Emergent Publics?

croftI gave a talk week ago or so at a conference on New Perspectives on the Problems of the Public, at the University of Westminster. I presented a version of a paper titled ‘Theorising Emergent Publics’, soon to be published I hope, and which is an attempt to say out loud some of the things I learnt through my involvement on the ESRC Emergent Publics project that Nick Mahony, Janet Newman and myself ‘convened’ a few years back now. The paper tries to think through the problem of making use of concepts like the public sphere, or public space, public-whatever, which are inherently normative but which have an empirical reference, and to do so in a non-reductive, not-backward-looking way. The term ‘emergent’ is meant to flag this problem of thinking about how to use normative concepts as they are meant to be used – evaluatively – in relation to ‘new’ formations of public life which don’t conform to established models of what public life is and should be.

Last time I talked about this theme, at an event in Ottawa, I came away having realised that the issue of ‘attention’ really deserved, well, more attention in discussions of publicness (that’s one paper I still haven’t written up…). This time, someone asked me what the ‘emergent’ bit meant in the title of the paper. Good question! It’s taken 6 years for anyone to ask that one. This is a dimension of the Emergent Publics project that we never really developed, it’s true (I have collected an awful lot of things to read on this topic…. Another unwritten paper). The thing about ‘emergent’ or ‘emergence’ is that it’s not just a smart word for saying ‘new things’, although it is that too. That’s what the question was getting at, I think (obviously, at the time, I blagged my way around the difficult question). Without consulting that pile of paper I mentioned, here is my first-cut at the different strands of thought that one might invoke to think through what the relevance of ‘emergent’ might be in talking about ‘emergent publics’ (actually, the Understanding Society blog by Daniel Little has a set of discussions on this topic and its relevance to social theory which is probably the best place to start):

–       One obvious reference point is Raymond Williams’ account of dominant, residual and emergent cultural formations. This is most useful as a descriptive framework, as a kind of starting point for mapping out relationships and assessing the relative powers of different practices.

–       Next, depending on your age and inclination, perhaps we should mention critical realism, a field in which the idea of ’emergent properties’ is particularly important. In terms of public things, what this sense, derived of course from a wider set of debates across science and the humanities, points towards is the sense that ‘publics’ arise from conditions to which they are irreducibly linked but also to which they cannot be reduced. I have in the past discussed this sort of idea with reference to the motif of the parasite, drawn from deconstruction, suggesting that publicness is inherently parasitical, or supplementary if you prefer. I’m not sure that this idea has caught on.

–       The notion of ‘emergence’ in social theory, whatever usage you alight upon, is always referencing the ‘proper’ sense of this idea drawn from physics, biology, and strands of philosophy of mind, particularly around ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness. Whereas in social theory, emergence is a really cool thing to invoke, I think it’s fair to say that in these fields it’s a much more contested idea – important certainly, but far from having the stable, established authority that social science wants the idea of emergence to carry.

–       Never mind, let’s keep going, because then there is perhaps currently the most sexy version of emergence-talk, associated with William Connolly and other versions of Spinoza-inflected vitalist styles of political theory. Connolly’s account of affect, pluralism, neuropolitics and such things cashes out in a discussion of ‘emergent causality’, which sounds like a great idea – the idea that events have conditions, certainly, but that you can’t quite anticipate how any set of given conditions will generate new forms. Now, not only might this not be so distinctive as one might think if you’re old/clunky enough to remember the hey-day of critical realism, but worse, or is it better, yes, it’s better, Connolly seems not to have noticed that his own account of emergent causality is pretty much identical to what Louis Althusser and his friends once called ‘structural causality’. Of course, ‘structural’ causality sounds a little bit deterministic, but it’s actually all about how structures rub up against each other and generate entirely surprising events, like the Russian revolution happening in, oh, Russia – that wasn’t meant to happen, was it? (somewhere along the way, if you’re following, this chain of associations might remind you, or help you see for the first time, or notice what was obvious, that structuralism as a tradition invented the analysis of ‘contingency’ – post-structuralism might, then, be just a footnote to that tradition). Anyway, anyway, by the time one has spotted the ‘overdetermined’ and ‘contradictory’ family resemblances between the ideas of emergence in Althusser, Connolly, Deleuze and anyone else who thinks it’s really obvious what Spinoza was really on about, then you will have arrived at the realization that ‘emergence’ is perhaps not able to do all the work you might want it to do. Emergence is often invoked against the idea of ‘linear causality’ in this sort of work, an idea which is really just a useful straw figure.

–     And then there is Hayek. Oops. The idea that markets are best thought of as ‘spontaneous orders’, which Hayek didn’t invent but did refine and then popularise in a particular way, has been picked up and taken seriously by, for example, Andrew Sayer (remember the critical realist interest in ideas of emergence), and more recently by Warren Magnusson.

There might be other strands I haven’t thought of (I’m writing this off the top of my head). But ending with Hayek is fun, isn’t it? It underlines the degree to which thinking about the ‘emergent’ bit of emergent publics should really have two dimensions to it: the normative/evaluative puzzle, certainly, but also the sense in which publicness is not something best thought of by analogy to our received ideas about construction and/or contingency. One of the things I have noticed about discussions of publicness in my ongoing ethnography of academic understandings of public value over the last few years is a constant temptation to infer a particular lesson from the observation that publics, public spheres, public spaces are not natural, but variable, constructed, assembled: it is routinely assumed that this means that publics, if they are not naturally given, must be actively made, for good or ill; and that by extension, of course, that ‘we’ should be involved in making them better, in better ways.

So, dare I say that Hayek might be really important to theorising the politics of public formation? Maybe that just means that, at the very least, using the vocabulary of ‘emergence’ in relation to publicness should lead us to be more attentive to the hubris that easily attaches itself to discussions of this topic, in which we all too easily find that other people are not virtuous enough but then console ourselves in imagining that our role as academics is to help them be better versions of themselves.

Dialogues in Human Geography

Re-blogging a re-blog from Progressive Geographies, the latest issue of Dialogues in Human Geography is currently available on open access. Includes a section on academic blogging and public geographies, and also a debate section revolving around an intervention by Kevin Cox on the relations between critical realism and Marxism in and around geography (Blur or Oasis? The Beatles or The Stones? The Beatles and the Stones?).

Thinking culture

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The new issue if Dialogues in Human Geography contains a forum on public geography and social media. The articles are currently open access. The section focuses on geography, but the issues discussed relate to broader discussions around public engagement and communication in research. As is usual with this journal, the forum contains a feature article, some responses and a reply from the authors of the feature article. This particular forum is built around a feature article on ‘Public Geographies through Social Media‘ by Rob Kitchin, Dennis Linehan, Cian O’Callaghan and Philip Lawton. Their article describes their attempts at using a combination of blogging and Twitter to communicate their research. There are six responses, these include my own piece ‘Public Geography and the Politics of Circulation‘ (which is currently open access). I’ve posted about this previously.

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Whatever happened to social theory?

 I’ve just been reading the new book by Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to People. It is a full-scale elaboration of the importance for critical social science of what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ – people’s evaluative orientation, or relation of concern to the world around them. Sayer thinks this aspect of life is systematically downplayed or misrepresented in lots of social theory. I think he is probably right about that. The notion of lay normativity was used in Sayer’s previous book, The Moral Significance of Class, and the project on ethical consumption that I have been working on, for it seems like ages, made use of what we at least understood this term to be getting at – the importance of giving credence to the evaluations of their own practices that people provide in social science encounters, not least as being able to tell us something interesting about how practices work. Here is the publisher’s blurb for Sayer’s new book:

“Andrew Sayer undertakes a fundamental critique of social science’s difficulties in acknowledging that people’s relation to the world is one of concern. As sentient beings, capable of flourishing and suffering, and particularly vulnerable to how others treat us, our view of the world is substantially evaluative. Yet modernist ways of thinking encourage the common but extraordinary belief that values are beyond reason, and merely subjective or matters of convention, with little or nothing to do with the kind of beings people are, the quality of their social relations, their material circumstances or well-being. The author shows how social theory and philosophy need to change to reflect the complexity of everyday ethical concerns and the importance people attach to dignity. He argues for a robustly critical social science that explains and evaluates social life from the standpoint of human flourishing.”

It will be interesting to see what sort of traction, if any, Sayer’s book gets in critical human geography. Once upon a time, when I was little, Sayer was one of the big names of Theory in geography, in the 1980s heyday of critical realism. Apart from forays every so often to call for more robust normative reflection in the discipline (most recently in Antipode), Sayer is much less of a presence now. He wrote an excellent book in the mid ’90s, Radical Political Economy: A Critique, which I remember Marxist colleagues being apoplectic about because it took seriously non-‘dialectical’ styles of social thought and made productive use of Adam Smith and Hayek.The style of theory that Sayer performs, with its close attention to argumentation, is rather uncommon in geography now. I’m not necessarily sold on all of Sayer’s arguments – I think, for example, that he might find more support for his broad thesis about human vulnerability and ethics in thinkers such as Levinas or Derrida, or for the importance of everyday attachments to things that matter in styles of cultural theory concerned with thinking about the ordinary, such as Lauren Berlant’s work; these are not traditions Sayer has much patience with. Genre blindness? But I think his diagnosis of the limits of current styles of critical thinking has a lot going for it – critical thinking does find it really difficult to give credence to ordinary dispositions as having value in and of themselves beyond their function in systems of discipline, as effects of subjectification, or as indices of unconscious dynamics, or at best residues of untapped resistance or invention.

I happen to think that Sayer over-eggs the normativity-is-important cake by insisting on making the argument with reference to ethical theories – there is a less explicitly ‘moral’ strand of philosophy concerned with rationality, reason, embodiment, and values that might inform the sort of reconstruction of social science Sayer recommends. I have been trying to write about these same issues in a rather more tentative fashion, for a series of ‘reports’ on ‘Geography and Ethics’ due to be published any time soon. The first deals with some recent accounts of justice; the second with some of the philosophy mentioned above, focussing on notions of practical reason [Sayer has lots of interesting things to say on this topic]; the third is still to be written, and will focus on the kind of social theories of value, normativity and justification that Sayer, amongst others, has been developing.