Reconceptualising early childhood literacy beyond anthropocentricity

ESRI members presented a symposium at the Reconceptualising Early Childhood Literacies Conference in Manchester on 7 & 8 March, 2019. The symposium was organised by Abi Hackett and it included the following presentations:

“Vibrations in place: sound and language in early childhood literacy practices” Abigail Hackett and Michael Gallagher, MMU.

“Visual methodologies after the post-human turn: Child participatory research involving action cameras in an after-school club” Lucy Caton, MMU.

“Using the virtual to explore what happens when adults “don’t talk” but instead use space, sound, materials, and bodies to converse with children?” Charlotte Arculus and Christina MacRae, MMU.

“Video-sensing the world in aesthetic collective practices with young children” Laura Trafí-Prats, MMU, UK and Evelyn Gutierrez, Alexandra Park Children’s Learning Community, UK

Discussant: Maggie MacLure, MMU

Discussant’s comments

It seems a shame to comment on this lovely collection of papers. I’m reluctant to arrest the flows of sense that they have released, and lock them back into the ‘fetters’ [1] of representation that each of the presenters is so determined to resist. So I won’t comment on the papers one by one. Instead, I’ll try to tap into some of the synergies and resonances that flow through and connect the papers.

I think there are strong resonances, and perhaps not surprisingly. You can tell that these papers are an expression of the shared values and interests of a genuine research collective. As a colleague of the presenters, I hover on the edges of the collective, and count myself fortunate that they sometimes let me play!

But in addition to the connections and resonances, it is also important to note how each of the papers is anchored in a particular research project or intervention. It’s clear that the project is the beating heart of the matter for each of the presenters. There’s a real commitment to socially-engaged empirical research, even while each of the papers is also stretching empiricism to its limits, infusing it with theory and reanimating it with the potentialities of the virtual. It is this conjunction of faithfulness to the empirical minutiae, coupled with the embrace of open-ness and uncertainty, that assures that inquiry is both grounded in place, sensation and embodiment, and capable of taking flight and creating new spaces for thought.

Let me talk briefly, then, of the resonances. Firstly, all of the papers can be identified broadly with a resistance to the dominance of conventional language. In their different ways, each paper finds language to be inadequate to an understanding of the complexities of young children’s sense-making practices. And each paper mounts a critique, explicit or implicit, of the dominance of language in qualitative research methodology. All of the papers are struggling therefore to engage with the stuff that evades ‘capture’ by language – affect, sensation, sound, gesture, movement, rhythm.

The papers also testify to a certain absurdity and violence inherent in adults’ relentless mission to explain, represent, and render children and their digital adventures intelligible; to know exactly what things mean. All of the presenters are very clear that the critique of representation is an ethical undertaking. They would contend that there is an intimate and non-accidental link between the anthropocentrism inherent in representational language, and the ocular preoccupations of the professional or academic observer. They seem, to me at least, to condemn what D.A. Miller [2] called the ‘panoptic immunity’ of the liberal subject, who claims the prerogative to interrogate and expose the lives of others without reciprocal obligation. Kathleen Stewart [3] detected similar privilege in ‘the ethnographic code’. I think the presenters would say that this tends to impose an essentially colonial relation: it suppresses what is vital and energetic in more-than-human encounters, and keeps potential, change and difference in its place.

All the presenters are looking therefore for resources to release, or at least tap into, that which exceeds capture and domestication by language and conventional digital methods. They pull, push and stretch language and visual media to their limits, twisting and perverting them to release some of their profane energy. They try to sense the secret rhythms picked up by cameras and video technology; to achieve a haptic vision that, in Eva Hayward’s term, apprehends with ‘fingery eyes’ [4]; to hear with the body and not just the ears; to acknowledge the fleshiness and the materiality of language and digital life. They are looking, in other words, for that which might deterritorialise language and open onto the new.

The collective work reflected in these papers is contributing to the development of multi-sensory ethnography. I think it is also building, or rediscovering, a synaesthetic ontology and methodology. That is, it is inventing practices of sensing – modes of attuning to the complex interplay of the senses in sensing the world. This is particularly relevant for research on early language and literacy. There is a growing body of research evidence that young children themselves make sense of the world synaesthetically: in other words, by mobilising all of their senses. This capacity declines, or goes underground, as adults learn how to enforce that brute separation between words and world, thought and feeling.

The more-than-human, or non-representational orientation evidenced in these papers presents researchers with complex and paradoxical challenges. We are forced to grapple with our own human-centrism; to twist ourselves into a variety of undignified postures in the attempt to catch that which cannot be caught, glimpse things just out of the frame, or the corner of the eye, behind one’s own back; in the interstices and the accidents.

We will of course fail. We will end up once more explaining, representing, orchestrating, domesticating, romanticising, judging – partly through fear of risk to children. But also because these acts are wholly implicated in what Deleuze called the dogmatic image of thought, which still largely prevails. So our artistic imagination will reassert its privileges. We will get carried away by our own rhetoric. We will be impressed by our own good and common sense and fall in love with ourselves all over again. And that ineffable sense of relationality, singularity and potentiality will fade once more.

But sometimes, something will open up. And sometimes, something will get through.


[1] Deleuze, G. (1994), Difference and repetition (P. Patton, Trans.), New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] Miller, D.A. (1988), The Novel and the Police, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[3] Stewart, K. (1996), A Space on the Side of the Road, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[4] Hayward, E. (2010). Fingeryeyes: Impressions of cup corals. Cultural Anthropology25(4), 577-599.


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