ESR 9 Blog March 2021: Sophie Mak-Schram

May I think of you as a translating, and thereby participating, body? The tail end of a thought I left us on last month was around the abstraction of you as a reader. This is something that preoccupies me – the way in which theory, but also wider institutional programming, presumes either that you know a certain amount or imposes onto you a relationship that we could term hierarchical. You, the conversational partner equally versed in Rancière,[1] or you, the simple consumer of a knowledge product.

Of course, this isn’t a binary. That’s something I’m interested in more widely – the binary and how we might frame questions, or disciplines, beyond an either/or without losing ourselves in the fluidity of everything goes. Mieke Bal offers a clear minded critique of the easy slippage that can occur when academics (or anyone really, but particularly academics) apply inter- or trans-disciplinarity too lazily. She questions how the ‘traveling’ of concepts might obscure or overlook some of their specificities, their moulding to the material they were originally shaped from or for.[2] Her warning that we might need to think through where our concepts come from, isn’t one of advocating for disciplinary purity. It is, however, one I am keen to bring into our shared space of knowing (for now, this blog you are reading), as I begin to think through how, and with what implications, we might make claims for anything para-, trans- or beyond. In short, I’m thinking (again, repeatedly) about the implications and considerations of drawing from other fields of knowledge.

Drawing from other areas also includes the non-formal, the informal, or what I’m framing slowly in my research as the para-institutional. Moving these elements and ideas across, intermingling them in the process of fermentation/thinking of my own, is a kind of translation. It’s (temporarily) giving form to something in a specific context, framing an idea in clothes, trying something on for size. I asked at the beginning whether I could suppose you a translating body, because research, as much as we sometimes might hope otherwise, doesn’t end when I make a concluding statement. And my work over the coming three years aims to think through what kinds of knowledge, and knowledge-producing methods, arise from relations, interactions and artistic work in which texts do not form the end point or the singular object of knowledge.

‘Drawing from’ needs to be complemented by what Trinh T. Minh-Ha ethically, carefully and beautifully calls a ‘speaking nearby’.[3] What position do I hold in relation to the projects I plan to study? Ethnography has long been under ethical fire for its historical binarisation of self/other (a division that aligned with that of white/non-white, but that’s for a different time), and art history has, in various waves, also been questioned for who and how it studies the objects (and people) it does. So part of my thinking through, with you, semi-publically, is how I find a position from which to study with, about and in, the field of socially-engaged art, and how my positioning positions or implies the positions of others.

Whilst I process this, I’d like to share two questions, one from an artist friend and another from an experiential education friend:

How might we approach feeling in the blanks?

And, at the same time,

How might we continue to dance in the question?


[1] If you’ve skimmed to the bottom to check out who you “should” know, hi! Rancière’s on my reading list too.

[2] The text I’m referencing is the introduction to Bal’s Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide (3-21. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.

[3] This is in an interview with Nancy N. Chen, (‘”Speaking nearby”: A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-Ha’, Visual Anthropology Review 8: 1 (Spring 1992), 82-91), which was recommended during a weekly breakfast session we have as a FEINART group at Zeppelin University.

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