Lately I have been reading Gilles Deleuze, the French philosopher who produced works of philosophy, literature and fine art. Although much of his complex thinking is beyond my grasp, it seems to resonate with the interdisciplinary, mixed genre way I have come to see child and youth care. He wanted his ideas to be played with. So I read and reread passages from his work and try to make connections with my own work.
Earlier in this column I wrote about how Deleuze saw new connections in repetition, differences, and multiplicity in his images of thought much the way the chaos scientist sees patterns that emerge from randomness. Deleuze notion of rhizomes also rings true with child and youth care as an evolving nexus of themes, practices, and ideas.
I got turned on to Deleuze when I read a paper by a child and youth care graduate student at Brock University. Not surprising the students” advisors Hans and Kathy Skott-Myhre often reference Deleuze in their writing about radical youth work and ethics. Deleuze also comes up in conversations I have with a philosophy graduate student who rents a room in my house. He loaned me his copy of The Deleuze Connections and Critical and Clinical, a book of Deleuze’s essays on literature.
I find much inspiration in the thoughtful way my colleagues and young scholars are introducing ideas from philosophy, literature, film and art into their attempts to understand and shed light on child and youth care and human nature in general. They are not willing to accept simple explanations of complex phenomena.
Recently, for instance, I reconnected via e-mail with Janet Newbury, who first inspired me with a thesis she wrote for a child and youth care masters at the University of Victoria. It was an interview/story based account of how relatives dealt with family loss several years after a shipwreck, and subsequently one of the most alive and relevant child and youth care texts I have read. A passage in her work about numbness led me to explore in more detail Milan Kundera’s notion of death/beauty in an earlier Moments with Youth column. (See here.)
Her work today is taking her in the direction of
social activism, the relationship between meaning and metaphor, and many
other places. She is challenging outcome focused, often culturally
insensitive practices and policies set forth by funders, publishers,
practitioners, and politicians who try to define and do child and youth
care according to simple evidence and asset based criteria. She is also
trying, like many young scholars, to understand the work as a
relational, context bound and cultural process of interaction with
multiple possibilities and complexities.
In these contexts one of the themes I have been curious about for a while is detachment. It is a theme in Deleuze’s work, as it is in many of the philosophers, fiction writers, poets, and filmmakers I have referred to previously in this column. They all seem to suggest that if we detach ourselves in some way from our subject(s) and histories it opens us to new opportunities, insights and connections.
I interpret this as meaning if we understand our story, the social, cultural, and political systems in which we live, and do not let it interfere in our open-minded presence and interactions with children, youth, parents, co-workers and others, this opens the door to create new ways of connecting in daily interactions. We do our personal homework, and then get enmeshed in an experience with self awareness at the edge of our consciousness and let the action take us where it will, our prior experiences and perspectives fueling our curiosity as we search for new discoveries about self and other.
In an essay in Critical and Clinical on Beckett’s Film, Deleuze comments on how Beckett’s work was an attempt to free self from perception by other. In child and youth care we might imagine that, like a camera, our goal is to be open to youth free of perceptions other than the one created by the angle at which we observe. “To be” in this context is to be seen but not perceived according to any stereotype. The observer puts her/him self in the best possible position or “proximity” to observe.
In my classes I show students a video made by Sadie Benning. During her teen years, she videotaped scenes from her life. Not only did she create a piece of art work, she also provided insight into the life of a lonely teen struggling with her sexuality (google Videos by Sadie Benning). The camera listened and saw her with the unbiased and undivided attention she wished adults would give her. Thus, in class we practice trying to look in this way, aware of how our story (montage) shapes our view as we open our minds, eyes, and ears to what she is showing us and saying.
Another way to think of the relationship between detachment and attachment is if we let in the randomness and uniqueness of our interactions and stop trying to control our experiments (interactions) and outcomes, new patterns and possibilities constantly emerge. We plan carefully in advance, as the child and youth care literature clearly shows, according to youths” developmental capacity and readiness to connect and participate in activities, but our work is not rigidly bound by models or scripts. Instead, whenever possible, in the improvised dance of youth work we learn as much as we can about self, other, and the work, then free ourselves to respond to the ever changing rhythms of our interactions and experiences. Many abstract artists, poets, and jazz, rap, and rock musicians, of course, show us how to do this by drawing us in with their detached/attached images and rhythms.
We in a sense free ourselves of the psychoanalytic analysis and interpretations of the past. Lives are not boxed in by labels, categories, and numbers. Each participant in the interaction becomes his or her own agent in the moment and future. The past gives way to the new stories we create by our actions and interactions. We see the uses for “symptoms” and shape new, more useful steps and actions as we move forward together in the rat-tat-tat of action, reflection, action, reflection.
For me, at this point, this all sums up something like this: while we can never take ourselves out of our work and thinking, if we want to be creative and open ourselves to new insights and connections then we have to understand how our histories and biases get us to a certain point and try to put it in the background or at the edge of our consciousness as we use it to form new connections while we do, engage in, think, and write and speak about our work.
In this regard, I have always been curious about and inspired by workers who seemingly are so “into” their work on a daily basis (as I would like to think I was). They are constantly engaged in their activity with the others (children, youth, parents) leaving open the possibility for change, learning, and growth. Subsequently their “attachment frees” to use a phrase from Henry Maier.
In my case, as I have written many times, this is most likely to happen in my reflexive and interactive work when I am in motion, or out of my head and into my body. I can listen, be creative, and enjoy an experience when I leave the past behind and am fully engaged with others, the work, and the world around me. I am in a sense lost in the activity, open and available to experience and show my experience, and this seems to connect.
When I simultaneously do child and youth care and/or write about it, I try, as Deleuze suggests, to open my self to new experiences, images of thought and lives that emerge free of much of the emotional and intellectual attachment to what was in favor of what is in the moment, and then continue to move on to a new insight about a new or old theme.
Whereas Deleuze might be suggesting an eraser of “the I” replaced with a new “vitalism” for life, my preference is for an “I” or “me” slightly out of the picture: blurred perhaps by its energetic movement through a scene with others: the Camus, Virginia Woolf, and Leonard Cohen I. The “I” introduced in 20th century American literature by writers who placed a self-questioning I in their work and were forerunners to many of the more sensitive young writers of today; the “I” of youth workers who get into their work the way Russian author Turgenev uses a sense of detachment to get into his landscapes with his characters in books like Fathers and Sons.
The themes that emerge from this writing/thinking, detached and attached work define child and youth care for me at a point in time. As I have written often before, presence, rhythmic interaction, meaning making, and atmosphere are four themes that constantly show themselves in moments of connection, discovery and empowerment.
Death, loss, and mortality are themes in the work of most, if not all, writers and workers I admire. Their quest to understand these phenomena seems to make them more alive. It is always there as the undercurrent, or existential hum, such as in the work of Albert Camus, Virginia Woolf, George Oppen, Milan Kundera, Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Marguerite Duras, and Samuel Beckett to name a few. I am interested in what they have to say, the pictures they paint, the way their words move, the spaces in between, and the pauses their characters inhabit. The way their scenes capture the place in art and life where we are, as Strand wrote about Edward Hopper’s paintings, compelled to stay and leave as we move toward stillness.
For example, the quest was evident in Camus” A Happy Death, The Stranger, short stories, and notebooks as he reflected on justice, war, relationships, culture and place. Jesuit phenomenologist De Chardin took his own path to understanding evolving consciousness and detachment/attachment through action as he separated from some of the traditions of the Catholic Church. Wim Wenders showed his journey in images on film in movies such as Wings of Desire and Paris Texas.
Loss was shown in the rhythms of Nick Adams footsteps as he returned from war in Hemingway’s Big Two Hearted River and the currents of time running over the stones in Maclean's A River Runs Through it, which ends, “I am haunted by waters.” It’s in the tension and energy of Nick’s movement across and in the landscape and the water running between the fly fishing brothers and Maclean's reflections back on those moments of his youth. In Sam Shepard's plays, Fool for Love and The Late Henry Moss, it is at the edge of his characters consciousness, propelling the dialogue. It is in Marguerite Duras” mirror as she watches herself age in The Lover; the light that enters Rilke’s Panther’s eyes, and so forth.
All of these writers and artists work(ed) with a sense of detachment. Distance draws them closer to their subjects and makes them present. Their quest can be seen, heard, and felt as they look back on it through the window of their parent’s car. The images in their work have Wender’s continuity of movement as they strive for Ezra Pound's fundamental accuracy of statement. Through their spontaneous, truthful fragmentation, like Whitman as interpreted by Deleuze, they become portrayers and conveyors of the best of life and lives in its current landscapes. Or, as Whitman said, “itinerant gladness scatterers” spreading scenes, cases, and sights, each one a granule in a larger evolving, yet to be determined, whole, painted like Cezanne by reaching for a mountain and leaving behind patches of light and dark.
These writers/workers” ethics is in their process as they search for stories, words, and images that ring true with the experience, and invite readers to explore their own experiences with them and move beyond, each new action, image, or glimpse of the work that compels new action at lunch, bedtime, running, playing, working or wherever their relational developmental interactions take them as they try to be with youth and the world, learning and growing together.
In my work with youth workers and troubled youth I see a similar quest in their stories. In my classes we tell our stories with the knowledge that understanding our experiences opens us to the experience of others. We try to paint our pictures and images of thought. This helps us have empathy for one another. Many of them have experienced a considerable amount of loss and death. I find their resilience, vitality, and altruism inspiring. I am amazed by their thirst for life as they struggle to understand their own mortality and feelings of abandonment. This makes them, us real, enmeshed in life sincere about our quest as we move forward without being weighed down by the past, and thus youth are more likely to join us.
I often find myself today as Deleuze suggests, trying to be with, rather than in and of the world of lunch, kickball, listening”
I walk through the tall grass on the banks of the creek, red, black and brown stones scattered on the sandy floor. Memories, like stones, are shifted and polished in currents of time, I tell myself, and keep walking at a steady pace, lost in the rhythm of my gait, my eyes following a piece of driftwood moving downstream while I see youth anew–