There and back again – mental health and the cruel optimism of academia

Today is my last day at work. Well, that’s a lie, as I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, and am only getting round to posting it now. But by the time you’re reading this (if indeed anyone is), I’ll have handed back my keys to the office, shut down my monitor for the last time, and have said in a bit if not farewell to the amazing colleagues I’ve worked with for the past year. I’ve been working at an academic publisher, which while extremely challenging and sometimes difficult has been a very rewarding experience.

I leave to do something I swore around a year ago I would never do again – return to academia. In November 2017, and with what can only be described as a constellation of mental health problems to rival Ursa Major, I passed my viva. The stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and feelings of sheer worthlessness were pulsating like pulsars, spinning out beams of abrasive negativity into every waking moment of each day. My viva, although far from being a horrible experience when looked at in hindsight, only served to accelerate these beams of emotional daggers deeper into my psyche than they’d ever previously been.

Of course, my experience was not and is not unique. In fact, as the superb and brave writings of Laura Sefton (among others) gets so right, all of this is a natural product of academia as it exists as a system – academia, and particularly doing a PhD, actively germinates and creates mental health problems. So why, only 11 months after starting a permanent, full time job, am I going back?

I don’t know, really. It’s partly that the things I worried about the most – teaching, despite apparently being good at it, and my PhD – are both gone. The new role is purely research focused. But I guess it’s also because there is a cruel optimism, as Lauren Berlant so aptly puts it, to working in a university. Despite the precarity, the pressure, the poignant emotional toll of the whole system, it’s still a job that we love, are proud about, and that makes us feel like we are contributing to the world in some small way. Academia is world-leading, to use its own evaluatory language, at exploiting this cruel optimism and using it to keeping us on the hook. I leave my permanent full time job for a fixed term contract that has about a “50/50” chance of being extended past a few months. If it isn’t, it’s back into the job market whirlpool.

Another reason, though, is that universities are a reflection of wider society. While my old job has made me friendships that I will cherish, the work was hard, the pay derisory, and the responsibilities completely out of kilter with any possible upside. As I approached the Christmas of 2018, with the job security that I had always thought would start settling my demons down, their voices remained loud and clear in my head, whispering their snide, self-loathing thoughts into every synapse of my mind. A year on from my viva, I wasn’t really any ‘better’ than I had been the day before it, despite having escaped from the environment that I thought was the root cause of my feelings in the first place.

So the real reason is: why the hell not? If things aren’t better, what do I have to lose that hasn’t already been eroded by the grim grasp of my own thoughts? I guess the only change is that the pay will be better and the work more interesting. But I suppose what I’m really trying to say is it isn’t our universities or academia that causes our heads to explode. It’s the sum total of our immersion in society as a whole. It’s just about finding the chinks and, maybe, chasms of light that make the black sun bearable. Maybe, we can build a Dyson Sphere around the sun, sapping its power until all that’s left in its place is the cool, concentrated lump of diamond that is ourselves. I’m not hopeful, but maybe, just maybe.

The Flight Bag – my first, and possibly last, completed SF short story

This has been finished for ages, but I have never actually shared it. My first completed SF short story. I probably have a dozen or so that are abandoned somewhere around the halfway mark, but this is the first one I’ve seen through to completion.

When I started writing it in late 2014, which gives you an idea of how long it has taken to finish, I envisaged it as one of a series of stories focusing on an eccentric, arrogant, and brilliant engineer called Theodore, living on an unnamed and technologically advanced exoplanet. The series was going to chronicle his misdemeanours and mischief as he strutted about the universe, building machines and accidentally destroying stuff. Those with a keen eye will be able to see that he is fairly obviously modelled on Trurl and Klapaucius, Stanislaw Lem’s equally odd pair of engineers from some of his stories (evidently, my writing, and the potency of my imagination, are both worse than the master Lem’s by several orders of magnitude).

There was going to be a story about Theodore walking his dog, but his dog gets bored and upset, so Theodore builds a series of entertaining yet ever-more dangerous contraptions that eventually blow up the planet. There were going to be others. But the only one I ever began writing begins with Theodore, bored and irritated, in a spaceport. He is violated by spaceport security, and so dreams up a dastardly plan to exact his revenge. Part comedy, part semi-serious-but-not-very-hard-SF, it’s this one that I’ve finally got round to finishing.

You can download it by clicking this link >> The Flight Bag FINAL, if you like. Stand by for the second in the series of stories about Theodore. Estimated publication date: April 2026…

Towards translations of Ernst Kapp’s key works in geography and technology

Most of my blog posts are musing, repetitive affairs, but in this one I want to make a more scholarly case for something that I think is necessary, and which would be helpful for historical geographers, historians of geography and geopolitics, and related circles. Namely, I want to try and show why I would like to see the works of a German geographer, Ernst Kapp (1808-1896), translated from their original German into English. I’ve tried to link to openly available sources throughout, but some of them are behind paywalls. And as ever, this is far from a thorough, detailed story or explanation, but merely – and quite literally – my thoughts on a Monday lunchtime, during my first day back after Christmas…

Anyway. Kapp was a philosopher of technology and a geographer who was born in the Upper Franconian town of Ludwigstadt in Germany in 1808. He studied philology at the University of Bonn before completing a PhD in History on the role of the Athenian fleet in securing Athenian hegemony between 900BC and 400BC. After becoming Professor at Minden Gymnasium, he became fascinated by the new scientific approach to geography and – inspired by Hegel and the writings of eminent German geographer Ritter – subsequently published a number of books on geography and history, such as Leitfaden beim ersten Schulunterricht in der Geschichte und Geographie (‘Guidelines on First School Education in History and Geography’) in 1833 and Philosophische oder vergleichende Erdkunde (‘General and Philosophical Comparative Geography) in 1845. These works borrowed from and argued for Ritter’s organic conception of the state. As Frank Hartmann recalls, it “was especially Ritter who influenced Kapp to think of geography in a physiological way in which elements of the earth were considered to be like inter-related organs.” After becoming disillusioned with Prussia’s political repression, he emigrated to Texas in the United States, where he owned a farm and wrote in favour of the abolitionists during the American Civil War. He subsequently returned to Germany for a family visit in 1867 but became too unwell to make the return to the United States, and so settled down in Dusseldorf where he lived out the rest of his life. He continued writing, however, and in 1877 published what is now considered his magnum opus, Grundlinien einer Philosophie der Technik (‘Elements of a Philosophy of Technology’, a nod to Hegel) before his death in 1896.

To my knowledge, Kapp’s work is entirely untranslated into English. Furthermore, he is far more recognised in the field of the philosophy of technology than he is in geography, and is heralded by authors such as Carl Mitcham as the first authentic philosopher of technology (most of the biographical detail in the above paragraph is also from Mitcham). Today, his thought lives on mostly in the form of ‘extension theory’ in the philosophy of technology, which (broadly speaking) theorises technology as an extension, augmentation, and reproduction of human bodily capacities. In his 1877 book, Kapp defined technology as Organprojektion – as a direct prolongation and projection of human organs. He believed, moreover, that particular technologies were the projections of specific organs only and not in a more general sense. Thus the human hand was projected in a number of different ways – the cupped hands in which one held water was projected in the hollow coconut, the fists were projected in weapons such as the hammer, the bent finger was projected in the fishing hook, and the teeth were projected in the knife. Kapp’s notion of Organprojektion therefore referred to the externalisation of an interior, whereby the human body was protracted and given force unto the world in and through its projection by technology.

What was absolutely crucial, however, was that Kapp insisted technology was not a simple extension of human reason, intention, or judgement that worked in a kind of ‘one way street’ fashion. He proposed that Organprojektion was a recursive and co-constitutive process, and emphasised the active, agential role that technology played in the reproduction, transformation, and distortion of the figure of the human. Technology was not reduced to its utility value, but instead became “a fundamental functional element in the biological and cultural evolution of homo sapiens […] what is projected as an outside, the technological objects, gets confused with the very inside, the origin of projection, which is the body” – as Paul Väliaho nicely puts it. In other words, technology is as constitutive of the human as the human is constitutive of technology, to the point where upholding an ontological distinction between the two is entirely untenable. The evolution of humanity for Kapp is in fact a coevolution of humanity and technology; a constant process of recursive production and reproduction.   

I first became interested in Kapp because of my PhD thesis, which looks at the relationship between transcontinental railways and geopolitics in the rough period that Eric Hobsbawn described as the Age of Empire – 1875-1945. Kapp’s thought was appealing to me in a rather roundabout way. I was thinking with the German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s concept of circulation – which is distinct from while having similarities to the one offered by Foucault in his Security, Territory, Population lectures – as a way of conceptualising how transcontinental railway systems were connected to geopolitical imaginations of non-European continental space as inert, unconscious, and fundamentally entombed within nature. I won’t bore you with the details, but Schivelbusch pointed to how technological, social, and economic institutions and processes underwent a biologisation in the late nineteenth century, with railways in particular being referred to in terms of all manner of biological metaphors – the pathways of the human cardiovascular system’s veins and arteries; the structure of the musculoskeletal system such as the spine, ribs, and fingers; the sinews of the nervous system such as nerves; and finally different parts of plants and trees such as roots, trunk lines, offshoots, and branches. The biologisation of railway discourse was apparent before the invention of the railway itself, emerging after James Watt drew an analogy between steam power and horsepower in 1784. This inaugurated the notion that technological and mechanised power could and should be represented and discussed in terms of natural, biological energy, culminating in the symbolic description of the railway as an iron horse.

Schivelbusch proposed the concept of circulation as a kind of ‘catch-all’ term for these processes. He thought that the vitality of social, political, and economic institutions became connected to the existence of a functioning circulatory system of one kind or another, choosing this word circulation because it reflected both biological (cardiovascular) and technological (the movement of traffic on railways) imperatives. As the common rendering went, national railways thus circulated the ‘lifeblood’ – labour, resources, etc. – of the state. In a good example, Felix Konrad Jeschke, in a recently completed PhD at UCL, shows how railways were imagined as the veins and arteries that would transform the newly ordained Czechoslovakia from an artificial nation-state to an organic whole in the interwar years. Kapp was of interest to me here precisely because of his musings on railway technology in his 1877 book – in Chapter Seven he discussed railway networks as an extension and externalisation of the human circulatory system. “Like the organism,” Kapp proposed, “the steam engine circulates energy and needs ‘food’ in the form of coal in order to survive”. As the work of Schivelbusch, Jeschke, and indeed my own PhD demonstrates, Kapp was no means alone in using such language, but he was novel in that he proposed all of this as an ontology of technology, rather than just an appropriate analogy, metaphor, or comparison that could be made.

I have probably by now begun to bore you with details, so suffice to say that by placing Kapp alongside Schivelbusch – Schivelkapp, as I affectionately dubbed them – I was able to think more clearly about the relations between railways, technology, and geopolitics around the end of the nineteenth century through the concept of circulation. But as I have mentioned, none of Kapp’s work – not even the 1877 so-called magnum opus – has been translated into English. This meant I had to rely on the voluminous secondary literature in the philosophy of technology to piece together Kapp’s thinking on technology for myself (I was aided, it should be noted, by an endlessly kind and patient German colleague with some of the passages from Kapp’s book itself). But it was this voluminous secondary literature on Kapp’s theories of technology that got me thinking. Why was it that there was a huge (Anglophone) literature on Organprojektion, but barely a mention in (Anglophone) geography of Kapp or his work? Perhaps his geography was rubbish, and perhaps this is why he shifted towards writing about technology. But it was clear to me that his thinking on technology was clearly influenced by geographers such as Ritter – Organprojektion is surely wedded to Ritter’s thinking about organic cultures in some indiscernible way. Given that my PhD was on railways, not Kapp or lineages of the German geographical tradition, I didn’t dwell much on this.

But recent work has surely disembowelled the idea that Kapp’s geography is unrecognised because it is insignificant or rubbish. Most prominently, much recent scholarship has connected Carl Schmitt’s provocative political thought to Kapp’s thinking on geography and technology, following Schmitt’s own discussion of Kapp in his book Land and Sea. For example, in a paper by Peter Murphy on Carl Schmitt’s thought on land and sea power, it is noted that Schmitt’s “model of world-historical epochs is borrowed from Ernst Kapp”. Not only this, it is suggested that Schmitt also borrowed from Kapp’s thinking on technology to explain the difference between (English) sea power and (German) continental land power, and the replacement of the latter by the former in a way we still associate most prominently with the British geographer Halford J. Mackinder. This is surely of relevance, given the recent upswell of interest in Schmitt in critical human geography, historical geography, and beyond. Giorgi Tavadze also notes this intersection, noting how Kapp’s apparent description of Venice as a ‘lagoon-state’ and his analysis of the sea as a ‘great liberator of humans’ foreshadows (at minimum) Schmitt’s work on land and sea. Kapp is also mentioned in similar ways in Michael Heffernan’s chapter in the book Spatiality, Sovereignty and Carl Schmitt: Geographies of the Nomos and in William Hooker’s Carl Schmitt’s International Thought: Order and Orientation. In a slightly different register, Dean Bond – in an article on Hegel’s geographical thought – postulates that a study of the links between Hegel and Ritter could also consider Kapp, and the ways in which Kapp took forward and developed the ideas of each in his own geographical work.

I am no expert in any of this, and my interest in Kapp was entirely accidental. However, my frustration, more than anything (and this speaks to an inherent Anglocentrism that I recognise and acknowledge), is that I am not able to read Kapp on his own terms, and must therefore rely on the secondary literature to understand Organprojektion and the snippets of work mentioned above to begin to make sense of what his geography was. However, it seems clear to me that any analysis of the ‘German geographical tradition’ (if we may call it that), or more narrowly of Carl Schmitt’s (geo?)political thought, that does not properly consider Kapp will be impoverished. Off the top of my geopolitics-inflected head, the German geographical tradition sort of runs through Hegel to von Humboldt and Ritter to Ratzel to Haushofer and Schmitt, and it would appear that Kapp is a link of sorts that was important to the development and shaping of this tradition.

It is for this reason I’d like to see his Philosophical Geography translated or at least some more detailed work done on it, as well as his foundational work on technology. I can also imagine An Historical Geography of Ernst Kapp as a brilliant PhD thesis that could and should be written, and which would be an excellent and worthwhile contribution to the history and historiography of German geographical and geopolitical thought. This might contain a proper and thorough analysis of Kapp’s oeuvre; a review and evaluation of German scholarship on Kapp for an Anglophone audience; placing him within, and comparing him to, the thinking of Ritter, Hegel, Schmitt, and others; a consideration of how place and power (his formative years at Minden, his feelings on Prussia, and perhaps particularly Kapp’s time in the United States, which is sometimes flagged as being transformative for him) shaped his geographical thinking; and finally a thorough excavation of the relation between Kapp’s thought on geography and technology. Alas, if I could speak and read German, it might be something I’d want to do myself.

However, given that I’ve tried and failed at learning German twice, I’d just like to be able to read him. So in the exceedingly unlikely event that any translators, geographers, publishers, etc. are reading this, go on, do it. I promise I’ll buy two copies of everything, one to keep, and one to scribble all over.

On reading things twice, thrice, and again

When I used to write about and review music LPs, I had a principle that I followed. Firstly, I would listen through the LP in full without a pen or paper next to me, just trying to absorb and get an initial handle on what it sounded like and what I thought of it overall. Secondly, I would listen through again with a pen and paper next to me, making notes, jotting down thoughts, scribbling ideas or random brainfarts about individual tracks. Only when I’d done that would I start listening to individual tunes out of their natural order and start thinking about how I was going to draft and structure the review. It would take two full listens, in other words, one attentive and thoughtful, the second attentive and thoughtful plus a pen, to properly get into it. This is something we also do with films – I like ‘The Last Jedi’, for example, but like its predecessor ‘The Force Awakens’ I want to see it again to clock what I inevitably missed first time round, and to see if my opinion changes or matures. I still think with music, the more you listen to a tune the more you notice going on – a subtle hi-hat there, a sneaky bit of FX there, a teeny-tiny sample that you didn’t notice for ages but, now you have, can’t stop hearing it.

But, this is something that I don’t do much with books, especially difficult, philosophical books, sometimes written by Great Thinkers (I use the term sardonically, of course). For long and difficult books getting through them even once has always been an achievement. There are few of these kinds of books that I find myself turning to again and again – Gerard Toal’s Critical Geopolitics being one. Every time I return to it new ideas seep off every page, and every time I start thinking if there’s actually anything to these new fanciful materialist approaches to geopolitics I read a couple of its chapters to put myself right. But Toal’s book is one of the exceptions that prove the general rule. If they aren’t existentially relevant for what I’m working on at any given moment, I’ll finish books and then seldom return to them a second time. Instead I’ll rely on the notes and impressions I garnered first time round, and use these to refresh my memory if I need to. Rarely will I return to the original text, and most of the time this will just be to re-read a couple of key chapters or even pages to make sure my own interpretation or understanding is credible. This was especially true in the latter stages of my PhD, when time felt like it was disappearing through a plughole at faster than light speeds.

Something has been happening recently that has made me change my mind, and remember that books, of course, are like LPs and films – they reward repeat readings. Especially books written by Great Thinkers. Late-ish in my PhD, I read Michel Foucault’s 2007 Security, Territory, Population lectures. I did this because the word circulation had become a crucial concept in my own thesis, but one that I’d developed in dialogue with two different German thinkers: the philosopher Ernst Kapp, whose seminal works of geography and philosophy badly need translating into English; and the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch, who wrote what is still the best cultural history of railways. Schivelkapp, as I came to colloquially term them, helped me connect railways to the naturalised geopolitics of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – I won’t bore you with the details – through Schivelbusch’s concept of circulation. But I was of course aware that circulation is a term that has become enormously influential in some sections of the humanities and social sciences, especially in interdisciplinary considerations of the links between security, territory, and mobility, because of Foucault’s usage of it in STP.

So in I went. In the main, there was little that changed how I wanted to use circulation in relation to my thesis. But I found myself reeling at the sheer complexity of it all. The ‘Great’ in Great Thinkers inevitably means hideously complicated, detailed, and quite roundabout. But over the last couple of weeks I’ve went back to it for a second time and found it incredible. This is surely because I’m now reading it for no other reason than to read it, while previously I was reading it with more than half an eye on my own thesis, anxious that a Foucauldian definition of circulation would completely disembowel the one that I had been tentatively working with through Schivelkapp. But it’s the same as when you listen to an LP or a film for a second time. You notice things – little subtleties, deft touches, moments of unparalleled incisiveness, turns of phrase that are so revealing as to be bordering on poetic – that completely passed you by the first time you read it. I am only about halfway through so far (I’m reading a lecture a day either in the morning or last thing before bed), and the argument Foucault is making is locking together like the first patch of a 10000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The only reason I can sense it locking together, however, is because I know vaguely what the jigsaw is meant to look like once finished – having read it before, I’m reading it differently now.

There is a lot to be said for this, and it goes without saying that it is good academic practice to read things once quickly, and then second in a lot more depth – it’s the transition from surface reading to deep and critical reading that we teach first year undergraduates, for heaven’s sake. But it’s one of the many things that (at least the latter stages of) the PhD don’t allow for. Now I’m finished I can start doing it again, but at any point from the beginning of my second year it was next to impossible. So if you, dear reader, are in the first year of your PhD – my advice is this. Read books, especially ones you think might be important to your work, twice, thrice, multiple times. Ingest and absorb them. Look for the little subtleties and intricacies that will leap off the page in a way they didn’t do first time. Not only will it deepen and broaden your understanding of other people’s work, there’s something that fundamentally feels good and making these kinds of realisations. It’s like when you listen to Burial’s second LP for what feels like the fifteenth time, wondering what all the fuss is about, and then all of a sudden the magic just hits you.

And that hit, that moment of revelatory realisation, is what reading, listening, watching, is ultimately all about.

Joseph Barker in Whitehaven

I’ve posted before about Joseph Barker, an extraordinary figure who, in the nineteenth century, journeyed from Methodism to Unitarianism to pure unbelief and then back to Methodism again, and who spent time between Newcastle, Blyth, and Gateshead in the early 1830s and early 1840s. My interest in Barker is twofold – firstly because of his incredible (but brief, if must be noted) commitment to Christian anarchism, a commitment that inspired and was inspired by the writings and lectures of William Lloyd Garrison and Henry C. Wright. Secondly and relatedly, because his anarchism and Unitarianism flourished while he was in Newcastle. I’m therefore, from a more local history perspective, interested in what following his life can say about the relations between anarchism, Unitarianism, place, and the peace movement in Newcastle.

And so, I this morning find myself reading a short publication by Barker from around 1846, in which he recounted a trip he took to Ireland. Before he went to Ireland, however, he first went to Whitehaven, where he was due to set sail from. We know from Timothy Larsen’s excellent work on Barker that he was somewhat exuberant, arrogant, and most of all confident – and that these qualities were consistent across his otherwise most inconsistent life and work. Barker’s publication and his account of his brief stay in Whitehaven is yet more evidence of this. Barker recounts how he had planned to visit a Methodist church (presumably to cause mischief, given he was firmly a Unitarian by this point), but was distracted by a preacher on Whitehaven pier. Stopping and listening, Barker realised that the preacher was unacceptably distorting the true (i.e. Barker’s) understanding of Christianity. So, when the preacher finished, Barker asked if he might say a few words in response:

“After stating that I agreed with the preacher as to the necessity of being religious and the like, I proceeded to notice his errors as to the nature of religion and the way of salvation. […] These and other matters I explained at some length, refuting prevailing errors as I passed along, and concluded by exhorting my hearers to embrace this plain and simple religion, and to begin to live to God without delay.”

After this, Barker says, a discussion followed, in which the original preacher was joined by a chap called Burns. Barker notes that the discussion lasted until about eleven o’clock (am or pm he does not say), and although some there agreed with him, “others were violent, and wished to have me thrown down from the pier.” Not only this, Burns was also “violent and very unreasonable” – presumably also wishing for Barker to be thrown headfirst towards the Isle of Man. “It seemed in vain to reason with such a person”, reflects Barker, a sentence which probably summarises how he felt towards most of the people he debated throughout his extraordinary life.

Barker left for Belfast the next day, leaving behind him yet another town rocked by his irresistible personality and debating skill. Although Larsen and others have written about certain aspects of Barker’s life, theology, and pacifism, there is an excellent biography to be surely written here in the future.

One week, eight letters

It’s been one of those weeks. No, not one of those weeks, one of those weeks. I had planned to write some kind of reflection on my viva, which was on Monday 27th November, but in hindsight I’m probably going to need a bit more distance from it before I can write anything remotely approaching meaningful or insightful. Enough to say that it was tough, tougher than I expected, but that I passed, with some small changes to make over the next couple of months. Apparently this means I can now prefix my name with Dr, or alternatively suffix it with the letters P and h and D. Probably not both though – it’s one or the other. Decisions.

As if this wasn’t enough, I had word yesterday that my application (which I’d honestly forgotten all about) to the Higher Education Academy for recognition has been accepted, and that I’m to all intents and purposes now an Associate Fellow of the same. This means I can also suffix my name with the letters A and F and H and E and A.

One week, eight letters. It could have been worse. Now to get the final couple of weeks of term done, and then I’m going to spend a week without any phone signal in a log cabin somewhere in Western Scotland. Can’t bloody wait.