All Knees and Elbows of Susceptibility and Refusal (Iles and Roberts, 2012), Chapter 4: ‘Autodidacts’

Historical Geography Reading Group, 16/5/13

Session 8, Semester 2


Neil Gray introduced the above text to the reading group last week and in doing so immediately highlighted the relationship between the publication project and the chapter we considered. Neil was involved with publishing the book as part of The Strickland Distribution, an artist-run group supporting the development of independent research in art-related and non-institutional practices. He provided an introduction to the politics of publication outside the academy. The book itself provides a detailed insight into the different strands of the ‘history from below’ tradition and the reading group agreed that the text provided a unique and important intervention within the ongoing tradition. The text provides an excellent resource for anyone unfamiliar with the discussions of key contributors within the field.

The term autodidactic ‘is often used to describe the self taught person’ but what Iles and Roberts (2012:131) describe is how ‘working class people learned, wrote, and debated both alone and collectively’.  This collective sense of learning was discussed by the group in some depth and linked to our own individual research areas (including museum culture in Glasgow). The complex notion of ‘talking back’ to books introduced by Iles and Roberts also stressed the importance of individual and collective audience practices and the group considered this argument particularly useful.

1-introduction_121x185 (2)There was a large amount of discussion about style and forms of writing, with the chapter reflecting on the political act of pamphleteering and other forms of political writing. We agreed that the style and tone adopted by the authors of this text was entirely suitable for the project. The text utilises longer quotations and spends far less time signposting particular arguments (often associated with an academic writing style). This approach seemed to reflect the tradition which the book emerges from and the group enjoyed this less academic style, which did not deflect attention from the extensive research which involved in the book’s production. One concern voiced in the discussion was the problematic positioning of Thomas Spence and Thomas Wedderburn towards the end of the chapter. This section appeared to make a significance jump from the working class self-learning practices considered earlier in the chapter and also perhaps avoided some of the more problematic tensions within Wedderburn’s life. Neil did point out that there may have been an uneasy structural tension in the translation from pamphlet to book as some sections of the pamphlet were collapsed into single chapters in book form.

Overall though, the text provided an excellent insight into alternative forms of publication, dissemination and historical practices of self learning. The book itself is an excellent resource as it forms one of the few extant summaries of the broader history-from-below tradition. It also brought to an end the historical geography reading group for this year. Thanks to all who have attended and contributed over the last year and we look forward to seeing new members at the next session in September/October.

The book is available for purchase. Links and more details about the book can be found on the Strickland Distribution website:


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