By Tehseen Noorani
The Voice of the Other retreat, held as part of a project on more-than-human political participation, was held in September at The Lynhurst, a large house situated on the cliffside in the coastal town of Lynton, England. Twelve academics and artists got together to ask questions such as: What does it mean to create the stages for the voices of non-human or non-living participants to be heard? How can ‘we’ (a term that became reciprocally-problematized) listen differently? And what role do the arts – drama, music, poetry, digital art – play in authorizing the voices of non-human and non-living actors? Over the week we wove these, and related questions, into the sharing of our research interests and practices.
There were lovely moments of connection, within our discussion sessions but also over meals, walks, playing music and unwinding at the end of the days. We explicitly tried to bring non-humans into the fold – for example, using the house and the locality themselves as connectors, engaging with the spaces through events that had occurred in the past. A recurring theme was taking seriously the form, in addition to the content, of claims and practices of participation. How they made, through which material and technical apparatuses and using what modes of expression.
Here, these included the fundamentally slippery nature of the issues at stake, and the diversity of participants in attendance... In relation to the former, calling this project Participation’s ‘Others’, despite using inverted commas, always risked othering the ‘others’. In conceptualizing the project, we had kept the term because we saw the topic as negatively-defined: i.e. how can we understand participation’s actors beyond the conventional liberal subject? And yet this negative definition forever re-presented the specter of othering, often obscuring the different issues at stake. The second challenge was a more familiar one we have faced at several retreats, manifest in being able to hold silences in collective conversation – so important to for listening and thinking together, and yet so tempting to fill, especially when people do not yet know each other very well.
For me, the most insightful moment came one evening late in the week, when a tense silence had filled the dining room. Over dinner, Mrs Potato was brought out and laid in the middle of the table. After recognizing her subjecthood with the help of a pair of googly eyes just days earlier, she had been savagely impaled with a carving fork and kitchen knife. For a moment everyone absorbed the inhumanity of the act, and then the accusations began. Over the next few minutes, almost everyone around the table was accused of having attacked Mrs Potato – was it while most of the group had been out on a silent walk? Or while those assigned to cook had been preparing the evening meal in the kitchen? Finally, in a eureka moment, Gail leaped to her feet to announce that the positioning of the murder weapons had to mean that Mrs Potato was killed by a left-handed person, narrowing the possibilities to Matthew, who had brought the stash of googly eyes, or Rachel. That was, until Sam spotted Tehseen using a dessert spoon in a suspiciously left-handed way.The case of Mrs Potato unfolded like a detective story, where one is always already in the middle, seeking out clues that make sense of things, not knowing how the chips will ultimately fall. This brilliantly evoked the form of our chosen output from the week-long retreat. I confess I had been anxious all week that we get to some fundamental agreement – perhaps reaching consensus over a key term or two, or defining the problem that we all held at the center. While we never reached agreement, my anxiety lifted entirely at the precise moment at the end of the week when we sat down to discuss what we would produce together – a ‘Choose your own adventure’ book, where our different contributions open onto one another in ways that render the reader as a detective who explores what participatory practice and participatory democracy beyond the bounded living human subject might possibly mean. In this form of output, the reader-detective is always in the middle and learning differently depending on the choices they make.
I found that this connected up the dots of one of the earlier conversations in the week. Polly had presented her work on arts-for-health, which led to a discussion of whether one needs to separate the ‘drama’ or doing component from the ‘research’ or learning component in arts-based techniques. For example,
Get a group to form a circle and imagine a non-living or non-human actor in the middle. Facilitate their co-creation of that actor in some detail. Then ask them to step back for a moment, and reflect upon what they created, discussing what assumptions and biases are revealed in the construction of the imaginary actor.
This illustrates a lively tendency in arts-for-health techniques – first to enact drama and then to reflect upon it. A boundary or ‘cut’ between dramatizing and reflecting is often invoked in analyses of knowledge generation, as it allows a subject to reflect upon an object of inquiry by separating themselves from it and holding the object (or ‘other’) up for reflection. Our conversation raised the question of whether the separation of the two stages – drama followed by reflection – is necessary. How could one do the research through the drama, rather than after it and upon it?
The problem with uncritically demanding that drama be separate from reflection is that we can mistake the drama for revealing the ‘truth’ in us. However, what would it mean to identify the act of dramatizing as already self-aware – of the roles, the prejudices, and the ironies at stake? Such a framework might reveal that in a conventional two-stage approach we simply tend to produce images we already know to be caricatures, upon which we already know the lessons we must learn. The problem, then, is that we learn nothing new.
The idea of a ‘detective story’ helps me to better understand one way retreats are valuable spaces – they carry the potential to collapse the doing and reflecting stages. Rather, through very material and self-referential adventures in thinking together, we can come to hear what we don’t already know – not even in the deepest, darkest recesses of our minds (unless you were the elusive left-handed murderer). Learning as we go, rather than separating the ‘doing’ activities from the ‘reflecting’ activities, is an example of shifting from ‘tool-for-result’ to ‘tool-and-result’. For me, Mrs Potato was a crystallization of this moment and this is the spirit in which I understand us to be entering the research for the Choose your own adventure book. It is how we will be able to identify our own ways of unseeing, and capacities to listen in creative ways. Ways of exploring more-than-human space(s) and inhabiting inhuman time(s). Seeking out that which has the power to surprise us. Including Mrs Potato.
Thanks to all who attended – human, part-human, post-human, more-than-human and non-human. Including:
 Newman, F., & Holzman, L. (2013) Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist (Classic ed.) New York: Psychology Press (original publication 1993).