Attentiveness/ Attentive/ Paying Attention

I have found it difficult to compose a blog – there are too many possibilities, too many paths to choose. Throughout the weekend I felt acutely conscious of the layers of silt and rubbish that formed the site, and the material traces of people who had been there before. Shaping thoughts into a pattern involves a process of sedimentation which takes time. So what’s here for now? I thought I’d use these first musings to reflect on the ecologies of learning invoked for me by layering the experiences of the weekend on top of my own interest in performative pedagogies and set alongside the intervention of the Friday talks. And the word that I keep returning to is ‘attentiveness’.

I am interested in the idea of attentiveness as a way of suggesting the kind of affective engagement with things – human, non-human, imagined, material – that disrupts the orderliness of the world and invites learning to become intimate. In reflecting on learning and environmental change, I am interested in how to bridge the gap between what we do now, domestically and in the everyday, and how we might imagine (re-imagine?) the future. For me, this is not about constructing or absorbing dystopic narratives – what Alan Reid described as an education of terror – in which we might position ourselves (or children) as either anti-heroes or saviours, but in the quiet moments of attentiveness in which we make one choice rather than another. It is this attention to the intimacy of domestic details and the opportunity to work creatively in the vernacular spaces of everyday life that has the potential for what Lefebvre calls the ‘politics of small achievements’. Perhaps this is what Bachelard in means in The Poetics of Space when he talks of attending to the ‘dynamic virtues of miniature thinking’ which he sees both as ‘beyond logic’ and as a stimulus for ‘profound values’ (1994, pp. 150-151).

Dee's red mug

I am reminded of the images we saw from Fevered Sleep’s Weather Factory – the moss in the bathroom, the mist hovering inside the house and the excess of pendant lights – each of which held a fragmented world in domestic miniature. Steve mentioned smallness in his blog, and it was interesting that Sally’s light, Dee’s miniature installation and Paula’s kinaesthetic connection with the movement of trees, in different ways, condensed complex thought into theatrical image. Theatre, performance, the relational aesthetic of the arts can insist on this kind of attentiveness, and I think it is the affect of attentiveness that has the potential to re-order thought and change environments. When Jane Bennett refers to the ‘self-criticism of conceptualization, a sensory attentiveness to the qualitative singularity of the object, the exercise of an unrealistic imagination, and the courage of a clown’ (2010, p. 15) she is actually talking about the pedagogy of Adorno’s negative dialectics, but there is something in that sensory attentiveness that seems to me to link art, subjectivity and learning in ways that might just create the conditions for thinking through environmental change.

Layers of rock on a wall

What I am plugging away at is finding a way to bridge the pedagogical gap between the apocalyptic imagery of disaster movies and just carrying on as we are. I am suggesting that this is about the affect of scale. It is also about time, and I am drawn to Alan Reid’s idea of a slow pedagogy in which the cumulative layering of one miniature moment on top of another reshapes the everyday and inspires new practices. What is the role of the arts all this? I am not sure that Giroux’s model of critical pedagogy (the one that was at the bottom of Alan’s grid) quite does it. Sure, it focuses on practices, activity, critical engagement, dialogue and all those other progressive education virtues, but in the process it assumes an Ideal Speech Situation that is not always as ‘empowering’ as its rhetoric claims. Elizabeth Ellsworth was heavily criticised in the 1980s for saying exactly that, and her response is instructive for debates about the pedagogy of climate change. She advocates a pedagogy of place that is constructed spatially and dynamically, through ‘a complex moving web of inter-relationalities’ (2005, p. 24). It is attentive to the movement of bodies, to memory, forgetting, sound, smell, taste – it  marks the limits of me and you (or self and other) and offers encounters with an outside in ways that prompt thinking about the ‘unthought’. Ellsworth uses Winnicott’s idea of transitional space to theorise this approach to learning – and although I am not sure that her emphasis on Winnicott’s anxious projections quite does it for me, it offers one way to start questioning the relational aesthetics of artistic engagement and its contribution to learning and knowing. I am searching for a vocabulary to witness moments of witnessing – attending to the aesthetic doubleness in which affect becomes visible and understood, at least temporarily.

Cove Park reminded me to be attentive to the aesthetic vulnerability of learning, its intimacy and messiness. It was interesting that many people chose to work alone but also beside people (in Eve Sedgwick’s sense) – my own interest in layering as Steve rightly picked up was amplified by conversations with JD on Saturday and the imagery of cereal boxes was inspired by Fevered Sleep’s dramatisation of accumulation in On Ageing. I am sure that other people’s work was were similarly non-linear, associative and layered. This form of learning may have something to do with what Nigel Thrift calls ‘third order knowledge’ – it involves both attention and inattention, when past selves and future selves are not conceived as binaries but layered, embodied, responsive, in relation and in dynamic unity.

Layers of Fluff on sea

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5 Responses to Attentiveness/ Attentive/ Paying Attention

  1. phil smith says:

    reading Helen’s post, I returned to my feelings of unease- about a problem of performance, about imagining ‘the thing that what will not happen’ as a self-deprecating imposition, an imposition of wishes, and missing an ethical obligation to our site; something characterised by Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik as “attending to place” – not only ‘paying attention’ but also ‘tending’, and my own lack of attentiveness to do more than notice the huge chunks of the gravel path eroded by the slope’s chanelling of the rains and fail to understand that the site had begun to perform to us… and I wonder what ‘subjecting’ a performance to that erosion, in the way subjected herself to nutrition/waste,…. but that wondering returns me to feelings of unease and the imposition of ghostly ‘things that won’t happen’

  2. phil smith says:

    “in the way Helen subjected herself” (correction to above comment)

  3. phil smith says:

    the conversations on the GlasCove weekend about the agency of things – and this from Mike Pearson “The life-story of these shops did not cease simply because they were removed from the histories of the people who once worked there. They began to decompose… of their own volition.” (Site-Specific Performance, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) – keep coming back to me, accusingly… that a performance about environmental issues, should be an environmental performance, in which the site of the performance (not its metaphorical ghost) becomes the thing of performance-“volition”… that the human part is to make itself increasingly vulnerable, (responding to the ‘why this need for species’ immortality?’, ‘why this failure to embrace death?’) and this abnegation IS the tending, the responsibility… for it risks the integrity of the site, perhaps courts its transformation, destruction… and the environment is not then an “issue” inside the content, but one more moral choice in an ‘art of living’… while I still have grave reservations about and criticisms of the mountain and lighting piece that heard about, its very invasiveness took the kind of risks that are absent from the metaphorical performance

  4. David Harradine says:

    Thankyou Helen for articulating the thing I failed to articulate over that haggis when we were in Cove:

    “the quiet moments of attentiveness in which we make one choice rather than another. It is this attention to the intimacy of domestic details and the opportunity to work creatively in the vernacular spaces of everyday life that has the potential for what Lefebvre calls the ‘politics of small achievements”

    I think this is what I was trying to say something about when I was talking about the performativity of the dining table: a domestic, local, interior, small demarcated space. For me this remains a space at which we can respond to, think and talk about and affect (environmental) change – not by going to remote/charged/historical/constructed landscapes that I worry will pull this thing “environmental change” out of our daily lives – but by being attentive, as you say, to those small acts that accumulate to have big consequences for us and for others elsewhere.

  5. Steve Bottoms says:

    Phil’s comments here chime in very much with the further Deleuzian reading I’ve been doing around all this. The need to create (or merely facilitate? observe?) site performance . . . a site performing . . . which exemplifies its own movement, its own flows and dynamics, rather than alluding metaphorically / representationally to some external idea. I think perhaps that’s what I was fumbling towards in my own demonstration of jumping awkwardly across streams – simply trying to mark or highlight that shifting confluence of watercourses. Though then the question becomes, of course, what frame does one have to put around the ‘performance’ in order for observers really to see/read the site itself rather than, say, the person or the maker. (Representation and metaphor are not – after all – so easily eluded, and do we really want them to be if there are ‘issues’ at stake?)

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