Writing as ‘skin’: Negotiating the body in(to) learning about the managed self

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Deborah N. Brewis of the University of Bath and Eley Williams of the University of London. They recently published an article in Management Learning entitled “Writing as skin: Negotiating the body in(to) learning about the managed self,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they briefly describe the inspiration for this research:]

One makes a braille of our hide, and attempt to interpret its textures and scry it haptic mimicry and pantomime of feeling…

Eley and I met and became friends by chance four years ago at the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association conference as I overheard her talking about the town that I had recently moved to, and that she grew up in. Serendipity plays a large part in interdisciplinary collaborations, even when moments of connection are helped along by seeking out such spaces.

We were inspired to explore together how research writing can be challenged, stretched, and reshaped to do more; specifically to struggle with bringing the body into scholarly writing. I had been fascinated with ‘haptic visuality’ and the communication of embodiment in film (Marks 2000, Sobchak 2004). I had also read Eley’s creative writing and had been affected by its rich, sometimes overwhelming, exploration of relationality: her playfulness with words show the frustration and delight involved as we wrestle with language to communicate our inner worlds to others.

We started to explore the notion that writing could be skin-like: a negotiating surface that is inscribed on, scarred, by the world around it, but also expressive of an inner reality; resistant and fleshy. In the process of conducting and writing research, we are pulled in different directions that draw us away and toward our bodies: we seek to abstract concepts, norms and patterns from our data, and yet many of us also seek to communicate nuance, and contradictions within them that are often tied into deeply personal realities. As we talked and wrote and elicited feedback from others, the qualities of human skin, both physical and the meanings attached to it culturally and historically, provided a metaphor almost too rich for our purposes that we (suitably for a project on skin) needed to contain. So, we focused on three properties of skin as tools to facilitate thinking through how the text can be allowed to be more experiential, without being consumed by the body:

– Porosity: to explore ways in which the scientific academic text can be pierced at different moments to let experiences, sensations, and subjectivity permeate.

– Sense-ability: to craft the texture of the writing to communicate at both cognitive and embodied levels with the reader; eliciting physical response and memories.

– Palimpsest: to make visible the layers that form the text including the work of others, collaboration, and academic institutions and processes; but also our own half-thoughts.

We engaged in a critical-creative experiment by working together across disciplines and by including both art and research by others in discussing how skin has offered critique and insight. In another gift of serendipity, we received some evocative photographs from Anni Skilton at Medical Illustration at University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust, inspired by the piece and that now accompany it, enhancing what we call its ‘aeffectiveness’. In this piece, we wanted to show and not just describe how skin-writing can enrich research in management and organisation studies. We hope that others will find skinfulness useful in findings ways in which scholarly writing can stretch and touch and show its vulnerability.

Marks, L. U. (2000). The skin of the film: Intercultural cinema, embodiment, and the senses. Duke University Press.

Sobchack, V. (2004). Carnal thoughts: Embodiment and moving image culture. Univ of California Press.

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New Scriptologies of Organization Studies

[We’re pleased to welcome author Dr. Carl Rhodes of the University of Technology Sydney. He recently published an article in Management Learning entitled “Sense-ational organization theory! Practices of democratic scriptology,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Rhodes briefly describes his research and its significance to the present:]

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I was motivated to write this paper out of a long standing concern with the somewhat restrictive textual politics that is present in the field of organization studies. As with many other sites of the social sciences, this is a politics where those of us who work in it either consciously or inadvertently feel the pressure to write our work in a disembodied fashion that imagines what we are doing is simply offering an objective account of research and/or theorising.

While this approach to academic writing has long been dominant, so have challenges to it. The paper is published in a special issue edited by Sarah Gilmore, Nancy Harding, Jenny Helin and Alison Pullen that sought to “break out of the constraints of scientific writing in order to better develop insights and understanding about management and the world of work, and how to communicate those ideas”.

My response to this call was to do a review of the use of alternative and experimental modes of writing in organization studies from the 1980s onwards, beginning when scholars like John Van Maanen claimed that our writing could free itself up to be impressionistic and fragmented, and Barbara Czarniawska was exploring organization studies as a literary genre. In conceiving of the paper my idea was to describe the alternative alternatives that had been published over past 40 years or so as well as to explore how they relate to the politics of knowledge that still marginalises forms of poetic, artistic, unruly and creative writing in favour of colder scientific genres.

To offer a way of explaining this, the paper proposes the notion of ‘scriptology’ as a counterpoint to ‘methodology’. Just as a methodology provides an explanation and justification of the methods with which research conducted, a scriptology would do the same thing for the form in which research is written. The problem is, of course, that scriptology is largely taken for granted such that the dominance of masculine-rational scientific writing is taken for granted to the level of virtual domination.

I try to consider organization studies as an aesthetic phenomenon that contains competing claims of what forms of writing ‘count’ as knowledge. This focus on aesthetics is meant to attest to a ‘democraticization’ of knowledge, to the extent that people strive to create freedoms that enable different knowledges to enter in to the realm of what makes sense to our field.

While the paper reviews a range of historical examples of non-conventional writing, it also shows that in recent years the most productive and provocative of these have come from feminine and feminist writing. This amounts to the beginning of an aesthetic revolution that channels important political contestations over the gendered character of the inscription of research. This has been done not just in the name of stylistic pluralism but by considering the relationship of writing to forms of oppression and discrimination based on sex, gender and sexuality.

The scriptologies that have been developed in this emerging tradition criticize the masculinity of dominant mode of writing. More productively they emphasize and exemplify fluidity, plurality, reflexivity, embodiment, affectivity, non-sameness, and multiplicity of identities and relations as pivotal to the possibilities of feminine writing.

My intended contribution is limited to attesting to the work of others as manifest in a range of examples of feminine and feminist scriptologies. These include, inter alia, Brigitte Biehl-Missal practice of ‘feminine creation’, Briony Lipton’s ‘creative academic fiction’, Ajnesh Prasad’s rearticulation of Donna Haraway’s ‘cyborg writing, and Janet Sayers’ ‘feminist dogwriting’ and ‘meat-writing’.

The emerging sense that this writing portends is not about justification of different research genres so as to broaden forms of expression and extend knowledge, but rather it is about shifting and destabilizing the very meaning of what we might take knowledge to be. While the article explores the development and value such non-conventional writing in organization studies, I can only conclude by saying that reading the original works would promise to be more illustrative than relying on my exegesis.

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