Geography and ethics: the last word

DSCF1152Better late than never, the third and final of my ‘progress reports’ on the theme of Geography and Ethics is now available on the Online First page of Progress in Human Geography. This one is sub-titled ‘From moral geographies to geographies of worth‘ (and was actually completed almost two years ago). It discusses various streams of contemporary social theory in which ‘normative’ questions are approached in more or less ordinary, non-moralistic ways. As I have said previously, I have a sense of these three reviews adding up to a single narrative of sorts, though I’m not quite sure I can now remember what it was exactly, without going back and reading them all in succession. I understand that the next set of reviews on this theme are going to be written by Betsy Olsen, who I’m sure will bring a fresh perspective.

Here is the abstract for my final piece:

“Geographers’ discussions of normative issues oscillate between two poles: the exhortation of ‘moral geography’ and the descriptive detail of ‘moral geographies’. Neither approach gives enough room for ordinarily normative dimensions of action. Recent philosophical discussions of the implicit normativity of practices, and ethnographic discussions of the ordinary, provide resources for developing more modest accounts of normativity and practical reasoning. The relevance to geography of recent re-evaluations of the place of reflection and thought in habitual action is illustrated with reference to the antinomies which shape debates about the ethics and efficacy of behaviour change initiatives. The potential for further developing these insights is explored with reference to the normative turn in contemporary social theory, which includes discussions of conventions, practices of justification, lay normativity, phronesis, recognition and orders of worth. The potential contribution of philosophies of action and intentionality and social theories of the normative for moving geography beyond the impasses of moral geography versus moral geographies depends on suspending an inherited wariness about the normative, which might be helped by thinking of this topic in more ordinary ways. The outlines of a programme for geographies of worth are considered.”

Deflating political ontology

Scan 130260001Looking for something else, I came across a piece by Martin Saar on the theme of
What is Political Ontology? It’s in the Dutch journal Krisis, and it is a review of the expanded, German-language edition of Oliver Marchart’s book on post-foundational political thought (it appears to have added a discussion of Agamben, amongst other things).

Saar raises three related questions at the end of his review. First, he notes that there might be more than one understanding of ‘ontology’ flying around discussions of political ontology and ontological politics – in addition to the by now rather standard Heideggerian-inflected one that Marchart elaborates, he notes a Deleuzian-materialist-pluralist style, and also a ‘social ontology’ version related to Hegelian-inflected styles (like Honneth I guess). He does not mention, but one might throw into the mix, the sense of ‘ontological politics’ that circulates around STS/ANT-inflected worlds, from Latour, John Law, Anne-Marie Mol and the like. This seems to be a quite distinctive (and preferable) notion of onto-talk, one which is more concerned with tracing the deep commitments that shape practices (as a result, it also seems to find it difficult not to find itself constrained to invent new and more complex ways of saying ‘constructed’), rather than making very grand philosophical claims about the foundationally post-foundational contingency of necessary contingency.

Saar’s second point is one about the practice of philosophy that political ontology represents – this is the theme that animates me, the sense that work of this sort is characterised by certain sorts of rhetorical and argumentative devices and conventions that might, if you look at them carefully, be somewhat at odds with proclamations about a democratic/emancipatory ethos and such things. And it relates to the third point that Saar raises, about the degree to which elaborate political ontologies premised on variants of the politics/political distinction struggle not to reduce ‘real’ politics to so many stylized facts which confirm one or other of the a priori propositions laid out by the theory – they are always cashed-out as ‘applied political ontology’ as Saar puts it.  Again, a key difference from the ANT-STS style of ‘onto-pol’ talk, which informs rather more robust, that is, tentative, empirical work than does standard philosophized political ontology, whose great contribution to methodology has been to develop a weird style of semiotized ‘Discourse Theory’ which reduces all politics to a practice of naming (I find the claim made by adherents to the ontological-difference-equals-political-difference style of political theory which Saar is discussing in this piece, to the effect that this work is distinctive because unlike other political theories it puts conflict, contestation and antagonism at the centre of things, rather unconvincing on the face of it – this is an emphasis in all sorts of work, from Michael Walzer to Bernard Crick. What might be distinctive is the insistence on deriving these facets of political life from more or less elaborate philosophical claims about contingency, or lack, or abundance; and it is this move that seems to shape the methodological pay-offs of such work, which point in the direction of looking at what, in another theoretical idiom, one might call processes of framing as the privileged focus of analysis).

Geography and ethics: placing life in the space of reasons

Following on from a recent post about the first of three progress reports on Geography and Ethics for Progress in Human Geography, the second of these is now published on-line here – it will be published in a print edition subsequently. This report considers the relevance to geography and cognate fields worried about ‘space’, which have tended recently to derive ‘ethics’ as a kind of excess from poststructuralized ontologies, of discussions amongst philosophers who don’t normally show up under the heading of ‘Continental Philosophy’, who have been busy debating issues of naturalism, intentionality, mindedness, embodiment, and normativity in interesting and challenging ways – thinkers like John McDowell, recently in debate with Hubert Dreyfus, Robert Pippin, Robert Brandom, Stanley Cavell. This range of work focuses on the ordinary ways in which normativity inhabits and shapes our practices – so it overlaps in some interesting ways with the social theory projects of, for example, Andrew Sayer, Axel Honneth, and Luc Boltanski, and some others, floating around at the edges of geography debates, but again, not quite managing to become central to those debates – I’ll try to explain how and why in the final one of these reports, which I have to write later this year. And try to do so in about 3000 words. Here is the abstract for the second piece:

“Discussions of ethics in recent human geography have been strongly inflected by readings of so-called ‘Continental Philosophy’. The ascendancy of this style of theorizing is marked by a tendency to stake ethical claims on ontological assertions, which effectively close down serious consideration of the problem of normativity in social science. Recent work on practical reason emerging from so-called ‘Analytical’ philosophy presents a series of challenges to how geographers approach the relationships between space, ethics, and power. This work revolves around attempts to displace long-standing dualisms between naturalism and normativity, by blurring boundaries between forms of action and knowledge which belong to a ‘space of causality’ and those that are placed in a ‘space of reasons’. The relevance of this blurring to geography is illustrated by reference to recent debates about the relationships between rationality and habit in unreflective action. Ongoing developments in this tradition of philosophy provide resources for strengthening a nascent strand of work on the geographies of practical reason that is evident in work on ethnomethodology, behaviour change, and geographies of action.”

Sloterdijk, Honneth, and the politics of ‘provocation’

One of the theorists who is all the rage in spatial-theory-land at the moment, subject of a veritable ‘second coming’, is German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. Society and Space had a special issue on his work a year or so ago, and Stuart Elden has edited a collection of essays on his work which is forthcoming. It’s interesting to watch this process, in particular the finessing of Sloterdijk’s political interventions. Sloterdijk is a professional provocateur, and amongst the various ‘controversies’ he has triggered in the world of German letters revolves around a Ayn Rand-like assault on the welfare state in 2009. I’m a bit slow, so am only now catching up on this, because I’m trying to write something about Honneth. You can read a summary of Sloterdijk’s position in English here in Forbes magazine or here in City Journal, both resolutely proud free-market publications. You can read Axel Honneth’s substantive response to Sloterdijk in translation here. Apart from the obvious politics to this (see the commendation of Sloterdijk by the National Review) there is also a dispute about how to interpret the role of various emotional dynamics in political life – a central theme of Honneth’s reconstruction of critical theory, and a feature of Sloterdijk’s work too since his ‘first coming’, in his analysis of cynicism. Rage makes the world go round for Sloterdijk, whereas disrespect and dignity are key dynamics for Honneth. Might sound similar, but quite different really. I’m not inclined to get too excited about Sloterdijk’s spatial metaphysics, which is what does excite geographers and others who like all things ontological; I actually think the reactionary inflection he gives to an analytics of resentment is helpful in reminding us that simply asserting the importance of ‘the emotional’ or ‘affect’ in life has no necessary political meaning per se – everything depends on how this affirmation is worked through. The Sloterdijk/Honneth to-do is interesting for drawing out the significance of this issue, and also helps to clarify an issue at stake in suggestions that Honneth’s ethics of recognition has some affinities with the work of Rancière – an affinity rooted in a particular sort of commitment to avoid a scholastic disdain for ordinary people (the case is made by Jean-Philippe Deranty).

Religion and critique in the public sphere

From Columbia University Press, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, with  contributions from Habermas, Judith Butler, Cornel West, and Charles Taylor. The audio of the symposium in 2009 from which the first of these derives is at The Immanent Frame site. Interesting for all sorts of reasons, including Habermas taking on the genealogy of the concept of ‘the political’. A related collection, Politics of Culture and the Spirit of Critique, has a set of dialogues with Butler, Fraser, Honneth, Kymlicka, Benhabib, and others.

Rancière at criticism


Via Continental Philosophy, here is an audio of Jacques Rancière, talking about the relationship of critical theory and contemorary social movements. It’s only 20 minutes long, but it’s a concise little summary of his position, mainly being rude about what he sees as the sellinof out of the emancipatory promise by current critical theorists, though its unclear sometimes exactly who he has in mind. There is a swipe at the ontological flights of fancy of Sloterdijk, and a slightly more sustained reference to Boltanski and Chiapello’s account of the spirits of capitalism.

His basic argument is that various facets of classical critical theory are now deployed in an inverted way, so that the main objects of criticism in analyses of consumerism or commodity culture are now the subjects of these processes, ordinary people themselves. The main object of critique, Rancière suggests, has become the ignorance and culpability of ordinary people.

This rings true for me, I think it is a feature of a great deal of contemporary theory, forced to find some ‘political’ purchase for its culturalist analyses, to end up focussing on how people have been ‘got at’ in one way or another, and to lament their susceptibility (this is also a feature of many ‘moralised’ fields of social science, on climate change and environmental issues, on behaviour change, on global poverty).

Rancière proposes an alternative, quite old fashioned model of critique, derived from Kant – critique as the reflection on and elaboration of the conditions of possibility of emancipatory action. That’s much the same concept of critique you find in ‘third generation’ big-C, big-T Critical Theorists like Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth.

Rancière’s version of this Kantian model of critique is notable of course because of the emphasis he places on the principle of equality of intelligence or competence, specifically of aesthetic judgement. This is the principle contravened by scholastic disdain for ordinary consumer entertainments and commodity cultures.

Rancière’s point against Boltanski and Chiapello seems, however, to replay an older division between a more sociological take on aesthetic discourse, that emphasises aesthetics as a discourse of distinction and differentiation, and a more populist affirmation of the universality of aesthetic competence (in Anglo cultural studies, see Paul Willis or Tony Bennett might stand for different positions on this). Rancière implies that the identification of two styles of critique of capitalism, a social and an aesthetic one, by Boltanski and Chiapello replays a bourgeois disdain for the aesthetic competencies of working people. I’m not sure this is convincing. The sociological analysis of the differentiating deployment of aesthetic values is normally animated by exactly the sort of universalist, egalitarian commitment that Rancière affirms – it’s perhaps less prone to the philosophical presumptions that his egalitarian account of aesthetics reproduces.

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 http://www.thelisteningproject.net/). 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.