On Connecting with the Real

‹-- PreviousNext --›

Last autumn, shortly after I’d blogged about the research stream at the abcd Choral Leaders Festival, I received an email from a reader about the diagram I had included from Michael Bonshor’s paper about the relationship between practice and research. I like everything about it so will quote in full:

It was very affirming to see that little diagram on your blog this evening.

I've been working for seven years as supply staff for a small, private children's nursery. Lots of frustrations, wondering how things could be done better. Meanwhile reading your blog makes me feel that I still have a functional brain when there is little other evidence. Thank you!

Now I'm about to embark on a Masters in Childhood and Youth Studies. I think they need more academics who have done the 7.30am starts and 6pm finishes, coming home covered in yoghurt and playdough to fall asleep during The Archers.

Hoping I might eventually complete that circle, help some people, change something for the better. (I sing a bit too)

Obviously one thing I like about it is that this blog has proven useful to someone, that’s always encouraging to know. But the reason I wanted to share this was the idea that the world needs more academics who have been covered in yoghurt, which is such a beautifully vivid way of articulating the need for a connection with the real.

One of the insults often thrown at academics is of course that they live in ivory towers, pontificating about stuff in the real world without any first-hand knowledge. And it is an effective insult because it has a germ of truth in it. Unfortunately it is generally wielded by people with populist agendas who want to create policy according to their own prejudices and so are looking for excuses to ignore any and all evidence that might suggest their fancies aren’t well-founded. The Department for Education was run along these lines for some years in the first half of the last decade; see also under climate change denial.

Of course, one of the ironies of life is that those out in the real world with the greatest hands-on experience have very little time or space to do research on it, whilst those employed in academia have less and less space to keep up their professional activities. It is possible to connect the two worlds from a life situated primarily in either, but a culture of long working hours places significant obstacles in the way of doing so without undue strain on either health or family life. A better organised world would produce both better knowledge and happier knowledge-producers than is often possible in the managerially-squeezed environment of late capitalism.

Still, we can cherish both the ideal for research to have a connection with the real, and indeed for real life to be connected to its supporting knowledge-bases. And I find it interesting to consider what, in fact, counts as The Real in these contexts.

My correspondent encapsulated a number of key features in her vivid, concrete images. There’s the physicality of it – bumping up against a material world, and indeed being affected by the contact – not just theorising from afar. (I am reminded of Catharine MacKinnon’s concept of Epic Theory, which informed my first published article.) There are the logistical constraints of long days and consequent personal exhaustion, such that the human experience of the holder of knowledge provides the context for that knowledge, and thus what is possible to know. (I am reminded of Mark Johnson’s classic critique of the idea of abstract, disembodied knowledge.)

And it occurred to me that this sense of contact with the Real – in terms of understanding how the wider context of lived experience supports an activity – is something we need not only in research, but also in other areas of life. Every time I go to central London, I realise that one reason why our politicians seem so over-confident about the state of the economy is because that bit of the country is so bright and shiny and well-kept; even the street sleepers, our rich nation’s great shame, look cleaner and healthier than they do in other less prosperous regions.

More esoterically, I am visited by the memory of a conversation that reflected on the experience of hearing a fellow student performing music by a composer whose biography was characterised by reclusiveness and a fascination with the abstract. Does this music, we wondered, sound like it was written by someone who had ever cleaned their own toilet? We didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate male privilege back then, but we were intuiting that quality of avenues explored that were only available to those who had others to cater to their more mundane needs.

And I remain torn about how I feel about this. Part of me values the opportunity for such abstraction: I live a pretty privileged life myself one way and another, and I like to think the world is richer and more interesting if we don’t all have to live hand-to-mouth. But then again I’d rather everyone had some space to think, to create, to climb: if participating in the scut work to an extent allows us to share the opportunities for growth around, then that seems fair. (Have I just reinvented the idea of National Service, albeit in civilian form, or merely that of redistributive taxation?)

It’s not just the sense of egalitarianism that engages me here, though, it’s about making better art. Behind the question of whether the composer (or indeed performer) had ever cleaned his own toilet, was a sense of a closed circle of people talking to each other, oblivious to the lives or realities of the rest of us. ‘Tell me why I should care about this,’ is the primary question we bring to our artistic experiences (and indeed our political and knowledge-gathering ones). For the viewer/listener/reader to find the experience meaningful, they need to have the sense that the creator in some sense sees them, that the imagined audience is wider than them and their closest friends.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content