ESR 9 Blog September 2021: Sophie Mak-Schram

As I digest theory, I pause. I cycle home, downhill past the apple trees and onto a busy road. I don’t have many pictures from the past month but the whir of the lawnmowers in the apple orchard and the sound of planes overhead echo on in my head. I have been navigating the surreal return to reality that is a university populated with students again.

I began this month’s writing as a voice note. In this now deleted note, I ask you not whether, but rather, how ‘how I am feeling’ matters to the work you think I’m doing. A clearer formulation might be: what relation can the personal play to the academic or to forms of more formally recognised knowledge? I’ve been thinking around embodiment and visceral metaphors of the body: the trace, the wear, the cut, the turn, all matter.

Here’s an extract of a presentation I gave earlier this month around this theme, as part of our ongoing FEINART colloquium:

When trying to attest to the urgency, or the ‘why now’ of my research, I find myself indicating towards the following: the rise of education as a term that sits alongside art, and the continued proliferation of alternative education formats by artists. In part related to the rise in student fees, in part to the increasing instrumentalisation of the arts by funding bodies as a means to substitute or replace social work, perhaps also in part related to the renewed emphasis on community involvement or social engagement, there are many different responses to and reasons for this rise in what is being called the ‘educational turn’ in the arts.

I’m now grappling with the structuring metaphor: the turn. To turn it in, to turn over a new leaf, to turn something around – the English language, in its common usage, does tend to specify the direction and object that the verb actions on. I’m grappling with the turn alongside a contending with the institution, both as concept and reality: to think with the turn here is an effort to think through the tension of exploring radical education within the confines of what Gerald Raunig calls a “factory of knowledge”. This is not to come at all of you with a sledgehammer, but to indicate that these questions of relationality, opacity and subjecthood all surround my research too and how I (am permitted to) conduct it.

But in indicating urgency, I risk naturalising what Hassan Khan notes is also a genealogy as much as a movement and what Tom Holert indicates is more of an academic ‘taking account’ than a given phenomenon. A turn does not rupture a time line, but rather allows for the continued catching of that which is shape shifting. It is in motion, adamantly so, and the trope functions as a lens or filter, in a similar sense to how we might identify periods in art history through hindsighted historicisation. 

Irit Rogoff emphasises the elision of the body that is doing the turning. According to Rogoff:

“In a ‘turn’, we shift away from something or towards or around something, and it is we who are in movement, rather than it.”

When thinking about the body doing the turning, questions arise: What do we choose to turn away from, turn towards, and what is the cost (affective, socially, politically) of this motion? Radical or critical pedagogies, even within the European context, addresses the idea of (re)shaping the subject: who is subject to learning, who is the subject of learning, and what subject-ness is made possible within the format of education. This idea of the subject relates back to the body, both in the sense of a collective body (as per Berardi’s idea of the social body struggling for autonomy of knowledge) but also in the sense of the body as a physical, visceral, affective site within which knowledge emerges and politics are possible. Bodies are, for Erin Manning, what create space and time, rendering everything relational. This is not a sinking into relativity, but an opening up to thinking of the turn as a necessarily embodied one in which subjecthood shifts according to who or where we might locate agency.

As you can see, I’ve been densely weaving my way through theory, wondering about the place of the body, the self, the agent, the subject. Lists of words I’m working on defining, days ending with a ride downhill. That is to say – more next month.

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