New Materialisms – A ball of wool, a ball of wool, that would be so wonderful

A ball of wool, two knitting needles, a circle of chairs, several bodies, some pens, cups of coffee, and some loose knit instructions. Last week Anne Pirie of UWS (University of the West of Scotland) came to play here at ESRI, putting into practice the materiality of her talk on ‘Lost bodies in the Academy’

Anne explained that her work had recently been concerned with unpicking, and knitting with, the work of Anthropologist Tim Ingold. Here notions of wayfaring, sketching, temporality and nimbleness were, for her, in the process of becoming an alternative epistemological and ontological passage which sat in, with, and of the vulnerability of thought rather than on it, stifling it with a formally written and repeated paper.

As Anne held both our attention, and a ball of wool, she took what at first sight appeared to be a unified thread. Holding it out in front of her Anne pulled at the wool, inviting us to do the same. In the activity of pulling, layers and textures previously hidden became apparent. To pull, not simply the words, the infinitive verb form, but the activity also. To pull, to be materially in and of the process . And then she uttered the words I had feared since childhood: “hand-eye-co-ordination”.

Anne wanted to ‘throw back’, and have us join her, the narrow vision of the academic, or humanistic, intellectual whose becoming emerges only from dry or sensible activities. With this Anne looked for ‘the nod’ from a member of the circle so she might have a consenting and co-ordinated pair of hands and eyes to catch the wool. Eyes to the floor, this was my first instinct. Eyes to the floor would infer a lack of consent and therefore a lack of participation. My eyes to the floor coordination would help me in avoiding the inevitable crash position my body assumes when an object moves towards it, even if my hand-eye-co-ordination would not.

Before long a web intra actively emerged; spun of hands, eyes, coordination, techniques, gravity, wool and any other number of human and non-human actants which comprised the becoming agentic assemblage. Some of us who consciously attempted to avoid playing, becoming agentic through non participation, had the myth of human intentionality bust open before our very eyes. Having chosen not to be chosen as one of the catchers, I became aware, in that way that a body makes you aware, that I was picking up the wool from the floor behind me. I was colluding at the interstice of intent and accident in the interpellative force of the human and non human. The agentic assemblage of a human arm throwing, affects, the diameter of the circle, the infinitive to throw, a ball of wool, velocity, and gravity were no match for my, or any other shoe gazers, eye-floor coordination.

Once the web was woven the discussion began, not so much ‘stitch and bitch’, as throw and think, but perhaps throwing and thinking differently, a little untethered and undone from the idea that it is only the autonomous ‘I’ which is the agent of either to think, or to throw.

Sylvie Allendyke

2 thoughts on “New Materialisms – A ball of wool, a ball of wool, that would be so wonderful

  1. Dear Sylvie
    Thank you for generous account of my fankle, of our creative entanglement at ESRI. I would like to respond in greater depth, but that will take me time, and I wanted to say something now.
    I am so glad that I made it down to Manchester. I have my dentist to thank for that, for without his prompt intervention the excruciating toothache would have nailed me to the floor at home in Edinburgh. I wanted to tell you that your account of the session made me think (as have other things that have happened since then). Firstly, it made me realise that in one’s mind’s eye these opening gambits are played out perfectly. No-one drops the ball of wool, and there is a deft exchange and suddenly the safety net of the warp and weft appears, just as rapidly as a projected slide. And then we begin, back on surer ground, despite the disquieting absence of a text. Of course the reality is rather different: people can reserve judgement and a casual folding of the arms can be misinterpreted as an ‘I’m-not-playing’. Even the willing can simply miss and fail to catch, or fail to hold on (this seems to be the story of my life). It is only with hindsight that I realised that this is precisely the point. I also saw that I have systematically overplayed the various dichotomies that I introduced, particularly in respect of the two dimensions of time that I outlined so schematically chronos and kairos. However, I no longer feel quite as stuck, and feel sure that there is something worth exploring in the idea of the lightness of thoughtfulness. I am not quite sure how this will turn out, of course, but if anything does happen, I will let you know. (I am by nature a lightweight: a woman of low birth weight who tipped the scales at 8 stone only when I might have been rather inappropriately referred to as ‘heavily pregnant’.)
    Let me finish with this lovely little Chinese story that I read recently when researching lightness. It suggests a synthesis between chronos and kairos that had completely escaped me before. I quote from Italo Calvino’s memo on quickness:
    ‘Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years”, said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush, and in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.’
    Perhaps I will be invited back to Manchester to give another talk, with different props this time. Last night it occurred to me what these might be.

    Oh, one last thing, following on from a brief conversation we had. Remember, if ever you feel stuck, and the sun happens to be shining, do just go outside and walk. I find that usually works, although it can take time. We all need to take our time.

  2. Anne I am so pleased that you enjoyed your visit to ESRI and especially that you decided to keep the conversation going. I like the story of the crab and the draftsman, if only funding bodies were so leniant as to gift five years when a blockage in thought and time presented itself!

    I really do hope you return to Manchester, that would be wonderful, but in the meantime I wonder what you make of my nonesense poem

    Beware the draghtsmen of representation who petrify the living things; those who take servants and make demands of kings. Find instead as you go, an interest in the ebb and flow, the crustaceans who scuttle forward and back, the anthropods with shells that crack.

    And now for a wander, in the Mancunian rain 🙂

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