Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19

It’s not exactly good news to find out that you have been successful for a funding bid to do research on Covid-19 – it generates a rather ambivalent response, the usual sense of self-satisfaction that such news generates tempered, to say the least, by the situation that is its very condition of possibility. Anyway, I’m already over thinking things – Nick Clarke and I have been awarded funding under the British Academy’s Special Research Grants: Covid-19 scheme, for a project entitled Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19. Nick is the PI on the project, which builds on his previous work using materials from Mass Observation to examine popular understandings of politics in the UK, and which arose out of conversations between us sparked by a blogpost I wrote just at the start of lockdown, which in turn was riffing off a set of conceptual themes from a research project from what nows seems like previous life that we worked on together, which investigated what we called ‘grammars of responsibility‘ in everyday life. At Exeter, the project is part of a wider set of humanities and social science projects on Covid-19 related topics, curated by the Wellcome Centre for Environments and Cultures of Health and The Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis).

Anyway, in place of a fuller explanation of what we are meant to do on the project, which I guess we’ll get to writing about sometime between exam boards and online pivots to blended enhancement, here is the short summary of the project:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, people living in the UK have been asked to act responsibly in novel ways because of the risks their behaviour poses to themselves and others, and their role in complex chains of causation. We aim to investigate how citizens have engaged with these demands, with the objective of contributing to conceptual and empirical understandings of popular responses to emergency situations including future pandemics. Specifically, making use of contemporaneous qualitative data available through the Mass Observation Project, we seek to develop a better understanding of how people interpreted sometimes conflicting demands to act responsibly in relation to COVID-19 and translated them into practices of everyday life.”

On the Abolition of the Geography Department

I’ve been working on the ‘online pivot‘ a lot just recently, thinking about the challenges of adjusting teaching and learning provision for the forthcoming academic year, starting in September, in the context of an ongoing situation in which ‘face-to-face’ forms of education will continue to be constrained and subject to ongoing disruptions. Thinking about teaching and learning at a distance, which is what all this is about, is a particular challenge for academic fields like geography, which are so heavily invested in forms of embodied, experiential learning not only in the form of ‘wet’ or ‘muddy’ labs, but especially perhaps that diffuse range of activities bundled under the name ‘the field’. At the same time as all of this, I also find myself sitting in university level meetings in which issues of equality, diversity, racism, harassment, and hate crime in UK higher education are increasingly described by reference to the idea of ‘decolonialising’ universities and curricula. This vocabulary has quickly found its way into the vernacular of senior management and into institutional initiatives around these issues. It’s an interesting example of how theoretical ideas make their way into worldly contexts. Somewhere in the back of my head, there’s a connection between these two strands of current debate in and around higher education.

In Geography, there has been a series of recent interventions around the theme of decolonising the discipline (see for example, pieces by Pat Noxolo, Sarah Radcliffe, and Tariq Jazeel). In these debates, connections are often posited between the current profiles of academic staff and student bodies in university-level geography departments (very white); the substance of curricula and research agendas; and the ‘origins’ of academic geography in practices of exploration and scientific analysis closely associated with colonialism and imperialism (Don’t tell anyone, but before he was a proponent of eugenics, Francis Galton was publishing accounts of his travels in Africa in The Geographical Journal).

It’s not at all clear that Geography, as it is currently institutionalised in British higher education, does actually have its origins in nineteenth-century colonial exploration and imperial science, nor by what mechanism any such putative origin is still meant to be active today. It might be better to think of Geography as it exists now being formed through a series of quite deliberate breaks with traditions of gentlemanly science. That’s what the formation of the Institute of British Geographers was about. It’s what in no small part the ‘quantitative revolution’ was about too. That’s an old argument, it’s not mine. It’s also notable that the historiography of geography in North America has paid much more attention to the post-war contexts of contemporary Geography than is the case in the UK (after all, who cares about the rise and fall of town and country planning?).

I argued long ago that there is a dynamic whereby Geography’s grubby histories are occasionally rediscovered and re-animated in order to provide scope to engage, in different ways, with theoretical ideas drawn from other disciplines (most usually from the humanities). Invoking the history of a discipline is, of course, one of the obvious ways in which the coherence of such a thing as Geography – as a singular field that can be surveyed and evaluated – is discursively constructed. Debates about decoloniality are in part examples of that pattern, in which a coherent discipline called Geography comes into view as a necessary projection that is required for the articulation of a critical perspective of some sort. Geography has a kind of fantasy coherence, conjured into existence on those plenary occasions, in print and in person, when it is necessary to ponder ‘what is to be done (with Geography)’.

The idea of decoloniality is, of course, a highly theoretical one, part of series of distinctive intellectual traditions. There is a geography to ‘decolonial’ ideas, too. As suggested, there is also a heavy inflection towards intellectual imaginaries drawn from the humanities in discussions of decoloniality. These discussions in part overlap with, in part challenge, in part support a broader family of intellectual debates, including postcolonial theory, arguments about southern theory, theory from the south, southern epistemologies, and forms of post-development thinking.

The different strands of thought that make up the emergent canon of decolonial theory certainly deserve more attention, and, one hopes, also deserve the same sort of critical scrutiny one would expect any other academic paradigm to be subjected to. For example, one might explore the degree to which decolonial theory relies upon and reproduces strongly culturalist accounts of the exercise of ‘power’. One might explore the difficult question of how ideas that emerge in relation to particular historical-geographical variations of ‘colonialism’ (associated with particular experiences of slavery, violence, revolution, and independence, for example) translate to places with different colonial histories (places, for example, where concepts of indigeneity might resonate very differently, if at all, or where very precise meanings of ‘settler colonialism’ might not be easily applicable without a certain loss of geographical and historical sensitivity). This is a well rehearsed theme in this field, for example in considerations of the extent to which Edward Said’s influential account of orientalist discourse could be applied to histories of European encounters with ‘Africa‘. It’s an issue that has a certain self-reflexive quality to it, in so far as the question of how well ideas of decoloniality translate across contexts entrain deeper issues about the ‘colonial’ legacies of practices of comparativism and concepts of diffusion. One might also consider the degree to which the recent interest in decolonial ideas reiterates a style of inter-generational trumping that is central to conventions of critique in the humanities.

What perhaps distinguishes discussions of decoloniality from previous discussions of, for example, postcolonialism, is the more assertive claims concerning institutional transformation. In this respect, it’s worth considering the lesson of perhaps the most famous example of a systematic effort at decolonizing a university curriculum – the move led by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o with Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong to abolish the English Department at the University of Nairobi in the late 1960s. This was part of an explicit programme, the significance of which still resonates, to displace a Eurocentric canon and associated pedagogy, and to institutionalise African-centred literature and language programmes (as well as finding different exemplars for postcolonial African modernity, involving for example, reading lots of Japanese literature).

I wonder if this couldn’t be the model for Geography to follow. I say this because I suspect a large part of the problem with Geography, from a decolonising perspective, might be integral to the sense of vocation that might well be what most defines Geography as an academic discipline. To a considerable extent, Geography now exists institutionally in UK higher education as a clearing house for a disparate set of fields of research, some traditional ‘Geography’ fields (such as research into urban and regional issues), some re-framed fields (such as work on disease, or the re-badging of ‘physical geography’ in terms of Earth Systems Science or even Global Systems Science), and some novel fields (research on animal geographies or elemental geographies, for example). There’s nothing that really holds these fields together intellectually. While there might actually be some interesting ways in which concepts of relational space cross many of these fields of Geography, the distinctive thing about twenty-first century ‘Geography’ is that there is no systematic effort to project the unity of the discipline around any such shared epistemological object of analysis. Geography departments exist (sometimes really big ones) because of the saliency of the research undertaken therein to increasingly ‘challenge-led’ research agendas, and because they look like good models for that much vaunted value, ‘interdisciplinarity’. It’s easy enough to imagine quite a lot of what is currently collected under the label of Geography in British universities being distributed differently. In any given university, after all, one will likely find all the urbanists in Planning, or all the economic geographers in Business Schools, or soil scientists in free-standing research centres). None of this is a great problem, necessarily. It is not to say that geography has neither existence or future. Far from it. It does, however, raise the question of the type of existence and future Geography might have.

Geography does have a coherence at school level, as a popular subject for both GCSE and A Level study, but this coherence is not so much intellectual as it is related to a certain image of utilitarian value associated with Geography, not least as a subject that bridges the divide between school and university. Geography at schools has, no doubt, some intellectual substance to it – lots of sustainability, for example, and an implicit if not explicit sense of good (global) citizen-liness. It’s all too common for academic geographers to fall into clichés about the stereotypical Geography undergraduate student. But it is true that there is a specific sense of what Geography is good for, as a school subject and undergraduate degree, which sustains the relative strength of student recruitment to undergraduate Geography degrees in the UK. It’s that relative strength that in turn underwrites a great deal of the intellectual creativity of research undertaken in Geography departments in the UK (i.e. it’s because of a steady and predictable stream of undergraduates coming to university to do Geography degrees that the content of Geography degrees turns out to be such a surprise to those same students – all that Marxism, all that chemistry, all that politics, all those statistics).

The utilitarianism associated with Geography – the sheer weight of the idea that it’s a useful subject, beneficial to those who study it and, through them, to everyone else too – is deeply ingrained in the culture of the field at school and at university (and utilitarianism has impeccable colonialist credentials of course). And I am even inclined to hypothesise that it’s here that one would find the only significant line of continuity between geography’s ‘origins’ in Western colonial and imperial projects and Geography as a university discipline today. The continuity lies in a resilient image of what a geographical education is good for. It’s an image that is not necessarily formalised in print, but it is widely taken for granted, and very often explicitly celebrated. It is an image embedded in the centrality of the idea of ‘the field’ and of ‘fieldwork’ to geographical education at all levels; in a pervasive empiricism in even the most ‘theoretical’ looking areas of human geography research; in the willing embrace of the most instrumental aspects of the ‘impact agenda’; and in the overwhelming, inescapable concern with demonstrating the ‘relevance’ of geography – to policy, to public life, to advocacy, to activism. It’s in this related set of ideas of a Geographers’ vocation that links Geography at schools to Geography at university; it’s not necessarily reflected at all in the content of degree curricula (but it often is). It is reproduced through a set of embodied practices through which a certain sort of intellectual personae is cultivated.

In short, if there is a legacy that links Geography now, in British universities, to Geography as it emerged as an academic and school subject some 150 years ago, then it lies in the practices that reproduce the idea that knowing about other people and other places is a way of sloughing off one’s own prejudices, as well as those of one’s students, all for the benefit of those other people and those other places. In short, it is the idea of a geographical education as an edifying project, aimed at transforming the very sense of self of its subjects, that remains a constant, and which remains central to even the most radical looking strands of contemporary geography, from self-consciously activist geographies to advocacy around climate change. It’s that sense of edification that perhaps also accounts for the attraction to humanities-sourced styles of critical distinction (which are misleading in so far as they suggest that debates about pedagogy centred on a canon of texts are relevant to the varied pedagogies found in Geography departments. They’re not really). It’s an idea expressed most clearly in the recurring fascination with writing about ‘responsibility’, not as an object of analysis, but as the second-order genre through which a particular intellectual self-concept that underwrites the practices of a properly geographical personae is problematized as a work of self-cultivation. The ‘Geography and Responsibility’ genre is the primary way in which a plenary sense of Geography is now conjured into existence.

In so far as discussions about decolonizing Geography focus not just on the content of Geography teaching and research, but on the social profile of Geography student bodies and staffing, and in so far as those patterns might be strongly related to the utilitarian identity of Geography at schools and universities, and more broadly to the overwhelming emphasis on ‘relevance’ and ‘responsibility’ that shapes undergraduate recruitment as well as progression in the discipline after undergraduate level, then perhaps the most significant contribution that could be made to the project envisaged by proponents of decolonising the discipline would be, in the spirit of Ngũgĩ, to imagine the abolition of university Geography departments. In order, you understand, to see if it’s possible to re-imagine creative ways of redistributing all those things that currently fall under that label around different formations of intellectual personae. This is not, as far as I am aware, and despite the impeccably decolonial credentials of this proposal, something that has so far been entertained in debates about these issues.

And if that sounds facetious, well, I guess the only morally serious alternative would be to try to picture what a geographical education that abandoned the image of an edifying, responsible vocation could possibly look like.




Ron Johnston

I was sad to hear of the death of Ron Johnston, whose work has been so important in shaping the sense of professional identity of so many ‘Anglo-American geographers’ for many years. One of my prouder claims to fame is to have once taught a Political Geography course with Ron – when I worked at Bristol, responsibility for a Year 2 course on that sub-discipline fell to me (my take on cultural things wasn’t quite of the right sort). I was keen to cover electoral geography as part of the course, because it’s an important field of course, but also because Ron’s work with Charles Pattie and others is amongst the very best examples of why ‘geography matters’, in both senses of the phrase. I could have prepared and presented lectures on that topic myself, but it seemed a missed opportunity to not have the man himself do them. Ron wasn’t much involved in undergraduate teaching at that stage, but I asked him if he would ‘guest’ for a couple of weeks, and he said ‘Yes’ without hesitation. I’ve always thought of it as a little like the Marshall McLuhan moment in Annie Hall – “And here is the actual Ron Johnston”. As I recall, Ron’s lectures – clear and lucid and passionate about understanding political processes – focussed on the ways in which Labour in the 1990s had mastered the art of winning elections (and engaging effectively with the politics of boundary drawing). And, obviously, he talked to the students about Swindon (back then, with two Labour MPs – there won’t be another Labour government until they can win at least one of those seats back).

Ron occasionally sent me emails about a post on this blog, when it touched upon the recent history of geography for example, or on Swindon. I dare say that Ron was a little bit more ambivalent about the place than he let on – the last time I talked properly to him, about 4 years ago, we talked about places he remembered from growing up which were, then, for me places I lived around the corner from. I seem to remember him admitting that he actually grew up in Chiseldon, which is a small village on the outskirts of Swindon on the way to Marlborough, having been born and initially living slap bang in the middle of ‘new town’ Swindon, by the Town Hall. Most recently, he got in touch after I wrote about Swindon’s place in the history of post-war social science research, with an additional reference I had not mentioned, a fact about the political power wielded about David Murray-John (I’m not sure if this was the focus of his undergraduate dissertation), and ending with a recollection of hearing Howard Newby “on Radio 4 in the 1990s misquoting Johnson – ‘If you are tired of London you are tired of life, if you are tired of Swindon you have been there ten minutes’.”

Late last year, I found myself in a meeting of WEA tutors from across the South West, talking to a man from Tiverton, who amongst other things was actively involved in local associations of Ringers – so I asked, and Yes, he was referring to bellringers, and Yes, of course he knew who Ron Johnston was. Ron will be widely missed across many worlds I suspect.

The Power of Pragmatism

If you are looking for something new and interesting to read in and amongst all the excitement, then look out for (or, pre-order) a new collection edited by Jane Wills and Bob Lake entitled The Power of Pragmatism. Further details are here. This is what it’s about:

“This book makes the case for a pragmatist approach to the practice of social inquiry and knowledge production. Through diverse examples from multiple disciplines, contributors explore the power of pragmatism to inform a practice of inquiry that is democratic, community-centred, problem-oriented and experimental. Drawing from both classical and neo-pragmatist perspectives, the book advances a pragmatist sensibility in which truth and knowledge are contingent rather than universal, made rather than found, provisional rather than dogmatic, subject to continuous experimentation rather than ultimate proof, and verified in their application in action rather than in the accuracy of their representation of an antecedent reality. The Power of Pragmatism offers a path forward for mobilizing the practice of inquiry and knowledge production on behalf of achieving what Dewey called a sense for the better kind of life to be led.”

And this is who is in it:

Part I: The power of pragmatism
1 Introduction: The power of pragmatism – Jane Wills and Robert W. Lake

Part II: Key thinkers, core ideas and their application to social research
2 Habits of social inquiry and reconstruction: A Deweyan vision of democracy and social research – Malcolm Cutchin
3 Appreciating the situation: Dewey’s pragmatism and its implications for the spatialisation of social science – Gary Bridge
4 Mead, subjectivity and urban politics – Crispian Fuller
5 Rorty, conversation and the power of maps – Trevor Barnes

Part III: ‘Truth’, epistemic injustice and academic practice
6 Embodied inequalities: Can we go beyond epistemologies of ignorance in pragmatic knowledge projects? – Susan Saegert
7 Truth and academia in times of fake news, alternative facts, and filter bubbles: A pragmatist notion of critique as mediation – Klaus Geiselhart
8 Learning from experience: Pragmatism and politics in place – Alice Huff
9 Reflections on an experiment in pragmatic social research and knowledge production – Liam Harney and Jane Wills

Part IV: Disciplinary applications in pragmatic research
10 Ecological crisis, action and pragmatic humanism – Meg Holden
11 Pragmatism, anti-representational theory and local methods for critical-creative ecological action – Owain Jones
12 Pragmatism and contemporary planning theory: Going beyond a communicative approach – Ihnji Jon
13 Exploring possibilities for a pragmatic orientation in development studies – Alireza F. Farahani and Azadeh Hadizadeh Esfahani

Part V: Conclusion and postscript
14 The quest for uncertainty: Pragmatism between rationalism and sentimentality – Robert W. Lake
15 Postscript: Who’s afraid of pragmatism? – Clive Barnett

Cricket Books

In a parallel universe, this weekend should have seen the start of the English cricket season. I have a rather heavily mediated relationship to cricket – I read about it, sometimes (less so since the retirement of Mike Selvey as The Guardian’s correspondent), listen because it’s good background noise, but rarely watch it ‘live’ on TV or, well, live. I used, long ago, to play. Not anymore.

I went through a phase, a few years ago, of culling books, a phase which I now somewhat regret (not because I need to read those discarded books again, but because books make good furniture, and also, because I tend to forget what I have read unless I can physically see the evidence). The exception to this regret is cricket books, which I’m always quite good at getting rid of. I keep acquiring them thinking that they are likely to be better than they turn out to be, and then disposing of them. It turns out that, unlike dogs, cricket books really are often just for Christmas.

Sometimes, reading cricket books can be actively unpleasant. A few Christmas’s ago, I read Cricket at the Crossroads, by Guy Fraser-Sampson, which sounded like it might be an incisive narrative of the intersection of cricket, class, race and politics at the end of the 1960s through the mid-1970s, but which was actually a rather reactionary ramble through umpteen England Test series, which ends with the bizarre suggestion that the ascendancy of the West Indies under Clive Lloyd after 1976 – one of the few sports teams to have attained the heights of political cool – marked the start of a new ‘dark age’ in international cricket (and not in an ironic way). Lloyd ends up being compared to both Henry Kissinger and Nazi war criminals. Reading this book was like being transplanted back to The Daily Telegraph editorial page, circa 1984 (I’m less familiar with its stance these days).

I carry a certain sort of shame about my attachment to cricket. I can’t help it if an important part of my own reading history and selective bibliophilia has involved cricket books. My first sustained engagement with the world of libraries was in the summer of 1980, riding to and from the library in East Grinstead every couple of days, working my way through ‘autobiographies’ by John Snow, Tony Greig, Derek Randall, Mike Proctor, Zaheer Abbas, Barry Richards (the books by South African cricketers all had, as I recall, an interesting generic quality, revolving around protected white boys learning how to get along in the multi-racial worlds which they found themselves in once they left home).

Part of the shame probably has to do with cricket being associated with, amongst other things, a certain sort of dorkishness which also served as part of its attraction. At the same time, books are important to the forms of defence that dorky boys have against that very shame. It’s often claimed that cricket generates lots of great writing. This is nonsense, of course. Most cricket writing, perhaps especially much of the lauded ‘literary’ type, is terrible: lots of flowery adjectives does not add up to great literature.

Another line of defence is also supported by cricket’s written archive – this is the “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know” line of defence, a line particularly appealing to young twenty-somethings doing PhDs on more-or-less-Marxist sorts of topics in a more-or-less-Marxist milieu, while also opening the batting a couple of times a week wearing a silly hat.

There are plenty of ‘academic’ cricket books, or cricket books by academics – writing by Derek Birley, Ramachandra Guha, and Ashis Nandy for example. Mike Brearley’s On Form, an odd hybrid of reflection from the perspective of two professions, cricketer an psychoanalysis, would count too. Andrew Hignell’s Rain Stops Play is full-on cricket-climatology. On the other hand, there is a whole genre of low-level pseudo-intellectual writing about cricket (which can you get you the job of selecting the England team).

Cricket has an affinity with baseball for attracting a certain sort of middle-brow literary-like snobbery. On the other hand, I can think of few cricket books which are quite as smart as Stephen Jay Gould’s Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville or Mark Kingwell’s Fail Better (It is one of the constitutive conceits of English cricket that baseball is a lesser, vulgar relative. But baseball is much more traditional, and a lot less corrupt. It is also subject to a more serious, sometimes profound, degree of over-intellectualisation than cricket).

Anyway, all of this is just an excuse for another list, not so much of my favourite cricket books, not even of books I would necessarily recommend to others as good books, but of cricket books that I couldn’t imagine ever getting rid of because of the resonances they still have for me, personally. For example, Mike Atherton’s Opening Up may or may not be just another standard sports bio, but I cherish it for reading it all in one sitting on an 11-hour flight from Johannesburg to London in 2004, and remember it as a genuinely tragic narrative of unfulfilled potential fully acknowledged, and as the single most incisive critique of the parochial nationalistic vanities of English cricket culture in the 1980s and 1990s (I also have a weak Kevin Bacon-esque less-than-six degrees of separation to part of Atherton’s story, but that’s a very dull story about how my finest cricketing achievement was to not score any runs for a very long time).

Here, then, is my list of five books about cricket that I can’t imagine getting rid of:

1). It’s a cliché to have CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary on a list of must-read cricket books. Quite right too. My copy is actually a US edition, bought in the long-lost second-hand store of Oxford Books in Atlanta, and it has a great introduction explaining cricket to the uninitiated.

2). Anything by Gideon Haigh, which is also a bit of cliché I guess, but Haigh’s writing is devoid of sentimentality and full of critical distance in a way that is almost unique in cricket writing. And his book about club cricket might be the closest cricket writing has come to anything as profound as Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. I’ve also had an almost sublime book-buying experience with one of his books – in the summer of 2005, quite by accident, in between the 3rd and 4th Tests of the famously tense Ashes series of that summer, I went on a week’s holiday to Rhodes (booked without any thought of cricketing schedules I should add), and in a weird laundrette-bookshop found the perfect book to get me through that week, a copy of Haigh’s Mystery Spinner, which is another tragic cricket story. Come to think of it, there are a few of them – Chris Ryan’s Golden Boy is one of the best ever books about cultures of toxic masculinity, for example.

3). Mike Marqusee’s Anyone But England. This expresses almost perfectly the dynamic of repulsion and attraction that sustained my own interest in cricket throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

4). My own attachment to South African things was in large part shaped by the weird status of South Africa in the public culture of English cricket in the 1980s. There’s a whole book to be written about this issue, of what ‘South Africa’ has meant to Englishness – I could envisage a kind of cricketing variant of Bill Schwarz’s historical account of ‘overseas‘-ness in post-war English culture. Bruce Murray and Christoper Merritt’s Caught Behind is one entry point into a small but sustained tradition of South African scholarship and journalism that puts the romanticisation of lost generations and rainbow readmissions into proper perspective. 

5). The Wisden Anthology 1978-2006 (sub-titled ‘cricket’s age of revolution’) is a rather wonderful expression of the shift in cricket culture, traceable in the changing register of editorials from curmudgeonly reactionary Toryism to a rather more pluralist perspective across that period. I read it while buried in the first few weeks of new-parenthood in the winter of 2006-7, and remember it as being a book about a culture that I had been a witness to, and sometimes a participant in, over almost exactly that period.

I could go on. I still haven’t got round to reading my late mother’s copy of David Sheppard’s Steps Along Hope Streethe was something of an idol of hers, I think, without her ever quite sharing many of his avowed values. But I should stop. I don’t even really like cricket anymore. I just know about it.


What’s Responsibility Got To Do With Anything Anyway?

Amidst the challenges of translating more than 25 years of University teaching experience into the task of ‘homeschooling’ a nine year-old and a thirteen year-old (or, just making sure they have something to do), as well as wondering whether Higher Education institutions which are not configured to deliver coherent blended learning at the best of times should really be trying to transfer all teaching and all assessment online in a moment of intense, rapidly changing global emergency, I’ve been thinking about the range of ethical postures generated by the Coronavirus crisis. That’s sad, I know. It helps me cope, though. It’s no sadder, perhaps, than lots of other forms of self-indulgent bias-confirming commentary flying around right now.

I have been processing in my head, quite consciously, since about March 11th, a bunch of thoughts about what sense to make of different forms of official messaging, health advice, as well as various forms of new coverage, twitter-commentary [now switched off for the most part], and shared conversations with real people. I’m trying to make sense of how and why I have responded in the ways I have, and why it’s been easy to respond in certain ways, and not in others.

In the UK right now, and for a week or more, there has been a lot of discussion about whether  and why people are acting selfishly, by buying too much loo paper or going to the park. Between right-wing journalists demanding that the Prime Minister condemn ‘immoral’ behaviour, Twitter-led outrage about ‘irresponsibility’ and Guardian-esque think-pieces confirming that this is all an effect of decades of ‘neoliberalism’, there is an awful lot of self-congratulatory rationalism flying about right now which is, if truth be told, almost certainly not very helpful.

The forms of behaviour at the core of these worries, the patterns of observance and non-observance, are no doubt more or less predictable outcomes of the strategy, such as it is, pursued by the UK government, of seeking to re-shape the conduct of conduct (by closing things down) while also trying to morally encourage ‘voluntary’ social distancing. They are also somewhat overdetermined by the accreted associations of deceit associated with the lead persona charged with leading this subtle communication strategy.

I’m actually struck by how effective the main message does seem to have been communicated, as a general national discourse. It stands in contrast, most obviously to the case in the USA, which does not have a central cultural institution (like the NHS) around which to mobilise forms of solidarity, but does have a governing political movement actively seeking to undermine elementary public health initiatives.

Public health information, in normal times, tends to revolve around messages addressed to what is good for individuals, or immediate family members. Getting a flu jab is something one is meant to do so one doesn’t get the flu, oneself. Getting your kids vaccinated is something you do so they don’t get ill, but you’re supposed to worry about their health in ways not expected of you towards other people’s kids. Making lifestyle changes to reduce cholesterol or sugar levels or blood pressure is something you do to minimise your own risks of heart disease, stroke, and so on. Of course, we know that these initiatives all have a wider, systematic relationship to provision of public health care, and indeed to collective health outcomes (as made visible, for example, by the effects of anti-vaccination campaigns). But the address made to the subjects of public health campaigns is resolutely self-centred, in a non-pejorative way, and necessarily so.

In contrast, the Coronavirus crisis turns on a very different mode of communication, a different form of ethical imperative. The effort to make people social distance voluntarily, beyond the macro-level scale of closing things down and subsidising economic demobilisation, are difficult precisely because they ask people to take responsibility simply by virtue of being mere agents – that is, by virtue of their actions having effects in much the same way as Bruno Latour’s key fob or Michel Callon’s scallops can be described as agents simply because one can place them under a description in which they have traceable effects on wider patterns of action. But remember children, an ‘actant‘ is just a character in a story. On their own, lots of the defamiliarising, revelatory stories that academics tell about the links between action, consequences, and ‘responsibility’ provide rather thin accounts of what it is to be human. Rarely do those stories attain the level of having any motivational force at all. 

The crisis of social distancing strategy, right now, revolves around a very different kind of ethical address from ordinary public health initiatives – it involves asking people (or directing them, or forcing them) to act in certain ways in order to prevent or minimise or delay other people getting ill, so that other people don’t suffer. And it asks us to do this in two distinct, though related ways: by seeking to avoid directly infecting other people, particularly vulnerable people; and by thereby seeking to minimise unbearable strain on stretched infrastructures of health care. If you slow down for a moment, it’s worth considering just how complex that message is. It is, no doubt, difficult enough to convey. One could argue about how well it is being delivered. It might, also, be a really difficult message to take on board by its addressees, in ways that the much denigrated behavioural scientists probably appreciate better than they are given credit for.

I’m being asked to think of myself as acting responsibly by virtue of a capacity to see myself as a passive vector for a virus, and then to act accordingly. I am also being asked to think of myself as being responsible for a whole series of unintended consequences of that passively exercised status by virtue of being one small element in a very complex technological, social and organisational system. Oh, and to act in response to all of this primarily by NOT doing  lots of things. That’s really weird, if you think about it.

People like me – academics, certainly; Guardian-reading folk; geographers, especially geographers – are quite good at being able to place other people’s actions into these chains of consequences, from the outside. It’s what people like me are meant to do. It might even be what counts as our ‘science’. People like me are rather less good at recognising just how alienating that view of other people is, to those other people, when it is projected as a set of recommended virtues, as it often is (see, for example: ‘Brexit’, ‘Climate Change’, ‘Corbynism’). To borrow a line or two from W.H. Auden, it is easy enough to attribute responsibility for certain outcomes or even potential consequences; it is a different thing entirely to accept responsibility, to take on responsibility for such extended patterns of consequences, to ask or expect this of oneself, much less others. As ever, Iris Marion Young is the best guide to this general theme.

The standard way of trying to align the two perspectives is to find ways of getting those other people to recognise what’s really good for them and act in accordance with an externally derived idea of what they should really do. There is remarkably little reflection on the degree to which large swathes of academic work, belonging to broader cultures of rationalistic liberal good sense, have come to see themselves as engineers of acceptance.

There are various philosophical avatars for these ethical postures. I’m struck, for example, by how far the challenge of acting responsibly in this current public health crisis requires a kind of Spinozan ability to picture all the determinisms into which one’s own self is enchained, and then to find therein, from the acknowledgement of the very abjection of one’s own dependence, some power to act wilfully for the good of others. Or, perhaps it’s a version of embodied Kantian deontology. Or an other-regarding utilitarian consequentialism. These are really not very good ways of thinking about how people ordinarily do act, or how they should. An agent-centred narrative of the extended causal consequences of intended actions and their more or less unintended consequences lies at the heart of lots of analysis, whether of environmental change, global justice activism, and now, at least some of the more popular discourses around a public health crisis. These causal stories presume an ability of their addressees to reason about issues of actions, intentions, consequences. But on that assumption, it’s perfectly reasonable to suppose that the same stories that are thought, by some, to obviously have a motivating effect on getting people to act in one preferred way, will be interpreted in other ways, indeed, reasonably interpreted as demonstrating that anything I do won’t make much difference at all (that’s before one starts to think about the rationalities of ‘implicatory denial‘. As a vector for thinking about these sorts of issues, I suspect disease, viruses, will end up having a different ethical shape, shall we say, than that most often associated with ideas about the politics of commodity cultures or climate change activism.

Perish the thought, today of all days, but it might be amazing that current strategies, whether of lock-down or ‘advice’ to stay at home varieties, are working as effectively as they are. I’m not being complacent, or flippant. I’m channelling my anxieties and fears. Who knows how all this will play out. But rather than add to the rapidly consolidating genres of ‘I told you so’ or ‘Let’s take this as an opportunity’, maybe the most responsible thing to do right now is to take care over the sorts of intellectual frames being promulgated in the midst of rapidly moving events, frames which are likely to resonate far and wide beyond them.

Must We Mean What We Do? Further Thoughts on Affect Theory

The second of two pieces I have written in appreciation, shall we say, of Ruth Leys’ book The Ascent of Affect, is now available online at the History of Human Sciences site, along with commentaries by Carolyn Pedwell, Rob Boddice, and Elizabeth Wilson, plus a response by Ruth. Thanks to Chris Millard and Felicity Callard for putting together the whole set, and inviting me to take part.

My piece in this review forum is entitled Must we mean what we do? and riffs on a theme in Ruth’s work, not just in the book but elsewhere too, about the importance of understanding ideas about pretending in making sense of intentionality, action, and related themes in philosophy, social theory, and cultural studies. It is, then, distinct from the piece in the nonsite review forum, in which I begin, at least, to elaborate on the theme of logical geographies of action – the ways in which arguments about agency, intention, behaviour, action, and so on are shaped by various spatial grammars of insides and outsides, relays, environments, and the like. There’s a connection between the themes in the two pieces, no doubt, and one day I might get enough time and space, and energy and enthusiasm, to write out in neat quite what it is. And whatever it is, it might also have something to do with the overlapping set of issues raised by Linda Zerilli in her engagement with criticisms of affect theory, including those of Leys, and specifically with different interpretations of the concept of intentionality.

The Priority of Injustice: Review Forum in AAG Review of Books

The second of two book review forums on The Priority of Injustice is now available online at the AAG Review of Books (here is the other review forum; there is a previous stand-along review of the book by Stephen Przybylinski in AAG Review of Books as well). The essays in this forum all come out of an Author Meets Critics session held at the Annual Meeting of the AAG back in 2018, in New Orleans, which now seems a long time ago. Huge thanks to Josh Barkan, Krisi Pauliina Kallio and Jenni Fluri for taking the time to take the book so seriously (as well as to Leila Harris who presented at the AAG session), and especially to my old comrade Michael Samers for organising the session and the review forum. A pre-publication draft of my own comments is available here. If you’d like a copy of the whole forum and can’t access the site, let me know.


Logical Geographies of Action: nonsite.org review forum on Ruth Leys’ The Ascent of Affect

The latest issue of nonsite.org includes a review forum on Ruth Leys’ The Ascent of Affect, with contributions from myself, Felicity Callard, Phil Hutchinson and James Russel, as well as a response from Ruth herself. My piece uses Leys’ genealogy of scientific research on emotions to propose an analysis of ‘logical geographies of action‘ in recent debates in cultural theory and philosophy of mind; it overlaps (but not too much) with my thoughts on Linda Zerilli’s book on democratic judgment, not least in addressing different understandings of the meaning, shall we say, of uses of the word ‘intentionality‘. I have another distinct piece entitled ‘Must we mean what we do’, forthcoming sometime soon in another review forum on Leys’ book in History of the Human Sciences.

Spaces of Tolerance: New Book in Place, Space and Politics Series

Here are details of a new edited collected, Spaces of Tolerance: Changing Geographies and Philosophies of Religion in Today’s Europe, published in Routledge’s Place, Space and Politics series. Edited by Luiza Bialasiewicz and Valentina Gentile, this is, I think, a genuinely innovative collection, not only drawing together scholars from geography and Politics/IR and related fields, but doing so while engaging with issues in normative political philosophy too. Here’s the blurb:

“This book offers interdisciplinary and cross-national perspectives on the challenges of negotiating the contours of religious tolerance in Europe.

In today’s Europe, religions and religious individuals are increasingly framed as both an internal and external security threat. This is evident in controls over the activities of foreign preachers but also, more broadly, in EU states’ management of migration flows, marked by questions regarding the religious background of migrating non-European Others. This book addresses such shifts directly by examining how understandings of religious freedom touch down in actual contexts, places, and practices across Europe, offering multidisciplinary insights from leading thinkers from political theory, political philosophy, anthropology, and geography. The volume thus aims to ground ideal liberal democratic theory and, at the same time, to bring normative reflection to grounded, ethnographic analyses of religious practices. Such ‘grounded’ understandings matter, for they speak to how religions and religious difference are encountered in specific places. They especially matter in a European context where religion and religious difference are increasingly not just securitised but made the object of violent attacks.

The book will be of interest to students and scholars of politics, philosophy, geography, religious studies, and the sociology and anthropology of religion.”

And here is the tables of contents:

Introduction. Spaces of tolerance: Theories, Contested Practices and the Question of Context

– Luiza Bialasiewicz and Valentina Gentile

PART I: Negotiating Freedom and Religion: Tolerance, Neutrality, Conviviality

Chapter 1. The Scope of Religious Freedom in Europe: Tolerance, Democratic Equality and Political Autonomy – Valentina Gentile

Chapter 2. Neutrality, Toleration, and Religious Diversity – Peter Balint

Chapter 3. Toleration and Tolerance: Between Belief and Identity – Peter Jones

Chapter 4. Infrastructures for Living with Difference – Dan Swanton

PART II: Securing and Securitizing Religious Tolerance

Chapter 5. Religious Toleration and the Securitization of Religion – Sune Laegaard

Chapter 6. Militant secularism versus Tolerant Pluralism. A critical assessment of the European Court of Human Rights – Margherita Galassini

Chapter 7. The Limits of Toleration towards Syrian Refugees in Turkey: From Guesthood to Ansar Spirit – Ayhan Kaya and Ozan Kuyumcuoğlu

PART III: Everyday Spaces of Tolerance

Chapter 8. Paradoxical Visibilities: Purpose Built Mosques in Copenhagen – Lasse Koefoed, Maja de Neergaard and Kirsten Simonsen

Chapter 9. Mediating (in)visibility and publicity in an African church in Ghent: religious place-making and solidarity in the European city – Luce Beeckmans

Chapter 10. Charity, hospitality, tolerance? Religious organizations and the changing vocabularies of migrant assistance in Rome – Luiza Bialasiewicz and William Haynes