Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19

It’s not exactly good news to find out that you have been successful for a funding bid to do research on Covid-19 – it generates a rather ambivalent response, the usual sense of self-satisfaction that such news generates tempered, to say the least, by the situation that is its very condition of possibility. Anyway, I’m already over thinking things – Nick Clarke and I have been awarded funding under the British Academy’s Special Research Grants: Covid-19 scheme, for a project entitled Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19. Nick is the PI on the project, which builds on his previous work using materials from Mass Observation to examine popular understandings of politics in the UK, and which arose out of conversations between us sparked by a blogpost I wrote just at the start of lockdown, which in turn was riffing off a set of conceptual themes from a research project from what nows seems like previous life that we worked on together, which investigated what we called ‘grammars of responsibility‘ in everyday life. At Exeter, the project is part of a wider set of humanities and social science projects on Covid-19 related topics, curated by the Wellcome Centre for Environments and Cultures of Health and The Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis).

Anyway, in place of a fuller explanation of what we are meant to do on the project, which I guess we’ll get to writing about sometime between exam boards and online pivots to blended enhancement, here is the short summary of the project:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, people living in the UK have been asked to act responsibly in novel ways because of the risks their behaviour poses to themselves and others, and their role in complex chains of causation. We aim to investigate how citizens have engaged with these demands, with the objective of contributing to conceptual and empirical understandings of popular responses to emergency situations including future pandemics. Specifically, making use of contemporaneous qualitative data available through the Mass Observation Project, we seek to develop a better understanding of how people interpreted sometimes conflicting demands to act responsibly in relation to COVID-19 and translated them into practices of everyday life.”

On the Abolition of the Geography Department

I’ve been working on the ‘online pivot‘ a lot just recently, thinking about the challenges of adjusting teaching and learning provision for the forthcoming academic year, starting in September, in the context of an ongoing situation in which ‘face-to-face’ forms of education will continue to be constrained and subject to ongoing disruptions. Thinking about teaching and learning at a distance, which is what all this is about, is a particular challenge for academic fields like geography, which are so heavily invested in forms of embodied, experiential learning not only in the form of ‘wet’ or ‘muddy’ labs, but especially perhaps that diffuse range of activities bundled under the name ‘the field’. At the same time as all of this, I also find myself sitting in university level meetings in which issues of equality, diversity, racism, harassment, and hate crime in UK higher education are increasingly described by reference to the idea of ‘decolonialising’ universities and curricula. This vocabulary has quickly found its way into the vernacular of senior management and into institutional initiatives around these issues. It’s an interesting example of how theoretical ideas make their way into worldly contexts. Somewhere in the back of my head, there’s a connection between these two strands of current debate in and around higher education.

In Geography, there has been a series of recent interventions around the theme of decolonising the discipline (see for example, pieces by Pat Noxolo, Sarah Radcliffe, and Tariq Jazeel). In these debates, connections are often posited between the current profiles of academic staff and student bodies in university-level geography departments (very white); the substance of curricula and research agendas; and the ‘origins’ of academic geography in practices of exploration and scientific analysis closely associated with colonialism and imperialism (Don’t tell anyone, but before he was a proponent of eugenics, Francis Galton was publishing accounts of his travels in Africa in The Geographical Journal).

It’s not at all clear that Geography, as it is currently institutionalised in British higher education, does actually have its origins in nineteenth-century colonial exploration and imperial science, nor by what mechanism any such putative origin is still meant to be active today. It might be better to think of Geography as it exists now being formed through a series of quite deliberate breaks with traditions of gentlemanly science. That’s what the formation of the Institute of British Geographers was about. It’s what in no small part the ‘quantitative revolution’ was about too. That’s an old argument, it’s not mine. It’s also notable that the historiography of geography in North America has paid much more attention to the post-war contexts of contemporary Geography than is the case in the UK (after all, who cares about the rise and fall of town and country planning?).

I argued long ago that there is a dynamic whereby Geography’s grubby histories are occasionally rediscovered and re-animated in order to provide scope to engage, in different ways, with theoretical ideas drawn from other disciplines (most usually from the humanities). Invoking the history of a discipline is, of course, one of the obvious ways in which the coherence of such a thing as Geography – as a singular field that can be surveyed and evaluated – is discursively constructed. Debates about decoloniality are in part examples of that pattern, in which a coherent discipline called Geography comes into view as a necessary projection that is required for the articulation of a critical perspective of some sort. Geography has a kind of fantasy coherence, conjured into existence on those plenary occasions, in print and in person, when it is necessary to ponder ‘what is to be done (with Geography)’.

The idea of decoloniality is, of course, a highly theoretical one, part of series of distinctive intellectual traditions. There is a geography to ‘decolonial’ ideas, too. As suggested, there is also a heavy inflection towards intellectual imaginaries drawn from the humanities in discussions of decoloniality. These discussions in part overlap with, in part challenge, in part support a broader family of intellectual debates, including postcolonial theory, arguments about southern theory, theory from the south, southern epistemologies, and forms of post-development thinking.

The different strands of thought that make up the emergent canon of decolonial theory certainly deserve more attention, and, one hopes, also deserve the same sort of critical scrutiny one would expect any other academic paradigm to be subjected to. For example, one might explore the degree to which decolonial theory relies upon and reproduces strongly culturalist accounts of the exercise of ‘power’. One might explore the difficult question of how ideas that emerge in relation to particular historical-geographical variations of ‘colonialism’ (associated with particular experiences of slavery, violence, revolution, and independence, for example) translate to places with different colonial histories (places, for example, where concepts of indigeneity might resonate very differently, if at all, or where very precise meanings of ‘settler colonialism’ might not be easily applicable without a certain loss of geographical and historical sensitivity). This is a well rehearsed theme in this field, for example in considerations of the extent to which Edward Said’s influential account of orientalist discourse could be applied to histories of European encounters with ‘Africa‘. It’s an issue that has a certain self-reflexive quality to it, in so far as the question of how well ideas of decoloniality translate across contexts entrain deeper issues about the ‘colonial’ legacies of practices of comparativism and concepts of diffusion. One might also consider the degree to which the recent interest in decolonial ideas reiterates a style of inter-generational trumping that is central to conventions of critique in the humanities.

What perhaps distinguishes discussions of decoloniality from previous discussions of, for example, postcolonialism, is the more assertive claims concerning institutional transformation. In this respect, it’s worth considering the lesson of perhaps the most famous example of a systematic effort at decolonizing a university curriculum – the move led by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o with Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong to abolish the English Department at the University of Nairobi in the late 1960s. This was part of an explicit programme, the significance of which still resonates, to displace a Eurocentric canon and associated pedagogy, and to institutionalise African-centred literature and language programmes (as well as finding different exemplars for postcolonial African modernity, involving for example, reading lots of Japanese literature).

I wonder if this couldn’t be the model for Geography to follow. I say this because I suspect a large part of the problem with Geography, from a decolonising perspective, might be integral to the sense of vocation that might well be what most defines Geography as an academic discipline. To a considerable extent, Geography now exists institutionally in UK higher education as a clearing house for a disparate set of fields of research, some traditional ‘Geography’ fields (such as research into urban and regional issues), some re-framed fields (such as work on disease, or the re-badging of ‘physical geography’ in terms of Earth Systems Science or even Global Systems Science), and some novel fields (research on animal geographies or elemental geographies, for example). There’s nothing that really holds these fields together intellectually. While there might actually be some interesting ways in which concepts of relational space cross many of these fields of Geography, the distinctive thing about twenty-first century ‘Geography’ is that there is no systematic effort to project the unity of the discipline around any such shared epistemological object of analysis. Geography departments exist (sometimes really big ones) because of the saliency of the research undertaken therein to increasingly ‘challenge-led’ research agendas, and because they look like good models for that much vaunted value, ‘interdisciplinarity’. It’s easy enough to imagine quite a lot of what is currently collected under the label of Geography in British universities being distributed differently. In any given university, after all, one will likely find all the urbanists in Planning, or all the economic geographers in Business Schools, or soil scientists in free-standing research centres). None of this is a great problem, necessarily. It is not to say that geography has neither existence or future. Far from it. It does, however, raise the question of the type of existence and future Geography might have.

Geography does have a coherence at school level, as a popular subject for both GCSE and A Level study, but this coherence is not so much intellectual as it is related to a certain image of utilitarian value associated with Geography, not least as a subject that bridges the divide between school and university. Geography at schools has, no doubt, some intellectual substance to it – lots of sustainability, for example, and an implicit if not explicit sense of good (global) citizen-liness. It’s all too common for academic geographers to fall into clichés about the stereotypical Geography undergraduate student. But it is true that there is a specific sense of what Geography is good for, as a school subject and undergraduate degree, which sustains the relative strength of student recruitment to undergraduate Geography degrees in the UK. It’s that relative strength that in turn underwrites a great deal of the intellectual creativity of research undertaken in Geography departments in the UK (i.e. it’s because of a steady and predictable stream of undergraduates coming to university to do Geography degrees that the content of Geography degrees turns out to be such a surprise to those same students – all that Marxism, all that chemistry, all that politics, all those statistics).

The utilitarianism associated with Geography – the sheer weight of the idea that it’s a useful subject, beneficial to those who study it and, through them, to everyone else too – is deeply ingrained in the culture of the field at school and at university (and utilitarianism has impeccable colonialist credentials of course). And I am even inclined to hypothesise that it’s here that one would find the only significant line of continuity between geography’s ‘origins’ in Western colonial and imperial projects and Geography as a university discipline today. The continuity lies in a resilient image of what a geographical education is good for. It’s an image that is not necessarily formalised in print, but it is widely taken for granted, and very often explicitly celebrated. It is an image embedded in the centrality of the idea of ‘the field’ and of ‘fieldwork’ to geographical education at all levels; in a pervasive empiricism in even the most ‘theoretical’ looking areas of human geography research; in the willing embrace of the most instrumental aspects of the ‘impact agenda’; and in the overwhelming, inescapable concern with demonstrating the ‘relevance’ of geography – to policy, to public life, to advocacy, to activism. It’s in this related set of ideas of a Geographers’ vocation that links Geography at schools to Geography at university; it’s not necessarily reflected at all in the content of degree curricula (but it often is). It is reproduced through a set of embodied practices through which a certain sort of intellectual personae is cultivated.

In short, if there is a legacy that links Geography now, in British universities, to Geography as it emerged as an academic and school subject some 150 years ago, then it lies in the practices that reproduce the idea that knowing about other people and other places is a way of sloughing off one’s own prejudices, as well as those of one’s students, all for the benefit of those other people and those other places. In short, it is the idea of a geographical education as an edifying project, aimed at transforming the very sense of self of its subjects, that remains a constant, and which remains central to even the most radical looking strands of contemporary geography, from self-consciously activist geographies to advocacy around climate change. It’s that sense of edification that perhaps also accounts for the attraction to humanities-sourced styles of critical distinction (which are misleading in so far as they suggest that debates about pedagogy centred on a canon of texts are relevant to the varied pedagogies found in Geography departments. They’re not really). It’s an idea expressed most clearly in the recurring fascination with writing about ‘responsibility’, not as an object of analysis, but as the second-order genre through which a particular intellectual self-concept that underwrites the practices of a properly geographical personae is problematized as a work of self-cultivation. The ‘Geography and Responsibility’ genre is the primary way in which a plenary sense of Geography is now conjured into existence.

In so far as discussions about decolonizing Geography focus not just on the content of Geography teaching and research, but on the social profile of Geography student bodies and staffing, and in so far as those patterns might be strongly related to the utilitarian identity of Geography at schools and universities, and more broadly to the overwhelming emphasis on ‘relevance’ and ‘responsibility’ that shapes undergraduate recruitment as well as progression in the discipline after undergraduate level, then perhaps the most significant contribution that could be made to the project envisaged by proponents of decolonising the discipline would be, in the spirit of Ngũgĩ, to imagine the abolition of university Geography departments. In order, you understand, to see if it’s possible to re-imagine creative ways of redistributing all those things that currently fall under that label around different formations of intellectual personae. This is not, as far as I am aware, and despite the impeccably decolonial credentials of this proposal, something that has so far been entertained in debates about these issues.

And if that sounds facetious, well, I guess the only morally serious alternative would be to try to picture what a geographical education that abandoned the image of an edifying, responsible vocation could possibly look like.




Ron Johnston

I was sad to hear of the death of Ron Johnston, whose work has been so important in shaping the sense of professional identity of so many ‘Anglo-American geographers’ for many years. One of my prouder claims to fame is to have once taught a Political Geography course with Ron – when I worked at Bristol, responsibility for a Year 2 course on that sub-discipline fell to me (my take on cultural things wasn’t quite of the right sort). I was keen to cover electoral geography as part of the course, because it’s an important field of course, but also because Ron’s work with Charles Pattie and others is amongst the very best examples of why ‘geography matters’, in both senses of the phrase. I could have prepared and presented lectures on that topic myself, but it seemed a missed opportunity to not have the man himself do them. Ron wasn’t much involved in undergraduate teaching at that stage, but I asked him if he would ‘guest’ for a couple of weeks, and he said ‘Yes’ without hesitation. I’ve always thought of it as a little like the Marshall McLuhan moment in Annie Hall – “And here is the actual Ron Johnston”. As I recall, Ron’s lectures – clear and lucid and passionate about understanding political processes – focussed on the ways in which Labour in the 1990s had mastered the art of winning elections (and engaging effectively with the politics of boundary drawing). And, obviously, he talked to the students about Swindon (back then, with two Labour MPs – there won’t be another Labour government until they can win at least one of those seats back).

Ron occasionally sent me emails about a post on this blog, when it touched upon the recent history of geography for example, or on Swindon. I dare say that Ron was a little bit more ambivalent about the place than he let on – the last time I talked properly to him, about 4 years ago, we talked about places he remembered from growing up which were, then, for me places I lived around the corner from. I seem to remember him admitting that he actually grew up in Chiseldon, which is a small village on the outskirts of Swindon on the way to Marlborough, having been born and initially living slap bang in the middle of ‘new town’ Swindon, by the Town Hall. Most recently, he got in touch after I wrote about Swindon’s place in the history of post-war social science research, with an additional reference I had not mentioned, a fact about the political power wielded about David Murray-John (I’m not sure if this was the focus of his undergraduate dissertation), and ending with a recollection of hearing Howard Newby “on Radio 4 in the 1990s misquoting Johnson – ‘If you are tired of London you are tired of life, if you are tired of Swindon you have been there ten minutes’.”

Late last year, I found myself in a meeting of WEA tutors from across the South West, talking to a man from Tiverton, who amongst other things was actively involved in local associations of Ringers – so I asked, and Yes, he was referring to bellringers, and Yes, of course he knew who Ron Johnston was. Ron will be widely missed across many worlds I suspect.

The Challenges of Learning at a Distance

There is lots of discussion in higher education right now about the challenges, and risks, of transferring teaching programmes ‘online’ – as an emergency response to Covid-19 since March, and now increasingly in anticipation of the pandemic’s effects stretching well into Autumn and the start of the new academic year in the UK. Some universities in North America have already announced that there will be no return to campus for students in September. British universities have not yet done that, and have been somewhat hoist by their own petard, the government using their own claims about their ability to deliver education of excellent quality online to wash their hands of responsibility for ‘bailing out’ a higher education sector faced with catastrophic financial consequences. There are very good reasons to doubt that most British universities can possibly conjure up online provision in a couple of months – everyone knows this, it’s hardly a secret, but the senior management cohorts of those institutions cannot possibly admit this publicly. It must be a difficult situation to find oneself in.

The ‘online pivot’, as Martin Weller has dubbed it, presents all sorts of challenges to universities – technical ones, certainly, practical ones of training and competence, but also cultural ones, challenges to a whole series of engrained prejudices that universities, and academics, often hold about wherein the value of a university education resides. There is, to my mind at least, a surprisingly common genre of commentary in which academics, faced with the prospect of having to seriously consider how to design teaching and learning resources for online delivery because of likely campus closures or on-going social distancing measures, bemoan ‘distance learning’ as a lesser form, second-best, if not an explicit plot to undermine all that is most valuable about a proper university education. In the United States, although not just there, there is certainly a wider context in which online education is associated with predatory OPM providers facilitate the effective privatisation of significant aspects of higher education (see Matt Sparke talking about these issues very clearly here). What I find weird about this sort of commentary is the resilience of an utterly romanticised image of the face-to-face scene of instruction – the academic alongside the student, in ‘the classroom’, imparting learning but of course, also, learning just as much from the student(s) (‘the classroom’ is a staple figure of theoretically-inclined humanities-based critical analysis in particular, a strangely infantilised image through which academics express their commitment to the value of teaching). The same romanticism is evident, in the background, even in otherwise principled objections to bone-headed initiatives of certain British universities to rush to embrace poorly thought-out initiatives for ‘online’ provision.

I’m thinking about these things because I find myself drawn into the efforts of colleagues at my own institution to address the uncertainties that the start of the new academic year present us all. I’m now trying to remember things I learnt while working at the Open University, having spent the seven years since coming back to work in a ‘real’ university re-learning lots of bad teaching habits – because that’s what teaching in ‘research intensive’ Russell Group institutions does to you. As I get to grips with my own small part in the ‘pivot’ required of me and my colleagues in the next few months, I have come to notice the different sorts of work that a certain sort of chauvinism about university teaching, expressed in the disdain or disparagement or suspicion of distance education, does in shaping how the challenges (and indeed, the ‘opportunities’) of online or ‘digitally enhanced’ education are framed at institutional level. My sister, living through a different kind of pandemic experience in red state Georgia, sent me a news story about students suing Emory for the poor quality of the online provision they have received one their campus was closed. There is, of course, a real issue at stake here (the issue at stake in the context of an immediate emergency is, however, somewhat different from the issue facing institutions going forward, which largely turns on the degree to which universities are able to be open and honest with students about what is possible and what can be realistically expected by them). The story contains a passing, knowing reference to the University of Phoenix, inadvertently revealing the class-based chauvinism that easily attaches itself to discussions of distance education, one seen in other contexts in representations, say, of UNISA in South Africa or the OU in the UK.

Now, of course one response to all this is just to say that lots of people who work in higher education turn out not to know very much about how those sorts of institutions actually work, and not very much about just how good, how much better, the teaching and learning provided by them often actually is. But that’s a kind of ignorance that might be forgivable. What’s most interesting, of course, is that it covers over another kind of ignorance, a structured lack of self-reflection, on how teaching and learning actually works in real universities (Spoiler: It’s not as good as everyone claims; but not for the reasons other people think).

There are lots of risks facing universities in the UK as they address the challenges of the ‘online pivot’, although quite a lot of those could be mitigated by being open and honest; by not over-selling; by not presuming that this is all an opportunity. Colleagues in my own department have come up with a simple principle that is now directing our approach to designing our programmes for the Autumn – we are seeking to develop programmes for teaching students that help them to learn with us in extraordinary times (I’m not entirely convinced that the University is going to adopt that principle, but then again, we’re the ones who have to actually engage with the students, as real people). This issue of honesty – about what can be offered in these changed circumstances, but also about how things normally work – is important because it goes to the heart of how universities calculate their strategies in relation to the ‘risks’ associated with the ‘online pivot’. In the UK, at least, the ‘risk’ of students taking legal action on the grounds that online provision doesn’t match up with the contract into which they have entered with a university generates risks of its own: the risk of severely constraining the imagination that universities find themselves able to bring to the task of thinking about what they can and should offer to students in the forthcoming academic year, and of how to go about doing so. If you spend years over-selling the value of ‘Face-to-Face with Boffins’, as one of my ex-colleagues neatly summarises the recruitment pitch of research-intensive universities in the UK, then it becomes really difficult to convince people (students AND academics) that there are other ways of teaching and learning that do not depend on the presence of the (rising-)star academic; other ways that are, well, just better than much of the experience provided by real universities – other ways of teaching and learning that still involve all sorts of interactions with real people, although those people will be inhabiting different personae from the ones most commonly associated with research-led university teaching. I worked for a decade at the OU without meeting many students, but I know for a fact that in all that time (and since), OU students enrolled on courses I was involved with received a consistently higher quality of personalised education than students at Russell Group universities, with their vastly increased class sizes, inflated ‘contact hours’, and highly variable experience of staff engagement, can reliably expect to receive at the best of times.

And yet, we seem stuck with all those chauvinisms about distance education, still, that slip out when disappointed students express their dissatisfactions with emergency measures, and when some academics fall back on self-flattering visions of ‘the classroom’. But the same chauvinisms might perhaps also account for a certain sort of eager embrace of the technological wonders of ‘digital enhancement’ – it’s at work also in the vision of the online pivot as an opportunity to transpose current conceits about a research-led education, centred on the image of the presence and aura and charisma of the research-frontier-breaking academic, into new mediums (why does everyone think ‘online’ means ‘video’ + live chatting’?). The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The real scandal about ‘distance education’, what lies at the heart of the chauvinisms I’ve mentioned above, and also the reason why it’s important to use that term, and not ‘online’ or ‘remote’ or ‘e-learning’, is that as an established pedagogical tradition it stands for properly designed educational programmes. It depends on a kind of professional modesty, a horizontal distribution of expertise, one that is very difficult to replicate overnight at research-intensive institutions, certainly in the professional cultures that have been actively cultivated in the last two decades or so in the UK. It involves forms of collaboration that impinge upon indefensible models of intellectual autonomy and creativity that are central to the teaching cultures into which many academics are enrolled very early on, not least in traditions of self-avowedly ‘critical pedagogy’. (The primary medium of this sort of teaching is writing, not the voice of the academic: ‘online’ education, distance education, is like movies – it’s all in the writing). All of which means that the challenges of the ‘online pivot’ aren’t really to do with learning about new digital widgets (‘Fucking. Online. Quizzes’, as another ex-colleague always used to exclaim in exasperation). It’s about learning ways of correcting ones colleagues, but especially learning how to be corrected, and of letting go of the idea that one’s teaching belongs to you, that it’s yours. The real challenge is therefore one of developing, quickly, new systems of management, new cultures of management, at programme level (the level at which students ‘experience’ their university education, remember). I’ve not yet seen anything that acknowledges the difficulty of that challenge.

All of which makes me realise that what is most difficult about the task of thinking about developing new forms of teaching practice over the next few months – forms of emergency distance education (that won’t catch on as a tagline, will it) – is the fact that it’s not possible to regularly meet up, in person, face-to-face, in the same room, with one’s colleagues.

Partial Reading

As I mentioned the other day, there seems to have been a feeling about that being in lockdown is an occasion to catch up on lots of reading. It’s an interesting genre, the ‘what to read while socially distancing’, because it implicitly acknowledges a kind of constitutive anxiety about not having read enough (of the right things) that certain sorts of people, people like me, suffer from. It’s a weird anxiety to have, not least because to a large extent, reading it what I do for a living – even the kind of writing I do is often a form of commentary on other texts, on things I’ve read (about).

Reading is a many-sided thing in my corner of the academic world. I read lots of emails, on very different topics and of different genres; I read minutes of meetings and agendas and drafts of policy documents and exam papers; I read student essays, and more specifically, I mark them, which is a very specific kind of reading; I read letters of recommendation; and I also re-read things I have written, things like student handbooks, exam questions, carefully crafted e-mails to colleagues.

Then there is the strange world of reading academic literature, the very crux of what people like me do. Reading academic papers and books is a rather odd form of reading, sometimes more intense than the kind of reading you do on holiday on the beach, but very often a lot more superficial. Reading of this sort can be very physical (you do it with a pen or pencil in hand, sitting up straight). It involves annotating, underlining; I write all over the things I read (much to my mothers’ enduring distaste), cross-referencing, inferring, remembering. I often read academic literature out loud, quietly, and much to the amusement of my children, because only by sounding things out do certain sorts of arguments make sense. These aren’t necessarily very effective ways of learning, it should be said. Much of this sort of reading is done for a purpose – to cite, to elaborate, to gloss what has been said. Academic reading can take the form of systematically superficial speed-reading (a large part of teaching undergraduate students in a ‘research intensive’ university involves teaching a set of implicit, poorly formulated, often unacknowledged skills of skimming texts). This sort of reading tells us something about the ways in which lots of academic writing takes the form of reporting things – how experiments were designed, evidence generated, results analysed, conclusions justified.

And sometimes, in academic worlds, reading is something myself and others do to each other.

There are, in turn, a whole set of ways of reading which are themselves forms of getting to know things. This may include various ‘methodologies’: discourse analysis, textual analysis; or more precise variants of these catch-all terms: deconstruction, or reader-response criticism, or generalised semiotics (much disdained these days, but oddly pervasive in those fields which most loudly disclaim ‘textualism’ or ‘the discursive’ yet continue to suppose that ‘non-human’ agency is best affirmed by imagining that the whole world is structured like a grammatically correct sentence).

And then there is the strange world of TheoryLand, a field of work which relies on a whole set of practices of reading (and writing about one’s reading), which are in large part at odds with the assumptions about reporting that define ‘normal’ academic reading. TheoryLand is a world defined perhaps above all by a certain sort of pomposity about proper reading, of close, immersive reading – it’s a pomposity that has its clearest expression in discussions of the ‘ethics of reading’ by writers such as Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. In TheoryLand, you are meant to have read loads of things, but also to have read them really, really carefully, so that all texts worthy of this sort of reading (and who decides that?) are read as carefully, sequentially, as their authors assume they are going to be read when they are writing them. It’s a world shaped by assumptions about about being taken over by the text that underwrite formal and informal ideas about the virtues of ‘difficulty’ as a marker of value. The pleasures of the text, in this sort of reading, are oddly disembodied, apart perhaps when people are doing criticism, which often takes the form of saying that someone else hasn’t read things as well, as carefully, as faithfully, as the critic.


Reading Assignments

In my world, a large part of the process of induction into professional academic life works through books, in particular, in the form of telling students that ‘you should read this‘. Knowing what to tell a student to read is pretty much the only talent I have, although just to be clear, knowing what they should read is not quite the same thing as having read what you are recommending (and that’s neither as shameless or shameful as it might sound): one of the requirements of academic seniority is learning that it’s OK to get other people to read the things you haven’t had time to read yourself.

This idea that there are some things one just must read brings to mind, perhaps, the idea that there is a canon to master. That might be the case in some fields, in the humanities. It’s not an idea that makes much sense in GeographyLand, although there are people who think it should. I once tried to invent a very sad after-dinner party-game for Geographers, in which each person tried to admit to the books that they hadn’t read that it seemed to them that everyone else thinks that one really should have done. But it turns out, in GeograpyLand, that few if any of the things that you haven’t read actually rise to the level of generating professional shame. Anyone you are likely to play this game with, by virtue of being a professional academic in GeographyLand, is living proof that the canon arrived at in this way isn’t really canonical anyway – on the basis of my sample, it turns out that it’s possible to get along fine without ever having read Explanation in Geography, or Traces on the Rhodian Shore, or Topophilia, or Uneven Development, or Pivot of the Four Quarters, or Birds in Egg/Eggs in Bird (or is it the other way around? Oh, it doesn’t matter).

I mentioned this ‘game’ to a graduate student (without a first degree in Geography), who said it reminded them of the Humiliation game in David Lodge’s Changing Places (not read it myself), where admitting to not having read Hamlet leads to professional disgrace for one character. Of course, this model of canonical knowledge, and the image of reading associated with it, does not travel well to fields where command of a textual field is not so central. In fact, I am inclined to think that the break out of Theory in GeographyLand over the last four decades or so (and it is worth remembering that the single most important work of geographical theory produced in that period is a singularly scholarly exercise in critical exegesis) has led to an interesting internal cleavage that mirrors, at one remove, the succinct definition of the division between ‘Continental Philosophy’ and analytical philosophy provided by Stanley Cavell (don’t ask me where). He suggests that ‘Continental Philosophy’ is a genre recognisable because writers in that tradition perform as if they have read everything there is worth reading (which it turns out might not be very much, if you’re Heidegger), whereas analytical philosophers profess to focus on problems as if they haven’t read anything at all (apart perhaps from Wittgenstein, who is often read as if he’d never read anything himself). There is a dizzying dynamic of knowing and knowing that both of these styles of thought sets in train – and there is a whole architecture of academic personae built around this broad distinction, revolving around a culture of pretending to read only for the things reported and a culture of pretending to read only for what things really mean.


The Pleasures of the Text?

Because reading is important to what I do professionally, and because what I do professionally is wrapped up in all sorts of anxieties associated with either not having read enough or not having read properly, I have a fraught relationship with reading for pleasure or relaxation. I’m not very good at reading novels – I tend to have to trap myself into doing this, by taking novels into the bath for example. Reading has all sorts of occasions and spaces in fact – I read a lot of Marx as a graduate student, for example, and an awful lot of that was on trains and buses. I always over pack books for plane journeys, and I have managed to read not only cricketers’ biographies but also very manly books about flying planes in a single flight. The reason for a beach holiday is primarily to force oneself to read things one might otherwise not get around to. I’m learning to like reading in the garden, listening to sparrows. Quite a lot of this reading (not the Marx) depends on finding ways of retreating or holding off other tasks or other distractions, in a kind of forced withdrawal, or it takes place in the interstices of other activities (on journeys, on holiday, waiting to do other things).

Reading as a way of passing the time, or killing time while waiting, or as escape, is rather a different practice from the sort of professional reading that academics and scholars and intellectuals do – it doesn’t figure much in arguments about the edifying worthiness associated with ideas of literary reading that are so common in the humanities. Because of this difficult relationship between reading and precious time, I fret quite a lot about starting novels, in case I start something which I can’t then maintain an interest in.

And one way of thinking about the different sorts of reading one can engage in is by thinking about the status of unfinished books. Academic books, of course, aren’t really meant to be read all the way through, from front to back. There’s no shame in reading bits of an academic book, selected chapters. I’m not worried about never having read all sorts of things, but I do worry about not having finished things I have started. I have never finished The Thin Man, because I quickly got the point about its importance lying in the quality of the dialogue early on and lost interest in the mystery. I never managed to complete Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder, because it’s one of those books which is rather transparently a bit of allegorised Theory, the kind of novel that reflects back to academic critics the kinds of ideas they always already project onto the literary in the first place. I should have finished Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth, about a town in self-imposed lockdown during the Spanish flu epidemic in the USA a hundred years ago, and keep thinking I should go back and do so now, but now it’s not so enticing a prospect; likewise, with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. When I was 16, I took Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on holiday with me because it was a set text for A Level English. I can remember reading Chapter 3 on the plane home (planes, again), and thinking it was a rather obvious metaphor for life’s struggles (it’s about a turtle trying to cross the road), and realising that I would have to write an essay about this chapter, which then seemed like a total waste of time when that is exactly the task that was assigned. I gave up English at that point, as well as never finishing the book, although I don’t think that I have ever managed to escape a love/hate attachment to the interpret-ability of things that revealed itself then.

I’ve now found the perfect way of dealing with this anxiety about not knowing what to start in case I don’t finish it. I’m walking around a lockdowned house, carrying a copy of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities with me from room to room, and occasionally finding the time to read one of its short, essay-like chapters. It’s actually quite good fun. It’s modern, for sure, but not difficult in a writerly way – that’s not a kind of pleasure I find myself disciplined enough, or smart enough, to enjoy. I realise that this sounds like an absurdly pretentious sounding thing to drop into a blog post. But the point is that Musil didn’t finish this book. So I figure that it’s OK if I don’t either.





There’s no such thing as bad publicity

A funny thing happened to me while in lockdown…

A selection of my writing has been included in Pseuds Corner, the weekly feature in Private Eye where self-satisfied people display that special sort of confidence involved in imputing dishonourable intentions to examples of what they consider to be pomposity or pretentiousness. The offending passage of mine is from a post last month, an age ago:

“I’m struck, for example, by how far the challenge of acting responsibly in this current public health crisis requires a kind of Spinozan ability to picture all the determinisms into which one’s own self is enchained, and then to find therein, from the acknowledgement of the very abjection of one’s own dependence, some power to act wilfully for the good of others. Or, perhaps it’s a version of embodied Kantian deontology. Or an other-regarding utilitarian consequentialism.”

I’m now struck by the humourlessness that would lead one to suppose that this passage was written in a spirit of ‘seriousness’ that would allow it to be catalogued as affected. And after many years of writing lots of bad, clunky academic prose, without ever meaning to, it’s a little weird to find oneself ‘honoured’ for something written in a personal blog post. It’s almost bathetic. But I’ll be sure to watch my Ps and Qs from now on.




The Power of Pragmatism

If you are looking for something new and interesting to read in and amongst all the excitement, then look out for (or, pre-order) a new collection edited by Jane Wills and Bob Lake entitled The Power of Pragmatism. Further details are here. This is what it’s about:

“This book makes the case for a pragmatist approach to the practice of social inquiry and knowledge production. Through diverse examples from multiple disciplines, contributors explore the power of pragmatism to inform a practice of inquiry that is democratic, community-centred, problem-oriented and experimental. Drawing from both classical and neo-pragmatist perspectives, the book advances a pragmatist sensibility in which truth and knowledge are contingent rather than universal, made rather than found, provisional rather than dogmatic, subject to continuous experimentation rather than ultimate proof, and verified in their application in action rather than in the accuracy of their representation of an antecedent reality. The Power of Pragmatism offers a path forward for mobilizing the practice of inquiry and knowledge production on behalf of achieving what Dewey called a sense for the better kind of life to be led.”

And this is who is in it:

Part I: The power of pragmatism
1 Introduction: The power of pragmatism – Jane Wills and Robert W. Lake

Part II: Key thinkers, core ideas and their application to social research
2 Habits of social inquiry and reconstruction: A Deweyan vision of democracy and social research – Malcolm Cutchin
3 Appreciating the situation: Dewey’s pragmatism and its implications for the spatialisation of social science – Gary Bridge
4 Mead, subjectivity and urban politics – Crispian Fuller
5 Rorty, conversation and the power of maps – Trevor Barnes

Part III: ‘Truth’, epistemic injustice and academic practice
6 Embodied inequalities: Can we go beyond epistemologies of ignorance in pragmatic knowledge projects? – Susan Saegert
7 Truth and academia in times of fake news, alternative facts, and filter bubbles: A pragmatist notion of critique as mediation – Klaus Geiselhart
8 Learning from experience: Pragmatism and politics in place – Alice Huff
9 Reflections on an experiment in pragmatic social research and knowledge production – Liam Harney and Jane Wills

Part IV: Disciplinary applications in pragmatic research
10 Ecological crisis, action and pragmatic humanism – Meg Holden
11 Pragmatism, anti-representational theory and local methods for critical-creative ecological action – Owain Jones
12 Pragmatism and contemporary planning theory: Going beyond a communicative approach – Ihnji Jon
13 Exploring possibilities for a pragmatic orientation in development studies – Alireza F. Farahani and Azadeh Hadizadeh Esfahani

Part V: Conclusion and postscript
14 The quest for uncertainty: Pragmatism between rationalism and sentimentality – Robert W. Lake
15 Postscript: Who’s afraid of pragmatism? – Clive Barnett

The Works

There are loads of ‘Things to read while in lockdown’ lists circulating right now, and even though it’s not a holiday, I am certainly finding myself spending more time at least thinking about what to read to pass the time. I am missing being able to browse in bookshops, even in the rather limited range available in downtown Exeter. I especially miss popping into a random charity shop in the dim expectation of finding something I didn’t think I wanted to read, buying it for £1, taking it home, and never reading it.

Being denied any access to these small pleasures reminds me of one of the abiding experiences of what it was like to have once lived in Swindon. For me, one important aspect of this experience was defined by the fact that Swindon is NOT a University town. I grew up in a place (East Grinstead) that was a lot more metropolitan than the small village which I might otherwise have grown up in (Fairford, from which one visited Swindon to do proper shopping and watch football), but which was still just a dull dormitory town (“sclerotically reactionary” is how Paul Theroux once described East Grinstead). Then I lived in various places (Cambridge and Bristol, Oxford and Reading, Salford and Columbus) which were all identifiably University towns, in their very different more-or-less provincial ways. I spent time in places like Atlanta and Durban, when both places still had bookshops. Living in Swindon was a strange return to a never-quite-experienced, what-might-have-been land that never-really-was.

All of which is just a prelude to an excuse for another list, this time a tribute to The Works, the cut-prize books/stationary-tat store that, alongside a perfectly decent Waterstones, served as my primary go-to book-haunt for eight years. If you are familiar with The Works, you will appreciate just what it means that this was the second best bookstore in town. The fact that it is located in Swindon’s best known attraction, the outlet retail centre, cherished by railway buffs and historical geography nerds from far and wide, is even better – it’s a pun: The Works, located on the site of the old GWR/BR railways works).

I’d like to say that I came across some hidden gems in The Works. But that’s not quite true. These are the top five books I picked up there which I would almost certainly never otherwise have read AND which I do not regret spending £2 to £4 on….

1). Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs, a lovely collection of essays, including a fantastic piece on why Lego minifigures represent a terrible constriction of the imagination, an argument I liked when I first read it and that has become more relevant to me now that, in lockdown, I find myself discovering the limits of my own design imagination while trying to make good use of a Lego Architecture Studio set.

2). Paul Morley’s book on Bowie, one of those books which one would have felt obliged to read at some point without really wanting to, so getting a remaindered copy felt right.

3). A bluffers’ guide to the Plantagenets, because I was trying to make sense of Richard II and thought it would be good, when reading Shakespeare, to know something about Kings and Queens, without needing to make this an academic project.

4). A collection of John Betjemann’s poems, which I bought for no other reason than the fact that it included a poem about the bells ringing at Christchurch in Swindon’s Old Town. No other reason.

5). Michael Bilton’s Wicked Beyond Belief, one of the huge range of true crime books you can always pick up at The Works, not a genre I am generally inclined towards. It’s a book about the culture of policing in the 1970s, deeply disturbing, I’m not quite sure why I bought it, other than always remembering the effect on me of reading Joan Smith’s account of the Yorkshire Ripper case in Misogynies way back in 1989.

Now I live in a University town in Devon, half the size of Swindon. Better bookshops. I still check out The Works now and then. I look forward to being able to do so again one day soonish, and to finding something else to read that I probably shouldn’t admit to enjoying.

Cricket Books

In a parallel universe, this weekend should have seen the start of the English cricket season. I have a rather heavily mediated relationship to cricket – I read about it, sometimes (less so since the retirement of Mike Selvey as The Guardian’s correspondent), listen because it’s good background noise, but rarely watch it ‘live’ on TV or, well, live. I used, long ago, to play. Not anymore.

I went through a phase, a few years ago, of culling books, a phase which I now somewhat regret (not because I need to read those discarded books again, but because books make good furniture, and also, because I tend to forget what I have read unless I can physically see the evidence). The exception to this regret is cricket books, which I’m always quite good at getting rid of. I keep acquiring them thinking that they are likely to be better than they turn out to be, and then disposing of them. It turns out that, unlike dogs, cricket books really are often just for Christmas.

Sometimes, reading cricket books can be actively unpleasant. A few Christmas’s ago, I read Cricket at the Crossroads, by Guy Fraser-Sampson, which sounded like it might be an incisive narrative of the intersection of cricket, class, race and politics at the end of the 1960s through the mid-1970s, but which was actually a rather reactionary ramble through umpteen England Test series, which ends with the bizarre suggestion that the ascendancy of the West Indies under Clive Lloyd after 1976 – one of the few sports teams to have attained the heights of political cool – marked the start of a new ‘dark age’ in international cricket (and not in an ironic way). Lloyd ends up being compared to both Henry Kissinger and Nazi war criminals. Reading this book was like being transplanted back to The Daily Telegraph editorial page, circa 1984 (I’m less familiar with its stance these days).

I carry a certain sort of shame about my attachment to cricket. I can’t help it if an important part of my own reading history and selective bibliophilia has involved cricket books. My first sustained engagement with the world of libraries was in the summer of 1980, riding to and from the library in East Grinstead every couple of days, working my way through ‘autobiographies’ by John Snow, Tony Greig, Derek Randall, Mike Proctor, Zaheer Abbas, Barry Richards (the books by South African cricketers all had, as I recall, an interesting generic quality, revolving around protected white boys learning how to get along in the multi-racial worlds which they found themselves in once they left home).

Part of the shame probably has to do with cricket being associated with, amongst other things, a certain sort of dorkishness which also served as part of its attraction. At the same time, books are important to the forms of defence that dorky boys have against that very shame. It’s often claimed that cricket generates lots of great writing. This is nonsense, of course. Most cricket writing, perhaps especially much of the lauded ‘literary’ type, is terrible: lots of flowery adjectives does not add up to great literature.

Another line of defence is also supported by cricket’s written archive – this is the “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know” line of defence, a line particularly appealing to young twenty-somethings doing PhDs on more-or-less-Marxist sorts of topics in a more-or-less-Marxist milieu, while also opening the batting a couple of times a week wearing a silly hat.

There are plenty of ‘academic’ cricket books, or cricket books by academics – writing by Derek Birley, Ramachandra Guha, and Ashis Nandy for example. Mike Brearley’s On Form, an odd hybrid of reflection from the perspective of two professions, cricketer an psychoanalysis, would count too. Andrew Hignell’s Rain Stops Play is full-on cricket-climatology. On the other hand, there is a whole genre of low-level pseudo-intellectual writing about cricket (which can you get you the job of selecting the England team).

Cricket has an affinity with baseball for attracting a certain sort of middle-brow literary-like snobbery. On the other hand, I can think of few cricket books which are quite as smart as Stephen Jay Gould’s Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville or Mark Kingwell’s Fail Better (It is one of the constitutive conceits of English cricket that baseball is a lesser, vulgar relative. But baseball is much more traditional, and a lot less corrupt. It is also subject to a more serious, sometimes profound, degree of over-intellectualisation than cricket).

Anyway, all of this is just an excuse for another list, not so much of my favourite cricket books, not even of books I would necessarily recommend to others as good books, but of cricket books that I couldn’t imagine ever getting rid of because of the resonances they still have for me, personally. For example, Mike Atherton’s Opening Up may or may not be just another standard sports bio, but I cherish it for reading it all in one sitting on an 11-hour flight from Johannesburg to London in 2004, and remember it as a genuinely tragic narrative of unfulfilled potential fully acknowledged, and as the single most incisive critique of the parochial nationalistic vanities of English cricket culture in the 1980s and 1990s (I also have a weak Kevin Bacon-esque less-than-six degrees of separation to part of Atherton’s story, but that’s a very dull story about how my finest cricketing achievement was to not score any runs for a very long time).

Here, then, is my list of five books about cricket that I can’t imagine getting rid of:

1). It’s a cliché to have CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary on a list of must-read cricket books. Quite right too. My copy is actually a US edition, bought in the long-lost second-hand store of Oxford Books in Atlanta, and it has a great introduction explaining cricket to the uninitiated.

2). Anything by Gideon Haigh, which is also a bit of cliché I guess, but Haigh’s writing is devoid of sentimentality and full of critical distance in a way that is almost unique in cricket writing. And his book about club cricket might be the closest cricket writing has come to anything as profound as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. I’ve also had an almost sublime book-buying experience with one of his books – in the summer of 2005, quite by accident, in between the 3rd and 4th Tests of the famously tense Ashes series of that summer, I went on a week’s holiday to Rhodes (booked without any thought of cricketing schedules I should add), and in a weird laundrette-bookshop found the perfect book to get me through that week, a copy of Haigh’s Mystery Spinner, which is another tragic cricket story. Come to think of it, there are a few of them – Chris Ryan’s Golden Boy is one of the best ever books about cultures of toxic masculinity, for example.

3). Mike Marqusee’s Anyone But England. This expresses almost perfectly the dynamic of repulsion and attraction that sustained my own interest in cricket throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

4). My own attachment to South African things was in large part shaped by the weird status of South Africa in the public culture of English cricket in the 1980s. There’s a whole book to be written about this issue, of what ‘South Africa’ has meant to Englishness – I could envisage a kind of cricketing variant of Bill Schwarz’s historical account of ‘overseas‘-ness in post-war English culture. Bruce Murray and Christoper Merritt’s Caught Behind is one entry point into a small but sustained tradition of South African scholarship and journalism that puts the romanticisation of lost generations and rainbow readmissions into proper perspective. 

5). The Wisden Anthology 1978-2006 (sub-titled ‘cricket’s age of revolution’) is a rather wonderful expression of the shift in cricket culture, traceable in the changing register of editorials from curmudgeonly reactionary Toryism to a rather more pluralist perspective across that period. I read it while buried in the first few weeks of new-parenthood in the winter of 2006-7, and remember it as being a book about a culture that I had been a witness to, and sometimes a participant in, over almost exactly that period.

I could go on. I still haven’t got round to reading my late mother’s copy of David Sheppard’s Steps Along Hope Streethe was something of an idol of hers, I think, without her ever quite sharing many of his avowed values. But I should stop. I don’t even really like cricket anymore. I just know about it.


What’s Responsibility Got To Do With Anything Anyway?

Amidst the challenges of translating more than 25 years of University teaching experience into the task of ‘homeschooling’ a nine year-old and a thirteen year-old (or, just making sure they have something to do), as well as wondering whether Higher Education institutions which are not configured to deliver coherent blended learning at the best of times should really be trying to transfer all teaching and all assessment online in a moment of intense, rapidly changing global emergency, I’ve been thinking about the range of ethical postures generated by the Coronavirus crisis. That’s sad, I know. It helps me cope, though. It’s no sadder, perhaps, than lots of other forms of self-indulgent bias-confirming commentary flying around right now.

I have been processing in my head, quite consciously, since about March 11th, a bunch of thoughts about what sense to make of different forms of official messaging, health advice, as well as various forms of new coverage, twitter-commentary [now switched off for the most part], and shared conversations with real people. I’m trying to make sense of how and why I have responded in the ways I have, and why it’s been easy to respond in certain ways, and not in others.

In the UK right now, and for a week or more, there has been a lot of discussion about whether  and why people are acting selfishly, by buying too much loo paper or going to the park. Between right-wing journalists demanding that the Prime Minister condemn ‘immoral’ behaviour, Twitter-led outrage about ‘irresponsibility’ and Guardian-esque think-pieces confirming that this is all an effect of decades of ‘neoliberalism’, there is an awful lot of self-congratulatory rationalism flying about right now which is, if truth be told, almost certainly not very helpful.

The forms of behaviour at the core of these worries, the patterns of observance and non-observance, are no doubt more or less predictable outcomes of the strategy, such as it is, pursued by the UK government, of seeking to re-shape the conduct of conduct (by closing things down) while also trying to morally encourage ‘voluntary’ social distancing. They are also somewhat overdetermined by the accreted associations of deceit associated with the lead persona charged with leading this subtle communication strategy.

I’m actually struck by how effective the main message does seem to have been communicated, as a general national discourse. It stands in contrast, most obviously to the case in the USA, which does not have a central cultural institution (like the NHS) around which to mobilise forms of solidarity, but does have a governing political movement actively seeking to undermine elementary public health initiatives.

Public health information, in normal times, tends to revolve around messages addressed to what is good for individuals, or immediate family members. Getting a flu jab is something one is meant to do so one doesn’t get the flu, oneself. Getting your kids vaccinated is something you do so they don’t get ill, but you’re supposed to worry about their health in ways not expected of you towards other people’s kids. Making lifestyle changes to reduce cholesterol or sugar levels or blood pressure is something you do to minimise your own risks of heart disease, stroke, and so on. Of course, we know that these initiatives all have a wider, systematic relationship to provision of public health care, and indeed to collective health outcomes (as made visible, for example, by the effects of anti-vaccination campaigns). But the address made to the subjects of public health campaigns is resolutely self-centred, in a non-pejorative way, and necessarily so.

In contrast, the Coronavirus crisis turns on a very different mode of communication, a different form of ethical imperative. The effort to make people social distance voluntarily, beyond the macro-level scale of closing things down and subsidising economic demobilisation, are difficult precisely because they ask people to take responsibility simply by virtue of being mere agents – that is, by virtue of their actions having effects in much the same way as Bruno Latour’s key fob or Michel Callon’s scallops can be described as agents simply because one can place them under a description in which they have traceable effects on wider patterns of action. But remember children, an ‘actant‘ is just a character in a story. On their own, lots of the defamiliarising, revelatory stories that academics tell about the links between action, consequences, and ‘responsibility’ provide rather thin accounts of what it is to be human. Rarely do those stories attain the level of having any motivational force at all. 

The crisis of social distancing strategy, right now, revolves around a very different kind of ethical address from ordinary public health initiatives – it involves asking people (or directing them, or forcing them) to act in certain ways in order to prevent or minimise or delay other people getting ill, so that other people don’t suffer. And it asks us to do this in two distinct, though related ways: by seeking to avoid directly infecting other people, particularly vulnerable people; and by thereby seeking to minimise unbearable strain on stretched infrastructures of health care. If you slow down for a moment, it’s worth considering just how complex that message is. It is, no doubt, difficult enough to convey. One could argue about how well it is being delivered. It might, also, be a really difficult message to take on board by its addressees, in ways that the much denigrated behavioural scientists probably appreciate better than they are given credit for.

I’m being asked to think of myself as acting responsibly by virtue of a capacity to see myself as a passive vector for a virus, and then to act accordingly. I am also being asked to think of myself as being responsible for a whole series of unintended consequences of that passively exercised status by virtue of being one small element in a very complex technological, social and organisational system. Oh, and to act in response to all of this primarily by NOT doing  lots of things. That’s really weird, if you think about it.

People like me – academics, certainly; Guardian-reading folk; geographers, especially geographers – are quite good at being able to place other people’s actions into these chains of consequences, from the outside. It’s what people like me are meant to do. It might even be what counts as our ‘science’. People like me are rather less good at recognising just how alienating that view of other people is, to those other people, when it is projected as a set of recommended virtues, as it often is (see, for example: ‘Brexit’, ‘Climate Change’, ‘Corbynism’). To borrow a line or two from W.H. Auden, it is easy enough to attribute responsibility for certain outcomes or even potential consequences; it is a different thing entirely to accept responsibility, to take on responsibility for such extended patterns of consequences, to ask or expect this of oneself, much less others. As ever, Iris Marion Young is the best guide to this general theme.

The standard way of trying to align the two perspectives is to find ways of getting those other people to recognise what’s really good for them and act in accordance with an externally derived idea of what they should really do. There is remarkably little reflection on the degree to which large swathes of academic work, belonging to broader cultures of rationalistic liberal good sense, have come to see themselves as engineers of acceptance.

There are various philosophical avatars for these ethical postures. I’m struck, for example, by how far the challenge of acting responsibly in this current public health crisis requires a kind of Spinozan ability to picture all the determinisms into which one’s own self is enchained, and then to find therein, from the acknowledgement of the very abjection of one’s own dependence, some power to act wilfully for the good of others. Or, perhaps it’s a version of embodied Kantian deontology. Or an other-regarding utilitarian consequentialism. These are really not very good ways of thinking about how people ordinarily do act, or how they should. An agent-centred narrative of the extended causal consequences of intended actions and their more or less unintended consequences lies at the heart of lots of analysis, whether of environmental change, global justice activism, and now, at least some of the more popular discourses around a public health crisis. These causal stories presume an ability of their addressees to reason about issues of actions, intentions, consequences. But on that assumption, it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that the same stories that are thought, by some, to obviously have a motivating effect on getting people to act in one preferred way, will be interpreted in other ways, indeed, reasonably interpreted as demonstrating that anything I do won’t make much difference at all (that’s before one starts to think about the rationalities of ‘implicatory denial‘. As a vector for thinking about these sorts of issues, I suspect disease, viruses, will end up having a different ethical shape, shall we say, than that most often associated with ideas about the politics of commodity cultures or climate change activism.

Perish the thought, today of all days, but it might be amazing that current strategies, whether of lock-down or ‘advice’ to stay at home varieties, are working as effectively as they are. I’m not being complacent, or flippant. I’m channelling my anxieties and fears. Who knows how all this will play out. But rather than add to the rapidly consolidating genres of ‘I told you so’ or ‘Let’s take this as an opportunity’, maybe the most responsible thing to do right now is to take care over the sorts of intellectual frames being promulgated in the midst of rapidly moving events, frames which are likely to resonate far and wide beyond them.