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.

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