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Mona Livholts,
Professor in social work [Pronouns: hon/hän/she] Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki

This text draws on the ongoing book project: “The Body Politics of Global Social Work: Essays on the Post-Anthropocentric Condition”, and particularly the chapters on decolonisation and writing. The wider framing of the project and other publications within it can be found here: researchportal.helsinki.fi

De-Colonising Writing in Post-Anthropocentric Social Work

A brick wall, corridors, rooms, and offices; rows of books in neatly arranged bookshelves; and the computerised space of words where I write and write again, struggling with the sound of academic dry prose and social problems. When I look out of the window from the third floor of this early twentieth century building, I see the water; I begin to imaginatively listen to the sound of the sea; the ice-break of clashing ice blocks and ice-slush; the sound of waves. Some of the feminist-, indigenous-, and post-colonial writers that attended to this dilemma claimed that how they wrote, when transforming writing into embodied genre-transgressive creative prose, writing memories, stories, poems, paved way for social justice at the same time as it marginalised their texts (Anzaldúa 1987; hooks 1989; Parmar & Min-ha 1990; Richardson 2000; Livholts 2019). This paper turns to the question of how writing and textual shaping matters for the creating of critical and creative knowledge and learning in social work research and education. I propose that to de-colonise social work, there is a need to de-discipline practices of writing with human and multiple embodiment that transcends the relationship with objects and things, all forms of life, and the natural environment. The paper draws on my work with situated life writing inspired by feminist-, postcolonial and indigenous scholarship that used creative life writing genres such as diaries, letters, poetry, and photography to engage in critical thinking and textual re-shaping for social justice. I contextualise the writing in the context of the post-anthropocentric condition of more-than-human entanglements, to write with human, architectural, spheric, and earthly embodiments. How can writing with walls or writing with water contribute to decolonising practices in social work research and education?

Research paper

I view the brick wall opposite to my window, with all its multi-layered colored reddish bricks; the tree in the yard, stretching its sunbathing bare spring branches towards the sky; the tall house beyond it with a black tin roof partly covered with snow; the sharp contours of the chimneys that stands out towards the blue sky, clouds passing by, and the sunlight creating distinct yellowish whitish shadowlight [Swedish: skuggljus, Finnish: varjonvalo] areas on the roof. It is very quiet. I hear a vague sound from the ventilation in the flat, and the clicking sound from the keyboard of the computer as I write. A wall can be ‘a life description’ writes Ahmed (2017, p. 143), referring to how institutional walls in academia as well as other walls, of houses, along borders of nations and regions, can include or exclude; how they are both immaterial and material, created by the way they are perceived and talked about and at the same time physical. When are walls visible and when are they invisible, and for whom? Who pass through and who does not pass through? What blocks movement? Ahmed (2017, p. 142) suggests that ‘to think about materiality through institutional brick walls is to offer a different way of thinking the connection between bodies and worlds.’ This illustration of thinking with walls, the extension of embodiment to the materiality of a brick wall illustrates both architectural power and the sound of writing within the walls and geopolitical contexts of writing social work. In this article I draw on my work on situated writing to propose that the often overlooked aspect of textual and visual shaping of social work is important to decolonise writing social work research and education (e.g., Livholts 2010a, 2010b, 2013, 2019). Such departure also challenges epistemologies and ontologies in social work as a human-centered westernised discipline shaped by mainstream forms of writing knowledge. What does it mean for social work researchers and educators in the academic world to de-colonise practices of writing? In this article I propose that post-anthropocentric social work opens for practices of decolonizing writing that critically engages in writing with architecture, things, objects, and water from diverse and entangled more-than-human perspectives.

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Figure 1 BrickWallHumanShadow. Authors photograph. Helsinki, 2021.

Walls are how some bodies are not encountered in the first place.

Walls are how other bodies are stopped by an encounter.

A wall becomes necessary because the wrong bodies could pass through.

(Ahmed 2017, p. 145)

Who can be the creators of knowledge? Bell (2021, p. 65) writes about how post-anthropocentric social work:

[…] moves social work closer to its professed holistic perspective, as it situates humans as interdependent and interconnected with all other living things and the material world. The nature of knowledge within a transformative philosophy of social work is likewise relational, embodied, dynamic and dialogic, and humans are not necessarily the only creators of knowledge.

Such re-framing acknowledges responses and agencies of people and social workers in the contemporary condition of interconnectivities of peoples’ lives, and all other life forms. It is a way of stretching social work philosophy, thinking, and writing in a post-anthropocentric condition that intertwines the spheric and planetary with the becoming of bodies and structures in social work. Textual shaping is part of the structural conditions of power in academia that requires submitting to specific norms. As Min-ha (1989, p. 8) writes, “to be a writer” is not merely about the act of writing, but also contextualized in relations of power that demands writing to fit into a strict academic prose. To decolonize social work there is a need to re-write the textualities and re-invent the wor(l)dlyness of social work, including the language of social problems (Livholts 2021). The immaterial and material force of being seen as a problem, its emotional, organic and affective power of aged, classed, gendered, and racialized bodies, and how embodiment is entangled with architectures and landscapes. ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ as Du Bois (1903. p. 3) wrote, can be understood as the unasked question, that even though not being said aloud, is always present in the ‘double consciousness’ of someone who is imposed to see themselves through the eyes of others. Indigenous scholarship has contributed to reshaping writing and storytelling in academia. As Guttorm et al (2021: 114) write about de-colonising research storying there is a need to change ways of seeing what an academic text is: ‘to hear the Earth, to feel the Moon, to think like the forest, and to write with these ontologically different epistemologies, where do the non-words get translated into words in our writing process.’ Working with memories as fragments of lived experiences is a powerful methodological tool (Livholts 2019; Haug 1987) and Baikie (2020, p. 42) writes about decolonisation through Indigenous memory work ‘need to routinely navigate in-between the worldviews of the colonizer and the colonized in both research and practice.’ Shifting between diary notes, letters, poetry, and photography, I invented a novella form for academia, where the re-worldling of social work transgressed personal, political, organic, and academic movements. A fragment of a memory, emotional engagement, seeing, listening, and sculpting academic life on paper. ‘Writing Water’ I express this movement through poetry (Livholts 2013, 2019, p. 76):

Had it not been too late, I would have claimed I am writing water,
In the age of untimeliness.
The letter is sent too soon, too late.
The recipient has moved.
Written in the layers of ice, cracks, breaking the line,
Had it not been too late,
I would have claimed I am writing water.
Through all the years of methaphoric captivity I was always writing water;
but it was just now when you were leaving with the train and the lake threw rain on our faces,
that I was astonished to know this.

Novotny (2008, p. 1) writes about how knowledge cannot be contained and provides insight into the ability to transform knowledge by the way it ‘seeps through institutions and to and from academia to the outside world’. Thinking with water in the season when this chapter is initially written is thinking with the ice break; thinking with the Baltic Sea, the clashing of ice blocks, ice-slush and water; thinking with the architecture, immaterial and material walls, of urbanized spaces in Helsinki, Finland and Stockholm, Sweden, both of landscapes of belonging; thinking with entangled languages and sounds.

Am I floating, in the sun beams, of the spring sea, the surface of ice and open water; Am I floating, towards open sea, ice-blocks clashing, slow water movements, asking me to listen; Am I floating, in this moment, of intense sunlight, with the water of the Gulf of Botnia, connecting and separating Finland and Sweden.

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Figure 2 ThinkingWithIceBreak. Author's photo Helsinki, Finland, 2021.

Bozalek and Pease (2021) write that post-anthropocentric and post-human thought challenges dichotomies such as ‘nature/culture, material/discursive, subject/object, human/animal, man/woman and North/South’. Such departure is central for decolonizing social work through post-anthropocentric transformations in relation to the work of women of color, indigenous-, post/academic and post-qualitative writing (Anzaldua 1981, 1987; Cisneros 2018; Livholts 2012, St. Pierre 2018). Anzaldua (1981, p. xxviii) writes:

Every person, animal, plant, stone is interconnected in a life-and-death-symbiosis. We are each responsible for what is happening down the street, south of the border or across the sea.

Anzaldua’s writing could be conceptualized as a body of writing about language and writing, figurations of how writing matters, skrivande har betydelse, kirjoittaminen on merketystä for how it is possible at all to learn about this life-and-death-symbiosis. St. Pierre (2018, p. 604) describes post-qualitative inquiry as a slow process of reading and re-reading, writing and ‘creating different worlds for living.’ In the context of feminist- and postcolonial studies, I (Livholts 2012, p. 7) described post/academic writing as movements of interdisciplinary and genre-transgressive writing, creating verbal, visual and written versions of the world, ‘disturbing and interrupting the un-named hegemonic style.’

The critique from post-human and new materialism scholarship towards diversity and intersectionality is that it risks producing difference as positions in—mostly binary—structures of categories are problematic because they tend to ‘capture and reduce’ the vibrancy and instability of bodies and subject formations (Puar, 2012, p. 50). As Tiainen et al (2020) discuss, intersectionality studies tended to categorise human embodiment and suggests that from the perspective of new materialism and more than human agency makes the middle challenge structures of oppression by producing ‘open-ended relationalities happening across social, material, discursive, human and more-than-human areas of activity.’ Gordon (2017) demonstrates the usefulness of creative life writing as a decolonising pedagogy for social work. As a facilitator of creative life writing workshops with people with migratory background in a saloon, Gordon (2017) initiates conducting creative life writing workshop as a third area of experience. The architectural space was the basement of an urban hair saloon/barbershop in England which served customers of African, Caribbean, Asian and European heritage. A participant described the radical change of spatial setting in the following way (Gordon 2017, p. 141):

Before I enter that space [a university creative writing class], metaphorically, here's my blackness, I put it in there [the participant mimes putting something in a bag]. I have a bad hair day, I put that in the suitcase; I feel depressed, I put that in the suitcase and lock it tight and I leave it outside, and then go into that space supposedly to be creative and I have to write my poetry... I am the only black person in the group. I feel they could not come with it, could not understand and that is why I leave a part of myself outside.

As the writer express the act of creating space, it shows how ‘entering’ the academic space means to leave part of oneself outside. Although there is a door to enter, the academic ‘space dictates’ (2017, p. 141) and excludes ‘black selves.’ Gordon (2017) argues that we are always engaged in creating the spaces we inhabit, and her agency as a facilitator is to create a ‘holding environment’ that is perceived by participants as a safe enough space to allow for critical and creative processes to occur.

During the December holidays of the late eighties, my older sisters whom I adored and had recently returned from Durban on a summer break - recounted a story of their visit to the Durban beachfront. The day that they chose to go to the beach was a stinging hot day and their light skins still bore the sunburn marks. The beach front had been crowded. As they prepared to wade into the waves, a group of policemen approached wielding batons. As they drew nearer my sisters made out the hand written words on the policemen’s hats: “Whites only beach!” Soon people were scattering in all directions running away from the police. My sisters joined the running when they saw how expertly the police handled their batons on unsuspecting or tardy ‘non – whites.’ Afterwards, they watched from the distance and saw how the white women reclaimed the sand as they lay on cotton towels under large colourful umbrellas. They went home feeling hot, burned, and bruised. I do not recall the exact words used but I recall my eldest sister felt empty while the second eldest was seething in anger. These were my older sisters whom I held in awe for living in the big world away from our dusty village. In that moment I felt small and insignificant.

(Apartheid Archives Research Project, N1) (Schefer 2021, p. 87-88)

This story is collected from Schefer’s (2021) writing on embodied and affective scholarship and critical place studies, situating a fragment of historical memory, of a black person going to the sea, to a crowded beach on a hot summer day to the Durban beach front in South Africa in the late eighties. The attention is directed towards how bodies, objects and places are entangled and how traces of the past affectively is alive in the present and shapes the future. Schefer (2021, p. 80) describes how hauntology ‘disrupts neat temporal divides in multiple ways and acknowledges also the poltergeists of the future.’ As a hauntology of the sea, swimming calls for listening, seeing, and feeling with all our senses to trace hauntings of past, present, and future in the strive for environmental justice. The complexity of the sea as a space for colonialism and invasion and at the same time healing and spiritual engagement; nevertheless, it is always a matter of entanglements between bodies, excluding black and brown bodies and privileging white bodies. This has been taken up by decolonial feminist South African poet Kholeka Putuma, and I wish to conclude this paper by sharing the video of Putuma reading the poem ‘Water’ to demonstrate this complex process of writing, voicing, listening, transforming as a pathway to decolonising writing in post-anthropocentric social work research and education.

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