Contemporary Political Agency: Theory and Practice

romeA new edited collection has just been publised, titled Contemporary Political Agency: Theory and Agency, and edited by Bice Maiguascha and Raff Marchetti. I have a chapter in it, Political agency between urban and transnational spaces, where I pretend to know about why assemblage theory and actor-network theory might be interesting, amongst other things. The book arises from a workshop held in Rome in 2009, under the auspices of the GARNET programme, an EU 6th Framework initiative, based at Exeter. In addition to all the intellectual stimulation during the workshop, the occassion was also a crash course in how to do Italian food properly, beyond pizza and pasta sauce from a jar. Here is the blurb for the collection:

“This book explores and critically reflects on the theory and practice of political agency in contemporary global politics. In light of the changing relationship between the state, the market and the society, it seeks to map both theoretically and empirically contemporary forms of global political agency.

This book reflects on the theory and practice of political agency in contemporary global politics. More specifically, it empirically analyses a range of different forms of political agency and explores their significance for understanding and enacting global politics. Reflecting the efforts of scholars from a variety of disciplines from political theory and Sociology to Geography and International Relations, it brings into conversation a wide spectrum of theoretical approaches including Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism and historical institutionalism. The contributors compare a range of forms of political agency; exploring their significance for the theory and practice of global politics; and reflect on the tensions and synergies generated by recent efforts to conceptualise them.

Demonstrating an innovative and interdisciplinary approach Contemporary Political Agency will be of interest to students and scholars of international relations, sociology, political economy and political theory.”

Talking about practices

There is an interesting paper now online in Area by Russell Hitchings titled ‘People can talk about their practices’. Now, you might think that the immediate response to that assertion is ‘Of course they can’. After all, if they couldn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be able to. But Hitchings’ paper is intervening against what has become an orthodoxy of sorts, at least within the weird world of social and cultural geography, to the effect that interview methodologies, and talk-based methods more generally, are irredeemably ‘representational’ and therefore unable to ‘capture’ all that is most fecund about everyday, routine, habitual practices. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“This paper considers the value of using interviews to research routine practices. Interviewing could easily be framed as inappropriate for this task, either because such practices are too difficult for respondents to talk about as a result of having sedimented down into unthinking forms of embodied disposition or because this method is out of step with a current enthusiasm for research styles that do not focus unduly on the representational. The discussion starts with how some key proponents of social practice theory have characterised the possibility of talking with people about these matters before turning to my own experience with two interview projects that attempted to do so inside city offices and older person households. I conclude that people can often talk in quite revealing ways about actions they may usually take as a matter of course and offer suggestions about how to encourage them.”

Whatever happened to make an entire sub-discipline of human geography, supposedly one of the most important ones too, follow a theoretical and methodological path that leads to a point where an argument like that of Hitchings in this paper has to be articulated at all, and somewhat tentatively at that? I have to say that I have shared the same ‘unease’ that Hitchings mentions in his piece about having invested time in interview-style research – but then I remembered the problem isn’t really mine. We wrote about some of these same issues in our book on ethical consumption, in the chapter grandly called ‘Grammars of Responsibility’, which seeks to make sense of how interactive talk-data (i.e. focus groups) can help to throw light on everyday practices. I think the ‘non-representational’ prejudice that provoked this chapter, and seems to have provoked Hitchings’ piece too, revolves around three related intellectual moves:

1). One of the oddest, yet most resilient, themes of recent discussions about theory and methodology in human geography is the idea that ‘discourse’ and ‘textuality’ and ‘language’ have been thought of as ‘representational’ mediums until, roughly speaking, about 1996, when geographers discovered the joys of ‘non-representational’ styles of thought (i.e. finally got round to reading Deleuze). Needless to say, this is deeply silly. Doing things with words, indeed.

2). One of the recurring motifs of discussions about exciting and creative methodologies in this strand of human geography for more than a decade now has been the idea that some approaches can’t quite ‘capture’ aspects of practice, process, emergence, becoming – life itself. And some other approaches – non-textual, non-discursive ones, often ‘visual’ methodological approaches, by extension are presented as a little better, if not a lot better, at ‘capturing’ things that are in motion, emergent, inventive. Needless to say, no methodology is meant to aspire to capture anything, one way or the other. Social science is not best pursued on the assumption that what most matters is elusive or evasive.

And the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to). Knowing what some embodied sequence of movement is depends on ‘getting’ something about it, something about context, about intention, about meaning.

To presume otherwise – to presume that knowing the full significance of an observed action or interaction or sequence of events can somehow do without or marginalize the shared understandings expressed in the things that participants might have to say about them – is, again rather oddly, not only to negate the interpretative competency of ‘people’ who are the subjects of social science research, but is to reproduce a very old-fashioned preference amongst social scientists for third-person, externalist, causal accounts of action over and above those provided by first-person perspectives of participants.

3. There is a kind of ‘political’ failure involved in the denigration of language/discourse/textuality in the name of the non-representational. Geographers of a culturalist inclination have spent a decade or more worrying about the ‘symmetry’ between humans and non-humans. In the process, they have managed to forget about the more fundamental ‘symmetry’ that underwrites any such ontological levelling – the symmetry between academic/expert discourse and lay discourse. This is the symmetry at play in Luc Boltanski’s attempt to reconstruct the grounds of critique in social theory; in other terms, it’s also at stake in Andrew Sayer’s otherwise rather austere account of ‘why things matter to people’. John Levi Martin, in what is without doubt the funniest book of grand social theory I have ever read, The Explanation of Social Action, says the following about the suspicion of first-person perspectives in social theory: “Social science rejects the possibility of building on first-person explanations because, to be blunt, it distrusts persons and their cognitions”. Quite. Just because this attitude can come wrapped in protestations of it’s own political significance, sprinkled with avant-garde post-Marxist populism or anti/post-humanist self-righteousness, doesn’t mean that the basic point doesn’t still hold: the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days carries its own political imprint, one which denies the shared, levelled conditions of the very possibility of social science description in its assertion of the self-centred authority of the academic voyeur, freed by theoretical fiat from accountability to the utterances, the contra-dictions, of their research subjects.

Brains, breastfeeding, and behaviour change

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks if you are interested in the popularisation of behaviouralism. A couple of weeks ago, there was the wonderful news story that seemed to suggest that babies who are breastfed suffer from fewer behavioural problems later in life than those who are bottle fed (this was quickly collapsed into a story about breastfeeding being the route to better behaved babies – not true in our case at the moment, since our breastfed baby is currently refusing to have anything to do with a bottle, which just isn’t good behaviour at all). This science story was fantastic precisely because the causality involved in the correlation was open to entirely different interpretations – it could be something to do with acids in breast milk; or bonding between mother and child.

This week, The New York Times’ pundit David Brooks has been in the UK, promoting his book The Social Animal, which makes strong claims about the importance of neuroscience, psychology and behavioural economics in establishing the non-rational factors which explain decision-making (in fact, Brooks’ version is really a rehashed version of the low-level conservative anti-rationalism that runs from Burke to Oakeshott; it also seems in part to be shaped by a concern to account for the failure of the US punditocracy of which he is a leading figure to notice that invading Iraq might not work out too well, oh, and that unfettered financial speculation tends to lead to catastrophic banking crises). Brooks got to trail his argument in The New Yorker earlier this year, where the Churchlands and David Eagleman have also been profiled recently – if nothing else, neuro-thought seems to have become something like the ‘spontaneous ideology’ of a certain field of academic-policy-punditry discourse in which the discovery that people don’t conform to the most abstract of models of rational utility maximizing seems to have come as a surprise (while we’re on the topic of The New Yorker and economists’ models of rationality, there is a fascinating series of interviews, from last year, by John Cassidy with various economists from the Chicago School – including Gary Becker, Richard Thaler, and Raghuram Rajan – which provides interesting insights into just where the differences between different understandings of rationality and non-rationality lie within this world).

The attention, and credulity, extended to Brooks this week reminded me of a line from a blog by Alice Bell which I think I have mentioned before, in which she refers to Nikolas Rose’s observation to the effect that neuroscientists themselves are highly sensitive to the mis-representation of their field, and that “if anything, the further away from researchers you get, the less reflexive you get”.

But anyway, what was my point? One of the features of the popularisation of brain-led behaviouralism in public culture – through more or less selective reference to cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, behavioural economics, or neuroscience – is the degree to which it reproduces a deep, underlying individualism even as it seems to disavow certain understandings of individual rationality. This is most evident in the claim that various forms of action which, ordinarily, don’t seem that odd at all actually stand as proof of the fundamentally irrational, or non-cognitive, or emotional, or unconscious dynamics of human decision-making. This framing is indicative of the way in which the associational dynamics of action get folded back into an individualised model of action in specific academic fields, and certainly in popular representations of these fields. This is not my thought – it’s a recurring riff throughout Viviana Zelizer’s recent collection of greatest hits, Economic Lives, which I was speed-reading on a train a while ago now. Zelizer is keen to distinguish economic sociology and its attention to the social relations in which economic action is embedded from the approach of game theory and behavioural economics, which also breaks from excessively ‘rational’ models of rational utility. As she puts it, “game theory and behavioural economics involve modification, but not elimination, of economic models’ deep individualism” – and this is evident in the way in which categories such as emotion or irrationality effectively condense the relational contexts of action back into psychologise-able, model-able figures of explanation (Diane Coyle has an interesting, sceptical response from the perspective of an economist to Zelizer’s own project).

I’m still trying to work out how, exactly, to approach this whole set of debates in a way that doesn’t reproduce the in-built prejudices of ‘constructivist’ social theory (which would include most styles of self-styled ‘materalist’ approaches), which sees in all this simply the machinations of ‘power’ and or bad-ontology; and which acknowledges that a critical social science that doesn’t think it has anything to learn from these fields about rationality is probably doomed to moralistic irrelevance. I am beginning to get a sense of where exactly my discomfort lies, not only in relation to the popularisation of all this behaviouralist discourse, but also in relation to the established norms for being sceptical towards it. I was helped by attending part of, but sadly not all, of a workshop on the practice and theory of ‘nudge techniques’ at the OU earlier this month. This included an excellent introduction to the Mindspace report developed by The Cabinet Office and The Institute for Government in early 2010 which provides the framework for behaviour change initiatives in public policy in the UK.

One staple feature of these popular and policy discourses around behaviour change, nudging, and the like, is the claim that there are two systems shaping behaviour – a rational, reflexive, cognitive system; and an automatic system, of unconscious motivations. One interesting division within this field of policy discourse, it seems, is just how the relation between these two ‘systems’ is understood: one version of nudging assumes that government can manipulate ‘choice architectures’ not so much behind people’s backs, but by prompting them to re-interpret their actions in new ways – it assumes that beliefs, habits, feelings, can be apprehended cognitively as a route to changing them (and others presume that the in-built, automatic systems which guide people’s behaviour can be ‘attacked’ directly, without routing through any rational ‘system’ at all).

Nick Chater, of Warwick Business School, gave a very good Keynote at this workshop, in which he basically argued that effective nudging is quite difficult – on the grounds that the logical conclusion of an emphasis on the intuitive, unconscious, less-than-rational dynamics of human decision-making is that most beliefs and attitudes and habits are enmeshed in webs of relations with other actions, habits, and commitments, which makes changing any one really difficult – this is why nudging tends to focus on behaviours and decisions which are not strongly connected or embedded (e.g. rare decisions like organ donation or investing in a pension). Chater’s emphasis, then, was on the efficacy of nudge techniques, not their ethics. Of course, the ‘ethical’ worry shaping this debate follows in large part from the bifurcation between ‘rational’ and ‘automatic’ – the concern is shaped by worries over covertly shaping people’s choices in directions they might not otherwise have taken by doing things to them ‘under the radar’, as it were.

I think it’s interesting that this intuitive ethical worry is so central to debates about the use of behaviour change approaches, because it seems to get at an aporia at the heart of the ‘theory’ behind much of this discussion. Chater’s talk exemplified this – it focussed on that the sense that there is introspective depth to human behaviour was an illusion. Now, the substance of his account of the self is really about the temporalities which relate behaviours, habits, beliefs, attitudes, reflection, and so on – but the rhetoric of illusion, the sense of an inner self endowed with a rational will is a fiction, is telling nonetheless. It’s never quite clear in much of the discussion around these issues what attitude is held to the everyday, intuitive sense that we do tend to have of ourselves as having inner selves, able to introspectively reason about our actions (actually, sometimes it is clear, there is a strong strain of explicitly eliminationist neurophilosophy that sees all this as mere folk psychology ripe for correction). Am I in error to hold this belief about my actions, my behaviours and attitudes? Or, shouldn’t this same range of theoretical work be able to provide an account of how such beliefs and attitudes actually help constitute the intuitive, unconscious, embodied, non-cognitive capacities that they otherwise champion? Old uncle Habermas has pointed out the degree to which arguments which collapse normativity into simple models of scientific naturalism end up having to present the self-understanding of acting subjects as mere epiphenomena (see the essay ‘Freedom and Determinism’ in Between Religion and Naturalism).

There is a range of broadly ‘genealogical’ analyses of the emergence of these new styles of thinking about governing behaviour – I can think of Rose’s work on the brain sciences and the new susceptible subjects of public policy, the Soft Paternalism project at Aberystwyth, or work informed by affect theory which discerns the emergence of new anticipatory logics in security apparatuses or urban design. These types of study are good at identifying new political rationalities, if by that we just mean the ‘causal’ understandings of behaviour that shape various attempts to intervene in different social fields.

But the difficult question is what to make of the emergence of these new fields of neuro-enhanced, behaviouralist intervention, once the genealogical description is done. Here, I think there is a division amongst critical social scientists: you can interpret all this as rather sinister, being drawn into a trap laid down by the reflective/automatic binary, adopting an inadvertently rationalist ‘ethical’ position that one might not, otherwise, be inclined to endorse at all; or you can affirm the basic understanding of the non-rational, non-intentional, non-cognitive dimensions of action that informs behaviour change ideas, but with the help of a dash of affect theory, more or less inflected by psychoanalysis perhaps, but draw up a distinction between good and bad affect – extending credulity to the rhetorical deflation of intentionality and rationality in the new behaviouralism, but finding therein untameable resources for disruption and creativity. Both these styles of ‘critique’ end up leaving intact the claims of scientific authority upon which behaviour change discourse depends.

This is why I have found the Ruth Leys intervention in debates about affect theory so refreshing and though provoking – it does two things which seem to me to provide important resources for thinking through what a sustained critical engagement by social scientists and the humanities with a whole range of new scientific fields of the mind would look like: it identifies some key questions about experimental design, inference, and generalisation that should be asked of any scientific field when its’ ideas begin to travel; and it locates this style of questioning within broader philosophical debates about the relationship between normativity and naturalism. My sense is that this second set of philosophical debates in particular – ones in which the status and value of the concept of action is quite fundamental (not behaviour, not subjectivity, but action) – is where the deep ethical and political issues at stake for a critical engagement with the (social-)sciences of behaviour change, really lie. I’m not convinced that the current conventions of theory-formation in critical social science as I have learnt them are well placed to engage with these debates – conventions in which mention of intention, rationality, or reason are met with quizzical looks or confident dismissal. I’m still trying to unlearn these conventions.

Affect theory: Ruth Leys critique in Critical Inquiry

A few months ago, back in what for me now seems ever so slightly like a previous life, I wrote a post about Ruth Leys and her work on the science behind the burgeoning field of affect theory. The paper mentioned back then, The Turn to Affect: a critique, is now published in Critical Inquiry. For anyone who is interested in the philosophical ideas raised by current debates about intentionality, embodiment, rationality, naturalism and the like – philosophical debates rather mangled in the canonization of ‘affect theory’ – Leys’ intervention should be essential reading. There are a few critical engagements with affect theory already – Constantina Papoulias and Felicity Callard’s great paper on the selective appeal made to scientific authority in some of this work, Claire Hemmings’ location of affect theory in a broader ontological turn in cultural theory, my own colleague Steve Pile’s effort to mediate between disputes over the relation between affect and emotions – but Leys zeroes in on some of the fundamental grounds of recent claims that affect theory constitutes a wholly dramatic innovation in cultural theory and philosophical thought. It works as a ‘critique’ by presuming that the claims made by adherents of affect theory – the main objects of Leys’ piece include Eve Sedgwick, Brian Massumi, Bill Connolly and Nigel Thrift – are indeed open to rational, measured assessment, not least in terms of the knock-down appeals in much of this work made to the apparently irrefutable evidence of neuroscience and certain strains of experimental psychology (I think in fact that one of the more interesting features of this field of research is the degree to which it systematically avoids argument – both in the exegesis of its own positions, and when challenged by those trying to engage this work in a critical spirit. This field of work would make a great appendix to Amanda Anderson’s The Way We Argue Now, but it would have to be called ‘the way we don’t argue with you because you obviously just don’t get it’). Nor, it should be said, do all variants of affect theory depend so heavily on this appeal to science-as-ontology – it’s not a feature, for example, of Lauren Berlant’s work (if you don’t count psychoanalysis as science).

Leys’ critique of affect theory focusses on 3 exemplary experiments which underwrite the external claim to scientific authority in much of this work, specifically the ‘basic emotions’ paradigm associated with Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman. She restores to view the sense of controversy around each one, the complexity of the findings, and their status as ‘cases’ – thereby raising the question of whether these fields can properly serve as the supports for claims made in affect theory – including the debates around the much-lauded ‘half second delay’ upon which writers such as Massumi and Thrift have staked strong claims for their anti-intentionalist visions. One of the more important aspects of Leys’ critique is the reminder that the experiments upon which much of this work alights tend to focus on particular sorts of embodied action (the hand movements involved in playing piano, throwing balls, that sort of thing), but abstract these from the wider “intentional structure or situation” in which such actions take place – in which they take on meaning as part of practices, if you like. The anti-intentionalist frisson of affect theory depends on generalizing up from what one might call ‘generic’ fragments of actions to make claims about the qualities of whole fields of embodied action. And it also depends, as Leys is also keen to point out in her essay, on a quite conventional dualistic separation of mind from body and brain. So it is, under the sway of this sort of theory, that the mind and associated concepts have come, once again, to be associated with ‘immateriality’. Affect theory, in its purest forms, tends to impute highly intellectualist views of meaning, signification, and mind to everyone else in order to make strong claims about the embodied and therefore non-intentional, non-rational qualities of affects.

The animating question behind Leys’ critique is “Why are so many scholars today in the humanities and social sciences fascinated by the idea of affect?” A good question indeed, and I’m sure there are many reasons. One version that occurs to me was triggered by
reading a piece by Michael Berubé recently about the legacy of the Sokal affair fifteen years on. Berubé’s main point was about how the ‘social construction of science’ position that was then a staple of the cultural left has now been adopted by climate-change sceptics on the American right. He didn’t say much about how cultural theory, in the period since this controversy, has also observably invested in various styles of scientism. The strands of affect theory which Leys pinpoints would be prime examples. Of course, the scientism often goes under the cover of ‘ontological’ claims – it is part of a more general drift of left theory towards seeking the foundations for the very possibility of radical change in deeper and deeper layers of covered-over ontological depth. Simon Critchley and Axel Honneth have discerned this trend towards the ontologization of politics, amongst others. ‘Affect’ might have become, at least in certain versions of the deployment of this concept, the prime example of this trend: understood as a surface for priming subjects behind their backs, before they know it, towards certain sorts of dispositions and responses, ‘affect’ is a medium for unrestricted discipline and accumulation – this is the bad politics of affect; at the same time, the same understanding of ‘affect’ as a figure of embodied, vital liveliness that escapes the strictures of mind, reason, and cognition means that it can also function as the name for an irreducible disruptive energy – this is the good politics of affect. Ben Anderson provides an excellent, concise articulation of both aspects of this understanding of the politics of affect, one in which Foucault is finally made safe for Marxism through the mediation of Toni Negri and an account of the real subsumption of labour to capital derived from Marx’s Grundrisse. Brian Massumi provides a briefer, more journalistic rendition of the same symmetrical understanding of the good-and-bad politics of affect in his reflections on recent ‘events’ – in a piece that reminded me that the only people who still believe in the concept of ‘mass media’ these days are theorists of ‘political affect’ like Massumi, Connolly, and John Protevi.

So, rather long-windedly, my point is that the ‘appeal’ of affect might be quite conventional, in so far as it sits within a quite standard assumption about the relationship
between Theory and Politics, and about Theory-as-Politics. The conception of subjectivity in this style of cultural theory is radically transformed, no doubt – but what remains in place, in what might in fact be a retrenchment, is the idea that the relationship of ‘culture’ and ‘power’ is always to be analysed primarily through the vector of reproduction. In this political imaginary, ‘power’ still fixes, naturalises, anticipates; and resistance always, forever, only, disrupts, interrupts, suspends. The emphasis on ‘plasticity’ and ‘becoming’ is the latest on a line of conceptualization which presumes that the most interesting thing one can do in political analysis is point out that things are made, constructed, composed, etc, and therefore, it is assumed to follow, can and should be changed.

As a move within the history of cultural theory, affect theory in its most anti-representationalist, anti-intentionalist variants at least, renders impossible the analysis of the ways in which ‘consent is won’ that might still represent, and here I am just following Berubé again, the single most important theoretical achievement and challenge of what we probably now have to call old-fashioned cultural studies. The most strongly politicized versions of affect theory are formally identical to a Chomsky/Herman style of the mass mediated manufacturing of consent (again, this seems a significant difference from the Berlant-style of affect theory – in which the emphasis is on trying to think about feelings of and for attachment which cannot be reduced to the machinations of power, discipline, or ideology – feelings that are ‘ordinary’, a word that Berlant uses a lot and which marks an affinity with a philosophical current closer to Ruth Leys’ position than that of the über-Marxism through which the ‘politics of affect’ has been most strongly articulated).

One of the peculiar achievements of affect theory is to make possible once again cultural analysis from the armchair (or cinema seat), in so far as it rests on a systematic refusal to countenance that people’s own viewpoints on their own actions and practices can count for much.  The dualistic presentation which opposes affect and emotion to belief and rationality means that these two sets of attributes now get divided between expert knowledge which is available to the expert analyst, on the one hand, and the unknowing actors responding to affective triggers on the other. Affect theory redistributes the unreflective and reflective aspects of action so that all of the reflection now stands on the side of the theorist, rather than being folded together ordinarily in practice, reflection and learning. This strong version of non-representational affect theory really depends on squeezing some interesting ideas into a frame in which the primary objective is to show how Theory cashes-out as having some big-P political value – another sense in which this range of work is more continuous with other traditions of cultural theory than is often acknowledged. The judgement of the theorist, in affect theory, can be substituted for the self-understandings of actors on the grounds that affects exceeds and/or subtends epistemologically held beliefs – this is a risk, of course, that all theories of ontological depth, fundamental causes, or unconscious processes run when they are translated into politically inflected cultural analyses. Something which remains to be addressed by adherents to strongly political versions of affect theory is just what is at stake in the project of correcting for overly cognitive, minded views of action – is it correcting other theories? If so, the problem is that affect theory, non-representational theory, and related styles of cultural theory depend too heavily on straw-figures of their own construction to get any traction. But sometimes, often perhaps, there is a slippage towards the sense that it is ordinary people’s ordinary understanding of themselves and others and what can be imputed to the mind – as intentional, potentially responsible, actors, for example – which is the target. In this, affect theory converges with a broader field of current popular scientific discourse about psychology and the brain – which as Alice Bell has commented has become like ‘the weather’ as a topic of shared conversation – in galloping towards questionable conclusions.

Leys also observes that affect theory is associated with a particular privileged aesthetic, one which accords primacy to the integrity of personal responses, and invests strongly in a Deleuzian inspired model of intensities. The elevation of ‘the image’ into the central category of cultural analysis is testament to this aesthetic – Leys’ paper suggests an interesting relationship between the investment in an avant-garde model of Film and the centrality of images to the experimental fields of psychology and neuroscience upon which affect theory draws.

The final ‘method effect’ which Leys’ paper throws light upon revolves around the vocabulary of layers and levels which is characteristic of affect theory – this architectonic of layering is central to the lessons drawn and claims made about the temporality of embodiment, cognition, intentionality and action – and is another aspect of this work which Leys helps to unpick by restoring a sense of context to the scientific sources of some of these arguments.

So, in short – if this range of work is of any interest, you should read the Leys essay. I understand that Connolly has a response forthcoming in a subsequent issue of Critical Inquiry, with a reply-to-the-response from Leys.

Theorising the Crash

Now that I have finished, for now at least, with regular air travel, I have finally got round to reading a book published in the UK earlier this year by William Langewiesche (how exactly do you pronounce that?), called Fly by Wire – it’s about the US Airways plane which ditched in the Hudson River in New York in January 2009. I have not quite felt able to read this book in the midst of various flight-dependent speaking commitments (one thing which Langewiesche’s writing does, mind you, if you want it to, is make you feel a little safer about flying). Oddly enough, aeroplanes were quite important to my early reading experiences. I grew up in a household full of books, which was good, but an awful lot of them were about famous WW2 bombing raids – books by or about Guy Gibson, that sort of thing. And at school I had a subscription to one of those weekly magazines that built-up into a complete encyclopaedia of the history of military air warfare. So this post is partly about a guilty pleasure.

Anyway, so here I am, aware of the risk of seeming to be trying to pull off that most academic of conceits, which is to try to establish some intellectual sounding justification for one’s own personal interests, tastes, hang-ups – like arguing that baseball is ‘the best of all games’, or that all the best cricket writing (not much) is written by lefties – CLR James, er, er.., er…?

Langewiesche writes about why planes crash. I first remember reading something by him sometime last year, on a train, in Vanity Fair, about an accident in which two planes collided over the Amazon forest. The great thing about his writing about crashes is that, of course, you know from the start what is going to happen – the planes are going to crash. But he develops narrative tension by reconstructing the ‘why’ of crashes (think of a highly literate version of the TV programme Air Crash Investigation, which I should probably be ashamed to admit to watching, but hey, it’s sponsored by the National Geographic Channel, so it’s almost formally related to my professional world as a geographer…). The story of crash over the Amazon turns out to be about how attempts to programme safety into complex systems like international airline flight only generate unanticipated consequences of some sort – i.e. crashes.

This essay, ‘The Devil at 37,000 feet’, is reproduced in Aloft, an expanded collection of Langewiesche’s writings on the magic of human flight. Langewiesche is a moralist, of a sort, in so far as what he does in these essays is work-up a clear account of how the development of human flight has gone hand in hand with competing scientific and social scientific understandings of the degree to which complex systems are inevitably prone to ‘normal accidents’, or whether, as in the view of ‘high reliability’ theorists, the prevention of accidents is actually within human control – Langewiesche’s position seems to lean towards the former position. Anyway, I learned new things about social science from reading his books, about sociologists and political scientists like Charles Perrow, Scott Sagan, and Todd La Porte, and other exponents of ‘systems accident thinking’. Langewiesche uses plane crashes to elaborate on the relationships between technologies, organisational systems, and the idiosyncrasies of embodied, human skill and judgement. In the book about the plane landing on the Hudson, Langewiesche has this repeated theme of how the ‘heroism’ ascribed to the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, in terms of his displaying ‘cool under pressure’, is not so much mistaken as mis-described – the theme he reiterates is that both pilots pulled of ‘a work of extraordinary concentration’.  The book is a brief history of fly-by-wire design technologies, pioneered by Airbus – the plane they were flying was an Airbus A320. To cut a long story short, these technologies surround pilots in ‘flight envelope systems’, which ensure that various parameters of flight are maintained automatically, not least in crisis situations. This is one of the feedback loops of perverse consequences which Langewiesche explores in the essays in Aloft, looking at the ways in which enhanced safety-oriented design features of modern commercial airlines can, under certain circumstances, combine with the routinization of the skill and fluency of pilots in flight “to inhibit their powers of self-assessment”. It turns out that the design features innovated to keep us poor folks back in Economy safe (Langewiesche is also very acute on the political economy of the airline business as it impacts on the performance of pilots in stressful situations), might inhibit the exercise of the very reflexive skills which pilots have at their disposal to negotiate unexpected situations when they arise.

When Fly by Wire was published in the US at the end of 2009, it was rather predictably spun in terms of a scandalous de-bunking of the media-created mythology around Pilot Sullenberger’s heroism – as if the implication was that the plane landed itself on the water. This is unfair – Langewiesche wants to give the built-in design features of the plane their due, for sure, but the point about the pilots being ‘concentrated’ is precisely about locating what it was that they did so well. This is the reason why Langewiesche’s writing is interesting – it is his concern with thinking through the distribution of ‘responsibility’, in good and bad senses, across technologies and humans, between systems and discretionary acts. It reminds me of early actor-networky theory, by Latour and Steve Woolgar for example, which made so much of re-describing social theories of agency in terms of the dynamics of attributions of responsibility. This emphasis seems to have been lost in the slippage of so much of the work inflected by these sorts of thinkers into making big claims about the ontological status of various sorts of ‘non-humans’, ‘actants’, and the like. So if you are ever worried by the challenge of that sort of social theory, I recommend reading something by William Langewiesche.

Just wait ‘til after you have taken that long-planned plane journey. Better to read it on a train.

The politics of behaviour change

Another plug, this time for a Theme Issue of the journal Environment and Planning A, on the topic of Ethical Foodscapes. I was asked to write a short commentary on the papers in this collection, and ended up using this an excuse to try to say something coherent about ‘the politics of behaviour change’ – the papers in the collection all engage, in different ways, with ongoing attempts to influence individual patterns of consumption by fiddling with the backgrounds of food practices. This is just one field in which the issue of how and whether to influence people’s conduct to achieve various ‘public goods’ has become central to contemporary politics and governance. There is a great research project investigating this phenomenon, based at Aberystwyth, on the time-spaces of soft paternalism. Behaviour change is all over the place these days – in climate change debates, in obesity agendas, amongst the Research Councils who fund science and social science in the UK – it’s all the rage in policy circles, not just in government but also amongst think-tankers and NGOs. The House of Lords Select Committee has just announced an inquiry into how ideas about behaviour change are working in government. What I find most interesting about all this is the challenge this seems to present to styles of ‘critical’ social science analysis – Elizabeth Shove has an interesting reflection on this issue, also in Environment and Planning A earlier this year, which focusses on how ‘attitude-behaviour-change’ models of governance tend to marginalise insights of social theory. It is interesting, certainly, to track the ways in which certain scientific and social scientific fields are being ‘sourced’ for authoritative models of how to intervene to bring about social change – the most obvious example being the selective use of neuroscience, along with the popularisation of behavioural economics by Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. There is a cross-over here between academic research fields and popular discourse too; think of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, the success of Freakonomics, or my favourite, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics – a book which uses simple statistical analysis to develop some interesting explanations and make some entertaining predictions about how success in national and international football is determined (interestingly, this book was published in the UK under the title Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained – the difference in the title between the UK and US version is indicative of the current popularity of this style of popular social science beyond any particular specialised interest).

There is an easy default position that this style of thinking about influencing people is inherently sinister, since it explicitly seeks to get at people through less-than-fully-rational means – by either designing change into infrastructures, or by deploying affective styles of communication. This seems to circumvent a basic principle of persuading people of the reasons to change through rational argument. Behaviour change initiatives are all about ‘manipulating’ the contexts in which people exercise choice and discretion. They seem to be designed to confirm the model of ‘governmentality’ developed by Michel Foucault, of a mode of power which works by shaping the contexts of individuals’ conduct without directly intervening in that conduct. Of course, the question that Foucault doesn’t  necessarily help us with is how to know when it is a problem that your conduct is being configured, ‘nudged’, in certain ways, and when it isn’t. There is a tendency of course to read Foucault as a theorist of social control, but I think the proliferation of behaviour change initiatives is one occasion to re-visit the ‘politics’ of using Foucault. The anthropologist James Ferguson has recently argued that  there is a real political stake at play in seemingly arcane differences between conceptualisations of neoliberalism as a hegemonic project of class-power, informed by Marxist theorists such as David Harvey, and  neoliberalization as a contingent assemblage of varied ‘arts of government’, informed by governmentality theory, in the work of Aihwa Ong for example. One reason not to reconcile these approaches – not to think that Foucault provides a nice micro-analysis of the ‘how’ of neoliberalism, while Marxism still holds the secrets to explaining the real interests driving the ‘why’ (an argument made by Bob Jessop) – is because the governmentality approach draws into view the ‘critical’ imperative to think through the possibilities of alternative ‘arts of government’. Quite a lot of sexy theory these days doesn’t like to do this, preferring stylized images of contestation and disruption.  This is why the default reading of behaviour change, as a sinister way of controlling people’s actions in the interests of more neoliberalism, more consumerism, more responsibilization, doesn’t seem convincing to me – it seems to close down the more difficult form of analysis which would ask about the possibility of using devices and discourses of ‘behaviour change’ for different purposes, or in more democratically accountable fashion.

What happens in Vegas…

I feel a little like I have been ‘on tour’ for the last year or so. Since February 2009, I have presented papers at conferences, workshops or seminars in Zurich, Las Vegas, Manchester, Rome, Utrecht, Bristol, Stockholm, and Singapore. This sounds like the sort of itinerary ripe for parody along the lines of a David Lodge novel, but none of these has felt like a junket. In fact, because of relatively new childcare responsibilities that have befallen me, none of these trips involved more than four nights away from home – Las Vegas was three nights in a hotel and a trans-Atlantic overnight flight. This means that I haven’t really much of an answer when someone asks ‘What did you make of Singapore?’, because I wasn’t there long enough to even enter into the speeded-up fieldtrip to which geographers inevitably reduce any and all international conference experience. I can tell you, though, what I made of the International Communication Association (‘the ICA’), or at least the slice of if I attended. Which might seem obvious, but my point is that doing conferences in this way makes you really focus in on what it is that these sorts of gatherings are good for intellectually.

What have I learnt? Well, for a start, I have been reminded of just how much of my own serious academic reading is itinerant, as it were, done on the move, in the interstices between other activities which impose themselves on you more strongly. Travelling makes this very evident, although it’s not the only occasion when such opportunities arise – the only proper philosophy book I have read from cover to cover in the last four years is John McDowell’s Mind and World, which I read over the course of a week in January 2007 while sitting up in the early hours of the morning waiting for a very small infant to wake up and demand a bottle-feed. But travelling on buses, trains, and airplanes is, and has always been for me, an important occasion for learning, because of the amount of ‘dead time’ there is to fill (since I started driving to work, in 2003, I have felt this all the more, since driving a car is really not conducive to reading difficult theory; I have managed to listen to the podcast of Hubert Dreyfus’s lecture course on Heidegger while zooming along the A420, but I’m not so sure much of it really stuck).

I have also learnt, or re-learnt, the oddities of ‘disciplinarity’. In Rome, I took part in an intensive workshop, funded by an EU grant of some sort, in which most of the other participants came from Politics departments, but turned out to have far greater ‘intra-disciplinary’ hang-ups (between political theorists and IR scholars, between the normative and the empirical, for example) than one finds in geography. So here, I was very definitely The Geographer, which was a bit strange. This event was a great social experience; we all experienced three nights of detailed tutoring in how to eat Italian food properly. This sounds like a terrible, Lodge-like cliché, but actually this was an important aspect of making this event work, for me at least: we were spending the days discussing pre-circulated papers, each of which had a designated discussant, with a view to working the dozen or so pieces into chapters for an edited collection. This is difficult to pull off amongst people who have never met each other before. It was important to spend some time with one’s fellow workshoppers, if only as a sort of coercive force of academic propriety – it is difficult to either rip to shreds someone else’s paper, or to be too quick to take offense by critical remarks on one’s own, if you have to sit next to them choosing sugary desserts a few hours later.

I do have to say that it has been amongst folks from Politics, broadly thought of, that I have experienced the most disciplinary clunkiness over the last year, in the sense of being positioned most clearly as coming from the outside, as a Geographer. In Utrecht, shortly before Christmas, I attended a workshop on media and cosmopolitanism, which was actually more diverse than the Rome event, including film theorists, legal theorists, political philosophers, and sociologists. But in this company, I didn’t seem an oddity – I suspect people working on media issues are much more used to coming across, and stealing from, other disciplinary perspectives. Or, to put the contrast differently, I suspect the ‘disciplinarity’ of some disciplines is much more internally cohesive than some others – fields like development studies, media studies, geography, or urban and regional studies are, certainly, definable fields and disciplines, but what might account for their observable outlines are the settled patterns of exchange, borrowing and external influence which characterise them. This sense was underscored by my brief time in Singapore, at the ICA conference. I felt quite at home at the ICA, or at least the bits I attended – I had been invited on the assumption that I could talk to other scholars interested in media, culture, democracy, neoliberalism, that sort of thing, and we shared the same reference points, the same sensibilities. I heard some great papers, and actually felt more at home than I sometimes do in critical human geography – people here were talking about Robert Brandom (not kindly), Axel Honneth (much more kindly), and there was a great session on the theme of listening as a medium of public communication and democracy (see One of the things I most enjoyed about the ICA was the sense that a bunch of the people in the sessions I was involved in were struggling to find ways out of some fairly staid, predictable, disabling styles of doing academic ‘critique’ – ways of being critical which remain rather resolutely entrenched in ‘critical human geography’, where too many people seem satisfied with a shared sense that we all already know what we don’t like.

So my conferencing has, over the last year or so, been much more concentrated than in the past, but this has helped me appreciate how much serious work goes on in these events, as well as reminding me of just where I feel most comfortable. And I have, more or less inadvertently, managed to pick up one or two things about ‘local’ customs along the way, despite my tight schedule. For the Utrecht trip, I arrived in early Christmas, and didn’t immediately register that the airport at Schiphol seemed to be full of people in ‘blackface’, dressed as vaguely seasonal-looking minstrels. This turns out to be Zwarte Piet, a Dutch (and Flemish) sidekick to the proper St. Nicholas (not Santa Claus). The Dutch celebrate St. Nicholas’ day on the 5th and 6th December, so here we all were, gathered to discuss cosmopolitanism, media, and representation (with appropriate references to Deleuze, Boltanski, Derrida), amidst this big national celebration replete with racist caricatures (on one interpretation, at least). Opinion amongst the participants seemed a bit divided – the guy who ran the fantastic radical bookshop which hosted a book launch the night I arrived (De Rooie Rat) had played Zwarte Piet at his kids school that afternoon, and defended doing so on the grounds that ‘the kids really love him’. Which was kind of disarming, actually. I wonder if Dutch people arriving in England on November 5th wonder why we are all engaging in anti-Catholic rituals involving burning human figures on the top of bonfires.

Zwarte Piet was a surprising challenge to certain presumptions about liberal Dutch culture. I’m not sure I was as outraged as one or two of the local academics expected; rather, my response was along the lines of “Really? Still!”.

I had an equally surprising encounter, but of a different sort, in Las Vegas, where I was attending the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (‘The AAG’). This is the biggest gathering of English-language academic geography, and it’s a big, proper US-style scientific conference (although also oddly anarchic in its organisation). I actually found Las Vegas to be a terrible conference location – no coffee shops to escape to, where one can revise and rehearse the paper you are meant to give later in the week. I did have one great encounter, but it was in the shuttle bus back to the airport on the morning I left to come home. The shuttle turned out to have a ‘limo’-style interior, complete with a pole-dancing pole – obviously trips to the airport were not the only thing this vehicle was used for. All the other passengers on board for my trip to the airport were women, and there were a few raised eyebrows about the pole as we boarded. But these remarks had a certain knowingness about them, and as the ride started, these women, a dozen or so ordinary, ‘middle class’ Americans, entered into an extended conversation about what they had learnt in their week in Las Vegas. They all seemed to either know one another, or to be part of the same organisation. And their conversation consisted of a weird combination of matter-of-fact business talk about sales figures and future projections, and, well, sex toys. Now, I am actually quite shy, but as this conversation developed around me, I felt obliged to ask just what it was these women did. It turns out they were all reps for Passion Parties, which is the US’s largest ‘sensual products’ party plan company – these women had been attending the annual conference, the company being based in Las Vegas. Technically, I think the women I was sharing the shuttle with are ‘Consultants’ – they arrange, and sometimes host, women-only parties where, well, ‘sensual products’ are sold. In the UK, Ann Summers, the high street sex toy and lingerie shop, has a roughly equivalent line of business (apparently). These women, on my shuttle, had a great analysis of the geographies of their corner of the economy – during the ride, it was established that selling products in the South took a lot longer than in California – ladies in the Bible Belt passion-partied at a more leisurely pace than those on the West Coast, it was agreed. These women also had a complex analysis of the uncertainty of their business in a recession – couples would be staying in more in the evenings in economically straightened times. But they were also aware that they might find themselves adjusting downwards their own expectations of what people could afford in tough times, risking ‘underselling’. They also all agreed that a tighter economy risked heightening the tension they all felt that they had to negotiate, between engaging with the women who attended their parties as both friends and customers.

This was one of those encounters that had me wondering for a moment if there wasn’t a research project to be done on the economic and cultural geographies of Passion Parties. Then I thought better of it. I’m not sure I believe any more that critical social science is really equal to the sort of understanding that phenomenon like Zwarte Piet and Passion Parties really require. That would entail having a theory of fun.