Occupy Wall Street in context

Here is a really interesting analysis of the participants and supporters in the Occupy movement, by Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce and Penny Lewis, providing both sociological and historical context: Changing the Subject: A Bottom-Up Account of Occupy Wall Street in New York City.

Woman’s Hour: talking about early fatherhood

NHMy media experience has not quite added up to 15 minutes of fame so far – I was once on the front cover of the University of Reading student paper, and that rolled into the Reading Evening Post the next day (a scandal about geographers teaching sociology); and I was once quoted in a South African daily, and refuted by a government minister in the same story.

So given the chance, I jumped at the opportunity to be on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 this morning – in my capacity as ‘ordinary bloke with kids’, obviously, the accidental by-product of being a research subject in Tina Miller’s study of men becoming fathers.

If this was even half decent radio, it wasn’t because of me, but because Dean Beaumont from DaddyNatal and Tina were arguing; I have lots of other things to say on the topic, but generally, I think that there is a fine line between supporting fathers to be involved around childbirth, on the one hand, and assuming this must be an active role in order for it to have any value – the reason many men might find it so weird, including me, is because they might be unfamiliar with how to just ‘be there’ for another person, doing what they are told, all the while trying to remember it’s not primarily about them.

I’m wondering what to make of the fact that there is an inverse relationship between the size of the audience for this programme and the degree of professional expertise I can claim to have to talk authoritatively about this topic. I only did it for Cultural Studies’ purposes.

Touch Me I’m Sick

JDEntirely coincidentally, this week, the week that HMV went into administration, I have finally decided to get rid of my LPs and cassettes – the former unplayed since 2000, the latter briefly revived in a house move in 2009, but long forgotten before that. I already have duplicate CD versions of some of these, or CDs of greatest hits which do much the same thing; and I have ordered a dozen or so replacements on CD from one of those online sites that has hastened HMVs decline, on the principle that every household with two female children growing up in it needs to contain a copy of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, as well as London Calling (and I  don’t feel that guilty about HMV, I feel I did my bit to help them over the Xmas period). Nevertheless, this has meant deciding that there is a whole bunch of music I don’t want to listen to anymore.

I’m not a great believer in the idea that music sounds better on vinyl, or even in the ritual of taking records out of sleeves and that sort of thing; I do think having a physical object as the repository for music is crucial to how I at least listen – browsing a list of titles isn’t the same as browsing a shelf of poorly organised things. But there is something to be said for the LP as an art object, over CDs – I’m keeping Fear of Music ‘cos it has a weird corrugation pattern on it. What I have been going through, deciding what to chuck, what to replace, and what few to keep, is a distinctive aesthetic, not necessarily as constrained as even I remember: mid-to-late-80s-white-boy-Indie, sandwiched between the fading of New Wave and the horrors of post-Nirvana grunge. When the whole world seemed very jangly.

CodIn most cases, letting go has been fairly easy. I don’t have any great desire to return to Big Black’s Songs about Fucking, one of the least sexy records ever; or Dinosaur Jr; or Polvo. And I’ve decided that I no longer need to keep either of my sisters’ copies of David Bowie’s Changes One, or the family copy of The Beatles’ 1962-66 ‘red’ greatest hits.

But I’ve also rediscovered things I had forgotten about – at the risk of embarrassment, or not, things like Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring, Eartha Kitt, The Colorblind James Experience, Dionne Farris, The Aquanettas, Scrawl, who I saw almost get electrocuted in Columbus, Ohio in 1998, even The Triffids, whose career was ruined by Jason and Kylie’s wedding. I’ve also discovered to my surprise that I seem to have acquired every record ever made by the Throwing Muses up to the mid-90s.

I have been left wondering what principle I used to apply when buying some things on LP rather than cassette – some sense that certain things might be listened to on the move, perhaps, or maybe a sense that some albums you were meant to buy as LPs because they were proper and serious. I can’t remember when I bought my last record on vinyl, although I have a feeling it might have been a second-hand copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours in Reading in about 2000. The first was Remember You’re a Womble. They’re both going out.

Neoliberalism as radical political economy

118In the intellectual world I grew up in and to a large extent still inhabit, the phrase ‘political economy’ is often just another way of saying ‘Marxism’. I’m not sure if it’s ‘ironic’ that this tradition of work has come to be so focussed on the conceptual object ‘dubbed’ neoliberalism, which is theorised as the real world realization of ideas emanating from the post-WW2 revival of ‘political economy’ of a different sort. The status of neoliberal ideas as variants of political economy is often overlooked, primarily because of the investments in simple state/market dualisms that shape critical conceptualizations of neoliberalization.

One of the founding figures of contemporary political economy is James Buchanan, who died last week. Buchanan is one of the unsung heroes/villains of neoliberalism, if there is such a thing – above all through helping to invent public choice theory, a framework for applying certain sorts of economic ideas to the analysis of state actors, bureaucracies, and other organisations. More broadly, Buchanan illustrates the degree to which ideas about the rule of law, constitutionalism, rule-following, and the like provide a positive theory of the state and the public realm rather than simply a straightforward preference for the market over the state (like other thinkers associated with the canon of neoliberal ideas, perhaps with the exception of Richard Posner, Buchanan took the financial crisis of the last five years as largely confirming his own views). Buchanan is as good a place as any to start the task of understanding how states and markets have been reconfigured around new models of public value, rather than by a straightforward shift simply from good public values to bad private ones. Stephen Collier has elaborated on Buchanan’s importance as a ‘minor’ figure in the genealogy of neoliberal practice, in ways which suggest a need to rethink the conventional framework for the critical analysis of neoliberalism more generally.

Buchanan is famous for the line about thinking about ‘politics without romance‘, which rapidly devolved into a deeply cynical view of public actors as rent-seeking parasites. It’s interesting to read the appreciations of Buchanan in places like the FT, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Bloomberg News, The Daily Telegraph over the last week – you can glean a sense of how public choice theory supports a certain sort of right-wing insurgent self-image, speaking in the name of democratic choice (as revealed preference) against the usurping inclinations of elites. It reminded me of the argument made by John Dryzek some time ago now, in which he argued that public choice theory did indeed share some important affinities with Frankfurt School-style critical theory.

Appreciating Buchanan’s work is important not least because, whisper it, belonging as it does to a tradition of thought that is embedded in particular understandings of democracy, it does address difficult issues of collective action, institutional design, and accountability that conventional left social theory struggles with, oscillating as it does between proto-anarchistic suspicion of ‘the state’ and nostalgia for stale social democratic settlements of the public good. Disentangling and differentiating accounts of ‘rationality’ might be an imperative to rethinking the democratic potentials of emergent forms of contemporary public action – and being able to tell the different in the political valence between Buchanan, say, and Mancur Olson, or Kenneth Arrow, or Amartya Sen, or Jon Elster, or Elinor Ostrom, seems an important task along this road (the differences turn on the degree to which theories are able to account for the rationalities of co-operation as something more than merely aggregation or secondary). Not all styles of rational choice theory are equally pathological, perhaps.

Is cultural activity really epistemological struggle?

Picture 044I spent a few days in Liverpool over the Christmas break, and while there I tried to take advantage of being in a Capital of Culture, as was. The main attraction was an exhibition at the Bluecoat of prints by William Kentridge, The Universal Archive. This solo exhibition provided an interesting contrast to my last proper High Culture experience, back in Oct/Nov, during my trip to Bloemfontein. Bloem’ has great art gallery, it turns out, the Oliewenhuis. They had an exhibition People, Prints and Process, of various print-based art works produced by artists associated with the Caversham Centre with which Kentridge is closely involved. This exhibition contained one or two pieces by Kentridge, but alongside the work of lots of the artists using print as their medium. The prints in the show currently in Liverpool (it’s moving on soon I think) are actually slightly out of context, in a sense – they are of course rather static, but bring to mind the more animated works by Kentridge for which they often seem to serve as templates or testing grounds, or perhaps, traces (this exhibition didn’t have any of his films on show – not necessarily a bad thing – I always find it really difficult to watch arty film in a gallery space).

It was interesting to see these two exhibitions in close succession – in the exhibition at the Oliewenhuis, Kentridge is one almost a bunch of other South African artists, and the sense of print as a distinctively African medium was to the forefront – as well as how print is a vernacular, mass medium rooted in the textures of local life, as exemplified by the widespread use of linocut techniques. Whereas in the Universal Archive exhibition, Kentridge is presented as the internationally famous artist from South Africa.

I am not making a political point (and this is not my field of expertise), just reflecting on the experience of seeing the same bits of art in two different contexts – not just two different places (sunny and warm, cold and rainy), but seeing one or two of the same pieces sitting alongside works by other artists compared to making up part of a whole collection by the same artist. The difference, in fact, between the two sites, the two fields, enhances one’s appreciation, all around.