Michael Johnson met Jess Ennis-Hill in a recent BBC documentary about the London Olympics 2012 ‘Super Saturday,’ as we in the UK came to call it. Michael came up to Sheffield to speak with Jess, so there were a few shots from around the city. In the programme, Jess, Mo and Greg spoke about their experiences of the day, and their lives subsequently. From here I could of course take this in the direction of the grit and determination these three folks showed. How they overcame adversity, fought back and earned the rewards they so richly deserved … and then of course relate that to studying for a PhD … but no.
Over a year ago now I wrote of a reading group I convened in which three profs were kind enough to discuss a reading of a book with me. We went out of the Uni to a coffee house just around the corner. It’s called ‘Tamper/Sellers Wheel’ and has a small, one-table room you can book. The one in the above shot. It’s a small world.
What this did get me thinking though was about fixity and flow. The table, the chairs, the room are all the same as when we used them; the materiality remained the same. The materiality served the same function for Michael and Jess that it did for us; the only difference was the point in time at which the activities took place. So we have two assemblages in which the materiality remains the same (perhaps apart from the drinks!), but the people are different. Initially this worried me somewhat; did the nonhumans in these events have the significance that I’m claiming they do in my research? One way to answer the question is to ask what would happen if each actor was not there, so take the chairs …literally! Could the event still have taken place? Well, yes, though perhaps less comfortably. We, Jess and Michael, could still have completed our exchanges whilst standing or walking around. If the drinks still had to play a part, we might have needed to change the cups for ones which fulfilled the act of ‘drink holding’ for something more appropriate to walking, but yes, the table, chairs and room could all be taken away without affecting the event unduly. Now imagine that Michael couldn’t come to Sheffield, or that the people with whom I discussed the book were in Australia. Distance or separation becomes an actor and has an affect, causing the conversation to need a mediator, like a telephone or Skype. Suddenly, the importance of the nonhumans becomes apparent. Furthermore, the technology is more than a mere tool to ‘be used,’ it becomes an actor which affects the nature and quality of the interaction. Take it away, or swap one technology for another, and the whole interaction changes; you’re obliged to do things differently and the outcome may also be different.
One other thought struck me. Jess and Michael weren’t just using a room, table and chairs like my reading group. They were using the room, table and chairs that we were. Of course we could all have been there at the same time, but things would quickly have become very messy and once more, the outcome would be different. Instead by sliding them apart in time, the two meetings can now take place, even though the nonhumans which participated are precisely the same. I guess what I’m rather clumsily or self evidently saying here is that I might need to think of time as an actor, perhaps in a slightly different way to that when I did so previously. In thinking about Tamper, my group and the Olympians are held apart in different timespaces, despite us participating with the same location and other nonhumans. It is time which enabled our two discussions to unfold as they did. An invisible, intangible, but crucial actor.