The Power of Common Life: Action: People, Place, Planet

I want to start by saluting the community of practice and expertise which has been built through the event which took place recently on The Power of Collaborative Action: People, Place, Planet. I value enormously the work of NCACE in convening this group, and Research England and David Sweeney’s leadership in supporting this inspired initiative.

What has been said by each to each other, and learnt from each other, was clearly so rich and so exciting, and what is especially pleasing is that this is no longer in the space of advocacy but in the space of a new and refreshed notion of arts and humanities.

When I started my academic life, we were fewer in number as students and teachers. Sole researchers were the norm, outreach an unusual add on, there was a gap between research and impact, and limited recognition of practice.

Now, there are many more people who are comfortable with the term research and who actively produce research. Even in arts and humanities, teams are becoming more common, and we have embraced with huge success both outreach and impact, and the next REF will show this. And we now know that methodologically rigorous research can take the form of a performance or an artwork, a film or a dance. This transformation is hugely welcome, and part of how arts and humanities have changed themselves.

But we have to see this in its widest possible context – how are we changing the world?

The world means many different things of course, to different people and to individuals across days and lives. It can be the local community, the rhythm of school, neighbourhood, or a caring environment. It can be the challenges of our nations, their identities and specificities. And now, once again, we face international disaster, the tragedy of Ukraine of course, but many other crises too - Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Yemen and so on. Our world order is and has been for many years damaged, and those crises exacerbate the global crisis of climate change. And all this is interconnected; the Ukraine crisis will create inflation which hits the poorest hardest. War, as they say, is development in reverse.

How can arts and humanities make a difference in such desperate circumstances?

I have taken inspiration from John Burnside’s collection of essays, Aurochs and Auks; Essays on Mortality and Extinction (Little Toller 2021). Burnside, also one of our greatest poets, reflects on his own close run with death and on the notion of extinction, how it diminishes us all:

“as the extinctions multiply, so the world becomes more and more impoverished, the fabric of life more and more threadbare. This is the source of our grief, and it is this – our greatest moral crisis as a species – that we should be doing everything in our power to resolve.”(125).

Burnside lays the ground for the claim that extinctions of others diminishes us in a beautiful passage expounding a short text of Jacques Chardonne, a collaborationist and Petainist, who wrote

“It is not the first love that matters, nor the second nor the last. It is the one that has mingled two destinies in communal life (la vie commune).”

Burnside then transmutes this highly specific comment - perhaps we should say he redeems the text – through a sequence of filters to conclude:

“The contention is simply that, because all life is predicated on a symbiotic continuum, all individual lives are governed by a common destiny – a natural fact that we must all learn, not just to recognise, but to set at the heart of our ethics, our politics, and our day to day lives, if we are to avoid a human extinction. In short, the most mature, the most fully developed and, indeed, the inevitable practice of une vie commune is to be found in a lived deliberate conviviality, in which all life is felt to be continuous.” (17).

I find this to be both helpful and profound in speaking to people, place and planet – it speaks precisely to our dwelling together in communities. And this is what arts and humanities does, which is to understand humans in their contemporary interactions and in the temporal web which binds us to those who have gone before us and those to whom we will be ancestors. The science of arts and humanities is the science of how to be human and how to be human more fully, how to flourish. And the idea which Burnside evokes is that our deepest humanity, from the very beginning of our species, has been in our community, our deliberate conviviality, with each other, with every living creature on this planet, and with the singular beauty of our world.

There is something radical about this idea. Oddly we have made of the word a sense of the extreme, of politics at or beyond the edges of the acceptable – but what it really means is to go to the roots of something. While our politics is too often banal, short term, competitive, to go to the roots of a problem is to address its complexity, to see it across the long term, to explore together. It is to see connections and to accept contradictions in a spirit of rigorous care. To be radical is to face darkness and not be confounded by it, and not to be defeated. Burnside’s idea is one which I would categorise as radically hopeful, hopeful at the core and in the unremitting determination to build a common life in community and in crisis.

For me, arts and humanities and the work which NCACE brings together speaks to community in a way that opens up our humanity, and that is what then links the local, the place-based in a relationship of powerful hope and hopeful power to crisis and tragedy. We do not flourish as humans in utopia, but in the protection of our fragile diversity and in the rediscovery of our shared humanity.

To go to the roots of our humanity, and to do so with the rigour of our most human science, is to think of the ecology of our common life shared with everything in and on this planet. It is to give value to the tangled hedgerow in which we have our roots, to the community which is the only place where we truly flourish.

Image credit: Ruby Jennings (Little Lost Robot)