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.”

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Geography and ethics: the latest installment, again

Some shameless self-promotion – otherwise known as the respectable reason for academics to blog, apparently. The second of my three annual(ish) reports on ‘geography and ethics’ for Progress in Human Geography has now been published in print – a full year after going live online. So it has page numbers now.

This one is rather grandly titled Placing life in the space of reasons, and tries to say why I think geographers might learn something from reading things life the McDowell/Dreyfus debate. The first was on the theme of Justice unbound, and tried to glean a set of connections between various strands of work which might be said to give a priority to injustice in theorising normatively about justice. In my head, these two pieces are meant to be read alongside the third, which is about recent social theory which addresses ‘normative’ things, and suggests an agenda around ‘geographies of worth’ [although this bit might be a bit brief and allusive]. I’m sure no-one reads these pieces like this – I don’t. But that is sort of how they were conceived in the writing.  This last one isn’t up online yet, although rest assured that I will post when it is!

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.

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.”

Geography and ethics: justice unbound

The first of my three ‘progress reports’ on Geography and Ethics is now published in Progress in Human Geography. This first one is dubbed ‘justice unbound‘, and discusses recent literature on justice and injustice in and around geography and related fields – including Sen’s recent book, G.A. Cohen’s leftist riposte to Rawls, Nancy Fraser, and Iris Marion Young . It was written before recent books by Danny Dorling, Ed Soja, Susan Fainstein were published, but these otherwise different works sort of confirm the point I am trying to make in this piece – that it might be worthwhile to think through the idea that injustice is the medium of justice (the line is J.M. Berstein’s), without thinking that this absolves us completely from engaging with normative reflection on what these terms mean. It’s not meant as a warrant for assuming that we all just naturally know injustice when we see it.

Anyway, as I say, this is the first of three of these reports; the second is already done, the final one I’ll do later this year. I have ended up not quite writing about ‘geography and ethics’, not least cos most of what I know about ethics is part of that poststructuralist strain of thought that Jeff Popke had already reviewed rather thoroughly as the previous ‘incumbent’ of this role; partly because it might be more interesting to think about how normative practices are an ordinary aspect of how life hangs together, rather than thinking of ethics as an extra special ‘responsibility’ that requires a special effort to pull off; and partly because I said ‘yes’ when invited because I wanted to write about some overlaps between social theory, political theory, and moral philosophy that I find intriguing for no other reason that they don’t quite show up in geography-land despite being on the edges of conversations which take place there. I think their not showing up has something to do with the degree to which Theory in geography has drifted into such a resolutely ‘metaphysical’ register, in the sense of this term that someone reminded me this week Ian Hunter uses to describe the genealogy of contemporary Theory-land. But that’s another story.

Favourite Thinkers IV: J.M. Coetzee

I was idly surfing for videos of philosophers giving talks, and find that Robert Pippin, who you can watch ‘live’, has a recent essay in a collection of philosophical reflections on the work of J.M. Coetzee (Pippin is also writing about Westerns, a fun juxtaposition with his work on Hegel, Nietzsche, and the like). Coetzee has become a favourite of English-language philosophy with a Continental bent recently, with writers such as Stephen Mulhall, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond and John McDowell all finding resources for philosophical reflection in his work – in particular, it is Coetzee as an ethicist of sorts that seems to attract philosophers’ attention. The idea that Coetzee’s fictions add up to a sustained oeuvre of ethical thought is not a new one – the literary theorist David Atwell was making that argument more than a decade ago – but philosophical interest in Coetzee seems to be a ‘post-Disgrace’ phenomenon, related to the more explicit engagement with issues of animal rights and ethical propriety that Coetzee has been elaborating through the recurrent figure of Elizabeth Costello in a number of works.

The philosophical framing of Coetzee is a new stage in the variable reception history of his writing, which I wrote about way back in the late 1990s – then, you could discern both a geographical difference in how Coetzee was read in South Africa and South Africanist circles, and a generic difference in how he was read by academic theorists and generalist critics. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Coetzee was a favourite novelist for literary theorists, particularly those of a poststructuralist inclination,and especially amongst postcolonial theorists. There was a circular relationship involved here, in so far as Coetzee’s novels are of course highly ‘academic’ in their form and content, so they are kind of ‘always already’ available to be mined for evidence of certain literary theoretical axioms. I wonder if the same circularity isn’t involved in the philosophical interest in his work too? There is something odd about the supreme allegorist, Coetzee, having his novels read as allegories of certain theoretical, philosophical arguments.

I used Coetzee in my PhD back in the early 1990s, as a way of making sense of Spivak’s account of subaltern representation – not least, because at that time, she often invoked Coetzee’s Foe as an exemplar of her thesis. This engagement with Coetzee’s work was an important influence on my own intellectual and academic trajectory – it was a way into debates about South African cultural policy, and I ended up doing research on these issues from 1996 onwards; this was also a way out of a certain kind of dead-end of cultural theorising that 1990s human geography was sending me down. My initial interest was in the fact that Spivak’s invocation of Coetzee in support of her theoretical position was rather de-contextualised, in so far as it was detached from Coetzee’s rather controversial status at that time within debates about anti-apartheid cultural politics. Coetzee had always resisted incorporation into the forms and norms of ‘political’ writing that defined so much South African fiction in the 1980s (One of my most cherished ‘bookshop moments’ is coming across a copy of Upstream, a little magazine published in Cape Town in the ’80s, from 1988, in Ike’s bookshop in Durban. This edition, which cost me 10 Rand, contains an essay by Coetzee called ‘The Novel Today’ in which he tries to articulate the validity of the idea of the novel as an autonomous form not to be reduced to the imperatives of ‘historical’, that is political, expediency). At that time, the early 1990s, though, the settled models of cultural politics in South Africa were coming apart, both through ‘official’ revision in ANC circles and amongst academic writers such as Rob Nixon. Coetzee’s international reputation has grown and grown of course since the end of apartheid, and the end of that particular framing of South African writing – though of course, domestically he remained and remains a controversial figure, being denounced as racist when Disgrace was published (by a very high-ranking ANC politician no less) and then following a more general trend amongst white South Africans of emigrating (though he went to Adelaide, not Perth, or London). The Oxford based literary scholar Peter McDonald, in his book The Literature Police and elsewhere has uncovered the fascinating story of apartheid-era censorship systems in which Coetzee was, personally and as an author of fictions, ambiguously embroiled.

I haven’t worked on or written about Coetzee for more than a decade – as I say, it turned out that he was route away from literary theory and work on textuality (although I think these fields of research remain rather more valuable than they are given credit for in geography these days – a two decade metaphysical odyssey from postmodernism to ‘speculative realism’, affect theory and materialities has managed to pass by the flowering of all sorts of sociologically inflected, ethnographically informed accounts of the institutions and political economies of reading publics, publishing, popular literacy, national cultures, and educational practices, which might cash-out the promise of a materialist imagination rather better than repeated ontological assertions about materiality per se). I still read his books regularly, from a sense of duty and familiarity – they do have a ‘serial’ quality to them in their repetition of certain themes of high literary modernism. I like some of them more than others – Slow Man, his first novel after leaving South Africa, I enjoyed reading, while in South Africa, because it almost had a proper story in it. The multi-perspectival approach of The Diary of a Bad Year was a bit too didactic after a while. But Summertime, the most recent not-quite-autobiographical fiction managed to pull off the ‘where is the author?’ trick while also being funny, touching, and prosaically tragic (I know a South African who did a Masters dissertation on Coetzee’s fiction, Orli Bass, who wrote a letter to him to ask for an interview – she got a lovely, brief note in response, words to the effect that he believed that ‘books deserve to make their own way in the world’ – this is pretty much the theoretical premise that Coetzee’s fiction and his public profile seeks to systematically enact, which is why it proves so difficult to pin him and his work down in standard modes of critical interpretation. In turn, it’s why the fiction can be presented as exercises in ethical practice).

One of the things that seems to get lost in the theoretical-philosophical allegorization of Coetzee’s fictions is the brilliance, I think, of his work as a theorist and critic. He is after all, or was, a professional, academic, theorist. His conceptualization of the dynamics of censorship and offence in Giving Offence is wonderful and compelling; I think his consistent engagement with the problems of authentic expression in contexts saturated with ‘political’ imperatives, through the figure of Erasmus’ fool for example, is a deeply important contribution to thinking about the politics of free expression, ethics, and political responsibility; and one of my favourite pieces by him is an essay on The Misfits, which is as significant as anything written by Coetzee on the ethics and justice of human-animal relations through the figure of Elizabeth Costello I think, and which turns on the observation that a movie full of wonderful actorly performances by Monroe, Gable, Clift, and Wallach revolves around a purely deictic presentation of the suffering and fear and passion of horses. Sometimes, the real theoretical and philosophical force of Coetzee’s writings might be much better registered in these non-fictional genres – the essay or review – than in the fiction; but oddly, these texts don’t provide the same authority as the ‘stories’ which often enough write out the same arguments in fictional form.