affect are contextual and often contested,[14] in phototherapy the return of these other sense-based phenomena as affect laden recollections, can be related to embodied memories of trauma which similarly sit outside of language but are retained within the somatic nervous system.[15] 

 

While moving through the space of London in 2019, taking a sideways glance as I checked for traffic whilst crossing a road, a moment of revelation occurred as the glance turned upwards to a distant Church Tower that stood up and above the buildings at street level.  I realised that such views operate as anchor points of orientation.  The Church Tower has subsequently become an important motif in respect to the idea of being orientated in space, not for religious reasons, but for the simple fact that they are objects that endure in a dynamic and changing landscape.


Although little of London exists in the same form from when my various family members walked those same streets, many of these anchor points that sit in the periphery to be momentarily glanced at, persist.  These, along with the microtopographic undulations of the street and the number of paces from one corner to the next are what the body recalls.  That glance upwards whilst preparing to cross the road, may have been a distant memory echo of the movement of neck, head, and eyes, performed thousands of times by past family members as they crossed the dynamic space of the road for generations prior to leaving and migrating to Australia in the mid-1800s.  Taking this conceptualisation of the relationship between the body and space on board, memory needs to be considered as situated and extended out into space as well as embodied.[16]





As stated, the understanding of the environment that these movements of the body produce, becomes ingrained in the somatic nervous system as proprioception, a form of implicit memory that the body has of its surroundings and as interoception, an internal understanding of the effort required to move through it from a to b, like breathing harder or having an increased heart rate when walking up an incline.  My argument is that this form of implicit memory is both heritable in the form of learnt behaviour, and inheritable in the form of epigenetics.  The false dichotomy of nurture versus nature comes to mind here.  One informs the other—they aren’t inseparable.


Much of the discourse surrounding the topic of memory gives emphasis to explicit memory, which is a recollection of a specific event.  Implicit memory is an embodied form of memory, like learning to touch type, play the piano or learning to ride a bike.  It is built through repetition.[17]


The simple argument is that it is the repetition of the body's movement through space that encodes a proprioceptive understanding of the place of the city into the somatic nervous system in such a way that it becomes both heritable and inheritable, and passed on from one generation to the next. 


The set of concepts used to build this argument is the notion borrowed from trauma studies that the nervous system retains a response to a traumatic event.[18]  However, it isn’t so much trauma that is being considered here, as the mechanism within the body that processes it and retains it as embodied memory.  Rather than using Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a conceptual model and analogy, this research leans more towards Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), in that while PTSD is often (though not always) resulting from an event, C-PTSD results from the duration and repetition of events that are essentially the same in their impact on the body and the nervous system.  It is argued by number of authors that the body's response to trauma becomes inheritable.[19]


The idea of embodied memory of place is not new, given the complexities of notions of belonging in many cultures[20] and the depth of research that has taken place in recent decades concerning ideas to do with place.[21] However, I'm particularly interested in how it occurs in urban environments, focusing on the complex dynamic method of its production.  I’m interested in developing speculative ways of describing how the encoding and decoding of embodied memory occurs, opening up possibilities for telling stories of place that weave and suture together our embodied memories, with those of others.  Family histories present an interesting narrative form in which to develop this form of research into embodied memory, even when they appear to lean towards fiction.[22]





The 2019 Pandemic made it difficult for me to return to London in 2020 to continue this project as I had planned.[23]  I have instead been able to refocus on areas closer to home, with the revelation that while they were born in London, several great great grandparents grew up in the square mile of Adelaide, a space that I had until recently lived in for thirty years.  While the revelations of the trip to London laid a foundation in respect to method, much of this research now explores the Adelaide CBD and other locations in Australia, such as Portland (Victoria), Toodyay (Western Australia), Bothwell (Tasmania) and others.


As stated, this research project and the writing that describes it uses a repurposed and expanded definition of rephotography as a strategy of reframing the past in the present, to tell stories of family history that persist in both the landscape and in the body.  This project is as much performative and visual as it is written.  The photographs that I take along the way or that I find, will be included in each volume, and will form the basis of small exhibitions.  Each book in the series explores a particular cluster of family members and the relationships that they had with a particular place.  Many of the families were quite large, with extended families that make this kind of research difficult.  Where possible, conventional family history charts will be included, along with maps and diagrams.


The images used here were taken in Portland, Victoria in November 2023, during my six week stay in the June Hedditch Artist Residency at the Julia Street Creative Space.


All Images and writing, Copyright Andrew Dearman 2024 unless otherwise stated.



Andrew Dearman, November 2023

 

Notes

[1] This notion that the body remembers is developed from trauma studies, in particular literature developed by Bessel van der Kolk in the book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the healing of trauma. (2014), and the field of the study of intergenerational trauma in literature informed by Marianne Hirsch in the book The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, (2012).  See also Yehuda, R, Lehrner, Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 2018, no.17, p.243-257

[2] The field of Behavioural Epigenetics which looks at how the environment influences genetic development informs this writing.  Epigenetics of itself is an incredibly broad field in which the discrete mechanisms of epigenetic development are often debated and disputed.  My interest here is in behavioural epigenetics which necessarily incorporates the environment and in this precise instance, the urban environment.  See Powledge, Tabitha, M. Behavioural Epigenetics: How Nurture Shapes Nature, Bioscience, vol. 61, no.8. (August 2001), pp.588-592.

[3] Two early proponents of Phototherapy were Rosy Martin and Jo Spence. See: Martin, R., & Spence, J., Phototherapy: Psychic Realism as a Healing Art. Ten-8, no.30, Jan.1, 1988.

[4][4] The conference was titled ‘Images in the Post-Truth Era’ organised by the Photography and Academic Research group at Birkbeck College, University of London.  My paper was titled, ‘Post-truth and domestic space: From phototheory to phototherapy and back’.  The topic of ‘post-truth’ had also been the topic of a conference at Aalto University earlier in the year, at which I presented an earlier iteration of the paper.

[5] Halbwachs, Maurice. On Collective Memory. Coser, L.A. (ed), Chicago & London, Chicago University Press. 1992, (1925).

[6] The paper was informed by the writing of Martin & Spence, 1988.  See also, Halkola, Ulla, A photograph as a therapeutic experience, European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counseling, vol. 11, no. 1, March 2009, pp. 21-33;  Weiser, Judy, Using Personal Snapshots and Family Photographs as Therapy Tools: The "Why, What, and How" of Phototherapy Techniques, PSICOART, no. 1, 2010;  Wheeler, Mark., Photo-psycho-praxis, European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counseling, vol. 11, no. 1, March 2009, pp. 63-76

[7] This relates to the three concepts of memory image, material image, and the story telling strategies that we use to make sense of the relationship between the two, in the early part of the 1927 article by Siegfried Kracauer.  See Kracauer, Siegfried., & Levin, T.Y., (trans), Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Spring, 1993), pp. 421-436

[8] None of this is intended as a gesture towards the concept of intuition, but rather to a simple statement that our understanding of place is intergenerational and temporal, as well as spatial.  As a former art history lecturer, my approach to the concept of intuition has become quite jaded over the years for having seen it overused in art institutions as a way of avoiding critical thinking.

[9] One family line consisted of generations of bootmakers, who proved the worth of their wares by walking from Forest Range in the Adelaide Hills to the city, a distance of approximately 25km, to sell their boots and to buy fresh leather, before walking back into the hills.

[10] Members of the Anderson family are mentioned in a number of texts that discuss the dispossession of First Nations People.  See Clark, Ian, D., Scars in the Landscape: A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria, 1803—1859, Canberra, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1995.  Also, Kicinski, B.D., Clark, I.D., & Arthur, T. ‘The Death of a Hutkeeper Near Geelong in 1840: A new Investigative Approach’, (chapter) in, Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 84, no.2, Nov.2013. pp-257-276.

[11] Interoception is our awareness of the internal state of our body, like hunger, thirst, hot and cold.  It often, though not always, correlates to external phenomena, for example, a raised heart rate whilst walking up a hill.  I develop this discussion later in the writing.

[12] Schwartz, Arielle, ‘The Vagus Nerve and Eye Movements: Tools for Trauma Recovery, (2021). Source: https://drarielleschwartz.com/the-vagus-nerve-and-eye-movements-tools-for-trauma-recovery-dr-arielle-schwartz/ accessed 20/03/2024

[13] EMDR is somewhat controversial in that while it is acknowledged that it works, it isn’t fully understood how it works.  EMDR was initially developed as a method for ameliorating trauma by Francine Shapiro in 1987.

[14] Hemmings writes that, ‘Affect broadly refers to states of being, rather than to their manifestation or interpretation as emotions.’  p.551.  Clare Hemmings, C., Invoking Affect, Cultural Studies, 19:5, (2005), pp.548-567.  Similarly, Simon O’Sullivan writes in ‘The Aesthetics of Affect: thinking art beyond representation’ (2001); ‘Affects can be described as extra discursive and extra-textual.  Affects are moments of intensity, a reaction in/on the body at the level of matter.  We might even say that affects are immanent to matter.  ...  As such, affects are not to do with knowledge or meaning; indeed, they occur on a different, asignifying register.’ O’Sullivan, S. The Aesthetics of Affect: Thinking art beyond representation. Angelaki, Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, vol.6, no.3. December 2001, pp.125-135

[15] See: Martin & Spence 1981; van der Kolk, B, 2014.  One of the intended outcomes of therapy is to ameliorate trauma through bring it into words.  Speaking it, breathing it.  Making words as sounds that vibrate in the chest, throat, head. 

[16] Although incredibly broad in its scope and application, the field of 4E Cognition is worth mentioning here.  ‘4E’ refers to ‘embodied, extended, enacted, and embedded’ cognition.  I extend the notion of cognition to include memory work in all its complexity.  The writings of Shaun Gallagher and others has informed some of the thinking in this project.  In particular, the book ‘Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind’ Oxford University Press, London, 2017, in which the author explores the relationship between mind, body, and environment.  Chapter 8.1, (p.151) on ‘affectivity’ is worth noting here, although Gallagher doesn’t extend the discussion towards intergenerational inheritability in the same way that I do.

[17] Thomas Fuchs introduces the chapter titled ‘The Phenomenology of body memory’ (2012), in Body Memory, Metaphor and Movement, (ed. Koch, Fuchs, & Suma), with the statement that, ‘Memory comprises not only one’s explicit recollections of the past, but also the acquired dispositions, skills, and habits that implicitly influence one’s present experience and behaviour. This implicit memory is based on the habitual structure of the lived body, which connects us to the world through its operative intentionality. The memory of the body appears in different forms, which are classified as procedural, situational, intercorporeal, incorporative, pain, and traumatic memory.’ p.9.

[18] van der Kolk, Bessel, ‘The Assessment and Treatment of Complex PTSD’, in Rachel Yehuda (ed.), Traumatic Stress, American Psychiatric Press, 2001.  See also; Iani, F., Embodied memories: Reviewing the role of the body in memory processes, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, October 2019. no.26. pp1747-1766.

[19] van der Kolk, Bessel, ‘The Assessment and Treatment of Complex PTSD’, in Rachel Yehuda (ed.), Traumatic Stress, American Psychiatric Press, 2001

[20] These ideas may be parallel to notions of Country in Australian First Nations culture, however I deliberately resist that as a point of comparison, as I’m not myself of First Nations ancestry, and out of respect, I acknowledge such understandings of place to be deeply complex and well beyond my grasp.

[21] See, for example, Trigg, Dylan. The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio, 2012; Trigg, Dylan. Topophobia: A Phenomenology of Anxiety, Bloomsbury, London, 2017; and Tuan, Yi-Fu., Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, (1977), 2001.

[22] Although an over reliance on websites like Ancestry.com which are user produced with a sometimes-glaring lack of supporting documentation, like Wikipedia in its early years, can lead to false leads and fictionalised family histories.

[23] I had been invited to present a conference paper on this research at the 2020 Helsinki Photomedia Conference at Alto University, but it was cancelled.  I was also going to attend another conference in London, and had been invited to participate in a street photography in Verona, Italy—but the world changed for all of us.

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