The potential of everyday experience as a definitive source of critical reflection

Realizing the potential of everyday experience as a definitive source of critical reflection and democratic struggle requires a reconstruction of the notion of “individualism” that Dewey’s idea of “growth” makes possible.  Although lived experience is, in and of itself, not necessarily a resource for critical reflection, Dewey argues that the critical potential of experience can and must be tapped if we are to mount an effective challenge to entrenched interests and actualize our democratic commitments to liberty and equality of opportunity. This realization of potential, however, first requires a dedication to reconstructing our understanding of individualism. Therefore, in the last section here, I turn to Individualism Old and New (1929) and argue that Dewey advances a profoundly critical notion of individualism that is based on his unique conceptions of experience, growth, and social intelligence. In order to pave the way for an examination of this nexus between experience as critical reflection, growth as reconstructed individualism, and social intelligence as the fodder for democratic struggle as key components of Dewey’s critical pragmatism, I begin here by tracing key historical dimensions of the relationship between critical theory and pragmatism. As Hans Joas has noted, this history is one of “misunderstandings, deliberate distortions, and well-meaning incomprehension.”

Alison Kadlec Reconstructing Dewey: the philosophy of critical pragmatism in Polity (2006) 38, 519–542

Margaret Archer on reflexivity

Notes. These are relevant for a discussion of social intelligence and mass intellectuality.

Routinised action, habitual behaviour, is not discussed to much extent in the Critical Realist literature. Routinised action performs a reproduction function, it’s a perpetuating device that reinforces the status quo in conditions of little and very slow change – morphostasis. There is no explicit theorisation of what makes routinised action routine.

Archer considers ‘meanings’ to be ’causes’.

Dismisses Bauman, Beck and Giddens as ‘central conflationists’ but concentrates her attack on Beck in particular. They conflate the affects of structure with the causal powers of agents. They talk of reflexivity at the level of systems and institutions but this is anthropomorphism as it can only be a property of individuals. However else we may explain change in institutions and systems it is not through their reflexivity.

Reflexivity is an individual phenomenon and in conditions of late modernity we have seen a significant growth. Reflexivity is the capacity that all normal individuals have to consider themselves in relation to their social context and their social context in relation to themselves. We all have this capacity. Reflexivity is a mediating process; how we react to situations we have to involuntaristically to obtain some portion of self government and become to some extent the human being we want to be.

Against Bourdieu, she says notion of habitus amounts to saying that disposition is position. But disposition is not homologous with position.

Premodern societies are characterised by morphostasis. But even here a degree of reflexivity is required. In fact reflexivity is a precondition for the existence of any society Even in ‘primitive’ society individuals always have to deal with ‘unscripted’ situations where they must work out for themselves how to cope within the traditional way of doing things. To this extent reflexivity ‘papers over the cracks’ of traditional ways of doing things. In such societies education is little more than socialisation and induction.

Earry modernity saw dramatic changes but over a period of about 300 years. Many could still live on the basis of routinised action and changes were slow enough for socialisation to adapt to new modes of habitual behaviour. But for some groups the need for reflexivity grew. This was a period of great ideological debate over what education was, for what purpose and who should control it.

We have now entered the morphogenetic millennium of rapid change that outstrips the capacity of  intergenerational socialisation processes and knowledge transference. There are more and more contextual discontinuities and a reduction of many spheres of routinised action. Processes of socialisation are fragmenting. The need for reflexivity has become ubiquitous – it is thrust upon nearly everyone. It is the case that we must now, reflexively, make lives of our own ‘but not in circumstances of our own choosing’.

See also:
Margaret S Archer Routine, Reflexivity, and Realism in Sociological Theory Volume 28, Issue 3, pages 272–303, September 2010. In this article she doesn’t name Bauman as one of the ‘central conflationists’ and there is no mention of him in the text or references. Perhaps she’s changed her mind.

Notes on the Discourses of Dissent seminar

The Discourses of Dissent public seminar was held on the 16th February in Birmingham. This is not a fine tuned blog post, just a transcript of the notes I made during the presentations and discussions. The presentations are being prepared for uploading to the web as I write this and I will add links as they become available. There will be errors, some due to not being able to read my handwriting in some places, some due to mishearing (voices didn’t travel well to where I was sitting) and sometimes because no doubt I misunderstood.

New 19/2/2011 All the videos are on line now curtesy of Jennifer Jones who recoded them at the event

Karen Rowlingson, presentation

Using evidence from the Social Attitudes Survey, Karen discussed the way the media had reported her research, presenting it as showing that today the public is more Thatcherite than ever before. But she demonstrated how it was much more complex than this and that people held rather contradictory views about poverty, the undeserving poor, the possibilities of individual autonomy and still valuing key aspects of State provision for support and protection. The role of this talk seemed to be to establish some aspects of the ‘public’ we would implicitly and explicitly be referring to throughout the seminar.

Ruth Levitas, presentation

H. G. Well’s quote – critique of utopias is sociology’s proper function and method. The imagination of alternative futures.

Three approaches to critiquing utopias:
1. Archaeological – notions of the good society are embedded in every political position (i.e. big society)
2. Architectural – imagining holistically what social institutions should be, i.e. no point in reimagining the university without imagining wah all the other institutions (social, political, etc.) would be
3. Ideological – how individuals will be interpellated into the new society

This method of utopian critique must be reflexive, dialogical and discursive. The idea is to achieve a distance from what we are doing (the present) to judge it in the light of what is possible.

We now are suffering Thatcherism with bells and whistles. Big society is how to mobilise unpaid labour by cutting mainly women’s jobs in the labour market.

All justified by the claim there is a shortage of money. Not true. The question is ‘who has it?’ Over the last ?? years top 10% share up from 20% to 30%. In the same time bottom 10% share has dropped from 4% down to 1%.

All measured GDP as market activity so ignoring all other forms of ‘product’ in voluntary and unpaid sector outside of markets.

Assumption private sector makes wealth and the public sector spends it. Not true.

New ways are needed of valuing labour. A new society would need to live within ecological limits, based on equality, a redefinition of ‘wealth’ and what the good life is, involving a total organisation of labour, markets and the social, basic incomes, education etc. But this requires collective action rather than individualised responses that echo the neoliberal self, the epitome of what Marx meant as 1 of the 4 dimensions of alienation. We need to see ourselves as agents of transformation to a better society, not operating in the mode of neoliberal selves. Needs some sort of spontaneous organisation linking collective and individual experience.

Sasha Roseneil, presentation

Our understandings are constitutive, bring reality into being. She draws on critical theory but makes the distinction between criticism, critique and criticality – the latter focuses on present possibilities and is not entirely negative as are the first two. (Rogoff?). Eve Sedgwick – what does knowledge ‘do’?

Unveiling and disclosure is sociology in the register of paranoia. Things are bad and getting worse. Not practical or future oriented. We need a ‘reparative’ more hopeful analysis. Having shown how things could have been different we can also show how they can or will be different. We need to mediate what is wrong with what is possible – criticality.

The key to Sasha’s approach is:
1. Show how things could have been different
2. Link this with the understanding of the performative constructive role of culture and ideas. Exploit the discontinuities and ambivalences and the counter normative practices.

RL – but must denaturalise the LibDem utopia. Part of this would show how they have they have appropriated ideas and discourses to distort and exploit them. Mass mobilisation not only prevented by (dominant?) discourses but by the structure of everyday life. Protest is not enough in any case needs to thrust out and connect with a collective political force/project. Counter normative movements and action can be alternative, oppositional but rarely transformative (as Raymond Williams pointed out).

SR – pockets of counter normativity won’t do it by themselves but in some parts of the world it has given people a way to survive.

Floor – there is plenty of evidence of counter cultural activity taking place in the ‘cracks’ (Holloway) and interstices (Sasha) but no evidence that there is any development of an organised and effective political movement.

Floor –  Holloway, yes. But need to organise a political project – socialism.

SR – can’t go back to the older forms of labour organisation and ideological education of the past. Life, selves, etc. now very different. The starting point is different.

RL– the need to be reflexive and dialogical. Cannot dump on people a ready-made complete ideology, cannot merely indoctrinate. It is a matter of engaging in a process rather than persuade others of an ideology.

John Holmwood, presentation

Clarke Kerr’s notion of a multiuniversity i.e. a number of different functions and purposes including producing workers and creating economically valuable knowledge. One of these is the notion of a public function on Dewey’s lines – to promote ‘collective intelligence’ which allows dialogue and discussion ‘before’ the state. The development of a social self to operate in a democracy and in dialogue. Public actions ramify into people’s lives etc, and collective intelligence helps the public deal with resulting issues and problems. Improvement of discussion in public debate is the need met by the public function of the university. The marketisation of the university meets all the purposes of the multiuniversity but the public one. This is being diminished dramatically.

Steve Fuller, presentation

Main point is that we are all against what is happening now but if we began to specify what sort of Uni we want there may be much more disagreement. Agree on a common enemy but that may be all. A unis job is to manufacture knowledge for the public good. Teaching and research very different activities and measured in different ways. Not compatible. Still need elite professors as exemplars of learning and knowledge creation for others to aspire to.

Dan Hind, presentation

Main point is about the way that information is controlled by the media. Many writers warning of the imminent financial collapse but main media spokesmen still the apologists and the ‘no one could see it coming’ school. David Harvey and others get no air time as not ‘respectable’ etc. Tainted by Marxism.

SF – People like Harvey mainly only speaking to believers in jargon so their own fault they don’t get media coverage.

DH – economic policy is being made by ‘private publics’. The student protest is a ‘mutiny against the future’.

JH – meaninglessness of measuring sociology’s impacts in terms of individuals and specific research projects.

Floor– we need a participatory and deliberative democracy

DH – we need a way of allowing the public to set research agendas and commission research project s and objectives.

Floor – Yes, but the public is fragmented, individualistic, etc. We need a way of recreating a public.

DH – Democracy as a learning community.

Floor –There are other social issues and victims as a result of uni cuts if some vulnerable unis have to close. London Met has more Afro-carribean students than the entire Russell Group. So who is this ‘public’ we want a public uni for and who’s voices are heard and are influential?

This is the end of the unedited notes. The discussion did not really address the issue of ‘what is to be done’ in any systematic way. There were comments on the need to think holistically, for instance imagining what a public university should be needs also to think about all the other institutions and how they would need to change as well. How will an alternative society interpellate individuals, i.e what new forms of socialisation would be needed, what sorts of ‘selves’ does this imply? How do the various protests, counter cultural movements, etc. coalesce into a political programme, and organisation and a project that has some definite connection to the State and institutions that need revolutionising? Or will transformation just happen if and when a critical mass of counter cultural and protest movements is achieved? Does politics wwith a small p have to engage wwith and become Politics with a big P?

Related resources

Ruth’s inaugural lecture 2005 The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society, or, why sociologists and others should take utopia more seriously. Her talk here was partly based on her article Back to the future: Wells, sociology, utopia and method in The Sociological Review 58, 4 2010.

Digital identity housekeeping

Over the years I have accumulated a number of blogs, wikis and other on-line content of various sorts. is an attempt to organise these and weed out stuff that is redundant. At some point I will produce a page that maps out what’s where. This will become a sort of portal to my digital life. There are a few more details of this on the About page.

Idiots or puppets?

Marx famously (infamously?)  referred to the peasants of feudal societies as idiots and as like so many potatoes in a sack. In particular he was talking about the conditions (of production and relations) that prevented them from developing any sort of social collective consciousness as the basis for political awareness, organisation or mobilisation. This seems rather insulting and no doubt it was meant to be but, as Hobsbaum reminds us, we shouldn’t forget Marx’s classical education. The word ‘idiot’ as the Greeks used it describes some one who is only concerned with their private affairs and not with those of the wider community. Does not this sound like the condition of many in Western societies today? Gramsci, describing a proletariat devoid of political consciousness, says they would be like puppets on a string. Both Marx and Gramsci were considering the conditions within which a critical revolutionary shared consciousness would develop, through the dawning recognition of the conditions of their subordination and exploitation, and through being able to see the strings and who was pulling them. There is then the important further question of how this consciousness leads to revolutionary social change. Reform is not the issue for either Marx or Gramsci as that is fully in keeping with the reproductive dynamism of Capitalism anyway. Reform is business as usual by other means, reproducing the same forms of exploitation, political exclusion and inhumanity.

This account of idiocy and puppetry has resonances today with the hyperindividualism that many social theorists and commentators attest to. We are not short of sociological accounts of how individuals have become disembedded from social connections and support with the waning of community and, more recently, the welfare state.  Thatcher’s claim that there are only individuals and families and the current emphasis on individual responsibility reinforce this impression, as does the ideological reliance on economically rational individuals operating in free markets to cure all our social ills.  Beck’s theory of ‘individuation’ seems to agree with this as well although there is a hint of radical possibilities in his account. 

What are the conditions of existence today that shove their way under the noses and into the faces of individuals who want nothing more than to focus on their own affairs, seek their own advantage and tend to their own security. These people do exist, and in large numbers. Many times have I heard strategies being outlined to shore up established positions and advantages – an adaptation, an accommodation to the social and political environment rather than a challenge to it. Gramsci says only the pursuit of a higher goal can break and destroy this reformist tendency to adaptation. This is why development of political awareness is a collective process that takes in a much wider context than that of the individual. This is why it requires political action.

Rereading texts 30 years later

I went to university to study sociology at the age of 32 after having a fairly chequered career up until then in the world of work including, amongst others, periods in electronics (selling photo-electronic control systems), an order picker in a warehouse (groceries), financial services (selling life assurance and unit trust investments), laying concrete bases for a construction firm (North Sea Gas), publishing (selling Caxton encyclopedias) and running a couple of my own businesses (fencing and importing racing tyres for bicycles). My introduction to social thought and sociology came between 1976 and 1978 when I was driving a bus for the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive in Leeds and listening on most days to my conductor (the buses were front loaders and before one man operated buses became the norm) talking about Marxism, class warfare, the coming revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat. He happened to be the garage shop steward for the TGWU. I went to Leeds University to study sociology under Zygmunt Bauman in 1978 after wandering around in the labour market for 16 years fairly aimlessly (although, as it turned out, learning quite a lot).

Several things struck me when I started my sociological studies – how hard it was to understand anything I was told or read, how narrow and inexperienced where most of (but not all) my lecturers and fellow students however clever and erudite in other respects, and how it seemed de rigueur to have a specified guru (Althusser, Marx, Elias, Weber, Habermas, Marcuse,  Luhmann, etc. ) and rely mainly on a fairly restricted range of canonical texts.

Now, 33 years later and after continuous habitation in the world of higher education and professional sociology, I am turning (for fun!) back to some of the texts I read in the early days with so much difficulty and feelings of inferiority. Many I have not looked at again since those days. However, rereading some of them has been a revelation. I now think H Stuart Hughes’ Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought (1958) is magisterial. He was one of the very first in the English speaking world to recognise and comment upon the importance of Gramsci. When I first read it I found it almost impenetrable.

Speaking of Gramsci, another book I am reading that I haven’t looked at since the late 1980s and really struggled with is A Gramsci Reader (2008) edited by David Forgacs. Now I am finding it written clearly and succinctly and of enormous relevance to today’s political changes and unrest. Quite a few forthcoming notes and quotes in this blog will be from this book.

I am not, however, looking for the holy text or texts that will answer all my questions and tell me what to think and do. I have had a couple of dispiriting exchanges recently where individuals who I otherwise respect have said when, for instance, I have expressed an interest in Bauman’s ideas on the changing role of public intellectuals from legislators to interpreters and what this means for their relation to civil society and politics, that he is mistaken and his work so flawed it is not worth spending time on. This usually comes with a recommendation to read some other thinker who has got it right. I have had similar reactions, from different individuals, when I say I am rereading Capital, or Elias, or Foucault. I really don’t know what their problem is, unless a fear of the messy and uncertain real world. Social, political, economic and cultural processes are unimaginably complex. I will read and take from anyone who has made a principled attempt to understand society and social change. For instance, Alhusser was on dodgy ground when he characterised individual actors as mere ‘bearers of structure’ but his views on identity formation and ‘interpelation’ are useful and are saying something important, as is Foucault when he talks of ‘regimes of truth’ and Elias when he elaborates his ideas on sociogenesis, or Marx on surplus value. At the end of the day these are all resources to think with and about in discussion with others to make sense of the world we live in and to work out what we believe and how we should act,  how we should live, what sort of world we want to live in and how we might achieve it. Pre-eminantly, how do we want to relate to and live with others with respect, in common humanity in harmony with ourselves and the environment.  None of the putative gurus can answer this for us. This is a job we must do for ourselves by means of a bit of intelligent collegiate ‘winging it’.

Intellect and intelligence

Gramsci makes a distinction between intellect and intelligence. Intelligence is what has been operating throughout human evolution and the development of culture broadly understood. Intellect is referred to as an ‘arid and pedantic intellectualism’ contrasted with the engaged vitality and products of intelligence. He also equates intellect with a certain misunderstanding and distortion of knowledge. Gramsic is concerned with how the masses can become intellectually autonomous and not dependent on what he calls ‘career intellectuals’. His starting point is that everyone is already an intellectual.

How does this fit in with a critique of knowledge? It seems to imply the distinction between wisdom (applied and developed intelligence) and knowledge (fragmented codified facts and models) that is often made from other perspectives, i.e. Buddhism. It also fits in with  ideas on mass intellectuality and social knowledge. However, the implication is that mass intellectuality is mired in its colonisation by elements of career intellectuality and also by its pragmatic development in localised day to day living and survival. It needs to become more autonomous with respect to both of these limitations – building on the authentic experience of life but developed in the context of a broadening awareness of the conditions of life and connections with others (loosely the conditions and relations of the production of surplus value).  Gramci’s writings on education might usefully be explored on these points.

After thought: Margaret Archer (a critical realist) claims everyone is inherently reflexive and is capable of distancing themselves to some degree from their circumstances and exercising their intelligence. In practice this may be limited to dealing with immediate living and problems but the most routine tasks and the most unthinking automatic behaviour is routinely confronted with instances of ‘having to make sense’ and acting to some degree autonomously.