UCL News


'Just Enough: Sufficiency and the Cultural Imagination'

11 December 2009

A symposium held at UCL on 4 December aimed to examine how different cultures and contexts have characterised and fleshed out the idea of 'enough'.

Just enough

Symposium Convenor Matthew Ingleby (UCL English) reports on the event below.

It was perhaps an auspicious time to convene a symposium for academics and non-academics to explore one aspect of the cultural and historical dimensions of consumption and sustainability, the idea of 'enough'.

In the brief, uneasy gap between UEA-gate - which subjected climate-scientists to a great deal of hostility and scepticism from the press - and Copenhagen 2009, there emerged in public discourse not a few voices venturing that the green movement, in its dominant strategies of public engagement through fact-dissemination, might have been itself as responsible for the way the media played (or overplayed) that story of 'fact-cooking' as the blood-baying climate-change deniers themselves.

For many years the environmental lobby has increasingly fixed its hopes of changing individual behaviour and socio-economic policy on getting its scientific facts straight and presenting them as memorably and movingly as possible. But what if getting the facts ever straighter and ever more digestible could never have been a successful way of reversing post-industrial consumption patterns and the resultant incipient environmental disaster? What if facts are only ever capable of being assimilated into the common sense thought-world which informs our everyday consumption behaviour through the prolonged mediation of language and culture? If the longstanding need of the green movement to engage more with culture and culturalist modes of understanding human behaviour was illuminated by the fragility which the movement revealed in UEA-gate, it was a stroke of luck for the 'Just Enough' symposium to be scheduled to coincide with this moment, lending it an air of topicality.

On December 4th, in the Chadwick Lecture Theatre, a number of Humanities and Social Science academics gathered together to attend to 'enough', which emerged throughout the day as a complex and crucial idea, whose roles and resonances have varied in different cultures and periods, and whose meaning today is not as obvious as its casual usage would imply. Speakers from UCL as well as other institutions shared panels in front of a diverse, well-informed audience, composed of UCL members from a variety of faculties, as well several people from external institutions, academic and non-academic.

The speakers themselves represented a range of disciplines: a critical mass from the English department, who co-hosted the event with Sustainable Cities, were joined by representatives of Philosophy, Anthropology and Architectural History. They all presented short papers and then rubbed heads together to reveal points of convergence and difference in relation to the concept and representation of 'sufficiency', and responded to a series of very pertinent questions from the floor.

As Dr Kathryn Allan (UCL English) demonstrated, from the perspective of lexical-semantics, the word 'enough' itself is slippery. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon, it is categorised in different current or recent dictionaries in a whole variety of ways, and implies in its usage sometimes the sense of too little as well as too much. In the next few papers that followed, the cultural place of 'sufficiency' as it changed through the centuries was fleshed out, by Dr Hannah Skoda (History, University of Oxford), who discussed the idea of equilibrium and how it became challenged through transitions in the medieval economy; Dr Eric Langley (UCL English), who found in the early Modern period a culture obsessed with the idea of excess and its relationship to sufficiency, linking the rhetorical superfluity of 'copia' with anxieties about consumption and desire; and Dr Paul Davis (UCL English), who continued this narrative into the seventeenth century, with a focus on the work of John Milton, dwelling on an unresolved ambivalence in his poetry about the idea of 'enough-ness', whereby his religious tendency towards temperance was itself tempered by his attraction to stylistic extravagance.

These questions of style in relation to 'enough' found parallels in the next two papers. Hope Wolf (English, King's College London) discussed writings that emerged from the excessive totality of the Great War, finding in them a persistent query as to whether there can ever be enough remembrance, enough mourning, to atone for such a catastrophe; Dr Ben Campkin (UCL Bartlett) discussed a recent trend in architectural design, the 'frugal pastoral', in which the aesthetics of sufficiency and recycling have been appropriated to become the latest fashion in urban living.

In the last panel, Professor Rachel Bowlby (UCL English) explored aspects of modern consumer culture, and examined the phenomenon by which the consumer can be driven to shop excessively by being rewarded with a sense of pleasure associated with saving - paradoxically in the act of spending - through such modern devices as BOGOF. Dr Jerome Lewis (UCL Anthropology) made a radical case for the cultural specificity of our relationship with the material world, arguing that in comparison to egalitarian hunter-gatherer tribes in Central Africa whose material practices work to maintain the abundance of the natural world, we have an ecologically unsustainable attitude which treats resources as always scarce and needing to be chased. Finally, Dr James Wilson (UCL Philosophy), discussed the philosophy of 'enough', tracing concerns about consumption and sufficiency from Socrates through to Adam Smith.

In the evening, we moved to the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, where academics that had spoken on panels in the day listened to short talks about 'enough' in our current culture, by non-academics who currently work in the field of sustainability communication. Nicola Baird, an environmental journalist, Saamah Abdallah, a researcher at the New Economics Foundation, and Danny Chivers, an activist slam poet, all spoke about the way in which we need to retreat from our current consumption patterns, and make do with less, in order both to save the planet, and to attain a sense of wellbeing individually.

A lively set of questions and points from the floor completed the evening's discussion, some being directed to the panellists, and others arising from the academic context of the day's symposium. We all then retired, academics and non-academics alike, to much-need refreshments in the Jeremy Bentham Room, and continued to explore, more informally, ideas that had emerged in the day and evening.

Image (from left to right): Dr Hannah Skoda; Dr Eric Langley; Dr Kathryn Allan