Desire lines (3)

In continuation to Melissa’s and Christos’s earlier blog posts on ‘desire lines’, I am picking up here on two ‘desire lines’: one we have been working on for a while (body/embodiment), and another one we very recently picked up on emotions vis-à-vis public sphere.


The line of thought on ‘body’ and ‘embodiment’ in public sphere first emerged when I along with Madhavi Latha, our research consultant in Hyderabad, went for a neighbourhood walk with a girl child in our study (accompanied by her college going aunt) living on a university campus. University campuses in India tend to be enclosed areas with playgrounds, gardens and/or land that can be roamed amongst the various classroom, offices and lecture theatre buildings. While walking and talking, we heard her serious concerns and inhibition to walk past a hut type canteen on the roadside, where men from outside the campus, gazed and commented on women’s bodies. The scrutiny that women’s bodies are subjected to in public is not new, and feminist responses to unsolicited and threatening attention has begun to galvanise over recent years with projects in the UK such as ‘everyday sexism’ and cultural interventions such as Aranya Johar’s superb poetry slam. But we were surprised to hear about such experience from such a young girl living on what’s considered to be quite secure accommodation. These experiences, of a 6-year-old girl’s restricted access to public space and public life on account of her gender and age prompted us to unpack the connections between bodies, spaces, and public life in childhood, and we think there’s a discussion to be held here that it is not yet covered in recent public responses to the issue which tend to address themselves to teenage girls and younger women.

Interestingly, while reading through the huge amount of multimodal ethnographic data that we generated over a period of 18 months of intensive fieldwork, on the one hand, we noticed children’s bodies being civilised, adored, disciplined, threatened, objectified, represented and experienced by children themselves in everyday life and, on the other hand, we also recognised the obscurity of their bodies in the existing literature on ‘publics’ and ‘public sphere’. Instead, what we found in those literatures is an over-reliance on the cognitive elements such as rationality, reasoning and deliberation. With that in mind, we started exploring the ways through which body can be re-imagined in notions of ‘public’ and ‘public sphere’ in relation to power, social status, identities and a sense of self, especially, how these concepts travel across cultures and national borders.

First stop on this ‘desire line’ started when we decided to compose a panel for the CIRCY 6th International Conference on ‘The Social, the Biological and the Material Child’ held at Sheffield University in July 2016. In fact, ‘childhood publics’ is not a ‘desire line’ that surfaced very recently, and this has been an orienting metaphor for the study since its inception. In 2015, Melissa wrote an excellent review on children’s participation in theory and practice and thereby drawn our attention on how the idea of ‘childhood publics’ might look like, in her Children & Society paper. So, what has emerged recently as a desire line in the process of our analysis and interpretation is that the identification of the ‘body’ and of ‘emotions’ as a desire path in relation to ‘publics’ and ‘public sphere’.

Neighbourhood walk - image of a park compound .jpeg

Over time, these analytical threads have been configured and reconfigured through various conferences and seminars, besides our own analysis and reflections. We found these conferences/seminars helpful to alter, refine or travel on the same path of our thought process.

At the Sheffield conference, we set our focus on the non-verbal communicative action that is missing in the Habermasian idea of ‘publics’ and ‘public sphere’. We found that conference very useful to develop our ideas around ‘publics in context’, and the overlapping boundaries of ‘private’, ‘public’ and ‘political’ marked through children’s embodied experiences.

Then, in January 2017, I presented a paper on ‘The Political Subject: The Politics of Children and Youth’ in a Youth Development Conference organised at Sacred Heart College, Tirupattur in which Melissa also delivered a keynote on ‘Youth development in time: the pasts, presents and futures of an evolving practice’. This avenue proved to be another wonderful opportunity for us to look at the problematic nature of the terms like ‘politics’ and ‘political’ in childhood and, in so doing, arguing that the raise of a political subject is not ‘abrupt’, instead, childhood as a ‘precursor’, inter alia, provides socio-political resources to individuals in shaping life course experiences.

Recently, on the 11th of April 2017, I was invited to give a talk on ‘Research with Children’ at the Central University of Tamil Nadu (CUTN) with a specific focus on methodological and ethical concerns/implications in doing cross-cultural, longitudinal, ethnographic research. With a few empirical examples from the field, I engaged reflexively with a group of postgraduate students and faculty members on how some of the culturally situated practices give a different ‘interpretative turn’ to epistemology and knowledge production.

The focus on ethics has given a fillip to us to look at ‘emotion’ as an axis point between body and publics/public sphere. The interdisciplinary literatures we have been drawing on suggest that emotions are deeply embedded in social, political, historical and cultural forms. Therefore, drawing on recent scholarship and theoretical developments in the study of ‘emotions’, we begin to consider emotion as another analytical category in order to gain new insights and perspectives on understanding the relationship between ‘childhood and public life’.

In the near future, to be precise in August/September, we will be presenting a paper on ‘Emotional encounters in research: Some reflections on childhood and public sphere’ in the Qualitative Methods stream at the 13th Conference of European Sociological Association on ‘(Un)Making Europe: Capitalism, Solidarities and Subjectivities’, to be held in Athens. I believe this conference would further provide an opportunity to draw connections between the sociality of emotion and children’s relationship to public life.

At last, as Deleuze and Guattari (1983) denote, we feel, our desire has started to produce the real, slowly but steadily.

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