Kinetic Knowledge

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Knowledge is more than text on a page. Whilst I cannot begin to quantify what I have learnt through the last three and a half years of higher education (and whilst I’m eternally thankfully for the fact that I have over a year left before I have to consider leaving the university environment), it is becoming increasingly clear to me that so much of my knowledge and understanding has not come from reading journals or sitting in lectures. In fact, my ability to grasp many concepts I have discussed in the classroom has come from knowledge gained far outside of the walls of the university.

One concept that I have been thinking a lot about recently is that of kinetic knowledge, which, taking various forms, relates to the sensuous and the experiential. Kinetic knowledge, I feel, is knowledge truly earned – knowledge gained directly relevant to time invested in a way that I find harder to measure when looking back on the secondary knowledge gained through reading. It is a sort of knowledge of paramount importance in the study of place, because it is knowledge that relates to an individual’s own relationship to a particular place.

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Over Christmas, back home in Sheffield, I visited Chris Watson’s exhibition Inside the Circle of Fire: A Sheffield Sound Map. The link between the layers of Sheffield sounds and the photographs of life from the Peak District to the guts of steel forges affected me in a way that it simply could not have done for somebody for whom Sheffield was not home. The dual sensory impact of sound and sight amplified this, and the familiarity of much of the work (even that which wasn’t experientially familiar, such as sounds from a steelworks, but was so much part of the Sheffield psyche that it felt familiar) spoke to the knowledge that makes Sheffield home for me. It is not home because I live, or lived, there. It is home because I earned it as my home – the longer I stayed, the more kinetic knowledge of the city and its surroundings I built up, and the deeper the impact of the place on my life and my mind.

Kinetic knowledge brings us the ability to build a comparative epistemology of place unique to each individual. I moved from Sheffield to Edinburgh in September 2013 and through the experience of spending time on foot or on bicycle in each I’ve come to realise the deep and specific way that each relates to its hills. In Edinburgh, the city is built around its hills; hills that rise as interruptions or barriers, hills to guard the city – the Mound, with Edinburgh Castle, or Arthur’s Seat, which may be a corruption of “Archer’s Seat” – hills that are the end point of excursions. Hills in Sheffield are an unfortunate necessity in journeying anywhere, but they’re also a source of pride, and the source of unplanned and unpretentious views over treetops and towards, always, more hills. Hills are a source of pride in Sheffield in a very down-to-earth Northern way: everybody complains about them, and everybody defends them. It’s a very different relationship to that of Edinburgh residents to Arthur’s Seat or Blackford Hill or the Mound.

This is something I could never have really known were I to have just read somebody else’s account of both those places. It’s a knowledge of geography embedded in the psyche of place, and the way residents relate to place is never overtly stated, only implied. My above observations on the hill-relationship could easily be challenged, by anybody else who has resided in both Sheffield and Edinburgh and experienced hills differently. But what is to me knowledge shapes my personal response to this place, which in turn shapes my everyday life, and therefore can it be said that this knowledge is of no importance?

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bell hooks writes compellingly of kinetic knowledge in her book Belonging: A Culture of Place – one of the most striking parts of the book is her articulation of the notion of needing to live in a place that one knows one can die. She writes compellingly of returning to Kentucky because it is a place that her “soul can rest” – despite the racial and sexist abuse she faced and faces from the societal structures and personal encounters in the place she lives, it is nevertheless her home, known and uncovered through years of experience, and thus, despite its flaws, she can carve her own place in it, her very presence a challenge to enduring structures of capitalist patriarchy, and yet resting within that position of challenge as well.

For Nan Shepherd, in The Living Mountain, kinetic knowledge is that of the Cairngorms and a lifetime of walking the same high plateau. Her relationship with the mountains is not that of the masculine conqueror venturing into the Great Outdoors to name and own nature and tick off summits mounted in a strange parallel version of a kept list of sexual conquests; it’s considered, it’s earned over years, and it’s deeply respectful of the place she calls home. She is open about times when she was too bold and too quick to venture out and was caught up in the power of the Cairngorms through snowstorms or fog. She passes on warnings to other travellers whilst at the same time drawing a strength and a sense of true place and belonging from the mountains.

The list of writers for whom kinetic knowledge shapes their work goes on and on: Rebecca Solnit, Basil Bunting, Edward Thomas… And amongst academics, too, there is a new appreciation of the value of kinetic knowledge as an equal player in the epistemological realm (John Wylie’s ‘An Essay on Ascending Glastonbury Tor’, for example).

The implications of this form of kinetic knowledge are also of paramount importance in the present day, and useful far beyond academic work in the environmental humanities. In a world where global warming is so temporally and spatially beyond our perception that it defies understanding and freezes us in inaction in the face of its enormity, a realisation of the role that place can play can bring hope to small actions that nevertheless provide a locus for discussions and actions that have implications around the world. Alistair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul highlights this better than I could ever hope to here, with the tale of the visit to the Isle of Harris of Native American War Chief Sulian Stone Eagle in order to testify against the establishment of a quarry on a mountain which, due to its deep temporal connection to the people of the place, could be viewed as sacred – an integral part of the Isle of Harris and the meaning of the island to its residents, who earned the right to comment on the situation because their kinetic knowledge of the place was incomparably more valuable than the corporate “knowledge” of the quarrying company.

Closer to home for myself, the connection I have developed with the city of Edinburgh and the University here over the past six months prompts me into action against the University’s investment in a fossil fuel industry that is hastening planetary destruction. It’s a way of relating to a huge, almost incomprehensible issue like climate change through a channel which I can engage with easily, have some influence in, and care about due to its proximity to my geographical situation in life. Similarly, involvement with growing food is one of the most kinetic forms of knowledge possible, touching all the senses – the feel of Scottish soil; the smell of a garden after rain; the sight of food growing, which is not a momentary glance but a months-long process of collecting images of plants in different stages of their life; the layers of sound that come together to form a garden; and the taste of the harvest at the end of it all.

It is difficult, in a world where people no longer stay in the same place their whole lives, and cities are increasingly homogenised across the globe, to develop a true connection to place through kinetic ways of knowing. But it can be done, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

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