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.

Leave a comment