Connecting through texts


As part of the Connectors Study we have launched a regular reading group, the first of which happened last week at Sussex when a group of us got together to read a paper by David Oswell who is based in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths.

The aim of our reading group is to bring together together researchers interested in the themes of childhood, youth and family activism, citizenship, participation, politics, and public life, for us to meet and, through key readings, create a forum for discussion and sharing of ideas in the first instance. While theory development on the topic of children’s participation in public life and the emergence of an orientation towards social action in childhood are is key work for the Connectors Study, these activities also feed into the Childhood Publics theme that is a growing area of interest and research within CIRCY.

One of the exciting and challenging methodological and practical aspects of the Connectors Study is the cross-national element of the work and our virtuality as a research team. From West to East: I’m based in London and Sussex, Christos is in Athens and Vinnarasan is in Hyderabad for most of the year. We are faced with the challenge of how to sustain the collective intellectual life of the study when our face-to-face interactions are limited to a few meetings on an annual basis and a short period of reconvening over the summer back at Sussex. We are of course in regular email and Skype contact as a team and on a one-to-one basis, and we are currently writing together for a special issue journal on the topic of prefigurative politics. These are targeted interactions with specific outcomes and while that’s all good stuff, I like to mix things up a bit with a space that’s more open and fluid for us and others.

A little while back I came up with the idea to experiment with a peripatetic reading group. Why not read the same text in three different reading groups each located in our fieldwork city? How would the reading of the text change? What might we learnt from its cross-cultural reading that we might otherwise miss? My hope is that this will enable us as a team to have a more open space for discussion whilst at the same time inviting others into these discussion and building a loose network of interest on the topic. From a cross-national research perspective it is also a good opportunity to establish the practice of putting concepts into conversation with one another by delving into the resonance of the concepts we are playing with in different contexts.

Last Monday as a small group of postgrad, doctoral students and faculty gathered in Essex House room 244 for a lunchtime discussion of ‘Yet to Come? Globality and the Sound of an Infant Politics’, we were lucky enough to have David Oswell join us for the discussion. From my part I tried to think through what enchanted me about David’s paper here and I was intrigued about the background story of the paper and how it came to be. In preparation for the reading group I had asked David if he might share with us the context that gave rise to the writing his paper.

David recalled how the paper emerged through his engagement with a seminar series organised by Jonathan Pugh through the network called Spaces of Democracy (co-organised with Chantal Mouffe and Doreen Massey) and through discussions with colleague Nootje Marres who works at the intersection of science and technology and political theory. David found that the focus on the discursive in the work of, for example Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, came at the expense of the materiality of politics and the paper tries to address this. At the same time, the paper also builds on his longstanding interest in the ‘physique of the public’, which he explored through doctoral work initially looking at the construction of the child audiences in the 1930s in Britain, including a focus on the built environment of sound (e.g. wires, cables etc). Another influence was a commissioned report by the BBC to find out why nobody was listening to children’s radio anymore, as was a tradition in Goldsmith’s Sociology for thinking about the design of spaces for children. Taken together, David explained that these different engagements led him to focus on how politics are articulated as a spoken interaction between equals and how it’s possible to get people to talk to each other from the perspective of the lived experience of sound. When looking at ideas of political voice, the public and the private and the materialities of those, it becomes apparent that everything is implicated and therefore, as a researcher it is important to look at everything, all those interacting parts, and hence the breadth of the paper.

The paper, and David’s contextualising comments, generated a number of interesting strands of discussion which I will attempt to summarise below. (To all those in attendance: if I have misrepresented your meaning this is not intentional and please do jump in using the comments function of the blog to put me right and continue the conversation!)

Of particular interest were the points made by David in the paper that ‘children don’t speak on their own’ and that its important to look at the ‘architectonics of audiable spaces’, the built environment/structured space that makes things happen and how something/one could be experienced as noisy in one setting and not in another. We discussed a number of examples of this.

Rachel Thomson, who appreciated the paper’s linking of abstract concepts of voice to everyday lived experience, recounted examples from her work on the Making Modern Mothers study and mothers’ experiences of living in blocks of flats with crying babies. Here the infant sound – and attempts at pacification- is the experience and the politics is very much the abstract – not disturbing the neighbours. Rachel wondered whether the materialities of sound were changing and whether the emergence of digitisation made the architectonics of sound more visible, creating new affordances.

Margaret Boushel remarked that the paper had reminded her of work focused on enabling the participation of adults with severe learning disability and cognitive impairments and wondered whether that had been an inspiration (it had in part); she also wondered how notions of human rights translated into child rights and vice versa.

Barry Luckock encouraged us to think about external and internal materialities; and the dynamics between self and other perceptions giving the example of how children and young people, and/or perhaps mothers too, on public transport manage themselves and others in relation to sound, often perceived as ‘noise’. We discussed whether in the same way that we think about affordances of technology we might also think about affordances of the mind, and in particular imagination, and the ways in which anxiety can shut down imaginative responses to difficult situations (e.g. to the young people perceived as noisy on the bus).

Children, sound and transport seemed to resonate as a theme and Perpetua Kirby, having just spent two hours in a car with five boys, wondered about the materialities of the adult ear and whether this was important to consider as well.

Elsie Whittington moved the discussion onto thinking about ‘imagined audiences’ and reminded us that we only ever own half a word, the rest is owned by the audience and made a case for active listening.

We then went on to discuss the ‘cacophony of sharing’ and Liam Berriman and Rachel Thomson told us about their face-to-face project and young people’s strategy of putting on head phones in order not to share what they were listening to. Liam and Rachel also made reference to anxieties around sound, who hears, and gave the example of shy kids who are expected by their peers not to speak and when they find other avenues of speech, through for example social media, these may not always be well received (you can read more about this here in Liam and Rachel’s most recent paper).

Louise Sims asked us to think about sound in the context of power, giving an example involving a practice setting in which those in powerful positions often used their voices in infantile ways with huge ramifications and without being held to account.

We went on to discuss research and/or pedagogical practices that might facilitate sound and noted that so-called ‘agonistic spaces’ (cf. Chantal Mouffe’s work) are often contradictory spaces that are hard to maintain and that one of the principles of democratic spaces is that arguments are sometimes lost.

The reading group discussion closed with reflections on the issue of scaling up of these ideas in particular trying to think about alternatives to representative approaches to doing so. This is something that David returned to in the CIRCY seminar he gave later that day. There was an agreement that the paper had help in developing a different language for thinking about childhood publics, the word ‘architectonics’ in particular seemed to resonate with those present.

For the next Sussex reading group discussion (date/time tbc) we will be reading at Judith Butler’s paper on Rethinking Vulnerability and Resistance. In the meantime, looking forward to hearing what emerges out of discussions on David’s paper from Hyderabad and India.

Full reference

Oswell, D. (2009) ‘Yet to Come? Globality and the Sound of an Infant Politics’, Radical Politics Today, 1(1), pp. 1-18.

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