Can ‘Research’ Drive ‘Development’?

Some time ago now I wrote a post which raised some questions about how the decision of the UK government to redirect a large slice of ‘development aid’-related funding to the science budget, primarily through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), might play itself out over the course of time. Well, this question is already a live public one – Eleni Courea at Research Fortnight has a concise account of how both the GCRF and the Newton Fund are currently subject to debate amongst academics, politicians, and NGOs concerning the degree to which the aims of those schemes can be justified. There is a much larger story here, I should say, and perhaps the terms of the debate summarised in this piece might well be challenged. Noel Castree’s comment at the end of this piece – concerning the implied paternalism regarding British expertise that is sometimes associated with these schemes – captures much of what I suspect many people worry about. I should say also that the Newton Fund project that I am involved in aims to address precisely that worry. Basically, a good lesson to remember is that you should never trust people who claim to be able to mobilise ‘science’ in order to ‘solve’ what are too glibly called ‘global’ problems.

Radical Cities

Newly available, a double issue of the political theory and activist magazine engagéeon the theme of Radical Cities, containing a series of pieces connecting theories of more-or-less radical democracy with reflections on city-based, urban-themed political issues and movements, with contributors and examples drawn from across Europe.

The issue contains, amongst many other things, a re-versioned paper by me, ‘What Do Cities Have To Do With Democracy?’. I just received a pile of hard copies of the journal, so if you ask nicely I might send you one.

10 Things I’ve Learnt From Being on Strike

1). Don’t underestimate students. And not only the occupying ones (but ‘wow’ to them, too).

2). My University stole my money. So did the one’s I used to work for. And they were happy that I hadn’t noticed.

3). Twitter IS a space for intellectual analysis.

4). To listen. And to be careful what you say “Yes” to.

5). If you say out loud that the University you work at has an “institutionalised culture of bullying”, everybody nods AND shrugs at the same time and it feels normal. But also that the shrugging might be about to stop.

6). That a “liability” is not the same as a “risk”. And that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with either.

7). “I think we need to call into question the basic assumptions of your analysis” CAN work.

8). That the Dinosaur Cafe is awesome, the Devon and Exeter Institute is a hidden treasure, the WEA really are lovely, and that Billy Bragg can still excite. And to get carried away.

9). Snow days in the middle of industrial action are heaven sent.

10). People bring different things to a mobilisation: knitting, cakes, crochet, placards, nerdy skills, sociable skills, organisational skills, bells, sunglasses, insider knowledge, incisive analysis, babies, dogs [not cats], Canadians, plastic building bricks (apparently), layers, obscure Latin quotes that don’t piss people off, anger, relief, and irony, hugs, Duncan, playlists, retweets, cynicism, sacrifice, coffee.

11). That what my Head of Department says is right: “We’re Good at What We Do”. All of us.

Social Justice and the City

The latest issue of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers is dedicated to the theme of Social Justice and the City – a long standing theme, of course, in GeographyLand. As the editors of this issue state in their introductory essay, “geographers maintain fidelity to the idea that the discipline should keep working to understand unjust processes within urban life and simultaneously seek solutions to make cities more just.” The wide range of issues through which this commitment is now expressed is well illustrated by the 26 papers contained in the issue (including one co-authored by my colleague Jen Bagelman).

My own contribution to this collection is entitled ‘Geography and the Priority of Injustice‘, and extends the argument about styles of reasoning about normative issues developed in The Priority of Injustice to debates in geography and related fields. While stocks last, you can access a free download of the paper by clicking on this link – or email me and I’ll send you a copy. Here is the abstract of the piece:

“This article considers the challenges that follow from giving conceptual priority to injustice in the analysis of political life. Human geography, urban studies, and related fields of spatial theory meet this challenge halfway, insofar as expressions of injustice through social movement mobilizations are given primacy over philosophical elaborations of justice. The privileging of practice over theory, however, reproduces a structure of thought in which justice continues to be understood as an egalitarian ideal against which injustice shows up as an absence or deviation. The practical primacy accorded to expressed claims of injustice inadvertently displaces a model of authoritative, monological reasoning about the meaning of justice from ideal theory onto explanatory accounts and ontologies of space. Basic assumptions about how spatial theory matters to questions of justice are disclosed by tracing the recurrent disavowal of “liberalism” in debates on social justice and the city, the just city, and spatial justice. Thinking about claims of injustice in a double sense—as involving demands on others that require vindication—calls into question the value of inherited ideals of the political significance of the “the city,” by drawing attention to the enactment of distributed public spaces of claims-making, reasoning, and accountable action.”

 

Affect theory and its disaffections

It turns out that the single most visited post on this blog is, still, from 2011, discussing Ruth Leys’ rather wonderful take-down of affect theory in Critical Inquiry (apart from anything else, this is an important lesson about always giving the things you write a decent title – a lesson I learnt a long time ago). Leys’ CI critique of theories of affect in the humanities and social sciences is one part of her broader genealogy of the human sciences. Her new book, The Ascent of Affect, is, she says, the third in a trilogy alongside Trauma and From Guilt to Shame. The new book is a sustained critical engagement with debates within and over the sciences of emotion that provide the more or less acknowledged background of social theories of affect and non-representationalism (in so far as there is any claim at all in these theories that the grand metaphysical generalisations one can derive from reading Deleuze and others aren’t just made up – to a considerable extent, these theoretical fields inadvertently offer themselves up as exemplars of the ‘autonomy of affect’, to the degree that ontological claims are simply asserted as beyond dispute and thereby effectively immunised from any critical scrutiny). The emphasis in Leys’ account is on disputes and disagreements within this scientific field – the dimension which makes any authoritative appropriation of such fields to settle arguments within the social sciences and humanities so problematic.

The Ascent of Affect came at the end of a year that I had begun by reading Linda Zerilli’s equally wonderful A Democratic Theory of Judgment, a work of political theorising not of genealogy, but one which also engages critically with the turn to affect in recent cultural and especially political theory. In her book, Zerilli takes my characterisation of the layer cake ontology of non-representational theory as pretty much capturing the essence of affect theory more generally, which is very flattering. The combination of an architectural vocabulary of levels with a vocabulary of temporal priority (all those feelings and inclinations kicking in before anyone is even conscious of it…) is the recurrent rhetorical feature of a whole genre of affect theory, and it connects it with a much broader cultural world of psychologised neuro-commentary (Jessica Pykett has recently elaborated on some of the implicit spatial assumptions one finds in popularised versions of neuroscience). It’s a feature that discloses what I would be inclined to call, ripping the phrase off from Gilbert Ryle, the logical geography of action that distinguishes this field – this theme is just now beginning to come clear for me as the focus of next book, now that the flurry of excitement associated with publication of the last one has died down.

Zerilli presents Ruth Leys and myself as providing two distinctive critical perspectives – as ‘affect theory critics’ – which again is flattering (I only ever wrote one paper and a couple of blogposts, whereas you can find the emerging outlines of Leys’ more recent sustained critique not only in her Critical Inquiry piece but also in those earlier books as well). Both Zerilli and Leys present me as accusing affect theorists of ‘cryptnoromativism’ – of not being able to able to defend their normative preferences with reasons because, as Zerilli puts it, for them reasons “always trail after affect-driven preferences”. Leys, on the other hand, sees the problem as an inability or unwillingness on behalf of advocates of the autonomy of affect to take any normative position at all – as she puts it in her new book, for affect theorists “preferring democracy to despotism is life preferring tea to coffee”. The stronger point she is making is that affect theory closes down any sense of disagreement as a dimension of life – it’s a theme developed much more explicitly in Todd Cronan’s critical account of the affective turn in aesthetics in Against Affective Formalism– where the recurring argument is that appeals to the causal power of affect have the effect of closing down any space not just of intentionality but also therefore of interpretation, and that herein lies the political unconscious of those appeals, registered in the erasure of any scope for legitimate disagreement or dispute. Leys uses my argument to specify her own point, suggesting that there is no a contradiction at all between avowing progressive causes and affirming the power of affective priming but a considerable degree of consistency precisely because the former are indeed taken to be mere personal preferences (strictly speaking, I don’t think I did rely on a sense of performative contradiction in my discussion of non-representational ontologies, which is not after all the same thing as cryptonormativism – I happen to think, more generally, that the real problem across these debates is the authoritative appeal to ‘ontology’ (or, ‘the made-up’, let’s call it) in a way that forecloses on the significance of normativity to life, which I think is a rather similar worry to Leys’ worry about the elision of intentionality).

The issue that Leys’ genealogy of disputes over the science of emotions – and especially over the validity of the affect program theory of basic emotions proposed by Sylvan Tomkins, the thinker championed by Eve Kofosky Segwick in the pivotal text in the turn to affect in the humanities – clarified for me is a key contrast, one that cascades through social theory and humanities debates about affect, between two quite distinct images of the social. Noncognitivst and anti-intentional interpretations of the emotions tend to hold to images of isolated monads, housing a brain, buffeted by external stimuli. The social here stands as an external, totalising environment (call it an ‘atmosophere’, perhaps?). It’s a very traditional image. Leys reconstructs  a counter-tradition that holds to a view of mindedness as contextual and ecological, and thereby has lots more to say about issues of intentionality. The difference might be captured by the shift in the meaning of ideas about unconscious mental activity which Leys mentions in  her book. The unconscious, in psychoanalysis, is a “dynamic-conflictual” concept, and it only makes any sense against a background assumption that subjectivity is intentional, just not wholly so. This idea is contrasted to a view of unconscious activities “as forms of automatic, nonconscious information processing occurring in computer-style subsystems capable of acting independently of the mind’s conscious control”. It is this second sense of ‘unconscious’, with or without the scientific references, that is the operative usage in arguments in GeographyLand and related fields which champion and/or bemoan the extent to which apparently wilful action is in fact influenced, primed and manipulated in all sorts of ways that are beyond the mind’s control.

The noncognitivist strand of scientific research on emotion, with an emphasis on the on the stark separation and hierarchical ordering of systems of knowing and feeling, clear divisions between insides and outsides, the emphasis on information processing and stimulus response, and its attachment to identifying sub-personal mechanisms, informs an imagination of the social reduced to monadic pre-individuals immersed in totalising atmospheres and subjected to triggers and impulses that wholly shape them. With or without the direct reference, the analogy between this reductive, if not necessarily eliminationist, scientific imagination of the social and the imagination found in humanities and social science fields absorbed by affect theory is, well, uncanny. (There is, I think an interesting line of questioning left unexplored by Leys about the degree to which the divisions within the sciences of emotions might be related to a discernible difference amongst advocates of the importance of affect between strongly anti-intentional advocates of the autonomy of affects, which tend to invest heavily in science as the source of insights into the ontology of affect, and versions of affect theory that redistribute the relations between knowing and feeling, reflecting and doing in more creative ways – the concern, for example, with issues of attachment in Lauren Berlant’s version of affect theory suggests a refashioned understanding of the aboutness of affective dynamics, rather than a wholesale rejection of intentionality).

Zerilli’s discussion of affect theory in political thought is actually rather wary of what she quite rightly identifies as the central emphasis of Leys’ critique – the problem of intentionality (recognition of this issue does not even arise in geographical discussions of these matters, beyond simplistic dismissals of ideas of intentionality and rationality as all a bit old-hat – a sign of the philosophical unseriousness of those discussions, one might suppose). I am tempted to locate Leys’ genealogy of research on emotions as part of a wider “nonsite school” of cultural criticism, since her work clearly shares a number of commitments with the broader project associated with that journal of which she is one of the founding editors – whose mission statement asserts a shared interest in “a set of theoretical topics – the ontology of the work of art, the question of intentionality, the ongoing appeal of different and sometimes competing materialisms – and in part out of opposition to the dominant accounts of those topics.” It should be said that the emphasis in much of the work associated with nonsite.org, in Cronan’s book already mentioned for example or in the work of Walter Benn Michaels, is primarily upon redeeming a certain sort of concept of artistic intentionality. I am personally not convinced that artistic practice provides the best paradigm for thinking about intentionality, and one of the important features of Leys’ book is that she locates issues of cognitivism, noncognitivism, and intentionality more squarely in a philosophical debates, centring in no small part on issues rehearsed in the ‘McDowell/Dreyfus debate’ a while ago now. This is rather more interesting, and more ordinary, ground upon which to locate discussions about the relations between embodiment and mindedness, the human and the nonhuman, rationality and intentionality.

Leys’ book raises important questions about the ways in which interdisciplinary work depends on the selective invocation of examples and on claims to speak authoritatively in one field on the basis of privileged grasp of settled knowledge in other fields. One of the central concerns of the nonsite.org ‘school’, if there is such a thing, is a focus on the implications for understandings of intentionality and interpretation of the automatism built into various artistic mediums – painting, photography, film, and so on. In one of those odd coincidences that make reading more than one thing at the same time fun, I was reading Leys’ book at the same time as I came across the cricket writer Christian Ryan’s Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second, a book all about the photography of Patrick Eagar, and specifically the photos he took in the summer of 1975 (amongst other things, it’s a book that thematises the way in which photography might constitute the conditions for nostalgia – a subtext of Ryan’s story is that much of the cricket in that summer was actually a bit crap, and he presents 1975 as a cricketing year that mattered primarily because of Eagar’s photography, in all sorts of ways – a summer when “the photography of the ballet mattered more than the ballet”). Ryan’s book is all about the relationship between chance, luck, accidents and the skills and habits of the photographer, mediated by the automatisms of cameras and remote controls. Ryan’s book should be read alongside Gideon Haigh‘s Stroke of Genius, a book about Victor Trumper, but more precisely about the making and after-life of the single most famous cricket photo of them all – both tell stories about what we can learn about habitual, embodied skilled action (of the photographer as well as cricketers) from attending the process of its representation (OK, so that’s how I read them, not least ‘coz I was reading Leys’ book at the same time as reading Ryan’s, which reminded me of this dimension of Haigh’s book which was my Christmas book last year – and not least because Ley’s narrative of disagreements over the science of emotions revolves in part around a critique of the rather peculiar way in which photographs of facial expressions secure the authority of Paul Ekman’s influential research on basic emotions). And remembering the centrality of baseball to the McDowell/Dreyfus debate, it struck me that this particular coincidence is slightly less than wholly contingent on my own odd interests – one could do a lot worse than these two recent cricket books if one wants to be provoked to think more about the relationships between embodied skills, rule following, automatism, expertise, luck and the felt sense of what is doable and sayable that are at the centre of the scientific and philosophical debates that Leys dissects – there is, after all, no reason to take cricket any less seriously than the disputed fields of science that remain so attractive to certain strands of cultural and political theory. And these two books aren’t really about cricket anyway (books which are tend to be really boring) – they are about mediation, which might just be the concept that holds the key to moving beyond the dead-ends down which non-representational anti-intentionalism has led critical thought.

 

On The Priority of Injustice IV: Prolegomena to Democratic Inquiry

Last time I was reflecting on the central themes in The Priority of Injustice, I was discussing the contrast between action-oriented social theories and subject-centric interpretations of cultural and political theory and ‘Continental philosophy’. The final part of the book seeks to demonstrate the difference that cleaving more closely to the former strand of thought makes to a geographical programme of political inquiry. The subject-centric view of political life underwrites a form of spatial analysis focussed on closures and exclusions and the positioning of subjects in fields of meaning and affective force. The alternative perspective that I develop in Part 3 of the book revolves around the reconstruction of the principle of all affected interests in recent critical theories of democracy. And, related to this, it also involves a reorientation of a concern with democratic justice around the value of non-domination as distinct from fairness (i.e. it’s not straightforwardly liberal, although it does presume that one should take liberalism more seriously than has become the norm in radical theories of democracy).

In Part 3, this argument unfolds rather slowly, step-by-step, Chapter-by-Chapter, first with a discussion of the all affected interests idea (Chapter 6), then running this theme into a discussion of the centrality of the harm of domination in critical theory (Chapter 7), and then elaborating on how this in turn leads to a shared focus on ‘the priority of injustice’ across strands of critical theory and post-analytical political philosophy (Chapter 8).

The principle of all-affected interests – that anyone affected by a decision should have some say in its formulation – is a fairly intuitive aspect of the idea of democracy. Initially, it combines two aspects – one of being affected, but also of being able to exert agency, of being able to affect outcomes in some way. It is often discussed as a prescriptive norm of one sort or another; more interestingly, in the work of Ian Shapiro for example, it is used to develop an account of democratic inclusion that privileges relations of power over those of membership (Nancy Fraser also has a moment in which she uses it in this sense, although it is subsequently revised). The only problem with that view is that it lends itself to a view of affectedness as something that can be objectively determined by some form of causal analysis (which is why it might be very attractive to geographers, and is also why Fraser ends up moving away from it, on the grounds that it is an idea that supports ‘monological’ forms of reasoning). I suggest in Chapter 6, Claims of the Affected, that one can actually divide the first sense – of being affected – into two, a sense of having an interest in an issue in a kind of objective way, and a sense of taking an interest in an issue, in a sort of subjective way. It’s a distinction that is sometimes made in a prescriptive way (in Shapiro, I think, and also in Robert Goodin’s work on this theme), but sometimes embraced as opening up the idea of affectedness in more fun directions (by Bruno Latour, for example, but Robert Dahl got there first). So, I end up with a threefold heuristic distinguishing between being affected, being moved, and having agency – and then, I suggest that one can use this threefold account of affectedness to better appreciate the importance of Habermas’s translation of the principle of all affectedness into the terms of a theory of communicative action, and how various critics of Habermas further extend this translation in more explicitly contestatory and less rationalistically rationalist visions of democratic politics.

Oh, and all of this is framed by an argument against the presumptive “methodological globalism” of critical theories of democracy (i.e. their suspicion of local, emplaced, bounded, nationalised forms of political life). I close this chapter by suggesting that the threefold version of affectedness maps roughly onto three questions one can ask about the spatial registers of political action – questions about how spatial relations generate issues, serve as mediums for their apprehension as issues, and as potential vectors for effective agency, or not as the case may be (that’s an argument that I have made elsewhere at greater length than I do in this book – here and here, for example).

With what I am sure is a seamless segue, the argument then moves onto Chapter 7, Subjects of Domination, which works back over the theme of all affectedness to tease out the centrality of the harm of domination to recent critical theories of democracy – the discussion centres in particular on Iris Marion Young, my favourite thinker ever, as well as Nancy Fraser, and with a nod to Philip Pettit (not quite perhaps of this same tradition, but an important reference point for it). One thing to underscore about the concern with centring discussions of democratic justice on the issue of domination – of the arbitrary subjection to the will of others – is that it marks a decisive difference separating critical theories of democracy from liberal theories of democracy. Now, I’m quite fond of liberalism, of certain sorts, but of course in TheoryLand it’s a knock-down target – too individualistic, too rationalistic, too universalizing, not radical enough, and so on and so on. In terms of the discussion in this chapter of my book, since it is moving towards an elaboration of the theme of injustice, the pertinent point about egalitarian liberal theories of justice is that they prioritize the value of fairness, in terms of what one is due, of just deserts, fair shares. That’s not a principle to be lightly dismissed, of course. But from the critical theory perspective, the emphasis is not on fairness but upon matters of arbitrary rule – of how one is treated (the distinction is important, for example, for appreciating why Habermas isn’t properly characterised when labelled as a liberal; not that there’s any shame in being one of those, of course). And this matters because it recasts how geography enters into the critical theory imagination of democracy – here, James Bohman’s work is exemplary, because he elaborates on a sense of distanciated and distributed spatial relations as mediums through which people are exposed to to subjection to arbitrary rule by others, or, they are made vulnerable to domination.

Somewhere in all of that, I think I am trying to gesture at a difference between two ways of thinking about “why relationality matters politically”. Thinking of the strung-out relational constitution of social life is not interesting, politically, because it’s a way of telling moral stories about the constitution of identities through disavowal or by revealing the fact of being bound into other people’s actions without knowing it. It is interesting for a much more serious reason, but also perhaps a less all-encompassing one, related to questions of agency and consent and domination (again, Young is the best guide here).

Having got this far – having re-cast the idea of all affectedness and then related it to the value of non-domination, the story moves on to Chapter 8, The Sense of Injustice, in which the theme of the priority of injustice is explicitly elaborated. This theme kind of crept up on me as I was writing the book in 2015. And I’m still trying to work out quite what it involves. The idea as I present it in this Chapter has various sources, perhaps most importantly Judith Shklar’s book The Faces of Injustice, but also Elizabeth Wolgast, and some similar looking ideas in Hannah Pitkin and Cora Diamond, as well as a more systematic consideration by Thomas Simon in Democracy and Social Injustice. There is something vaguely ordinary linking this strand of reflection on the theme. I link this strand of thought to another strand, coming out of critical theory, especially Axel Honneth – and through back him to Barrington Moore, Jr. – and also Rainer Forst. And then, thirdly, a strand of thought which is basically Amartya Sen, most explicitly in his The Idea of Justice. Finally, Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, another book that starts off from Shklar’s provocation, and which is a really interesting combination of analytical political philosophy and strands of poststructuralist feminist theory.

That may or may not seem like a random collection of thinkers, but I think it is actually quite tightly drawn together around a shared prioritization of the sense of injustice as the dynamic of democratization. The argument for the priority of injustice, or at least my grasp of it, goes something like this:

  • First, determinations of injustice can and are made independently of a prior theory of justice (or, to put it another way, you don’t need a universal theory of justice to make judgments about the injustice of a situation).
  • Second, this follows from the fact that injustice has its own texture, a phenomenology of its own (though not a singular one, for sure) – it is not simply a function of the absence of justice or the failure of some party to act justly. Injustice is better understood on the analogy of health and disease (a thought that first came to me at the suggestion of Jouni Häkli on one of the early occasions when I tried to talk about all of this) – illness is not an absence of health, it is a positive condition – diseases have causes and conditions all of their own. One has a cold, or catches the flu.
  • Thirdly, injustice is felt (rather than rationally apprehended by reference to principles) – there are different versions of this argument, in Shklar, Moore, Honneth and others. One implication is that negative feelings – anger, revenge – might be important animating passions of struggles against injustice. But this also has implications for how one imagines the possibility of developing a democratic methodology of the sort implied by Shklar’s argument that the expressions by victims of injustice should be accorded a privilege of some sort (I try to outline some of those implications in the ‘supplementary’ paper on Geography and the priority of injustice).

There’s a lot more to say about this whole theme – it’s a long chapter! One thing that follows from it is that we would do well to not think that justice is an ideal, without thinking the smart thing that follows from that observation is that it is a mere illusion. Justice is done as a response or remedy to some harm or other – it is not a pure phenomenon poorly realised, it is a mark both of an imperfect world and of the possibility of betterment. Which is a thought that might route us back to the theme of the ‘ethnographic emergence’ of the meaning of normative values that was discussed earlier in the book – in given contexts, the meanings of justice, for example, will bear the historical traces of specific harms and compromises, and it might be worth exploring the consequences of that fact.

Another issue that arises from all this is the proposition that injustice is a public phenomenon, related to an argument about the double sense in which claims-making is made central to the recognition and redress of injustices: claims as assertions made against a certain state of affairs and addressed to others, and assertions as acts which need to be processed in some sense or other. That’s a theme I need to develop further and the full implications of which require deeper analysis – not least, I think because it might be key to avoiding what I can see might well be a potential trap for any injustice-centred account of political life, an issue identified in Samuel Moyn’s genealogy of the rise of the politics of human rights since the 1970s. One of the Moyn’s suggestions is that the rise of human rights as an alternative global activist imagination and associated ascendancy ideals of human dignity embedded in human rights campaigning, in law, and in political philosophy involves a redefinition of the relations between morality and politics “around the worst than can transpire in history, rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle” (see Moyn, S. 2014. Human Rights and the Uses of History. London, Verso, p. 33). One challenge of developing an injustice framework is, then, to work through how to avoid this problem of settling, as it were, for trying to avoid the worst rather than striving towards doing things better. But that might be for another book.

Anyway, so that is the narrative sequence of Part 3 of The Priority of Injustice, and it makes perfect sense in my head – reconstructing the theoretical significance of the theme of affectedness in democratic theory (Chapter 6), opening this out to a consideration of the specific form of harm, domination, made central in critical theories of democracy (Chapter 7), and then drawing these two strands together by teasing out the shared emphasis on the priority of injustice in what might appear to be disparate traditions of political thought (Chapter 8).

Now the book is finished, I have to decide what to do next with this whole argument.

 

 

 

 

 

On The Priority of Injustice III: Changing the Subject:

The third theme that I have noticed running through The Priority of Injustice in my own re-read through of the whole thing follows on from the themes of ‘spatial grammar’ and the imperative of not seeking to correct other people’s flawed ontologies that I have already mentioned. I have come to view with deep distrust views of the task of Theory as a means of laying bare the aesthetic or affective or cognitive devices that reproduce people’s subjection. The idea that ‘people have been got at’, as Alan Sinfield once put it, is a recurring theme of a great deal of contemporary critical thought, especially when influenced by traditions of ideology critique – an influence that can be traced from theories of ideological state apparatuses through ideas about discourse and representation through to current fascinations with affect and atmospheres and algorithms. Across this range, the idea that politics – both of the sort one doesn’t approve and of the sort one hopes to support – works through changing the subject is a constant.

My interest in the theme of the ordinary is in no small part shaped by an effort to find a way of thinking that escapes the scholastic frame of reference that underwrites the ‘changing the subject’ paradigm. The ordinary is a theme that one can find in various thinkers – in Raymond Williams or Charles Taylor, for example, it is used as a counterpart to ideas of the privileged or the elect qualities of culture. This sense does have some presence in the more specific, but also somewhat elusive, sense of the ordinary that is indebted to Stanley Cavell’s work, elaborated, for example, in the writings of Veena Das. Ordinariness, in a Cavellian spirit, is a matter of affirming that the experience of the distance between the given and the possible is not an extraordinary one – it does not require a crisis, or a rupture, or some disruption of routine for this distance to be felt or apprehended. One reason that this affirmation is important, in relation to theories of subjectivity and subjectification, is that it throws into new relief the interpretation of contingency, whether of meaning or identity. The trick of being able to see all settled or inherited patterns of meaning as arbitrary (and interpreting arbitrariness as basically the same as ‘changeable’) easily leads to a scholastic temptation, as defined by Pierre Bourdieu, of projecting back onto practices under investigation the distance (social and analytical) that enables them to be objectified in the first place, and then transposing the revealed distance between the theoretical possibility of change and practical acceptance into a theory of power (i.e. power works by fixing and naturalising what are in fact fluid and contingent relations). Invoking Cavell, I would argue that this whole way of thinking misplaces “the vulnerability to doubt” that is one of his phrases for the ordinary, by failing to see that skepticism is a constant standing possibility of life, or, as I put it in the book, by not accepting the fact “that the world as we know it is not all that it may seem is an ever-present condition of action”.

Reflecting on all this as I have re-read my own book has made me think that there is actually a really interesting shift evident in the way in which change is figured in social theory over the last couple of decades (a shift that is really a line of important division, not a succession from one way of thinking to another). Explaining social change is, of course, a fairly basic concern of all sorts of social science, and usually involves some genre or another in which action is placed within a broader frame of context, or conditions, or constraint. Various traditions of thought, from the historicism of Weberian sociology to dialectically informed Marxism to theories of resilience, all tend to take it for granted that change is an intrinsic feature of social life – what’s a stake is how it is manifested. But with the ascendancy of subject-centred theories, under the sway of poststructuralist theories and the turn to ontology in particular, one can see the emergence of a different interpretation of change. In these strands of thought – whether it in theories of hegemony or of the distribution of the sensible or ontological politics or assemblage – it is presumed that the task of theory is to account for the stabilisation, ordering, or fixing of life into patterns of serial reproducibility. Change, in these accounts, is extraordinary – the objective is to establish theoretically the very possibility of change itself.

The difference here – between thinking of change as an ordinary feature of life that is manifested in various ways, or thinking of change as a rare event that interrupts orderly routines and stable patterns – seems to me now to be quite central to the contrast that I work through in The Priority of Injustice between action-oriented styles of social theory and subject-centric theories (which would include theories that remain fixated on demonstrating the illusory qualities of ‘the subject’). The latter traditions of thought are strongly attached to images of change as a punctual event – the echoes of classical ideas of revolution remain clear – that disrupts otherwise settled, more or less fixed habits. In the book, I suggest that this range of theory shares in an “unexamined idea of time: political time consists of a kind of punctuated equilibrium, where moments of dramatic and wholesale transformation of entire fields of action interrupt periods of durable and predictable routine.”

The set of relations between concepts of subjectivity-as-subjectification, ontologies of order, and images of change is in turn related to a remarkably resilient, shall we say, notion of the tasks of critique, understood primarily as a practice of denaturalization of apparently naturalized phenomenon – of demonstrating the theoretical possibility of the change-abilty of practices that are, apparently, lived and experienced as eternal and inevitable (the assumption that this is how life is ordinarily lived and experienced is, to reiterate, best thought of as a necessary projection of the methodological protocols derived from ontologized theories of subjectification).

The difference between action-oriented theories and subject-centric ones is partly related, in my discussion, to different attitudes to what Maeve Cooke calls “the justificatory dilemma” facing any avowedly critical theory, referring to the responsibility to justify that existing relationships both can and should be changed. To cut a long story short, subject-centric theories tend either to elide the problem of validity (justifying the vision of alternative futures that underwrites critique) into demonstrations of the plausibility of change, or, if more honest, they elevate openness to change and defamiliarization as the highest normative aspiration available to us (as the very essence of democracy, for example). The difference between these two styles of theory is the central narrative device in The Priority of Injustice – in particular, I use a simple contrast made by Axel Honneth to organize my discussion and evaluation of various strands of democratic theory. Honneth suggests that there are two broad paths out of what he calls the ‘productionist paradigm’ of critical theory (i.e. classical Marxism), in which substitutes for the lost faith in the universalizing agency of the industrial proletariat are found either in more pluralised accounts of rationalities of action (i.e. there’s more to life than labour), or in the search for deep ontological sources of the principle of negativity once invested in the working class (i.e. in antagonism, in abundance, lack, or even more perfectly, in the very gaps and fissures of ontological difference itself).

As you can probably tell, I am drawn towards the action-oriented strands of thought that Honneth points towards, and this informs my attempt to redeem something of value from the increasingly predictable literature on ‘the political’. If there is something distinctive that defines ‘the political’, then it’s not found in some irreducible force of antagonism, or in us/them relations, or in the ever present fact of violence. I commend Mary Dietz’s argument that what defines politics is an irreducible dimension of strategic action – this Machiavellian perspective helps us see that Foucault is the exemplary theorist of politics for our times, because Foucault is fascinated by strategic forms of action (that’s what Habermas and other similar thinkers haven’t liked about his work, and this dislike is what helps us see Foucault as first and foremost a theorist of action rather than ‘power’ -or, that what’s interesting about what he has to say about ‘power’ is the parts which are couched in the vocabulary of action). And all of this just means that rather than thinking of the distinction between politics and the political on the layer-cake analogy derived from political readings of Heidegger, it’s best thought of as directing our attention to the analysis of the different ratios between action and its conditions (that’s a reference to Kenneth Burke that I don’t make in The Priority of Injustice, but which I am thinking of developing properly in my next book).

Another thing to say about all of this is that the contrast between overly ontological readings of ‘the political’ and more ‘phenomenological’ versions that I prefer almost, but not quite exactly, maps directly onto the related contrast between realist/disassociative interpretations of the political and idealist/associative interpretations – my claim is that the significant choice is not between a grim and realist view of politics versus a rosier, more collective view; it’s between more social-theoretical traditions of action theory versus more culturalist-philosophical styles of subject-centric thought.

This argument about concepts of action and the subject is important because it goes to the central issue of how to understand democracy as a mode of the sharing of rule. There are different images of ‘sharing’ available to us, after all – it can be understood in terms of the singular will of all, or on the model of naturalistic consensus found in anarchism, or of being duped into acceding to rule by identifying with available distributions of the seeable and sayable, or, if you prefer, in terms of being bound to respect decisions to which one was at least in some respect a party. Subject-centric views of political life tend to rely on rather wooly ideas about consensus – consensus tends to be used to refer to any and all occasions in which action can be shown to accord to or attune with various background conditions, so that it isn’t even the name for a process of agreement. The relevant value in democratic theory isn’t really consensus anyway (not even in old uncle Habermas), it’s consent, which isn’t the same thing – consent has to be sought or won, and is almost certainly always grudging anyway, but the importance of holding this contrast open – between straw-figures of consensus and ideas of consent – is that it roots us back towards the importance of analysing the relations between ‘the politics of power’ and ‘the politics of support’ (I discuss all of that in Chapter 4 of the book, The Scandal of Consent, in which the dividing line between action-oriented theories and subject-centric theories is located within broadly poststructuralist strands of thought, so that Stuart Hall and Partha Chatterjee are shown to be much better guides to the dynamics of democratic politics than Laclau and Mouffe or Ranciere).

There is a geographical dimension to this strand of my argument too, in case you were wondering. A chain of associations derived from the subject-centric strand of thought has come to define a veritable paradigm of spatial politics in human geography, urban studies, and related fields:

  • the image of political time that contrasts images of settlement and order with moments of interruption and rupture lends itself to a view of proper politics as best exemplified by dramatic disruptions in and of public space;
  • it underwrites the view that proper politics inhabits margins and fissures, offset against mainstreams and the status quo;
  • it is closely associated, as we have seen, with a view of critique as a process of defamiliarization;
  • and it supports and is supported by understandings of how people’s subjectivities are functional effects of mediated systems of malevolent power.

Here then, the long shadow of Althusser’s notion of interpellation is still evident – it is the master-metaphor that one so often still finds governing the political interpretation of all sorts of other theory or theorists, all the way from Foucault to psychoanalysis and various points between. This combination of associations finds expression in an explicitly spatial model of politics as changing-the-subject:

  • subjects are formed, in this paradigm, by being ‘enframed’, by being set-in-place (before a painting, a chain of signifiers, a field of perception, a structure of address, or just immersed in an atmosphere);
  • throw in an orthodox interpretation of the relational formation of subjectivity, in which any collective identity as ‘We’ is constitutively posited against an abjected ‘Them’ (an interpretation of favoured sources that is just wrong), so that subject-formation appears as form of exclusionary territorialization;
  • and you arrive at a framework for analysing any and all practices as scenes for the reproduction of various exclusions and/or always potential sites for the creative reconfiguration of the imaginary identifications before which people remain, in the last instance (as they say), necessarily enthralled.

That, then, is what I am trying to work through, particularly in Part 2 of The Priority of Injustice, although these themes run across the whole thing. As I say, the contrast between action-oriented and subject-centric theories, which you may or may not find too stylized for your own tastes, captures for me something important that allows me to differentiate between strands of thought often bundled together in discussions of poststructuralism, or Continental philosophy, or political ontology – basically, I use this distinction to peel off various thinkers from that broad grouping, and draw them closer to strands of thought working a Habermasian vein with which they are normally not be associated. But I’ll say a little more about that re-arrangement next time.