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

Learning from other regions: new book on climate change initiatives in Cape Town

Here are details of a new book, co-edited by my friend and sometime co-author Di Scott, elaborating on collaborative urban policy initiatives to address climate change issues in and around Cape Town. The book is just one example of a wide range of innovative theoretical, empirical and applied research on urban issues emanating from South African ‘urban studies’, broadly defined.

Here’s a link to the flyer for the book, and here is the blurb:

“Cape Town’s drought crisis grabbed global headlines in 2018 and its causes and solutions were – and continue to be — hotly debated. But managing water shortages and other climate change impacts have been integrated into the city’s urban policy-making for some time, in response to rapid urbanisation and uncertainty about the exact nature, timing and magnitude of city-scale climatic changes. This book presents initiatives at the local government level, across a range of departments, from environmental resource management to housing, stormwater management, water management, energy management and spatial planning. In addition, it records the progress made and challenges faced in mainstreaming climate change into urban policies, processes, programmes and practices, a problem facing most urban areas around the world. The text was co-produced by academics and municipal officials, including economists, engineers, ecologists, geographers and planners, who worked collaboratively in a process of mutual learning. This hybrid process, where practitioner experience is coupled with an academic and research perspective, has produced an ‘insider’ view of urban development and climate change governance through the lens of theory. The result provides new practice-based knowledge for policy-making in the transition towards more sustainable cities in the face of climate change, particularly those in the global South.”

 

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.