Women and space

Mum in space

Recently, I saw two portrayals of women* in space, Proxima – starring Eva Green as the female member of the crew training for the first mission to Mars; and Away, starring Hilary Swank as the commander of the crew on the first mission to Mars (disclaimer: I have only seen the first two episodes of Away, so I’m not sure what happens in the rest of the series). Both would have been on my to-watch list even under normal circumstances; I grew up on science fiction, and, as any woman who, in Rebecca West’s unsurpassed formulation, expresses opinions that distinguish her from a doormat, have spent a fair bit of time thinking about gender, achievement, and leadership. This time, an event coloured my perception of both: my mum’s death in October.

My mother was 80; she died of complications related to metastatic cancer, which had started as breast cancer but had at this point spread to her liver. She had dealt with cancer intermittently since 2009; had had a double mastectomy and repeated chemotherapy/radiation at relatively regular intervals since – in 2011, 2015, 2018 and, finally, 2020 – the last one stopping shortly after it started, as it became evident that it could not reverse the course of Mum’s illness and was, effectively, making it worse.

As anyone living with this kind of illness knows, it’s always a long game of predicting and testing, waiting when the next one will come up; it’s possible that the cancer that eventually killed my mum was missed because of flaky screening in November, or because of delays at the height of the pandemic. What matters is that, by the time they discovered it during a regular screening in June, it was already too late.

What matters is that, because living with this sort of illness entails living in segments of time between two appointments, two screenings, two test results, we had kind of expected this. We had time to prepare. My mother had time to prepare. I had time to prepare. What also matters is that I was able to travel, to leave the country in time to see my mother still alive, despite the fact that at that time the Home Office had been sitting on my Tier 2 visa application since the start of July, and on the request for expedition due to compassionate circumstances for three weeks. This matters, because many other women are not so lucky as to have the determination to call the Home Office visa processing centre three times, the cultural capital to contact their MP when it seemed like time was running out, nor, for that matter, an MP (also a woman) who took on the case. It matters, because I was able to be there for the last two weeks of my mother’s life. I was there when she died.

But this essay isn’t about me, or my mum. It’s about women, and the stars.

Women and the stars

Every story about the stars is, in essence, a story of departure from Earth, and thus a story of separation, and thus a story of leaving, and what’s left behind. This doesn’t mean that these themes need to be parsed via the tired dichotomy of the ‘masculine-proactive-transcendent’ principle pitted against the ‘feminine-grounded-immanent’, but they often are, and both Proxima and Away play out this tension.

For those who had not seen either or both, Proxima and Away are about women who are travelling into space. Proxima’s Sarah (Eva Green) is the French member of the international crew of astronauts spending a year at the International Space Station in preparation for the first mission to Mars.  

The central tension develops along two vectors: the characters’ relation to their male partners (Sarah’s – ex – Thomas, Emma’s Matt); and their relationship to their daughters – Sarah’s Stella, and Emma’s Alexis (‘Lex’). While the relationship to their partners is not irrelevant, it is obvious that the mother-daughter relationship is central to the plot. Neither is it accidental that both (and only) children are girls: in this sense, the characters’ relationship to their daughters is not only the relationship to the next generation of women, it is also the relationship to their ‘little’ selves. In this sense, the daughters’ desire for their mother’s to return – or to stay, to never leave for the stars – is also a reflection of their own desire to give up, to stay in the comfort of the ground, the Earth, the safe (if suffocating) embrace of family relations and gender roles, in which ‘She’ is primarily, after all, a Mother.

It is interesting that both characters, in Proxima and in Away, find similar ‘solutions’ – or workarounds – for this central tension. In Proxima, Sarah leaves her daughter, but betrays her own commitment by violating pre-flight quarantine regulations, sneaking out the night before departure to take her daughter to see the rocket from up close. In Away, Emma decides to return from pre-flight Lunar base after her husband has a heart attack, only to be persuaded to stay, both by the (slowly recovering) husband and, more importantly, by the daughter, who – at the last minute – realizes the importance of the mission and says she wants her mum to stay, rather than return to Earth. The guilt both women feel over ‘abandoning’ their daughters (and thus their own traditional roles) is thus compensated or resolved by inspiring the next generation of women to ‘look at the stars’: to aim higher, and to prioritize transcendence at the cost of immanence, even when the price is pain.     

We might scoff at the simple(ish) juxtaposition of Earth and the stars, but the essence of that tension is still there, no matter how we choose to frame it. It is the basic tension explored in Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy – the tension between being-for-themselves and being-in-relation to. It’s the unforgiving push and pull that leads so many women to take on disproportionate amounts of emotional, care, and organizational labour. It’s a tension you can’t resolve, no matter how queer, trans, or childless. Even outside of ‘traditional’ gender roles, women are still judged first and foremost on their ability to conceive and retain relationships; research on women leaders, for instance, shows they are required to consistently demonstrate a ‘collective’ spirit of the sort not expected of their male counterparts.

A particularly brutal version of this tension presented itself in the months before my mother died. I was stuck in England, not being able to leave before my Tier 2 visa was approved, and her condition was getting worse. Home Office was already behind their 8-week timeframe due to the pandemic; the official guidance – confirmed by the University – was that, if I chose to leave the country before the decision had been made, not only would I automatically forfeit my application, I would also be banned for a year from re-entering the country, and for a further year from re-applying for the same sort of permit. In essence, this meant I was choosing between my job – which I love – and my mother, which I loved too.

Luckily, I never had to make this choice; after a lot of intervention, my visa came through, and I was able to travel. I am not sure what kind of decision I would have made.

Mum and daughter in space

I saw Proxima in August, shortly after moving from Cambridge to Durham to start my job at the University. It was only the second time I was able to cry after having learned of my mum’s most recent, and final, diagnosis. I saw Away after returning from the funeral in early October, having acquired a Netflix account in a vague attempt at ‘self-care’ that didn’t involve reading analytic philosophy.

My mum saw neither, and I am not sure if she would have recognized herself in them. Hers was a generation of transcendence, buttressed by post-war recovery and socialism’s early successes in eradicating gender inequality. She introduced me to science fiction, but it was primarily Arthur Clarke, Isaac Assimov, and Stanislav Lem, my mum having no problems recognizing herself in the characters of Dave Bowman, Hari Seldon, or Rohan from ‘The Invincible’. Of course, as I was growing up, neither did I: it was only after I had already reached a relatively advanced career stage – and, it warrants mentioning, in particular after I began full-time living in the UK – that I started realizing how resolute the steel grip of patriarchy is in trying to make sure we never reach for the stars.

My mother famously said that she never considered herself a feminist, but had led a feminist life. By this, she meant that she had an exceptional career including a range of leadership positions, first in research, then in political advising, and finally in diplomacy; and that she had a child – me – as a single mother, without a partner involved. What she didn’t stop to think about was that, throughout this process, she had the support not only of two loving parents (both of my grandparents had already retired when I was born), but also of socialist housing, childcare, and education policies.I would point this fact out to her on the rare occasions when she would bring up her one remaining regret, which was that I choose not to have children. Though certainly aided by the fact I never felt the desire to, this decision was buttressed by my belief (and observation) that, no matter how dedicated, egalitarian, etc. etc. a partner can be, it is always mothers who end up carrying a greater burden of childcare, organization, and planning. I hope that she, in the end, understood this decision.

In one of the loveliest messages** I got after my mum died, a friend wrote that he believed my mum was now a star watching over me. As much as I would like to think that, if anything, the experience of a death has resolutely convinced me there is no ‘thereafter’, no space, place, or plane where we go after we die.

But I’m still watching the stars.  

This image is, sadly, a pun that’s untraslateable into English; sorry

* For avoidance of doubt, trans women are women

**Throughout the period, I’ve received absolutely stellar messages of love and support. Among these, it warrants saying, quite a few came from men, but those that came from women were exceptional in striking the balance between giving me space to think my own thoughts and sit with my own grief, while also making sure I knew I could rely on their support if I wanted to. This kind of balance, I think, comes partly out of having to always negotiate being-for-oneself and being-for-others, but there is a massive lesson in solidarity right in there.

Critters, Critics, and Californian Theory – review of Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble

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Coproduction

 

[This review was originally published on the blog of the Political Economy Research Centre as part of its Anthropocene Reading Group, as well as on the blog of Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity]

 

Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene(Duke University Press, 2016)

From the opening, Donna Haraway’s recent book reads like a nice hybrid of theoretical conversation and science fiction. Crescendoing in the closing Camille Stories, the outcome of a writing experiment of imagining five future generations, “Staying with the trouble” weaves together – like the cat’s cradle, one of the recurrent metaphors in the book – staple Harawayian themes of the fluidity of boundaries between human and variously defined ‘Others’, metamorphoses of gender, the role of technology in modifying biology, and the related transformation of the biosphere – ‘Gaia’ – in interaction with human species. Eschewing the term ‘Anthropocene’, which she (somewhat predictably) associates with Enlightenment-centric, tool-obsessed rationality, Haraway births ‘Chthulucene’ – which, to be specific, has nothing to do with the famous monster of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination, instead being named after a species of spider, Pimoa Cthulhu, native to Haraway’s corner of Western California.

This attempt to avoid dealing with human(-made) Others – like Lovecraft’s “misogynist racial-nightmare monster” – is the key unresolved issue in the book. While the tone is rightfully respectful – even celebratory – of nonhuman critters, it remains curiously underdefined in relation to human ones. This is evident in the treatment of Eichmann and the problem of evil. Following Arendt, Haraway sees Eichmann’s refusal to think about the consequences of his actions as the epitome of the banality of evil – the same kind of unthinking that leads to the existing ecological crisis. That more thinking seems like a natural antidote and a solution to the long-term destruction of the biosphere seems only logical (if slightly self-serving) from the standpoint of developing a critical theory whose aim is to save the world from its ultimate extinction. The question, however, is what to do if thoughts and stories are not enough?

The problem with a political philosophy founded on belief in the power of discourse is that it remains dogmatically committed to the idea that only if one can change the story, one can change the world. The power of stories as “worlding” practices fundamentally rests on the assumption that joint stories can be developed with Others, or, alternatively, that the Earth is big enough to accommodate those with which no such thing is possible. This leads Haraway to present a vision of a post-apocalyptic future Earth, in which population has been decimated to levels that allow human groups to exist at sufficient distance from each other. What this doesn’t take into account is that differently defined Others may have different stories, some of which may be fundamentally incompatible with ours – as recently reflected in debates over ‘alternative facts’ or ‘post-truth’, but present in different versions of science and culture wars, not to mention actual violent conflicts. In this sense, there is no suggestion of sympoiesis with the Eichmanns of this world; the question of how to go about dealing with human Others – especially if they are, in Kristeva’s terms, profoundly abject – is the kind of trouble “Staying with the trouble” is quite content to stay out of.

Sympoiesis seems reserved for non-humans, which seem to happily go along with the human attempts to ‘become-with’ them. But it seems easier when ‘Others’ do not, technically speaking, have a voice: whether we like it or not, few of the non-human critters have efficient means to communicate their preferences in terms of political organisation, speaking order at seminars, or participation in elections. The critical practice of com-menting, to which Haraway attributes much of the writing in the book, is only possible to the extent to which the Other has equal means and capacities to contribute to the discussion. As in the figure of the Speaker for the Dead, the Other is always spoken-for, the tragedy of its extinction obscuring the potential conflict or irreconcilability between species.

The idea of a com-pliant Other can, of course, be seen as an integral element of the mythopoetic scaffolding of West Coast academia, where the idea of fluidity of lifestyle choices probably has near-orthodox status. It’s difficult not to read parts of the book, such as the following passage, as not-too-fictional accounts of lived experiences of the Californian intellectual elite (including Haraway herself):

“In the infectious new settlements, every new child must have at least three parents, who may or may not practice new or old genders. Corporeal differences, along with their fraught histories, are cherished. Throughout life, the human person may adopt further bodily modifications for pleasure and aesthetics or for work, as long as the modifications tend to both symbionts’ well-being in the humus of sympoiesis” (p. 133-5)

The problem with this type of theorizing is not so much that it universalises a concept of humanity that resembles an extended Comic-Con with militant recycling; reducing ideas to their political-cultural-economic background is not a particularly innovative critical move. It is that it fails to account for the challenges and dangers posed by the friction of multiple human lives in constrained spaces, and the ways in which personal histories and trajectories interact with the configurations of place, class, and ownership, in ways that can lead to tragedies like the Grenfell tower fire in London.

In other words, what “Staying with the trouble” lacks is a more profound sense of political economy, and the ways in which social relations influence how different organisms interact with their environment – including compete for its scarce resources, often to the point of mutual extinction. Even if the absolution of human woes by merging one’s DNA with those of fellow creatures works well as an SF metaphor, as a tool for critical analysis it tends to avoid the (often literally) rough edges of their bodies. It is not uncommon even for human bodies to reject human organs; more importantly, the political history of humankind is, to a great degree, the story of various groups of humans excluding other humans from the category of humans (colonized ‘Others’, slaves), citizens (women, foreigners), or persons with full economic and political rights (immigrants, and again women). This theme is evident in the contemporary treatment of refugees, but it is also preserved in the apparently more stable boundaries between human groups in the Camille Stories. In this context, the transplantation of insect parts to acquire consciousness of what it means to inhabit the body of another species has more of a whiff of transhumanist enhancement than of an attempt to confront head-on (antennae-first?) multifold problems related to human coexistence on a rapidly warming planet.

At the end of the day, solutions to climate change may be less glamorous than the fantasy of escaping global warming by taking a dip in the primordial soup. In other words, they may require some good ol’ politics, which fundamentally means learning to deal with Others even if they are not as friendly as those in Haraway’s story; even if, as the Eichmanns and Trumps of this world seem to suggest, their stories may have nothing to do with ours. In this sense, it is the old question of living with human Others, including abject ones, that we may have to engage with in the AnthropoCapitaloCthulucene: the monsters that we created, and the monsters that are us.

Jana Bacevic is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and has a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Belgrade. Her interests lie at the intersection of social theory, sociology of knowledge, and political sociology; her current work deals with the theory and practice of critique in the transformation of higher education and research in the UK.

 

Boundaries and barbarians: ontological (in)security and the [cyber?] war on universities

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One Saturday in late January, I go to the PhD office at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge’s New Museums site (yes, PhD students shouldn’t work on Saturdays, and yes, we do). I swipe my card at the main gate of the building. Nothing happens.

I try again, and again, and still nothing. The sensor stays red. An interaction with a security guard who seems to appear from nowhere conveys there is nothing wrong with my card; apparently, there has been a power outage and the whole system has been reset. A rather distraught-looking man from the Department History and Philosophy of Science appears around the corner, insisting to be let back inside the building, where he had left a computer on with, he claims, sensitive data. The very amicable security guard apologises. There’s nothing he can do to let us in. His card doesn’t work, either, and the system has to be manually reset from within the computers inside each departmental building.

You mean the building noone can currently access, I ask.

I walk away (after being assured the issue would be resolved on Monday) plotting sci-fi campus novels in which Skynet is not part of a Ministry of Defense, but of a university; rogue algorithms claim GCSE test results; and classes are rescheduled in a way that sends engineering undergrads to colloquia in feminist theory, and vice versa (the distances one’ s mind will go to avoid thinking about impending deadlines)*. Regretfully pushing prospective pitches to fiction publishers aside (temporarily)**, I find the incident particularly interesting for the perspective it offers on how we think about the university as an institution: its spatiality, its materiality, its boundaries, and the way its existence relates to these categories – in other words, its social ontology.

War on universities?

Critiques of the current transformation of higher education and research in the UK often frame it as an attack, or ‘war’, on universities (this is where the first part of the title of my thesis comes from). Exaggeration for rhetorical purposes notwithstanding, being ‘under attack’ suggests is that it is possible to distinguish the University (and the intellectual world more broadly) from its environment, in this case at least in part populated by forces that threaten its very existence. Notably, this distinction remains almost untouched even in policy narratives (including those that seek to promote public engagement and/or impact) that stress the need for universities to engage with the (‘surrounding’) society, which tend to frame this imperative as ‘going beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower’.

The distinction between universities and the society has a long history in the UK: the university’s built environment (buildings, campuses, gates) and rituals (dress, residence requirements/’keeping term’, conventions of language) were developed to reflect the separateness of education from ordinary experience, enshrined in the dichotomies of intellectual vs. manual labour, active life vs. ‘life of the mind’ and, not least, Town vs. Gown. Of course, with the rise of ‘redbrick’, and, later, ‘plateglass’ universities, this distinction became somewhat less pronounced. Rather than in terms of blurring, however, I would like to suggest we need to think of this as a shift in scale: the relationship between ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’, after all, is embedded in the broader framework of distinctions between urban and suburban, urban and rural, regional and national, national and global, and the myriad possible forms of hybridisation between these (recent work by Addie, Keil and Olds, as well as Robertson et al., offers very good insights into issues related to theorising scale in the context of higher education).

Policing the boundaries: relational ontology and ontological (in)security

What I find most interesting, in this setting, is the way in which boundaries between these categories are maintained and negotiated. In sociology, the negotiation of boundaries in the academia has been studied in detail by, among others, Michelle Lamont (in How Professors Think, as well as in an overview by Lamont and Molnár), Thomas Gieryn (both in Cultural Boundaries of Science and few other texts), Andrew Abbott in The Chaos of Disciplines (and, of course, in sociologically-inclined philosophy of science, including Feyerabend’s Against Method, Lakatos’ work on research programmes, and Kuhn’s on scientific revolutions, before that). Social anthropology has an even longer-standing obsession with boundaries, symbolic as well as material – Mary Douglas’ work, in particular, as well as Augé’s Non-Places offer a good entry point, converging with sociology on the ground of neo-Durkheimian reading of the distinction between the sacred and profane.

My interest in the cultural framing of boundaries goes back to my first PhD, which explored the construal of the category of (romantic) relationship through the delineation of its difference from other types of interpersonal relations. The concept resurfaced in research on public engagement in UK higher education: here, the negotiation of boundaries between ‘inside’ (academics) and ‘outside’ (different audiences), as well as between different groups within the university (e.g. administrators vs. academics) becomes evident through practices of engaging in the dissemination and, sometimes, coproduction of knowledge, (some of this is in my contribution to this volume). The thread that runs through these cases is the importance of positioning in relation to a (relatively) specified Other; in other words, a relational ontology.

It is not difficult to see the role of negotiating boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in the concept of ontological security (e.g. Giddens, 1991). Recent work in IR (e.g. Ejdus, 2017) has shifted the focus from Giddens’ emphasis on social relations to the importance of stability of material forms, including buildings. I think we can extend this to universities: in this case, however, it is not (only) the building itself that is ‘at risk’ (this can be observed in intensified securitisation of campuses, both through material structure such as gates and cards-only entrances, and modes of surveillance such as Prevent – see e.g. Gearon, 2017), but also the materiality of the institution itself. While the MOOC hype may have (thankfully) subsided (though not dissappeared) there is the ubiquitous social media, which, as quite a few people have argued, tests the salience of the distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ (I’ve written a bit about digital technologies as mediating the boundary between universities and the ‘outside world’ here as well in an upcoming article in Globalisation, Education, Societies special issue that deals with reassembling knowledge production with/out the university).

Barbarians at the gates

In this context, it should not be surprising that many academics fear digital technologies: anything that tests the material/symbolic boundaries of our own existence is bound to be seen as troubling/dirty/dangerous. This brings to mind Kavafy’s poem (and J.M. Coetzee’s novel) Waiting for the Barbarians, in which an outpost of the Empire prepares for the attack of ‘the barbarians’ – that, in fact, never arrives. The trope of the university as a bulwark against and/or at danger of descending into barbarism has been explored by a number of writers, including Thorstein Veblen and, more recently, Roy Coleman. Regardless of the accuracy or historical stretchability of the trope, what I am most interested in is its use as a simultaneously diagnostic and normative narrative that frames and situates the current transformation of higher education and research.

As the last line of Kavafy’s poem suggests, barbarians represent ‘a kind of solution’: a solution for the otherwise unanswered question of the role and purpose of universities in the 21st century, which began to be asked ever more urgently with the post-war expansion of higher education, only to be shut down by the integration/normalization of the soixante-huitards in what Boltanski and Chiapello have recognised as contemporary capitalism’s almost infinite capacity to appropriate critique. Disentangling this dynamic is key to understanding contemporary clashes and conflicts over the nature of knowledge production. Rather than locating dangers to the university firmly beyond the gates, then, perhaps we could use the current crisis to think about how we perceive, negotiate, and preserve the boundaries between ‘in’ and ‘out’. Until we have a space to do that, I believe we will continue building walls only to realise we have been left on the wrong side.

(*) I have a strong interest in campus novels, both for PhD-related and unrelated reasons, as well as a long-standing interest in Sci-Fi, but with the exception of DeLillo’s White Noise can think of very few works that straddle both genres; would very much appreciate suggestions in this domain!

(**) I have been thinking for a while about a book that would be a spin-off from my current PhD that would combine social theory, literature, and critical cultural political economy, drawing on similarities and differences between critical and magical realism to look at universities. This can be taken as a sketch for one of the chapters, so all thoughts and comments are welcome.

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

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Isle of Wight, August 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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