Agency and experience: nonsite.org Issue 5

The new issue of nonsite.org contains essays by Ruth Leys, Michael Fried and Robert Pippin, amongst other things, and focusses on “the relation between our agency–our actions, or emotions, our character–and our experience–of the world, of ourselves, of each other.” It also ‘reprints’ Todd Cronan’s review of affect theory.

Where can I find real democracy?

Simon Critchley has a short piece in The Guardian today, on the lessons and future of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. It argues that these events show us that ‘true politics’ involves two things – ‘a demand that flows from the perception of injustice’; and ‘a location where that demand is articulated’. There is, he concludes, therefore ‘no poitics without location’.

I’m interested in this sort of argument, and its appeal to these contemporary events, because they resonate with some of my own intellectual predispositions, yet I find something troubling about them (I’ve been trying to express some of the worries while e-chatting recently with Mark Purcell at Paths to the Possible about some of these things). I like the idea that politics, of the sort we like at least, democratic-y politics of a more or less radical sort, arises from a ‘felt sense of injustice’ as Honneth puts it somewhere, and have been trying to write about this idea and how it might be used to think about the relationships between democracy, place and space. So I keep writing papers which have titles like ‘locating democracy’, but the point of them is that actually (democractic) politics doesn’t have a location at all, it’s dispersed across different spaces; it might not even have a proper relation to any specific spatial figure of whatever sort.

Critchley’s piece is just one example of a range of academic commentaries which tend to repeat fairly uncritically the self-representation of activists about the political forms of Occupy, Indignados, and other movements – that these really are the emobodiment of a genuine re-birth of direct, consensual democracy stripped of the parasitical intrusions of representative politics. That’s what ‘real democracy’ turns out to mean.

I think it should be possible to affirm one’s solidarity with these movements without necessarily reiterating these claims without question. It should be possible to analyse the rhetoric and practice of anti-representation in these movements – ‘no parties, no banners’ – as a phenomenon worthy of investigation, not just present such claims as a matter of fact. Jodi Dean and Jason Jones have a really interesting piece on the question of how to think representation in relation to OWS, and it’s one of the few things of it’s sort that I can think of (it’s part of a special edition on the topic of ‘in defence of representation’). I’ve just started reading Pierre Rosanvallon’s Democratic Legitimacy, and it seems to me, for example, that these movements might fit quite well into his genealogy of the emergence of new modes of democratic legtimacy based on values of proximity and presence – my point being that what is required is an analytic imagination that can recognise the emergence of new forms without simply reproducing simplistic dualisms between direct and representative democracy which, while politically effective perhaps, don’t have much interpretative purchase if you think about it for a moment.

Back to Critchley; his piece starts out with a standard narrative device, we’ve all done it: power, as the ability to get things done, has become spatially divorced from politics, the means of getting things done (a globalization cliché he draws from Bauman). Well, maybe, maybe not, but even if this were the case, it would seem to require some thought about how poloitics can be re-spatialised to match the scaling up of power – an argument made by various traditions of thought, including plenty of geographers, and a staple of David Held-style cosmopolitanism. This is easier said than done in theory and practice no doubt, and the diagnosis might just be flawed anyway. But what I’m not sure about is whether Critchley’s conclusion from his starting point follows at all – that the divorce means we need to think about ‘true politics’ in terms of the figure of location. Something seems to get to go astray in the reasoning that starts by saying that power and politics have become too distant from one another and end up by saying that the most effective response is to take a stand in one place (after all, the most interesting aspect of these movements might well be not their ‘occupation’ strategies per se, but the movement of the strategies – that’s why they are called movements).

The attachment to location seems to have something to do with Critchley’s chosen view of contemporary protest movements as embodying values of directness, horizontality, assembly – it’s just one example I think of more general intellectual ‘moment’ in which the idea of true politics and real democracy has become associated with an image of the spaces of politics and democracy as real, physical places of co-presence and gathering together.

If one goes back to Critchley’s point about demands and injustice, then the figure of location seems, again, not to be quite adequate. If demands need to be articulated, then I’m not sure they need a location at all – a specific point, a localisation in space and time. They are, after all, articulated – a demand has a spatiality that is open to connection, combination, joining up. Not one of punctual presence or location. The space of demands generated by injustice is strung out, not gathered together.

Which doesn’t mean that ‘real spaces’ aren’t important. I just think it might be better to think of these spaces of demonstration as enacting a demonstrative force that is better thought of in terms, say, of the idea of spaces of address developed by Kurt Ivesen‘s work on public space. Or of locations as starting places, temporary stopping points. Which might well be move akin to the political geography of ‘occupying’. Even then, though, there might be pause for thought – Crtitchley ends with a call to move on and apply the force of this ‘true politics’ to the London Olympics, a recommendation which might well suggest a form of politics reduced to the purely tactical, tracking the eventalization of the world wrought by spectacular capital with events of its own. So much for getting things done.

And one final thought – Critchley is one of my favourite thinkers, his book on ethics and deconstruction was a fundamental influence on my thinking as a graduate student. It’s one place, though not the first (that was an essay by Nancy Fraser) where I remember learning about the importance of Claude Lefort to a whole strand of French thought that at that time was still being rudely called postmodern. I just wonder, remembering those things I learnt from reading Critchley back then, whether an analysis of true politics and real democracy that rests on the idea that power and politics have become divorced hasn’t lapsed into a certain sort of romantic amnesia about which it should really know better. Conceptually, normatively, the idea that power and politics should be married together, as it were, might be only rather ambivalently ‘democratic’, at best. Which isn’t to say that they should be separated, it’s just that what matters is the quality of the relationship. And conceptualising that relationship, its optimum shape, needs better analysis than can be provided by claims about the importance of location or the form of ‘true politics’.

The ends of aesthetics

In a spirit of anti-Franzen, here are a couple of things I learned about from Facebook and Twitter this weekend, while attending swimming lessons (not my own). Picked up from Paul Harrison on Facebook, a link to a new online journal Singularum, focussing on the relationship between aesthetics and pedagogy (teaching as a theatre of cruelty, perhaps?). 

And from Twitter, here is a podcast with Spivak talking about a new book/collection, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization – worrying about whether the tools of an aesthetic education (i.e. literary reading) are still useful in relation to challenges of speed, distance, digitalization, and other ‘globalizing’ things.

Never having had a proper aesthetic education, nor having ever really aspired to be a medium for one, as I grow old I find it increasingly peculiar just how much Theory is still attached to faintly reactionary models of what the task of education should be.

Locating transnational advocacy networks: new paper on HIV and AIDS governance

I have a new paper published, online at least, which is always nice –Locating the global governance of HIV and AIDS: exploring the geographies of transnational advocacy networks. It’s in Health and Place, as part of a forthcoming set of papers on global-local relationships in responses to HIV and AIDS. The paper is co-authored with Colin Marx and Abbey Halcli, and is the result of a long process of research (a bit of qualitative, and some numbers), grant writing (shortlisted once, unfunded alpha second-time round), paper drafting, chatting, re-writing, and so on. So, as well as being fun and challenging to work with Abbey and Colin, it also feels like we’ve now got some reward for our efforts.

When we started on this project, I didn’t have children.

The argument of the paper is that cities are important locations for types of politics that aren’t necessarily best thought of as ‘urban politics’, which may or may not be an interesting thing to say. That might depend on who you are saying it to. Here is the abstract:

Over the last two decades, HIV and AIDS have been framed as a “global problem”. In the process, transnational advocacy networks have emerged as important actors, and particular places are recognised as key nodes in global HIV and AIDS governance. Using the example of London, UK, this paper examines how these networks are involved in local articulations of global governance and reveals that ‘global’ processes are inflected by the locations through which networks are routed. The example suggests the need for further analysis of the geographies through which HIV and AIDS is reconfiguring power relations at a variety of spatial scales.

Social theory: the real thing

Over at the ever excellent Understanding Society blog, John Levi Martin has a post responding to Daniel Little’s earlier post on his recent book The Explanation of Social Action. It’s a pretty good summary of the argument of the whole book, a critique of versions of social science that privilege what he calls ‘third person’ accounts of explanation and causality.

Meanwhile, newly published is Real Social Science, edited by Bent Flyvbjerg, Todd Landman and Sanford Schram, a fuller statement of what they have dubbed ‘phronetic social science’, first outlined in Flyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter.

This is the sort of social theory I have been enjoying reading recently, at least when I get the occasional chance to read such things – I have tried, ever so briefly, to give an account of why I think it is fun and interesting in the pieces I have been writing, nominally on ‘ethics’, for Progress in Human Geography over the last couple of years – the last one of these, might be out sometime, and gestures at a fantasy of inventing a whole new programme for investigating ‘geographies of worth’. There is something old-fashioned about this work, in a way, at least if you inhabit the academic habitus I do. This morning I read an insightful review of John McCumber’s new book on continental philosophy, which I almost bought on Saturday but didn’t in the end. It looks interesting, and tells a story centred on issues of time and temporality, which I think I might quite like. The review includes a remark towards the end about how an alternative narrative to the one McCumber (apparently) constructs might focus on how various approaches have addressed “the different ways in which an interpreting human agent tried to understand her world”. I suppose I think that still remains an interesting problem (particularly if you disregard silly catcalls about ‘humanism’) and it’s also what draws together various strands of philosophy beyond the ever renewing canon of contemporary ‘Continental’ with interesting social theory worrying away about ‘normative’ stuff.