Paper presented at 4S/EASST meeting

At the com­bined 4S/EASST meet­ing this year, Sarah Kem­ber and I pre­sent­ed a paper titled:

Writer­ly (ac)counts of finite flour­ish­ings and pos­si­bly bet­ter ways of being together

As Sarah’s intro­duc­tion to the paper out­lined, our co-writ­ings were an attempt to think with the emerg­ing strate­gies of fem­i­nist count­ing, account­ing and re-counting.
Below, I present my part to the co-authered piece. It’s long, so I put it here more for the record than any expec­ta­tion it will be read. I must add that the ideas I present draw on work done by . With­out her ener­gy and always thought­ful invest­ment in the field site, this reflec­tion would not have been possible:

Let me approach what we are call­ing these not so respon­si­ble strate­gies of fem­i­nist count­ing, account­ing and re-count­ing — where — from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. I’ll begin by talk­ing about a com­mu­ni­ty build­ing project I’ve been involved in and then, only very briefly, sketch out how, despite the dif­fer­ences, the two accounts Sarah and I have pre­sent­ed stitch togeth­er a com­mon thread. This is a thread that I will just hint at for now — it has to do with col­lec­tive refig­ur­ings, a mul­ti­plic­i­ty in par­tic­i­pa­tion, and, nat­u­ral­ly, a count­ing by oth­er means. Our hope is to intro­duce a sense of per­spec­tive, or a re-scal­ing, where the scale is not mere­ly more human or human­ist but some­thing that stems from a kind of writer­ly, fem­i­nist retelling that chal­lenges the mas­culin­ist dis­em­bod­ied knowl­edge prac­tices of those who are able to see mul­ti­scalar worlds or invis­i­ble infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures from every­where and nowhere.
The project I want to recount is set with­in a six-year regen­er­a­tion pro­gramme on the out­skirts of Lon­don, where a dete­ri­o­rat­ing 1960s hous­ing estate — once made up large­ly of high-rise tow­er blocks — is in the midst of being demol­ished and replaced by a con­tem­po­rary mix of fam­i­ly hous­es and low-rise apart­ment build­ings. It is a project also set against a longer arch: of a polit­i­cal move from ‘social hous­ing’ to ‘afford­able hous­ing’ and a polit­i­cal appetite for ‘social mixing’.
It will sur­prise no one here, that such ideas of regen­er­a­tion, afford­abil­i­ty and social mix­ing have already been char­ac­terised as par­a­dig­mat­ic of, if not instru­men­tal to, the neolib­er­al project. Here, dwellings, and where and how we dwell, are judged against a mar­ket val­ue and oppor­tu­ni­ties for wealth cre­ation. Even com­mu­ni­ty is com­mod­i­fied under a log­ic of eco­nom­ic fac­tors and enter­prise. Con­nect­ing these strands, Luna Glucks­berg of a “sym­bol­ic deval­u­a­tion of peo­ple, their homes and com­mu­ni­ties on inner-city estates” where val­ues such as wealth cre­ation seem to be more about an “exclu­sion from spe­cif­ic val­ue pro­duc­ing process­es” than build­ing bet­ter spaces and communities.
My sto­ry, amidst all this, begins three years ago with an invi­ta­tion from Car­ol, the pro­gres­sive and remark­ably calm project man­ag­er lead­ing the regen­er­a­tion of shall we call it the ‘East­gate Estate’. Work­ing for a Hous­ing Asso­ci­a­tion that has tak­en over the once pub­li­cal­ly owned estate, Car­ol artic­u­lates a com­pelling case for the mas­sive changes to the built envi­ron­ment. She talks of a failed project now syn­ony­mous with social depra­va­tion and crime rather than bru­tal­ist utopias. “You’ll end up on the East­gate Estate” has been the threat to trou­ble­some youth in the area.
In Carol’s eyes, the fresh build­ing plans and con­cur­rent changes to things like ten­an­cy agree­ments are a con­cert­ed push towards build­ing a com­mu­ni­ty —one com­mu­ni­ty — where there was none. This is pal­pa­ble on the site and feels to gen­uine­ly moti­vate Carol’s team. Indeed, Carol’s orig­i­nal invi­ta­tion to me was to help in this ‘com­mu­ni­ty build­ing’ by work­ing with the regen­er­a­tion team’s pub­lic engage­ment offi­cer, Char­lie, and a group of core res­i­dents from the old estate.
For myself, and Clara Criv­el­laro, it was impos­si­ble to resist Carol’s invi­ta­tion. Although under con­sid­er­able pres­sure as project man­ag­er, Car­ol wel­comed vir­tu­al­ly all the ideas we put for­ward. Thus, over the course of 18 months, led by Clara, we embarked on a series of inter­views, meet­ings, work­shops and inter­ven­tions, cul­mi­nat­ing in the design of a sys­tem for col­lect­ing audio record­ings of res­i­dents’ local sto­ries — a sys­tem seek­ing to project per­son­al and col­lec­tive nar­ra­tives back onto a place lit­er­al­ly stripped of its phys­i­cal and social geography.
Many of you here would expect noth­ing less than par­tic­i­pant informed and care­ful­ly craft­ed sys­tems like this from a par­tic­i­pa­to­ry design. What I want to focus on though are not these inter­ven­tions per se. Rather, what has struck me has been how a pre­dom­i­nant­ly women’s labour—or, bet­ter yet, the labours of women—have come to sur­face the dif­fer­ent ways in which a com­mu­ni­ty counts. And, for me, this isn’t sim­ply about get­ting behind grass­roots resis­tances where what counts is a two fin­gers up to the estab­lish­ment. I find myself scep­ti­cal of any such tidy bina­ry, and one-way solutionism.
In writ­ing with Sarah, we’ve come to under­stand our co-fig­ur­ings as a recount­ing-as-rescal­ing, where a fem­i­nized labour (as opposed to pure­ly fem­i­nine labour) high­lights the con­tin­ued val­ue of sto­ries in an era dom­i­nat­ed by finan­cial account­ing and the sin­gu­lar com­pu­ta­tion­al count. This is a rescal­ing that doesn’t reject met­rics, but is pro­duc­tive in com­pu­ta­tion­al and mate­r­i­al archi­tec­tures that might re-eval­u­ate who and what counts.
So, in the case of the Hous­ing Association’s man­age­ment team, what stood out were not the social mix­ing num­bers being tar­get­ed or even Carol’s over­whelm­ing spread­sheets cal­cu­lat­ing star­tling­ly large costs against fore­cast­ed rev­enues from the dif­fer­ent ten­an­cies. For me, what mat­tered were the shift­ing per­spec­tives and scales afford­ed in Carol’s dai­ly encoun­ters: that she put her office in one of the soon to be demol­ished build­ings; that she walked the Estate’s streets and cor­ri­dors, talk­ing and gen­uine­ly lis­ten­ing to res­i­dents; and that they vis­it­ed her with tea and cake, and for counsel.
Car­ol seemed in this not just for the senior posi­tion she’d been giv­en at her Hous­ing Association’s flag­ship site or because she stood out as an excep­tion­al woman among the usu­al male-man­age­ment in plan­ning and devel­op­ment… she was in this because she believed life on-the-Estate could be dif­fer­ent. Sen­si­tive to the fric­tions and con­tra­dic­tions of work­ing to a spread­sheet of val­ue-over-val­ues, she and her team cre­at­ed the con­di­tions of open­ness to oth­er sto­ries and the inevitable rescal­ing of counts, up and down.
For res­i­dents, this open­ness has indeed com­pli­cat­ed things. Long-time res­i­dent of the East­gate Estate, There­sa, found the oper­a­tionalised val­ue of a com­mu­ni­ty count­ed against her. With­out an assured income, she failed to meet the cut for the estate’s new ten­an­cy agree­ments and so found her­self hav­ing to move to a near­by estate.
Yet, while we worked on the project, There­sa con­tin­ued to be one of the most active par­tic­i­pants and, with the record­ing tech­nol­o­gy in par­tic­u­lar, helped to col­lect many of the recordings.
“We are doing this because we want peo­ple to know that every­where you go there is going to be prob­lems and some­times you can make a neg­a­tive into a pos­i­tive thing. I mean it’s like the stab­bing – some­times when you have a tragedy that brings the com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er […] can help improve some­thing […] peo­ple know that every­thing is not perfect.”
For Tracey, the sto­ries count­ed because they rep­re­sent­ed peo­ple on the Estate com­ing togeth­er for gen­uine rea­sons, they were sto­ries that resist­ed homo­ge­neous notions of a ‘per­fect har­mo­nious com­mu­ni­ty’ and that showed instead why com­mu­ni­ties find a resilience.
Thus There­as is, classed at once, as not right for the new estate, finan­cial­ly, but also deeply invest­ed in its past, present and future. Her trou­bling posi­tion unrav­els any sin­gu­lar log­ic of val­ue and shows there to be hard to rec­on­cile dif­fer­ences to a count.
Trou­bles were also there in the record­ed sto­ries them­selves. Won­der­ing about what to record, Denise told a group of us about her scav­eng­ing on the demo­li­tion site look­ing for mem­o­ra­bil­ia to pre­serve some­thing from the old estate.
“Just before the block itself was actu­al­ly locked off to the pub­lic, I went back with a car­ri­er bag full of glass bot­tles and did it one more time, just to hear it, and I videoed it, so here it is [replays sound]”
Man­ag­ing to get to the top of one of the derelict tow­er blocks, she’d thrown bot­tles down the rub­bish shoot — as she did when she was a child — and record­ed the evoca­tive sound on her phone.
In a lat­er encounter, again sat around the record­ing equip­ment, Rose, a 30-year res­i­dent on the estate, spoke of it being “the best thing that ever hap­pened”, giv­ing her the chance to “do things she nev­er dreamt of”. Her rec­ol­lec­tions are again of a com­mu­ni­ty pitch­ing in and mak­ing do: of morn­ing cof­fees, ploughman’s lunch­es and after­noon teas, of fun days in the local fields, mon­ey raised to see the Christ­mas lights and bus rides to vil­lages in Kent. “You looked for good things” and dis­cov­ered “there was always good things.”
“Obvi­ous­ly it has changed over the years and there are so many diverse sto­ries […] that it all adds to everybody’s knowl­edge of every­body else…we are all shar­ing and learn more about the past and as I said we meet peo­ple and they talk about what they would like for the future…its all con­nect­ed really…”
Yet Denise’s memen­tos and Rose’s good things don’t seem like things that can be uni­form­ly cal­cu­lat­ed; they might more eas­i­ly be classed as “pop­u­lar,” or “lay,” “creek-side,” even “house­wife” met­rics that are, as the anthro­pol­o­gist Dianne Nel­son , the mud­dy pol­lu­tants in a ‘regime of log­ic’ that bal­ance costs against ben­e­fits. But still, these “off-book” accounts (again Nelson’s phrase) mate­ri­alise the many things that can come to count, counts as always some­thing laboured on in the vari­ably scaled “val­ue pro­duc­ing processes”.
And of course there has been the time and labour Clara has put into this project. Maybe these labours and their impact could all be tal­lied up as a suc­cess­ful return on invest­ment, and used as a ‘respon­si­ble met­ric’ in her department’s nation­al research excel­lence frame­work assess­ment. For me, though, it’s been Clara’s con­tin­u­ing care for what counts and how it might be count­ed. Putting her heart into the work, her achieve­ment has not been to nar­row in on one side over the oth­er, of assum­ing what counts or who counts in sin­gu­lar ways. Rather, she’s sur­faced the strug­gle and, bor­row­ing from Har­away, stayed with it to make room. For me, Clara’s care epit­o­mis­es what Maria Puig de la Bel­la­casa calls an “affec­tive engage­ment”. She has suc­ceed­ed in ‘re-affect­ing’ an objec­ti­fied world by cre­at­ing the con­di­tions for rescal­ing in what-counts-as-valu­able on an Estate.
In a mix­ture of ways, then, women like Car­ol, There­sa, Rose, Denise, and Clara have giv­en me the impe­tus and lan­guage to ask dif­fer­ent ques­tions about com­mu­ni­ty and about count­ing. I’d be wrong to claim that these women speak for a fem­i­nist ontics, yet, one by one, I see what they’ve done and what they do as a fem­i­nised labour, a recount­ing-as-rescal­ing, that is sit­u­at­ed some­where and that, in its ongo­ing­ness, holds the pos­si­bil­i­ties open.
As a man work­ing for what I can only describe as a mas­culinised organ­i­sa­tion (one heav­i­ly invest­ed in the com­pu­ta­tion­al count and the log­ic that knots togeth­er this with mar­kets), these alter­na­tive fig­u­ra­tions and rescal­ings invite me to reflect on my com­plic­i­ty. They invite me, to para­phrase Isabelle Stengers, “to recog­nise [myself] as a prod­uct of the his­to­ry whose con­struc­tion [I am] try­ing to [un]follow”. It ush­ers me into I hope irre­spon­si­ble yet at the same time pro­duc­tive pat­tern­ings and knot­tings where there might just be the pos­si­bil­i­ty of refig­ur­ing com­pu­ta­tion­al and mate­r­i­al archi­tec­tures for val­ues in the making.
… work­ing from Newcastle’s Open Lab
See Glucks­berg, L. (2014). “We Was Regen­er­at­ed Out”: Regen­er­a­tion, Recy­cling and Devalu­ing Com­mu­ni­ties. Val­u­a­tion Stud­ies, 2(2), 97–118.

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