Down House sign

Many times I have written before that I want to write more. Life during and after a PhD can do things to one’s attitudes to writing and particularly public writing. Blogging is an excercise that requires practice. Blogging post-Facebook and post-Twitter is very different to what it was before them. A culture of constant surveilance is paradoxically entrenched in a hyper-competitive economy of attention in which people won’t click on your links even if you pay them to.

When people in a competitive culture realize that attention is a commodity, and that ‘sharing’ can be measured, those not keen to non-self-interested collaboration are likely to use lack of attention as a form of capital. I personally find it hilarious some people are so keen on paywalling their research in this climate, in which no one seems to care about what anyone else is doing. The selfie is the sign of the times after all. (Remember those years in which the main criticism of blogging was that it was all about narcissism? How little did we know of the joys of social media and “viral” selfies!).

Anyway I wanted to write this quick blog post about our visit last weekend to Down House. It was a gorgeous Spring day and that was perfect as the house has a lovely garden, and one can go walk along the beautiful Sandwalk, Darwin’s own “thinking path”. The web site in the previous link will give you a good idea of how awesome this place is and what an excellent job has English Heritage done to preserve it and keep it open to the public. It is more than worth the entry price and visiting it will be a great experience for adults and children alike. I took a lot of pictures but the ones on the Down House web site (and the 360 panoramics if you have the right software in your computer) will give you a very good idea of how gorgeous the place is.

I have been fascinated and intrigued by Darwin’s life and work since I was a kid.  (Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne‘s Darwin: A Graphic Biography is a lovely book that should get anyone who isn’t already into Darwin). Visiting Down House was a very good complement to the fragmented knowledge I had of Darwin’s life. Some bullet points of the ideas I took with me:

  • The vital importance of the work that English Heritage does in preserving England’s historical buildings and cultural memory, keeping them alive for the enjoyment of the community and visitors alike, turning an educational activity into one of leisure and enjoyment and vice versa
  • The beauty of the Kent countryside in Spring
  • Confirming that Darwin was born into social, economic and intellectual privilege, and that his name and fame are not independent from that of his ancestors, the same way some of his children’s academic careers cannot be disconnected from that of their father
  • Confirming that Darwin’s greatest achievement was a consequence of his leaving England and traveling on the Beagle
  • Confirming that intellectual/academic/scientific work cannot be disconnected from its social and material conditions of production
  • Confirming that Darwin couldn’t have possibly worked and published his theories had he suffered adverse material and social conditions
  • Discovering how much Darwin packed into his day, even when he was physically ill, performing lots of physical activities such as handwriting, working in his garden, doing his walk every day before lunchtime
  • Confirming he did not have to do the washing up and other domestic chores
  • Confirming that walking and exercising are important parts of the researcher’s day, providing time and space to think differently
  • Discovering the importance that the post had for Darwin’s work; he used written correspondence over the post the way some of us use email, blogs and social media to communicate with our colleagues
  • Confirming that in spite of the long itme he self-embargoed his Origin, Darwin did share a lot of information with others, via the post
  • Confirming that Darwin used librarianship and information science skills to do what he did; that collecting, cataloguing, classification and curating were essential parts of his research;
  • Confirming that taxonomies, schemes, metadata creation was a contribution to knowledge
  • Seeing with my very own eyes how beautiful and amazing his journal and notebooks were; that he wrote and drew, combining the written word with visual thinking
  • That his scientific publishing career was defined by the culture and conditions of his time, and also spurred by competition rather than collaboration
  • That there’s no such thing as total originality, and that scientific/academic success is not just about the ideas or the work (ask Wallace)
  • That research that does not get disseminated becomes forgotten and ignored, and that ideas that get widely disseminated do live a life of their own outside their original platforms/vehicles of dissemination
  • That “science”, in spite of its pretense of “objectivity”, is always-already the result of empyrical experience and the particular conditions/positioning of the subject that does the research
  • That gardens are a work of art and a source of scientific and literary/poetic inspiration and discovery

Visiting Down House definitely inspired me to try to keep on writing more, to keep using my notebooks and to keep doodling and sketching.

Ah, and we bought Ruth Patel’s Darwin: A life in Poems at the shop. Listening to a couple of the poems in the voice of the author in the audio guide along the Sandwalk was a moving experience, though one also felt the urge to remove the earphones to listen to the sounds of that beautiful English Spring day.