When it’s difficult ...
In these field notes, I trace back to find the inspiration for ‘Bulletins from the Edge’, looking at some of my early autobiographical and theoretical influences, including Schutz’s phenomenological model of ‘growing old together’. I am here tentatively introducing a deeper set of questions that underpin this project around the theme of ‘collective memories’ and the relationship between the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ in collaborative literary practice.
There is sometimes a temptation to present the 'we' within collaborative projects such as this as a cohesive whole. In practice, any project that is truly diverse will encounter differences in perspectives and interpretations. All of the films in ‘Bulletins from the Edge’ are the outcome of a three-way correspondence between the creative production team, the writer, and me. Some of the films were easy to make. We were able to intuitively ‘tune in’ to each other and we quickly reached a shared vision that we were all happy with. But, other films took much longer to make and required several conversations with the writer, sometimes leading to an extended back-and-forth process with the editorial team before we settled on a joint approach.
Whilst I was delighted to receive an immediate joyful response from some participants, perhaps the challenge of interpretation reveals something about the value and purpose of literature as a collaborative practice. I agree with Maria Delago, who has eloquently argued that the ‘we’ is ‘not a single unit’ and that ‘it may not always be united’. Delago observes that:
‘Civility involves empathy. It is also fundamentally rooted in a need to listen, and listening is about recognizing that others may not think as you do.’ (E)
The Great Margin was formed with a civic objective in mind. As the project progressed and as I reflected on the interpretative process of producing the final output, I came to understand that filmmaking is an advanced form of readership. Ngozi Adichie (D) has argued that reading should be challenging, and I think that the same is true of any interpretive process that starts with the premise of civility. As I observed during the process of making ‘Bulletins from the Edge’, empathy is not always easy, and nor should it be. It requires frequent and persistent effort to see the world from another person’s perspective.
Within these field notes, I explore some of the possibilities and tensions of of collaborative literary project that seeks to both enact a shared vision and allow for difference. I begin with a quick recap of some of the themes that emerged from the films, followed by a discussion of some of the early personal experiences, intentions memories and theoretical ‘touchstones’ that led me to embark on this journey. I then introduce some phenomenological frameworks to explore how ‘the we’ within our literary forum can be understood as a civic space for listening, interpretation and shared sense-making. I conclude with observations on some of the insights developed through this project and some of my reflections on where we might take this kind of work next.
These notes are not offered as a coherent or finished piece of writing, but rather as a sounding board and as a glimpse into the ideas, contexts, observations, relationships and aspirations that influenced me in the ‘tissue of making’ this project (G). What I am doing here is gathering and presenting reflections that have arisen on the complex relationship between the I, the We and the hoped for future in the making of ‘Bulletins from the Edge’, a project that has attempted to ‘make sense of’ the social experience of writing and reading together, from the margins during a period of global crisis.
Past, Present, Future
To recap on the previous field notes:
‘Bulletins from the Edge’ represents a series of poetic perspectives on our relationship to others, to the past, to the present, and to the future during a period of mass crisis..
Towards the Past: The films touch on themes of grief and loss, and on the desire to return to a time before enforced separation. For some participants, the simple acts of writing and filmmaking became a way to hold and capture thought, particularly memories about other people that made had influenced their life before the pandemic.
Towards others: The Great Margin was conceived as an empathetic endeavour; a sense of community and compassion featured strongly in the works presented within the final film collection. The project, as a whole, heightened participants’ sense of connection to others.
Towards the Present: The aesthetics of poetry, particularly its fragmentation, readily reflects the sense of stillness and ‘suspension’ that many people felt during the lockdown, and echoes feelings of being ‘out of sync’ with the reality of the pandemic. There is an immediacy and vividness to the films.
Memory for Futures: In some of the films we see an urge to reimagine futures. For some, the future is a space for hope, the possibility that one day they will return to ‘normal life’. For others there is only a small space for hope, and the future promises more of the same. For others still, the future presents a warning of an even worse disaster that could befall us if we do not pay attention to signs of discord that are clearly evident in the present moment.
Between You and I
‘When it's difficult, what keeps me going is the possibility of joy.’ Ngozi Adichie
When I am asked to describe my role on the project I say that I was Principal Investigator/Film Director. Or, I point towards my role as an ‘immersive story developer’, which is a form of creative practice akin to film directing that involves a process of creating shared experience and participatory experience across multiple platforms. But, a ‘role’ does not truly capture the reflective process of research, nor does it explain why I do this kind of work and what I personally bring to it. The following extract from my research diaries provides a more personal introduction to my experiences, ideas and intentions that informed this project.
I was raised in a rural mining village in the North of England represented in Sean Meadows’ film A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) as a place of desolation within which children are powerless to determine their futures. Whilst I do not remember my childhood being as bleak as in Meadows’ depiction, I did face significant isolation whilst growing up. As a teenager, I started to write in order to make sense of feelings of remoteness. I wrote in order to engage with the world around me.
I now live in the South, a part of England which, contrary to popular belief, has large pockets of rural and urban poverty. As an adult, my understanding of the influence of marginalisation on my sensibility as a writer was further affected by experiences of illness in the family. At the age of 26, I became my partner’s carer. As a couple, we found ourselves caught in the rhythms of his illness, dislocated from the normal flows of life.
Due to his illness, my partner's memory was severely impaired. In the early stages of his illness, he couldn’t hold onto his memories for more than 15 minutes. I was pregnant at the time, but my partner was unable to retain the information that we were going to have a child. I remember repeatedly giving him the good news; which he received each time with surprise, and joy. Through this experience, I began to appreciate the vital role that memory plays in helping us to orientate ourselves not just to the past, but to each other, and to the future.
Like the lead character in the film Memento, my partner was not able to create new memories. Our situation sometimes felt hopeless because, as I was coming to understand, hope is a product of our relationship to both the past and the future. I asked myself: if my partner can’t remember that I was pregnant, then how can we look forward to the future together? Without a past and a future, what basis was there for a relationship? With no memory, and thus with no points of reference to connect us as a couple, how could we grow and evolve together?
In Memento the main character finds another way of creating memories - he starts to take photographs and writes ‘reminders’ to himself on his body. Similarly, through personal experience, I discovered that you don’t need to be able to mentally recall information to create shared memories. Memory is a way of organising and looking at experience, and it is usually produced through the act of looking back on time. But, in the absence of the ability to 'look back' and recall experience it is possible to reflect on experience moment to moment, through the simple act of spending time with another person and observing shared points of reference. In a similar way, hope can emerge when we make space for the future in the present, for example when we talk about things that we are looking forward to, would like to do, or would wish for. Further, through deliberate acts of inscription - such as photography, writing and film - we can hold shared memories and observe shared hopes for the future. In this way when we make something together and reflect on it, we bring the past and future into a relationship with our present.
It was during this period that I became interested in the phenomenology of writing - and, specifically, in how language is used expressively to make sense of experiences of dislocation and isolation. I was drawn, in particular, to the tradition of social phenomenology developed by Alfred Schutz. In attempting to account for the expressivity of communication, Schutz (A) differentiates between a ‘sign-object’ and a ‘sign-act’, highlighting the difference between the products and the processes of knowledge. Schutz argues that every sign-object is surrounded by ‘fringes’ that connect its past and future elements. Around the nucleus of the sign-object is a ‘halo’ of emotional values and irrational implications that ‘remain ineffable’. These fringes ‘are the stuff poetry is made of; they are capable of being set to music but they are not translatable’ (A). Likewise, every sign-act contains the aura of the user that says something of the biographical, historical and social context in which it was used. When we study the expressive use of language, we are therefore studying the expressive development of an emerging subjective and social life (A).
Schutz (B) suggested that through face-to-face communication we gain an experience of flow by ‘tuning in’ to other people. When we are in direct contact with other people the pattern of speech and response is at its most immediate, intimate and intense. Face to face, we directly experience another person’s body as a field of expression and we need not use oral language or other symbols for a responsive pattern to emerge. We grow old simply through being together, as when watching a bird in flight: ‘It is enough for me to know that you are a fellow human being watching the same thing as I was. And if you have in a similar way coordinated my experiences to yours, then we can both say that we have seen the bird in flight (B).’ Shutz called this experience of sharing a point of view with another person ‘reciprocity of perception’.
Schutz (B) proposed that the two foundational processes of communication are ‘face to face’ interaction and ‘tuning in’. All other forms of communication are variations in intensity, immediacy or intimacy of these processes (A). He implied that pictorial communications, gestures and ‘fields of expression’ enable us to develop an immediate relationship with the self and the ‘hidden mind’ of others (C). Following Schutz’s arguments, I became interested in how 'reciprocity of perspective’ is translated into expressive language - such as writing, film and photography. Expressive language can enable us to home in on the details of life -- for example writing amplifies the thoughts of another person and photography or film enables us to see the environment from the perspective of another. Thus, expressive language can help us to see and attend to the unfulfilled needs and aspirations of others. Creative writing and reading, I concluded, can help us to mobilize a ‘reciprocity of perception’.
When I first started considering approaches to writing from the margins from a phenomenological perspective, I was attempting to explore how our ‘sign acts’ open up paths for two-way communication between the local and the remote, or between the personal and the social, thus creating a civic space for meaning making. I was creatively investigating the relationship between a personal, subjective life and a public life, and asking: How does writing enable us to orientate ourselves to wider social circles whilst still remaining within the province of our own subjective experience? Other branches of phenomenology focus on the idea of sense making as experienced from the ‘first person’ point of view. In doing so, they gloss over the social, civic and relational functions of our symbolic systems. I was primarily interested in Schutz's original notion of ‘social orientation’ and 'social' phenomenology and my goal was to study expressive writing from the margins as a ‘sense making’ process that takes place within communal acts of care.
Reciprocity of Perception: Writing and Reading with ‘us’ in mind
In the introduction to The Great Margin, I talk about who ‘we’, the co-producers of this project, are:
The ‘we’ of Paper Nations includes a team of writers, researchers, editors, and administrators. We also work closely with several leading authors including Nathan Filer, Kit De Waal, and Aminatta Forna who support and inform our programme of work. Outside the immediate team, we work closely with a group of community educators, creative producers, and creative advisory groups. Widening the circle still further, we also work with writers, writing facilitators, social enterprises and writing organisations nationally and online. This ‘we’ is a collective composed of individuals from different backgrounds, with different motivations, experiences, and perspectives, whose singular voices contribute to one single shared purpose. It is this ‘we’ — this diverse fusion of people, ideas and experience — that gives strength to The Great Margin project.
Further details about the experiences and reflections of participants who took part in this project can be found in the field notes on interpretive practice. Here, I want to introduce another way of thinking about who ‘we’ are - one that allows us to talk about the notion of our duties of care, and our responsibility to others as creative beings.
Schutz (B) argues that each individual is faced with the primary challenge of orienting themselves to a world that continually extends beyond their existence. This process of orientation begins with a subjective first-person experience and extends outwards towards a set of relationships of care that connect us to other people. He notes that whilst our daily relationships of care are immediate and local, we are also often asked to ‘care about’ people who are distant, remote or anonymous to us (for example, as citizens of the world we need to consider the impacts of our actions on other national and/or global citizens). Schutz argues that response to these multiple obligations we create symbolic systems to facilitate the extension of care from the local to the global. In this way, through expressive acts of ‘sense making’ (such as writing, art and media), individuals can make distant relationships feel more concrete -- our language systems enable us to symbolically ‘grasp’ our obligations of care.
Schutz (A) does not regard ‘expressivity’ as a frivolous act. On the contrary, he sees expressive language as an attempt on the part of individuals to care for themselves whilst caring for others. His central research question is thus: ‘how do we grow old together?’ In other words, how do individuals develop their own subjectivity, whilst supporting and caring for the development of others? His answer to this question can be found in his phenomenology, which, for him, is the study of overlapping spheres of meaning making - starting from a first-person perspective and moves out to a wider view of anonymous relationships. Schutz calls these different forms of orientation ‘we-relationships’.
The projective logic of poetry: making hope legible
Schutz, also, discusses ‘orientation’ as a temporal phenomenon, one that enables us to look back in time. As Schutz notes, memory often involves grasping our past objectively through the act of stepping out of time or turning back on ourselves. This presupposes ‘a special kind of attitude towards that stream of time, a 'reflection' as we will call it. The awareness of the experience in the pure stream of duration is changed at every moment into remembered 'having-just-been-thus'; it is the remembering which lifts the experience out of the irreversible stream of duration and thus modifies the awareness, making it a remembrance’ (A).
The mythologist Roland Barthes has applied this idea of ‘having-been-there’ to the analysis of photography. I wondered - could we, similarly, apply this logic to poetry?. Attempting to answer this question, I observed that poetry, like photography and film, can create a sense of ‘having-been-there’. But the abstractness of poetic language enables us, additionally, to look forward and to grasp the intangible. I was curious about this projective logic of poetry, how it facilitates a relationship to the future, to the unknowable. It seemed to me that poetry, in its abstractness, made space for hope and for expression of the possibility that we are ‘going-to-be-there’. In poetry we find hope made legible, as memory for futures.
Can you see what I see? Observing limitations and imbalances.
It was through reflection on Schutz’s notion of ‘Growing Old Together’, and expressive language as a gateway to ‘We-Relationships’, that I developed the idea for The Great Margin. My goal was to create an action research project that used expressive practices to develop a participatory community and civic space for people living and writing from the edges of experience.
Whilst seeking to raise the platform for those who are the most marginalised in our society, I also wanted the project to speak to those who do not consider themselves as marginalised, in order to facilitate dialogue and empathy across different social groups. I recognised that some people experience severe marginalisation extensively throughout their lives, whilst for others it is a sudden, acute trauma (for example, arising through the unexpected loss of a loved one, through unexpected redundancy, illness, or perhaps in fleeting moments of ill-being).
Although Schutz was an important influence, it's important to note the limitations that I found in his approach. I felt that his phenomenology was developed from a position of privilege which weakened its potential as a methodology or addressing the theme of marginalisation. For example, Schutz assumes that the average person is, like him, centred and held within a community of care. He, thus, describes language as a process of ‘reaching out’ from the centre to the margins.
But a person who is marginalised is, by definition, decentred. When you are marginalised, remoteness is not an abstract concept. Quite the opposite -- isolation is a fundamental part of your lived experience -- it has a presence in your life, and it is not ‘another place’ that you are trying to reach. Speaking from experience, as I attempted to express myself whilst writing from the margins, I was trying to connect to others, but I was also writing to reassemble a sense of ‘self’, ‘home’ and ‘culture’.
So, the questions underlying the project were beginning to evolve:
Can we write and interpret culture from the margins? Can literary forums enable a reciprocity of perspectives , whilst allowing for difference? Can poetry enable us to observe limitations, and imbalances of perspectives in the system? Or, at the very least, can it enable those who are the most isolated to reassemble a meaningful sense of place, self and hope? Through processes of writing ourselves home, can we contribute to the reimagining of culture from the margins?
What originally drew me to Schutz was his emphasis on the relationship between the personal and the social and, in particular, his focus on how care is expressed through creative acts. The idea for The Great Margin emerged from a desire to explore the relationship between individual perceptions and the social structures that can draw people together. I was interested, therefore, not only in the perspective of ‘the artist’ but also that of the reader and/or spectator -- i.e., in how our processes of interpretation influence the social production of works of poetry and art.
But, in light these limitations explored, I started to look for complementary approaches to Schutz's phenomenology in order to explore language as a dialectical process of both reaching out to experience other cultures whilst, at the same time, reinventing what culture means to you. Most of the best examples, perhaps unsurprisingly, arise from people who have put the collaborative process at the heart of their practice. I looked towards a range of traditions of narrative production/analysis, including film, photography and theatre. I reflected on Boal’s notion of ‘forum theatre’, Berger’s concept of the ‘expressive photograph’, Boal’s concepts of the ‘Spect-actor’; and more recently Materasso’s concept of community art.
Shifting points of focus
The focus of my research and my interest in the theme of writing from the margins began to shift again in 2020 with the onset of the pandemic and the ensuing global crisis that followed. Taking an applied phenomenological approach to the unfolding pandemic, additional questions arose:
How do we participate in public life, from the fringes whilst living in lockdown and under the restrictions of social distancing?How are the modalities of in-person interaction translated and performed within online literary forms? Can participatory methodologies from theatre and film be applied to literature projects, in particular approaches to reading and writing that take place within a digital space and that are thus 'mediated' through audio-visual and theatrical technologies? How is our creative life oriented towards others and how do multimodal environments intensify/moderate that experience?
My approach to The Great Margin had, from the start, been informed by traditions that allow for the sharing of experiences and subjectivities between the artist/researcher and the reader/writer. Now, though, my project to connect people through writing about isolation, and my wider ambition to explore language as an amplified mode of creative ‘apperception’ (i.e. as a variation in our attempt to see what is on ‘the other side’), suddenly felt more relevant, urgent and challenging.
What we found, what we lost, and what we seek to replenish
To facilitate lockdown filmmaking, we used online archives. But, unfortunately, we encountered a noticeable gap in the archives. Specifically, there was a shortage within the online repositories of footage representing participants from diverse backgrounds (this included a shortage of people from Black, Indian and Asian backgrounds; and a lack of variety of footage from India). A key finding was, therefore, that our collective archives are impoverished, which leads to a further ‘locking out’ of marginalised groups from culture (see ‘symbolic annihilation’ and ‘affect’ in relation to archives in Caswell et al., 2016). As Manoff (2017) states: ‘If the archive cannot or does not accommodate a particular kind of information or mode of scholarship, then it is effectively excluded from the historical record’. 'Bulletins from the Edge' made a small contributed to the replenishing of our cultural archives with new memories, representations and forms of expression.
Further, in replenishing our archives and through simple acts of listening the project made space for hope. As a whole, the project improved participants' sense of wellbeing, connection and community during the pandemic. The project demonstrated that through writing from the margins, people can participate in the public sphere and can contribute to the reinterpretation of culture in crisis. Creativity is not a tool, but it is a process that enables people to take part in social life. Writing, furthermore, is a specific form of creative expression that enables people to connect their deepest emotions to wider civic discussions about what is important to us, what we fear and what we hope for.
But, the potential for loss as well as gain in any collaborative act must be acknowledged. Whilst a key aim of this project was initially to raise the voice of writing from the margins - we found that there is no ‘perfect’ translation and that meaning inevitably shifts through processes of literary interpretation. These shifts in meaning can sometimes be unsettling, but they are not always to be avoided. Indeed, it may be that the value of interpretative practice in a project such as this is that it brings one person's voice into relation with another. Thus, the project recognised that perception is always relational and in flux. Having been produced through a process of interpretation, it is likely that the meaning of this work will continue to shift (sometimes in ways that we did not intend) after the final collection is released.
We learnt through the process of working on this project that true empathy requires a deep process of actively listening to people who may have a very different perspective from our own. Interpretation entails a loss and gain of meaning - listening is imperfect and we sometimes hear without fully understanding. When creating a collaborative piece of work, the individual voice may get lost in the crowd, and the meaning of an individual contribution may be interpreted in ways that differ from the original intention.
In light of this, some emergent questions from this research that warrant further exploration are:
How are civic spaces realised in a collaborative literary project? How are futures imaginatively produced?
How are responsibilities shared and handled? (i.e between director/writer; research/participant; reader/writer; educator/learner)
Given that the wider pool of collective memories/archives is not representative of the breadth of experiences from the edges, what can we do to further replenish these pools; and how can the lack of reciprocity in perspectives be meaningfully addressed?
Can we replenish our archives in a way that goes beyond 'documentation' and towards a poetical expression of our experience, enabling those that write from the margins to determine how they want to be seen, remembered and represented?
Schutz’s theories regarding ‘orientation’, the ‘we-relationship’ and the ‘reciprocity of perspectives’ are useful starting points for those who want to reflect on the ways in which expressive language enables us to grasp at a sense of’ ‘we’, but they need revisiting and updating if they are to be applied to an understanding of collaborative literary practice in today’s public sphere.
Can ‘we’ speak from the Margins?
The Great Margin was launched with an optimistic set of goals: however, our findings highlight that there are still many ongoing challenges for those who seek to fully enable writers to speak from the margins. In embarking on this project, we wanted to develop a more participatory approach to writer development. This was achieved, but some issues (such as the lack of diversity within public archives and the challenge of imbalances of perception) led us to reflect on the limitations of creative praxis, especially for those who face the most severe and persistent forms of isolation.
As Harter et al. note, ‘Contemporary scholars grapple afresh with how an artistic mindset can enable scholarship to be more responsive to external stakeholders' interests and needs’’ (F). As is sometimes seen in moments of crisis, the pandemic has led to the loss of established anchors on a mass scale. This has been accompanied by a potential loss of hope and a struggle to imagine futures. Within this context, ‘Bulletins from the Edge’ is presented as a poetic form of orientation and anchoring - delivered through participatory forums, and as a collection of shared memories (for the past, for now and for futures). Further research might explore how we can expand our 'collective memory’ to embrace a wider pool of knowledge and voices from the margins.
Conceived prior to 2020, but delivered through the Pandemic, The Great Margin Poetry Film Project created a forum for expressive writing that facilitated dialogue about the commonality of marginalisation, whilst acknowledging that it affects some individuals more pervasively and persistently. Further complementary field notes exploring the interpretative framework, themes and findings generated from Bulletins from the Edge can be found on BathSPAdata.
(A) Schutz, A. 1970. On Phenomenology and Social Relations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
(B) Schutz, A. 1967. The Phenomenology of the Social World. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press
(C) Schutz, A. 1962 The Problem of Social Reality: Collected Papers 1, The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers
(D) Adichie, C.N. 2013. Americanah. New York: Anchor Books.
(F) Lynn M. Harter, Mohan J. Dutta, S. Norander, (2009), The poetic is political….and other notes on engaged scholarship,. In L. M. Harter, M. Dutta, & C. Cole (Eds.), Communicating for social impact (pp. 33-46), p.40).
(G) Rendle-Short, Tissue of making in practice-led research: Practi-care, prepositional thinking and a grammar of creativity,’Francesca, 2020 TEXT: Journal of writing and writing courses 24, 2 (October): 1-17. Available at:, p.2.
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