Material Sensibilities

making space for play across the life course

Presentations

Here is a selection of my conference presentations:

Play, War, Toys and Conflict, 2014, London, UK. Play, War, Toys and Conflict through the lens of Ludic Geopolitics. 

This presentation was part of a roundtable discussion and took the form of a summary of the day’s proceedings as seen through the lens of the key tenets of my Ludic Geopolitics project. For more details of this summary click here.

Extending Play 2013, New Brunswick, USA. Allowing for the “As-If,” “What-If” and “Something More”: The Embodiment, Vitality, and Ethical Responsiveness of Play

Abstract  Play, across the life course, is a fundamental way through which we employ the senses to explore, navigate and come to know the world and its various constituent beings, environs and forces. From the early writings of Huizinga ether is a strong sense that play is irreducibly a sensory practice exceeding representational regimes. This is witnessed in its prioritisation of the non-cognitive and more-than-rational, its embodied nature, its heightening of the affective register, its momentary temporality, its intersection between being and becoming, and its intensity. When playing one adopts an openness to the world in the moment, responding to not only the cognitively recognised but also the corporeally sensed. The reciprocal relations emerging within and through embodiment – a sensory being-in-the-world – allow people and things to be set free of cultural co-ordinates, affording the process of becoming. In this paper I examine the crucial role of embodiment in the collapse of the threshold between ‘reality‘ and ‘unreality‘ that is characteristic of play. The sphere of the ‘as-if’ arising from this collapse is not simply discussed in relation to its imaginary nature, but also addressed as a realm of potential with transformative possibilities. As Schechner asserts, through the performance of play, the ‘as-if’ is transformed into the ‘is’ of bodily actions. Drawing on Benjamin, we can take this assertion further to explore play’s potential for awakening a revolutionary consciousness, which in turn opens the possibility for more wilful social transformations. This lies in the permeation of play by mimetic modes of behaviour, which do not simply involve an ability to see resemblances and create similarities, but also the possible ‘spark of recognition that things, relations, and selves could be otherwise’ (Katz 2004:98). This is not to say that play is necessarily emancipatory as playing performances often normalise roles, practices and spaces, being constrained by habit. Rather, this paper’s concern is the role of embodiment in this innovation and ritual alike. A shift of understanding from the politics of play as bound up with an outwardly oriented resistance to an inwardly oriented vitality is central to this account. Drawing on Bennett (2001), I discuss how the affirmation and self-validation engendered though this playful vitality can prompt a generosity towards the world that encourages us to be more ethically responsive to others, human and nonhuman.

AAG 2013, Los Angeles, USA. Ludic geopolitics

Abstract  Since the 1990s, the critical geopolitics agenda has broadened in response to criticism of a too-narrow focus on the state and its governing intellectual and political elites. New work on popular geopolitics has attended to the circulation of geopolitical power through popular culture. This work has been marked by a discursive bias, focussing on ideological readings of geopolitical texts to the expense of investigations of audience dispositions and responses, mundane social practices, and embodiment and affect. A shift in approach is emerging, due in large part to conversations between critical geopolitics scholars and social/cultural geographers. Yet, despite having long had a role in geopolitics through its role in the development of military technologies and war games, and the more recent growth of the ‘military entertainment complex’, play remains unduly neglected. This paper raises fundamental questions about the ways in which geopolitical representations, identities and relations are shaped and sustained through play.

AAG 2013, Los Angeles, USA. Slowing the quick jump to explanation: making space for enchantment in cultural geography research

Abstract Cultural geographers frequently use the term enchantment to express delight, wonder or that which cannot be simply explained. However, it is a concept that has yet to be subject to sustained critique, specifically how it can be used to progress geographic praxis. In this paper, we discuss how making sense of and space for the ‘unintelligibility of enchantment’ is useful for expanding the ways in which cultural geographers might think and do differently. Here enchantment is conceptualized as the simultaneous experience of charm and the uncanny. We argue for a less repressed, more cheerful way of engaging with the cultural geographies of the world. Through such an affirmative stance cultural geographers can attend to the possibilities of how our world might be otherwise, enabling broader political and ethical interventions beyond the academy (Woodyer and Geoghegan 2012). We situate this argument within our disciplinary heritage, exploring how geographers have employed enchantment as a force through which the world inspires ‘affective attachment’ – a central tenet of cultural geographical theorizing. Taking strength from this historical trajectory, and pushing beyond contemporary non-representational approaches, we advocate a new ‘enchanted’ stance to our geographical endeavours. This stance emphasizes the need to ‘slow the quick jump to … evaluative critique long enough to find ways of approaching the complex and uncertain objects’ of our everyday worlds (Stewart 2007, p. 4). We argue that the current challenging climate makes finding space for the reparative, nourishing capacity of enchantment all the more pressing.

RGS-IBG 2012, Edinburgh, UK. Playful vitality and ethical generosity: thinking and doing our worlds differently

Abstract When playing one adopts an openness to the world in the moment, responding to not only the cognitively recognised but also the corporeally sensed. The reciprocal relations emerging within and through embodiment – a sensory being-in-the-world – allow people and things to be set free of cultural co-ordinates. Drawing on the philosophical writings of Benjamin, this paper explores how these embodied relations can awaken a ‘revolutionary consciousness’ – a realisation that our everyday worlds are enacted and can therefore be (re)made differently. This potential lies in the permeation of play by mimetic modes of behaviour, which do not simply involve an ability to see resemblances and create similarities, but also the possible ‘spark of recognition that things, relations, and selves could be otherwise’ (Katz 2004:98). Whereas Benjamin’s sense of revolutionary consciousness is in keeping with writings that position play as resistant, I argue that the politics of play need to be reconceptualised as bound up with the experience of vitality. Taking inspiration from attempts to rethink ethical behaviour within political theory, I discuss how the affirmation and self-validation engendered through this playful vitality can prompt a generosity towards the world that encourages us to be more ethically responsive to others, human and nonhuman.

AAG 2012, New York, USA. Bratitude and Potter mania: examining children’s engagements with global brands

Abstract In many ways brands epitomise the moral tension between the sacred space of childhood and the profane sphere of the market. They are potent symbols for the intersection between capitalism and consumerism, exemplifying the ‘commodi-toy’. While the role of the consumer in branding practice is recognised, empirical examination of how consumers engage with brands is distinctly lacking. As a result, there is a tendency to over-generalise how brands and character licenses work. The brand is an abstraction made concrete in specific products or services only as and when consumers perform it. Responding to calls for a micro-understanding of how brands are understood in everyday lifeworlds (Holt 2006), this paper draws upon embodied practices with Bratz fashion dolls and Harry Potter paraphernalia to examine how children negotiate the commercialised space of childhood, appropriating specific elements of synergistic blends of branded toys, games and media. Through reference to the experiential qualities of different media, I emphasise the importance of considering materiality when addressing consumer engagements with brands. To this end, I address the connections between the ‘global’ geographies of the brand/character license and the ‘local’ everyday practices which make sense of these and shape children’s experiences and identities. Within consumption studies more broadly, brands have provided unique opportunities for exploring interactions between global and local processes and identities. Typically, the local is the space of the material and the practical, while the global is the larger, less intimate space of the symbolic. In this paper I address the typical inflection of the material as local as part of a critical consideration of the role of materiality and embodiment in the global.

Sensory Worlds: Environment, Value & the Multi-sensory 2011, Edinburgh, UK. Allowing for the ‘as-if’, ‘what-if’ and ‘something more’: the embodiment, vitality and ethical responsiveness of play

Abstract Play, across the life course, is a fundamental way through which we employ the senses to explore, navigate and come to know the world and its various constituent beings, environs and forces. From the early writings of Huizinga ether is a strong sense that play is irreducibly a sensory practice exceeding representational regimes. This is witnessed in its prioritisation of the non-cognitive and more-than-rational, its embodied nature, its heightening of the affective register, its momentary temporality, its intersection between being and becoming, and its intensity. When playing one adopts an openness to the world in the moment, responding to not only the cognitively recognised but also the corporeally sensed. The reciprocal relations emerging within and through embodiment – a sensory being-in-the-world – allow people and things to be set free of cultural co-ordinates, affording the process of becoming. In this paper I examine the crucial role of embodiment in the collapse of the threshold between ‘reality‘ and ‘unreality‘ that is characteristic of play. The sphere of the ‘as-if’ arising from this collapse is not simply discussed in relation to its imaginary nature, but also addressed as a realm of potential with transformative possibilities. As Schechner asserts, through the performance of play, the ‘as-if’ is transformed into the ‘is’ of bodily actions. Drawing on Benjamin, we can take this assertion further to explore play’s potential for awakening a revolutionary consciousness, which in turn opens the possibility for more wilful social transformations. This lies in the permeation of play by mimetic modes of behaviour, which do not simply involve an ability to see resemblances and create similarities, but also the possible ‘spark of recognition that things, relations, and selves could be otherwise’ (Katz 2004:98). This is not to say that play is necessarily emancipatory as playing performances often normalise roles, practices and spaces, being constrained by habit. Rather, this paper’s concern is the role of embodiment in this innovation and ritual alike. A shift of understanding from the politics of play as bound up with an outwardly oriented resistance to an inwardly oriented vitality is central to this account. Drawing on Bennett (2001), I discuss how the affirmation and self-validation engendered though this playful vitality can prompt a generosity towards the world that encourages us to be more ethically responsive to others, human and nonhuman.

RGS-IBG 2011, London, UK. Bitter-sweet commodities: the role of humour in commodity activism

Abstract A guitar-strumming peanut with a Texan drawl, a child shooting up a mannequin with an AK-47, lipstick etchings on a mirror: a few of the many possible examples of the use of humour in commodity activism. This paper charts the coming together of two geographers’ interests in commodities, materiality and playful practices with a concern for how non-rational forms of political intervention can act as powerful vehicles of social change; a way to become aware of the ethical ambiguities and paradoxes that we live with, without becoming paralysed by them. We argue that humour provides the spark of positive energy needed to encourage us to act against social injustice, to mitigate feelings of impotence in the face of the repressive power of capitalism. This is the spark of positive energy that is missing from morally charged normative approaches to commodity activism, which attempt to enrol publics via blame, shame and guilt. This paper explores how humour generates enchanted moments that provoke a critical being-in-the-world. Through these moments we experience a kind of power ‘double consciousness‘ that allows bitter-sweet appreciations of the commodities we consume in everyday life. We can be at once charmed and haunted, delighted and unsettled. Whilst there are many techniques of cultural activism that share the potential to subvert dominant understandings of social reality, they all work, in one or more ways, via perhaps the most popular form of visceral ‘double consciousness’: laughter. laughter creates an affective, transformative rupture which allows us to expose and express ambiguity, absurdity, folly and vice. It draws new lines of alliance, reconnecting the disconnected and recomposing the perceptual organisation of spaces. This paper examines the role of humour in affective commodity geographies that are at once playful and politically informed; geographies that are serious about the frivolous.

Center for Children and Childhood Studies, Rutgers, 2011, Camden, USA. Affirmation through animation: children, toys and playful consumption

AAG 2011, Seattle, USA. Commodity fetishism, relational aesthetics and affirmative critique

Abstract Marx’s writing on the commodity in Capital: volume one was ‘evocative and metaphorical, imaginative, playful and emotive, full of allusions and references to magic, mysteries and necromancies’ (Harvey 2010, 38). ‘Commodity fetishism’ helped to describe misunderstood but functional C19th trade: the kind that allowed Europeans to exchange beads and other ‘trifles’ for gold on the Guinea Cost (Pietz 1985). Marx argued that European commodities were ‘fetishised’ too. Things could control, possess, enchant and haunt, both as abstract objects with autonomous powers and as the ‘congealed labour’ of others (Luke 2000). This ridiculed the abstract, rational calculative logic of classical economic theory. But Marx saw commodity fetishism as false and functional. Thus, critics of capitalism needed a ‘double consciousness’ to think through it (Pels 1998).
In relational aesthetics, artists and artworks are catalysts. They need others to grow and change. They are interactive, collective, open-ended, permanently unfinished. They engage and create communities, who can learn ‘to inhabit the world in a better way’ (Bishop 2004). They work in and through materials that can have powerful affective qualities (Cook et al 2000). People can appreciate their complexity via popular ‘double consciousness’: biting humour, juxtaposition and montage, insertion and/or culture jamming. ‘Vibrant materialism’ (Bennett 2010) – and ‘Magical Marxism’ (Merrifield 2010) – can give commodities a bitter-sweet taste, ‘pleasure with an edge and a bite’ (Gaines 1990).

Creativity and Place 2010, Exeter, UK. Journeying to Magic Land: configuring place through creative playful practice

Abstract I invite you to join me on a journey. A journey that begins in an inconspicuous room, in an ordinary two-bedroom apartment, located in an unassuming street, in South London. From here we will travel to the mystical, enchanted world of Ethrole Castle. In this paper I share insights gleaned from my active participation in a set of creative playful practices introduced to me during my household based empirical work with children and toys. I explore the embodied nature of these creative playful practices, drawing attention to the lively and sensuous qualities of the subject-object relations from which this imaginative place is configured. In particular, I explore the concept of the book as a technology of play, addressing its agential role in these configurations. It is my contention that within such configurations people and things are in constant dialogue, relational and enacted. This reciprocation allows the creation of new spaces of play, which to date, have been unduly neglected given their shifting, transient and indefinable nature. Critical attention to creative playful practices can therefore allow us to explore imaginative spaces and places in and of the everyday.

AAG 2008, Boston, USA. Playful geographies: configuring imaginative spaces of play

Abstract I invite you to join me on a journey, two journeys in fact. Both begin in an inconspicuous lounge, but one leads to the mystical world of Ethrole Castle, the other to the dynamic arena of the football stadium. In this paper I share insights gleaned from my active participation in two sets of playful practices introduced to me during my household based empirical work with children and toys. I explore the embodied nature of these playful practices, drawing attention to the lively, agential and sensuous qualities of the subject-object relations from which they are configured. We journey to the castle with and through a dining room table, and to the stadium with and through a gaming console. It is my contention that within such configurations people and things are in contestant dialogue, relational and enacted. This reciprocation allows the creation of new spaces of play which to date have been unduly neglected given their shifting, transient and indefinable nature. Critical attention to playful practices ca therefore allow us to explore spaces of the imaginative and virtual in and of the everyday.

RGS-IBG 2007, London, UK. Playing with toys: animating the agency of objects

Abstract In recent social and cultural theory there has been increased interest in the processes whereby materialities achieve specific capacities and effects. This has displaced an understanding of matter as inert and passive, challenging commonly held perceptions about the nature of subject-object intimacies, the distribution of liveliness between humans and non-humans, and how agency can be understood. In relation to this, my research aims to animate the various agencies of objects of material culture. More specifically, it explores the multiple practices in which toys are both called to action and call us into action. I employ ‘ethnomethodologically informed ethnography‘ to examine the relational configurations that bring the various mundane modalities of toy consumption into being. I seek to ‘capture’ the embodied, emotional and affective qualities of these configurations through the use of my own active participation in playful practices and the use of video ethnography, in which the researcher and participant are placed both behind and in front of the camera. Interspersed within this approach is the use of what may be referred to generally as task based methods, designed to engage the imagination. This paper examines the use of these methodological techniques as a multi-layered attempt to grasp the lively, agential and sensuous qualities of these embodied subject-object relations.  

New Directions in Children’s Geographies 2006, Northampton, UK. The body as research tool: exploring the embodied practice of playing with toys

Abstract It is now widely acknowledged that childhood is a socially constructed category, However, adult assumptions about what it means to be a child still influence our choice of research methods, often without recognition. Debate about the appropriateness of talk-centred and task-centred methods in terms of children’s abilities and capacities illustrates this. Concern about the need to align research methods with child participants’ capabilities has been privileged over the need to ensure our choice of methods is informed by our research questions. Within geography, it has been recognised that our worlds are multi sensual, requiring research that engages with the ‘more-than-human‘ and the ‘more-than-textual’. This has prompted a move towards approaches that emphasise the performative and haptic nature of qualitative work. This paper explores how the field of children’s geographies may open a space for experimentalism with innovative techniques that employ the body as an instrument through which research is conducted. This is particularly relevant given the intimate and intense relationship children are said to share with spaces and terrains. This paper examines a four-fold methodology employed to analyse the embodied practice of playing with, and the meanings attached to toys. The methods employed – domestic ethnography (involving observant participation, conversation and task based activities), video ethnography and drama – are designed to allow documentation of, and reflection upon, somatic actions, practices and feelings. It is argued that by aligning our research questions and research methods we can create a space for children to critically engage with research questions and practices.

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