Consequences: The Politics of Collective Writing; or, Stretching the Social Science Imagination [another social science fiction]

The final session of the Social Science Imagination course last term (December 12th, 2013) featured a collective writing activity based on an adaptation of the game of Consequences. The format of Consequences is that  each person contributes to a narrative  as a part of a series of answers to specific questions without knowing what the other persons involved have written or will write. Questions usually follow the format of  Person A met Person B, S/he said, S/he replied, S/he wore, S/he wore… What they did, and the consequences were? These answers are written on one sheet of paper, which is folded up to hide  the previous written contribution before handing the paper on to the next person in the game. At the end of the game the paper is unfolded and the answers are read aloud in sequence to reveal the whole  narrative, often and hopefully with comic effect,  and, among the laughter, the possibility for profound insights into the human condition http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequences_(game).

In the SSI adaptation of the game,  CW Mills is introduced as Person A in the narrative and the story line and other persons identified as characters in the narrative should be derived from the readings and discussions that have formed the substance of the SSI programme this term.

We also made the game into a more collective activity. Each person was asked to write out the entire story line responding to all of the questions: CW Mills met…He said to them…They said to him…What they did…and the Consequences were. Each of these individual complete narratives were then cut up, and mixed in sequence with other answers to the questions from each of the persons narratives. At the end of the game we had as many narratives as they were participants in the game (8). I have referred to each of these narratives as Sets 1 – 8.

Consequences is an amusing party game, and was great fun to play as part of the final SSI session. The techniques utilised as a core part Consequences, as well as our adaptations, have an interesting history, connected to critical political art, e.g., Dada and Surrealism, who adapted the artistic montage method to a writely form; as well as avant-garde writing movements, most notably through the work of William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, as well as other writers who formed part of the Beat Generation and are credited with inventing Cut-Up Theory. I have enclosed some links at the end of this piece which provide  further information on these politicised writerly forms.

Please see the narrative sets set out below. I have only very slightly amended contributions were they have strayed outside the format of the game or details disrupt the narrative in nonsensical ways.

At the end of this post I provide some analysis of the sets. My main point is that each Set, for the most part, displays a sense of logical coherence framed by the questions to be answered, and, more importantly, as a result of the pedagogical experience we have all been through as scholars on the SSI programme. The question that remains is what are the consequences for pedagogies being developed by the SSC following this sort of collective writing activity.

SET 1

1.  CW MILLS  MET: Thomas More in a park in Belgium, they were looking at birds on a lake. One of the birds had a broken leg and was swimming around the edges of the lake, other birds were more or less ignoring it getting on with their own business. They both watched the bird as others swam up to it and started to fight with it. The injured bird didn’t retaliate but moved away. More looked at CW Mills and laughed.

2. MILLS SAID: You may feel like you are trapped by some fate of your surroundings or maybe by the government or maybe by your having so little money or others having too much. But I can tell you that if you learn to think with  a sociological imagination you can learn how to challenge these powers that make people who they don’t want to be. It won’t be easy but it has more promise than this.

3. MORE SAID: I thought you were dead

4. WHAT THEY DID: They shared the view of the lake and smoked the’ peace pipe’. And eventually walked back to the lights of the city where civilisation was in full swing

5. THE CONSEQUENCES WERE: There are no consequences as pure as violence does.

SET 2

1. CW MILLS MET a teacher in a classroom that tried hard at the end of the day when OFSTED came and she forced the kids to do something she thought was harmful to their self-esteem and agency and probably life chances.

2.  CW MILLS SAID: Personal problems: that bird is like a person in society. Everybody needs to play their part in society. The bird has no role..what is the point of it. The personal troubles of something as trivial as illness and transferred into a problem for wider society and it will just die.

3. THE TEACHER SAID:  Listen man. I like the many questions you pose, they are very interesting. You seem like an educated kind of fella, who might have studied the work from more academic circles. Have a toke on this fat cat and see if things don’t just morph into a better, freer way to solve the in-balances of our world. Try to imagine a social science perspective that could reform the  current way of looking at what you’d have us believe the world to be. It may be far less complicated than you people make it. Love and peace man.

4. WHAT THEY DID:  THE TEACHER died the next day after drowning herself with a glass of water. Her partner and children watched until the last breath.

5. THE CONSEQUENCES WERE: In the corner of the square MILLS spotted a bread shop with a long queue of people outside waiting to get bread. Inside the shop women/children/men were playing games and reading books and writing stories. On the wall inside the shop was a sign ‘Welcome to the future’.

SET 3

1.CW MILLS was on a trip to NY city in 1975 when he was caught in a traffic jam. He decided as it was a nice evening he’d walk past the central park back to his hotel. On coming to the lake edge he came upon John Lennon smoking a joint and laughing. Though he didn’t really know who the man was he looked vaguely familiar. The stranger was a well mannered man, possibly British, but he had the aura of someone who often bucked the rules

2 MILLS  SAID: What would you call this barbarism or socialism?

3 LENNON SAID:  ‘The sick role’, More said the bird has a role. If it was a human in Utopia it would have the access to free health care, but no one would pick on him for it.The other bird should be scorned by the wider community for starting fights with someone for a problem which no one has any control over. Injury is a variable which can’t be prevented, but can be helped

4 WHAT THEY DID:  Mills convinced LENNON to walk in the surrounding town where everywhere he looked he saw suffering that was greater than his own. People were sick, children were orphaned and working in unimaginable conditions, and many went without food, clean water and homes.

5. THE CONSEQUENCES WERE: Beyond this place of warmth and tears, looms but only the horrors of the shade. Yet the uncertainty of the years, finds and will find me unafraid.

SET 4

1. CW MILLS MET King Henry VIII in the palace gardens shortly before his death

2. MILLS SAID – Aren’t you that fellow who writes such inspirational music, laced with melodies and rhythm that catch peoples’ heart strings? I’m sure I’ve been caught singing a popular song of yours on many occasions. I really enjoyed your freedom of vision, the clarity and the inhibition by which you describe such values as love peace hate and war. Could you do me a favour? Would you tell me how you see the world through this lens? How could you describe simply your way to imagine the possibility of peace and love being a popular movement.

3. HENRY VIII SAID – people are struggling to live a ‘good life’ in what is more than a ‘bad life’, getting worse and worse. There are pockets of resistance that you might want to call socialism

4.  WHAT THEY DID The got up and began to walk stroll away, as they looked back they saw the investigating bird had brought food for the injured bird. Ah said MILLS you may be right, but I don’t believe it, for anything to matter it needs to inspire the motivation of the entire society. No you are missing the point we need to pull together as a society so that there could be no weak links if a society cares enough they will collectively find a solution..find a role for everyone.

5. THE CONSEQUENCES WERE:  Seeing such impossible troubles his people faced for the first time the king fell to his knees in the mud a tear ran down his cheek as a young girl hugged him before running off laughing.  The king vowed to put his people first and try to pass his legacy on to the next monarch so that England would be a Utopia.

SET 5

1. CW MILLS  met a scholar from the Social Science Centre.

2. HE SAID: Your theories are rooted in German idealism promoting aristocratic disdain and aphoristic obscurity as the highest intellectual endeavour. Rather than possessing a Sociological Imagination you see yourself as a critique without any responsibility or care for non-intellectuals.

3. THE SCHOLAR SAID: I  married my childhood love. I wrote poetry and a book no-one ever saw. I had children and friends. I danced naked in the garden, with my love on the summer Solstice. I had little money and didn’t need much either. I went to University aged 50, got a 1st in English and became a lecturer aged 54. The cancer will take me quick. I’ve said goodbye. I am having visions of my mother and Queen Victoria and the flowers outside look so beautiful. Tomorrow I will die with dignity among people I love and who love me.

4. WHAT THEY DID – They spent the morning thinking about the troubles they faced and considering their impact on the rest of society. They thought about ways to address theses issues through collective action and imagining alternative ways of being.

5. THE CONSEQUENCES WERE – It’s hard to tell what the consequences were. Sometimes a single happening looks different from different perspectives, through different lenses. From the scholars perspective the consequence was that THE SCHOLAR suddenly saw her classroom as a space to work in which she and her kids had a right to be and to become. From Mills point of view the SSI offered hope but  it needed a home in the world to live.

SET 6

1. CW MILLS MET: Theodor Adorno in the USA where he was presenting the ideas that lay behind  the Sociological Imagination.

2 CW MILLS SAID: I heard that you hated work, you never made any money, you laid bricks most of your life, you left school with no qualifications, you were constantly trying to reinvent yourself and now your dying of cancer at 56. The world has failed you.

3. ADORNO SAID: My life has been far from perfect! Each day I battle with my problems. I have no time to sort out anyone elses lives while mine is in constant turmoil.

4. WHAT THEY DID: MILLS and ADORNO took a grand and magical tour through history that hardly anyone knows about or can remember to gather resources of hope for taking control of their own lives and making the world as they wanted it to be. They learned about reforms and revolutions and failed experiments and stopped every night in a new place to read something new and to talk and think and see how it could help them learn better the next day. And then they started trying.

5. THE CONSEQUENCES WERE:  ADORNO wrote a song which he called Imagine to describe the themes CW Mills had offered for consideration. CW Mills went away to write the book the SI, which outline the themes spoken about by the hippy in the park. Both became more focussed from that chance meeting on the synchronicity of life.

SET 7

1. CW MILLS MET: Kathi Weeks in 2050 Lincoln

2. MILLS SAID:  I’m glad that people have started to take  notice my work! I thought it would never happen. But what are you going to do with all that you have learned? Most people just talk about it. I have a plan why don’t you?

3. WEEKS SAID: The modern world is hopelessly corrupt and irredeemable. That in structure and in spirit modern society produces human beings who have no moral compass. You  are a liberal and liberals have a dark heart.

4. WHAT THEY DID: MILLS slagged WEEKS  who now felt justified in her contempt

5. THE CONSEQUENCES WERE:  MILLS’ sons dug his grave and buried him.People grieved. There was silence. Dignity. A prize in his name. Despite it all.

SET 8

1 CW MILLS met NIGEL WINN on May 26th 2006  at home by his hospital bed, which was on loan.

2.MILLS  SAID:  Do you believe yourself to have lived a perfect life. What have you done to make the life of others easier and happier.

3 WINN  SAID : Don’t insult my intelligence. Don’t tell me I can do things about my world, the governments power the inequalities of class race and gender the learner privileges, the language that helps us not to listen to each other, the bureaucracies that prevent people from being human to each other – just by thinking differently. If sociology could change the world, wouldn’t we have all become sociologists and done so by now

4. WHAT THEY DID: They went to Speakers Corner on Lincoln High Street and read passages from Thomas More’s Utopia outloud.

5. THE CONSEQUENCES WERE MILLS  argued  we need to look more closely at the way society works – there may be some truth to it. WINN smiled, If everyone in society sees someone in trouble, chances are someone will rush to their aid. Society is like a body, different people have different roles. Not everyone does the same thing and they don’t need to…

Consequences?

Each set, for the most part, displays a sense of logic framed by the questions to be answered;  and, more importantly, through a coherence shaped by the pedagogical experience we have all been through as scholars on the Social Science Imagination programme.  The Sets deal, in their own way and to different degrees, with the themes that form the basis of the key text for the programme, C Wright Mills’ Chapter 1 of The Sociological Imagination. These themes include, the relationship between private troubles and public issues; the problem of establishing a theoretical understanding of the social world, set within an appropriate historical context; the sense of being trapped within a social world over which we have no control, and yet a real appreciation of the possibility to escape or to create another world in which humanity is the project and not the resource. While, all of the time, dealing with our sense of hopelessness and despair, and the reality that in the end all life ends in death. The Sets express a scholarly connection with other readings, including More and Weeks, Adorno and Judith Butler, revealing the critical  Utopian tendency out of which the Social Science Centre has emerged , alongside a realisation of the nightmare dystopia that has been created by the imposition of capitalist work, among other destructive negative social conventions.  But, more than that,  the Sets  reveal the power of the social imagination in other forms,  most importantly music and art, as well as the importance of re-establishing a connection between the natural and the social world. So, finally, at the end of this SSI programme for this year, how are we to take this critical collective writing project forward?  What are the consequences of what we have done, and what we have achieved, co-operatively.

Further Readings:

Pangburn D J ( 2012) Surrealism and Automotic Writing The Politics of Language http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/181227/surrealism-automatic-writing-the-politics-of-destroying-language/, access 16th December 2013

Language is a Virus : William Burroughs Cut-Up Theory http://www.languageisavirus.com/articles/articles.php?subaction=showcomments&id=1099111044&archive=&start_from=&ucat=#.Uq7S7mRdUug, accessed 16th December 2013

Cut-Up Technique – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cut-up_technique, accessed 16th December 2013

The Lazarus Corporation http://www.lazaruscorporation.co.uk/cutup/links, accessed 16th December 2013

Brion Gysin http://briongysin.com/?category_name=cut-upm, accessed 16th December 2013

Surrealist autonomism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surrealist_automatism, accessed 16th December

2 thoughts on “Consequences: The Politics of Collective Writing; or, Stretching the Social Science Imagination [another social science fiction]

  1. Pingback: Consequences | Joss Winn

  2. Pingback: Reflections on the ‘Social Science Imagination’ | The Social Science Centre, Lincoln

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