Theatre Critic and Journalist

This Is Tomorrow – Day Four: Sociology

This Is Tomorrow – Day Four: Sociology

I would like, if I may, to take a moment to consider myself in all this. It’s Thursday and we’re in the Sociology department. Physically and spatially, it’s the most recognisable as a university space. It’s made of corridors lined with doors that differ only in the names on their fronts. It looks like a doctor’s surgery, only with book covers rather than public health posters tacked to its pinboards. There’s a tiny common room with a kitchenette and a few seminar rooms with long, democratic tables. There’s another space, but I don’t want to talk about spaces just yet. I want to talk about me.

Writing that sentence feels uncomfortable. After all, I’m here to write about them (the artists), them (the academics) and this (the process). I’m here to observe and relay. One of the central tenets of journalism is that it’s not about you, the journalist, and overriding that feels so illicit that I had to seek approval from some of the group before starting this piece.

Truth be told, I’ve been feeling something similar all week: a slight, but constant, nagging guilt. A sense that I shouldn’t be visible, that I shouldn’t have any impact on the process or, at least, that I should aim to minimize any corruption my presence might cause. My thoughts shouldn’t feed back into the process. I should keep schtum and, as far as is possible, disappear. I should be outside looking in.

However, that’s not really possible. Merely by being in the room – Schrodinger’s cats at the ready, folks – I cannot but have an effect upon it. But there’s more to it than that. Firstly, there’s my own personal impulse to fill silence, largely out of a deeply ingrained urge for politeness. Early on, way back in Physics (was that really only three days ago?), I hopped in with a question because it felt like no-one else would and we’d all end up stuck in a awkward elongated silence. Second, this stuff is hard. To understand it, one needs to engage with it, seek clarifications, make sure you’re on the right track. You can’t just sit back and absorb. Learning is more than just downloading or file-sharing. Third, as you might have spotted, I identify more with the artists than with anyone else around me. I feel like a part of this tribe. I am part of this tribe.

Yet every time I ask a question, a little bit of me feels like I’m getting in the way, corrupting the process by sending it down one avenue rather than another, taking up time that is intended and designed for the artists to engage with the material and academics. I worry that I’m asking unhelpful, unartistic questions. Every question, every thought voiced, feels like an indulgence. It feels disruptive. I worry that Ed Collier and Paul Warwick, the producers running this week, are glowering that I’m getting in the way of their carefully constructed process (and it really is well thought through, it has a dramaturgy, more later) designed for the artists. I worry that the artists feel similarly. I worry that I’m talking too much, let alone talking at all. (Frazzled and bombarded in Economics, for example, I suddenly realise that I’ve stopped checking myself and I’m blurting out questions the moment they pop into mind. That’s the point I excuse myself to go and write.)

So what am I? Actually, first, why bother asking that question now, four days in? Well, it turns out that what I’m doing could be seen as a very loose, very slimline and very unscientific version of sociological thinking. (Some departments would argue that sociology is all those things anyway.)

Here I am looking at a group of people, analysing (well, ish) the way they behave in and as that group. It’s telling that I’ve alighted on the word tribe, for example. That’s what sociologists do: they study groups of people, social structures and the modes of behaviour and phenomena therein. Take Carol Wolkowitz, who kicks the day off by talking us through her work into body contact within the labour exchange. She works in case studies: looking at and talking to care workers, sex workers, beauticians and others whose jobs involve physical contact. She studies physical manifestations of behaviour in particular environments, such as the brazen selling of healthcare on the high street in the retirement havens of Florida. Or take Nickie Charles and her part in research into young people involved with extremist political groups. She’s interviewing individuals, accompanying them to rallies and protests, observing their behaviour, examining their motivations and the structures of those groups and much more besides. Or else look at Karen Throsby and her research into long-distancing swimming, which happens to be her own hobby. These are all forms of ethnographic research – or, in Throsby’s case, since she’s studying her own participation, auto-ethnographic – and, as such, there’s a strong streak of subjectivity and, so as to account for and counterbalance it, a good deal of reflexivity.

So what am I? Certainly, I’m not that invisible observer, that absolute outsider, but part of that mode remains nonetheless. I’m keeping an eye on the artists, noting their expressions and their habits, what has interested them, when they switch off. I can see that Alecky Blythe is particularly drawn to human implications, for instance, and that Robin Rimbault often feels like academics are stating the obvious. That, very broadly speaking, Charlotte Vincent challenges, Michelle Browne enquires and Chris Goode processes, interjecting only very rarely and very deliberately. I can see Paul and Ed, as producers, always have a question or two up their sleeves to keep things moving and socially fluid. I’m aware of how we sit and of energy levels, of what people wear and the spaces we’re in. But I don’t want to talk about space just yet. I want to talk about me.

What slowly becomes apparent is that I’m in the middle of this process too, alongside the artists and producers. I’m experiencing the same things as they are and engaging with the same information in more or less the same way. The only difference is the nature of that I.

I’m not an artist. I’m a critic. At one level, that distinction is comparable to the difference between a visual artist, a choreographer, a composer and sound artist, a verbatim theatremaker and a theatremaker. But there’s another degree of remove involved. Where the artists are – however indistinctly and by no means only – thinking ahead, in terms of work that could or might be made, I’m primarily thinking retrospectively, in terms of work I’ve already experienced, work that’s already been made. When Robert Akerlof of economics talks about anger, for example, I’m thinking about the banker bashing that’s going on onstage, a manifestation and a representation of that anger. Where does that sit in the compliance-retribution cycle? I’m also thinking in terms of aesthetics, as with those hypothetical films that change according to the viewer’s neural activity, for example. And, having seen Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field last week, I’m thinking a lot about spaces. But I don’t want to talk about space just yet…

I’m the critic in the room. I’m half in and half-out. Both observing and participating and, at the same time, observing my own participation. I’m basically practicising ethnography or auto-ethnography and, boy, do I need to go and read up on the subject afterwards.

Because the truth is, I don’t know the rules of it. I’m making it up as I go along, going with whatever seems to work and that raises questions. Over dinner Charlotte Vincent, having been quoted a couple of times in previous pieces, rightly asks whether she’s on or off the record at any given time. (The feedback loop inherent in her reading my pieces only puts paid to the idea of the embedded – or ethnographic – critic existing outside of the process). I can’t really give a solid answer, since truth be told, its down to intuition and sensitivity. There are conversations en route that I know I can’t write about, because they might prove counterproductive to the artists’ process. But can I report a flippant remark? Can I write about an artist’s reaction to an academic given the possibility that they may end up working together? Can I judge what’s interesting and what’s not? Or, to put that another way, does it matter in the longer term process whether I find something interesting or not?

In fact, can judgement play any part in this? The sociologists seem to think not. When I raise the notion of ethnographic criticism over dinner, they flinch in unison, presumably on account of the ethical problems (in their line of enquiry, at least) of judging a group of people. Undertaking ethnographic research, Nickie Charles points out, often leads to sympathising with the observed individual or group, resolutely skewing the possibility of detached judgement. The frame of that observation also changes the way one sees. “People get overdetermined by the one thing you’re studying,” Throsby says, “People are more than that.” Sociologists, therefore, are constantly checking their own subjective perspective, if not to mitigate its biases, at least to admit them.

And yet, I still want to be able to point out how well-constructed this process has been: how each subject comes on exactly the right day: Physics with its sense of wonder and its far-reaching implications; Manufacturing as provocation, forcing the artists to check their own agendas; Economics as picking at the markets just exposed; Sociology, more familiar, more self-aware, providing a touch of calm after the madness of economics; and Maths, well, you’ll have to wait and see…

Back at Radcliffe House, where we’ve been staying, Chris Goode and I end up in the bar for a nightcap. (A half-pint and a diet coke. It’s that sort of a week.) The conversation turns to reflexivity, something we agree is crucial for art and for criticism, if not for everything beyond (albeit guarding against whirlpools of introspection). Reflexivity places the work in its proper context, demonstrates its own fragility and partiality, and admits the conditions in which it’s working. That’s probably what’s been missing for most of the week, not least in Manufacturing where the market is unquestioned and in Economics where the outright means-end intentions at play go unadmitted. In order to work well, one has to see oneself at work. One has to recognise the space(s) you’re working in…

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  1. This Is Tomorrow | Matt Trueman - [...] DAY FOUR: Sociology – Ethnographic criticism? Academics: Dr. Carol Wolkowitz, Prof. Nickie Charles, Dr. Karen Throsby, Dr. Cath Lambert …

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