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Ingold on Making – Agency and Animacy

Ingold Making CoverIn his latest collection of essays subtitled ‘Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture’ [1] Tim Ingold continues his interdisciplinary investigations into the messy world of making. Written in a typically lively, direct and highly accessible style, one of the strengths of Ingold’s approach is the intimate connection between philosophy and field work – you get the strong sense that even while he’s rebuilding a dry-stone wall or stooping over an archaeological dig, there is always a volume of Heidegger or Deleuze sticking out of his back pocket.

In this book he further reveals the underlying paradox of his attempts to build a new appreciation of the visceral materiality of objects around a philosophy of movement. Despite his emphasis on the ‘thingness of things’, Ingold also takes issue with the problematic idea of interaction as simply the collision between objects as pre-established entities. Instead he exhorts us to think of a world of things in motion, each with their own trajectories or tendencies–what he prefers to call ‘lines of flight’ – which interfere with the trajectories of the things they encounter. Echoing the complex bundles of technological actor-networks famously theorised by Bruno Latour among others, Ingold also highlights the evolutionary dimension of this co-implication of the human and the technical. One of his key studies in this book is of the emergence of the Palaeolithic hand-axe, the technical making of which he describes in loving detail, alongside a speculation on the origin of the form in the shape of the two hands cupped together. [2]

Another example of the intertwining – or ‘correspondence’ – of interacting lines of flight comes in his discussion of the side-by-side relationship of two people walking together. [3] He compares this with what he claims is the more confrontational mode of the face-to-face encounter – an interesting contrast to the position of previous philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber. Ingold suggests that the shared observation of places encountered by two people on a walk can serve to mediate the relation between the two participants and therefore create an increased sense of intimacy. This is also now becoming a recognised anthropological research method, a revealing way of interviewing informants where recollections and observations are prompted by the experience of visiting familiar places – echoing the ancient Roman mnemonic technique of mentally strolling through a ‘memory theatre’. [4]

One area where I take issue with the emphasis of Ingold’s position is in his discussion of the role of drawing within the process of design, particularly in relation to architecture. In Chapter 4, ‘On Building a House’ he seems to slip backwards into a form of dualism in his description of the architectural drawing as simply the representation of a preconceived idea. [5] Attentive historians of architectural drawing like Robin Evans have long emphasised the generative aspect of the process of ‘drawing out’, seeing drawing (Ital. Disegno) as a tool for exploration and discovery and not simply communication. [6] Ingold for the most part overlooks this function of drawing as a form of ‘cognitive scaffolding’, where the skilful deployment of geometrical equipment offers a way of uncovering and elaborating spatial possibilities too complex to be held in the head. As most designers are aware from the earliest stages of their training, drawing offers a material medium through which to project and test a range of (typically) vaguely conceived design ideas, without the cost and inconvenience of testing them at full-size.

In terms of a potential corrective to Ingold’s opposition between drawing and building, it is curious to note that his bibliography includes the work of Marco Frascari, although he makes no direct reference to it within the body of the text. [7] Frascari spent much of his career developing what could be called the ‘strong analogy’ between drawing and building, seeing both as practical operations mediated by the use of tools. In his essay from 1993 on “The Compass and the Crafty Art of Architecture”, [8] Frascari makes much of the practical process of geometric drawing as a technique for architectural thinking, playing on the etymology of ‘constructing and construing’ as a way of reinforcing this connection.

In the final chapter, “Drawing the Line”, Ingold himself tries to correct his previous omission, questioning his earlier caricature of the immaterial and conceptual nature of design as a ‘world apart from that in which real buildings are built and inhabited’. [9] This time he considers the work of artists who seem to be using drawing as a perceptual tool, or a ‘way of seeing’, and this leads to a much more nuanced and productive discussion of the cognitive dimension of the drawing process. He refers here to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, particularly his late essay Eye and Mind, although the notion of an intertwining of perception and expression is a theme that runs throughout the philosopher’s work. [10]

Overall this is, like Ingold’s previous books a highly enlightening and inspiring collection, and one that I would recommend to all thoughtful designers looking to better understand the mysterious forms of ‘agency and animacy’ at work in the material world. [11]


[1] T. Ingold, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture, Abingdon: Routledge, 2013.

[2] ibid., p. 43.

[3] ibid., pp. 105-108.

[4] F. Yates, The Art of Memory, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966.

[5] Ingold, 2013: p. 50.

[6] R. Evans, The Projective Cast: Architecture and its Three Geometries, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1995.

[7] M. Frascari, Monsters of Architecture: Anthropomorphism in Architectural Theory, Savage MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991.

[8] M. Frascari, ‘The Compass and the Crafty Art of Architecture’, Modulus No. 22, 1993.

[9] Ingold, 2013: p. 51.

[10] D. Landes, Merleau-Ponty and the Paradoxes of Expression, London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

[11] Ingold, 2013: pp. 100-102.

About bodyoftheory

Jonathan Hale is an architect and Professor of Architectural Theory at the Department of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Nottingham. Currently Head of the research group Architecture, Culture and Tectonics, within the Faculty of Engineering. Research interests include: architectural theory and criticism; phenomenology; the philosophy of technology; the relationship between architecture and the body; museums, exhibitions and digital technologies. Author of numerous articles and books and co-editor of Rethinking Technology: a Reader in Architectural Theory (Routledge, 2007). Founding Chair of the international subject group: Architectural Humanities Research Association (AHRA): http://www.ahra-architecture.org


4 thoughts on “Ingold on Making – Agency and Animacy

  1. I agree with your critique completely. For this reader, Ingold is a rather sloppy thinker, but one whose general project I would like to agree with, though never absolutely. I appreciate his pedagogical experiments and cross-disciplinary research, but he is no philosopher in my opinion. Among other problems, I find his frequently anti-intellectual and anti-academic rhetoric to be not only annoying and tangential, but unhelpful to his own inquiry. Worse (and perhaps related to these biases), is the fact that he continually exposes a naive dependence on making binary and arbitrary generalizations as if these are incontrovertible facts. He proceeds less through careful argumentation, demonstration and interpretation, than by making presumptuous and categorical dismissals. (It is also a bad sign that one of the most frequently cited authorities, is himself.) This is sad, because much of what Ingold advocates for in this book, with respect to the art of making, could have been articulated positively without the petty and divisive polemics. The book has much to contribute, but, as with any dogmatic text, readers should pay more attention to his positive motives, and his pedagogical experimentations, than to the many negative claims and stereotypes he makes along the way.

    Posted by Hopeful but Dissappointed | December 5, 2014, 7:29 pm
    • Thanks a lot for your thoughtful response – there’s certainly much more here than could reasonably be called a ‘comment’! I understand your issues with some of Ingold’s arguments in this book – and generally it seems that the more recent essays are less rigorous than the earlier collections, e.g. ‘The Perception of the Environment’. I also didn’t mention in my review another omission I found especially frustrating – his lack of sensitivity to the agency of air – hard to understand, especially since it’s recently been treated extensively by people like Jonathan Hill (in ‘Weather Architecture’) and Barbara Kenda in ‘Aeolian Winds..’.

      Posted by bodyoftheory | December 9, 2014, 7:04 pm
  2. Nice review. Tim gave an engaging lecture here in Edinburgh last week on the knot, which I think is the subject of his next book. I started to review it, but ended up distracted by my own preoccupations (which I think is allowed in a blog), and in a way Ingold’s reflections encourage that. Here’s a couple of URLs, though I don’t know if they appear active in a comments field. http://richardcoyne.com/2014/11/29/the-hook/ http://richardcoyne.com/2010/12/23/chasing-the-line/

    Posted by Richard Coyne | December 6, 2014, 5:11 pm

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