On Losing Foundations

Exactly nine months before I finished this book, I fell pregnant. The falling took place in the contingent depths of my own body. Suddenly my queasy stomach and my exhausted spirit were in control. At first I would get myself to the library but spend my time working out the quickest way to the bathrooms. Then the bus ride became too much. Now my days were spent at home, sitting on a soft chair or crouched over the toilet bowl or flat out in bed. My vegetable garden began to wither and die because the idea of standing up and walking into the outside heat was too much. I chose food not on how it would taste going down, but on what it would be like when it almost inevitably came back up. I found myself impressed at the reckless way my partner would just drink a glass of water straight down. I did no work.

I think what happened is that I had lost the sense of my body being a firm foundation from which to live my life. I was used to my mind being clear, my body unnoticeable, and the first ruling the second effortlessly. But my mind had become fuzzy, my body immovable, and the domination of one by the other something that even my strongest effort of will couldn’t achieve. What had happened was that the relations within my body – linking throat to stomach and stomach to brain – had become unstable and hence obvious. I began to understand what Iris Marion Young meant when she said that Western metaphysics, and its assumption of firm foundations, is based on the male body that does not change, does not bleed (Young 2005: 57, 107). I was learning in a most corporeal way that the world is not so fixed, and is ever in flux. It takes effort – and luck – to make the world seem to hold still.

And then my son was born. A perfectly normal human baby, at the beginning of his life he could not focus his eyes and he didn’t realise his hands were his own. After a while he could punch himself in the face, and then could avoid punching himself in the face and put his hands into his mouth instead. He could stare at a toy suspended above him, and hit it. And, most thrilling, he could see me smiling at him and smile in return. He was learning to relate parts of his body together, to relate them to the material world, and to relate himself to the social world.

Like all of us, my son was born into a chaotic world ever in flux. He could sense no pattern. But we learn to make order. As he grew he gradually learnt a particular set of motions common to humans that enable us to impose ourselves upon the world. Our motions are regular, and we come to discern and expect regularities in the physical and social world. We throw a ball up, we catch it as it comes down. We see rain on a sunny day and look for rainbows. We find that if we are cruel, then others will be cruel in return. We learn to perform our bodies in ways that help us to recognise and create order. We learn to act in ways that are effective amongst our material and social partners.

These performances of ordering are deeply entwined with our ability to know. What we know is how to act to find and use patterns. We know how to interact with the world and to predict what will happen when we do so. My son learnt to hit the toys hanging above him in his baby gym. He learnt that when he does so they will swing back and forth like a pendulum. Later he will learn to see this same motion in playground swings, and he will learn to stretch and retract his body in order to control the swing. He will learn, physically, if not abstractly, that a ball describes the same curve when thrown. He will throw and catch unthinkingly. Later still, if he is better at mathematics than his mother, he will learn to draw parabolic curves from the numbers written on the board by a teacher. In all these cases he is learning ways to create a certain pattern in the world – the parabola – and, perhaps more impressively, to usefully predict its next element. In all these cases, what he knows are ways to effectively interact with the worlds of baby gyms and classrooms. He knows how to do: to hit, swing, catch, and map; to move, predict, and abstract.

This is one way of reading what the world is like, and how, therefore, we know about it. It is a particular theory on which to build a metaphysics and an epistemology and it is the theoretical approach of this book. Ian Hacking (1983) expressed this view very well. To Hacking the real is not something static that we represent, but something that we come to know through our interactions with it. From babyhood we come to know the real by using it to pull ourselves to our feet and stand on. Embodied creatures, we pull the real, and push it, and learn what happens. ‘Reality,’ Hacking teaches us, ‘has to do with causation and our notions of reality are formed from our abilities to change the world’ (Hacking 1983: 146; see also Verran 2001, chapter eleven).

When I became pregnant, the certainty that my body would behave and that my time was my own collapsed. It was only then that I began to truly understand the work of Ian Hacking, Annemarie Mol, Helen Verran, John Law, and other scholars I draw on here. In metaphysics they believe in there is no fixed is-ness, no foundation that we float above. We do not simply find ways to represent and read a stable world. Instead the world is made up of the relations we have with its objects as time flows on. Knowledge, as I learnt watching my son, is our ability to relate ourselves to a greater or lesser number of objects more or less successfully. Knowledge, in Verran’s words, is relational (Verran 2001: 33–36). It is caught up in our performances in and of the world. For Verran, ‘good’ knowledge is that which enables us to act ‘well’ with the world, whatever that might mean.

Imagination is part of our performance of the world; it is part of the way we make ourselves related to objects and other people. It is how we think forward to predict, how we empathise with others to know a little of their ways of seeing and acting; it is how we play so that we can practise relating when the stakes are low. It is how we are able to think new thoughts, to ask, and create new objects. My questions here are about how imagination is done, specifically in primary school classrooms around Melbourne, Australia, and what this means for ‘good’ knowing and ‘good’ acting for children, teachers, and ethnographers.