Affect theory: the debate continues (sort of)

William Connolly’s response to Ruth Leys’ critique of affect theory is in the latest issue of Critical Inquiry, and Leys has a follow-up comment. Connolly’s response is rather weak – he basically re-asserts the outlines of his theory of neuro-mediated affective priming of subjects, including the half second delay story, and dodges the primary issue raised by Leys’ original critique – which is to do with the status ascribed to certain sorts of scientific claims, and the forms of reasoning about action and practice that these authority claims are typically used to support.

The evasion of this central issue is revealed not least in the stylistic tic that distinguishes Connolly’s theoretical exegesis – he tends to ‘join’ or ‘endorse’ the position of various theorists – James, Whitehead, Spinoza, the usual suspects – which of course he presents as basically in alignment with his own position. There is a kind of argumentative closure effected in this form of exposition – the views of these thinkers get amalgamated to the current orthodoxy on affect, and the authority of those affectively attuned ontologies get bolstered by this authoritative reference at the same time. (The same issue of Critical Inquiry also has an interesting looking critique of Badiou’s use of set theory as a foundation for ontology, which raises the same issues of external authority-claims in social theory).

There is also an interesting piece on Connolly’s theory of subjectification in the new issue of Theory and Event, more sympathetic on the face of it but also quite critical in terms of the reading of neuroscience (not to say the peculiar fixation on film theory). And a few weeks ago, Benedikt Korf pointed me in the direction of Roger Cooter’s interesting critical work on neuroethics, recommended by Felicity Callard, who is currently working at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin on projects related to ‘critical neuroscience’ and cultural constructions of the brain. This latter type of work takes a genealogical approach to developments in biosciences and neuroscience, rather than extending excessive credulity towards popularised versions of these fields in order to develop new, radical (political) ontologies. The History of Human Sciences had a special issue on these topics last year which is also in this genealogical vein, examining the ways scientific fields are ‘applied’ by providing causal accounts of human behaviour for various fields of practice and policy.

In geography, debates about these issues still seem to be at the level of differences over which theoretical approach is the best one to ‘endorse’. My colleague at the OU, Steve Pile, has had the temerity to endorse a slightly different approach to thinking about affect and emotions to the one currently most in favour in cultural geography (an ever expanding field with ever narrowing intellectual horizons), and to make a few fine distinctions along the way, and has provoked various more or less grumpy responses as a result. A feature of these debates in geography is a continuing hang-up about finding firm grounds for hoping that things could be different – hence the current fascination with various philosophical and scientific accounts of ‘plasticity’ and/or ‘creativity’.

The Leys/Connolly debate (such as it is, given that Connolly’s response is a study in evasion), is then indicative of a broader divide between two styles of cultural theory circulating at the moment – a genealogical style, and a style inclined towards the affirmation of ontological visions. And discussions of affect and neuro-stuff are just one area where this divide shows up these days.

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Keep Mrs. Honeyman right out of sight

A week of protest, demonstrations, rioting, flash looting, vandalism and violence across towns and cities in England has been another occasion for the expression of instant opinion and analysis by academics and intellectuals.

The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association (BSA) made a public claim for the relevance of sociology in the wake of the riots, primarily on the grounds that sociologists know that ‘crowds are not rational’. Really? Since when? A peculiar claim indeed, one which seemed to conflate ‘emotions’ with ‘lack of reason’, and invited us to regress a hundred years or so back to Gustave Le Bon, and running counter to a wide range of social science that has spent decades demonstrating  precisely the opposite.

The Mandy Rice-Davies Award for this week goes to Zygmunt Bauman, for whom these events were all a symptom of rampant consumerism – actually a widely shared view amongst much of the commentariat, from left to right. David Harvey developed the extended analogy between the ‘feral rats’ doing the looting and ‘feral’ bankers and capitalists going unpunished for their crimes in bringing about global financial chaos. An analogy which, one might suppose, did not really throw much explanatory light upon last weeks’ events at all. Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett discerned a general sense of cynicism born of inequality as laying behind the riots.

Some commentators were keen to insist on a link between these events and the Coalitions’ agenda of austerity and cuts – but the link was only presented as a ‘context’, which rather begged the important question about how the relationship between contexts and conditions on the one hand, and actions and events on the other, is actually meant to be mediated. A number of people alighted upon an academic paper which finds a correlation between fiscal austerity and social ‘unrest’, in order to shore up the argument that there was a link between rioting and cuts.

Much of the commentary I have seen has suggested that ‘the right’ is keen to deny any and all causal analysis of these events, invoking pure criminality and mindless irresponsibility. This seems to be wrong-headed, and probably continues a long-standing failure to credit the post-Thatcherite right in the UK with having a quite well-developed social theory of our contemporary malaise. There are various sorts of causal accounts on the right – from Peter Oborne, whose account alights upon inequality and unaccountable elites in a way that easily resonates in fact with various left narratives, to the lunacy of David Starkey’s claim that the riots happened because ‘whites have become black’, and not in a good way. In between these positions, there is of course the prevalent Tory position, which invests heavily in ‘culture of poverty’ style arguments, focussing on family structures, moral failures, cultures of entitlement, and the like. There is a whole strand of social thought and research informing this style of analysis of course, and it is on this terrain, like or not, that the politics of academic analysis on these issues is likely to be fought. What these classically conservative narratives have going for them, of course, is that they specify and identify mechanisms, and potential objects of intervention, which mediate between broad structural processes and observable patterns of group behaviour and individual action. It is this ‘pragmatic’ emphasis that is missing in the grander narratives of consumerism, neoliberalism, feral capitalism and the like which emanate from the left, and which makes those critical narratives politically weak – consoling in their own way, for sure, but not really identifying practical paths of action, beyond general calls either for revolution, solidarity, or to rally round and ‘take responsibility’.

Somewhere amongst all this, I did happen upon some more informative contributions, although these tended to reinforce the sense that academics are better placed to think slowly through events rather than squeeze them into their pre-existing frames. The ESRC did a better job than the BSA by publicising the work of David Waddington and Clifford Stott on the complex dynamics of policing and public (dis-)order – work that explicitly counters the sense that rioting is ‘irrational’. Society and Space re-posted a series of academic analyses of policing and urban unrest from different historical and geographical contexts. And Paul Rogers drew attention to a recently published analysis of the dynamics of urban rioting and community reconstruction in Bradford from 2001 to 2010 which also seems pertinent going forward.

None of these examples reflected directly on events of last week, but each seems to promise more by way of understanding the causes and conditions and possible consequences of those events than much of the more instant reaction. Above all, each of these examples draws into focus the intricate roles of policing in contemporary democratic politics – another issue which, it seems to me, much of the theory-left has consistently failed to think through, happy to think of policing as merely an instrument of state control and oppression, a version of ‘the repressive state apparatuses’. This week has crystallised the issue of ‘cuts’ to the public services more acutely than ever before, certainly, but not because the cuts stand as a background condition or cause. Rather, it is because the consequences for the public order, in the broadest possible sense, of shrinking the resources and recalibrating the organisational structures of agencies charged with protecting and sustaining public life have been so starkly dramatised. In terms of both funding issues but also of principles of accountability and independence, policing has suddenly become the central terrain of debate and contestation around which the shape of public life is likely to be shaped in the next few years. And it’s good to remember that it’s when the call is to “start assembling the boys from the fort” that things start to get really worrying.

Songs to learn and sing….?

White Riot, The Clash
I Predict a Riot, Kaiser Chiefs
Bonnie and Clyde, Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg
What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye
Drunk Girls, LCD Soundsystem
Teenage Riot, Sonic Youth
Fight the Power, Public Enemy
For What it’s Worth, Buffalo Springfield
Don’t Worry About the Government, Talking Heads
Send in the Clowns, Barbara Streisand

Things I now know about credit rating agencies

The downgrading of the USA’s credit rating last week, amidst more general financial chaos, has elicited a flurry of commentary on the authority of the credit rating agencies. Paul Krugman suggests that they deserve no standing – these are the people who systematically underestimated the risks involved in sub-prime mortgage lending, didn’t spot anything wrong with Enron, and so on.  It seems, also, that they might have got the maths wrong in their calculations about medium- and long-term US debt projections. On this view, the problem revealed by the downgrading is the unfettered power of the credit ratings agencies – there is plenty of discussion of what to do about them, echoing previous moments when this question of the accountability of rating agencies has arisen.

On the other hand, John Cassidy at The New Yorker suggests that the downgrade from AAA status by Standard and Poor’s should be seen as a public service – a kind of wake-up call to a dysfunctional political system about the need to address the relationship between US government spending, revenue raising, and debt. Layna Mosley provides an interpretation of how the S&P decision might be indicative of broader changes in the relations between financial markets and government policy making.

I have nothing profound to add to this debate – it’s not really my area, but it does throw light on the complex relationships between private actors and public action. There is a literature on this of course, some of which looks at the credit rating agencies. Timothy Sinclair has written a book about their operations, The New Masters of Capital, exploring ‘the politics of creditworthiness’. He has also written more recently about how the rating agencies become ‘objects of blame’ at moments of financial crisis. A standard line is to present these agencies as wholly unaccountable. In fact, they are embedded in the formal regulatory regimes of US and global financial markets – the big three of Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, Fitch are formally ‘Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations’ – their ratings are central to the regulatory practices of all sorts of other public and private institutions. There is a history to this exemplary case of private authority in public governance, of course.

It’s easy to criticize the operations of the agencies over the last decade or so, and easy too to bemoan the apparent paradox of private organisations having such sway over the public actions of states and governments. But buried somewhere in these narratives are actually some interesting issues about the force and accountability of ‘reputation’ and mere ‘opinions’ in shaping global institutional frameworks of capital flow, risk-assessment, and investment – there is a specific range of registers of publicity through which these private agencies circulate their calculations, predictions and assessments.

Theory Talks

This might not be new to anyone else, but I only just came across Theory Talks, a forum for discussion of theoretical issues in IR, broadly conceived – basically, interviews with academics, talking about big current global issues, and theory. The latest ‘talk’ is with Mark Duffield, previous participants include geographers John Agnew, Klaus Dodds, and David Harvey, and stretches beyond IR to include James Scott and Peter Singer.

New blog on urbanism and democracy

Just noticed a new blog by Mark Purcell, Path to the Possible, on issues of urbanism, politics, democracy. Mark is author of Recapturing Democracy, one of the few books I can think of in geography/urban studies that engages in detail with democratic theory. I was on the ‘author-meets-critics’ panel for this book at the Annual Meeting of the AAG in Boston in 2008, the only time I have done one of these. I remember thinking how weird it must be to have to sit through other people picking holes in one’s work in such detail. I now have to sit through one of these on a book of my own in a month or so, so what goes around comes around I guess.