Johns Hopkins University Press

Grounded in the material and historical specificity of the Durham Coalfield, this essay engages two unlikely modes of field theory: the vein of radical poetry associated with the “open field” in the 1970s, and the parallel resurgence of a vernacular Marxism committed to reorienting the critique of capital “from below.” Tracing the intersection of open field poetics and partisan knowledge through Barry MacSweeney’s Black Torch (1978) and Bill Griffiths’s Coal (1990–91) as practices that come to militate against dominant methods of reading or rendering the coalfield, field theory is recast against a critical terrain of struggle over labor, energy, and infrastructure in the twentieth century.

Two years ago, following a sustained campaign of protests and blockades, the last remaining opencast mine on the Durham Coalfield was decommissioned. Now cast into relief as a “terminal landscape” of hydrocarbon dependency by the chiaroscuro of climate collapse and energy crisis (Diamanti 10), this finite field of geophysical resource is a decisive historical terrain across which the parameters of our present calamity were contested. Unearthing upwards of fifty-six million tons per year at the peak of production, the coalfield was among the first sites of industrial coal extraction and continued to operate as the epicenter of the fossil economy in Britain until the late 1970s, when oil began to flow from Forties Field and pit closures accelerated under Thatcher’s administration. Extending more than six miles under the North Sea, seams of lignite and bituminous coal stretched southeast along the Tyne past Newcastle to ports in Seaham and South Shields, embedded in a dense latticework of inland waterways and offshore supply lines. Situated here, in intimate relation to expanding centres of domestic production and an ever-extending contrapuntal cartography of colonial resource dispossession, the demands of industrial capitalism took the coalfield as geophysical grounds for the labor-intensive and unevenly distributed transition toward fossil-fueled accumulation.

Fig. 1. T.Y. Hall, Map of the Great Northern Coalfield. 1854, courtesy of The Common Room.
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Fig. 1.

T.Y. Hall, Map of the Great Northern Coalfield. 1854, courtesy of The Common Room.

Circulated in 1854 to evidence the region’s energy density, T.Y. Hall’s Map of the Great Northern Coalfield reflects the work of surveying carbon-rich deposits sunk within the sediment as a matter of rendering the cross-hatching of coal seams, transport routes, and labor reserves legible to capital as an abstracted “field” of energy resource. As Cara New Daggett’s The Birth of Energy (2019) demonstrates, the concept of abstract “energy” in thermodynamic theory had “arrived on the scene in the 1840s,” at the exact moment in which “coal-fed steam engines were multiplying, remaking landscapes, labor, cities, and imperial processes” (33). In lockstep with the rapid refinement of this combustive and extractive apparatus, the mid-nineteenth century also saw the institutionalization of geologic, geographic, and anthropological fields into disciplinary coordinates through which fieldwork became a testing ground for the theoretical tenets of research conducted, like Hall’s cartographic perspective, “from above” (Gómez-Barris 8).

In drawing this specific field into focus, however, I am preoccupied with unpacking the specific nexus of work, energy, and theory that materializes across a decade of labor struggles on the coalfield between 1972 and 1984. Taking up the critical orientations and commitments of field theory in this context, I engage two modalities of countermapping that rarely come into contact: the vein of radical poetry associated with the “open field” (Olson 1950; Mottram, “Open” 1977) in the 1970s and the parallel resurgence of militant research committed to reorienting the critique of capital “from below” (Thompson 1966). If this cluster of essays asks us to read the field as both the object and the ground of theory, then the cycle of struggles over energy extraction and distribution that followed the miners’ strikes and petroleum crises of 1972–74 recasts this field not only as the terminal limit of an industrial-era coal regime but also, to resuscitate an idiom of that period, a critical terrain of struggle. What follows, then, is an attempt to trace interlocking practices of open-field poetry and partisan knowledge that come to militate against fossil capital’s dominant modalities of reading and rendering the field.

No Energy Compromise

If the fight against fossil energy now demarcates this open-cast mine as a frontline of decarbonization, the Durham Coalfield was equally central to social and energetic transitions through which the political antagonisms of coal-fueled industrialization gave way, over a decade of fuel shortages and strikes, to our current petrocultural impasse. For Marxist literary theory, 1973 appears as a juncture time-stamped by petroleum dependency, logistical expansion, and spiraling financialization, demanding, as Fredric Jameson writes in 1984, “an aesthetic of cognitive mapping” (89). More recently, Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (2011) has traced the contemporaneous dismantling of “rigid regional energy networks carrying coal” and expansion of “transoceanic energy grids” (153) for the circulation of oil as an uneven transition between fuel regimes and their attendant political machineries. While these correlative propositions have emerged as theoretical coordinates for mapping transition in the energy humanities,1 this article is an exercise in “grounding” the spatial metaphor of mapping in the specificity of a material field (Smith and Katz 78). In tracing how these social, metabolic, and macroeconomic shifts both contoured with, and were contoured by, escalating struggles over coal, I look to two poets whose work interrogates the limits of aesthetics in this cartographic mode by staging an encounter between open-field poetics and partisan research on the Durham Coalfield.

In the work of Barry MacSweeney and Bill Griffiths, poetry stitches together discrete forms of inquiry—archival fragments, oral history, and fieldwork—to map this site of contestation over labor power, fossil fuels, and workers’ control. Written during the calamitous National Union of Miners (NUM) strike of 1984–85, Griffiths’s “In the Coal Year” (1992) offers a concise index of the collective tactics by which mechanisms of coal extraction and capillaries of energy circulation were brought to a halt:

Work is blockaded from the mines,coal is blockaded from the steel-worx,the coal-trains are halted as they go,the lorries are fired in the haulage yards,they sit in the pits, block the bridges and towns with carsand the centres of the dominion are ringed round,occupied


This strategy of blockading work from the coalfield—a “dominion,” here, in the sense of both material territory and contested sovereignty—appeared in 1984 as the culmination of tactics first developed in the nineteenth century, when the combination of fossil energy and labor power afforded unprecedented openings for the exercise of workers’ control. As Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy contends, “coordinated acts of interrupting, slowing down or diverting” the movement of energy had “created a decisive political machinery, a new form of collective capability built out of coalmines, railways, power stations, and their operators” (27). If the emergence of fossil capital had locked together multiple valences of power—at once “a current of energy, a measure of work,” and “a structure of domination” (Malm 17–18)—Griffiths’s tactical cartography reveals the inverted affordances of mining infrastructure as a mode of counterpower manifest through strikes, slowdowns, and sabotage.

In the wake of drastically effective NUM strikes in 1972 and 1974, Barry MacSweeney’s collection Black Torch (1978) adopts strategies from a long durée of coal disputes stretching back to the Durham miners’ lockout of 1844. If, as Mitchell demonstrates, “the socio-technical worlds built with the vast new energy from coal” (Carbon 8) were uniquely vulnerable to such disruptions, the simultaneous blockage of fuel and labor described by Griffiths’s “In the Coal Year” appears throughout Black Torch as a trenchant refusal of this work-energy nexus:

no energy compromise

smoke LOCK-OUT tobacco untildeath of energycircled in your selves


Setting the strikes of the twentieth century against this historical convergence of fossil energy, labor power, and refusal in the nineteenth century, Black Torch casts the Durham Coalfield as a terrain on which this energy regime and its political formations would both originate and terminate. In the decade between the success and failure of NUM actions depicted by Griffiths and MacSweeney, the attenuation and decomposition of organized labor that attended the transition from coal to oil had become ever more apparent. This article traces how these writers take up the formal methodologies of open-field poetics and workers’ inquiry to map these shifts across the 1970s. To this end, it casts parallel genealogies of “partisan research” (Woodcock 506) and “composition by field” (Olson 239) against the critical orientations that have shaped this issue before returning to MacSweeney’s Black Torch and Griffiths’s pamphlet series Coal (1990–91) to situate poetic inquiry against the coalfield and its discontents. This fulcrum of poetics, praxis, and situated inquiry, I argue, poses formative questions for field theory. What does it mean to take “the field” as both the grounds of site-specific composition and a material terrain of struggle? And what might it mean to reframe research militancy as theory grounded in the field?

Partisan Perspectives, Open-Plan Fieldwork

To read the field as a terrain is to cast this issue’s claim that the practice of theory is materially shaped by its milieu against Mario Tronti’s insistence, in his 1966 Workers and Capital, that knowledge is fundamentally tied to struggle. Taking the tools of workers’ inquiry and the demands of workers’ control as its grounding principles, Operaismo—or “workerism”—sought to radically reorient Marxist theory from “the point of view of partisan collectivity on and against this world” (Roggero). This “shift in perspective,” Matteo Polleri insists, had pivoted on “the role of the field inquiry (enquête de terrain)” as the foundation for “a subterranean current of critical and materialist thought” (441). While the early field inquiries [inchiesta] conducted with workers by Romano Alquati and Raniero Panzieri were situated in the factory, Marxist-feminist and post-workerist inquiries have stretched these methods to the “social factory” of social reproduction (Dalla Costa and James 22) and the so-called hidden factory of logistical circulation (Bologna). Nonetheless, the effort to map these shifting terrains from an “irreducibly partial point of view” (Roggeri) has remained grounded by the epistemic promise of Tronti’s “partisan perspective” (Farris 29).

If this subterranean materialism offers an unlikely correlative to the “partial perspective” (Haraway 584) that has come to orient the critical lexicon of fieldwork, field philosophy, or field theory (see Diamanti, this issue), its claim to partisan knowledge offers a similarly situated research practice. Critiquing the sociological “view from nowhere” as a form of bourgeois “objectivity” (Farris 29), Tronti’s partisan perspective anticipates Donna Haraway’s distinction between the “objectified fields” produced by research “from above, from nowhere,” and the “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating” from beneath (589).2 In Fieldwork for Future Ecologies, editors Bridget Crone, Sam Nightingale, and Polly Stanton turn to Gayatri Spivak’s concept of “open-plan fieldwork” to describe field practice as theory “situated within material conditions, material processes and their urgencies such that it cannot be presumed in advance” (9). To unpack the critical inheritances of field theory, then, is to recognize the extent to which the current uptake of fieldwork finds its origins in a Marxian tradition of “practical philosophy” and materialist critique conducted “from below” (Spivak 36).

Where open-plan fieldwork reverses the teleology according to which preformed tenets are tested against the field, workers’ inquiry might be understood as a comparable reorientation of Marxist theory. Tracking backwards from the Operaist practice of conricerca, or “co-research” (Alquati 472), Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi trace the genealogy of research militancy to a questionnaire circulated by Marx in La Revue Socialiste in 1880, titled “A Workers’ Inquiry.” Departing from his prior dependence on factory inspectors’ reports, Haider and Mohandesi argue that Marx’s questionnaire constituted a radical departure from inquiries which “treated workers as mere objects of study,” instead adopting vernacular knowledge of the social and technical organization of production as “groundwork for collective action.” Where field theory turns the object of study into the milieu of research—reversing ground and figure—workers’ inquiry marks a similar reorientation toward lived terrains of struggle. “With this brief intervention,” Haider and Mohandesi insist, “Marx established a fundamental epistemological challenge.” For Crone, Nightingale, and Stanton, “fieldworking” names “a process . . . grounded in and shaped by the site or situation” (8). Strikingly, we find this same insistence on the inseparability of theory from practice animating Tronti’s Workers and Capital, in which Marxism is “theory which lives only in a function of the working class’s revolutionary practice, one that provides weapons for its struggle, develops tools for its knowledge,” and magnifies “the working-class point of view” (xv).

Open Terrain

Addressing the Marx Centenary Symposium in 1983, Stuart Hall offered an account of theoretical shifts that had taken place in the previous decade, spurred by the demands of ongoing struggles for women’s liberation, decolonization, and the disarticulation of materialism from Soviet orthodoxy. Where Tronti’s Workers and Capital had announced its departure from the “fossilized forest of vulgar Marxism” (xx), for Hall the “fabric of historical materialism” was its capacity to “ground” theory in these shifting terrains (39). If materialism had hitherto operated “on a closed terrain”—circumscribed by its adherence to theoretical principles—then the only Marx worth taking forward was “the Marx who is interested in thinking and in struggling on an open terrain” (43). Hall had spent the 1970s in proximity to the History Workshop, which counted Raphael Samuel, Sheila Rowbotham, and E. P. Thompson among its core members, and which had dedicated itself to the project of reorienting historical materialism “from below” (Thompson 279).3 Rather than focusing on the factory, as Workers and Capital had done, the workers’ inquiries circulated by the History Workshop sought to uncover otherwise-unarchived histories of preindustrial “social insubordination” (Hill 22); to map the circuitries of social reproduction as an emergent “ground of struggle” (Cox and Federici 3); or, returning us to the field from which we first began, to situate the miners’ strikes taking place across the Durham Coalfield within a longer history of workers’ control.

Published at the height of the first NUM strike, Pit Life in Co. Durham: Rank & File Movements & Workers’ Control (1972) was the first in a series of pamphlets written by David Douglass, a coal miner and militant researcher from Tyneside. Setting Douglass’s account against the official history of the coalfield, Samuel’s editorial introduction underscores that this account, “by contrast, is written from the point of view of the agitator” situated “in the individual seam, or face, or pit” (i). Tracing how dispositions of geology and labor left multiple choke points along the mineshaft and supply chain vulnerable to blockage, Pit Life recounts “the ways in which the miner was able to escape, or to resist, the grosser disciplines of the factory system” (2). As Mitchell contends in Carbon Democracy, this much-cited “militancy of the miners” lay in “the fact that moving carbon stores from the coal seam to the surface created unusually autonomous places and methods of work” (20). Anticipating Mitchell’s account of the relation between the material geographies of the coal and its social forms, Pit Life affirms this correlation of the mineshaft’s geological disposition with the self-organization of work and its refusal at the coalface. Far from the managerial gaze, the coal seam came to operate as “an embryo of workers’ control” set deep “within the capitalist system” (26). Subterranean materialist inquiry, here, becomes the groundwork for collective action.

The capacity of mineworkers to mobilize spontaneous action, from the “restriction of work” through sabotage or slowdowns to the “outright refusal” of the walkout or the mass strike, was an “offensive weapon against the management” (Douglass 35, 56, 23). At the same time, Pit Life refuses to fetishize the material topography of the choke point as the determining condition of workers’ agency, tracing both the structural power afforded by the technical composition of the coalfield and the social composition of the rank-and-file movement that operated within, and often against, the union bureaucracy. Operating on the militant left of the NUM, Douglass’s work contrasts partisan knowledges of the mine with the “social-structural determinants” of fossil energy to trace “the dialectical relationship between this structure and the self-activity of the work force” (Rutledge 429). Like Bill Watson’s Counter-Planning on the Shop Floor (1971) or Nicole Cox and Silvia Federici’s subsequent Counter-Planning from the Kitchen (1975), Douglass’s History Workshop pamphlets saw in workers’ self-organization both the de-structuration of capital and the delineation of a Marxist theory grounded in the practice and demands of struggle. Below the surface, in the closed space of the coalface, we encounter theory on an open terrain.

Fig. 2-3. Left, Jarrow Colliery, (1839); right, Coal Pits and Chutes on the Tyne, (ca. 1870). Reproduced in Douglass’s Pit Life.
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Fig. 2-3.

Left, Jarrow Colliery, (1839); right, Coal Pits and Chutes on the Tyne, (ca. 1870). Reproduced in Douglass’s Pit Life.

Open Field

Beside this seam of subterranean materialism, another line of inquiry cuts transversally across the coalfield in the 1970s. Namely, the poetics of the open field. If Hall’s call to ground theory on an open terrain had been articulated as a break with the closed terrain of materialist orthodoxy, the expression of poetics “in the open” had defined itself equally against the “closed verse” of the postwar period (Olson 240, 239). Casting modernist poetics against breakthroughs in modern physics, William Carlos Williams’s 1948 lecture “The Poem as a Field of Action” had outlined the prosodic innovations of late modernism as “a new measure or way of measuring that will be commensurate with the new social, economic world in which we are living” (283). Taking up Williams’s provocation two years later, the interdisciplinary scholar Charles Olson—then rector of Black Mountain College—would elaborate a theory of poetics oriented around the opening of the page, the poem’s prosody, and the process of composition to the situated contingencies of their milieu or field. The claim for poetry as a mode of inquiry—a practice, in Williams’s terms, of measuring or mapping socioeconomic terrains—was expanded in Olson’s seminal “Projective Verse” toward a methodology of “COMPOSITION BY FIELD” (239). The spatial metaphor of the field, first taken by Williams from unified field theory, now drew together a series of relations that expanded outward from the spatial arrangements of the typewriter to its environment. To compose “by field,” for Olson, was to embed the poem within a mesh of socioecological relations; to frame the space of the page itself as a kinetic field energy transfer; and, perhaps most critically, to cast the practice of composition in the open against methods of geological, archaeological, and anthropological fieldwork.

“In what is commonly called ‘open form’ poetry and poetics,” Harriet Tarlo reflects, “a field both is and is more than trope or metaphor” (117). At once “a structure, a form, a philosophy, and ethics,” the field also names the ecological, material, and historical specificity of “a bounded and scarred and worked space” within which the poem is grounded (Tarlo 117, 114). Across Maximus Poems (1960–75), Olson set out to track the intersection of geomorphology, logistics infrastructure, and maritime shipping along the shores of Massachusetts, folding archival materials, fieldnotes, and topographic records into its fragmentary spatial composition. If Olson’s own articulation of the field remained freighted by the colonial methodologies of fieldwork, not least in the narration of his own archaeological forays, the milieu-specific orientation of his work and theory has been continually resituated and repurposed toward less cartographic and more politically astute modalities of poetic encounter in the field.4 “In the years preceding the first oil crisis,” Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne reflect, open-field poetry offered an aesthetic mechanism for metabolizing social, ecological, and energetic shifts as “new material realities and forms of consciousness” found reflection in “composition by field, projective verse, and other modernist-influenced renovations of form” (3–4). For Griffiths and MacSweeney, whose work had emerged out of encounters between the Black Mountain School and the British Poetry Revival of the late 1960s (Latter 8; Roberts 30), open-form poetics offered a methodology for mapping struggles on the coalfield.

Pit Justice: Black Torch

Set, as Tom Crompton suggests, in “the combustive heart of British fossil capitalism” (7), Black Torch is concerned with tracing the geology of the coalfield as a terrain of labor struggles from the Durham miners’ lockout of 1844 to the NUM strike of 1974. Conceived in the immediate wake of effective strikes in 1975 and completed in the upswell of a second oil crisis in 1978, MacSweeney’s project appeared alongside a spate of works that sought to reground open-field poetics in the topographical and economic landscape of postindustrial Britain. Collections such as Peter Riley’s Tracks and Mineshafts (1983) or the serial poem Place (1974) by Allen Fisher, whose New London Pride Editions would first publish Black Torch, were indicative of a collective effort to situate the opening of the field against the deindustrialization of the economy, combining archival research with fieldwork across disused mineshafts and docklands.5 In his introduction to an early draft, MacSweeney described Black Torch as a “political and geographical” account of the coalfield that remained oriented, like Douglass’s Pit Life, toward the horizon of “workers’ controlled pits” (327–28). The poem itself stages an extended encounter between the geologic, cartographic, and archival aesthetics of the open field and the partisan perspective offered by the History Workshop, reconstructing the 1844 strike action from a bricolage of Marxist theory, mineworkers’ dialect, and “found” fragments of fictitious records. As Crompton contends, the polyvocal shifts and dialectical juxtapositions of MacSweeney’s “combinatory poetics” offer a formal correlate for the “revolutionary combination” of mineworkers’ trade unions in the nineteenth century (2).

Restlessly traversing political and geographical terrains, MacSweeney’s evocation of this “carbonised resting black heart” (139) of the fossil economy shifts restlessly between the geomorphology and labor history of the Durham Coalfield. Stitching together dialectically opposed accounts of coal’s rise and decline—both from above and below—the field of Black Torch appears transformed by the apparatuses of extraction and accumulation indexed by Daggett’s Birth of Energy or Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital (2016):

the Jenny & the locomotive    “the most important tool of progress”  is coal    pistons go as we recall    reduced demand for coal    & the fall in wages    a recession which brought    near-revolution    refusal of agreements    pits of the north east    came to a halt


Behind the evident didacticism of this passage, which offers a condensed diagram of Malm’s case for an emphasis on the coupling of fossil energy to labor rather than the steam engine as a prime mover of the transition to coal, there remains the more open question of precisely what coal is, as a field; a tool of “progress”; a machinery of mass refusal. Taking its name from the vernacular geological terminology of Durham mineworkers, Black Torch is committed to elaborating a grounded account of this material resource:

If you get the intellectual notion      of coal  there will be a filthyarmchair theorist    hewing carboniferous seams


The carefully stepped spatial arrangement of this passage, in which Black Torch most closely echoes Olson’s Maximus, suggests a mimetic relation between the stratigraphy of the coalfield and the formal mapping of the page, insisting on the primacy of field over form; practice over armchair theory. Against the abstraction of resources and anticipated profit margins that delimit the attenuated “intellectual notion / of coal” legible to the industrial surveyor, Black Torch turns toward the coalfield from another angle:

beyond Hartfell    spines knotunder millstone  iron & lead    coal    nearer the sea      on a final shelf    is 280 fathoms at Pemberton’s Colliery    under magnesian      into the German Ocean      (there are signs      on      the map


Here, a cartographic mode collides with the material conditions of the mineworkers. If the dominant register is geologic, tracing the disposition of coal seams and mineral veins from inland millstone to the unexhausted coal reserves under the North Sea, “spines knot” is more than just a metaphor. If there are “signs / on / the map” that demarcate the morphology of the coalfield, it is only from this partisan perspective—this subterranean materialism—that the backbreaking labor of extraction becomes legible.

If Black Torch adopts the counter-cartographic compositional practices of the open field, the work is first and foremost an attempt to rewrite histories of coalmining in Durham from below. Identifying this structuring tension, Luke Roberts’s Seditious Things: Barry MacSweeney & the Politics of Post-War British Poetry (2017) offers an astute account of MacSweeney’s ambivalent relation to the influence of open-field poetics on the British Poetry Revival while simultaneously tracing a poetics of “radical dissent” in Black Torch that “situates the work as a contribution to the work of New Left historians and critics such as [E. P.] Thompson” (63). As Roberts notes, the collection wears its debts to the History Workshop on its sleeve, not least the poem “Black Torch Strike,” which is composed almost entirely from Thompson’s seminal study of industrial-era resistance, The Making of the English Working Class (1963). Shaped by MacSweeney’s reading of Thompson, as well as his experience covering the miners’ strikes and organizing for the National Union of Journalists in 1974, the politics of Black Torch are entrenched firmly in workers’ autonomy and self-organization. The closing lines of the title sequence offer a succinct reformulation of Douglass’s insistence on workers’ control:

  there’ll be no pit justice  until the pits  are in the hands of the real owners  the pitmen


Stitched together from composite resources that include reported speech, archival research, and apocryphal “found-text,” several passages closely resemble Douglass’s partisan account of rank-and-file demands and labor disputes at the coalface, pitting oral histories in Northumberland dialect against the managerial language of a hegemonic archive. Adopting a polyvocal mode of open-form poetics, Black Torch positions its readers as “observers among the workers” (Roberts 69) as it shifts between the miners’ own accounts of labor struggles beneath the field and the official narrative composed above the surface. Rendered in the miners’ dialect of pitmatic, MacSweeney’s strikers offer caustic critiques of working conditions, piece-rates, productivity, and property as an appropriation of “profit / without work” (150). As Roberts and Crompton foreground in their readings, this juxtaposition of hegemonic and vernacular voice is often employed to dramatize a form of epistemic antagonism between bourgeois objectivity and partisan knowledge. In one passage, the workers’ account of “black dust doon ya lungs” as the common cause of respiratory disease is cast against the “scientific truth” that

coal is vegetable in origintherefore it is organictherefore unharmful


Here, the production of knowledge regarding the geochemical properties of the coalfield appears ineradicably tied to struggle. As Douglass reflects in Pit Life, the subterranean condition of the “mine necessitates a different attitude of mind” expressed in vocabularies, solidarities, and knowledges “peculiar to that environment” (1). Another apocryphal archival fragment, in the form of a letter left for the mine owners by a miner following strike riots in 1831, makes explicit this claim to partisan knowledge:

I dinna pretent to be profit, but I naw this, and lots of ma marrows na’s te, that we’re not tret as we owt to be, and a great filosopher says, to get noledge is to naw we ignerent. But weve just begun to find that oot, and ye maisters and owners may luk oot, for yor not gan to get se much o yor own way, we gan have some of wors now . . .


Articulating partial knowledge as a condition of partisan objectivity, Black Torch holds up these situated knowledges and vernacular cartographies of the workers as a means of representing the materiality of coal, tracing the technical reorganization of coal production since the nineteenth century, and historicizing struggles over energy in the 1970s.

As the poet Andrew Duncan has it, Black Torch depicted the political landscape of 1978 as “a mine, from which we can only exit when led by someone who holds the illuminating torch – of Marxist theory, perhaps” (63). Yet by the time MacSweeney’s sequence reaches its final section, “Black Torch Sunrise,” the trajectory of the coming struggles nonetheless remains unclear. Here, the bright flame of the miners’ strike first lit in 1844 and seemingly reignited by the NUM actions of 1972 disperses into the fragmentary prospect of “individual consciousness, local energy / & mass development” as “TUC inner cadres make closed door pacts with the Govt” under the pressure of rising inflation and energy costs (170, 169). If Black Torch had sought to combine “Marxist historiography, trade union activity, and the forces of poetic production” to map a counter-history of the coalfield, Roberts reflects that, in this final gesture, “the political conditions of the 1970s exceed the poem’s grasp” (68, 74). Tracing themes of petroleum dependency and isolation through “Black Torch Sunrise,” Roberts reads this closing poem as a critical assessment of the project as a whole. For MacSweeney, he suggests, the formal combination of open-field poetics and history from below had “falsely accumulate[d] its power from a form of solidarity and a history of dissent which was being outmanoeuvred” from both sides by 1978, even before the “comprehensive crisis of Thatcherism” (75).

Fig. 4. Barry MacSweeney and Michael Chaplin, Ode to Coal, 1978. Courtesy of Michael Chaplin.
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Fig. 4.

Barry MacSweeney and Michael Chaplin, Ode to Coal, 1978. Courtesy of Michael Chaplin.

To frame this reading of the formal limitations of Black Torch as a limit point for a certain aesthetic of mapping, we might turn to another work published by MacSweeney in the same year: Ode to Coal. Omitted from the Trigram Press collection Odes: 1971–1978, Ode to Coal remains anomalous within MacSweeney’s work. Composed in collaboration with Michael Chaplin, the poster-poem is so formally and tonally distinct from the Odes that it appears, instead, as a potential culmination of the vein of work initiated by Black Torch. Tracing the “gradation of ancient forests” into carbon’s “structureless matrix” beneath a cross-section outline of the mineshaft, this work clearly reflects the subterranean trajectories and geological concerns of MacSweeney’s open-field project. Yet where Black Torch had offered a dense, combinatory bricolage of historical, vernacular, and tactical knowledge, Ode to Coal merely lists the categories of coal found on the Durham field: “lignite bituminous anthracite.” Stuck in a slag heap of “dull coal” rather than illuminated by the black torch of theory, the monotone recital of geological knowledge is so utterly devoid of the partisan perspectives that shaped Black Torch that the ode appears skeptical of poetry’s capacity to carry any form of knowledge, let alone map a terrain. Read alongside Black Torch, however, the cascading parataxis of “fracture / structure / destroyed” takes on another resonance, invoking a labor movement fragmented by rising inflation, anti-union laws, and the complicity of union bureaucracy with state officials. The coalfield of 1978 is not so much a combustive terrain of class antagonism but a mute geology in which “no volatile matter” remains. Where Williams saw the poem as a physical field of action, “atoms have greater affinity / for each other” than MacSweeney’s fractious left.

If the composition of carbon deposits refracts the decomposition of organized labor and social life after 1973, the formal composition of Ode to Coal also reflects the specific conditions of the field’s declining productivity. According to Chaplin’s recollection, MacSweeney had originally composed the poem over a graph of the coalfield’s output after nationalization in 1947 (Bevington 405). If we assume that each line corresponds to the productivity of a given year, then each of the three stanzas turned on its side offers a mapping of the field’s exhaustion and the downward trajectory of production. In this poetic map of failure, fragmented and discontinuous, the decline of the coal industry and the decimation of organized labor appears as a ghostly imprint; the promise of composition by field as a measure of social and economic conditions becomes an all-too-literal representation of political terrains. In place of the partisan perspective from below, we find a slanted view of the infrastructural transition and the geological field that subtend this poetic form.

Perpetual Kidnap: Coal

If “In the Coal Year” recorded a moment of militant optimism before the defeat of the NUM in 1985, by the time Bill Griffiths moved to the port town of Seaham at the end of the decade that political milieu would have been near-unrecognizable. Griffiths was an anarchist, prison abolitionist, and dialect historian who had met MacSweeney through Writers Forum in the early years of the British Poetry Revival. In Seaham, he produced an extensive body of work on coal mining and mineworkers’ dialect that bridged linguistics, people’s history, and open-field poetics. In both his dialect dictionaries, most notably Pitmatic: The Talk of the North East Coal Field (2007), and his poetry, such as The Coal World: Murton Tales Reworked as Dialect Verse (1995) or the three-volume series Coal (1990–1991), Griffiths draws on the same local archives and autonomist tendencies as Douglass’s History Workshop pamphlets. Like Black Torch, his poetry is trenchantly vernacular, formally radical, and grounded in the language of the coalfield. Yet if Coal follows the methodological orientations outlined above in its commitment to documenting this field from below, it also reflects profound shifts in the social, energetic, and material conditions that had taken place in the 1980s. Black Torch took the coalfield as the carboniferous heart of fossil capital. This same “coal-heart” appears in Griffiths’s work in the early 1990s as a “long-lasting negative” of its extractive history (230, 229). While the decline of mining in the northeast had been the culmination of successive governments’ attempts to “eliminate the coal industry in favour of imported oil” (Rutledge 415), pit closures had accelerated under the Thatcher administration and, by 1990, the terminally declining coal industry was on the verge of privatization. Griffiths’s “North Scenes” offers a blunt account of the effects of offshoring and deindustrialization on social life in Seaham: “Stakes were all dead ship-building was. . . . And In this silence, / only the tankers off to the sea” (298).

In the 1972 pamphlet Fools Gold, MacSweeney had offered a glimpse of the envisioned resource future that emerged glimmering on the horizon in

  tiny sparkletsof optimism along the sea-gas pipes


Throughout Griffiths Coal trilogy, the energy output of the North Sea oil fields comes to eclipse a subterranean expanse of coal shafts now crossed by “tanker-lanes” instead of “coal-barges” (250, 234). The exhausted coalfield, in the opening sequence of Coal, is no longer a site of workers’ struggle but a field site for “industrial archaeology” (229, 232). The initial brevity of Griffiths’s lines and the plunging trajectory of the poems’ stanzas offer a spatial mimicry of the “vertical shaft” (231), but the sequence swiftly moves its focus from the material form of the coal seam to the syntactic articulations of logistical networks that accompany and encircle fossil fuel extraction. First the mine, as Griffiths puts it,

Then the trains.Link, arrangement, movement;brightly banded commasclick up


Where “In the Coal Year” had framed transport infrastructures as a tactical opportunity for workers, Coal registers the far-reaching impacts of logistical transformations in energy supply chains that had accompanied the transition from coal to oil. As Jasper Bernes has argued, the rise of logistics in the 1970s had been “one of the key weapons in a decades-long global offensive against labour” in which the globalized supply chains “effectively encircled labour, laying siege to its defensive emplacements such as unions and, eventually, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, completely crushing them” (186). The possibility of intervention on the terrain of energy was increasingly circumnavigated by “stretching out the thin line of oil production” and dispersing its labor force across neocolonial extraction sites and strategically situated refineries (Mitchell, Carbon 5).

Alongside the dismantling of workers’ control, the combination of the logistical and financial circuitries of oil's lubricity presented “even greater challenges, or full-blown blockages, for representation and orientation” after 1973 (Toscano and Kinkle 14). Reflecting on the legacy of partisan research in the wake of the 1970s, Polleri describes the workers’ inquiry as a cognitive map essentially correlative with the factory, moving from the immediate terrain of struggle outward to the social factory and, finally, a map of totality: “From the singular fragment of social life, from its situated gaze, it becomes possible to achieve a collectivization of experience, and even the augmentation of the potential for resistance and struggle” (442). If the methodological reorientations of co-research and the advances of partisan knowledge were situated in contrapuntal relation to Ford-Taylorism as a method of mapping, structuring, and extracting value from the circuits of assembly-line production and unwaged social reproduction, 1973 had marked the end for the hegemony of this postwar model. As Polleri articulates, the “neoliberal transformations beginning at the end of the 1970s called for a new reflection,” and “the perspective of inquiry ha[d] to be modified in turn; the pluralization and complexification of the ‘point of view’ must follow those of the space of experience of contemporary proletarians” (442). Put simply, the opacity of the petroleum pipeline or the supply chain, alongside the increasing unemployment of an industrial working class, presented a critical problematic for the factory-floor inchiesta as a means of mapping class antagonism or articulating the perspective of the worker to a critique of totality. In what remains of this essay, I argue that across the prismatic forms and logistical sites of Coal open-field poetics encounters a comparable impasse.

Eric Mottram describes Griffiths work “a language of elisions and disjunctures” that scatters poetry across a prism of perspectives (“Every” 10). Throughout Coal, the socioecological ruptures of petrocapitalism find expression in linguistic surfaces rent by the pressures of carbon-fueled growth and its eventual decline. If the extraction of coal, in Griffiths’s shattered language, appears as a systemic “ab-use” of the field’s extensive hydrocarbon reserves, then it is an apparatus that deindustrialization has summarily “dissembled” (237). Put simply, both the material infrastructure of the pits and the social substratum of Seaham collieries have been rapidly dismantled. In the wake of this disassembly, the promise of exponential growth turns out to have been a lie. If Black Torch turned the poetic resources of the open field and the methods of history from below toward a rendering of the social formations that manifest across the coalfield in the nineteenth century, Coal instead reflects the decomposition of the working class and the dispersal of struggles of energy from the site of production across disparate sites of circulation and consumption. In place of the distinctive perspectival orientations of the armchair theorist and the subterranean worker, Griffiths’s work reflects the pluralization and complexification of the partisan perspective in its prismatic collision of vocal registers, phonemic fragments, and extractive sites. Attempting to index a ground shift from coal’s “great in-draught / of energy” as the foundation of social life to the increasingly fractal experience of economic downturn in which this nexus of labor and energy is contorted in “a muddle of / work-content, novelty, and demand,” Coal adopts a paratactic and often asyntactic register to trace the repurposing of mines and dockyards into “places of collection and disposal” (238). Cast adrift in the circuitries of the logistical field, the open form of poetry is “turned to a list / an incomprehension” (241).

In expressing this shift away from an industrial organization of the work-energy nexus, Griffiths’s logistical poetics takes on a specific valence in relation to the resource aesthetics of the open field. Throughout “Projective Verse,” Olson had framed the page as a field of energy transfer and cast the open-form poem, in turn, as a “high-energy construct” transmitting kinetic energy along the “lines of force” afforded by the typewriter (240, 250). Extending Williams’s idiom of theoretical physics, the concept of the poem as an “energy discharge” of linguistic “particles” reflects the distinctive nuclear energy unconscious of mid-century modernism (241, 240). As Will Rowe reflects, Griffith’s work is likewise shaped by “an acute awareness of the historical energies in the language” it inherits (163). Across Coal, however, the splitting of the atom gives way instead to the “carbon halo” that radiates from “excitable engines” (248) of fossil fuel combustion and circulation: Where Olson had seen the poetic line as a vector of energy transferred to the reader, Coal returns us to the kinetics of the open field:

and the seeds of matterthe indivisibles,specks and spiralturned out to energy, omega,and the knot is found simplyto go back to LINE.


This capitalized return to the “LINE” consciously adopts an Olsonian idiom and typographic inflection, but it also diverges along two critical trajectories. Here, the composition of “matter” or the “knot” of industrial and energetic metabolisms appear as “indivisibles,” resistant to metaphors of nuclear fission or social division. This knotted relation between the form of poetry and the material form of fuel “turned out to energy,” Griffiths suggests, is irresolvable. At the same time, “LINE” has changed its meaning. Across Coal’s three volumes, the line of the poem takes on a correlative relation to “the line of supply” (238), through which the circulation of oil comes to encircle, or outflank, organized labor. Stretching outward from the dockyards and the subsea coalfield to the drilling platforms of the Forties Field, the abandoned infrastructures of coal and the ascendant logistical networks of oil come to dominate the field of the poem as “the dead and living march all equally / by lines of cable, track and pipe” (239). Returning to the lines of force that crossed the field of the 1950s, Coal finds a dense meshwork of pipelines, power grids, and shipping tankers that dislocate the historical processes of energy transition from any horizon of pit justice. In place of the kinetic poetics of transfer and fission, we encounter an aesthetics of supply lines and blockades.

For Mottram, this mapping of resource injustice is “a recurrent Griffiths theme: the unnatural and natural formations of energy, the voluntary and involuntary conversions of energy into form, including those of justice and poetry” (“Every” 17). Coming to the fore in the final sequence of Coal, this transformation of fossil energy into social and poetic form appears far removed from the collective refusal of any energy compromise in Black Torch. Where the 1974 strike had capitalized on petroleum shocks to choke the state’s supply of coal, energy crisis appears in Coal as an apparatus that enables the extraction of surplus value from those populations deemed surplus to capital in the period of long downturn:

the only route to profit is terror.

Are you cold?Pay us for more heat.The rightprice –The profit price.(What littlest you can give,what most you can get.)Perpetual kidnap.


Here, energy has shifted from a site of potential sabotage in the machinery of fossil capital to a mechanism of debt and destitution that extracts value from the barest substratum of social reproduction: the perpetual kidnap of depending on British Petroleum or Shell PLC for heat. Where Pit Life and Black Torch rendered the coalfield as a site of critical disputes over the social and material conditions of energy production, the three volumes of Coal chart a shift toward the spheres of energy’s circulation and consumption. As if in response to the choking of the national coal supply by the NUM in 1972, the poem captures the violence with which privatized energy companies exert their monopoly on oil and gas supply as a mode of social domination. Griffiths might no longer look to the open field to chart a pathway out of perpetual dispossession, yet Coal resituates the politics of refusal on this terrain of circulation. Describing geophysical and millennial processes by which “sea-weeds tire into oil” beneath the surface of the North Sea, the ending of the second volume heaves itself toward an exhortation: “Let us have no more obedience. / Not words, but teeth” (245, 246).

Taking Stock

If, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, “the only purpose of doing any of this analysis at all is figuring out where and how to fight,” then Black Torch and Coal offer poetic inquiry as an attempt to situate contemporary crises of energy, capital, and climate against the shifting terrain of energy struggles after 1973. As these overlapping projects reflect, the offshoring of energy extraction and circulation across increasingly dispersed networks of supply presents a certain historical impasse for open-field poetics or militant research as field theory in the Durham Coalfield. Nonetheless, they might still offer us a tool for mapping where and how to confront flows of energy and finance that appear ever more opaque and further removed from our capacity to intervene. As Bernes reflects, echoing Polleri, the partisan perspective comes up against the totality of logistical circulation as a seemingly impassable horizon of thought:

It is a view from everywhere (or nowhere), a view from space, that only capital as totalising, distributed process can inhabit. Only capital can fight us in every place at once, because capital is not in any sense a force with which we contend, but the very territory on which that contention takes place. Or rather, it is a force, but a field force, something which suffuses rather than opposes. Unlike capital, we fight in particular locations and moments – here, there, now, then. To be a partisan means, by necessity, to accept the partiality of perspective and the partiality of the combat we offer.


If capital appears simultaneously as the target and terrain of struggle—a “field force” that suffuses social life—then this insistence on the deictic coordinates of theory makes a claim comparable to the modalities of thought and fieldwork outlined above. More than this, the forms of fracture and dispersal that demarcate Griffiths’s accounts of the coalfield bear a striking resemblance to Bernes’s description of counter-logistical theory as a situated mode of mapping; a methodology for “taking stock of things we encounter in our immediate environs,” not so much “the standpoint of the global totality, but rather a process of bricolage from the standpoint of partisan fractions” (201).

Confronted with the field force of capital in motion, Bernes’s levity regarding the limits and capacities of this “difficult view from within” (174) articulates a condition that Black Torch or Coal repeatedly come up against in their attempts to combine partisan research and open-field poetics, taking the coalfield as both the field of study and terrain of struggle. The formal difficulties and limitations of this work stage a comparable ambivalence regarding the capacity of open-field poetry to carry the same forms of knowledge to which historical materialism lays claim; in other words, to produce legible cartographies of capital. At the same time, both collections insist on the inextricability of theory and poetics from the field, tracing the contours and the limits of a knowledge tied to struggle. In doing so, they maintain the centrality of the partisan perspective to the methodologies of field theory. In Coal, the littoral between the Durham Coalfield and the North Sea appears in a cascade of echoic homonyms, energetic propulsions, and cartographic horizons:

See the seam,scorched with its moving,and a long map


This seam of black torch, ignited by the combustive force of circulating capital, comes to stand for a subterranean line of inquiry below the surface of the coalfield. It is a partial map of energy and capital flows, situated from below. As Gigi Roggero reflects, the attempt to orient ourselves within the current crisis returns us to the militant theory of the 1970s in order “to overturn it against the present: not to contemplate it but to set it alight.” Revisiting the clandestine fires, prismatic forms, and fragmentary maps that come to occupy the partisan poetics of the coalfield, we might similarly reground theory on this open terrain.

Fred Carter

Fred Carter is a postdoctoral researcher with the Infrastructure Humanities Group at the University of Glasgow, and Fellow of the Rachel Carson Centre, Munich. His current monograph project, Poetry & Energy After 1973, traces the emergence of a poetics of exhaustion and a politics of refusal against intersecting crises of petroleum, productivity, and social reproduction. With Jeff Diamanti, he is co-director of the practice research residency FieldARTS. His first poetry chapbook, Outages, is forthcoming with Veer2.

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1. See Bellamy, O’Driscoll, and Simpson; and Mitchell, “Carbon Democracy at Ten.”

2. If Haraway now appears more frequently alongside countervailing materialist tendencies, her insistence that “only partial perspective promises objective vision” (583) proceeds explicitly from Nancy Hartsock’s “standpoint of the oppressed” as an “epistemological device . . . on which to ground a specifically feminist historical materialism” (287, 284).

3. Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (1972) is an archetypal example of this perspectival shift. Inspired by Sven Lindqvist’s Dig Where You Stand (1978), the History Workshop followed a comparable trajectory to that of co-research, taking the partisan perspective as the basis of historical inquiry.

5. For much of his early life, MacSweeney had lived in immediate proximity to both the mineworks of Northumberland and the coal terminals of Newcastle, yet found himself working in the southeast as a journalist in 1974, covering the NUM strikes from afar and embroiled in the National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) strike of the same year.