Affect and Judgment

IMG_2480For anyone out there interested in issues of intentionality, rationality, and, yes, affect (remember that?), a must read is Linda Zerilli’s recent piece ‘The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment’, in New Literary History (it is part of a collection of pieces on the relations between feminism and ordinary language philosophy, including other contributions by Alice Crary, Toril Moi and Sandra Laugier). Zerilli is one my very favourite thinkers, and I am looking forward to her forthcoming book A Democratic Theory of Judgment.

Zerilli’s locates the outbreak of affect theory in a longer tradition of seeking to avoid excessively intellectualist images of action, including Gilbert Ryle and a broad phenomenological tradition. The really significant contribution of her essay is, I think, to zoom-in on and clarify how the sort of critique of affect theory developed by Ruth Leys and others requires a clearer elaboration of the notion of intentionality. Her essay is also important for explicitly connecting this reconstruction of intentionality to the on-going debate sparked by the disagreement between Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell about the interpretation of ‘nonconceptual’ and ‘conceptual’ dimensions of action. This is a much more interesting philosophical terrain upon which to engage in the issues at stake in considering questions of action, embodiment, intentionality, and rationality, compared to the rather enclosed worlds of what has become canonized as ‘Continental Philosophy’. There is an interesting subtext to that debate, which revolves around the ways in which spatial metaphors are mobilized by both sides, by Dreyfus with his talk of upper floors and lower floors, and in McDowell’s reconfiguration of ideas of inside and outside and extension and reach to reconfigure mind-body relations.

Zerilli develops a criticism of the ways in which affect theory holds fast to a strong separation of the conceptual and nonconceptual, thought and action, cognition and affect, which is most clearly evident in the recourse to layer-cake images of the priority of the latter over the former (I’ve argued here before that what is involved in the flight from the registers of subjectivity to assertions of the prepersonsal is a more or less acknowledged claim to monopolize a kind of 3rd person perspective on other people’s actions. It’s a move in which this style of theory displays it’s own defining lack of affect, one might say, that is, it’s lack of capacity to relate to a situation in a sensitive and appropriate way).

Zerilli grants that affect theory addresses important issues in both philosophy and politics, but points out that the particular framing of these issues in this field of work leaves in place some of the most significant problems of more traditional intellectualist ways of proceeding. Her own elaboration of the way in which intentionality depends upon feeling, rather than being ruined by it, is developed by reference to Cavell and Wittgenstein, along the lines of the account of reflective judgment that she has also discussed via Arendt before.

Anyway, I’m not really doing Zerilli’s essay justice, it’s a very rich discussion that deserves reading and re-reading.


McDowell-Dreyfus debate: new collection of essays

KNOBLAUCHFor anyone interested, a new collection of essays on the McDowell-Dreyfus debate, including the original pieces by the two protagonists, and various other essays including pieces by Charles Taylor and Joseph Rouse  reflecting on aspects of their dispute, is just published by Routledge. 

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!

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.”

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 is it like to bat? Dreyfus, McDowell and the exemplary game

The first conference I attended after becoming a parent, and therefore experienced in the ‘concentrated’ way described in my last post, was in Boston in 2008. One of the things I did manage to squeeze in between arriving on a Wednesday afternoon, spending two days in presenting, chairing, or discussing, was to go to a baseball game at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. So many highlights: riding a rickshaw through Friday night rush-hour/game-night traffic; singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the seventh-innings stretch…

To coincide with the start of the new season that month, The Boston Review published a letter written by the Harvard-based political philosopher John Rawls, in 1981, in which Rawls outlined why he considered baseball to be ‘best of all games’. It turns out that baseball’s superiority to basketball, tennis, football and soccer lies in the degree to which it embodies the virtues which Rawls invested in his own theory of justice as fairness – it has a certain sort of equilibrium, contains aspects of publicity, it is inclusive of plural talents, and it has a temporal rhythm that means that “there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback”. The editors of the magazine noted that Rawls had himself once been an accomplished baseball player, and that he had made reference to baseball in his own academic writing. In his essay ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, Rawls used examples from baseball to make philosophical arguments about what a practice is, and what role rules play in practices (arguments which revolve around the puzzle that running, sliding, and throwing are things people do in all sorts of situations, but that stealing base or striking out are aspects of a practice known as baseball, and yet these events are not reducible to the rules of baseball which define them). It is common enough to use games, of one sort or another, to develop arguments of this sort. I wonder if it matters which games philosophers and social theorists consider best exemplify the most fundamental aspects of human action. Rawls’ brief, half-serious analysis of baseball’s virtues is one example of how certain sports attract the attention of intellectuals – baseball and cricket are the obvious examples, both of which lend themselves to the attention of those with a certain ‘nerdy-academic’ cast of mind. Maybe it’s all the statistics, plus the veneer of ‘literariness’ that attaches itself to lots of the books about both of these sports. And in both cases, they aren’t football.

Baseball turns out to play a significant part in a recent debate between two of the heavyweights of contemporary philosophy, Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell, played out in the philosophy journal Inquiry in 2007 (although Dreyfus’ initiation of the debate appeared in Topoi). This debate is interesting because it serves as an example of an interesting convergence between what are often labeled Continental and Analytical traditions – Dreyfus, a leading exponent of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, stands here for ‘Continental’, McDowell for ‘Analytical’. These are problematic, even silly terms of course – Simon Glendinning has a lovely little book on this topic, called The Idea of Continental Philosophy. The subject of the Dreyfus and McDowell exchange is how to understand unreflective, embodied action, and differences over how far conceptual capacities extend into the world. They tend to accuse each other of clinging to unacknowledged ‘Cartesian’ dualisms, which tends to be the way with these debates – Rorty accused lots of people of this, Charles Taylor accused him of Cartesianism, and so on and so on. Dreyfus has developed a distinctively non-representational view of embodied action as unreflective, non-rational, non-conceptual – as ‘unminded’. He accuses McDowell of still holding to ‘the myth of the mental’ by presuming that the deconstruction of any clear divide between ‘mind and world’ teaches us that that ‘perception is conceptual all the way out’ (McDowell’s work is interesting to me not least because of just how important spatial vocabularies are to his re-casting of traditional questions of the philosophy of mind; something for which he has been taken to task for by others, such as Simon Blackburn).

Dreyfus’ position is that phenomenology, by which he means primarily Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, teaches us that the capacity to routinely carry out any number of ordinary embodied actions of different levels of complexity without thinking about it is fundamentally a non-conceptual, intuitive capacity, shared with animals and infants. In an entertaining reversal, McDowell then accuses Dreyfus of being the one who holds fast to a Cartesian dualism, by seeking to separate mindedness from intuitive, embodied coping – McDowell reads phenomenology as supporting his recasting of rationality as thoroughly embodied, and suggests that it is Dreyfus who is clinging to a detached conception of rationality.

Now, in the middle of this exchange, the two philosophers end up arguing about Chuck Knoblauch. Knoblauch was an All-Star second-baseman for the all-powerful New York Yankees of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But in 1999, Knoblauch developed a version of the ‘yips’, losing his ability to execute the quick-fire pick-up-and-throw-on-the-run-in-mid-air manoeuvres crucial to his position. Knoblauch was thinking too much, it was widely agreed at the time (he had various off-the-field issues it turns out). Dreyfus invokes Knoblauch as proof for his position, arguing that his skill levels declined because he stopped being absorbed in the activity at hand, but was instead allowing thought and reflection to intrude. Knoblauch’s ‘mental blauch’ (as headlines of the time describe it) shows that mindedness is not an aspect of the immersion involved in ongoing activities of embodied coping, so Dreyfus argues. McDowell takes issue with this reading of Knoblauch’s tribulations – according to him, this case proves his point, that the problem for coping arises when mindedness becomes detached from immersion in activity.

So it turns out that Knoblauch is central to making explicit what is at most at stake in this debate – this is a dispute between two variants of ‘non-representational’ accounts of action, not between a non-representational view and a representational view. Dreyfus stands as the figure for a view in which phenomenological insights correct mistaken views about activity being permeated by conceptual rationality; McDowell thinks phenomenological insights are a ‘supplementation’ to that view, re-ordering how we think of rationality rather than leading to a commitment to notions of non-conceptual or non-rational coping (I like McDowell’s usage of ‘supplementation’ because I have a pet hypothesis about his style of philosophy being similar methodologically to Derrida’s, in so far as it messes with the spatializations of key concepts in philosophical traditions).

The dispute about how to interpret Knoblauch’s freeze is interesting because it underscores one feature about how arguments in this style of philosophy, as well as in social theory, tend to lean on particular exemplars of what a ‘game’ is when they develop arguments about the meanings of concepts such as practice and embodied agency. There is a widely shared tendency to focus on individual, repeated acts within games – throwing, kicking, or taking free-throws in basketball. Oddly, the Dreyfus/McDowell debate might be much more narrowly focussed than Rawls’ discussion, which dates from the 1950s – they are focussed on the sliding/throwing/running aspects of baseball as discrete activities, outside of their wider place in not just particular ‘plays’, but in whole games, seasons, and beyond. Knoblauch’s problem with throwing didn’t end his career. He just got moved to the outfield; he wasn’t paid millions of dollars just as a second-baseman, but also as a batter. And the Yankees still kept winning (besides, Knoblauch has more recently been implicated in on-going scandals about endemic use of performance-enhancing steroids in professional baseball in the 1990s, which might cast an entirely different light on the episodes the philosophers disagree about).

None of which seems terribly philosophical, but it does provide a nice link to an essay by John Haugeland, another important philosopher in these debates, who died earlier this year. Haugeland has a long essay called ‘The Intentionality All-Stars’ (from 1990), re-published in his book Having Thought. He uses the fielding positions on a baseball diamond to map out different philosophical positions on the topic intentionality. He actually focuses on three main positions, using first, second and third base to differentiate thinkers like Searle, Quine, Dennett, Brandom, Heidegger and Sellars (Derrida, Rorty and others are consigned to the outfield, because they don’t really think these issues are that important – and Wittgenstein is shortstop, a joke I think about how he mediates between more rejectionist and more reconstructive positions on this classical topic). Haugeland is only using baseball here as a device to delineate these positions – it’s a mere metaphor in his essay, not part of a central philosophical argument (although he does end with a funny line nodding at Thomas Nagel about the importance of the question “What is it like to be at bat?”). A point I make only to underscore the fact that in other cases, like in Rawls or Dreyfus/McDowell, it might well matter that they use this game, rather than others, to exemplify fundamental philosophical points.

One of the things that McDowell’s position in his debate with Dreyfus suggests is that we might do well to pay heed to the sort of ‘immersed activity’ that is involved in doing intellectual work. There might be an interesting aspect of disavowal and projection involved in academics having to invoke games or dancing in order to elaborate on the relations between knowing that and knowing how (while choosing games which tend to push to the side forms of knowing-with which are implicated in both). The point is made succinctly by an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, collected in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, his essays on baseball. Gould’s essay, written contemporaneously to Knoblauch’s freeze, is called ‘The Brain of Brawn’, and refuses to buy into the straightforward dualism in which athletic excellence is presented as wholly opposed to, as either superior to or lesser than, scholarly accomplishment. Gould doesn’t want to interpret Knoblauch’s problem as the intrusion of the brain upon feeling, mind on matter either, and he draws an arresting analogy which cuts straight to the heart of the philosophical debate which Dreyfus and McDowell have more recently staged in part around Knoblauch’s trouble: “Knoblauch’s problem takes the same form as many excruciating impediments in purely mental enterprises with writer’s block as the most obvious example, when obsession with learned rules of style and grammar impedes the flow of good prose. And we surely cannot designate our unblocked mode as less intellectual merely because we cannot easily describe its delights or procedures”. Thinking well, it seems, is something that also might be embedded in intuitively grasped, not-too-reflective coping skills as well.

I’m not sure where Dreyfus and McDowell would stand exactly in Haugeland’s ballpark, although I think it’s somewhere between second and third base – in his account things get more pragmatist, phenomenological, and social as you round second. It’s probably quite crowded there. One thing the Dreyfus/McDowell exchange seems to confirm is that being ‘non-representational’ isn’t much of a discriminator these days – the issue is about different ways of being non-representational. And might it not matter just a little which game you take to be the model of having a ‘feel for the game’ when making arguments about non-representational aspects of action? The Australian philosopher John Sutton, who also works on phenomenology, distributed cognition, and the embodied mind, develops his argument with reference to cricket. More precisely, he uses batting as his favoured example. Batting in cricket is the basis for his argument about how thinking too much disrupts the accomplishment of embodied coping skills, showing how conceptual memory and procedural memory are dynamics aspects of embodied practices. They have batting in baseball too, of course, so maybe the point translates across fields, so to speak. But of course batting in these two games is not quite the same practice, it involves different sorts of coping skills. Sutton’s argument about the importance of memory seems an opening to understanding this difference, in so far as it suggests that the rhizomatic lines of flight passing through any discrete ‘at bat’ or ‘taking guard’ carry markedly different worldly resonances. And I can’t help thinking that all of these arguments amongst philosophers of embodied action might be helped by taking Iris Marion Young’s phenomenological analysis of ‘Throwing like a Girl’ a little more seriously – it reminds us that all these seemingly universal features of ‘embodiment’ and ‘coping’ might be cut through with social relations all the way down, as it were – that there is no universal phenomenological domain waiting to be exemplified by this or that particular game.

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 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.