Writing a Position
As I am writing this entry, I have noticed that there are some daytime sounds I hear quite often: the rumbling of the diesel engine of a construction vehicle and the operator’s demolition of a structure; the acceleration of cars and taxis and trucks; the screeches of their breaks; beats from a car stereo; the squeaking wheels of trollies; the sound of something being smashed on the sidewalk; a loud conversation; a crowd of people; some yells and a whistle; the flapping sound of wings as a pigeon flies past the window.
These sounds are flooding into the building where I am working. I am somewhat familiar with the street below, and I can place the sounds well enough. What is more difficult for me is to understand how these sounds are creating demarcations and connections in the street below, and with me, a few floors above. Hearing a whistle and a yell flooding into the building is experiencing an excess. It is something that affects me as it flows through me. I can grasp aspects of it, but I cannot fully capture it.
The different relationships of bodies in which the human body can be implicated are seemingly endless. When trying to understand movement through a city, or placement in a city, it is useful to consider bodies beyond human bodies. Theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987) and John Protevi (2009) look at social issues in ways that are sensitive to the human body in its relation to the non-human body.
The Deleuze-Guattarian conception of body, according to Bruce Baugh (2010), means “any whole composed of parts, where these parts stand in some definite relation to one another, and has a capacity for being affected by other bodies” (Baugh 2010: 35). A body is not necessarily a material formation; it is a relationship of forces. Bodies could be physical, they could be ideas, and they could be social, economic and political formations. Bodies are in intricate, but contingent relationships with other bodies, in what are termed assemblages. The concept assemblage in this context does not mean a particular arrangement, or organisation, but as MacGreggor Wise (2011) argues, a process of arranging, and ordering bodies. This process happens not according to a specific plan but through ways opened by the “qualities, speeds and lines” (Wise 2011: 92) of the particular bodies.
While not all assemblages include the human body, and even though human bodies have an extreme influence on the world around them, non-human bodies are always present in our experience of the everyday, and in the particular articulation of specific social issues.
People’s emotions, thoughts and actions cannot be isolated from their participation in assemblages: Protevi (2004), for instance, argues that cognitive processes are open to the affects of situations, and that cognition develops and is distributed in a population through affect. The concept of affect enables us to think about interaction between bodies in non-representational terms. Affect is the capacity of a body to act upon, or be acted upon by another body. In this relationship the affecting body produces a transition between conditions in an affected body. Protevi argues that our emotions, thoughts and actions are influenced by the intricate relationships of affect in which we are embroiled to such a degree that the sense-making, orienteering and action-taking process we undertake can produce, but also bypass, subjectivity. This is because, according to Protevi, the neural is interlinked with the somatic and the social through affect in what he terms bodies politic. The sound of a whistle and a yell, for instance, bears influence on the body beyond the cognitive, and can impact the social.
We do not work in isolation. The things we make do not exist in isolation. We are limited, however, in our capacity to sense the variation that forms the world. As Paul Cilliers (2005) would argue, our actions are implicitly normative. In this context the word normative is used in a very specific way: It is not used in a way where it means expressing or implying a general standard, norm, or ideal, but indicates a value judgement in the sense of a normative statement: a position that entails a preference, or an approval or disproval. Even though Cilliers’ argument is based on what he terms critical complexity, the underlying premise in his argument seems to have relevance to a conception of interaction in assemblages: Since we are not able to experience or have access to all aspects of an assemblage, our activity as part of that assemblage is based in contingency. In other words, the way we negotiate our movements in an assemblage is inherently uncertain.
When we work we can only ever work with aspects of an assemblage. Our participation in an assemblage occurs as local interactions between bodies. This means that writers who focus their attentions on the studied relationships of the the somatic and the social should remain sensitive to the reality that, while their writing might be embedded in a situation, the writer and the writing cannot engage with, or even have access to all the variation which might influence that situation. The notion of uncertainty, then, suggests a condition through which to negotiate encounters, rather than a set of problems that contain in their composition definitive solutions. As socially responsive researchers we should be aware that while our studies of the assemblages we participate in may present simplifications of the variation of those assemblages, our work can remain sensitive to the inherent uncertainty of assemblages and can challenge reductive interpretations of our subject matters.
Perhaps, however, notions around listing, framing, or expressing do not constitute entirely what it means to write. Writing, perhaps, is a particular way of negotiating aspects of the world. Writing as praxis, the way Deleuze (1998: 50) frames it, is the mutation of an assemblage by creating relationships between assemblages. It is a flux, an entanglement with assemblages. The writer undertakes a process of invention, but this invention is not solely one of a single subjectivity, it is the invention of a passage from one assemblage to another. The creative process might start with the writer, but its becoming includes a multiplicity of bodies to which the writer and the writing opens up and cannot help but be engorged in. In this context, the term becoming means the non-linear process of change in the forces of assemblages.
Working between other bodies requires agility. The work we do should remain sensitive to uncertainty, and open to the possibility of variation and the morphing of meanings. Our work, described in Deleuze-Guattarian terms, should remain open to the becoming that is the creative moment.
Writing, I believe, is not about capturing the world. It is about engaging with aspects of it. Following Deleuze’s positioning, writing is about creating an interface, a mutation, a passage. When writing is seen as praxis in an assemblage, it becomes one tool amongst many, the need for writing to be definitive ends, and a space is opened for other praxes to be employed in its midst.
For other reflections on writing and the writing process in a participatory research project specifically, consider reading some of the reflections contained in the e-book that features the Izwi Lethu: Our Voies project (Schuller, Oliveira & Vearey 2016). The reflections that are included in this publication are by a few participants, the facilitator and the project organisers, and an outside commentator. These writers give us access to the inner workings of a project that is based in a participatory writing process. The Izwi Lethu project is a continuing project that is based in a partnership between the MoVE project and Sisonke Sex Worker Movement.
Baugh, B. (2010) ‘Body’. in The Deleuze Dictionary Revised Edition. ed. by Parr, A. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 35-37
Cilliers, P. (2005) ‘Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism’. Theory Culture & Society 22(5), 255–267
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. trans. Massumi, B. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Deleuze, G. (1998) Dialogues: Gilles Deleuze, Claire Parnet [interview by Claire Parnet]. trans. Tomlinson, H., and Habberjam, B. New York: Columbia University Press
Protevi, J. (2009) Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Schuler, G., Oliveira, E. and Vearey, J (2016) Izwi Lethu: A Participatory Arts-Based Project. Johannesburg. The MoVE Project
Wise, J.G (2011) ‘Assemblage’. in Deleuze: Key Concepts. 2nd edn. ed. by Stivale, C.J. Durham: Acumen, 91-102