Writing our way out of neoliberalism? For an ecology of publishing

[This blog post is written in preparation for the panel Thinking knowledge production without the university that I am organising at the Sociological Review’s conference Undisciplining: conversations from the edges, Newcastle, Gateshead, 18-21 June 2018. Reflections from other participants are here. I am planning to expand on this part during and after the conference, so questions and comments welcome!]

What kind of writing and publishing practices might support knowledge that is not embedded in the neoliberal university? I’ve been interested in this question for a long while, in part because it is a really tough one. As academics – and certainly as academics in social sciences and humanities – writing and publishing is, ultimately, what we do. Of course, our work frequently also involves teaching – or, as those with a love for neat terminologies like to call it, ‘knowledge transmission’ – as well as different forms of its communication or presentation, which we (sometimes performatively) refer to as ‘public engagement’. Even those, however, often rely or at least lead to the production of written text of some sort: textbooks, academic blogs. This is no surprise: modern Western academic tradition is highly reliant on the written word. Obviously, in this sense, questions and problems of writing/publishing and its relationship with knowledge practices are both older and much broader than the contemporary economy of knowledge production, which we tend to refer to as neoliberal. They may also last beyond it, if, indeed, we can imagine the end of neoliberalism. However, precisely for this reason, it makes sense to think about how we might reconstruct writing and publishing practices in ways that weaken, rather than contribute to the reproduction of neoliberal practices of knowledge production.

The difficulty with thinking outside of the current framework becomes apparent when we try thinking of the form these practices could take. While there are many publications  not directly contributing to the publishing industry – blogs, zines, open-access, collaborative, non-paywalled articles all come to mind – they all too easily become embedded in the same dynamic. As a result, they are either eschewed because ‘they do not count’, or else they are made to count (become countable) by being reinserted in the processes of valorisation via the proxy of ‘impact’. As I’ve argued in this article (written with my former colleague from the UNIKE (Universities in the knowledge economy) project, economic geographer Chris Muellerleile), even forms of knowledge production that explicitly seek to ‘disrupt’ such modes, such as Open Access or publish first/review later platforms, often rely on – even if implicit – assumptions that can feed into the logic of evaluation and competition. This is not saying that restricting access to scientific publications is in any way desirable. However, we need to accept that opening access (under certaincircumstances, for certain parts of the population) does not in and of itself do much to ‘disrupt’ the broader political and economic system in which knowledge is embedded.

Publish or…publish 

Unsurprisingly,  the hypocrisy of the current system disproportionately affects early career and precarious scholars. ‘Succeeding’ in the academia – i.e. escaping precarity – hinges on publishing in recognised formats and outlets: this means, almost exclusively, peer-reviewed journal in one’s discipline, and books. The process is itself costly and risky. Turnover times can be ridiculously long: a chapter for an edited volume I wrote in July 2015 has finally been published last month, presumably because other – more senior, obviously – contributors took much longer. The chapter deals with a case from 2014, which makes the three-year lag between its accepted version and publication problematic for all sorts of reasons. On the other hand, even when good and relatively timely, the process of peer review can be soul-crushing for junior scholars (see: Reviewer No.2). Obviously, if this always resulted in a better final version of the article, we could argue it would make it worthwhile. However, while some peer reviewers offer constructive feedback that really improves the process of publication, this is not always the case. Increasingly, because peer review takes time and effort, it is kicked down the academic ladder, so it becomes a case of who can afford to review – or, equally (if not more) often, who cannot afford to say no a review.

In other words, just like other aspects of academic knowledge production, the reviewing and publishing process is plagued by stark inequalities. ‘Big names’ or star professors can get away with only perfunctory – if any – peer review; a series of clear cases of plagiarism or self-plagiarism, not to mention a string of recent books with bombastic titles that read like barely-edited transcripts of undergraduate seminars (there are plenty around), are a testament to this. Just in case, many of these ‘Trump academics‘ keep their own journals or book series as a side hustle, where the degree of familiarity with the editorial board is often the easiest path to publication.

What does this all lead to? The net result is the proliferation of academic publications of all sorts, what some scholars have dubbed the shift from an economy of scarcity to that of abundance. However, it’s not that more is necessarily better: while it’s difficult (if not entirely useless) to speak of scholarly publications in universal terms, as the frequently (mis-)cited piece of research argued, most academic articles are read and cited by very few people. It’s quite common for academics to complain they can’t keep up with the scholarly production in their field, even when narrowed down to a very tight disciplinary specialism. Some of this, obviously, has to do with the changing structure of academic labour, in particular the increasing load of administration and the endless rounds of research evaluation and grant application writing, which syphons aways time for reading. But some of this has to do with the simple fact that there is so much more of published stuff around: scholars compete with each other in terms of who’s going to get more ‘out there’, and sooner. As a result, people rarely take the time to read others’ work carefully, especially if it is outside of their narrow specialism or discipline. Substituting this with sycophantic shout-outs via Twitter or book reviews, which are often thinly veiled self-serving praise that reveals more about the reviewer’s career plans, than about the actual publication being reviewed.

For an ecology of knowledge production 

So, how is it possible to work against all this? Given that the purpose of this panel was to start thinking about actual solutions, rather than repeat tired complaints about the nature of knowledge production in the neoliberal academia, I am going to put forward two concrete proposals: one is on the level of conceptual – not to say ‘behavioural’ -change; the other on the level of institutions, or organisations. The first is a commitment to, simply, publish less. Much like in environmental pollution where solutions such as recycling, ‘natural’ materials, and free and ethical trading are a way less effective way to minimise CO2 emissions than just reducing consumption (and production), in writing and publishing we could move towards the progressive divestment from the idea that the goal is to produce as much as possible, and put it ‘out there’ as quickly as possible. To be clear, this isn’t a thinly-veiled plea for ‘slow’ scholarship. Some disciplines or topics clearly call for quicker turnover – one can think of analyses in current affairs, environmental or political science. On the other hand, some topics or disciplines require time, especially when there is value in observing how trends develop over a period of time. Recognising the divergent temporal cycles of knowledge production not only supports the dignity of the academic profession, but also recognises knowledge production happens outside of academia, and should not – need not – necessarily be dependent on being recognised or rewarded within it. As long as the system rewards output, the rate of output will tend to increase: in this sense, competition can be seen not necessarily as an outcome as much as a byproduct of our desire to ‘populate’ the world with the fruits of our labour. Publishing less, in this sense, is not that much a performative act as the first step in divesting from the incessant drive of competitive logic that permeates both the academia and the world ‘outside’ of it.

One way is to, simply, publish less.

Publishers play a very important role in this ecology of knowledge production. Much has been made of the so-called ‘predatory’ journals and publishers, clearly seeking even a marginal profit: the less often mentioned flipside is that almost all publishing is to some degree ‘predatory’, in the sense in which editors seek out authors whose work they believe can sell – that is, sell for a profit that goes to the publisher, and sometimes the editors, while authors can, at best, hope for an occasional drip from royalties (unless, again, they are star/Trump academics, in which case they can aspire to hefty book advances). Given the way in which the imperative to publish is ingrained in the dynamics of academic career progression – and, one might argue, in the academic psyche – it is no surprise that multiple publishing platforms, often of dubious quality, thrive in this landscape.

Instead of this, we could aim for a combination of publishing cooperatives – perhaps embedded in professional societies – and a small number of established journals, which could serve as platforms or hubs for a variety of formats, from blogs to full-blown monographs. These journals would have an established, publicly known, and well-funded board of reviewers and editors. Combined, these principles could enable publishing to serve multiple purposes, communities and formats, without the need to reproduce a harmful hierarchy embedded in competitive market-oriented models. It seems to me that the Sociological Review, which is organising this conference, could be  going towards this model. Another journal with multiple formats and an online forum is the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective. I am sure there are others that could serve as blueprints for this new ecology of knowledge production; perhaps, together, we can start thinking how to build it.

Why is it more difficult to imagine the end of universities than the end of capitalism, or: is the crisis of the university in fact a crisis of imagination?

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Graffiti at the back of a chair in a lecture theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London, October 2017

 

Hardly anyone needs convincing that the university today is in deep crisis. Critics warn that the idea of the University (at least in the form in which it emerged from Western modernity) is endangered, under attack, under fire; that governments or corporations are waging a war against them. Some even pronounce public university already dead, or at least lying in ruins. The narrative about the causes of the crisis is well known: shift in public policy towards deregulation and the introduction of market principles – usually known as neoliberalism – meant the decline of public investment, especially for social sciences and humanities, introduction of performance-based funding dependent on quantifiable output, and, of course, tuition fees. This, in turn, led to the rising precarity and insecurity among faculty and students, reflected, among other things, in a mental health crisis. Paradoxically, the only surviving element of the public university that seems to be doing relatively well in all this is critique. But what if the crisis of the university is, in fact, a crisis of imagination?

Don’t worry, this is not one of those posts that try to convince you that capitalism can be wished away by the power of positive thinking. Nor is it going to claim that neoliberalism offers unprecedented opportunities, if only we would be ‘creative’ enough to seize them. The crisis is real, it is felt viscerally by almost everyone in higher education, and – importantly – it is neither exceptional nor unique to universities. Exactly because it cannot be wished away, and exactly because it is deeply intertwined with the structures of the current crisis of capitalism, opposition to the current transformation of universities would need to involve serious thinking about long-term alternatives to current modes of knowledge production. Unfortunately, this is precisely the bit that tends to be missing from a lot of contemporary critique.

Present-day critique of neoliberalism in higher education often takes the form of nostalgic evocation of the glory days when universities were few, and funds for them plentiful. Other problems with this mythical Golden Age aside, what this sort of critique conveniently omits to mention is that institutions that usually provide the background imagery for these fantastic constructs were both highly selective and highly exclusionary, and that they were built on the back of centuries of colonial exploitation. If it seemed like they imparted a life of relatively carefree privilege on those who studied and worked in them, that is exactly because this is what they were designed to do: cater to the “life of the mind” via excluding all forms of interference, particularly if they took the form of domestic (or any other material) labour, women, or minorities. This tendency is reproduced in Ivory Tower nostalgia as a defensive strategy: the dominant response to what critics tend to claim is the biggest challenge to universities since their founding (which, as they like to remind us, was a long, long time ago) is to stick their head in the sand and collectively dream back to the time when, as Pink Floyd might put it, grass was greener and lights were brighter.

Ivory Tower nostalgia, however, is just one aspect of this crisis of imagination. A much broader symptom is that contemporary critique seems unable to imagine a world without the university. Since ideas of online disembedded learning were successfully monopolized by technolibertarian utopians, the best most academics seem to be able to come up with is to re-erect the walls of the institution, but make them slightly more porous. It’s as if the U of University and the U of Utopia were somehow magically merged. To extend the oft-cited and oft-misattributed saying, if it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is nonetheless easier to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of universities.

Why does the institution like a university have such a purchase on (utopian and dystopian) imagination? Thinking about universities is, in most cases, already imbued by the university, so one element pertains to the difficulty of perceiving conditions of reproduction of one’s own position (this mode of access from the outside, as object-oriented ontologists would put it, or complex externality, as Boltanski does, is something I’m particularly interested in). However, it isn’t the case just with academic critique; fictional accounts of universities or other educational institutions are proliferating, and, in most cases (as I hope to show once I finally get around to writing the book on magical realism and universities), they reproduce the assumption of the value of the institution as such, as well as a lot of associated ideas, as this tweet conveys succinctly:

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This is, unfortunately, often the case even with projects whose explicit aim is to subvert existing  inequalities in the context of knowledge production, including open, free, and workers’ universities (Social Science Centre in Lincoln maintains a useful map of these initiatives globally). While these are fantastic initiatives, most either have to ‘piggyback’ on university labour – that is, on the free or voluntary labour of people employed or otherwise paid by universities – or, at least, rely on existing universities for credentialisation. Again, this isn’t to devalue those who invest time, effort, and emotions into such forms of education; rather, it is to flag that thinking about serious, long-term alternatives is necessary, and quickly, at that. This is a theme I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I hope to make one of central topics in my work in the future.

 

So what are we to do?

There’s an obvious bit of irony in suggesting a panel for a conference in order to discuss how the system is broken, but, in the absence of other forms, I am thinking of putting together a proposal for a workshop for Sociological Review’s 2018 “Undisciplining: Conversations from the edges” conference. The good news is that the format is supposed to go outside of the ‘orthodox’ confines of panels and presentations, which means we could do something potentially exciting. The tentative title Thinking about (sustainable?) alternatives to academic knowledge production.

I’m particularly interested in questions such as:

  • Qualifications and credentials: can we imagine a society where universities do not hold a monopoly on credentials? What would this look like?
  • Knowledge work: can we conceive of knowledge production (teaching and research) not only ‘outside of’, but without the university? What would this look like?
  • Financing: what other modes of funding for knowledge production are conceivable? Is there a form of public funding that does not involve universities (e.g., through an academic workers’ cooperative – Mondragon University in Spain is one example – or guild)? What would be the implications of this, and how it would be regulated?
  • Built environment/space: can we think of knowledge not confined to specific buildings or an institution? What would this look like – how would it be organised? What would be the consequences for learning, teaching and research?

The format would need to be interactive – possibly a blend of on/off-line conversations – and can address the above, or any of the other questions related to thinking about alternatives to current modes of knowledge production.

If you’d like to participate/contribute/discuss ideas, get in touch by the end of October (the conference deadline is 27 November).

[UPDATE: Our panel got accepted! See you at Undisciplining conference, 18-21 June, Newcastle, UK. Watch this space for more news].

What is the relationship between universities and democracy? From the purposes to the uses of university (and back)

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[Lightly edited text of a keynote lecture delivered to the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology’s Graduate conference at the Central European University in Budapest, 18 September 2017. The conference was initially postponed because of the problematic situation concerning the status of CEU in Hungary, following the introduction of the special law known as ‘Lex CEU‘].

 

 

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here – or rather, I should say it’s a pleasure to be back.

The best way to evaluate knowledge claims is to look at how they change over time. About three and a half years ago, during the launch event for From Class to Identity, I stood in this exact same spot. If you asked me back then what the relationship between universities and democracy is, I would have very likely told you at least one of the following things.

Conceptual, contingent, nonexistent?

Obviously, the relationship between universities and democracy depends on how you define both. What democracy actually means is both contested and notoriously difficult to measure. University, on the other hand, is a concept somewhat more easily recognisable through different periods. However, that does not mean it is not changing; in particular, it is increasingly becoming synonymous with the concept of ‘higher education’, a matter whose significance, I hope, will become clearer during the course of this talk.

Secondly, I would have most likely told you that the link between universities and democracy is contingent, which means it depends on the constellation of social, political, economic and historical factors, implying correlation more than a causation.

Last, and not least importantly, I would have told you that, in some cases, the link is not even there; universities can and do exist alongside regimes that cannot be described as democratic even if we extended the term in the most charitable way possible.

In fact, when I first came to CEU as a research fellow in 2010, it was in order to look more deeply into this framing of the relationship between universities and democracy. At the time, in much of public policy and in particular in international development discourse, education was seen as an instrument for promoting democracy, peace, and sustainable prosperity – especially in the context of post-conflict reconciliation. The more of it, thus, the better. This was the consensus I wanted to challenge. Now, while most universities subscribe to values of peace and democracy at least on paper, only a few were ever founded with the explicit aim to promote them. In that sense, I came to the very belly of the beast, but in the best possible sense. CEU proved immensely valuable, both in terms of research I did here and at the Open Society Archives, as well as discussions with colleagues and students: all of this fed into From Class to Identity, which was published in 2014.

For better or worse, the case I settled on – former Yugoslavia – lent itself rather fortuitously to questioning the relationship between education and values we usually associate with democracy. In Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which was, it bears remembering, a one-party state) higher education attainment kept rising steadily (in fact, at a certain period of time, in exact opposition to governmental policies, which aimed to reduce enrollment to universities) up until its dissolution and subsequent violent conflict.

The political landscape of its successor states today may be more variegated (Slovenia and Croatia are EU members, the semblance of a peaceful order in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia is maintained through heavy investment and involvement of the international community, and Serbia and to a perhaps lesser extent Montenegro are effectively authoritarian fiefdoms), but what they share across the board is both growing levels of educational attainment and an expanding higher education sector. In other words, both the number of people who have, or are in the process of obtaining, higher education, and the number of higher education institutions in total, are growing. This, I thought, goes some way towards proving that the link between universities and democracy is contingent and dependent on a number of political factors, rather than necessary.

Under attack?

Would I say the same thing today? Today, universities and those within them increasingly find it necessary to justify their existence, not only in response to challenges to autonomy, academic freedom, and, after all, the basic human rights of academics, such as those happening in Turkey (as we will hear in much more detail during this conference) or here in Hungary, but also in relation to the broader challenges related to the declining public funding of higher education and research. Last, but not least, the election of President Trump in the United States and the Brexit vote in the UK have by many been taken as portents of the decline of epistemic foundations of liberal democratic order, reflected in denouncement of the ‘rule of experts’ and phenomena such as ‘fake news’ or the ‘post-truth’ landscape. In this context, it becomes all the more attractive to resort to justifications of universities’ existence by appeal to their contribution to democracy, civil society, and sustainable prosperity.

Universities and democracy: drop the mic

I will argue that this urge needs to be resisted. I will argue that focusing on the purposes of university framed in this way legitimises the very processes of valorisation – that is, the creation of value – that thrive on competition, and whose logical end are inflated claims of the sort, to paraphrase you-know-who, “we have all the best educations”.

In doing this, we forgo exactly the fine-grained detail that disciplines including but limited to sociology and social anthropology should pay attention to. Put bluntly, we forget the relevance of the social context for making universities what they are. For this, we need to ask not what universities (ideally) aim to achieve, but rather, what is it that universities do, what they can do, but also, importantly, what can be done with them.

Shifting the focus from purposes to uses is not the case, as Latour may have put it, of betraying matters of concern in order to boast about matters of fact. It is, however, to draw attention to the fact that the relationship between universities and democracy is, to borrow another expression from Latour, a factish: both real and fabricated, that is, a social construct but with very real consequences – neither a fact nor a fetish, but an always not-fully-reconciled amalgam of the two. Keeping this in mind, I think, can allow us to think about different roles of universities without losing sight neither of their reality, nor of their constructed nature.

Correlation or causation?

Let me give you just two examples. In the period leading up to as well as in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US elections, much has been made of the difference in education levels of voters for respective candidates, leading some pundits to pronounce that the ‘university educated are voting for Clinton’, that the ‘single most pronounced difference in voter preference is college education’. That is, until someone bothered to break down the data a bit differently, which showed that 44% those with a college degree voted for Trump. Within this group, the most pronounced distinction is being white or not. In other words: it’s the race, stupid – possibly just about the most salient distinction in the US today.

 

Voterswcollegedegreesvrace

The other example is from a very recent study that looked at the relationship longitudinal data concerning outgoing student mobility from former Soviet countries, and levels of attained democracy. It concluded that “…Cross-sectional data on student mobility and attained democracy shows that former Soviet countries with higher proportions of students studying in Europe have achieved higher levels of democratic development. In contrast, countries with higher proportions of students studying in the most popular, authoritarian destination – the Russian Federation – have reached significantly lower levels of democratic development. This suggests that internationalisation of European HE can offer the potential of facilitating democratic socialisation, especially in environments where large proportions of students from less-democratic countries study in a democratic context for an extended period of time”.

Now, this is the sort of research that makes for catchy one-liners, such as “studying in the EU helps democracy”; it makes you feel good about what you do – well, it certainly makes me feel good about what I do, and, perhaps, if you are from one of the countries mentioned in the study and you are studying in the EU (as you most likely are) it makes you feel good about that. It’s also the sort of research that funders love to hear about. The problem is, it doesn’t tell us anything we actually need to know.

It’s a bit too early to look at the data, but how about the following: both the “level of attained democracy” and “proportion of students studying in the EU” are a function of a different factor, one that has to do with the history of international relations, centre-periphery relationships, and, in particular, international political economy. Thus, for instance, countries that are traditionally more dependent on EU aid are quicker to “democratize” – that is, fall outside of the Russian sphere of influence – which is aided by cultural diplomacy (whose effects are reflected in language fluency, aptitude, and, at the end of the day, framing of studying in the EU as a desirable life- and career choice), visa regimes, and the availability of country- or region-specific scholarships. All of which is a rather long way of saying what this graph achieves much more succinctly, which is that correlation does not imply causation.

 

dicapriocorrelations

 

Sociology and anthropology are particularly good at unraveling knots of multiple and overlapping processes, but history, political science and (critical) public policy analysis are necessary too. It’s not about shunning quantitative data (something our disciplines are sometimes prone to doing) but being able to look behind it, at the myriad interactions that take place in the fabric of everyday life: sometimes visibly in, but sometimes away from the political arena. However, this sort of research does not easy clickbait make.

What universities can do: making communities

In the rest of my talk, I want to focus on the one thing that universities can and do do, the one thing they are really good at doing. That is, creating communities. Fostering a sense of belonging. Forging relationships. Making lasting networks.

If you think that this is an unequivocally good thing, may I remind you that (a) this is a university-fostered community, but (b) this is also a university-fostered community. (For those of you unfamiliar with the British political landscape, the latter is the Bullingdon club, an Oxford University-based exclusive society whose former members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson). In other words, community-building can be both good and bad thing: it always means inclusion as well as exclusion. Universities provide a sense of “us”, a sense of who belongs, including to the elite who run the country. They help order and classify people – in theory, according to their aptitude and ambition, but in practice, as we know, all to often according to a host of other factors, including class, gender and race.

The origin of their name, universitas, reflects this ambition to be all-encompassing, to signify a totality, despite the fact that the way totality is signified has over time shifted from indexicality to representation: that is, from the idea that universities project what a collectivity is supposed to be about – for instance, define the literary language and canon, structure of professions, and delineate the criteria of truth and scientific knowledge – to the idea that they reflect the composition of the collectivity, for example, the student body representing the diversity of the general population.

This is why universities experienced a veritable boom in the 19th century, in the period of forging of nation-states, and why they are of persistent interest to them: because they define the boundaries of the community. This is why universities, at best a collective name for a bunch of different institutional traditions, became part of ‘higher (or ‘tertiary’) education’, a rationally, hierarchically ordered system of qualifications integrated into a state-administered context. This is why being able to quantify and compare these qualifications – through rankings, league tables, productivity and performance measurement – is so important to nation-states. It becomes ever more important whenever they feel their grip is slipping, either due to influences of globalisation and internationalisation or for other, more local reasons – such as when a university does not sit easily with the notion of a community projected by the political elite of a nation-state, as in the case of CEU in Hungary.

On the other hand, this is why universities police their boundaries so diligently, and insist on having authority over who gets in and who stays out. In fact, the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy were explicitly devised in order to protect universities’ right to exercise final judgment over such decisions. Last, but not least, this is why societal divisions and conflicts, both nascent and actual, are always felt so viscerally at universities, often years in advance of other parts of society. Examples vary from struggles over identity politics on campus, to broader acts of political positioning related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance.

This brings me to my final point. The biggest challenge universities face today is how to go on with this function of community-building in the context of disagreement, especially when disagreement includes things as fundamental as the very notion of truth, for instance, as with those who question the reality of climate change. Who do universities reflect and represent in this case? How do we reconcile the need to be democratic – that is, reflect a broad range of positions and opinions – with democracy, that is, with the conditions necessary for such a conversation to endure in the first place? These are some of the questions we need to be asking before we resort to claims concerning the necessity of the relationship between universities and democracy, or universities and anything else, for that matter.

Incidentally, this is one of the things Central European University has always been particularly good at: teaching people how to go about disagreeing in ways that allow everyone to learn from each other. I don’t know if any of you remember the time when the university mailing list was open to everyone, but I think conversations there provided a good example of how to how to discuss differing ideas and political stances in a way that furthers everyone’s engagement with their political community; teaching at CEU has always aspired to do the same.

That is a purpose worth defending. This is a purpose that carries forth the tradition not only the man who this room was named after, Karl Popper, but also, and perhaps more, a philosopher who was particularly concerned with the relationship between modes of knowledge production and the creation of communities: Hannah Arendt. Thus, it is with a quote from Arendt’s Truth and politics (1967) that I would like to end with.

 

“Outstanding among the existential modes of truth-telling are the solitude of the philosopher, the isolation of the scientist and the artist, the impartiality of the historian and the judge (…) These modes of being alone differ in many respects, but they have in common that as long as any one of them lasts, no political commitment, no adherence to a cause, is possible. (…) From this perspective, we remain unaware of the actual content of political life – of the joy and the gratification that arise out of being in company with our peers, out of acting together and appearing in public, out of inserting ourselves into the world by word and deed, thus acquiring and sustaining our personal identity and beginning something entirely new. However, what I meant to show here is that this whole sphere, its greatness notwithstanding, is limited – it does not encompass the whole of man’s and the world s existence. It is limited by those things which men cannot change at will.

And it is only by respecting its own borders that this realm, where we are free to act and to change, can remain intact, preserving its integrity and keeping its promises. Conceptually, we may call truth what we cannot change; metaphorically, it is the ground on which we stand and the sky that stretches above us.”

 

Thank you for your attention.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theory as practice: for a politics of social theory, or how to get out of the theory zoo

 

[These are my thoughts/notes for the “Practice of Social Theory, which Mark Carrigan and I are running at the Department of Sociology of the University of Cambridge from 4 to 6 September, 2017].

 

Revival of theory?

 

It seems we are witnessing something akin to a revival of theory, or at least of an interest in it. In 2016, the British Journal of Sociology published Swedberg’s “Before theory comes theorizing, or how to make social sciences more interesting”, a longer version of its 2015 Annual public lecture, followed by responses from – among others – Krause, Schneiderhan, Tavory, and Karleheden. A string of recent books – including Matt Dawson’s Social Theory for Alternative Societies, Alex Law’s Social Theory for Today, and Craig Browne’s Critical Social Theory, to name but a few – set out to consider the relevance or contribution of social theory to understanding contemporary social problems. This is in addition to the renewal of interest in biography or contemporary relevance of social-philosophical schools such as Existentialism (1, 2) and the Frankfurt School [1, 2].

To a degree, this revival happens on the back of the challenges posed to the status of theory by the rise of data science, leading Lizardo and Hay to engage in defense of the value and contributions of theory to sociology and international relations, respectively. In broader terms, however, it addresses the question of the status of social sciences – and, by extension, academic knowledge – more generally; and, as such, it brings us back to the justification of expertise, a question of particular relevance in the current political context.

The meaning of theory

Surely enough, theory has many meanings (Abend, 2008), and consequently many forms in which it is practiced. However, one of the characteristics that seem to be shared across the board is that it is  part of (under)graduate training, after which it gets bracketed off in the form of “the theory chapter” of dissertations/theses. In this sense, theory is framed as foundational in terms of socialization into a particular discipline, but, at the same time, rarely revisited – at least not explicitly – after the initial demonstration of aptitude. In other words, rather than doing, theory becomes something that is ‘done with’. The exception, of course, are those who decide to make theory the centre of their intellectual pursuits; however, “doing theory” in this sense all too often becomes limited to the exegesis of existing texts (what Krause refers to as ‘theory a’ and Abend as ‘theory 4’) that leads to the competition among theorists for the best interpretation of “what theorist x really wanted to say”, or, alternatively, the application of existing concepts to new observations or ‘problems’ (‘theory b and c’, in Krause’s terms). Either way, the field of social theory resembles less the groves of Plato’s Academy, and more a zoo in which different species (‘Marxists’, ‘critical realists’, ‘Bourdieusians’, ‘rational-choice theorists’) delve in their respective enclosures or fight with members of the same species for dominance of a circumscribed domain.

 

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Competitive behaviour among social theorists

 

This summer school started from the ambition to change that: to go beyond rivalries or allegiances to specific schools of thought, and think about what doing theory really means. I often told people that wanting to do social theory was a major reason why I decided to do a second PhD; but what was this about? I did not say ‘learn more’ about social theory (my previous education provided a good foundation), ‘teach’ social theory (though supervising students at Cambridge is really good practice for this), read, or even write social theory (though, obviously, this was going to be a major component). While all of these are essential elements of becoming a theorist, the practice of social theory certainly isn’t reducible to them. Here are some of the other aspects I think we need to bear in mind when we discuss the return, importance, or practice of theory.

Theory is performance

This may appear self-evident once the focus shifts to ‘doing’, but we rarely talk about what practicing theory is meant to convey – that is, about theorising as a performative act. Some elements of this are not difficult to establish: doing theory usually means  identification with a specific group, or form of professional or disciplinary association. Most professional societies have committees, groups, and specific conference sessions devoted to theory – but that does not mean theory is exclusively practiced within them. In addition to belonging, theory also signifies status. In many disciplines, theoretical work has for years been held in high esteem; the flipside, of course, is that ‘theoretical’ is often taken to mean too abstract or divorced from everyday life, something that became a more pressing problem with the decline of funding for social sciences and the concomitant expectation to make them socially relevant. While the status of theory is a longer (and separate) topic, one that has been discussed at length in the history of sociology and other social sciences, it bears repeating that asserting one’s work as theoretical is always a form of positioning: it serves to define the standing of both the speaker, and (sometimes implicitly) others contributors. This brings to mind that…

Theory is power

Not everyone gets to be treated as a theorist: it is also a question of recognition, and thus, a question of political (and other) forms of power. ‘Theoretical’ discussions are usually held between men (mostly, though not exclusively, white men); interventions from women, people of colour, and persons outside centres of epistemic power are often interpreted as empirical illustrations, or, at best, contributions to ‘feminist’ or ‘race’ theory*. Raewyn Connell wrote about this in Southern Theory, and initiatives such as Why is my curriculum white? and Decolonizing curriculum in theory and practice have brought it to the forefront of university struggles, but it speaks to the larger point made by Spivak: that the majority of mainstream theory treats the ‘subaltern’ as only empirical or ethnographic illustration of the theories developed in the metropolis.

The problem here is not only (or primarily) that of representation, in the sense in which theory thus generated fails to accurately depict the full scope of social reality, or experiences and ideas of different people who participate in it. The problem is in a fundamentally extractive approach to people and their problems: they exist primarily, if not exclusively, in order to be explained. This leads me to the next point, which is that…

Theory is predictive

A good illustration for this is offered by pundits and political commentators’ surprise at events in the last year: the outcome of the Brexit referendum (Leave!), US elections (Donald Trump!), and last but not least, the UK General Election (surge in votes for Corbyn!). Despite differences in how these events are interpreted, they in most cases convey that, as one pundit recently confessed, nobody has a clue about what is going on. Does this mean the rule of experts really is over, and, with it, the need for general theories that explain human action? Two things are worth taking into account.

To begin with, social-scientific theories enter the public sphere in a form that’s not only simplified, but also distilled into ‘soundbites’ or clickbait adapted to the presumed needs and preferences of the audience, usually omitting all the methodological or technical caveats they normally come with. For instance, the results of opinion polls or surveys are taken to presented clear predictions, rather than reflections of general statistical tendencies; reliability is rarely discussed. Nor are social scientists always innocent victims of this media spin: some actively work on increase their visibility or impact, and thus – perhaps unwittingly – contribute to the sensationalisation of social-scientific discourse. Second, and this can’t be put delicately, some of these theories are just not very good. ‘Nudgery’ and ‘wonkery’ often rest on not particularly sophisticated models of human behaviour; which is not saying that they do not work – they can – but rather that theoretical assumptions underlying these models are rarely accessible to scrutiny.

Of course, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out why this is the case: it is easier to believe that selling vegetables in attractive packaging can solve the problem of obesity than to invest in long-term policy planning and research on decision-making that has consequences for public health. It is also easier to believe that removing caps to tuition fees will result in universities charging fees distributed normally from lowest to highest, than to bother reading theories of organizational behaviour in different economic and political environments and try to understand how this maps onto the social structure and demographics of a rapidly changing society. In other words: theories are used to inform or predict human behaviour, but often in ways that reinforce existing divisions of power. So, just in case you didn’t see this coming…

Theory is political

All social theories are about constraints, including those that are self-imposed. From Marx to Freud and from Durkheim to Weber (and many non-white, non-male theorists who never made it into ‘the canon’), theories are about what humans can and cannot do; they are about how relatively durable relations (structures) limit and enable how they act (agency). Politics is, fundamentally, about the same thing: things we can and things we cannot change. We may denounce Bismarck’s definition of politics as the art of the possible as insufficiently progressive, but – at the risk of sounding obvious – understanding how (and why) things stay the same is fundamental to understanding how to go about changing them. The history of social theory, among other things, can be read as a story about shifting the boundaries of what was considered fixed and immutable, on the one hand, and constructed – and thus subject to change – on the other.

In this sense, all social theory is fundamentally political. This isn’t to license bickering over different historical materialisms, or to stimulate fantasies – so dear to intellectuals – of ‘speaking truth to power’. Nor should theories be understood as weapons in the ‘war of time’, despite Débord’s poetic formulation: this is but the flipside of intellectuals’ dream of domination, in which their thoughts (i.e. themselves) inspire masses to revolt, usually culminating in their own ascendance to a position of power (thus conveniently cutting out the middleman in ‘speaking truth to power’, as they become the prime bearers of both).

Theory is political in a much simpler sense, in which it is about society and elements that constitute it. As such, it has to be about understanding what is it that those we think of as society think, want, and do, even – and possibly, especially – when we do not agree with them. Rather than aiming to ‘explain away’ people, or fit their behaviour into pre-defined social models, social theory needs to learn to listen to – to borrow a term from politics – its constituents. This isn’t to argue for a (not particularly innovative) return to grounded theory, or ethnography (despite the fact both are relevant and useful). At the risk of sounding pathetic, perhaps the next step in the development of social theory is to really make it a form of social practice – that is, make it be with the people, rather than about the people. I am not sure what this would entail, or what it would look like; but I am pretty certain it would be a welcome element of building a progressive politics. In this sense, doing social theory could become less of the practice of endlessly revising a blueprint for a social theory zoo, and more of a project of getting out from behind its bars.

 

 

*The tendency to interpret women’s interventions as if they are inevitably about ‘feminist theory’ (or, more frequently, as if they always refer to empirical examples) is a trend I have been increasingly noticing since moving into sociology, and definitely want to spend more time studying. This is obviously not to say there aren’t women in the field of social theory, but rather that gender (and race, ethnicity, and age) influence the level of generality at which one’s claims are read, thus reflecting the broader tendency to see universality and Truth as coextensive with the figure of the male and white academic.

 

 

One more time with [structures of] feeling: anxiety, labour, and social critique in/of the neoliberal academia

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Florence, April 2013

Last month, I attended the symposium on Anxiety and Work in the Accelerated Academy, the second in the Accelerated Academy series that explores the changing scapes of time, work, and productivity in the academia. Given that my research is fundamentally concerned with the changing relationships between universities and publics, and the concomitant reframing of the subjectivity, agency, and reflexivity of academics, I naturally found the question of the intersection of academic labour and time relevant. One particular bit resonated for a long time: in her presentation, Maggie O’Neill from the University of York suggested anxiety has become the primary structure of feeling in the neoliberal academia. Having found myself, in the period leading up to the workshop, increasingly reflecting on the structures of feeling,  I was intrigued by the salience of the concept. Is there a place for theoretical concepts such as this in research on the transformations of knowledge production in contemporary capitalism, and where is it?

All the feels

“Structure of feeling” may well be one of those ideas whose half-life way superseded their initial purview. Raymond Williams introduced it in a brief chapter included in Marxism and Literature, contributing to carving out what would become known as the distinctly British take on the relationship between “base” and “superstructure”: cultural studies. In it, he says:

Specific qualitative changes are not assumed to be epiphenomena of changed institutions, formations, and beliefs, or merely secondary evidence of changed social and economic relations between and within classes. At the same time they are from the beginning taken as social experience, rather than as ‘personal’ experience or as the merely superficial or incidental ‘small change’ of society. They are social in two ways that distinguish them from reduced senses of the social as the institutional and the formal: first, in that they are changes of presence (while they are being lived this is obvious; when they have been lived it is still their substantial characteristic); second, in that although they are emergent or pre-emergent, they do not have to await definition, classification, or rationalization before they exert palpable pressures and set effective limits on experience and on action. Such changes can be defined as changes in structures of feeling. (Williams, 1977:130).

Williams thus introduces structures of feeling as a form of social diagnostic; he posits it against the more durable but also more formal concepts of ‘world-view’ or ‘ideology’. Indeed, the whole chapter is devoted to the critique of the reificatory tendencies of Marxist social analysis: the idea of things (or ideas) being always ‘finished’, always ‘in the past’, in order for them to be subjected to analytical scrutiny. The concept of “structure of feeling” is thus invoked in order to keep tabs on social change and capture the perhaps less palpable elements of transformation as they are happening.

Emotions and the scholastic disposition

Over the past years, discourse of feelings has certainly become more prominent in the academia. Just last week, Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas featured a discussion on the topic, framing it within issues of free speech and trigger warnings on campus. While the debate itself has a longer history in the US, it had begun to attract more attention in the UK – most recently in relation to challenging colonial legacies at both Oxford and Cambridge.

Despite multiple nuances of political context and the complex interrelation between imperialism and higher education, the debate in the media predominantly plays out in dichotomies of ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’. Opponents tend to pit trigger warnings or the “culture of offence” against the concept of academic freedom, arguing that today’s students are too sensitive and “coddled” which, in their view, runs against the very purpose of university education. From this perspective, education is about ‘cultivating’ feelings: exercising control, submerging them under the strict institutional structures of the intellect.

Feminist scholars, in particular, have extensively criticised this view for its reductionist properties and, not least, its propensity to translate into institutional and disciplinary policies that seek to exclude everything framed as ‘emotional’, bodily, or material (and, by association, ‘feminine’) from academic knowledge production. But the cleavage runs deeper. Research in social sciences is often framed in the dynamic of ‘closeness’ and ‘distancing’, ‘immersion’ and ‘purification’: one first collects data by aiming to be as close as possible to the social context of the object of research, but then withdraws from it in order to carry out analysis. While approaches such as grounded theory or participatory methods (cl)aim to transcend this boundary, its echoes persist in the structure of presentation of academic knowledge (for instance, the division between data and results), as well as the temporal organisation of graduate education (for instance, the idea that the road to PhD includes a period of training in methods and theories, followed by data collection/fieldwork, followed by analysis and the ‘writing up’ of results).

The idea of ‘distanced reflection’ is deeply embedded in the history of academic knowledge production. In Pascalian Meditations, Bourdieu relates it to the concept of skholē – the scholarly disposition – predicated on the distinction between intellectual and manual labour. In other words, in order for reflection to exist, it needed to be separated from the vagaries of everyday existence. One of its radical manifestations is the idea of the university as monastic community. Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, were explicitly constructed on this model, giving rise to animosities between ‘town’ and ‘gown’: concerns of the ‘lay’ folk were thought to be diametrically opposed to those of the educated. While arguably less prominent in (most) contemporary institutions of knowledge production, the dichotomy is still unproblematically transposed in concepts such as “university’s contribution to society”, which assumes universities are distinct from the society, or at least their interests radically different from those of “the society” – raising obvious questions about who, in fact, is this society.

Emotions, reason, and critique

Paradoxically, perhaps, one of the strongest reverberations of the idea is to be found in the domain of social critique. On the one hand, this sounds counter-intuitive – after all, critical social science should be about abandoning the ‘veneer’ of neutrality and engaging with the world in all of its manifestations. However, establishing the link between social science and critique rests on something that Boltanski, in his critique of Bourdieu’s sociology of domination, calls the metacritical position:

For this reason we shall say that critical theories of domination are metacritical in order. The project of taking society as an object and describing the components of social life or, if you like, its framework, appeals to a thought experiment that consists in positioning oneself outside this framework in order to consider it as a whole. In fact, a framework cannot be grasped from within. From an internal perspective, the framework coincides with reality in its imperious necessity. (Boltanski, 2011:6-7)

Academic critique, in Boltanski’s view, requires assuming a position of exteriority. A ‘simple’ form of exteriority rests on description: it requires ‘translation’ of lived experience (or practices) into categories of text. However, passing the kind of moral judgements critical theory rests on calls for, he argues, a different form of distancing: complex exteriority.

In the case of sociology, which at this level of generality can be regarded as a history of the present, with the result that the observer is part of what she intends to describe, adopting a position of exteri­ority is far from self-evident… This imaginary exit from the viscosity of the real initially assumes stripping reality of its character of implicit necessity and proceeding as if it were arbitrary (as if it could be other than it is or even not be);

This “exit from the viscosity of the real” (a lovely phrase!) proceeds in two steps. The first takes the form of “control of desire”, that is, procedural distancing from the object of research. The second is the act of judgement by which a social order is ‘ejected’, seen in its totality, and as such evaluated from the outside:

In sociology the possibility of this externalization rests on the existence of a laboratory – that is to say, the employment of protocols and instructions respect for which must constrain the sociologist to control her desires (conscious or unconscious). In the case of theories of domination, the exteriority on which cri­tique is based can be called complex, in the sense that it is established at two different levels. It must first of all be based on an exteriority of the first kind to equip itself with the requisite data to create the picture of the social order that will be submitted to critique. A meta­ critical theory is in fact necessarily reliant on a descriptive sociology or anthropology. But to be critical, such a theory also needs to furnish itself, in ways that can be explicit to very different degrees, with the means of passing a judgement on the value of the social order being described. (ibid.)

Critique: inside, outside, in-between?

To what degree could we say that this categorisation can be applied to the current critique of conditions of knowledge production in the academia? After all, most of those who criticize the neoliberal transformation of higher education and research are academics. In this sense, it would make sense to question the degree to which they can lay claims to a position of exteriority. However, more problematically (or interestingly), it is also questionable to which degree a position of exteriority is achievable at all.

Boltanski draws attention to this problem by emphasising the distinction between the cognition – awareness – of ‘ordinary’ actors, and that of sociologists (or other social scientists), the latter, presumably, able to perceive structures of domination that the subjects of their research do not:

Metacritical theories of domination tackle these asymmetries from a particular angle – that of the miscognition by the actors themselves of the exploitation to which they are subject and, above all, of the social conditions that make this exploitation possible and also, as a result, of the means by which they could stop it. That is why they present themselves indivisibly as theories of power, theories of exploitation and theories of knowledge. By this token, they encounter in an especially vexed fashion the issue of the relationship between the knowledge of social reality which is that of ordinary actors, reflexively engaged in practice, and the knowledge of social reality conceived from a reflexivity reliant on forms and instruments of totalization – an issue which is itself at the heart of the tensions out of which the possibility of a social science must be created (Boltanski, 2011:7)

Hotel Academia: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave?

How does one go about thinking about the transformation of the conditions of knowledge production when one is at the same time reflexively engaged in practice and relying on the reflexivity provided by sociological instruments? Is it at all possible? The feelings of anxiety, to this end, could be provoked exactly by this lack of opportunity to step aside – to disembed oneself from the academic life and reflect on it at the leisurely pace of skholē. On the one hand, this certainly has to do with the changing structure and tempo of academic life – acceleration and demands for increased output: in this sense, anxiety is a reaction to the changes perceived and felt, the feeling that the ground is no longer stable, like a sense of vertigo. On the other hand, however, this feeling of decentredness could be exactly what contemporary critique calls for.

The challenge, of course, is how to turn this “structure of feeling” into something that has analytical as well as affective power – and can transform the practice itself. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I think, is a wonderful example of this. As a melody, it is fundamentally disquieting: its impact primarily drawn from the fact that it disrupted what were, at the time, expectations of the (musical) genre, and in the process, rewrote them.

In other words, anxiety could be both creative and destructive. This, however, is not some broad call to “embrace anxiety”. There is a clear and pertinent need to understand the way in which the transformations of working conditions – everywhere, and also in the context of knowledge production – are influencing the sense of self and what is commonly referred to as mental health or well-being.

However, in this process, there is no need to externalise anxiety (nor other feelings): that is, frame it as if caused by forces outside of, or completely independent from, human influence, including within the academia itself (for instance, government policies, or political changes on supranational level). Conversely, there is no need to completely internalise it, in the sense of ascribing it to the embodied experience of individuals only. If feelings occupy the unstable ‘middle ground’ between institutions and individuals, this is the position from which they will have to be thought. If anxiety is an interpretation of the changes of the structures of knowledge production, its critique cannot but stem from the same position. This position is not ‘outside’, but rather ‘in-between’; insecure and thought-provoking, but no less potent for that.

Which, come to think of it, may be what Williams was trying to say all along.

Out of place? On Pokémon, foxes, and critical cultural political economy

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Isle of Wight, August 2016

Last week, I attended the Second international conference in Cultural political economy organized by the Centre for globalization, education and social futures at the University of Bristol. It was through working with Susan Robertson and other folk at the Graduate School of Education, where I had spent parts of 2014 and 2015 as a research fellow, that I first got introduced to cultural political economy.

The inaugural conference last year took place in Lancaster, so it was a great opportunity to both meet other people working within this paradigm and do a bit of hiking in the Lake District. This year, I was particularly glad to be in Bristol – the city that, to a great degree, comes closest to ‘home’, and where – having spent the majority of those two years not really living anywhere – I felt I kind of belonged. The conference’s theme – “Putting culture in its place” – held, for me, in this sense, a double meaning: it was both about critically assessing the concept of culture in cultural political economy, and about being in a particular place from which to engage in doing just that.

 Cultural political economy (CPE) unifies (or hybridises) approaches from cultural studies and those from (Marxist) political economy, in order to address the challenges of growing complexity (and possible incommensurability, or what Jessop refers to as in/compossibility) of elements of global capitalism. Of course, as Andrew Sayer pointed out, the ‘cultural’ streak in political economy can be traced all the way to Marx, if not downright to Aristotle. Developing it as a distinct approach, then, needs to be understood both genealogically – as a way to reconcile two strong traditions in British sociology – and politically, inasmuch as it aspires to make up for what some authors have described as cultural studies’ earlier disregard of the economic, without, at the same time, reverting to the old dichotomies of base/superstructure.

 Whereas it would be equal parts wrong, pretentious, and not particularly useful to speak of “the” way of doing cultural political economy – in fact, one of its strongest points, in my view, is that it has so far successfully eschewed theoretical and institutional ossification that seems to be an inevitable corollary of having (or building) ‘disciples’ (in both senses: as students, and as followers of a particular disciplinary approach) – what it emphasises is the interrelationship between the ‘cultural’ (as identities, materialities, civilisations, or, in Jessop and Sum’s – to date the most elaborate – view, processes of meaning-making), the political, and the economic, whilst avoiding reducing them one onto another. Studying how these interact over time, then, can help understand how specific configurations (or ‘imaginaries’) of capitalism – for instance, competitiveness and the knowledge-based economy – come into being.

My relationship to CPE is somewhat ambiguous. CPE is grounded in the ontology of critical realism, which, ceteris paribus, comes closest to my own views of reality [*]. Furthermore, having spent a good portion of the past ten years researching knowledge production in a variety of regional and historical contexts, the observation that factors we call ‘cultural’ play a role in each makes sense to me, both intuitively and analytically. On the other hand, being trained in anthropology means I am highly suspicious of the reifying and exclusionary potential of concepts such as ‘culture’ and, especially, ‘civilisation’ (in ways which, I would like to think, go beyond the (self-)righteousness immanent in many of their critiques on the Left). Last, but not least, despite a strong sense of solidarity with a number of identity-based causes, my experience in working in post-conflict environments has led me to believe that politics of identity, almost inevitably, fails to be progressive.[†]

For these reasons, the presentation I did at the conference was aimed at clarifying the different uses of the concept of ‘culture’ (and, to a lesser degree, ‘civilisation’) in cultural political economy, and discussing their political implications. To begin with, it might make sense to put culture through the 5W1H of journalistic inquiry. What is culture (or, what is its ontology)? Who is it – in other words, when we say that ‘culture does things’, how do we define agency? Where is it – in other words, how does it extend in space, and how do we know where its boundaries are? When is it – or what is its temporal dimension, and why does it seem easiest to define when it has either already passed, or is at least ‘in decline’, the label that seems particularly given to application to the Western civilisation? How is it (applied as an analytical concept)? This last bit is particularly relevant, as ‘culture’ sometimes appears in social research as a cause, sometimes as a mediating force (in positivist terms, ‘intervening variable’), and sometimes as an outcome, or consequence. Of course, the standard response is that it is, in fact, all of these, but instead of foreclosing the debate, this just opens up the question of WHY: if culture is indeed everything (or can be everything), what is its value as an analytical term?

A useful metaphor to think about different meanings of ‘culture’ could be the game of Pokémon Go. It figures equally as an entity (in the case of Pokémon, entities are largely fictional, but this is of lesser importance – many entities we identify as culturally significant, for instance deities, are); as a system of rules and relationships (for instance, those governing the game, as well as online and offline relationships between players); as a cause of behaviour (in positivist terms, an independent variable); and as an indicator (for instance, Pokémon Go is taken as a sign of globalization, alienation, revolution [in gaming], etc.). The photos in the presentation reflect some of these uses, and they are from Bristol: the first is a Pikachu caught in Castle Park (no, not mine :)); the other is from an event in July, when the Bristol Zoo was forced to close because too many people turned up for a Pokémon lure party. This brings in the political economy of the game; however, just like in CPE, the ‘lifeworld’ of Pokémon Go cannot be reduced to it, despite the fact it would not exist without it. So, when we go ‘hunting’ for culture, where should we look?

Clarifying the epistemic uses of the concept of culture serves not only to prevent treating culture as what Archer has referred to as ‘epiphenomenal’, or what Rojek & Urry have (in a brilliantly scathing review) characterised as ‘decorative’, but primarily to avoid what Woolgar & Pawluch dubbed ‘ontological gerrymandering’. Ontological gerrymandering refers to conceptual sliding in social problems definitions, and consists of “making problematic the truth status of certain states of affairs selected for analysis and explanation, while backgrounding or minimizing the possibility that the same problems apply to assumptions upon which the analysis depends. (…) Some areas are portrayed as ripe for ontological doubt and others portrayed as (at least temporarily) immune to doubt”[‡].

In the worst of cases, ‘culture’ lends itself to this sort of use – one moment almost an ‘afterthought’ of the more foundational processes related to politics and economy; the other foundational, at the very root of the transformations we see in everyday life; and yet, at other moments, mediating, as if a ‘lens’ that refracts reality. Of course, different concepts and uses of the term have been dissected and discussed at length in social theory; however, in research, just like in practice, ‘culture’ frequently resurfaces as a blackbox that can be conveniently proffered to explain elements not attributable (or reducible) to other factors.

This is important not only for theoretical but also, and possibly more, for political reasons. Culture is often seen as a space of freedom, for expression and experimentation. The line from which I borrow the title of my talk – “When I hear the word culture” – is an example of a right-wing reaction to exactly that sort of concept. Variously misattributed to Goering, Gebels, or even Hitler, the line actually comes from Schlageter, a play by Hanns Johst, written in Germany in 1933, which celebrates Nazi ideology. At some point, one of the characters breaks into a longish rant on why he hates the concept of culture – he sees it as ‘lofty’, ‘idealistic’, and in many ways distant from what he perceives to be ‘real struggles’, guns and ammo – which is why it crescendoes in the famous “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning”. This idea of ‘culture’ as fundamentally opposed to the vagaries of material existence has informed many anti-intellectualist movements, but, equally importantly, it has also penetrated the reaction to them, resulting in the often unreflexive glorification of ‘folk’ poetry, drama, or art, as almost instantaneously effective expressions of resistance to anti-intellectualism.

Yet, in contemporary political discourse, the concept of culture has been equally appropriated by the left and the right: witness the ‘culture wars’ in the US, or the more recent use of the term to describe social divisions in the UK. Rather than disappearing, political struggles, I believe, will be increasingly framed in terms of culture. The ‘burkini ban’ in France is one case. Some societies deal with cultural diversity differently, at least on the face of it. New Zealand, where I did a part of my research, is a bicultural society. Its universities are founded on the explicit recognition of the concept of mātauranga Māori, which implies the existence of fundamentally culturally different epistemologies. This, of course, raises a number of other interesting issues; but those issues are not something we shouldn’t be prepared to face.

 As we are becoming better at dealing with culture and with the economy, it still remains a challenge to translate these insights to the political. An obvious case where we’re failing at this is knowledge production itself – cultural political economy is very well suited for analysing the transformation of universities in neoliberalism, yet none the wiser – or more efficient – in tackling these challenges in ways that provide a lasting political alternative.

——-

Later that evening, I go see two of my closest friends from Bristol. Walking back to the flat where I’m staying – right between Clifton and Stokes Croft – I run across a fox. Foxes are not particularly exceptional in Bristol, but I still remember my first encounter with one, as I was walking across Cotham side in 2014: I thought it was a large cat at first, and it was only the tail that gave it away. Having grown up in a highly urbanised environment, I cannot help but see encounters with wildlife as somewhat magical. They are, to me, visitors from another world, creatures temporarily inhabiting the same plane of existence, but subject to different motivations and rules of behaviour: in other words, completely alien. This particular night, this particular fox crosses the road and goes through the gates of Cotham School, which I find so patently symbolic that I am reluctant to share it for fear of being accused of peddling clichés.

And this, of course, marks the return of culture en pleine force. As a concept, it is constructed in opposition to ‘nature’; as a practice, its primary role is to draw boundaries – between the sacred and the profane, between the living and the dead, the civilised and the wild. I know – from my training in anthropology, if nothing else – that fascination with this particular encounter stems from the feeling of it being ‘out of place’: foxes in Bristol are magical because they transgress boundaries – in this case, between ‘cultured’, human worlds, and ‘nature’, the outer world.

I walk on, and right around St. Matthew’s church, there is another one. This one stops, actually, and looks at me. “Hey”, I say, “Hello, fox”. It waits for about six seconds, and then slowly turns around and disappears through the hedge.

I wish I could say that there was sense in that stare, or that I was able to attribute it purpose. There was none, and this is what made it so poignant. The ultimate indecipherability of its gaze made me realise I was as much out of place as the fox was. From its point of view, I was as immaterial and as transgressive as it was from mine: creature from another realm, temporarily inhabiting the same plane, but ultimately of no interest. And there it was, condensed in one moment: what it means to be human, what it means to be somewhere, what it means to belong – and the fragility, precariousness, and eternal incertitude it comes with.

[*] In truth, I’m still planning to write a book that hybridises magical realism with critical realism, but this is not the place to elaborate on that particular project.

[†] I’ve written a bit on the particular intersection of class- and identity-based projects in From Class to Identity; the rich literature on liberalism, multiculturalism, and politics of recognition is impossible to summarise here, but the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has a decent summary overview under the entry “Identity Politics”.

[‡] I am grateful to Federico Brandmayr who initially drew my attention to this article.