Intentionality and objectivity: Todd Cronan on Zerilli (and me)

I mentioned yesterday that my contribution to the Syndicate review forum on Linda Zerilli’s book touched upon the similarities and differences between her critique of affect theory and that developed by scholars associated with the ‘nonsite school’ of cultural criticism. In the spirit of dialogue encouraged by the Syndicate platform, Todd Cronan, one of the editors of nonsite.org, has posted a comment engaging with my own comments and Linda’s response, addressing ideas of intentionality, objectivity, interpretation and truth. Zerilli’s book elaborates on a political sense of objectivity indebted to Hannah Arendt, revolving around the theme of the conditions of sharing in a common world with others; Todd’s comment specifies some differences and clearly states the position associated with the nonsite school. The comment is a little hidden, so here it is in full:

“There is much to say here but there is one thing in particular–the question of objectivity–that makes what many of us at nonsite say unrecognizable. So there are several problems with the idea that “intentionality is closely associated with claims to objective truth.” The first is that, for us, intentionality is much more than closely associated with truth, it’s incomprehensible without it, and the second is that although Zerilli may think there’s some connection between truth and objectivity, we don’t; objectivity is not only not closely associated with truth, it’s not associated with truth at all. So on the one hand, there’s no meaning without intentionality and no meaning without truth, which is just to say that both meaning something and understanding something are normative–all interpretations must be either true or false (or some combination of the two). But on the other hand, no interpretations are objectively true or false.”

There’s much more to say around these issues, no doubt, not least, I suspect, some important disciplinary differences across fields of political theory and aesthetic theory. Some of these issues might well be further aired in a forthcoming ‘Tank’ in nonsite considering the significance of Ruth Leys’ recent book The Ascent of Affect. More on that when it appears.

 

The Priority of Injustice: Book Review Forum in Political Geography

Another day, another review forum, this time, on my own book, The Priority of Injustice. This one, in Political Geography, is the first of these forums to see the light of day (the other one is soon to appear in the AAG Book Review). Thanks to Sam Kinsley for coordinating this forum, as well as the ‘author-meets-critics’ conference session from last year out of which these commentaries emerged. And thanks to Jack Layton, Juliet Davis, Jane Wills, David Featherstone and Cristina Temenos, all of whom found things to like in the book and who each articulate in friendly tones the things they found wanting in it. If you have trouble accessing the forum, let me know. My response to the commentaries, ‘The all too human geographies of justice’, is also available here – it focusses on clarifying the sense of ‘structure’ (and by extension, of ‘critique’) and ‘the ordinary’ that are at work in the book.

Putting affect into perspective: further thoughts on Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Judgment

Further to my previous post on the Syndicate review forum on Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Judgment (also available here), my own comments are now live, as well as a generous response from Linda herself. My own thoughts focus on Zerilli’s critical engagement with the ontological turn to theories of affect in some strands of political theory, and how her own treatment of these issues overlaps with but also differs from the approach articulated by thinkers associated with nonsite.org including Walter Benn Michaels, Todd Cronan, and Ruth Leys.

Review Symposium: Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Judgment

I seem to have spent a lot of time in the past year writing pieces for book review forums – pieces about other people’s books, and pieces about things people have written about my book, The Priority of Injustice. The first of these forums to go public, a series of commentaries on Linda Zerilli’s wonderful A Democratic Theory of Judgment, is perhaps the most interesting (and easily accessible), in so far as it takes the dialogic form that book review forums seek to perform in print/text, and extends it through an online medium. Syndicate is described as a ‘living network of scholarship in the humanities’, and their symposium on Zerilli’s book is now live, through to mid-September – the format involves one commentary being published a week, with a response from Linda, and further comments added as and when. My commentary is due to be published next week (it focusses on Zerilli’s contribution to a series of critical debates about ‘affect theory‘).

New Book by Matt Hannah: Direction and Socio-Spatial Theory

The latest edition to the Place, Space and Politics monograph series is now available, Matt Hannah’s Direction and Socio-spatial Theory: A Political Economy of Oriented Practicean important contribution to debates in geography and beyond about embodiment, practice, one might even say intentionality (my word not, I think, his).

Details of soon-to-be-published titles in the series, as well as a full list of already published books, are available here.

On Academic Freedom

The suspended USS strike in UK HEIs has thrown up some interesting debates around the idea of academic freedom, a principle not very strongly institutionalised in British Universities (See https://www.ucu.org.uk/academic-freedom-in-2017).

For example, my own institution, just by way of example you understand, has an academic freedom protocol which is structured around the idea that academic freedom is a ‘right’ that is conditional on certain ‘responsibilities’. Of course, academic freedom is NOT dependent on exercising responsibility at all – anyone who links rights and responsibilities together in this way doesn’t understand the concept of rights. Academic freedom is not a special right that accrues to certain types of people (academics). It’s a principle that arises from the constitutive relation between the idea of a University as an institution committed to free, open ended inquiry AND the fact that this type of inquiry does, indeed, need to be institutionalised in organisational form. That’s an idea you can trace way back, to Kant and others.

The principle of academic freedom is not the same as the right of free speech, which classically arise from threats from the state [& NOT unruly student protesters with post-it notes]. But like any notion of freedom, it is a relational concept. And the primary source of the un-freedom to which principles of academic freedom are meant to act as protection is the University itself. That is, academic freedom is a response to the ever present possibility that the organisation of the diverse set of practices by which Universities have to be funded, managed, and sustained as institutions capable of supporting their primary purpose (supporting free, open ended inquiry) might come to actually impinge upon and undermine the very conditions of possibility of free, open ended inquiry.

I’m not being melodramatic, just pointing out what the genealogy of the idea of academic freedom shows us.

If you think of academic freedom in this way, then you can begin to see how all sorts of recent events in UK HEIs might represent at least serious threats to academic freedom, if not its actually realised diminution. Take, again just by way of example you understand, what appears to be a rather widespread practice of Universities monitoring and trying to regulate the social media activity of academic staff members. This habit, shall we call it, is one effect of Universities importing models of corporate ‘messaging’ into their internal and external communications strategies, allied to wider changes to personnel management and University strategising. The primary imperative of University communications strategies, these days, is to promote and protect the ‘brand’ and reputation of a given University in relation to that of its ‘competitors‘ (yes, that really is how other Universities are described in this world). If you look at academics’ social media activity from the perspective of a standard model of corporate communications – and look upon academics as simply employees – then this activity is viewed either (in a good light) as contributing positively to the brand, or (in a bad light) as potentially threatening the reputation of the University. Because from this perspective, ‘The University’ has taken on a life of its own separate and distinct from the activities of its members, now seen as mere employees.

What seems difficult for HEI management systems to acknowledge is the validity of using social media as a medium for the expression of criticism of the ordinary features of University practices, that is, as an expression of a basic aspect of the life of a University as a self-governing community of scholars. Here we have, then, a perfect example of that constitutive paradox from whence the principle of academic freedom arises – a practice meant to enhance the capacity of the University to function properly ends up threatening to undermine the integrity of free, open ended inquiry. Of course, one might wonder why it never occurs to anyone that gaining a reputation for heavy-handed surveillance of ordinary intellectual debate is not necessarily the kind of brand identity a University would want to be associated with.

Just saying.