The term stigmergy was introduced by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in the 1950s to describe a type of indirect communication that occurs in social insect communities, such as termites and ants. In this scenario, one act stimulates the performance of a next act, resulting in an unintended reciprocity between individuals. In human terms, it’s about ideas that emerge organically, out of examination and discussion. Influence, without imposition.
“The thing that’s interesting about stigmergy,” explains Christine Stewart, Associate Professor in English & Film Studies, “is that it’s not necessarily about either cooperation or consensus, because consensus requires certain types of personalities to be persuasive — which has its own blocks — and its own ways of stagnating people out of the picture. I am interested in the idea of the poetic as a kind of political way of engagement. How can we work with words differently, so that the world can be a better place?”
Stewart (along with co-founder Denis LaPierre, Executive Director of the Edmonton Learning Centre Literacy Association) is a founding member of Writing Revolution in Place (WRIP), a collective whose participants include members of the Boyle Community, the Edmonton Learning Centre Literacy Association, and this term, students from the creative writing class WRITE 494. First and foremost, the WRIP, which is supported by the UAlberta Community Service-Learning Program and marketing agency Fleming and Friends, provides a space for creative engagement. It is an inclusive and evolving creative research collective – one that strenuously avoids top-down direction. “It’s not me teaching,” says Stewart. “Everyone is coming in and working around the table with their own genius, their own political and intellectual acumen, their own creativity. We always eat! That’s absolutely crucial,” laughs Stewart.
Involved in a number of research projects since its inception four years ago, the WRIP participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) event in 2013/14, holding writing workshops, field trips and attending TRC sessions. Because many of the issues identified by the Commission related to health, the collective decided to make this the focus of their next research project. What does health mean? Why does it mean different things to different people? Are health care resources accessible to all, and if not, why not?
Stigmergic Works: A Poetics of Health is the culmination of this research. Supported by the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS) and HIV Edmonton, and partnering with the Edmonton Poetry Festival, the event was held at the Stanley Milner Library on April 21. As part of the research, the WRIP and the students of WRITE 494 reached out to the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Alberta Native Friendship Centre, Youth Emergency Services and the Stanley Milner Library, gathering a range of voices and perspectives on what health means in the 21st century. The presentation of the research took a variety of forms: displays, spoken word performances, poetry readings, food, conversation and fellowship – a diversity of expression, celebratory and informal, from the political to the heartbreakingly personal.
“I guess the position we’re advocating is that folks from all walks of life have everything to contribute,” says Stewart. Bridging the isolated pockets of community in Edmonton is central to the work of the WRIP, and as Stewart would have us know, this includes the university, citing the deficit of meaningful connections on campus. “The university has the potential to create amazing spaces for people to think in, to be in, and so for me this is my way of trying to see how that might happen. I reject the idea of doing good out there, because the need is as much here,” says Stewart. “It’s complicated and challenging, and it’s something we think about all the time. How to be here in a good way, and how might we best care for each other.”