Life or business as usual? Lessons of the USS strike

[Shortened version of this blog post was published on Times Higher Education blog on 14 March under the title ‘USS strike: picket line debates will reenergise scholarship’].

 

Until recently, Professor Marenbon writes, university strikes in Cambridge were a hardly noticeable affair. Life, he says, went on as usual. The ongoing industrial action that UCU members are engaging in at UK’s universities has changed all that. Dons, rarely concerned with the affairs of the lesser mortals, seem to be up in arms. They are picketing, almost every day, in the wind and the snow; marching; shouting slogans. For Heaven’s sake, some are even dancing. Cambridge, as pointed out on Twitter, has not seen such upheaval ever since we considered awarding Derrida an honorary degree.

This is possibly the best thing that has happened to UK higher education, at least since the end of the 1990s. Not that there’s much competition: this period, after all, brought us the introduction, then removal of tuition fee caps; abolishment of maintenance grants; REF and TEF; and as crowning (though short-lived) glory, appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students. Yet, for most of this period, academics’ opposition to these reforms conformed to ‘civilised’ ways of protest: writing a book, giving a lecture, publishing a blog post or an article in Times Higher Education, or, at best, complaining on Twitter. While most would agree that British universities have been under threat for decades, concerted effort to counter these reforms – with a few notable exceptions – remained the provenance of the people Professor Marenbon calls ‘amiable but over-ideological eccentrics’.

This is how we have truly let down our students. Resistance was left to student protests and occupations. Longer-lasting, transgenerational solidarity was all but absent: at the end of the day, professors retreated to their ivory towers, precarious academics engaged in activism on the side of ever-increasing competition and pressure to land a permanent job. Students picked up the tab: not only when it came to tuition fees, used to finance expensive accommodation blocks designed to attract more (tuition-paying) students, but also when it came to the quality of teaching and learning, increasingly delivered by an underpaid, overworked, and precarious labour force.

This is why the charge that teach-outs of dubious quality are replacing lectures comes across as particularly disingenuous. We are told that ‘although students are denied lectures on philosophy, history or mathematics, the union wants them to show up to “teach-outs” on vital topics such as “How UK policy fuels war and repression in the Middle East” and “Neoliberal Capitalism versus Collective Imaginaries”’. Although this is but one snippet of Cambridge UCU’s programme of teach-outs, the choice is illustrative.

The link between history and UK’s foreign policy in the Middle East strikes me as obvious. Students in philosophy, politics or economics could do worse than a seminar on the development of neoliberal ideology (the event was initially scheduled as part of the Cambridge seminar in political thought). As for mathematics – anybody who, over the past weeks, has had to engage with the details of actuarial calculation and projections tied to the USS pension scheme has had more than a crash refresher course: I dare say they learned more than they ever hoped they would.

Teach-outs, in this sense, are not a replacement for education “as usual”. They are a way to begin bridging the infamous divide between “town and gown”, both by being held in more open spaces, and by, for instance, discussing how the university’s lucrative development projects are impacting on the regional economy. They are not meant to make up for the shortcomings of higher education: if anything, they render them more visible.

What the strikes have made clear is that academics’ ‘life as usual’ is vice-chancellors’ business as usual. In other words, it is precisely the attitude of studied depoliticisation that allowed the marketization of higher education to continue. Markets, after all, are presumably ‘apolitical’. Other scholars have expanded considerable effort in showing how this assumption had been used to further policies whose results we are now seeing, among other places, in the reform of the pensions system. Rather than repeat their arguments, I would like to end with the words of another philosopher, Hannah Arendt, who understood well the ambiguous relationship between the academia and politics:

 

‘Very unwelcome truths have emerged from the universities, and very unwelcome judgments have been handed down from the bench time and again; and these institutions, like other refuges of truth, have remained exposed to all the dangers arising from social and political power. Yet the chances for truth to prevail in public are, of course, greatly improved by the mere existence of such places and by the organization of independent, supposedly disinterested scholars associated with them.

This authentically political significance of the Academe is today easily overlooked because of the prominence of its professional schools and the evolution of its natural science divisions, where, unexpectedly, pure research has yielded so many decisive results that have proved vital to the country at large. No one can possibly gainsay the social and technical usefulness of the universities, but this importance is not political. The historical sciences and the humanities, which are supposed to find out, stand guard over, and interpret factual truth and human documents, are politically of greater relevance.’

In this sense, teach-outs, and industrial action in general, are a way to for us to recognise our responsibility to protect the university from the undue incursion of political power, while acknowledging that such responsibility is in itself political. At this moment in history, I can think of no service to scholarship greater than that.

Between legitimation and imagination: epistemic attachment, ontological bias, and thinking about the future

Greyswans
Some swans are…grey (Cambridge, August 2017)

 

A serious line of division runs through my household. It does not concern politics, music, or even sports: it concerns the possibility of large-scale collapse of social and political order, which I consider very likely. Specific scenarios aside for the time being, let’s just say we are talking more human-made climate-change-induced breakdown involving possibly protracted and almost certainly lethal conflict over resources, than ‘giant asteroid wipes out Earth’ or ‘rogue AI takes over and destroys humanity’.

Ontological security or epistemic positioning?

It may be tempting to attribute the tendency towards catastrophic predictions to psychological factors rooted in individual histories. My childhood and adolescence took place alongside the multi-stage collapse of the country once known as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. First came the economic crisis, when the failure of ‘shock therapy’ to boost stalling productivity (surprise!) resulted in massive inflation; then social and political disintegration, as the country descended into a series of violent conflicts whose consequences went far beyond the actual front lines; and then actual physical collapse, as Serbia’s long involvement in wars in the region was brought to a halt by the NATO intervention in 1999, which destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure, including parts of Belgrade, where I was living at the time*. It makes sense to assume this results in quite a different sense of ontological security than one, say, the predictability of a middle-class English childhood would afford.

But does predictability actually work against the capacity to make accurate predictions? This may seem not only contradictory but also counterintuitive – any calculation of risk has to take into account not just the likelihood, but also the nature of the source of threat involved, and thus necessarily draws on the assumption of (some degree of) empirical regularity. However, what about events outside of this scope? A recent article by Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde offers a good formalization of this problem (the Black Swans and ‘unknown unknowns’) in the context of the (limited) possibility to imagine different outcomes (see table below). Of course, as Beck noted a while ago, the perception of ‘risk’ (as well as, by extension, any other kind of future-oriented thinking) is profoundly social: it depends on ‘calculative devices‘ and procedures employed by networks and institutions of knowledge production (universities, research institutes, think tanks, and the like), as well as on how they are presented in, for instance, literature and the media.

Screen shot 2017-12-18 at 3.58.23 PM
From: Faulkner, Feduzi and Runde: Unknowns, Black Swans and the risk/uncertainty distinction, Cambridge Journal of Economics 41 (5), August 2017, 1279-1302

 

Unknown unknowns

In The Great Derangement (probably the best book I’ve read in 2017), Amitav Gosh argues that this can explain, for instance, the surprising absence of literary engagement with the problem of climate change. The problem, he claims, is endemic to Western modernity: a linear vision of history cannot conceive of a problem that exceeds its own scale**. This isn’t the case only with ‘really big problems’ such as economic crises, climate change, or wars: it also applies to specific cases such as elections or referendums. Of course, social scientists – especially those qualitatively inclined – tend to emphasise that, at best, we aim to explain events retroactively. Methodological modesty is good (and advisable), but avoiding thinking about the ways in which academic knowledge production is intertwined with the possibility of prediction is useless, for at least two reasons.

One is that, as reflected in the (by now overwrought and overdetermined) crisis of expertise and ‘post-truth’, social researchers increasingly find themselves in situations where they are expected to give authoritative statements about the future direction of events (for instance, about the impact of Brexit). Even if they disavow this form of positioning, the very idea of social science rests on (no matter how implicit) assumption that at least some mechanisms or classes or objects will exhibit the same characteristics across cases; consequently, the possibility of inference is implied, if not always practised. Secondly, given the scope of challenges societies face at present, it seems ridiculous to not even attempt to engage with – and, if possibly, refine – the capacity to think how they will develop in the future. While there is quite a bit of research on individual predictive capacity and the way collective reasoning can correct for cognitive bias, most of these models – given that they are usually based on experiments, or simulations – cannot account for the way in which social structures, institutions, and cultures of knowledge production interact with the capacity to theorise, model, and think about the future.

The relationship between social, political, and economic factors, on the one hand, and knowledge (including knowledge about those factors), on the other, has been at the core of my work, including my current PhD. While it may seem minor compared to issues such as wars or revolutions, the future of universities offers a perfect case to study the relationship between epistemic positioning, positionality, and the capacity to make authoritative statements about reality: what Boltanski’s sociology of critique refers to as ‘complex externality’. One of the things it allowed me to realise is that while there is a good tradition of reflecting on positionality (or, in positivist terms, cognitive ‘bias’) in relation to categories such as gender, race, or class, we are still far from successfully theorising something we could call ‘ontological bias’: epistemic attachment to the object of research.

The postdoctoral project I am developing extends this question and aims to understand its implications in the context of generating and disseminating knowledge that can allow us to predict – make more accurate assessments of – the future of complex social phenomena such as global warming or the development of artificial intelligence. This question has, in fact, been informed by my own history, but in a slightly different manner than the one implied by the concept of ontological security.

Legitimation and prediction: the case of former Yugoslavia

Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had a relatively sophisticated and well developed networks of social scientists, which both of my parents were involved in***. Yet, of all the philosophers, sociologists, political scientists etc. writing about the future of the Yugoslav federation, only one – to the best of my knowledge – predicted, in eerie detail, the political crisis that would lead to its collapse: Bogdan Denitch, whose Legitimation of a revolution: the Yugoslav case (1976) is, in my opinion, one of the best books about former Yugoslavia ever written.

A Yugoslav-American, Denitch was a professor of sociology at the City University of New York. He was also a family friend, a fact I considered of little significance (having only met him once, when I was four, and my mother and I were spending a part of our summer holiday at his house in Croatia; my only memory of it is being terrified of tortoises roaming freely in the garden), until I began researching the material for my book on education policies and the Yugoslav crisis. In the years that followed (I managed to talk to him again in 2012; he passed away in 2016), I kept coming back to the question: what made Denitch more successful in ‘predicting’ the crisis that would ultimately lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia than virtually anyone writing on Yugoslavia at the time?

Denitch had a pretty interesting trajectory. Born in 1929 to Croat Serb parents, he spent his childhood in a series of countries (including Greece and Egypt), following his diplomat father; in 1946, the family emigrated to the United States (the fact his father was a civil servant in the previous government would have made it impossible for them to continue living in Yugoslavia after the Communist regime, led by Josip Broz Tito, formally took over). There, Denitch (in evident defiance of his upper-middle-class legacy) trained as a factory worker, while studying for a degree in sociology at CUNY. He also joined the Democratic Socialist Alliance – one of American socialist parties – whose member (and later functionary) he would remain for the rest of his life.

In 1968, Denitch was awarded a major research grant to study Yugoslav elites. The project was not without risks: while Yugoslavia was more open to ‘the West’ than other countries in Eastern Europe, visits by international scholars were strictly monitored. My mother recalls receiving a house visit from an agent of the UDBA, the Yugoslav secret police – not quite the KGB but you get the drift – who tried to elicit the confession that Denitch was indeed a CIA agent, and, in the absence of that, the promise that she would occasionally report on him****.

Despite these minor throwbacks, the research continued: Legitimation of a revolution is one of its outcomes. In 1973, Denitch was awarded a PhD by the Columbia University and started teaching at CUNY, eventually retiring in 1994. His last book, Ethnic nationalism: the tragic death of Yugoslavia came out in the same year, a reflection on the conflict that was still going on at the time, and whose architecture he had foreseen with such clarity eighteen years earlier (the book is remarkably bereft of “told-you-so”-isms, so warmly recommended for those wishing to learn more about Yugoslavia’s dissolution).

Did personal history, in this sense, have a bearing on one’s epistemic position, and by extension, on the capacity to predict events? One explanation (prevalent in certain versions of popular intellectual history) would be that Denitch’s position as both a Yugoslav and an American would have allowed him to escape the ideological traps other scholars were more likely to fall into. Yugoslavs, presumably,  would be at pains to prove socialism was functioning; Americans, on the other hand, perhaps egalitarian in theory but certainly suspicious of Communist revolutions in practice, would be looking to prove it wasn’t, at least not as an economic model. Yet this assumption hardly stands even the lightest empirical interrogation. At least up until the show trials of Praxis philosophers, there was a lively critique of Yugoslav socialism within Yugoslavia itself; despite the mandatory coating of jargon, Yugoslav scholars were quite far from being uniformly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about socialism. Similarly, quite a few American scholars were very much in favour of the Yugoslav model, eager, if anything, to show that market socialism was possible – that is, that it’s possible to have a relatively progressive social policy and still be able to afford nice things. Herein, I believe, lies the beginning of the answer as to why neither of these groups was able to predict the type or the scale of the crisis that will eventually lead to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia.

Simply put, both groups of scholars depended on Yugoslavia as a source of legitimation of their work, though for different reasons. For Yugoslav scholars, the ‘exceptionality’ of the Yugoslav model was the source of epistemic legitimacy, particularly in the context of international scientific collaboration: their authority was, in part at least, constructed on their identity and positioning as possessors of ‘local’ knowledge (Bockman and Eyal’s excellent analysis of the transnational roots of neoliberalism makes an analogous point in terms of positioning in the context of the collaboration between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ economists). In addition to this, many of Yugoslav scholars were born and raised in socialism: while, some of them did travel to the West, the opportunities were still scarce and many were subject to ideological pre-screening. In this sense, both their professional and their personal identity depended on the continued existence of Yugoslavia as an object; they could imagine different ways in which it could be transformed, but not really that it could be obliterated.

For scholars from the West, on the other hand, Yugoslavia served as a perfect experiment in mixing capitalism and socialism. Those more on the left saw it as a beacon of hope that socialism need not go hand-in-hand with Stalinist-style repression. Those who were more on the right saw it as proof that limited market exchange can function even in command economies, and deduced (correctly) that the promise of supporting failing economies in exchange for access to future consumer markets could be used as a lever to bring the Eastern Bloc in line with the rest of the capitalist world. If no one foresaw the war, it was because it played no role in either of these epistemic constructs.

This is where Denitch’s background would have afforded a distinct advantage. The fact his parents came from a Serb minority in Croatia meant he never lost sight of the salience of ethnicity as a form of political identification, despite the fact socialism glossed over local nationalisms. His Yugoslav upbringing provided him not only with fluency in the language(s), but a degree of shared cultural references that made it easier to participate in local communities, including those composed of intellectuals. On the other hand, his entire professional and political socialization took place in the States: this meant he was attached to Yugoslavia as a case, but not necessarily as an object. Not only was his childhood spent away from the country; the fact his parents had left Yugoslavia after the regime change at the end of World War II meant that, in a way, for him, Yugoslavia-as-object was already dead. Last, but not least, Denitch was a socialist, but one committed to building socialism ‘at home’. This means that his investment in the Yugoslav model of socialism was, if anything, practical rather than principled: in other words, he was interested in its actual functioning, not in demonstrating its successes as a marriage of markets and social justice. This epistemic position, in sum, would have provided the combination needed to imagine the scenario of Yugoslav dissolution: a sufficient degree of attachment to be able to look deeply into a problem and understand its possible transformations; and a sufficient degree of detachment to be able to see that the object of knowledge may not be there forever.

Onwards to the…future?

What can we learn from the story? Balancing between attachment and detachment is, I think, one of the key challenges in any practice of knowing the social world. It’s always been there; it cannot be, in any meaningful way, resolved. But I think it will become more and more important as the objects – or ‘problems’ – we engage with grow in complexity and become increasingly central to the definition of humanity as such. Which means we need to be getting better at it.

 

———————————-

(*) I rarely bring this up as I think it overdramatizes the point – Belgrade was relatively safe, especially compared to other parts of former Yugoslavia, and I had the fortune to never experience the trauma or hardship people in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, or Croatia did.

(**) As Jane Bennett noted in Vibrant Matter, this resonates with Adorno’s notion of non-identity in Negative Dialectics: a concept always exceeds our capacity to know it. We can see object-oriented ontology, (e.g. Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects) as the ontological version of the same argument: the sheer size of the problem acts as a deterrent from the possibility to grasp it in its entirety.

(***) This bit lends itself easily to the Bourdieusian “aha!” argument – academics breed academics, etc. The picture, however, is a bit more complex – I didn’t grow up with my father and, until about 16, had a very vague idea of what my mother did for a living.

(****) Legend has it my mother showed the agent the door and told him never to call on her again, prompting my grandmother – her mother – to buy funeral attire, assuming her only daughter would soon be thrown into prison and possibly murdered. Luckily, Yugoslavia was not really the Soviet Union, so this did not come to pass.

Zygmunt Bauman and the sociologies of end times

[This post was originally published at the Sociological Review blog’s Special Issue on Zygmunt Bauman, 13 April 2017]

“Morality, as it were, is a functional prerequisite of a world with an in-built finality and irreversibility of choices. Postmodern culture does not know of such a world.”

Zygmunt Bauman, Sociology and postmodernity

Getting reacquainted with Bauman’s 1988 essay “Sociology and postmodernity”, I accidentally misread the first word of this quote as “mortality”. In the context of the writing of this piece, it would be easy to interpret this as a Freudian slip – yet, as slips often do, it betrays a deeper unease. If it is true that morality is a functional prerequisite of a finite world, it is even truer that such a world calls for mortality – the ultimate human experience of irreversibility. In the context of trans- and post-humanism, as well as the growing awareness of the fact that the world, as the place inhabited (and inhabitable) by human beings, can end, what can Bauman teach us about both?

In Sociology and postmodernity, Bauman assumes the position at the crossroads of two historical (social, cultural) periods: modernity and postmodernity. Turning away from the past to look towards the future, he offers thoughts on what a sociology adapted to the study of postmodern condition would be like. Instead of a “postmodern sociology” as a mimetic representation of (even if a pragmatic response to) postmodernity, he argues for a sociology that attempts to give a comprehensive account of the “aggregate of aspects” that cohere into a new, consumer society: the sociology of postmodernity. This form of account eschews the observation of the new as a deterioration, or aberration, of the old, and instead aims to come to terms with the system whose contours Bauman will go on to develop in his later work: the system characterised by a plurality of possible worlds, and not necessarily a way to reconcile them.

The point in time in which he writes lends itself fortuitously to the argument of the essay. Not only did Legislators and interpreters, in which he reframes intellectuals as translators between different cultural worlds, come out a year earlier; the publication of Sociology and postmodernity briefly precedes 1989, the year that will indeed usher a wholly new period in the history of Europe, including in Bauman’s native Poland.

On the one hand, he takes the long view back to post-war Europe, built, as it was, on the legacy of Holocaust as a pathology of modernity, and two approaches to preventing its repetition – market liberalism and political freedoms in the West, and planned economies and more restrictive political regimes in Central and Eastern parts of the subcontinent. On the other, he engages with some of the dilemmas for the study of society that the approaching fall of Berlin Wall and eventual unification of those two hitherto separated worlds was going to open. In this sense, Bauman really has the privilege of a two-facing version of Benjamin’s Angel of History. This probably helped him recognize the false dichotomy of consumer freedom and dictatorship over needs, which, as he stated, was quickly becoming the only imaginable alternative to the system – at least as far as imagination was that of the system itself.

The present point of view is not all too dissimilar from the one in which Bauman was writing. We regularly encounter pronouncements of an end of a whole host of things, among them history, classical distribution of labour, standards of objectivity in reporting, nation-states, even – or so we hope – capitalism itself. While some of Bauman’s fears concerning postmodernity may, from the present perspective, seem overstated or even straightforwardly ridiculous, we are inhabiting a world of many posts – post-liberal, post-truth, post-human. Many think that this calls for a rethinking of how sociology can adapt itself to these new conditions: for instance, in a recent issue of International Sociological Association’s Global Dialogue, Leslie Sklair considers what a new radical sociology, developed in response to the collapse of global capitalism, would be like.

As if sociology and the zeitgeist are involved in some weird pas-de-deux: changes in any domain of life (technology, political regime, legislation) almost instantaneously trigger calls for, if not the invention of new, then a serious reconsideration of old paradigms and approaches to its study.

I would like to suggest that one of the sources of continued appeal of this – which Mike Savage brilliantly summarised as epochal theorising – is not so much the heralding of the new, as the promise that there is an end to the present state of affairs. In order for a new ‘epoch’ to succeed, the old one needs to end. What Bauman warns about in the passage cited at the beginning is that in a world without finality – without death – there can be no morality. In T.S. Eliot’s lines from Burnt Norton: If all time is eternally present, all time is irredeemable. What we may read as Bauman’s fear, therefore, is not that worlds as we know them can (and will) end: it is that, whatever name we give to the present condition, it may go on reproducing itself forever. In other words, it is a vision of the future that looks just like the present, only there is more of it.

Which is worse? It is hard to tell. A rarely discussed side of epochal theorising is that it imagines a world in which social sciences still have a role to play, if nothing else, in providing a theoretical framing or empirically-informed running commentary of its demise, and thus offers salvation from the existential anxiety of the present. The ‘ontological turn’ – from object-oriented ontology, to new materialisms, to post-humanism – reflects, in my view, the same tendency. If objects ‘exist’ in the same way as we do, if matter ‘matters’ in the same way (if not in the same degree) in which, for instance, black lives matter, this provides temporary respite from the confines of our choices. Expanding the concept of agency so as to involve non-human actors may seem more complicated as a model of social change, but at least it absolves humans from the unique burden of historical responsibility – including that for the fate of the world.

Human (re)discovery of the world, thus, conveys less a newfound awareness of the importance of the lived environment, as much as the desire to escape the solitude of thinking about the human (as Dawson also notes, all too human) condition. The fear of relativism that postmodern ‘plurality’ of worlds brought about appears to have been preferable to the possibility that there is, after all, just the one world. If the latter is the case, the only escape from it lies, to borrow from Hamlet, in the country from whose bourn no traveller has ever returned: in other words, in death.

This impasse is perhaps felt strongest in sociology and anthropology because excursions into other worlds have been both the gist of their method and the foundations of their critical potential (including their self-critique, which focused on how these two elements combine in the construction of epistemic authority). The figure of the traveller to other worlds was more pronounced in the case of anthropology, at least at the time when it developed as the study of exotic societies on the fringe of colonial empires, but sociology is no stranger to visitation either: its others, and their worlds, delineated by sometimes less tangible boundaries of class, gender, race, or just epistemic privilege. Bauman was among theorists who recognized the vital importance of this figure in the construction of the foundations of European modernity, and thus also sensitive to its transformations in the context of postmodernity – exemplified, as he argued, in contemporary human’s ambiguous position: between “a perfect tourist” and a “vagabond beyond remedy”.

In this sense, the awareness that every journey has an end can inform the practice of social theory in ways that go beyond the need to pronounce new beginnings. Rather than using eulogies in order to produce more of the same thing – more articles, more commentary, more symposia, more academic prestige – perhaps we can see them as an opportunity to reflect on the always-unfinished trajectory of human existence, including our existence as scholars, and the responsibility that it entails. The challenge, in this case, is to resist the attractive prospect of escaping the current condition by ‘exit’ into another period, or another world – postmodern, post-truth, post-human, whatever – and remember that, no matter how many diverse and wonderful entities they may be populated with, these worlds are also human, all too human. This can serve as a reminder that, as Bauman wrote in his famous essay on heroes and victims of postmodernity, “Our life struggles dissolve, on the contrary, in that unbearable lightness of being. We never know for sure when to laugh and when to cry. And there is hardly a moment in life to say without dark premonitions: ‘I have arrived’”.

On ‘Denial’: or, the uncanny similarity between Holocaust and mansplaining

hero_denial-2016

Last week, I finally got around to seeing Denial. It has many qualities and a few disadvantages – its attempt at hyperrealism treading on both – but I would like to focus on the aspect most reviews I’ve read so far seem to have missed. In other words: mansplaining.

Brief contextualization. Lest I be accused of equating Holocaust and mansplaining (I am not – similarity does not denote equivalence), my work deals with issues of expertise, fact, and public intellectualism; I have always found the Irving case interesting, for a variety of reasons (incidentally, I was also at Oxford during the famous event at the Oxford Union). At the same time, like, I suppose, every woman in the academia and beyond with more agency than a doormat, I have, over the past year, become embroiled in countless arguments about what mansplaining is, whether it is really so widespread, whether it is done only by men (and what to call it when it’s perpetrated by those who are not men?) and, of course, that pseudo-liberal what-passes-as-an-attempt at outmaneuvering the issue, which is whether using the term ‘mansplaining’ blames men as a group and is as such essentialising and oppressive, just like the discourses ‘we’ (feminists conveniently grouped under one umbrella) seek to condemn (otherwise known as a tu quoque argument).

Besides logical flaws, what many of these attacks seem to have in common with the one David Irving launched on Deborah Lipstadt (and Holocaust deniers routinely use) is the focus on evidence: how do we know that mansplaining occurs, and is not just some fabrication of a bunch of conceited females looking to get ahead despite their obvious lack of qualifications? Other uncanny similarities between arguments of Holocaust deniers and those who question the existence of mansplaining temporarily aside, one of undisputable qualities of Denial is that it provides multiple examples of what mansplaining looks like. It is, of course, a film, despite being based on a true story. Rather than presenting a downside, this allows for a concentrated portrayal of the practice – for those doubting its verisimilitude, I strongly recommend watching the film and deciding for yourself whether it resembles real-life situations. For those who do not, voilà, a handy cinematic case to present to those who prefer to plead ignorance as to what mansplaining ‘actually’ entails.

To begin with, the case portrayed in the film is a par excellence instance of mansplaining  as a whole: after all, it is about a self-educated (male) historian who sues an academic historian (a woman) because she does not accept his ‘interpretation’ of World War II (namely, that Holocaust did not happen) and, furthermore, dares to call him out on it. In the case (and the film), he sets out to explain to the (of course, male) judge and the public that Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz) is wrong and, furthermore, that her critique has seriously damaged his career (the underlying assumption being that he is entitled to lucrative publishing deals, while she, clearly, has to earn hers – exacerbated by his mockery of the fact that she sells books, whereas his, by contrast, are free). This ‘talking over’ and attempt to make it all about him (remember, he sues her) are brilliantly cast in the opening, when Irving (played by Timothy Spall) visits Lipstadt’s public talk and openly challenges her in the Q&A, ignoring her repeated refusal to engage with his arguments. Yet, it would be a mistake to locate the trope of mansplaining only in the relation Irving-Lipstadt. On the contrary – just like the real thing – it is at its most insidious when it comes from those who are, as it were, ‘on our side’.

A good example is the first meeting of the defence team, where Lipstadt is introduced to people working with her legal counsel, the famous Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott). There is a single woman on Julius’ team: Laura (Caren Pistorius), who, we are told, is a paralegal. Despite it being her first case, it seems she has developed a viable strategy: or at least so we are told by her boss, who, after announcing Laura’s brilliant contribution to the case, continues to talk over her – that is, explain her thoughts without giving her an opportunity to explain them herself. In this sense, what at first seems like an act of mentoring support – passing the baton and crediting a junior staff member – becomes a classical act in which a man takes it onto himself to interpret the professional intervention of a female colleague, appropriating it in the process.

The cases of professional mansplaining are abundant throughout the film: in multiple scenes lawyers explain the Holocaust as well as the concept of denial to Lipstadt despite her meek protests that she “has actually written a book about it”. Obvious irony aside, this serves as a potent reminder that women have to invoke professional credentials not to be recognized as experts, but in order to be recognized as equally valid participants in debate. By contrast, when it comes to the only difference in qualifications in the film that plays against Lipstadt – that of the knowledge of the British legal system – Weisz’s character conveniently remains a mixture of ignorance and naïveté couched in Americanism. One would be forgiven to assume that long-term involvement in a libel case, especially one that carries so much emotional and professional weight, would have provoked a university professor to get acquainted with at least the basic rules of the legal system in which the case was processed, but then, of course, that would have stripped the male characters of the opportunity to shine the light of their knowledge in contrast to her supposed ignorance.

Of course, emotional involvement is, in the film, presented as a clear disadvantage when it comes to the case. While Lipstadt first assumes she will, and then repeatedly asks to be allowed to testify, her legal team insists she would be too emotional a witness. The assumption that having an emotional reaction (even if one that is quite expected – it is, after all, the Holocaust we are talking about) and a cold, hard approach to ‘facts’ are mutually exclusive is played off succinctly in the scenes that take place at Auschwitz. While Lipstadt, clearly shaken (as anyone, Jewish or not, is bound to be when standing at the site of such a potent example of mass slaughter), asks the party to show respect for the victims, the head barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) is focused on calmly gathering evidence. The value of this, however, only becomes obvious in the courtroom, where he delivers his coup de grâce, revealing that his calm pacing around the perimeter of Auschwitz II-Birkenau (which makes him arrive late and upsets everyone, Lipstadt in particular) was actually measuring the distance between the SS barracks and the gas chambers, allowing him to disprove Irving’s assertion that the gas chambers were built as air raid shelters, and thus tilt the whole case in favour of the defence.

The mansplaining triumph, however, happens even before this Sherlockian turn, in the scene in which Rampton visits Lipstadt in her hotel room (uninvited, unannounced) in order to, yet again, convince her that she should not testify or engage with Irving in any form. After he gently (patronisingly) persuades her that  “What feels best isn’t necessarily what works best” (!), she, emotionally moved, agrees to “pass her conscience” to him – that is, to a man. By doing this, she abandons not only her own voice, but also the possibility to speak for Holocaust survivors – the one that appears as a character in the film also, poignantly, being female. In Lipstadt’s concession that silence is better because it “leads to victory”, it is not difficult to read the paradoxical (pseudo)pragmatic assertion that openly challenging male privilege works, in fact, against gender equality, because it provokes a counterreaction. Initially protesting her own silencing, Lipstadt comes to accept what her character in the script dubs “self-denial” as the only way to beat those who deny the Holocaust.

Self-denial: for instance, denying yourself food for fear of getting ‘fat’ (and thus unattractive for the male gaze); denying yourself fun for fear of being labeled easy or promiscuous (and thus undesirable as a long-term partner); denying yourself time alone for fear of being seen as selfish or uncaring (and thus, clearly, unfit for a relationship). Silence: for instance, letting men speak first for fear of being seen as pushy (and thus too challenging); for instance, not speaking up when other women are oppressed, for fear of being seen as too confrontational (and thus, of course, difficult); for instance, not reporting sexual harassment, for fear of retribution, shame, isolation (self-explanatory). In celebrating ‘self-denial’, the film, then, patently reinscribes the stereotype of the patient, silent female.

Obviously, there is value in refusing to engage with outrageous liars; equally, there are issues that should remain beyond discussion – whether Holocaust happened being one of them. Yet, selective silencing masquerading as strategy – note that Lipstadt is not allowed to speak (not even to the media), while Rampton communicates his contempt for Irving by not looking at him (thus, denying him the ‘honour’ of the male gaze) – too often serves to reproduce the structural inequalities that can persist even under a legal system that purports to be egalitarian.

Most interestingly, the fact that a film that is manifestly about mansplaining manages to reproduce quite a few of mansplaining tropes (and, I would argue, not always in a self-referential or ironic manner) serves as a poignant reminder how deeply the ‘splaining complex is embedded not only in politics or the academia, but also in cultural representations. This is something we need to remain acutely aware of in the age of ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-facts’. If resistance to lying politicians and the media is going to take the form of (re)assertion of one, indisputable truth, and the concomitant legitimation of those who claim to know it – strangely enough, most often white, privileged men – then we’d better think of alternatives, and quickly.

We are all postliberals now: teaching Popper in the era of post-truth politics

blackswan
Adelaide, South Australia, December 2014

Late in the morning after the US election, I am sitting down to read student essays for the course on social theory I’m supervising. This part of the course involves the work of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend, and its application in the social sciences. The essay question is: do theories need to be falsifiable, and how to choose between competing theories if they aren’t? The first part is a standard essay question; I added the second a bit more than a week ago, interested to see how students would think about criteria of verification in absence of an overarching regime of truth.

This is one of my favourite topics in the philosophy of science. When I was a student at the University of Belgrade, feeling increasingly out of place in the post-truth and intensely ethnographic though anti-representationalist anthropology, the Popper-Kuhn debate in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge held the promise that, beyond classification of elements of material culture of the Western Balkans, lurked bigger questions of the politics and sociology of knowledge (paradoxically, this may have been why it took me very long to realize I actually wanted to do sociology).

I was Popper-primed well before that, though: the principle of falsification is integral to the practice of parliamentary-style academic debating, in which the task of the opposing team(s) is to ‘disprove’ the motion. In the UK, this practice is usually associated with debate societies such as the Oxford and Cambridge Union, but it is widespread in the US as well as the rest of the world; during my undergraduate studies, I was an active member of Yugoslav (now Serbian) Universities Debating Network, known as Open Communication. Furthermore, Popper’s political ideas – especially those in Open Society and its Enemies – formed the ideological core of the Open Society Foundation, founded by the billionaire George Soros to help the promotion of democracy and civil society in Central and Eastern Europe.

In addition to debate societies, the Open Society Foundation supported and funded a greater part of civil society activism in Serbia. At the time, most of it was conceived as the opposition to the regime of Slobodan Milošević, a one-time-banker-turned-politician who ascended to power in the wake of the dissolution of the Socialist federal republic of Yugoslavia. Milošević played a major role in the conflicts in its former republics, simultaneously plunging Serbia deeper into economic and political crisis exacerbated by international isolation and sanctions, culminating in the NATO intervention in 1999. Milošević’s rule ended in a coup following a disputed election in 2000.

I had been part of the opposition from the earliest moment conceivable, skipping classes in secondary school to go to anti-government demos in 1996 and 1997. The day of the coup – 5 October 2000 – should have been my first day at university, but, together with most students and staff, I was at what would turn out to be the final public protest that ended up in the storming of the Parliament. I swallowed quite a bit of tear gas, twice in situations I expected not to get out of alive (or at the very least unharmed), but somehow made it to a friend’s house, where, together with her mom and grandma, we sat in the living room and watched one of Serbia’s hitherto banned TV and radio stations – the then-oppositional B92 – come back on air. This is when we knew it was over.

Sixteen years and little more than a month later, I am reading students’ essays on truth and falsehood in science. This, by comparison, is a breeze, and it’s always exciting to read different takes on the issue. Of course, in the course of my undergraduate studies, my own appreciation of Popper was replaced by excitement at the discovery of Kuhn – and the concomitant realization of the inertia of social structures, which, just like normal science, are incredibly slow to change – and succeeded by light perplexity by Lakatos (research programmes seemed equal parts reassuring and inherently volatile – not unlike political coalitions). At the end, obviously, came infatuation with Feyerabend: like every self-respecting former liberal, I reckoned myself a methodological (and not only methodological) anarchist.

Unsurprisingly, most of the essays I read exhibit the same trajectory. Popper is, quite obviously, passé; his critique of Marxism (and other forms of historicism) not particularly useful, his idea of falsificationism too strict a criterion for demarcation, and his association with the ideologues of neoliberalism did probably not help much either.

Except that…. this is what Popper has to say:

It is undoubtedly true that we have a more direct knowledge of the ‘inside of the human atom’ than we have of physical atoms; but this knowledge is intuitive. In other words, we certainly use our knowledge of ourselves in order to frame hypotheses about some other people, or about all people. But these hypotheses must be tested, they must be submitted to the method of selection by elimination.

(The Poverty of Historicism, 127)

Our knowledge of ourselves: for instance, our knowledge that we could never, ever, elect a racist, misogynist, reality TV star for the president of one of world’s superpowers. That we would never vote to leave the European Union, despite the fact that, like all supranational entities, it has flaws, but look at how much it invests in our infrastructure. Surely – as Popper would argue – we are rational animals: and rational animals would not do anything that puts them in unnecessary danger.

Of course, we are correct. The problem, however, is that we have forgotten about the second part of Popper’s claim: we use knowledge of ourselves to form hypotheses about other people. For instance: since we understand that a rich businessman is not likely to introduce economic policies that harm the elite, the poor would never vote for him. For instance: since we remember the victims of Nazism and fascism, everyone must understand how frail is the liberal consensus in Europe.

This is why the academia came to be “shocked” by Trump’s victory, just like it was shocked by the outcome of the Brexit referendum. This is also the key to the question of why polls “failed” to predict either of these outcomes. Perhaps we were too focused on extrapolating our assumptions to other people, and not enough on checking whether they hold.

By failing to understand that the world is not composed of left-leaning liberals with a predilection for social justice, we commit, time and again, what Bourdieu termed scholastic fallacy – propensity to attribute categories of our own thinking to those we study. Alternatively, and much worse, we deny them common standards of rationality: the voters whose political choices differ from ours are then cast as uneducated, deluded, suffering from false consciousness. And even if they’re not, they must be a small minority, right?

Well, as far as hypotheses are concerned, that one has definitely failed. Maybe it’s time we started considering alternatives.

Education – cure or symptom?

[This post originally appeared on the website of REKOM, the initiative for the establishment of a reconciliation commission for former Yugoslavia].

When speaking of the processes of facing the past and reconciliation within the context of violent conflict, education is often accorded a major role. Educational practices and discourses have the ability to reproduce or widen existing social inequalities, or even to create new divisions. The introduction of textbooks which have painted a “purified” picture of a nation’s participation in and responsibility for the war crimes perpetrated during the wars in the 1990s, or the abolition of educational programmes and classes taught in minority languages, are just some of the examples found in the former Yugoslavia. Such moves are usually linked with a repressive politics that existed before, during and sometimes after the conflict itself.

Because of that, reconciliation programmes are often aimed at achieving formal equality within institutions or an equal representation of differing views in public discourses. Such an approach is based on the idea that a change of the public paradigm is the necessary first step in coming to terms with the past. In this particular case, the process of reconciliation is being led by the political and social elites which influence the shaping of public opinion. Similar to the “trickle-down theory” in economics, the assumption is that a change in the official narrative through the institutions, including those in the educational field, will, in time, bring about a change in public awareness – that is, lead the rest of the population to face its traumatic past.

Although the influence of formal discourses cannot be neglected, it is important that we understand that the causes and consequences of conflict, and thus the prosecution of those responsible, usually depend on a whole array of social and economic factors. It is highly unlikely that critical narratives examining the past will find a fertile ground in the educational institutions of divided and isolated societies. In this respect, the textbooks are just the metaphorical tip of the iceberg. It bears repeating that all educational institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, from elementary schools to universities, are ethnically segregated. The situation is similar in Kosovo, where this institutional segregation is virtually complete – just like in the nineties, there are in practice two parallel systems in existence. The universities in Macedonia also reflect its constitutional make-up, based on the division of political power between its two largest ethnic groups. Even in more ethnically homogenous communities, such as those found in parts of Serbia or Croatia, the presence of religious education in school curricula – a subject which, in its present format, segregates students according to their faith – stands as a lasting symbol of the impact of identity-based politics on the education system.

The institutionalization of divisions rooted in the legacy of the conflict fought in the former Yugoslavia does not end with education, but instead pervades other relationships and activities as well, such as employment, freedom of movement, family structure and the creation of informal social networks. It goes without saying that the political parties in all the successor-states are, by and large, made up of those who have profited in some way from the breakup of Yugoslavia. The transition from socialist self-governance to neoliberal capitalism has served to further degrade the stability and independence of social institutions. Such a context fosters political ideologies such as chauvinism and nationalism, and breeds fear of all that is different. What we must therefore ask ourselves is, not just how to change the content and the paradigm of education in the former Yugoslavia, but also – who profits from it staying the way it is?

These questions require critical analysis, not just of the responsibility for the crimes perpetrated during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, but also of the economic and political legacy of its breakup. This is a huge challenge, which implies dialogue between the different parts of society in each successor-state. Educational institutions, universities and science institutes in particular, can play a potentially major role in establishing such a dialogue. This implies, first and foremost, an agreement on what its rules and goals are – which Habermas considered a crucial element in the development of the public sphere. For as long as there is no such agreement in place, deliberations on contemporary history will remain fragmented along the lines of ideological affiliation or political belief. Education based on such interpretations of the past thus continues to serve as an instrument of the proliferation of the same (or at least similar) divisions which shaped the dynamics of the conflict following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, rather than as a motor of change.

This, of course, does not mean that every change in education requires the whole social structure to be changed beforehand, but it does mean that these two elements go hand in hand. Although this change is very likely to be gradual, it is far more important to ensure that it is permanent. In the end, the educational narratives we are dealing with might brush up against the past, but they concern the future.

Jana Bacevic works on social theory and the relationships between knowledge (and education) and political agency. She is presently writing her PhD in sociology at the University of Cambridge, Great Britain, and has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Belgrade. She has worked as a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Arhus and taught at the Central European University in Budapest and Singidunum University in Belgrade. Her book “From Class to Identity: Politics of Education Reforms in Former Yugoslavia” was published in 2014 by Central European University Press.