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.

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.