Affect theory: the debate continues (sort of)

William Connolly’s response to Ruth Leys’ critique of affect theory is in the latest issue of Critical Inquiry, and Leys has a follow-up comment. Connolly’s response is rather weak – he basically re-asserts the outlines of his theory of neuro-mediated affective priming of subjects, including the half second delay story, and dodges the primary issue raised by Leys’ original critique – which is to do with the status ascribed to certain sorts of scientific claims, and the forms of reasoning about action and practice that these authority claims are typically used to support.

The evasion of this central issue is revealed not least in the stylistic tic that distinguishes Connolly’s theoretical exegesis – he tends to ‘join’ or ‘endorse’ the position of various theorists – James, Whitehead, Spinoza, the usual suspects – which of course he presents as basically in alignment with his own position. There is a kind of argumentative closure effected in this form of exposition – the views of these thinkers get amalgamated to the current orthodoxy on affect, and the authority of those affectively attuned ontologies get bolstered by this authoritative reference at the same time. (The same issue of Critical Inquiry also has an interesting looking critique of Badiou’s use of set theory as a foundation for ontology, which raises the same issues of external authority-claims in social theory).

There is also an interesting piece on Connolly’s theory of subjectification in the new issue of Theory and Event, more sympathetic on the face of it but also quite critical in terms of the reading of neuroscience (not to say the peculiar fixation on film theory). And a few weeks ago, Benedikt Korf pointed me in the direction of Roger Cooter’s interesting critical work on neuroethics, recommended by Felicity Callard, who is currently working at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin on projects related to ‘critical neuroscience’ and cultural constructions of the brain. This latter type of work takes a genealogical approach to developments in biosciences and neuroscience, rather than extending excessive credulity towards popularised versions of these fields in order to develop new, radical (political) ontologies. The History of Human Sciences had a special issue on these topics last year which is also in this genealogical vein, examining the ways scientific fields are ‘applied’ by providing causal accounts of human behaviour for various fields of practice and policy.

In geography, debates about these issues still seem to be at the level of differences over which theoretical approach is the best one to ‘endorse’. My colleague at the OU, Steve Pile, has had the temerity to endorse a slightly different approach to thinking about affect and emotions to the one currently most in favour in cultural geography (an ever expanding field with ever narrowing intellectual horizons), and to make a few fine distinctions along the way, and has provoked various more or less grumpy responses as a result. A feature of these debates in geography is a continuing hang-up about finding firm grounds for hoping that things could be different – hence the current fascination with various philosophical and scientific accounts of ‘plasticity’ and/or ‘creativity’.

The Leys/Connolly debate (such as it is, given that Connolly’s response is a study in evasion), is then indicative of a broader divide between two styles of cultural theory circulating at the moment – a genealogical style, and a style inclined towards the affirmation of ontological visions. And discussions of affect and neuro-stuff are just one area where this divide shows up these days.

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.

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.”

New online journal

Via OLP & Literary Studies, news of a new online humanities journal, nonsite.org. Editors include Ruth Leys, Walter Benn Michaels, and Robert Pippin. This is how the editors situate the journal:

nonsite.org emerges in part out of interest in a set of theoretical topics – the ontology of the work of art, the question of intentionality, the ongoing appeal of different and sometimes competing materialisms – and in part out of opposition to the dominant accounts of those topics”.

I think the focus on intentionality is particularly interesting – a future issue is promised on this topic.

After affect(s): Ruth Leys on affect theory

I’m not sure if this is the best way to keep up with exciting theory debates, but I spent an evening this week in a ‘car supermarket’, trying not to fall into a salesman’s traps while also working out whether or not I liked driving an automatic rather than a manual transmission – what do you do with your ‘spare’ foot? In between all this, I stumbled across this announcement of a forthcoming lecture at Duke by Ruth Leys, promising a critique of affect (the things you can do with an iPhone). I will not be in North Carolina next week, but this looks really interesting, and long overdue. The post mentions a forthcoming paper in Critical Inquiry later this year, and Leys mentions in a recent interview that she is writing a book on the relationships between scientific understandings of affects and the affect turn in cultural theory. The interview, from last year, provides a taster of what Leys argument looks like – what is most interesting about this is that she is providing a genealogical analysis of the coherence between the anti-intentionalism of certain fields of psychology and neuroscience and a broad range of ‘affect theory’ in cultural studies and beyond. I was first turned on to Leys work on this stuff by Felicity Callard, who studied with her as a graduate student, and who is also working on the use of scientific authority in the affective turn amongst social scientists and in the humanities. In the interview, Leys explains that “The question that interests me is why so many cultural theorists – geographers, political theorists, new media theorists, and others – are so fascinated by the idea of affect and are so drawn to the work on the affects by certain neuroscientists”. Of course, part of the answer is that the science provides authority for strongly ‘political’ readings of particular models of action, embodiment, habit, and practice.  One thing she talks about in the interview is the degree to which ‘strong’ theories of the autonomy of affect tend to be resolutely dualistic, adopting quite old fashioned styles of materialism in setting embodiment off from the mind, affect from cognition. I think she is dead right – this is a clear feature of debates in human geography about non-representational theory, emotions, and affect, in which remarkably simplistic understandings of intentionality, meaning, or rationality circulate.

I have wondered for a while, and tried to articulate in writing, what is the academic pay-off of constructing non-cognitive dimensions of action or practice in the strongly anti-intentionalist ways as one finds in Deleuzian inflected theory – what is gained by the effacement of intention and meaning from the scene of action, and from the re-distribution of knowing rationality almost entirely onto the figure of the expert-theorist? Leys’ argument, which emerges from earlier work about broader shifts from discourses of guilt to discourses of shame in the study of trauma, pinpoints the way in which claims of scientific authority underwrite a motivated reconfiguration of what counts as political: “The whole point of the general turn to affect among recent cultural critics is to shift attention from the level of political debate or ideology to the level of the person’s subliminal or sub-personal material-affective responses, where, it is held, political influences do their real work”. And she goes on, this authorises “a relative indifference to the role of ideas and beliefs in politics in favour of an ‘ontological’ concern with people’s corporeal-affective experiences of the political images and representations that surround them” (of course, in geography and perhaps some media studies, what is most interesting about this sort of work is precisely that it focuses on a much broader array of affective ‘environments’). This ontologization of affect allows for a dark narrative of bad affects – in which people get manipulated for all sorts of sinister ends; and a nice story about good affects, which is meant to be the positive political inflection of affect theory – although this often turns out to be a rather standard ‘proof’ that subjectivities are much more malleable than we think, and can be best transformed by being exposed to some form of aesthetic disruption or other.

All a bit troubling, once you notice that ‘knowing’ has been entirely evacuated from the field of everyday action inhabited by ordinary people, and is now a capacity reserved entirely for those able to handle what are properly thought of as esoteric (in a Straussian sense) theories of affect. In certain respects, and despite the loud rhetoric of political radicalism that accompanies so much affect theory, this style of cultural theory of ‘the political’ might actually be a symptom of a deeply ingrained, scholastic cynicism about the political virtues of ordinary people.

Leys’ genealogy of the science of affect theory is an important resource for thinking through the politics of the ‘political’ invocation’ of affect in cultural theory and social science. Like the Dreyfus/McDowell debate, it is an example of some proper thinking about the forms of reasoning, demonstration, and indeed evidence that lay behind claims of expertise and authority which often work, certainly in geography, to have a chilling effect on serious thought. One thing her work suggests is that the ‘ontological’ commitments of what is now orthodox affect theory in the social sciences and humanities are, indeed, strongly theoretical – the reference to the authority of cutting-edge life sciences might be much more contentious than it appears (and shouldn’t we know this anyway).  Or maybe we should just call those commitments ‘metaphysical’, in the bad sense.

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.