The starting point for this blog is the recognition of a need to open up the development of mappa mundi. Find out more about mappa mundi. This project has very deep roots. Ideas relating to it were planted a long time ago. There are a number of starting points.
The idea of using an online space as a collection point for crowd-sourced dramatised and videoed stories of change and of this space being like a geographical and spiritual map occurred to me after I was invited to meet Stewart Wallis, Director of the New Economics Foundation in December 2011. The context of our conversation was the growing importance of The Great Transition in NEF’s work. I was thinking about human change and how it happened, how people undergo it and how they can express their stories about it. Lots of other ideas were coming into play.
I wondered how people could enhance their sense of living in a complex system, how individual change related to collective change, how change contested images of the human, how truths about lived experience seemed to vary from scientific truths, how there was a confusion about the perception of policy makers and a kind of wall between those who thought they had power and those that knew they didn’t.
I had realised when I was working on my dissertation for the Masters of Science in Ecological Economics at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds in the summer of 2011 that human change related to environmental and/or economic systemic change happened amidst all the other personal, physical, emotional and social changes that people lived through.
Various strong movements of ideas had occurred in the course of my studies. I had returned with passion to the work of Paulo Freire and had looked with new eyes at the transformative practices that he developed in his work on literacy programmes in Chile and Brazil. His ideas about active knowledge made me also look again at the work of his ‘offspring’, Augusto Boal. This path took me back towards theatre work. mappa mundi represents a convergence of what I had picked up from studying ecology and economics and my 40 years as a theatre practitioner.
So the next starting point to explain is that which took me towards studying Ecological Economics. In 2008 I decided to move forward a project that had been on my mind for a decade, an investigation of the relationship between theatre and economic thinking. We held a meeting of theatre makers and economists in December 2008 that focused around the impact of the ‘Big Crunch’. Towards the end of the meeting Paul Ekins, eminent environmental economist, said almost casually and quite plaintively that in his work he was presented every day with convincing evidence that in all probability the earth would be uninhabitable by human beings in 150 years time. This, in the context of a conversation about economic systemic crisis, suddenly shocked me. I knew it as a kind of commonplace fact that I had heard repeated by members of the scientific community but it immediately connected with an image of my personal lifetime. I suddenly remembered that, just a few weeks previous to this, I had seen my brother’s little grand-daughter embrace my mother and I thought how extraordinary it was that if that little girl grew up to be as old as my mother and if she embraced her great-grand daughter that there was a possibility she would be embracing someone that would be alive in 150 years. I think there is nothing so rare about these kinds of moments. Suddenly personal time and historical or biological time come together!
It was this moment that made me feel I must find out more about the relationship between human and natural systems. It was Paul Ekins who directed me towards Ecological Economics and suggested that I do an A level in Mathematics in preparation. After the A level, I did a couple of modules with the Open University and then went on to Leeds for the Masters.
I had invented The Deal because I wanted to work on what appeared to me to be the most significant movement that I had experienced in my lifetime. This consisted in the virtually complete domination of all social and political institutions and processes by the values and beliefs associated with classical economics. This wholesale permeation of social and cultural life that had destroyed all but the faintest idea about justice from the political agenda seemed to me to have its origins in the early-to-mid 1970s.
In fact while working for Foco Novo in 1977 on the second of the plays that John Hoyland and I wrote and produced for the company I remember being in a National Union of Mineworkers office at Manvers Main pit in Yorkshire when a man came into the room and announced that he had just had a conversation in the pit baths that led him to believe that the spirit had gone out of the movement for socialism and that the Conservatives would get back in at the next election and there would be a period dominated by reaction. I didn’t believe him at the time but the memory of that prediction still sends shivers down my spine.
Within two years Thatcher’s government had been elected and the movement that should have been obvious from the impact of events like the 1973 coup in Chile against the government of Salvador Allende started to come to dominate the world.
This is the epic story of my time, the arrival and dissemination of an ideology that was a radicalised consumerised version of market capitalism later dubbed neoliberalism.
In 1979 I was working as an Director at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. The election was a fundamental shock for me. It threw everything into question, especially my admiration of and absorption by the work of Marx and his ‘descendants’. Another deep experience was a production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle that I directed there. It felt as if Brecht was articulating a radical critique of economism in the amazing dialogue between the Grusha and the Azdak stories (played in my production by Deborah Findlay and Tom Wilkinson). Everything was called into question by this work and the journal that I had started some years earlier suddenly took on a key role in my attempt to think through what was happening to me and my world.
It was in this journal that, in an attempt to ‘historicise’ my feelings, I concluded that the situation of the society that I had grown up in was specifically and deeply marked by its imperialist past. I started to understand that living in the wake of this colossal imperialist movement certain kinds of human sensibilities were developed and certain character traits would become dominant. I started articulating an idea about the ‘imperialist personality’ as a personal embodiment or character-type that was characteristic or typical of this imperialist regime. See The Image of the Human
In this respect the mappa mundi project links back to this thinking. At that time I proposed to myself that, in the journal, I was embarking on a ‘philosophical and sentimental quest’. This was a quest to find a way of situating my experience and my story in the wider picture of world history.
This blog is a continuation of this quest. It is for this reason that it will not only register what is happening in Az’s work but will reach back into the past using it like a kind of rear view mirror, one that might help us to really understand where we are going.