Corridor #2

Let us return to the corridor – intrigued and delighted by Rachel Hurdley’s Radio 4 broadcast, The hidden history of the corridor. Poised between public and private; open and closed; movement and stasis; the pragmatic and the eerie, corridors are ‘time and ‘matter out of place” (Hurdley, p.50). From one perspective, opening the door to the corridor provides release and stimulates new modes of thinking. In the broadcast, Sir Christopher Meyer tells how deadlock in political negotiations might be broken by small groups convening in the corridor during breaks and solving hitherto intransigent problems. Movement into different spaces engenders fluidity of both movement and thought. The dynamics of the formal meeting room are recast by the new space encountered.

HeadWe have seen how the corridor is a place that welcomes storytelling. In other ways too, it is a space of production. Via a study of hospital staff interactions, Gonzalez-Martinez explores how medical staff use the corridors for brief and frequent conversations that rarely involve stops. The spaces are deployed for ‘informing someone of something; making enquiries about cases, colleagues or other matters; clinical conferring on a case; giving orders or instructions; making requests; checking how something is going; and offering help’ (Gonzalez-Martinez et al, p.525).  Similarly, Hurdley shows how a printer in a university corridor becomes a meeting place for research students to chat (Hurdley, p.55). A place for transit is simultaneously one of congregation. Here, the edgelands of a corridor ‘garret’ are transformed from mundane sterility to fecund possibility.

This play between those who walk purposefully along the corridor and those who linger is teasingly suggested by a work of art in a certain City of London office. In the corridor outside the client meetings rooms run a line of artworks representing 3-D walking figures. As you approach the installation, the figures are static; however, as you walk past them, they leap into life keeping pace with you. When you stop, they stop. The convention of engaging with art through static contemplation is subverted: here, appreciation requires you to walk away.  Preferably, quickly.

StatueOf course, we could read this artwork in another way. By encouraging us to navigate the corridor in a physically prescribed way, we are reminded how space acts as the ‘materialization of power relations’ (Taylor and Spicer, p.330). In Hurdley’s broadcast, the curator of Tyntesfield House describes how the corridor to the ‘virgins’ wing’ (where the female servants lived) was ‘protected’ by the Foucaldian panopticon of the cook’s bedroom: the senitel who detects and deters transgressive behaviour. In other grand houses, corridors are used to demonstrate monetary wealth and cultural learning. At Chatsworth, the Chapel Corridor evokes a grand collector’s gallery bringing together sumptious art works from the Devonshire Collection.

And just as the 3-D installation subtly manipulates our physical movement along the corridor, such gentle coercion can be experienced in many museums and National Trust properties. Our progress is often determined by signs, barrier ropes and the room attendants (as vigilant as any cook monitoring a misbehaving maid). Such routing can also reflect a particular narrative about the exhibits and artefacts that we are encouraged to absorb. This ‘organised walking’ is a ‘form of control that incorporates both mind and body.’ (Dale and Burrell, p.72).

There are also other ways to experience corridors. As spaces for potential anxiety perhaps. We wait there anticipating the summons: a doctor’s examination; a promotional interview; a make or break presentation. As we sit (or pace), vainly attempting to control our nerves, perceptions are disturbed – like static on a badly tuned radio station – by recollections of previous meetings. No experience is wholly in the present – the past intrudes, whispers, infects.

In The hidden history of the corridor, Karen Krizanovich notes how films often instil corridors with a sense of dread and foreboding. Her cited example is The Shining and the famous sequence of Danny Torrance pedalling his tricycle along the deserted corridors of the Overlook Hotel. For Mark Fisher, the very subject of the film is the ‘experience of a time that is out of joint’ (Fisher, p.20). The Overlook is a place ‘whose corridors extend in time as well as space’.

A Swedish series, Black Lake, that is about to conclude on BBC4, draws on many of The Shining’s tropes and themes. A snow-bound lodge; revenants from a tainted past; and, of course, corridors. For Fisher, the eerie is ‘constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence…where there is something present where there should be nothing.’ (Fisher, 2016, p.61). In Black Lake, a significant plot device is a door to the cellar that constantly opens of its own accord (so consistent with Fisher’s definition of the eerie). The corridor outside is monitored by a camera but here the attempt at control is subverted. At crucial moments, the camera is found to have been turned away. There is a nexus between the corridor and power; but there is uncertainty as to the source of the power. Is it natural or unnatural?

BroadgateThe scent of the uncanny also infuses our quotidian places of work. Should we ever visit after hours or at the week-end, they always invoke, I feel, a sense of the strange. And this is most apparent in the corridors: quiet, denuded, almost sentient in their calm. This effect heightens perception: sounds are subtly amplified; and the signage and art work somehow appear more prominent.  We might attribute this to the failure of presence –  ‘there is nothing present where there should be something’ (Fisher, p.61).  This quality of the eerie is forensically explored by the artist Tim Head in a series of photographic collages showing de-humanised spaces: empty corporate receptions, hotel entrances, underground car parks. Enhanced by pale tinting, the collages portray the uncanny and alien while evoking the melancholy of lost and half-imagined futures.

So, the next time you walk along a corridor, just pause. Take time to look around and listen, breathe deep, touch. For this is not just a corridor. This is a space that materialises power, subversion, production, congregation, solitude, creativity, anxiety, movement, stasis, excitement, foreboding and, of course, liminality. It is a space where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

 

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The spaces of organisation & the organisation of spacepower, identity & materiality at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

Fisher, M. (2012) ‘What is Hauntology’, Film Quarterly, 66(1), pp. 16–24.

Fisher, M. (2016), The weird and the eerie. Repeater Books.

González-Martínez, E., Bangerter, A., Lê Van, K. and Navarro, C. (2016) ‘Hospital staff corridor conversations: Work in passing’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, 72(3), pp. 521–532.

Hurdley, R. (2010) ‘The Power of Corridors: Connecting Doors, Mobilising Materials, Plotting Openness’, The Sociological Review, 58(1), pp. 45–64.

Taylor, S. and Spicer, A. (2007) ‘Time for space: A narrative review of research on organizational spaces’, International Journal of Management Reviews, 9(4), pp. 325–346.

The hidden history of the corridor (2017) BBC Radio 4, 29 September. Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b095tkgx (Accessed: 30 September 2017)

Illustrations

Head, T. (1982) Transient Space 3 [Hand tinted photographic collage]. Parafin, London. Transient Space, 21 July – 16 September 2017.

Rodwell, I. (2017) Broadgate, London

Rodwell, I. (2017) Veiled Vestal, Chatsworth

 

 

edgeland

They are there; but we rarely see them. Or, rather, we see them but they fail to take root in mind, memory or heart. A soft flicker on the retina while our thoughts are held by other concerns. Yet glance through the windscreen or out of the elevated train window and, chances are, at some stage on our journey we will encounter them. But it is an encounter we are unlikely to recall.

Edgeland_PylonThese edge lands – where ‘urban and rural negotiate their borders’ (Farley and Roberts, loc 183) – seem no more than ‘repositories for functions we prefer not to think about’ (Shoard, p.75).  Gasometers, electricity sub-stations, security lit business parks, car pounds, sewage works, pylons, razor-tipped fencing and marshalling yards. They circle our towns and cities: uneasy crossing places haunted by ‘the neglected, the disposed of, and the repressed’ (Edensor, p.833). But, if we look carefully and without prejudice, we can recast these ‘unobserved parts of our share landscape as places of possibility, mystery, beauty’ (Farley and Roberts loc 198).

Edgeland_wallFor look beyond the abandoned pallets and rusty JCBs, and vitality, energy and creativity emerge. What more could we expect in the marginal and liminal? Marion Shoard argues how edgelands are rich in plant and wildlife diversity: protected, forgotten and free of monoculture, pesticides and our compulsion to trim and prune. Similarly, Richard Mabey tells how rosebay willow herb and other ‘weed tenantry – ‘green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife’ – proliferated in the bombed out City warehouses and offices of the Blitz (Mabey, p.216). Glimpses of these ruderal fireweeds can still be found. By the ruins of St Alban’s church in Aldersgate, the broken walls of Roman fort and merchants’ houses shelter over 80 different plants with bee-hives too (maintained, fittingly enough, by the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers). Not just ruins, these are ancient edgelands for the original London Wall lies just yards away.

These are also places of ludic potential where ‘dereliction stimulates the imagination’ (Shoard, p.84). In Melanie Manchot’s stunning video installation Tracer (2013), parcour runners move through a series of shifting Gateshead edgelands. De-populated, framed at sunset and snowfall, these spaces of pylon, allotment, bridge, underpass, factory and escalator attract not the passivity of the flaneur nor the shielded gaze of the passer-by but a vivacity of movement and possibility that transforms the marginal to the magical.

Yet these edgelands with their invitation to subversion and transgression also conceal admonitory stories. I come from a generation who may recall – often with a shudder – a series of terrifying Public Information Films that frequently revealed the edgelands as a dangerous zone where injury, disfigurement and death were a mere moment of inattention away.  In The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, ‘the unwary, the show off and the fool’ drown in waters fringed by rubbish dump and quarry while the figure of Death watches gleefully on.  The bleached colour gives the quality of a sun-faded instamatic print and this queasy nostalgia has been referenced by musicians such as The Advisory Circle and Belbury Poly. With samples of PIFs, library music and forgotten segments of tv Programmes for Schools they create their own eerie sonic edgelands.

These films are fairy stories for a modern age. But for our 1970s Hansel and Gretel, it is not the forest they should be wary of but the gravel pit, the pylon (‘please don’t fly your kite there, Hansel’) and the train track.  And here the foe of witch and ogre take more elemental form: water, energy, power. These truly are fairy stories as written by Futurists.

But perhaps the liminality of the edgelands exerts its influence in other ways. We focus on the victims – but what of those left behind? For them, this is surely a rite of passage albeit one that is undesired. Scarred by what they have witnessed, these edgelands are spaces where innocence turns to experience. They carry both the curse and gift of knowledge.

And our places of work have their edgelands too. Hirst and Humphrey describe how a local authority consigned its paper storage unit to the edgelands of a business park: both an operational and physical marginality. This is becoming commonplace. Finance, IT, shared services are increasingly relocated to the edgelands of a town, country or continent. But, in doing this, we should heed Shoard’s warning. She hints that we place our ‘mundane’ activities in the edgelands because we do not esteem them but we:

might all be better off if we both understood better and respected more the apparently mundane yet vital activities which make our society work

Such respect should accord to every function and operation of the organisations of which we are part. We may forget our edgelands; but they will rarely forget – or forgive – us.

Edgeland_DissEven in one building though, we can locate edgelands. Think of lifts, basements, the maintenance workshop or, indeed, the humble photocopier room. Utilitarian in design and decor, it seldom provides a home to the artwork that decorates other walls or offers panoramic views of tower and sky. But, as wasteland attracts the detritus we casually discard there – fridges, tyres, thieved and ransacked slot machines – so here we find the box of Christmas decorations and a rag-tag of superseded office equipment. And, as we know from apocryphal tales of office parties, these humble backwaters generate their own transgressive stories.

Other stories surface too. In my first job, I worked in a university library. Delivering a trolley of books across the campus, I was forced to use an open, trellised goods lift. As we pulled at the stiff and unyielding doors, my experienced colleague told me of a student who, using the lift one October evening when everyone else in the building had gone home, became trapped in the metalwork and bled to death between floors. His ghost, my colleague solemnly confided, was occasionally sensed, especially ‘when the evenings draw in’.

We might read this story in various ways. Perhaps it served as a rite of passage – an initiation to the community. If I accepted the tale with amused equanimity, the test had been passed. Or, perhaps, it served as my own Public Information Film. An admonitory narrative that provided both a warning against inattention and insight to the culture of the university: health and safety is treated seriously here and transgression carries sanctions. It also, perhaps, hints at the ambiguity that infuses all edgelands. For this is an environment where both the rational and the irrational co-exist.

And, as I sense this is a question you might well ask: even today, when faced by one of those old, open, trellised lifts, I prefer to take the stairs. Especially in October, ‘when the evenings draw in’.

Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The Ghosts of Industrial Ruins: Ordering and Disordering Memory in Excessive Space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.

Farley, P. and Roberts, M.S. (2011), Edgelands. Jonathan Cape

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting Power in its Place: The Centrality of Edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Mabey, R. (2010), Weeds: the story of outlaw plants. Profile Books

Shoard, M. (2000) ‘Edgelands of promise’, Landscapes, 2(August), pp. 74–93.

 

 

Ruin

Ruins pose a constant negotiation between glory and dissolution; success and failure; substance and nothingness. They ’embody a set of temporal and historical paradoxes’ (Dillon, p.11). The abandoned warehouse or the tumbledown barn reveal a memory of the past and simultaneously a projection of our own futures. In the medieval motif of The four living and the four dead, four young nobles, hunting with hawk and hound, are confronted by four cadavers. Their hoarse and emphysemic breath utters the warning ‘As you are, so once were we…as we are now, so you will be’. Ruins provide a mirror on our own decay while hinting at their own survival: a ‘fragment with a future’ (p.11) which will outlive us.

SmithfieldBut these suggestive, liminal ruins are betwixt and between in other ways. Their journey of transition is constant as agents such as wind, rain, lichen, moss, birds and insects recast their identities and ‘transform the qualities of matter’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.477). This is not necessarily a cruel or pitiless destruction.  Looking into a marble fountain,there is ‘intimacy in the contact’ between stone and water that ‘here produces a gleaming surface veined with unsuspected colours, here magnifies fossil or granular structure’ (Stokes, p.26). Ruination can be gentle, caressive, revelatory.

A place for ruins is also a site for the uncanny – Das Unheimlich – where ‘the familiar and homely suddenly become strange’ (Edensor, 2005, p.835). Let us, for example, walk through the ruined church of Tivetshall St Mary in Norfolk. As we stand in the open nave with the sky above and incomplete walls around us, we sense a familiar space. We orientate ourselves around the chancel and mound where a tower once stood; the piscina full of dust a recognisable feature. Yet the customary is subverted. The floor is surreally experienced as a meadow – for grass grows where flagstone and marble are expected. The flint and mortar that line the nave are not cool to the touch but warmed by the sun high above us. Our perceptions and senses are tilted.

St MarysFor this is a place where the visual is less privileged and where, unlike the usual tourist spaces, ‘the tactile, auditory and aromatic qualities of materiality’ are enhanced (Edensor, 2007, p.219). We are keen to the sound of the strimmer in the overgrown churchyard; the smell of the cut grass in the porch; the feel of the twig that bends underfoot as we navigate around fallen gravestones.  This is Lefebvre’s perceived space – the ‘phenomenologically experienced spaces, that may be taken for granted through the habits of the body’ (Dale and Burrell, p.8). Note how we stoop past the shrub overhanging the south door – an automatic, reflex action.

And, as we might expect, this is also a site for stories. The official narrative – how the church was destroyed by a sonic boom in 1949 following years of neglect and increasing dereliction – can be found on a noticeboard by the entrance.  Such histories ‘seamlessly banish ambiguity and the multiplicity of the past’ (Edensor, 2005, p.831) but ruins ‘offer opportunities for constructing alternative versions of the past, and for recouping untold and marginalized stories’ (DeSilvey and Edensor, p.471).  Like ghosts, ‘involuntary memories come upon us, rekindling the past through unexpected confrontations with sounds, ‘atmospheres’, and particularly smells’ (Edensor, 2005, p.837). And one such story springs to mind, prompted by the sound (and fresh wheat aroma) of harvesting on a neighbouring field. A story of how a farmer, ploughing late on a winter’s evening, saw something in the churchyard illuminated in the sweep of his tractor’s lights as it rounded the headland.  Whatever it was (he never said), it was enough to make him flee, the tractor engine found still running the next morning.  This reminds us too that liminal spaces are sites of transgression – albeit often more ludic than demonic: children playing on the fallen houses of the Blitz or, strangely, beachcombers seeking illicit liaisons with a a statue…(Andrews, p.163)!

Ruins infiltrate our organisations too. Some are physical: our own spatial edgelands or dark terrains.  In Hirst and Humphrey’s study of spatial redesign in a local authority, they contrast the new central office –  ‘a very large, bright space, with light flooding through the glass roof and walls and reflecting off the pale, polished limestone floor’ (p.1513) – with the paper storage unit located in an out-of-town business park. Placed close to wasteland, a sewage works and a derelict railway, the conditions of this unit are ‘austere, with several discomforts, such as artificial light, dust and cold.’ (p.1518). I am sure we know similar ruins – the less privileged parts of our buildings where transient teams seek shelter: the desks scuffed, the IT antiquated and the chairs threadbare.

But, if we look carefully, other more ethereal ruins emerge: the rubbled remains of past initiatives, projects, ways of working.  Some were, like half-finished tower blocks, prematurely suspended, victims to changes in strategy, new technology or structural re-organisation. Others were completed but lie superseded by new priorities. Sometimes such ruins are manifested through physical traces: the forgotten folder of past business plans or the office directory with faded photographs from years past.  Like any ‘bare, ruin’d choir’ these are stimuli for involuntary memory and story – ‘Goodness, there’s a photo of X – do you remember that occasion when…’. But often such archaeology is virtual: excavating document management systems for spreadsheets and emails (where the recipients, once so urgently cc’d, are now often ghosts – long departed, absent, forgotten).

And like St Mary’s destruction by the sonic boom, such ruins carry official narratives to explain their failure or demise. Promulgated via the established channels, these stories serve as our guidebook and exhibit caption. Yet, as we know, ruins carry ghosts that are hard to exorcise. Unofficial stories – traded in corridors, cafes and the other liminal spaces we inhabit – are the mischeivous revenants that playfully subvert grand narratives.  However, are stories but ruins themselves?  Like the marble fountain, they are sculpted and worn – not by water but through memory, caprice and intent. For the stories we tell are not necessarily the same as the stories we hear. So, maybe, in the sharp (artificial) light of day, ghosts are not to be believed in after all.

Andrews, H. (2012) ‘Another place or just another space? Liminality and Crosby Beach’, in Andrews, H. and Roberts, L. (eds.) Liminal landscapes: travel, experience and spaces in-between. Routledge.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The spaces of organisation & the organisation of space: power, identity & materiality at work. Palgrave Macmillan.

Dillon, B. (2011) ‘Introduction: a short history of decay’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

DeSilvey, C. and Edensor, T. (2013) ‘Reckoning with ruins’, Progress in Human Geography, pp. 465–485.

Edensor, T. (2005) ‘The ghosts of industrial ruins: ordering and disordering memory in excessive space’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 23(6), pp. 829–849.

Edensor, T. (2007) ‘Sensing the ruin’, The Senses and Society, 2(2), pp. 217–232.

Hirst, A. and Humphreys, M. (2013) ‘Putting power in its place: the centrality of edgelands’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1505–1527.

Stokes, A. (2011) ‘The pleasures of limestone’, in Dillon, B. (ed.) Ruins: documents of contemporary art. Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press.

Restaurant

When, in The Godfather, Virgil Sollozzo, Captain Mark McCluskey and Michael Corleone meet for dinner at Louis’ Italian American Restaurant in the Bronx, I suspect none of them reflect on the liminality of the moment. Their minds are, understandably, on other things. Yet the restaurant is betwixt and between: a neutral, non-place where none of the New York five families can claim ownership. Outside all territorial boundaries, its attraction lies in a resistance to categorisation; if it belongs to no-one then it belongs to everyone. This confers safety but also, paradoxically, threat. To McCluskey and Michael at least, the place is unknown. It is Virgil Sollozzo, an ironic echo of his namesake guiding Dante through Hell and Purgatory, who acts as cicerone – instructing his companions on the mysteries of the menu: “try the veal – it’s the best in the city”.

FullSizeRender 5Liminality infects the scene in other ways. For Michael, the shooting of McCluskey and Solozzo represents a true rite of passage. It is liminal in the original anthropological sense – the shooting is a rite that accompanies transition: from outside the Corleone family to inside. Michael’s status, authority and identity are now in flux. Victor Turner observes how ritual subjects are suspended between the positions assigned by law, custom, convention and ceremony. Their previous identities are erased; their clothing indicative of a loss of status; their behaviour is passive, humble. Think of Michael, fleeing New York for temporary exile in Sicily. He dresses like a peasant; he succumbs to local custom; when courting Appolonia, he is Michael yet not Michael. Mary Douglas notes how the unclear or contradictory is regarded as unclean or ‘polluting’. Consequently, as neophytes are structurally ambiguous and therefore ritually polluting, they are commonly secluded from the realm of culturally defined and ordered states/statuses. Such transgression is symbolised by the shootings. To kill a police officer transgresses mafia code and so Michael needs to be physically and psychically excluded.

The restaurant suggests a further liminality. This is where people come to eat. It is a social place. Yet it is also a place of business. While McCluskey chews his veal and drinks the red wine, Michael and Sollozzo talk business: alliances, demergers, strategic re-alignments. In a perceptive study of business dinners, Sturdy observes that ‘meals are indeed valued as liminal spaces where the burden of many of the rationalistic rituals of the organisation is suspended, lessened or proscribed’ (Sturdy et al, p.930). The transaction of business has escaped the physical confines of the workplace to colonise another space. It confuses work time and social time and the rituals of business conversation intertwine with those of eating and socialising. For the frustrated consultant in Czarniawska and Mazza’s analysis of management consulting and liminality, a client’s invitation to dinner means that ‘I kept consulting (to a certain extent) till midnight’ (Czarniawska and Mazza, p.274).  In this case, colonisation has turned to conquest.

Sturdy views such business meals more benignly. For some of the consultants and the clients they study, liminality was ‘a regular haunt’ and thus ‘a relatively comfortable space’ (p.952). It is also a space that stimulates stories. When the CEO and the partner of the consultancy firm meet at an up-market restaurant in a converted castle, the former talks of his past successes (no doubts as stories). Meanwhile when the more junior members of their respective teams visit an Italian restaurant (sound familiar?) for ‘pizza and a beer’ they swap ‘accounts of how weekends were spent’ and share ‘sporting stories and jokes’ (p.946). For those listening, such stories convey rich contextual knowledge: what it takes to succeed within the political and social culture of the client organisation; the likes, interests and motivations of colleagues and clients. Such revelations simultaneously offer and reinforce trust. It accretes with each story told. When interviewed later, the participants talked not only of the knowledge they had gained but the rapport and relationships developed. For Sturdy, it is the environment that facilitates this: the ‘suspension of the routines of rationality…provided a space where information could be traded’ (p.947).

But to conclude at our beginning. In Martin Parker’s study of how food and eating in the Mafia are symbolically deployed as a representation of community, he notes that ‘food, it seems, is one of the ways in which business can be more like the Mafia, in which the commensality of the common table can (partially) rub out the instrumentality of working for money, and perhaps even hide hierarchy for a moment’ (Parker, p.994). But, unlike in business perhaps, transgression of community – to ‘go against the family’, if you like – exacts a heavy penalty.  And what better way to throw such transgression into sharp and bitter relief than by transgressing the act of commensality itself.

‘It was only after the company of men had broken bread together that the violence that followed could mean what it was intended to mean. For the bullets to be about more than greed and brutality, about some territorial or hierarchical dispute, the community needed to be re-imagined around a table. The Last Supper had to be re-enacted. And after such a demonstration of care over the sanctity of boundaries, the community could continue to claim that it believes in honour and justice.’ (p.999)

Maybe, it was this symbolism that infused the events of November 30, 1982 in San Giuseppe Jato, Sicily. Cosa Nostra boss, Rosario Riccobono, was invited to lunch with Toto Riina, capo di tutti capi – an annual barbecue to celebrate the festive season. Riccobono, dressed in his smartest suit, was disarmed ‘as was de rigueur on these festive occasions of friendship and trust’ (Robb, p.83). When, after many courses and many different wines, he was ‘slumped in a digestive doze’, Riccobono was awoken with the words “Saru [nickname for Rosario], your story ends here” (Stille, p.112). Riina, armed with a cord, then throttled him while his men held the unfortunate ‘Saru’ down. So, the business dinner – this coalescence of commerce and commensality – not only has the power to bring stories to life but, so it seems, to bring them to a close too.

Douglas, M. (1966), Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge.

Parker, M. (2008) ‘Eating with the Mafia: Belonging and violence’, Human Relations, 61(7), pp. 989–1006.

Robb, P. (1999), Midnight in Sicily: on Art, Food, History, Travel and La Cosa Nostra. The Harvill Press.

Stille, A. (1995), Excellent Cadavers: the Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic. Vintage.

Sturdy, A., Schwarz, M., Spicer, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Turner, V. (1969), The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Aldine Transaction.

Taxi!

We step off the pavement, one hand waving uncertainly. We want attention – the attention of the taxi driver – but, as we are modest, we fear the attention of the pedestrians, cyclists and drivers around us. For our hesitant hand sends a signal. A gesture that semiotically conveys  – or so we believe – our privilege, wealth and exclusivity. Here is someone who rejects more demotic forms of transport. Not for us the perilous thrill of the railway carriage. We require (we demand!) a private space. And so we oscillate painfully between shame and desire; wanting and not wanting; resolution and denial. That one gesture reveals our emotional ambiguity. We hold our liminality within us.

hansom-cab-1600Our signalling is successful. A black London cab executes a perfect U-turn – a masterclass in precision and confidence – that attracts notice and does little to sate our desire for anonymity. We state our destination, open the door and step inside.

And now the stories can begin. For this small, thoughtfully designed and comfortable cabin coaxes and nurtures stories. Maybe, as in the railway carriage, we are beguiled by movement from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging place. But here this movement is not determined. With a train, the path is fixed, the rails demand one trajectory and one trajectory alone. In a taxi, although our destination is known, our route is not wholly ours to decide. We follow the mercurial whims of our driver. She or he is our flâneur who ‘can progress at their own pace and change their route at their own whim’ (Dale and Burrell, p.72). Of course this freedom is not unconstrained. Choices of speed, route and style of driving are controlled by road conditions, the Highway Code and the desires of passengers. But free of these contingencies, the ‘spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities’ (De Certeau, p.98). And maybe memory, the unrecognised preference for one street over another can ‘orient the magnetic field of trajectories just as they can haunt dreams’ (De Certeau, p.104). We are at the mercy of our driver’s dream-play. The shops, thoroughfares, offices and wharves unreel outside our window like as stop-start movie offering suggestions, possibilities, connections.

Our taxi experience is also liminal in other ways. Maybe we are travelling to a meeting. The space around us is infused with business concerns and demands. Yet it carries other resonances. For this is a space we experience on our way to the playhouse, the cinema or, who knows, an illicit assignation (for like the railway carriage, these are spaces of transgression). The meanings fog and coalesce – this is Lefebvre’s ‘lived space’ where ‘phenomenologically experienced space’ is ‘overlaid with ‘imaginary spaces’ whereby the material and the cultural are fused’ (Dale and Burrell, p.10). Like the business dinners analysed by Sturdy, the taxi is a place where the boundaries between ‘work time and leisure time, friendliness and professionalism are blurred further’ (Sturdy, p.929).

And maybe it is this enfolded liminality that encourages stories. For there are many of them. Travelling with colleagues, I have heard stories of clients, past leaders, rival firms and, indeed, our world outside work. Each story seems to begat another. And as we listen we learn: knowledge that is rarely encoded elsewhere is embodied and exchanged.

That such a space – this enclosed taxi cabin – engenders a willingness to narrate and, consequently, to reveal should perhaps not be so surprising. Look around you – as we sit on our compact seats, we are divided by a screen from a silent other. The other hears our stories while their face remains concealed. Maybe this explains our compulsion to tell our stories. For alone with a confessor, what else can we do?

So maybe we should satisfy our desire and banish our shame. For a taxi journey is not an extravagance. It is a liminal opportunity that helps us know our fellow travellers and the world around them better. Rather than view taxis as ephemeral non-places that underpin the ‘fixed instability involved in sticky mobile lives’ (Costas, p.1480), let us celebrate their potential. For without them, our stories, revelations and confessions would be far fewer –  and far poorer.

Costas, J. (2013) ‘Problematizing Mobility: A Metaphor of Stickiness, Non-Places and the Kinetic Elite’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1467–1485.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The Spaces of Organisation & the Organisation of Space: Palsgrave Macmillan.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Sturdy, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Illustrations

Forestier, A. (1890) ‘A hansom cab drove to the offices of the very respectable firm of solicitors’. Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/hansom-cab/

Ghost

Our organisations are haunted places. They swarm with ghosts. Maybe not ghosts in a conventional sense; but ghosts nevertheless. If you wait long enough, you may discern the ‘sense of a presence of those who are not physically there’. In offices, factories, call-centres, shops and salons,  we ‘constitute a place in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit and possess it’ (Bell, p.813).

GhostAnd, as we have intimated before, these ghosts are creatures of the liminal. For Derrida, they are this ‘non-object, this non-present present, this being-there of an absent or departed one’ (Orr, p.1055). Immaterial themselves, their power is to make the space around them immaterial too; their liminality infects.  They can ‘elide the distance between the actual and the imagined’ so that ‘frail and cherished distinctions collapse’ (Beer, quoted by Jackson, p.69).

Think of an upmarket City meeting room. Let’s call it room 148. For your guest, experiencing this space for the first time, it is like any other meeting room: neutral in its ubiquity.  Subdued colours, art work on the wall, maybe coffee and pastries arranged on the table. For you, however, the experience is different. It is enhanced, tinted (or maybe tainted?) by all the other meetings you have attended there. The spectral voices and faces of those you previously met haunt the room. These presences are many. The room is a palimpsest of recalled conversations, arguments, emotions and the tone of those meetings (productive, boring, confrontational) now begins to affect your mood.  You too are haunted.  The room, familiar, comfortable, known, is infiltrated by the uncanny – das Unheimlich – infusing it, albeit momentarily, with the unfamiliar, the strange, the alien.  You sense a ‘feeling of estrangement, of being not ‘at home’ in the world’ (Jackson, p.65).

Ghosts appear in other guises. At a business school I know, the portraits of past deans frequent a corridor. They are sombre, besuited, the ties and haircuts indicative of past decades.  I wonder to what extent this ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) troubles the current dean. Do these ghosts – for that is what they are – act as vengeful revenants forever comparing the shortcomings of the present to the glories of the past; or are they more comforting spirits offering inspiration, wisdom and succour.

TivetshallSuch ghosts possess other objects too. A long time ago, I asked a colleague to identify an artefact that encapsulated our then organisation. After a pause, he spoke fondly of the chair that his former boss had left behind on retirement. Each time he saw it, he took strength from the memory of his mentor, guide and protector.  It had what Weber called the ‘charisma’ of the object’ and Walter Benjamin, ‘the aura of the original’ (Bell, p.817).  That chair was not just any chair; it contained a ‘kind of life’.

We also talk to our organisational dead. Think of the role models, those presences from the past that you turn to in times of uncertainty.  You ask what they would have done; how they would have reacted; what guidance from beyond can they proffer? In short, we are accustomed to communing with our role model spirits.

And where there are ghosts, there are ghost stories. I have heard many such narratives in every organisation I have known. Tales of role models, heroic (and tragic) leaders, tricksters and fools. This cast of ghosts is conjured again each time the story is told. They are never exorcised. And with each raising of the dead, we re-assess our current actions. We think and sense anew.  These ‘inheritances of the past haunt the relations and struggles of the present’ (Orr, p.1041).

In one of the most famous ghost stories, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the ‘ghosts’ are only perceived within the liminal – the ‘tops of towers, the roof of houses, the outside of windows, the further edge of pools’ (Klapcsik, p.5). So look again at your organisation. Those corridors, meeting rooms, staircases and lifts – are they really what they seem? For if you look carefully enough, you might – beyond the posters, filing cabinets and workstations –  glimpse the symbolic equivalent of shorelines, the gibbet on the cross-roads, and the decaying mansion on the hill.

Bell, M. M. (1997) ‘The Ghosts of Place’, Theory and Society, 26, pp. 813–836.

Jackson, J. (1981). Fantasy: the Literature of Subversion. Methuen.

Klapcsik, S. (2012). Liminality in Fantastic Fiction: A Poststructuralist Approach. McFarland & Company.

Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local Government Chief Executives ’ Everyday Hauntings : Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.

Illustrations

Cruikshank, G. (1842) ‘The Dead Drummer’.  Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/dead-drummer/

Rodwell, I. (2016) St Mary’s Church, Tivetshall St Mary, Norfolk

Railway

The railway carriage is a liminal place. It represents both spatial and temporal transition. Within its utilitarian or luxurious confines (for it is a place that also likes to classify us), we are moved from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging space.  This in itself is problematic – as De Certeau observes there is both immobility inside and outside of the carriage. The fields, villages and towns have only ‘trompe-l’oeil movements…vision alone continually undoes and remakes the relationships between these fixed points.’ (De Certeau, p.112).

CarriageWe also progress in time, a movement governed by – or more accurately suggested by – timetables and schedules. Before 1840, such definitions of time were also inherently fluid. A journey was not just through time but between time with different towns deploying local systems of time. For the Victorians however, the modern railway carriage was, as John Bailey intriguingly explores, liminal in many other ways. If we peek through the smoke-smudged windows, we might discern a place of adventure, blurred identities, erotic escapade and transgression.

From one perspective, the carriage was a place of anxiety, discomfort and potential danger. There were no toilets, washrooms nor, in early carriages lacking corridors, an easy means of escape. Cardsharps, confidence men and tricksters (for where else does the phrase ‘taken for a ride come’?) were a recognised hazard. As Bailey observes, there was also a ‘persistent unease at confinement in the close presence of unknown others’ (p.6).  However, this close proximity might also dissolve reserve while mutual anonymity encouraged confidential disclosure and the relaxation of normal protocols.  The roles, identities and behaviours of everyday life could, for the duration of the journey, be altered or even abandoned.  This ambiguity is characterised by De Certeau as a ‘incarceration-vacation’ (De Certeau, p.114).

For Georges Simmel, modernity created the opportunity for ‘adventure’, an episode of heightened experience, informed by both risk and excitement and ‘torn-off’ from everyday life. But the railway carriage was not just a place of adventure, but also, as Bailey suggests, misadventure: in a society where gender relaxations were strictly governed, such an ‘enclosed space carried its own built-in erotic charge’ (Bailey, p.7).

Contemporary press reports revealed how first class carriages were much in demand by courting couples; popular song told of ‘tunnels so dusky’ where you can ‘kiss fondle and kiss with a double encore’; while musical halls echoed to Marie Lloyd’s rather less than innocent ‘She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’ (Bailey, p.9). Elsewhere, Ian Carter observes that ‘some ladies of the street had found that the seven-minute run [between Cannon Street and Charing Cross], provided ideal conditions for their activities at a rental that represented only a minute proportion of their income.’ (Carter, p.52).

Such transgression – albeit temporary – of the accepted social order is recognised by Turner who sees the liminal phase in tribal society as one where members of the community can ‘for a brief while have a whale of a good time being chaotic, in some saturnalian or lupercalian revelry…or institutionalised orgy’ (Turner, p.41).

And railway carriages generate other narratives of transgression. Narratives where morality and rationality are subverted. Carter identifies ‘the many hundred British crime novels and short stories’ with railway settings (Carter, p.46).  They also invite in that ultimate liminal character: the ghost.  A.M. Barrage’s The Green Bungalow, Steve Duffy’s Running Dogs and M.R. James’ A Warning to the Curious are just a few of the narratives that see the railway carriage as a haunted space – home to the dead but not dead; the there but not there.

And organisations too generate their own narratives of transgression. They rarely feature railway carriages but rather other liminal spaces: the Christmas party, the awayday or offsite, the business trip.  Here the physical space might be the office, a pub or hotel (identified by Pritchard and Morgan as a ‘place for transgressive behaviours’). We all, I suspect, have such stories.  In some, the mode is comic. Many years ago at the organisation I then worked for, the turgid annual address by the CEO at the Christmas Party was repeatedly and wittily heckled sotto voce by the office electrician  – in the character of trickster. In others, the mode is tragic.  I overheard such a story two days ago, ironically when returning from a conference on organisational storytelling.  The story was co-constructed by two, unseen travellers in the seats behind me and the plot a depressingly familiar one.  An office party, too much drink, unwanted sexual advances and a dismissal the following day. The characters too were familiar – the non-deserving victim, the villain, the supporter (the HR director perhaps?) (Gabriel, pp. 84-85).  Such stories suggest that while transgression brings creativity, release and the frisson of Simmel’s ‘adventure’, it also carries a darkling side of danger, anxiety and humiliation.

There is a final irony. For, as you have no doubt guessed, the place where I overheard this story was a railway carriage: the liminal space that is simultaneously narrative source, scene and progenitor.

Bailey, P. (2004), ‘Adventures in Space: Victorian Railway Erotics, or Taking Alienation For a Ride’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1), pp. 1-21.

Carter, I. (2002), ‘The Lady in the Trunk’, The Journal of Transport History, 23(1), pp. 46–59.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Gabriel, G. (2000), Storytelling in Organisations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies: Oxford University Press.

Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2006), ‘Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression’, Tourism Management, 27(5), pp. 762–772.

Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play: PAJ Publications.