Occupations as human mic

Process is politics at Occupy Wall Street – Salon

I have recently become aware of the so-called ‘human microphone’, a tactic adopted by the Wall Street occupiers when their use of megaphones was banned. A great description of how this works can be found on the excellent Literary Kicks blog Occupy Wall Street: How the People’s Mic Works. I think the human mic is a powerful metaphor for the growing number of occupations spreading around the world, about 2000 I think at the last count. One of the complaints about the occupations that is becoming increasingly common is that there are no clear objectives or set of alternative policies. This is entirely unreasonable. Who these days can claim (truthfully  and realistically) to have clear objectives or a well thought out and realistic strategy for getting there?  Our government, the US government, the EC Commissioners? The only clear and thought-out strategy there is any evidence for at the moment seems to be Goldman Sachs’ strategy, by a combination of recruiting influential politicians as advisers and consultants and taking over governments’ economic policies via their (unelected)  place men and alumni ‘technocrats’. (See What price the new democracy? Goldman Sachs conquers Europe for an account of the Goldman Sachs Project).

For a number of years now there has been much hand wringing and regret about the atrophy of civil society and the demise of public spaces for open and democratic discussion. The pervading acceptance that the current system is the least bad and that there is no alternative (TINA) – the basis of the argument that we are now in a ‘post political’ era – leads to and legitimates the conclusion that all that remains to be done is the find the most efficient and managerialist methods of administrating capitalism and consumer society. Life’s shit and the best we can do is to make it a bit less smelly for the docile and deserving. The importance of the occupations, at this stage of the game at least, is to open up and re-politicise spaces in civil society, to develop both a negative critique and exposure of the lies, corruption, injustice,  hypocrisy and inhumanity, to make visible the human face and experience of those that suffer as the ‘collateral damage’ of the system, and (although I am rather ambivalent about some aspects of this) to smoke out and make visible to all the links between corporate power, political complicity and the state ideological and material apparatuses of repression.  At the same time, and more positively, the occupations are fantastic experiments and demonstrations of citizens ‘doing it for themselves’ – providing tentative intimations of different sorts of non-hierarchical and consensual organisation, of alternative values and forms of sociality and conviviality. It is through networks of city occupations, alternative educational spaces like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln and the Space Project in Leeds, through initiatives like the Really Open University, and more recently Tent City University and the Bank of Ideas (to name but a few) that the critiques, ideas and values are transmitted and amplified  into and throughout the public domain through mainstream, citizen and social media, coalescing into an ever widening and deepening public awareness and debate about the state we are in, and the systems of interest, power and irresponsibility that  got us here. Where we are denied the ‘megaphone’ of meaningful and effective representation in our defective, subservient and co-opted political system the human microphone of the new and growing radical and critical spaces is becoming a formidable weapon.

Levels of integration, rioting and protest

Reading the introduction by Norbert Elias the  The Sociology of Community edited by Bell and Newby 1974. Richard Kilminster told me this is a recycling of an essay Elias wrote sometime before that is connected to his ideas on The Outsiders and the Established but explicitly is an application of his ideas on levels of integration. I think this is also illuminating on our current condition of burgeoning critique of our current state of affairs due to unregulated and dysfunctional capitalism but our lack of a way forward or any clear articulation of what needs to be done and to what ends. I will be making some notes here in due course on Zizek’s and Bauman’s take on this. It is a great shame Elias is no longer around to shed light on this but I think we an construct something along the lines of what he may have argued had he witnessed the Arab Spring, the the UK ‘consumerism by other means’ riots and the Occupy Wall Street movement spreading round the globe.

The nub of his argument is that as societies become more complex a higher level of integrations develops involving a restructuring of webs of interdependencies. The opportunities for relatively autonomous decision making and action in the old communities and localities become reduced and constrained as they become restructured as components of a lower level of integration. This is putting it in the most abstract terms but the important thing is to study how the resistance and instability is a consequence of this process. Although these are increasingly widespread networks of interdependencies the process does not produce an equal balance of power. The lower levels of integration become more dependent on the higher levels and are shaped, enabled and constrained by the higher levels that are much less dependent on any particular component of the lower level. This leads to a number of difficulties for members of the lower levels of integration trying to make changes and have a clear idea of what to do and to what ends. Firstly, they are in several crucial ways ‘constructed’ by the higher levels they are resisting . This can, for instance, mean that they conceptualise their predicament and its solutions in terms of the vocabulary and framework of the higher level and this reinforce it or at best modify it. This is s sort of intellectual colonisation or dependency. Secondly, the dependencies that restrict their freedoms ‘from’ and ‘to’  cannot be simply recast as an act of will. The new forms of autonomy desired cannot easily be disentangled and reconstituted form the complex webs of dependencies people are embedded in and embodied in them. There may be a nostalgic harping back to previous forms of local autonomy and living but the development of the systems of dependency we now inhabit cannot just be rewound.

Postmodernism: from the cutting edge to the museum

Review article in the Guardian by Hari Kunzru Thursday 15 September 201. This offers a succint background to the books I am reading by Owen Hatherley – Militant Modernism and A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain.

Postmodernism: from the cutting edge to the museum (full text)

The Sony building stands at the corner of Madison Avenue and 56th Street in midtown Manhattan. At 197m, it’s a little higher than its immediate neighbours, but there are at least 60 taller buildings in the city. It is an inoffensive, creamy colour. At ground level there’s a spectacular atrium. Yet when it was completed in 1984, it was considered the most shocking building in the world.

The reason is the top. You have to walk a block or so away to get a sense of it. The building, originally known after its first corporate owner, AT&T, is crowned by a broken pediment; a circular space has been carved out of the apex of the triangle which tops the façade. It’s a simple, rather beautiful gesture. It is also a huge act of betrayal by the architect and the most visible trace on the New York skyline of postmodernism, a cultural current that is the subject of Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990, a major new exhibition at the V&A.

Why betrayal? The architect was Philip Johnson, who in 1932 had curated an extraordinary architectural show at the Museum of Modern Art. Images and models of buildings by Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Richard Neutra and others led a generation of architects to make an absolute break with the styles of the past and embrace the tenets of modernism, chief among which was the idea that form should follow function. Johnson termed this new wave the “international style”, a name which stuck as the skylines of major cities (notably Chicago) were transformed by constructions of plate glass and structural steel, buildings which banished decoration, mere skin and bones enclosing volumes of space.

Initially a radically utopian architecture, dreaming of a rational future uncluttered by superstition and ornament, the international style had, by the 1970s, become a rather joyless orthodoxy. For every triumph of the movement, such as Mies and Johnson’s Seagram building or Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, there were 10 undistinguished tower blocks, whose indifference to their context seemed less an expression of universality than of the arrogance of planners. Britain suffered particularly badly, as shoddy system-built high-rises gave modernism a bad name from which it has never entirely recovered.

For the man who had brought the international style to North America to put an ornamental pediment on his building was like Mondrian deciding to put a vase of flowers in a corner of his black and white grid. The AT&T tower became known, sneeringly, as the Chippendale building, because it reminded observers of the ornamental broken pediments the 18th-century cabinetmaker often put on highboys and bookcases. A building that looked like a piece of furniture? It seemed trivialising, a tasteless joke.

But Johnson was not the only person finding his sense of humour. Suddenly serious architects were adding colour to their creations, making little historical references, nudges and winks. All sorts of things that had been off-limits came back: trompe l’oeil, vernacular, pastiche. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown published a theoretical book about the tackiest built environment in the world, the Las Vegas strip. They called it, provocatively, Learning from Las Vegas. The strip, they argued, with its riot of billboards and neon, was (literally) a place of signs rather than things, where the buildings were only a minor part of an environment of semiotic seductions, designed to be legible to a person travelling by at 35mph.

This is the essence of postmodernism: the idea that there is no essence, that we’re moving through a world of signs and wonders, where everything has been done before and is just lying around as cultural wreckage, waiting to be reused, combined in new and unusual ways. Nothing is direct, nothing is new. Everything is already mediated. The real, whatever that might be, is unavailable. It’s an exhilarating world, but uncanny too. You look around at your beautiful house and your beautiful wife and you ask yourself, like the narrator of the Talking Heads song: ‘Well, how did I get here?” After that, it’s only a short step to deciding that this is not your beautiful house and your beautiful wife at all. The world of signs is fast, liquid, delirious, disposable. Clever people approach it with scepticism. Sincerity is out. Irony is in. And style. If modernism was about substance, about serious design solving serious problems, postmodernism was all manner and swagger and stance.

The curators of the V&A show have sensibly decided to steer away from art and literature (which could fill a second exhibition), and to present postmodernism as a set of design strategies, visible across the spectrum from fashion to graphics to furniture. They have also cheekily periodised it, choosing a 20-year time frame, which they gleefully ignore when it suits them. The result is revelatory, a ground-breaking history of a recent cultural past that has, almost without us noticing, gone from the cutting edge to the museum.

For designers, postmodernism meant making material things that felt like signs of themselves. The Italian pranksters of the Memphis group defined the aesthetic of the late 70s and early 80s with household objects that looked as if they’d materialised from cartoons, absurdly juxtaposed simple forms presented in bright, artificial colours. LA-based Peter Shire created candy-coloured furniture that always seemed on the verge of retreating back into two-dimensionality. His Bel Air chair of 1982 is the very avatar of postmodern weightlessness, an object that could exist at any scale, at home by a pool, in an aquarium, at the bottom of a cocktail glass. But postmodernism, protean, ever hard to pin down, wasn’t just about a cartoon future. The taste for historical pastiche, for country kitchens and neo-Georgian kitsch, was also part of the same tendency. Laura Ashley, Merchant Ivory and the fake past of Poundbury are (whether Prince Charles knows it or not) just as postmodern, in their way, as the fashion designs of Rei Kawakubo or the graphic riot of Arata Isozaki’s Team Disney building.

If postmodernism could be fun and bright, it was also disturbing. In a friction-free world of signs, what happened to value? Nowhere did this question arise more forcefully than in Oliviero Toscani’s advertising campaigns for Benetton, in which deliberately-confrontational images of Aids patients and death row inmates were used to sell pastel-coloured knitwear. The cynicism of Toscani’s work seemed to suggest we were now living in the corporate world of Videodrome, David Cronenberg‘s 1983 horror film about a sleazy producer discovering an anonymous cable channel broadcasting extreme sexual violence. The relentless march of money across the cultural landscape of the 1980s, with figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring describing brief and tragic arcs, seemed to many a fundamental debasement of the idea of art. To others, it was just fun.

Fittingly, for a cultural moment where everyone appeared to be playing themselves, postmodern performers such as Grace Jones, Leigh Bowery and Klaus Nomi developed a style of self-presentation that, for the first time, floated free of human limitations. On MTV (on air 1981) and magazine pages designed with the new Apple Macs (on sale 1984) they appeared both more and less than human, like the replicants from Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. Postmodern bodies often suggested machinery, as in the deadpan totalitarianism of the bands Kraftwerk and Devo. The most human of acts, such as singing and dancing, became infected with something robotic and unheimlich: David Byrne’s jerky dancing and oversized organisation-man suits, Laurie Anderson’s vocoder voice singing lullabies about Superman and big science, Boy George’s liquidation of gender, Madonna’s hyper-disciplined blonde bombshell, who seemed closer to the man-machines played by Arnold Schwarzenegger than the pop pin-ups of the previous generation. Jean-Paul Goude’s manipulated, post-produced photos of Grace Jones, her limbs elongated, her oiled skin suggesting chrome and spray paint, stand among the most powerful documents of the period. Jones was pointing the way towards something both troubling and exhilarating, something which as the 80s became the 90s, became codifed as the “posthuman”.

Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, the curators of the V&A show, point to the video for New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle” as a paradigm of postmodern visual style. Its director, the New York artist Robert Longo, produced a palimpsest of decontextualised, pixellated imagery, incorporating a signature of his Men in the Cities series of images of contorted, falling figures dressed in business wear. Post 9/11 this is uncomfortable to watch, which makes it even more curious that Mad Men, the popular TV drama, alludes to Longo’s figures in its title sequence, which has a businessman falling past a façade that inescapably calls to mind the most famously absent international style buildings in Manhattan, the twin towers of Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center.

For many, the events of 11 September signalled the death of postmodernism as an intellectual current. That morning it became clear that “hostility to grand narratives”, as Jean-François Lyotard defined it, was a minority pursuit, an intellectual Rubik’s cube for a tiny western metropolitan elite. It seemed most of the world still had some use for God, truth and the law, terms which they were using without inverted commas. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, was widely ridiculed for declaring that the attacks signalled “the end of the age of irony”, but his use of the po-mo buzzword proved prescient. If irony didn’t vanish (though during the crushing literalism and faux-sincerity of the Bush-Blair war years it seemed like a rare and valuable commodity), postmodernism itself suddenly seemed tired and shopworn.

Use Google’s ngram viewer to look at the incidence of the word “postmodernism” in books since 1975 and you find a sharp rise, peaking in around 1997, then an equally sharp decline. Plot this against the use of the word “internet” and the comparison is startling. Almost unused before the mid-80s, “internet” overtakes “postmodernism” in 2000, and carries on rising. All avant-gardes are in the business of futurism. They make an attempt to inhabit the space they predict, and in so doing, they bring it into being. Postmodernism was, crucially, a pre-digital phenomenon. In retrospect, all the things that seemed so exciting to its adherents – the giddy excess of information, the flattening of old hierarchies, the blending of signs with the body – have been made real by the internet. It’s as if the culture was dreaming of the net, and when it arrived, we no longer had any need for those dreams, or rather, they became mundane, part of our everyday life. We have lived through the end of postmodernism and the dawning of postmodernity.

Further reflections on Uncivilisation 2011 after reading other reports

Since I posted my own initial reflections on the festival on this blog (Camping, conversation and conviviality)I have read quite a few others and found them very interesting and illuminating. Although there are some similarities in the reflections it is clear to me that there were subjectively many parallel festivals depending on what each person brought to the party – their previous knowledge and dispositions, their interests and concerns, the forms of language they constructed their experiences through and so on. Re-reading my own reflections after reading these others I find that, from the point of view of many, I may have rather missed the point! One piece that articulated some of my concerns was that by  Andrew Lainton –

He starts by quoting from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

We reject the faith which holds that the converging crises of our times can be reduced to a set of ‘problems’ in need of technological or political ‘solutions’….
We will not lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies.

Given the main question I had about much of what I heard and enjoyed at the festival – where is the politics in all this – I can now perhaps see why this didn’t seem to resonate with anyone outside the immediate circle of friends I went to the festival with and why my blog post now seems a little out of kilter with the general tenor of most of the others post I have read. I hasten to say that I only partially recognise Andrew’s characterisation of the festival and my experience seems to have been much more positive. But I too am looking for a constructive way forward from our current critique and understanding of the capitalist dystopia we are living in. I would take a more positive interpretation of the quoted manifesto. Rejecting the faith that we can reduce our crisis to a set of problems that can be solved with technological and political solutions does not necessarily mean rejecting technology and political thinking and activism as part of what is needed. In any case, it is by now quite clear that what is required are significant social, political, economic and personal changes that go way beyond any possible technological and managerial solutions to environmental problems. And I do not see, as Andrew implies, that the Dark Mountain project in its latest development is necessarily or inevitably anti-civilisation and a deeply primitivist turn. As the session on Luddism made clear, it was not a rejection of technology per se, but of technology that destroyed sociality and conviviality. And the desire not to lose ourselves in the elaboration of theories or ideologies (and I would be interested in how this distinction is to being made) does not preclude the necessity to engage in some theoretical and/or ideological work. After all the development of ideologies is the elaboration of meaning and the process whereby it becomes our commonsense and the taken-for-granted background to the conduct of our everyday lives. The battle against fascism, growthism, corporatism, the Washington consensus, the power of neoliberal ideology (so powerful that the neoliberal category of the individual was alive and well in many of the discussions at the festival) must also be fought at the level of ideology.

Simultaneously posted on the Dark Mountain community website: http://uncivilisation.ning.com/profiles/blogs/reflections-on-uncivilisation-2011

Camping, conversation and conviviality – reflections on Uncivilisation 2011

I’ve been trying to start this post since getting home last Sunday from the Uncivilisation Dark Mountain Fesitival. It’s now Wednesday and I still don’t really know what I want to say so I’ve decided to just sit here and see what comes out, partly prompted by the report on the event in the Independent this morning The Uncivilisation Festival : The apocalpyse? Now we’re talking…. So this is likely to end up as a collection of random observations.

First, the people. For me the main delight of the Festival was the simplicity of tented living and the environment this provided for leisurely, spontaneous and random conversation with fellow campers. Tents and simple camping technology are indeed excellent tools for conviviality. I hadn’t camped for over 25 years and so was a little nervous about how I would take to it again. I arrived at the Sustainability Centre near East Meon in the Hampshire Downs about 4.30pm with two friends, Brian and Helen, who had been complete strangers when I picked them up at Leeds Station about 5 hours earlier. The weekend could not have got off to a better start. On arrival there were only a few tents up so we were able to to find a section of forest glade not too far from the loos (or too near for that matter), the main event spaces, the café, the bar tent and the food wagon (who incidentally did an amazing job). Over the next hour Jennifer, Tom, Jen, David, Mark and Gabrielle turned up and pitched in the same area. I think it is fair to say that none of us would have been meeting up here if it was not for David and Twitter – the real power of social networking, the virtual made flesh!

When I told friends I was going to the Dark Mountain Festival this year I struggled to answer their questions about why I was going since I didn’t know anything very much about the Dark Mountain Project and, in any case, I was not sure why myself – probably virtual peer pressure. I have since learnt (and please correct me if I am wrong) that the general thrust is to imagine, in some instances re-imagine, how we might make sense of and live in a world where all the taken-for-grantedness of our civilisation and our civilised way of life – from a Western perspective at any rate – collapses around us. For we may well be living in Žižek’s ‘End Times’. Certainly two sessions I went to, Collapsonomics: living through the unfolding breakdown and Bubbles and their consequences made a very good job of convincing me! If you juxtapose these with self-sufficiency sessions on How to make booze for (almost) free, Foraging and low-tech communal leisure pursuits like story telling and music on acoustic instruments by candle light, you’ll get an idea of what a lot of the festival was about.

However, story telling is much more important than just a sociable low cost leisure pursuit. The title of the festival was ‘Uncivilisation’. This was not an invitation to behave in an uncivilised fashion and to throw off our civilised inhibitions (actually it was to some extent judging by the feral singing sessions and the willingness to talk to and trust strangers). It is an invitation to examine the taken for granted values and affordances of our energy and technology intensive way of life based upon monetarised values and commodified relations and to imagine what life could be like (in both dystopian and utopian modes of imagining) when the well runs dry, i.e. don’t make the mistake made by Russell’s inductive turkey.  Our immediate past experience is not an infallible guide to the future. We need to see our taken for granted story about civilisation, especially its up side, for what it is – a story – and begin to tell alternative stories not only about the civilisational story itself but stories about other possible worlds, societies and satisfying and fulfilling ways of living.

I guess I am predisposed to have sympathy with the Dark Mountain agenda having consumed a pretty gloomy reading diet over the last year or two. Low lights have been Ronald Wrights’ A Short History of Progress and Richard Manning’s Against the Grain. Mildly uplifting (for someone who is not very good with his hands) has been Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for US and Fixing Things is Good. Snappy huh? More intellectually challenging but in keeping with the Dark Mountain agenda is Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, a telling challenge to the self-understandings of capitalist modernity and its categories of thought and fundamental concepts.

I say the Dark Mountain ‘agenda’ but in practice there doesn’t seem to be one, certainly not clearly articulated anyway. This may well be in the spirit of post-modern sociological doubt and uncertainty and the denigration of meta-narratives and grand theories. It chimes in well with my old professor’s, Zygmunt Bauman, insistence that the only role for his discipline, sociology, is to act as a facilitator and interpretor amongst different stories. It’s old role from an earlier and apparently more certain period of modernity, as providing sound knowledge to legislators, was a delusion which has been painfully exposed by our current predicaments. It is little wonder that, when asked what readings inspires his work today, he mentions only literary figures like  Robert Musil, José Saramago and Miguel de Cervantes. If you have not yet read any Saramago why not start with The Notebook, the hard copy of a daily blog he ran for a couple of years in his eighties before he died. Zygmunt (also now well into his eighties) also recommended to me The Cave. There is much in these books for the Dark Mountaineer. I am currently drafting a piece on the power of literature as the way to sociological understanding inspired by Zygmunt and a quote from George R.R. Martin “A reader lives a thousand lives before they die. The person who never reads lives only one”.

An articulated agenda presupposes some sort of clear political position and this was the basis of the only question I asked at one of the sessions –  where is the politics in all this? Or, what sorts of implicit politics can be disinterred from what is going on here? One of the problems with notions of self-self-sufficiency, individual survival strategies, reclaim the past, return to the soil, etc. (and there were elements of this in several discussions I overheard or took part in)  is that they can be appropriated by a wide range of political positions some of which most of us would not be comfortable with. A diagnosis that leaves open the possible pathways to the future can accommodate, for instance, the (probably tongue-in-cheek) question asked at the collapsonomics session, why not just arm ourselves and shoot anyone who comes to take our stuff? It is an entirely feasible possible strategy. In this session one of the presenters, I think it was Anton Shelupenov speaking about the Albanian collapse, reports one of his acquaintances at that time saying a night wouldn’t go by without the sounds of gunshots. He called on his neighbour to ask if he had any spare bullets he could let him have. He hadn’t got a gun but he wanted his neighbour to think he had. To avoid this entirely possible future we need more than a critique of civilisation and survival skills – both very necessary of course. We need a clear set of articulated values with a political agenda linked to a cunning plan. Where’s Baldrick when you need him?

The Popular University (Gramsci 1916)

The Popular University (Unsigned, Avanti, 29 December 1916. (CT, 673-6))

I have in front of me the programme for the Popular University (Universita Populare) for the first period 1916-17. Five courses: three devoted to natural sciences, one to Italian literature, one to philosophy. Six lectures on various subjects: only two have titles giving some guarantee of seriousness. I sometimes wonder why it has not been possible in Turin to develop a solid institution for the popularization of culture, why the Public University has remained the poor thing it is and has been unable to win the public’s attention, respect and love, why it has not succeeded in forming a public of its own.

The answer is not easy, or it is too easy. There are clearly problems with organization and with the criteria which inform the university. The best response should be to do better, to show concretely that it is possible to do better and to gather a public round a cultural heat source, provided it is alive and really gives off heat. In Turin the Public University is a cold flame. It is neither a university, nor popular. Its directors are amateurs in matters of cultural organization. What causes them to act is a mild and insipid spirit of charity, not a live and fecund desire to contribute to the spiritual raising of the multitude through teaching. As in vulgar charitable institutes, they distribute food parcels which fill the stomach, perhaps cause some indigestion, but then leave no trace, bring about no change in people’s lives. The directors of the Public University know that the institution they run has to cater for a specific category of people who have not been able to follow regular studies at school. And that is all. They are not bothered about how this category of people might be drawn most effectively to the world of knowledge. They find a model in the existing cultural institutions: they copy it, they worsen it. They reason something like this: people who attend courses at the Public University are the same age and have the same general background as people who go to the state universities; so let us give them a surrogate of the latter. And they ignore everything else. They do not consider the fact that the state universities are a natural point of arrival of a whole activity of previous work; they do not consider that when a student arrives at university he has passed through the experience of high school and this has disciplined his spirit of research, has bolstered his amateurish impulsiveness with a methodical approach. In other words he has been through a process of becoming, he has been made alert gradually and gently, falling into error and pulling himself up, taking wrong turns and getting back on course. These directors do not understand that bits of knowledge, plucked out from all this previous activity of individual research, are nothing other than dogmas, absolute truths. They do not understand that the Public University, as they run it, is reduced to a form of theological teaching, a new version of the Jesuit schools, where knowledge is presented as something definitive, self-evident and unquestionable. Not even the universities are like this. There is now a common conviction that a truth is fecund only when one has made an effort to master it, that it does not exist in and for itself but has been a conquest of the spirit, and that each individual must reproduce in himself that state of anxiety which the scholar passed through before arriving at it. This is why the truly magisterial teachers give great importance in their teaching to the history of their subject. Taking one’s audience through the series of attempts, efforts and successes through which men had to pass in order to attain the present state of knowledge has far more educational value than a schematic exposition of the knowledge itself. It forms the scholar, it gives his mind that elasticity of methodical doubt which makes an amateur into a serious person, which purifies curiosity (in the popular sense of the word) and turns it into a healthy and fecund stimulus towards ever increasing and more perfect knowledge. The author of these notes speaks partly out of personal experience. The courses he remembers most vividly from when he started at university were those where the lecturer made him feel the active effort of research over the centuries to bring the research method to perfection. In the natural sciences, for instance, we were shown all the effort it cost to liberate the human spirit from prejudices and a priori religious or philosophical notions in order to arrive at the conclusion that sources of water originate from atmospheric precipitations and not from the sea. In philology we saw how the historical method was arrived at through the trials and errors of traditional empiricism and how, for example, the criteria and convictions that guided Francesco De Sanctis in writing his history of Italian literature were nothing other than truths which had emerged through tiring research, truths which liberated the spirit from the sentimental and rhetorical dross that had polluted the study of literature in the past. And so on for the other subjects. This was the most living part of studying: this spirit of re-creation, which enabled encyclopaedic items of information to be assimilated and fused them into a flame burning with a new individual life.

Teaching done in this way becomes an act of liberation. It has the fascination of all vital things. It needs particularly to demonstrate its effectiveness in the Public Universities, whose audiences lack precisely that intellectual preparation one needs in order to arrange the individual items of one’s studies into an organized whole. For them, particularly, what is most effective and interesting is the history of research, the history of this immense epic of the human spirit which slowly, patiently, tenaciously takes possession of truth, conquers truth. How from error one arrives at scientific truth. This is the road that everyone must follow. To show how it has been followed by others is the lesson that produces the best results. And it is, besides, a lesson in modesty, which avoids the formation of those irritating know-it-alls who believe they have plumbed the depths of the universe when their memories are fortunate enough to pigeon-hole a few dates and some random bits of knowledge.

But the Public Universities, like that of Turin, prefer to run useless and unwieldy courses on ‘The Italian Soul in the Art of Literature in Recent Generations’ or give lectures on ‘The European Conflagration as Judged by Vico’, where more care is taken to impress than to teach effectively, and the pretentious little lecturer outstrips the efforts of the modest teacher, who at least knows he is talking to uneducated people.

John Holloway’s ‘Crack Capitalism’

This is a brief summary of the Leverhulme Lecture John Holloway gave on the 11th of May at Leeds University. The lecture focussed mainly on the ideas developed in his book, Crack Capitalism.  John spoke for over an hour (though it didn’t feel like it!) so this summary will no doubt do some violence to what he said but hopefully others there will correct these brief impressions and perhaps fill in any important gaps I have left. In due course a video will be made available on-line. He structured his talk round a number of key points and this is a set of notes on the ones I can remember and that made a particular impression.

Generally John avoids prescription but there are two things he was adamant about. Our understanding and action has to start from a concept of capitalism and from struggle rather than seeking domination. The two are related.

We look for enemies. We look for who is to blame so we have a target and adversary. We blame the government because they run the State; we blame the corporations, the capitalists, the bankers, or empire, or patriarchy. But all this is to miss the point. Behind all of these is the impersonal system that is capitalism. It is a system that has a life of its own, controlled by nobody, not State institutions and apparatus, not corporations, and not capitalists. Certainly some massively benefit more than others and some have more sway than others but the system that is capital holds all in its strangling embrace. Behind all our bogey men is the totalising (but not totalitarian) impersonal force of capitalism.

So it is necessary to understand what we mean by capitalism as an impersonal system. The key thing here is that it is a system that structures the social relations that make up society. John spent some time on this. We can understand the system fundamentally in terms of the social relations and social cohesion it produces, seen as a triumvirate of equivalences – capital, money, labour. It is this system that engulfs us in a “tsunami of social determinations”. We are obliged to work and live within the money economy to survive. This reduces (or attempts to reduce) our social relationships to monetised relationships and transforms our activity into labour that reproduces the system and provides the engine of capital accumulation. But there are cracks in capitalism that allow us to push against this current and take some opportunities and the responsibility to say “no”, to refuse to fit into the pattern of capitalist social relations. We can engage in different types of doing that are within, against and in some instances beyond capitalist social relations and the spaces we can do this in are everywhere, in many respects quite everyday and ordinary. These possibilities are the result of a fundamental weakness in the capitalist system: it depends on us and our labour to meet its need for accumulation and to reproduce the form of social cohesion the system requires. It is dependent on those it dominates. This is the key to the possibility and actuality of our resistance.

Living in the cracks in social relations and activities that deny and resist the social determinations of capitalism is not the old failed agenda of trying to take control of the state in order to build a new society from the top. It is not a project to seek domination via the State. Resistance and change need to start on the ground by subverting the forms of social relationships that the system depends on. John gave many examples of cracks in capitalism, spaces where literally or metaphorically signs at the edges announce that capitalist social relations are not welcome and do not operate here. He instanced, among others, the Zapatistas, the  Really Open University and the students taking the MA in Activism and Social Change at Leeds University he is currently working with. Other excellent examples are the Social Science Centre at Lincoln and the Roundhouse Journal.

The cracks and their forms of relations and activities are fluid and dynamic. To some extent they come and go. But there is evidence of proliferation and confluence.

This, I think, is the gist of John’s argument. The questions from the predominantly student audience were impressive and homed in unerringly on what John himself admitted was a potential weakness in his position. Early on in his lecture John characterised capitalism as a dynamic and developing system driven by the necessity to handle its dependency on labour and its disrupting potentialities. Resistance tends to be neutralised and absorbed, even sometimes commodified and swallowed into the system of capitalist relations. The problem of this feature of the capitalist system seemed to be the context of nearly all the questions. One question was concerned that the many instances of cracks would not necessarily join up and coalesce into a total transformative movement to overcome and replace capitalism. Just as likely would be that they would remain isolated and fail ultimately to be transformative. How would the ‘confluence’ that John alluded to occur? Surely it would need some sort of organised cohesion, some forms of overarching leadership? John’s response was to say that institutions do not work. Inevitably hierarchical and vertical structures and relations develop. Distinctions begin to be made between roles, between part-time and full-time, more or less committed, and so on. Gradually forms of domination and distinction emerge and solidify reproducing in many respects the forms of social relations that were being resisted. But how, if not through organisation and leadership will the confluence of cracks occur? John gave as an example the forms of communication and transition that occurred with the Zapatistas – resonances and echoes created and transmitted through poetry, art, theatre, and forms of non-hierarchical democratic dialogue. No one mentioned the internet at this point, a form of communication that has developed its radical (and to some extent repressive) potential enormously in recent years.

John was asked what his attitude is towards more conventionally ‘reformist’ approaches, for instance the attempt to institute some sort of financial transaction tax to finance welfare measures and/or pay for public services. John’s answer invoked his earlier reference to resistance within, against and beyond. There are different forms of resistance which individuals will be more or less comfortable with. But the bottom-line for him is that capitalism stinks and needs to be completely dismantled. His response echoed that of Slavoj Žižek – of course no one can object to feeding the poor but we should be fundamentally concerned with and focussed on the system that produces and reproduces their poverty. Reformism ultimately supports and reproduces the system of repression and indignity.

One questioner made the powerful point that cracks as characterised are often instrumental for the system. One of John’s examples of a space where relationships and actions do not conform to the pattern of capitalist relations is the family. But historically and still today the family is crucial to the functioning and reproduction of capitalism.

To summarise John’s answers to all the questions, he consistently stated that there are no guarantees, that the possibility of change is uncertain, even that it may be too late. But the hope and potential for change rests in autonomous struggle, not the acquisition of the power and institutions of state. It is the practice, proliferation, propagation and confluence of other ways of doing that resist and subvert the social determination of capitalist relations that we should engage in, promote and nurture.

[This post has been published on the Really Open University (links to post) web site. If you wish to comment or discuss the lecture you may wish to visit the post there where it will probably get a larger readership. Of course, if you prefer, please comment here!].

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.