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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.