Early Monday morning by Camden Lock:
A well-trodden curved canal bridge
A hairy, head-nodding willow
Anchoring the in-between before another week ripples in
Steadfast lock posts
Red sign for steak and chips
Muffled grating of Underground
Stranger posing for photo
Here’s the thing: tucked away in heaving Camden Town at BERA’s ‘Disentangling and debating creativity in education’ event, I was fortunate enough to learn about thing-power. What is the meaning of thing-power, and how might connecting with ‘the thingness of things’ (Bennett, 2004, p. 349) disrupt our research methodologies?
This blog will start by looking at the theoretical underpinnings of thing-power through key writings. Its use within educational research will be further explored with reference to diverse data which arose during the international research project, ‘Decolonizing childhood discourses: A critical post-humanist orientation in higher education’.
Political theorist Jane Bennett describes thing-power as ‘vital materialist vocabulary’ that illuminates the import of objects and non-human things:
Thing-power gestures toward the strange ability of ordinary, man-made items to exceed their status as objects and to manifest traces of independence or aliveness, constituting the outside of our own experience. (Bennett, 2010, p. xvi)
Here, things cannot be tied to just human frames of reference, nor can their meaning be fully extrapolated. Things have separate lives and inhuman ontologies. They can rebel and resist and herein lies their thing-power. Bennett wrote a vignette of a walk during which she encountered this assemblage:
one large men’s black plastic work glove
a matted mass of tree pollen pods
one dead rat who looked asleep
one white plastic bottle cap
one smooth stick of wood.
Initially, this sight signalled human action/inaction, such as litterers, vermin control, construction work. But Bennett possesses an ‘anticipatory readiness – a perceptual style’ which allowed her to adjust her perspective so she could also perceive the ‘glove-pod-rat-cap-stick’ as ‘stuff which commands attention in its own right’, stuff connected to other stuff, connected to human bodies – ‘nonhumanity that flows around and through humans’ (Bennett, 2004, p. 350).
Now I’m rethinking the anti-litter angle in the song ‘A bottle, a tin and a plastic bag’ that I often sang at primary school:
Milk bottle tops and paper bags,
Iron bedsteads, dirty old rags,
Litter on the pavement,
Paper in the park
Is this what we
Really want to see?
No! No! No!
But back to the thing-matter at hand: why dwell on thing-power? Bennett pursues it ‘in the hope of fostering greater recognition of the agential powers of natural and artifactual things … [to allow for] a more cautious, intelligent approach to our interventions in that ecology’ (Bennett, 2004, p. 249).
At the BERA ‘Disentangling’ event this philosophy clearly resonated with Joanna Haynes, who during her fascinating talk, ‘Beyond words: Materiality and the play of things’, posed the following question: ‘what do we leave out when we focus only on the human, the linguistic and behavioural?’ Thing-power enabled Joanna and her co-researchers to explore data beyond these limited dimensions during the ‘Decolonizing childhood discourses’ research project: ‘through thing-power we explored relations of materialised human bodies with things, the materiality of enquiry and meaning-making with texts, of thinking and reading with things.’
Joanna listed some data which were available ‘among masses of others’ during their research:
Picture book How to Find Gold (Schwarz, 2010)
Bodies of researchers
Guided walking up mountain
Kindness of hosts
So much thing-power!
I really liked the idea put forward by Joanna that ‘we made enquiries and enquiries made us’. Through entanglements with data, conversations had begun to centre on feet. Then, the question ‘what do feet and shoes bring to this enquiry?’ emerged. Thinking about the feet of Anna and the crocodile (characters in How to Find Gold) sparked more enquiries and multiplicities. People went on walks, some barefoot. Joanna notes that they were ‘thinking with the material environment when doing our enquiry, to let the material have us’.
Later, looking at the above photo I had taken that morning by Camden Lock, I pondered one of the questions that had been put to us by Pamela Burnard following Joanna’s talk:
‘When are data collected, found, created or co-created?’
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bennett, J. (2004). The force of things: Steps toward an ecology of matter. Political theory, 32(3), 347–372.
Schwarz, V. (2016). How to Find Gold. UK: Walker Books.