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.

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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.

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.

 

 

Solving the democratic problem: intellectuals and reconciling epistemic and liberal democracy

bristols_somewhere
…but where? Bristol, October 2014

 

[This review of “Democratic problem-solving” (Cruickshank and Sassower eds., 2017) was first published in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 26 May 2017].

It is a testament to the lasting influence of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty that their work continues to provide inspiration for debates concerning the role and purpose of knowledge, democracy, and intellectuals in society. Alternatively, it is a testament to the recurrence of the problem that continues to lurk under the glossy analytical surface or occasional normative consensus of these debates: the impossibility to reconcile the concepts of liberal and epistemic democracy. Essays collected under the title Democratic Problem-Solving (Cruickshank and Sassower 2017) offer grounds for both assumptions, so this is what my review will focus on.

Boundaries of Rational Discussion

Democratic Problem-Solving is a thorough and comprehensive (if at times seemingly meandering) meditation on the implications of Popper’s and Rorty’s ideas for the social nature of knowledge and truth in contemporary Angloamerican context. This context is characterised by combined forces of neoliberalism and populism, growing social inequalities, and what has for a while now been dubbed, perhaps euphemistically, the crisis of democracy. Cruickshank’s (in other contexts almost certainly heretical) opening that questions the tenability of distinctions between Popper and Rorty, then, serves to remind us that both were devoted to the purpose of defining the criteria for and setting the boundaries of rational discussion, seen as the road to problem-solving. Jürgen Habermas, whose name also resonates throughout this volume, elevated communicative rationality to the foundational principle of Western democracies, as the unifying/normalizing ground from which to ensure the participation of the greatest number of members in the public sphere.

Intellectuals were, in this view, positioned as guardians—epistemic police, of sorts—of this discursive space. Popper’s take on epistemic ‘policing’ (see DPS, 42) was to use the standards of scientific inquiry as exemplars for maintaining a high level, and, more importantly, neutrality of public debates. Rorty saw it as the minimal instrument that ensured civility without questioning, or at least without implicitly dismissing, others’ cultural premises, or even ontological assumptions. The assumption they and authors in this volume have in common is that rational dialogue is, indeed, both possible and necessary: possible because standards of rationality were shared across humanity, and necessary because it was the best way to ensure consensus around the basic functioning principles of democracy. This also ensured the pairing of knowledge and politics: by rendering visible the normative (or political) commitments of knowledge claims, sociology of knowledge (as Reed shows) contributed to affirming the link between the epistemic and the political. As Agassi’s syllogism succinctly demonstrates, this link quickly morphed from signifying correlation (knowledge and power are related) to causation (the more knowledge, the more power), suggesting that epistemic democracy was if not a precursor, then certainly a correlate of liberal democracy.

This is why Democratic Problem-Solving cannot avoid running up against the issue of public intellectuals (qua epistemic police), and, obviously, their relationship to ‘Other minds’ (communities being policed). In the current political context, however, to the well-exercised questions Sassower raises such as—

should public intellectuals retain their Socratic gadfly motto and remain on the sidelines, or must they become more organically engaged (Gramsci 2011) in the political affairs of their local communities? Can some academics translate their intellectual capital into a socio-political one? Must they be outrageous or only witty when they do so? Do they see themselves as leaders or rather as critics of the leaders they find around them (149)?

—we might need to add the following: “And what if none of this matters?”

After all, differences in vocabularies of debate matter only if access to it depends on their convergence to a minimal common denominator. The problem for the guardians of public sphere today is not whom to include in these debates and how, but rather what to do when those ‘others’ refuse, metaphorically speaking, to share the same table. Populist right-wing politicians have at their disposal the wealth of ‘alternative’ outlets (Breitbart, Fox News, and increasingly, it seems, even the BBC), not to mention ‘fake news’ or the ubiquitous social media. The public sphere, in this sense, resembles less a (however cacophonous) town hall meeting than a series of disparate village tribunals. Of course, as Fraser (1990) noted, fragmentation of the public sphere has been inherent since its inception within the Western bourgeois liberal order.

The problem, however, is less what happens when other modes of arguing emerge and demand to be recognized, and more what happens when they aspire for redistribution of political power that threatens to overturn the very principles that gave rise to them in the first place. We are used to these terms denoting progressive politics, but there is little that prevents them from being appropriated for more problematic ideologies: after all, a substantial portion of the current conservative critique of the ‘culture of political correctness’, especially on campuses in the US, rests on the argument that ‘alternative’ political ideologies have been ‘repressed’, sometimes justifying this through appeals to the freedom of speech.

Dialogic Knowledge

In assuming a relatively benevolent reception of scientific knowledge, then, appeals such as Chis and Cruickshank’s to engage with different publics—whether as academics, intellectuals, workers, or activists—remain faithful to Popper’s normative ideal concerning the relationship between reasoning and decision-making: ‘the people’ would see the truth, if only we were allowed to explain it a bit better. Obviously, in arguing for dialogical, co-produced modes of knowledge, we are disavowing the assumption of a privileged position from which to do so; but, all too often, we let in through the back door the implicit assumption of the normative force of our arguments. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that those we wish to persuade may have nothing to say to us, may be immune or impervious to our logic, or, worse, that we might not want to argue with them.

For if social studies of science taught us anything, it is that scientific knowledge is, among other things, a culture. An epistemic democracy of the Rortian type would mean that it’s a culture like any other, and thus not automatically entitled to a privileged status among other epistemic cultures, particularly not if its political correlates are weakened—or missing (cf. Hart 2016). Populist politics certainly has no use for critical slow dialogue, but it is increasingly questionable whether it has use for dialogue at all (at the time of writing of this piece, in the period leading up to the 2017 UK General Election, the Prime Minister is refusing to debate the Leader of the Opposition). Sassower’s suggestion that neoliberalism exhibits a penchant for justification may hold a promise, but, as Cruickshank and Chis (among others) show on the example of UK higher education, ‘evidence’ can be adjusted to suit a number of policies, and political actors are all too happy to do that.

Does this mean that we should, as Steve Fuller suggested in another SERRC article see in ‘post-truth’ the STS symmetry principle? I am skeptical. After all, judgments of validity are the privilege of those who can still exert a degree of control over access to the debate. In this context, I believe that questions of epistemic democracy, such as who has the right to make authoritative knowledge claims, in what context, and how, need to, at least temporarily, come second in relation to questions of liberal democracy. This is not to be teary-eyed about liberal democracy: if anything, my political positions lie closer to Cruickshank and Chis’ anarchism. But it is the only system that can—hopefully—be preserved without a massive cost in human lives, and perhaps repurposed so as to make them more bearable.

In this sense, I wish the essays in the volume confronted head-on questions such as whether we should defend epistemic democracy (and what versions of it) if its principles are mutually exclusive with liberal democracy, or, conversely, would we uphold liberal democracy if it threatened to suppress epistemic democracy. For the question of standards of public discourse is going to keep coming up, but it may decreasingly have the character of an academic debate, and increasingly concern the possibility to have one at all. This may turn out to be, so to speak, a problem that precedes all other problems. Essays in this volume have opened up important venues for thinking about it, and I look forward to seeing them discussed in the future.

References

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower. Democratic Problem Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, December 25, 2016. http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx

Hart, Randle J. “Is a Rortian Sociology Desirable? Will It Help Us Use Words Like ‘Cruelty’?” Humanity and Society, 40, no. 3 (2016): 229-241.

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’”.

What after Brexit? We don’t know, and if we did, we wouldn’t dare say

[This post originally appeared on the Sociological Review blog, Sunday 3rd July, 2016]

In dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

– Bertolt Brecht

Sociologists are notoriously bad at prediction. The collapse of the Soviet Union is a good example – not only did no one (or almost no one) predict it would happen, it also challenged social theory’s dearly-held assumptions about the world order and the ‘nature’ of both socialism and capitalism. When the next big ‘extraneous’ shocks to the Western world – 9/11 and the 2008 economic crisis – hit, we were almost as unprepared: save for a few isolated voices, no one foresaw either the events or the full scale of their consequences.

The victory of the Leave campaign and Britain’s likely exit from the European Union present a similar challenge. Of course, in this case, everyone knew it might happen, but there are surprisingly few ideas of what the consequences will be – not on the short-term political level, where the scenarios seem pretty clear; but in terms of longer-term societal impact – either on the macro- or micro-sociological level.

Of course, anyone but the direst of positivists will be quick to point out sociology does not predict events – it can, at best, aim to explain them retroactively (for example). Public intellectuals have already offered explanations for the referendum result, ranging from the exacerbation of xenophobia due to austerity, to the lack of awareness of what the EU does. However, as Will Davies’ more in-depth analysis suggests, how these come together is far from obvious. While it is important to work on understanding them, the fact that we are at a point of intensified morphogenesis, or multiple critical junctures – means we cannot stand on the side and wait until they unfold.

Methodological debates temporarily aside, I want to argue that one of the things that prevent us from making (informed) predictions is that we’re afraid of what the future might hold. The progressive ethos that permeates the discipline can make it difficult to think of scenarios predicated on a different worldview. A similar bias kept social scientists from realizing that countries seen as examples of real socialism – like the Soviet Union, and particularly former Yugoslavia – could ever fall apart, especially in a violent manner. The starry-eyed assumption that exit from the European Union could be a portent of a new era of progressive politics in the UK is a case in point. As much as I would like to see it happen, we need to seriously consider other possibilities – or, perhaps, that what the future has in stock is beyond our darkest dreams. In the past years, there has been a resurgence of thinking about utopias as critical alternatives to neoliberalism. Together with this, we need to actively start thinking about dystopias – not as a way of succumbing to despair, but as a way of using sociological imagination to understand both societal causes of the trends we’re observing – nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and so on – and our own fear of them.

Clearly, a strong argument against making long-term predictions is the reputational risk – to ourselves and the discipline – this involves. If the failure of Marx’s prediction of the inevitability of capitalism’s collapse is still occasionally brought up as a critique of Marxism, offering longer-term forecasts in the context where social sciences are increasingly held accountable to the public (i.e. policymakers) rightfully seems tricky. But this is where the sociological community has a role to play. Instead of bemoaning the glory of bygone days, we can create spaces from which to consider possible scenarios – even if some of them are bleak. In the final instance, to borrow from Henshel – the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.

Jana Bacevic is a PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She tweets at @jana_bacevic.