A View From the Dining Table: some brief reflections on the materiality of socially distanced working

By Iain Taylor on May 7th, 2020

I’m writing this while sitting at the dining table in my living room. Since the COVID-19 pandemic chased us from the convivially shabby bustle of Millennium Point’s open plan offices, this is where I come to work. Nestled in amongst piles of laundry waiting to be folded and ironed, bills waiting to be filed, and a whole host of other displaced objects that have found themselves assembled here.

In this house, the dining table is a place where things pile and accumulate. The stuff on this table never finds its way here intentionally. Things get put down, seemingly just for a brief second, and then somehow come to make themselves at home here. It is a place where transient stuff sits and procrastinates – reluctant and stubborn – until we eventually cave and sort through it, object by object, piece by piece, moving them to where they were supposed to be all along.

It is not a spot which encourages productivity.

We always remark, my wife and I, upon how much nicer the room is when the table isn’t covered with stuff; when it becomes – for a brief period of time – a place to sit, to converse, and to reflect. But the thing about stuff is that it creeps up on you, in increments at first – a letter here, a notebook there – then gathering pace; a pile of ironing perhaps, or a cardboard box to be dismantled. Before you know it, you’re back to where you started.

Perhaps as a result, since moving to working remotely, this dining table has also become a place where other things have come to pile up. Journal articles, waiting to be finished. Research bids balance waiting to be written. On this dining table, they become indistinguishable from all the other stuff that is obstinately squatting here. They accumulate here, and I join them.

Obviously, I know that this isn’t the table’s fault. It is itself just another object, a possession, a thing. I know that I could clear the table, and rearrange things in a manner more favourable to the work of thinking, reflecting, and writing. However, I have a creeping suspicion that even if I were to do so, it wouldn’t be long before these stubborn assemblages – both physical and psychological – would once again begin to congregate.

In their (1981: 173) exploration of The Meaning of Things, Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton observe that ‘objects are not static entities whose meaning is projected on them’ by humanity. Rather, ‘they themselves are signs’ which, whether through action or contemplation, ‘are meaningful only as part of a communicative sign process and are active ingredients of that process’ (ibid, emphasis added). From this perspective, the objects that we surround ourselves with, and the spaces that we cultivate for them, play an active role in shaping how we think, talk, and behave within those spaces.

In a period of ‘social distancing’, and remote working, where the lines between domestic and work spaces become blurred to the point of being indistinguishable, such observations seem pertinent. I strongly suspect, for instance, that I am not the only person who finds themselves hunched awkwardly at a dining table trying and often failing to do the work that would probably come more naturally were I in a different space, surrounded by a different set of objects. The materiality of spaces, and the meanings constructed through our relation to the objects and artefacts that fill those spaces, inevitably come to impact the ways that we think and work within them.

It strikes me, however, that the implications of Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton’s observations go further than my blatantly transparent attempts at justifying my own procrastination (which I’ll save for an IPR meeting in the not-too-distant future). As scholars, for whom work is thought and thought is work, it seems inevitable that a sudden shift from spaces of work to spaces of domesticity has significant implications, not only for the ways that we approach ‘being at work’, but for the very processes of thought, reflection, and analysis which constitute it. The texts that we analyse; the data that we gather; our processes of analysis, and the conclusions that we draw from them – are these things impervious to the complex set of meanings engrained within our domestic spaces? And if they are not, what implications might this have for the work that we produce during this period?

Given that our research theme for this academic year has been ‘Materialities’, hopefully as a research centre we are relatively well placed to think about these questions in relation to our work. Over the year, each of us have given some consideration to the ‘inescapable situatedness’ of human existence within corporeal experience (Kallinikos et al, 2012: 6), and the implications that this might have for the research that we do, individually and collectively. As we find ourselves drawing these strands of thought together, now is perhaps a useful time to take a moment to reflect upon the materiality of social distancing, and the implications that this might have for our collective scholarship on the subjects of media, culture, and society.