Body As Information

The last ten weeks of the DITA module have often had me considering how we experience and communicate information via the body, the memory and our senses, rather than solely in measured, quantifiable, language-bound ways. I’ve been trying to figure out how to match this back to a discipline such as Library Science in a meaningful, academically robust way – I’d like to explore this, perhaps somehow via embodied methodologies and/or participatory storytelling and archiving, but I don’t know how, considering how so much of what we do seems to be about consistent data sets and ‘proving’ arguments. I have been noting the many links I’ve been making (however tenuous they may currently be) between LIS and various creative and community research initiatives I’ve been a part of in the past – on one particular intergenerational project for the University of East London we collected and retold life stories from non-mainstream voices – and how life stories, the body, and disciplines such as oral history, should (in my view) always be considered a valid, believable and robust form of information. However, these experiences are rarely measurable information sources – there are no consistent dataset trends without a survey. So how do you measure this sort of information, and is it reliable? This week, we were visited by Playback Theatre, and it brought these questions to the forefront of my mind.

On the aforementioned project we had loose guideline questions, but consciously agreed that part of our methodology would be to move with the memories of the storyteller, instead of trying to shape their narrative to suit our project. When considering bodies as sources of information, you’re accepting trust is a part of the exchange (trust that you’re getting someone’s memories as they remember them, told through the often insufficient medium of language); committing to accepting that memory is fallible and flawed (yet perhaps that is one of the most reliable things about it: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes” ~ Walt Whitman); and understanding that how we ‘know’ and experience life shouldn’t necessarily be subject to ‘proof’.

When we were visited by True Heart Playback Theatre for week 10 of DITA, who used participatory methods to pull out stories, experiences and feelings from some of our CityLIS cohort, then used their bodies to retell, or ‘play back’ these anecdotes, I was very moved. One person in the cohort used the word lonely to describe a part of their experience since they’d arrived in the UK to begin this degree, which to me feels more like a bodily experience than an intellectual one – you ‘feel’ lonely, you don’t ‘think’ lonely. And this was played back to them through the actors bodies, their arms and legs intertwining, enmeshing with one another, stretching away from each other, in a highly performative piece that was fleeting and momentary, and totally impossible to quantify or measure. (Good) theatre sells because we see ourselves in it. We feel our lived experiences being shown back to us – represented, or ‘re-presented’, as secondary information, in a manner that we do not identify with in the same way when shown datasets or statistics that claim to know what we feel, need and think. And all this gets me to thinking that when we insist on measurable data, we lose realities lived, as quantified information is difficult to pull out of orally relayed experiences and performative or participatory works, without forfeiting some of the nuance which gives the information its richness and depth. For example, how do you record and measure the way the East End docks used to smell? The cacophony of the 1970’s Whitechapel Road market traders bellowing their wares? The physicality of abject poverty?

So, what does all this lovely fluff have to do with LIS? In the first half session 10, Lyn was talking about the inescapability of ethics in the realm of LIS, using as an example the sociocultural forces at play when we talk of the continuing need for the funding of public libraries. Ethics (and politics) affect everything to do with LIS. Perhaps the link I need to make is to be found somewhere in my love of physical LIS spaces – specifically, public libraries – places that other, different forms of research and ‘knowing’ can take place. We need public libraries because they are one of the last remaining community spaces left that welcomes everyone – regardless of class, creed, race, gender, presentation, and bank balance – and in an increasingly neoliberal, capitalistic, results-driven society, these spaces are disappearing. Yet they facilitate the sharing of stories and the welcoming of all bodies, with no expectation of payment in return. The project I described above eventually culminated in a print anthology called EastLife, all life stories themed around belonging, displacement, community and the East End. It would not have been possible without the public libraries these conversations took place in – spaces we chose not for budgeting reasons, but because they were familiar to those we were interviewing – they felt like their bodies belonged there. And in these conversations, we used our bodies and our faces to convey the unconveyable, to explain the inexplicable, then attempted to transfer these ‘knowings’ into words using the skills the students had acquired on their time on the Creative Writing BA at UEL. This is simpler to achieve (though still an ethical minefield) on a creative discipline than it would be on a scientific one, because in creative pieces there is space for emotion, nuance and inconsistencies. So, do I keep linking information and bodies because there is a gap I feel like plugging between traditional academia and unquantifiable bodily experience? Is it to do with the physical spaces: free movement in libraries, minimal surveillance, free and accessible information, and an implicit welcome for all – can the campaign to save the library be organised from the library itself? Is it something to do with the neoliberal agenda and how it brutalises ‘othered’ bodies, and how freedom of information is one of the most precious things we have that can be a part of the fight against that neoliberalism?

This is going to have to be an ongoing line of enquiry for me.

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