Applied Epistemology, psychogeography and the ‘History of Britain Revealed’

I’m 75 pages into M.J. Harper’s brilliant ‘The History of Britain Revealed’, I’m not after a round of applause for that because it’s a right page turner – I’ve got there after about 36 hours (take into account sleep and parenting). Riveting to me because it affirms a lot of the ideas I have previously passed off under the guise of comedy and/or psychogeography.

Harper practices Applied Epistemology, loosely defined as the study of knowledge and how it is acquired and processed, but he comes up with the idea that when looking at history for example, and in the case of his book, the history of the English language, Applied Epistemology would say that “what is, is what was – unless there is bonechilling evidence to the contrary” (MS spellcheck has just flipped out over that sentence – ha!). At this point I could go off on a splenetic diversion about how this is backed up by trying to teach English grammar to foreign language students using the grammatical system imposed by a classically educated elite who were quietly embarrassed about the English language essentially being a brilliant street language (hence its conquering of the world – little publicised fact is that many pan-European companies and organisations that have little contact with native English speaking countries are still adopting English as their working language as it is the most easily transferable and flexible).

But where it resonates most strongly with me is the interface with what we call psychogeography – at best a fraught term. The reason there is such variance in definitions is that we use it to plug gaps in other disciplines where they are deficient. The reason it has persisted though is because of MJ Harper’s maxim of “what is is what was …”, so when we see fragments of footpath that link up across an industrial estate leading to an iron-age earthwork we conclude that here lies an ancient trackway. The archaeologists howl of course because for them there is no evidence, whereas for the psychogeographer the evidence is beneath your feet and in the experience of walking a way mapped out millennia before. When we aim to chart the experience of the landscape we record the present as it is experienced and work backwards from this using what resources we can get our grubby little mits on. But like Harper we are always at odds with an inflexible, philistine paradigm that will not budge unless kicked bloody hard. Incidentally, I love the way Harper speaks not in terms of paradigm shifts but paradigm cracks.

Buy the book or not, but never accept the word of the self-professed experts glibly writing off ideas that lie beyond their frame of reference.


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