Are there 15 ways to be unhappy? Surfing Bruno Latour’s ‘An Inquiry into Modes of Existence’

1). Samin’ and changin’

DSCF1034I have had Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry in Modes of Existence (AIME) kicking around my desk since last summer, thinking it’s the sort of book one should probably read in case it turns out to be mind-blowingly important. I finally got round to reading it, in a certain manner, recently, encouraged by the setting up of a reading group by the NAMBIO research group in the Geography here at Exeter, which I have actually not been able to attend until this week. I might not be able to go to the next one meeting either, so in the spirit of stretched-out, online thinking that this book is meant to exemplify, I thought I’d try to articulate some of the thoughts that it has provoked in me. (The book is just one element of a more ambitious ‘digital humanities’ project – a website, basically, with some further written material, a glossary, and some interactive activities, where you are invited to assist in the empirical fleshing out of Latour’s ambitious analytical framework).

AIME is a book that invites a certain sort of engagement, and not only because of this hyper-textual dimension to the print version. It has an interesting narrative structure, apart from anything else, involving a series of deferrals from a lead narrator (let’s agree to call him ‘Latour’), telling the story of what an ethnographer amongst ‘the Moderns’ might expect to find, and then ‘the Moderns’ themselves (‘the Moderns’ are a people who believe in sharp distinctions between words and thing, apparently. Their voices are not heard at all, throughout. Which may or may not lead you to think they are a made-up people). If I remembered more literary theory, I think I might be able to name this sort of narrative device, which creates both an implied distance between the narrator and the world being described (that of ‘the Moderns’), and an implied first-person intimacy between the narrator and the reader as sharing in the same insights about those who are written about in the third person.

There is lots going on in the book, which is I guess part of the ongoing ‘coming out as a philosopher’ which Latour announced a while ago, but more precisely is a fleshing out of the awkward attempt of giving some normative substance to the distinctive ontological drift of Latour’s work, evident in discussions of such things as ‘learning to be affected’ and ‘matters of concern’ (I particularly like the bits on habit, and the general theme of ‘prepositions’, which bought to my mind the work of Gerard Genette on ‘thresholds of interpretation’). What I found most entertaining, and the reason I felt the book might be worth reading, is the way in which it attempts to outline an analytic framework for discerning the internal normativity of different fields of practice (this is not how Latour puts it, I’m translating). I think Latour’s project has various resemblances with similar projects: everything from Foucault’s outlines for doing the ‘history of thought’ (well, actually, it everything and anything by Foucault); Boltanski and Thevenot’s account of the coordinating function of practices of justification in various ‘economies of worth’; the analysis of the rationalities of different forms of action by Habermas, of course, and of the different interests served by different forms of knowledge in particular; Goffman’s frame analysis; field theory, from Bourdieu through to Fligstein and McAdam; Rainer Forst’s consideration of normative orders…. You can add your own examples of the sort of thing I’m getting at, if you want. Michael Oakeshott’s Experience and its Modes, perhaps? Kenneth Burke on the ‘grammar of motives’? Needless to say, none of these resemblances is noticed in AIME. I guess they might not pass muster as being adequately attuned to the demands of “ontological realism” (on the other hand, all of them suppose to a greater or lesser degree that conflict is an irreducible dynamic of life in a way in which Latour’s account of controversies arising from mistakes does not).

What has always struck me as most interesting about Latour’s work and that of others associated with ANT and STS is not the grand ontological claims, but the demonstration of the ways in which responsibility, accountability, obligation and the like are dispersed across networks of motives and machines, intentions and insects. From key-fobs to speed-bumps, it’s not interesting to think of all this work as about ontology and materiality; hasn’t it always been about norms (not ontonorms; just norms – the conjunction makes no difference: the onto- is the easy bit; the norms are the difficult part). If you take these stories as primarily about ontological issues, about symmetry between human and non-human actants, or, more interestingly, as being about distributed agency, then you still miss what seems to me most interesting about them: the key-fob story, from Latour, is about particular values, such as honesty; the speed-bumps is about a different combination of values, such as safety, legality, efficiency. On this reading, this style of onto-inflected work has always been about norms, and in interesting ways (although that only raises the question of why it’s own authors didn’t seem to notice until quite recently, and/or feel the need to explicate this now). The reason these strands of canonical ANT are interesting, it seems to me, is because they focus attention on some of the weird dimensions of ‘moral’ action: the ways in which the actions for which people might well be held responsible, in one sense or other, can be caused by all sorts of factors beyond their intention or control. These ideas can be found in other fields of social theory and philosophy, no doubt, but I like the idea of reading ANT/STS in this way, against the grain of its own publicity, for sure. Not least because I think it’s a way of drawing attention to an irreducible, shall we say, ‘humanist’ reference in this work, without which it might just not resonate – but a reference the full consequences of which, I also think, are systematically evaded by recourse to the easy trumping of ontological claims (what sort of being cares about ontology, after all?).

In this respect, it’s notable that Latour’s new book is actually all about speech, and more precisely, about the ethics of speech. It is anchored around a concern to elaborate on how different fields of practice are distinguished by their own forms of truth and falsity, in order to assist us all in avoiding making category mistakes. Latour wants to be able to clear up conflicts between the values that shape distinct fields (between science and, perhaps, social studies of science, for example?). These conflicts arise, he seems to suppose, because truth-and-falsity-talk in one realm (e.g. in science) is mistaken for truth-and-falsity-talk in another (e.g. in law). That’s why Gilbert Ryle’s notion of ‘category mistakes’ is so important to the analysis in AIME – Latour wants to help us to avoid making errors of this sort, so that we might all be able to get on a little better. Now, I really like the idea of category mistakes (although I always tend to say ‘category error’, I think because of sitting through lectures by Terry Eagleton long ago. Eagleton has always had a rather good way of mobilizing this idea. I’m not sure if getting the name of this notion actually wrong counts as an error, or a mistake. But it might matter, as we’ll see: you can correct mistakes, and learn from them: error is the stuff of life). If Latour wants to help us avoid category mistakes, he also wants to free speech from “the awkward constraints peculiar to Modernism”. These constraints seem to turn around that clear-cut distinction between words and things, which Latour just can’t help continuously ascribing to the ‘modern’ subjects of his account. The concern with avoiding mistakes is shaped by the imperative to develop the art of ‘speaking well to one’s interlocutors’, by learning to be sensitive to what it is that those from other fields of life are actually doing, what they are going through, what they are concerned about. It is this moral imperative that justifies Latour’s development of a typology of an elaborate typology of different ‘modes of existence’, each defined by its own, proper, forms of forms of truth of falsity.

As I have already admitted, I tend to read the notion of ‘modes of existence’ through the lens of a whole family of related ideas in contemporary social theory. It helps, as a way of working out what might be distinctive about Latour’s approach (it also helps if you suspend one’s credulity towards the terms of interpretation Latour himself provides – the stuff about the moderns, the grand claims about ontology, the non-human, that sort of thing: all those terms that have become slogans). Roughly speaking, modes of existence are different orders, let’s say, of practice, or life, perhaps, depending on your inclination; as I say, they might look like ‘fields’. Each one (in the course of the book, Latour identifies 15, but that’s not meant to be exhaustive) is associated with ‘distinct forms of experience’; they lay down ‘experiential conditions’ that have their own truth and falsity. Whether this talk of variable forms of experience evokes memories of reading Foucault depends on your own intellectual heritage, I suppose; whether or not Latour’s idea that each mode of existence is characterized by its own proper forms of veridiction also brings Foucault to mind, for you, depends on which bits of Foucault you most like to read. Whether or not you would like to hear more about the personal qualities required in speaking the truth, as a first person practice of ethical truth-telling, which this notion of veridiction perhaps brings to mind depends perhaps on whether you think Foucault is a more profound thinker about the limits of the human than Latour.

Latour’s project is to identify, he says, the principles of judgment that each mode of existence appeals to in order to decide what is true and false. Modes of existence are presented as having forms of truth and falsity proper to them, a recurrent line in the book. What’s involved here, then, is a multiplication of the truth and falsity, across distinct realms of practice. This is not the only thing that distinguishes modes of existence – they are also distinguished by different forms of ‘hiatus’ (the problems or worries or interruptions they suffer from); ‘trajectories’, ‘beings to institute’, ‘alterations’ (there is a really helpful table at the back of the book which helps you to get a sense of what all these mean across the different modes of existence; one thing that seemed to be agreed in the reading meeting which I attended is that across the 15 modes Latour identifies, there are different kinds of modes of existence: from specific fields of practice such as law and politics and religion, through to things which sound more like names for generic processes, like network, preposition, reproduction ). It is, though, the variable forms of truth and falsity that is given most weight: the other dimensions are readily available for description, whereas it is these variable forms of ‘truthing’, if I can borrow a term from Nancy Sinatra, that need to be negotiated in order to better cultivate the virtue of ‘speaking well’.

I’m not sure if any of this will make sense unless you are in the middle of reading this book, and I’m probably not the best person to ask to provide a clear (and balanced) exposition of the key concepts in AIME. Although nor, it seems, is Latour. It does read like a book designed to be read in reading groups, where everyone sits around spotting the allusions to other thinkers, trying to piece together what it is that a new term is really referring to (the material on the website doesn’t help, it just has more of the same type of fleeting definition).

2). Doing things with Austin

DSCF1168What most interests me about AIME is Latour’s use of a specific strand of ordinary language philosophy (he refers to it as speech act theory, which I think is itself telling), and in particular, the reference to the work of J.L. Austin. Latour does not give much attention to the possibility that the reference to Ryle might give the impression of a certain sort of prescriptive intent behind his project. Ryle was interested in correcting other people’s mistakes, by showing that whole ways of thinking about problems were flawed. Austin engaged in some of this too, not least in Sense and Sensibilia (where, amongst other things, he shows how claims about ‘reality’ are easily deployed to shut other people up). But the appeal to Austin here, it seems to me, opens up some questions about the values implicit in Latour’s approach to identifying modes of existence. I guess this is not the most likely line of questioning that AIME will generate – but it’s honourable concern with helping to clarify and correct mistakes and enable more diplomatic negotiation of controversies suggests is not beyond ‘critique’, if we are allowed to still use such a word.

Austin is, it should be said, just one amongst a series of names or concepts drawn from the canon of ‘modern’ philosophy of language and/or linguistics that Latour uses: we have actants, competence and performance, shifters, speech acts, prepositions. If I were engaged in a proper reading, the repeated borrowing or paraphrase of concepts from this resolutely ‘modern’ line of thinking about language would garner much more attention. What is one to make of the fact Latour seems unable to reconstruct the real pluralism of values in an ontological register without recourse to this range of concepts (I’m not making the cheap point that he is writing it all down, using language; the point is that the conceptual architecture being used is certainly resolutely ‘modern’, historically speaking, although not quite in the sense that Latour uses this term). If this book was the only source you had available to you with which to reconstruct the concerns of ‘modern’ thought, then in fact you would find quite a lot of evidence that ‘the moderns’ have all sorts of ways of talking about the world that did not suppose sharp distinctions between words and things.

Reference to Austin is one of the defining features of French Theory – everyone from Lacan to Ricouer, de Certeu to Deleuze & Guattari have recourse to some version of Austin’s thought. Latour’s use is distinctive, however, not least because he appeals to Austin in order to bolster what is an explicitly metaphysical, ontological project. What in particular Latour claims to be taking from Austin and from ‘speech act theory’ is the idea of ‘felicity and infelicity conditions’, “notions which make it possible to contrast very different types of veridiction without reducing them to a single model”. The idea that modes of existence can be identified by their distinctive felicity and infelicity conditions recurs throughout the book. Now, it seems to me, that this reference to Austin, and speech act theory, and to felicity and infelicity conditions deserves to be treated seriously. Austin certainly gave a lot of attention to ‘infelicities’, most obviously in How to do things with words. To borrow a phrase from Foucault talking about Canguilhem, Austin was a philosopher of error, in the sense that he sought to understand action by analyzing the ways in which actions went wrong and how in turn this generated certain sorts of accounting and evaluation (which is not quite the same thing as Anscombe’s story about intentionality being a function of forms of description, although I’m not quite sure why, or can’t say why off the top of my head, although I also think it can’t just be because she didn’t like him). Being able to tell whether an action was an accident or a mistake, whether it needed to be excused or justified – these were the sorts of things that Austin worried away at. The degree to which this project was oriented by a concern to correct and clarify is open to interpretation: it depends, somewhat, on whose ‘Austin’ you most like – John Searle’s, Derrida’s, Stanley Cavell’s, Shoshona Felman’s, Mary Louise Pratt’s, Judith Butler’s? And depending on which ‘Austin’ you prefer, you may or may not still think that what Austin was doing was pluralizing forms of truth, or whether it was something altogether more interesting and disturbing, something to do with suggesting that there was more to things going well or going awry than truth and falsity.

I’ve already mentioned the idea that Latour’s work has already contained a set of lessons about responsibility, accountability, obligation and the like. The reason to draw attention to this is to flag up one possible link with Austin, perhaps, many of whose examples draw from questions about Tort law and related issues, and overlap with the legal philosophy developed by Herbert Hart and Tony Honoré. One reason to make the link is because it helps to see what Austin might have been concerned with in developing, first, and most famously, the distinction between performative and constatives and, then, junking it and replacing it with a more complex conceptual framework of locutionary acts, perlocutionary acts, and illocutionary acts. So, yes, there is a lot of infelicity-talk in Austin, but that using this sort of term isn’t really a smart way of saying that there is more than one version of truth and falsity. There is something else going on. Nor does Austin doesn’t talk much about there being conditions of felicity and infelicity (felicity doesn’t have much of a role in Austin’s stories at all). This idea seems to resonate most strongly with John Searle’s formalization of Austin, in which he outlined the conditions that allowed one to properly categorize certain acts as being, well, more or less proper (the paradigm case is, of course, promising). Latour’s usage seems, to me at least, to echo quite strongly the concern with proper categorization that one finds in Searle (but without Searle’s concern, for example, with thinking through conditions such as sincerity). It’s the prescriptive side of Austin, if you like. What Latour does not acknowledge, shall we say, at least not in this analysis, is the degree to which Austin might not be concerned with pluralizing orders of truth and falsity at all, but with thinking of forms accountability and evaluation (of judgement) that are not restricted to truth and falsity. Latour actually keeps alluding to this, to be fair, without properly following up: he tends to mark distinctions and then collapse them again, referring to ‘truth and falsity, satisfactory and unsatisfactory’, ‘truth and false, good and bad’, ‘truthful or deceitful’. The second terms in these sorts of remarks aren’t just variations of truth or falsity: they indicate different orders of evaluation (truth can be quite unsatisfactory, after all). That, one might suppose, is precisely why Austin talked about infelicities – he was interested in various forms through which things went astray, or turned out well, or came off as intended, or ended unhappily. Another way of putting this is that Austin was interested in the faculty of judgment, and did not reduce this to a matter of assessing truth and falsity, however contextual ones understanding of those terms. Knowing how to speak well to others might well involve being able to tell when there is more than truth or falsity at stake; so might knowing when not to feel obliged to do so at all.

Latour doesn’t seem that interested in getting at this aspect of modes of existence, and this disinterest seems to be wrapped up in a certain sort of ontological anxiety. When, in AIME, Latour first mentions Austin, he quickly asserts that to really make use of the ideas in speech act theory that he likes “we shall need to go beyond the linguistic or language-bound version of the inquiry to make these modes more substantial realities”. What an odd worry to have, to think that one needs to take a tradition of analysis beyond language? Why the default to the spatialization of ‘language’? What sort of prejudice is it that still requires you to present a concern with matters of language as requiring this sort of aggrandizing correction? Elsewhere, in an interview published last year trailing the publication of AIME, Latour talks of his ambition to develop “a sort of ontological form of speech act theory. If you could ontologize speech act theory, you would get the concept of modes of existence”. Well, maybe you would, although I’m not sure if Latour hasn’t really just succeeded in ontologizing Foucault’s notion of ‘episteme’ instead. This line makes me ask what would it mean to ontologize Austin, specifically? (Would that be an error, or a mistake? Would it be excusable? Justifiable? And does it matter that those questions might sound different in other natural languages?). ‘Ontologize’ here seems to mean, at a minimum, moving beyond language, not restricting the analysis of conditions of (in)felicity to speech acts. The project of articulating plural values, says Latour, has to be done “for real” (his inverted commas) and not ‘merely in words’. Ho hum. In trying to identify the (in)felicity conditions of modes of existence to do justice to the diversity of values, Latour announces that “it would do no good to settle for saying that it is simply a matter of different ‘language games’”. Were we to do so, our generosity would actually be a cover for extreme stinginess, since it is to LANGUAGE, but still not to being, that we would be entrusting the task of accounting for diversity”.

Again, where does this sharp distinction between language and being come from? Who exactly believes in this? Who is fooling whom? Last time I looked, agreeing in ‘language games’ was all about agreeing in ‘forms of life’ (and this is not agreeing on the latter by means of the former – the difference is not of the kind that Latour insists on imposing on it; the former is an index, or a trace, or a synecdoche of the latter). Or, to put it another way, Latour seems to be making a category mistake, because he seems to think that Austin and speech act theory and ordinary language philosophy and ‘analytical philosophy’ is all about language and speech. What if we make the effort to see that it might be all about acts. So, for example, matters of truth and falsity are referred, by Austin, to the circumstances of the acts being performed (which is not quite the same as the conditions). One fundamental theme in the history of doing things with J.L. Austin lies here, in the question of the degree to which the contexts to which Austin refers matters of meaning (that is, matters of intention, motive) is thought of as a kind of frame that precedes and, finally, prescribes different acts; or whether acts are thought to have an open structure, what, after Derrida (being nice about Austin) or even Butler (pretending not to be), a certain sort of iterability in the structure of the act; or in Canguilhem’s terms, whether these contexts are normative for those acts….. The differences of interpretation at stake aren’t about ‘ontology’ at all, however you construe that term. They are about different understandings of the force of norms (which is, after all, what Searle and Derrida argued about way back when). More or less inadvertently, Latour seems to have allied himself with Searle, in the sense that he wants to find rules that can help him enforce codes of proper conduct for speech (the point is not necessarily that allying oneself with Searle is a problem, but that one way or another, we are not in a realm where what really matters is claims about ontology, but understandings of the normativity of norms). If you really want to admit “more diversity in the beings admitted to existence”, then perhaps the best way of doing so is not to develop more sophisticated ontologies at all. The problem isn’t one of ontological insufficiency after all. It’s not a problem of not knowing enough about the qualities of the real in all its varieties. It might be more like a problem of acknowledgement. There are forms of relating that exhaust truth and falsity, however pluralized, without being rendered matters of subjective caprice: and they might well be more compelling for not being confined by that frame.

I realize that I’m engaging in my own form of allusive arm waving now, to Cavell, most obviously, because it’s Cavell’s Austin that I find most compelling. Also to Sandra Laugier (if you haven’t yet found the Dictionary of Untranslateables, she has some great entries in there on these sorts of issues). I’m just not sure that expanding the scope of communities of concern really requires getting everybody to agree to new models of ontology. Having the wrong picture of the world isn’t the problem. The problem is one of understanding practices of assent, agreement and approval. That might be Austin’s lesson.

3). All too human

IMG_0723I’m rambling now, and not really explaining well what it is that I have in my head. Reading Latour’s book made me realize how much Austin’s work might well overlap with Foucault’s late work on ethical truth-telling, that’s one thing floating around up there. But that’s not, I suspect, one of the intended take-home points. Latour seems uninterested in the personal qualities associated with different modes of existence. But this seems to me precisely what one might expect from an account that seeks to elaborate on the task of speaking well to others. So I’m left to wonder what sort of truth-telling it is that is involved in contemporary forms of onto-talk, of the sort outlined here by Latour. As I said at the start, I think what is most interesting about this book is precisely the degree to which it is all about the ethics of speech. I’m interested to see how much attention will be given to this aspect of the project. It is here that the limits of the ontological imagination seem to become most evident: this is an imagination that seems to suppose that the best way to foster preferred virtues lies in correcting some peoples’ mistaken views of themselves and their relation to the world by outlining an all encompassing pluralistic ontology. But ontology is just a smart word for metaphysics, which is in turn a smart word for the stuff you make up. Or, it’s just the word for the stuff you can’t help being committed to. One way or the other, outlining new ontological pictures of the world helps no-one. I happen to think that Latour might have chosen the wrong register in which to cultivate his preferred virtues, and that that might be because he has made a mistake in his diagnosis of what is lacking in the world.

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.”

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!

Is governmentality a dirty word?

What difference, I wonder, has the publication in English of Foucault’s lecture course on The Birth of Biopolitics, which aren’t, after all, actually about biopolitics, made to ‘hegemonic’ theoretical accounts of the rise and spread and future of neoliberalism? The newly available ‘voice’ of Foucault in these and other lecture courses might well support the established interpretative conventions under which neoliberalism appears as an object of critical approbation.  

There is plenty there that will be grist to the ‘neoliberalization’ mill, providing a further impetus to the instrumentalization of ‘governmentality’ and ‘biopolitics’ as the descriptive adjuncts to a recidivist Marxist narrative in which ‘the State’ has come to directly voice the interests of a singular capitalist class, and to diffusionist accounts of the spread of ‘neoliberal reason’. Foucault can easily be made to seem remarkably prescient in focussing so much attention, way back in 1979, on the cusp of the Thatcher and Reagan ascendency, to the topic of neoliberalism. There is a sense of inevitability that the publication of these lectures will just give further impetus to the trend analysed by my colleague John Clarke, for ‘neoliberalism’ to become an object without which the contemporary academic left just could not live.

Is Foucault criticizing neoliberalism in these lectures?

On closer inspection, of course, Foucault’s account of ‘neoliberalism’ is not straightforwardly a critique of a free-market, laissez-faire ideology at all: Foucault’s ‘neoliberalism’ isn’t just about ‘free markets versus the state’ for a start; and it might not even be a critique. His account reconstructs economic liberalism as a line of thought in which markets are conceptualised as a model for limited government, a model which does not appeal to ideals of a subject naturally endowed with rights. In this respect, in the emphasis on thinking about neoliberal thought as a quite specific tradition of thinking about legitimation, the state, and law, there are some interesting overlaps with Raymond Plant’s recent account of neoliberal thought. This emphasis makes quite a lot of difference, I think, to how an assessment of what’s wrong with neoliberalism in theory and practice could even get off the ground (it means, for example, restoring to view the philosophical issues at stake in 1920s and 1930s debates about ‘socialist calculation’, in which issues of empiricism, rationalism, and the possibilities of imagining and institutionalizing genuinely democratic governance of economic relationships were central; the elision of this dialogic context from which neoliberalism emerges is symptomatic of a rather important silence in existing critical accounts of neoliberalism when it comes to thinking seriously about alternative models of democratic politics and policy).

Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism certainly bear the unmistakable trace of their own moment, a context of distinctively French debates, for example, about the state, channelled through a reflection on the trajectory of the post-war German SPD. Foucault presents the SPD’s Bad Godesburg moment as indicative of more than simply a submission to electoral logic, but more ‘positively’ as one moment when socialist politics acknowledged the imperatives of governing.  

It’s this interpretation of the trajectory of twentieth-century left-wing political thought that is one of the most interesting aspects of these lectures. Two thirds of the way through the year’s course, Foucault gives two reasons for spending so much time on this particular intellectual constellation of economic liberalism, one methodological (trying to test whether the analysis of relations of power rolled out the previous year translates to this subject matter); and one related to what he calls ‘critical morality’. It’s this second reason that is both a direct index of one aspect of the historical context of the lectures, but which also provides perhaps the most interesting interruption, as it were, to contemporary formations of the political significance of ‘Foucault’.

A recurrent theme in the lectures is the ‘phobia of the state’, and the suggestion of a link, an elective affinity of sorts, between right-wing neoliberal ideas and left-wing critiques of the state as capacious, bureaucratic, omnipotent, violent, paternalistic. This feature of the lectures presents a puzzle – Foucault is hardly a friend of the state, after all. The consistent theme in Foucault’s political thought of de-centring the state from the imagination of power is not only a theoretical claim, it’s clearly a normative position too, implying the need to decentre the state as the privileged locus of attention in imagining political action. The puzzle becomes a bit less puzzling when Foucault talks about the way in which state phobia encourages what he calls ‘the interchangeability of analyses’ – how it makes possible the running together of different sorts of analysis into a general critique of ‘the state’. State phobia turns out to be a mirror image of statism – both fail Foucault’s ‘test’ of genuinely innovative thought about power, as it is articulated in these lectures at least, which is to face up to the challenge of thinking positively about the exercise of power rather than simply denouncing it (the sense of governmentality as the unthought dimension of left-politics in these lectures is surely a challenge to those attempts to re-claim Foucault for an old-fashioned revolutionary image of politics).

Is this just a 70s thing?

There is an interesting coincidence between Foucault, identifying this ‘critical’ intention behind his treatment of neoliberalism, and Stuart Hall’s canonical analysis of Thatcherism, which dates from the same time – 1978, 1979, and 1980. What both accounts share is a polemical background in which it is the habits of left politics and theory that are a constant target. As Michael Berubé has argued, Hall’s conceptualization of Thatcherism/neoliberalism was directed as much, if not more, to developing a critique of established conventions of left-thinking as it was with analysing right-wing conservative politics per se. Berubé’s point is actually that this aspect of Hall’s analysis has largely been overlooked, in the US context in particular, with the result that many of those theoretical-critical habits remain prevalent, with some unfortunate consequences.

Foucault’s critique of left habits of criticism is less sustained in these lectures than was Hall’s, amounting to a few passing, suggestive remarks. But the same question arises as that raised by Berubé in his defence of the continuing relevance of Hall’s thirty year old analysis of Thatcherism, of whether the challenge his account of neoliberalism presents to inherited habits of left criticism will be acknowledged or glossed over.

The relevance of this dimension of Foucault’s neoliberalism lectures does seem to be attracting attention amongst some commentators. Colin Gordon, for example, has suggested that the ‘critique of critique’ contained in the 1979 lectures might require ‘wide swathes’ of contemporary critical thought to be re-assessed. Paul Patton, who has been writing some interesting things about how Foucault might turn out be ‘more normative’ as a thinker than we are meant to believe, picks up on the same element of the 1979 lectures – to raise question of what sort of critical project is performed by this analysis of neoliberalism. Michael Behrent goes even further, arguing that Foucault actually seems to be ‘strategically endorsing’ neoliberalism, and for reasons which are quite consistent with a long-standing anti-humanist perspective.

I think the most forthright response to the sorts of challenge which Gordon, Patton and Behrent identify in Foucault’s lectures on neoliberalism comes from James Ferguson, who has a new essay on ‘Toward a left art of government’ in a special edition of History of the Human Sciences dedicated to assessing Foucault’s impact across disciplines. There is no mention in this collection of Foucault in Geography, but Ferguson’s account of Foucault in anthropology overlaps with and certainly resonates with the world of geography. Indeed, this piece is a more succinct version of an argument on ‘the uses of neoliberalism’ that Ferguson elaborated last year in Antipode. In that piece, Ferguson articulated the reasons why the running together of Marxist accounts of neoliberalism and those inflected by Foucault’s account of governmentality hides from view a quite distinctive political sensibility which might be retrieved from the analytics of governmentality. Ferguson identifies a standard style of critique as denunciation of exploitation, inequality and oppression, but suggests this might be rather limited: “But what if politics is really not about expressing indignation or denouncing the powerful? What if it is, instead, about getting what you want?” This latter question, he continues, “brings us very quickly to the question of government. Denunciatory analyses often treat government as the simple expression of power or domination—the implication apparently being that it is politically objectionable that people should be governed at all. But any realistic sort of progressive politics that would seek a serious answer to the question “what do we want?” will have to involve an exploration of the contemporary possibilities for developing genuinely progressive arts of government.”

The challenge of developing progressive arts of government that Ferguson is presenting in these pieces is, it should be said, not necessarily dependent on a claim to the textual authority revealed in the ‘new and improved’ Foucault (for one thing, the fundamental normative break indicated by the notion of governmentality, around thinking about freedom as a real and not illusory dimension of the exercise of power, is already clear in the first volume of The History of Sexuality and other pieces available for two decades now – the really interesting question to ask is why this shift has been so difficult to acknowledge from within the confines of contemporary left theory – the exceptions might be some strands of queer theory, and a pragmatist strain of cultural policy studies that flourished in Australia in the 1980s and 1990s).

Ferguson’s arguments draw as much from the empirical work he has been involved in Southern Africa (and for that reason, his ambition to develop “a truly Foucauldian politics” seems to me to be rather irrelevant). Ferguson recommends the cultivation of a political sensibility of ‘empirical experimentation’ rather than of denunciation and resistance. This recommendation draws on his work on the politics of development and poverty alleviation, not least in South Africa. Now, South African social policies have become one paradigm for the established narrative of neoliberalization, focussing on the privatization of services through cost recovery schemes in water, electricity, housing and related sectors. The degree to which these observable empirical processes actually confirm a ‘neoliberalization’ narrative has been challenged, however, for example by Jenny Robinson and Sue Parnell – they argue that the developmental imperatives at work in Global South contexts like South Africa might be much more ‘determinative’ of the politics of travelling policies than the putatively ‘neoliberal’ content of any specific market-related mechanism. Ferguson’s story is along the same lines, arguing that the observable trend for the expansion of social payments to the poor across much of the developing world demands more than an analysis based on suspicion and denunciation. Ferguson suggests that the difficulty that left-academic analysis has in acknowledging these forms of governmentality as potentially progressive arises from a problem identified by Foucault in his lectures of neoliberalism, namely the failure to develop what he called, way back then in the 1970s, a ‘socialist’ rationality of government. Ferguson’s implication is that you can in fact find in certain fields of contemporary development policy the outlines of distinctively left arts of government.

One thing that Ferguson’s argument asks of us is to rethink the long-standing tendency to think of ‘technical’ or ‘administrative’ procedures and practices as vehicles of de-politicization. Of course, this assumption is basic to a standard style of critical analysis: demonstrating that such procedures and practices are really political, not merely technical, is the first trick of critical analysis; then pointing out that they are doubly political because they also effectively de-politicize or cover over their own political status, that’s the second, more advanced trick. Here is Ferguson, on this critical procedure in anthropology, but which is familiar too in geography, cultural studies, and so on:

the characteristic strategy is to use Foucauldian analysis to reveal the way that interventions, projects, etc., which claim to be merely technical or benevolent, really involve relations of power. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but too often, in this field, such a simple demonstration is apparently seen as the end of the exercise. Power has been ‘critiqued’, an oppressive system has been exposed as such, and that seems to be taken as a satisfactory end to the matter.” (2011, p. 62).

Ferguson suggests that this model of critique is actually closely related to a more fundamental predicament of the left:

The predicament is that the left seems increasingly to be defined by a series of gestures of refusal – what I call ‘the antis’ (anti-globalization, anti-neo-liberalism, anti-privatization, anti-Bush, sometimes even anti-capitalism – but always ‘anti’, never ‘pro’). The current world system, the politics of the ‘anti-’ points out, rests on inequality and exploitation. The global poor are being screwed, while the rich are benefiting. The powerless are getting the short end of the stick. This is all perfectly true, of course, if not terribly illuminating. But such lines of argument typically have very little to propose by way of an alternative ‘art of government’. Governing is exercising power over others, which is what the powerful do to the downtrodden. It appears as something to be resisted or denounced, not improved or experimented with.” (2011, p. 62).

Ferguson is on to something here, in identifying the degree to which received models of ‘Foucault’ support a style of critique in which the exercise of power is understood to be inherently dubious, at best an unfortunate necessity, and in which subjection to external norms is understood to be a fundamental source of harms.

Of course, Ferguson’s own work might be one source of the critical attitude he is analysing here. The Anti-Politics Machine is a story all about how development projects have de-politicizing effects, and it stands in a line of empirically grounded work on such topics as ‘the will to improve’ and ‘the will to empower’ which exemplify a style of analysis which demonstrates the political effects enacted through bureaucratic and technical practices undertaken with good intentions. More recently, Ferguson’s contribution to the analysis of ‘transnational governmentality’ and the critique of ‘state verticality’ might also easily lend itself to the standard interpretation of governmentality as a really sneaky way of extending disciplinary power. But in fact, this latter strain of work seriously undermines some of the assumptions underlying the critical conceptualization of neoliberalization, in so far as it unpicks the presumptions about the historical formation of welfare states, generalised wage labour, unionization and the like which underlie that conceptualization. Actually, critical theories of neoliberalism and neoliberalization might exemplify what after Raewyn Connell, we can call ‘Northern Theory’. The institutional norms presumed by those theories, in developing their historicist accounts of rolling-back, privatizations, accumulation by dispossession, and the diffusion of mobile policies, might be really quite peculiar. Once you notice this, processes theorised under the rubric of neoliberalism might look a little different, thought no more rosy necessarily. For example, Ferguson’s attention to the proliferation of social assistance programmes chimes with Partha Chatterjee’s analysis of the changed dynamics of political power in contemporary India. He suggests that the proliferation and extension of agencies distributing education, health, food, water, electricity and other services is an index of a quite specific democratic imperative to correct for, to compensate for, the effects of ongoing ‘primitive accumulation’. This process is, on his analysis, mediated by the demands and negotiations of ‘political society’ (it’s therefore far from merely technical or administrative, but political all the way down in its mundane, everyday qualities of negotiation, claims, and representation), and this dimension might well underlie the politics of corruption, anti-corruption, populism and anti-populism evident in India and other places. From Chatterjee’s perspective, it seems that what geographers and others have theorised in terms of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ is ‘overdetermined’ when set in the context of existing democratic settlements, and can generate an expansion of certain sorts of public, redistributive functions of the state, not their diminution – and that this needs to be understood as an extension of the political field, not as an index of post-politicization.

What has critique got to do with governmentality?

Ferguson’s argument about ‘left arts of government’ is a challenge to received understandings of Foucault as a kind of critical theorist. There is a long-standing history of attempts to redeem Foucault as providing a worthy model of political critique. But most of these end up restricting the ‘affirmative’ dimensions of Foucault’s genealogy of modern critique to the practice of cultivating alternative aesthetics of the self, a tendency that only tends to underscore the broader idea that the normative horizon of proper critique is shaped by the will not be subjected to the norms of others, by the will not to be governed. Now, I think Ferguson’s argument about this issue stands up irrespective of whether you can find a textual source in Foucault’s works to support it. But he certainly does help draw into focus those moments when Foucault does seem to extend the affirmative dimensions of ‘critique’ beyond this narrowly aesthetic model of the care of the self (Pierre Hadot once perceptively  suggested that this dimension of Foucault’s later work, if taken too seriously, threatened to authorise ‘a new form of Dandyism, late twentieth-century style’ – a point, I take it, that helps us to see the inherent dangers of constructing critique as a vocation that rests on unacknowledged conditions of social distinction).

There is an interesting section of Foucault’s 1978 lecture on ‘What is critique?’ which Ferguson’s piece made me go back and look at – recently translated in the Semiotext(e) collection The Politics of Truth. Here, as in the much commented up essay on Kant’s ‘What is Enlightenment?’, Foucault locates his own ‘critical’ vocation as an inflection of distinctively modern, liberal models of critique – and in particular marries up critique to the historical trajectory of ‘governmentalization’ he discerns. On one level, this reads like the standard story about how critique is internally related to governmentality, not a transcendental viewpoint outside power, and so on. The governmentalization of individuals and society is, so he argues, related to the emergence of the question of ‘how not to be governed’, the question at the heart of liberalism, and of a distinctively modern ‘critical attitude’. Foucault specifies the nature of this relationship of critique to processes of governmentalization quite precisely, in a passage that repays a slow reading:

Facing them head on and as compensation, or rather as partner and adversary to the arts of governing, as an act of defiance, as a challenge, as a way of limiting these arts of governing and sizing them up, transforming them, of finding a way to escape from them or, in any case, a way to displace them, with a basic distrust, but also and by the same token, as a line of development of the arts of governing…” (2007, pp. 44-45).

This is Foucault’s summary of a general cultural form of ‘critique’, defined as “the art of not being governed or better, the art of not being governed like that and at that cost” (2007, pp. 45). An awful lot might depend on how you interpret the hesitation, ‘or better’, and the clarification that follows. Foucault ends the passage with a line about critique being about ‘the art of not being governed quite so much’. But the more interesting focus is not on the quantity, let us say, of government to which one might be subjected, but its quality – the recurring emphasis in this essay is on critique being related to not being governed ‘like that’. Again, this sits easily within a received model of Foucault as recommending a situated model of critique. In the Q&A published alongside this essay, Foucault clarifies further, saying that critique is not animated by the will not to be governed at all – he disavows the stronger impression attached to the idea of not being governed at all, and does not endorse what he calls the ‘fundamental anarchism’ that is totally resistant to any governmentalization.

Ferguson’s argument makes you notice the second part of the quote above – the bit which opens ‘but also and by the same token’… Before that, critique is still easily read as being a corrective, a mode of more or less resistant engagement – a view that still informs a model of critique as ‘a series of gestures of refusal’, a practice of “voluntary insubordination” and ‘de-subjectification’ that seems to confirm Hadot’s warning about dandyism. In a few words, Foucault then says that critique is also ‘a line of development of the arts of governing’. That seems a much more interesting suggestion, one which might well support Ferguson’s call. It seems to suggest that critique is not just a suspension of the ‘programmatic’, but requires a ‘reconstructive’ moment, if you will. If it doesn’t, in fact, if it’s only a shred, then so be it – as I said, Ferguson’s argument carries its own force, and is not best read I think as an argument about how best to interpret Foucault. But I do think there might be something about ‘being in the true’ of received interpretations of Foucault that make those moments like this which support an interpretation like Ferguson’s really difficult to acknowledge.

Ferguson does call on Foucault’s authority, of course, in developing the argument about the need to develop progressive arts of government. In particular, he refers to the line in the 1979 lectures in which Foucault talks about socialism lacking not a theory of the state but a governmental reason, ‘a definition of what a governmental rationality would be in socialism’ (this theme was a topic of an unfinished project with Didier Eribon, reported in Eribon’s biography of Foucault and in David Macey’s too, and is another index of a particular moment in French political culture). In his Antipode essay, Ferguson focuses in on the claim that this absence is the mark of a failure of the left to answer the question of power and its exercise’ as a positive aspect of left politics. For Foucault, this absence if revealed most clearly in ‘the relationship of conformity to a text’ that defines left politics in the twentieth-century – in the concern with Theory, and with thinking of politics in terms of ideology, and by extension, to a subject-centred model of left-politics (which raises some interesting questions about the degree to which the continuing focus of left-analysis on Theory, not least Foucault’s, and often in terms of subjectivity and subjection, is a sign of the ongoing failure to address questions of ‘governmental reason’ in a pro-active fashion).

In Foucault’s story, it’s the absence of a socialist account of governmentality appropriate to itself that accounts for the ease with which in practice socialism had been attached to diverse types of governmentality: “here it is connected up to this governmentality and there is it connected up to another, yielding very dissimilar fruit in both cases and, in the event of course of a more or less normal or aberrant branch, the same deadly fruit”. Herein lies the basis of Foucault’s argument about the relationship between the SPD and the ordo-liberals – this is a contingent attachment to ‘neoliberal’ governmental reason, the significance of which is to illustrate the general point about the absence of a socialist one ‘properly’ its own (I think this is an interesting line of thought, not least in relation to understanding how a set of debates in the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s around market socialism, for example, collapsed and seemingly disappeared in the embrace by ‘New Labour’ of certain strains of ‘neoliberal’ thought).

Ferguson reads this aspect of Foucault’s argument to support his case that ‘neoliberal’ techniques might be ripe for appropriation, for re-use for progressive purposes: “Techniques have no necessary loyalty to the political program within which they were developed, and mechanisms of government that were invented to serve one purpose can easily enough be appropriated for surprising other uses.” I’m broadly sympathetic to this argument, but I wonder if there isn’t a danger of conflating ‘techniques’ and ‘governmental reason’ going on here. The idea that re-using neo-liberal techniques – market mechanisms of various sorts – is a response to Foucault’s challenge about the absence of left arts of governmental might get things the wrong way around – such re-use might, in the absence of an articulate ‘left governmentality’, be symptomatic of the very absence Foucault diagnosed. It’s not ‘techniques’ or ‘technologies’ that are the problem (I leave aside the question here of whether and why one should consider all market mechanisms to be meaningfully described as ‘neoliberal’). What Ferguson’s appeal to Foucault here suggests is that just what is meant by ‘governmental reason’, or ‘governmental rationality’, might require a little more careful clarification – arts of government might not be quite the same as technologies, however broadly the latter term is understood.

Where can I find ‘progressive arts of government’?

Ferguson’s argument about ‘progressive arts of government’ actually reminds me of Erik Olin Wright’s work on ‘real utopias’ which I have posted about previously. But not just because I read it a little while ago. The connection might seem strained – Wright is no Foucauldian; Ferguson is not an analytical Marxist. But the connection is, appropriately, empirical – both focus on experiments with basic income schemes and social grants as models of alternative political and policy engagement. In fact, there are some interesting overlaps between Wright’s interest in basic income schemes, Ferguson’s focus on social assistance programmes and cash transfers, and Chatterjee’s reference to poverty alleviation projects – not least, these all seem to share a focus on de-linking government supported consumption from wage labour, and in that respect, have rather interesting overlaps with Milton Friedman’s model of the ‘negative tax’, a model discussed by Foucault in the 1979 lectures, which also provides for cash handouts to the poor irrespective of behaviour, of ‘desert’. Foucault did not deny the obvious politics of this model in terms of not addressing causes, not redistributing, not interfering with markets – but he seemed to be most interested in the fact that this model was ‘much less bureaucratic and disciplinary’ than classical forms of ‘liberal’ intervention.

Ferguson asks us to look upon these sorts of experiments in social assistance in a more positive light than received models of critical analysis might suggest, and not least to consider seriously the degree to which they represent genuinely alternative forms of governmentality – that is, of progressive political imaginations that do not eschew institutionalisation or governing as unhappy moments of selling-out or compromise. What Ferguson presents as the appropriation of ‘neoliberal’ mechanisms for different ends, theorists of neoliberalization would see as proof of the mutantly capacious quality of neoliberalism. The difference is, at the end of the day, a conceptual one –Fergusondoes, as I have said, remind you of the degree to which the conceptual frame that sustains the capacious interpretation is tied to certain normative blindspots about the experience of Western Europe and North America. It should also be said that the idea that anything touched by neoliberalism is therefore infected all the way through with neoliberalism rests on a power of influence never adequately theorised by its proponents. To suggest, as Robinson and Parnell do, that there might be more powerful influences at work in many contexts than ‘neoliberalism’ doesn’t mean everything is rosy – it just might mean accepting there are worse things in the world, politically, than neoliberal ideas, techniques, and rationalities.

I guess that I like Ferguson’s argument because it presumes that politics can take new forms – that the political meaning and effects of practices cannot be read-off from their origins, nor indeed from their ‘content’. Presuming that they can, that ‘neoliberal’ practices are always and everywhere tending towards the same political intention or outcome for example, is one mark of a style of thinking about politics in an excessively ‘textual’ or ‘theoreticist’ way.

Can governing ever be properly political?

The question which Ferguson raises, about the possibility of developing distinctively left or progressive arts of government, doesn’t really arise under the influential interpretation of politics in terms of the categorical, ontological division between politics and the political. In its different more-or-less poststructuralist variants, this conception of ‘the political’ effectively disavows the exercise of power as a properly political activity – this is rendered a matter of ‘police’, of ordering, of mere governing, of the instrumental and the programmatic, whereas ‘proper politics’ is reserved for the activity of disrupting and challenging settled conventions (not all usages of the notion of ‘the political’ have this kind of inflection of course – Habermas has an interesting recent essay in a collection on religion in the public sphere in which he suggests that the concept of ‘the political’ that has come back in to fashion under the influence of Laclau, Agamben, Lefort, Nancy and others does have some use, although for him this is primarily as a type of empirical concept – a usage that requires, as he puts it, that philosophers give up any special claim to competence over the realm of ‘the political’ compared to mere politics and policy studied by social scientists: ““The political” no longer appears to constitute a serious philosophical topic alongside “politics” and “policies””. Of course, the reassertion of ‘proper’ senses of politics and democracy under the influence of a priori concepts of ‘the political’ represents precisely the opposite of this acknowledgement – it is an assertion of the privilege of a certain model of philosophical reason to expound on aspects of ‘the political’ that remain covered over by merely ‘ontic’ fields of social science enquiry).

As I suggested, governmentality has become widely associated with this same disavowal of the exercise of power under the imperative of ‘critique’. It is a concept that has routinely been collapsed back into an essentially ‘disciplinary’ imaginary of the critique of power, used as a smart word for ‘social control’ . On this view, critique is certainly understood as an ‘ethos’, as James Tully puts it, and as arising from within situated practices of the exercise of power, but is still understood in terms of the imperatives of suspicion.  Recent Foucauldian accounts of critique in terms of desubjugation and voluntary insubordination  continue to emphasise the sense of critique as primarily a personal vocation shaped by the ethical imperative of resisting the force of externally imposed norms.  

Ferguson’s argument about left arts of government implies a more affirmative attitude towards the exercise of power, as the flip-side of the conditional concern with not being governed like that – a concern which seems to imply the possibility of articulation of how one might prefer to be governed, like this. Other people have touched on the same theme as Ferguson – Nikolas Rose ended his Powers of Freedom with a few suggestions about analysing the governmentalities of radical and alternative social movements, and Arjun Appadurai has discussed the theme of counter-governmentalities. These ideas also suggest that left politics is best understood as a modality for the exercise of power, not its transcendence (I once flirted with the idea of ‘bottom-up governmentality’ but never really pursued it). But these themes remain undeveloped – when they are acknowledged, for example in ideas such as ‘civic governmentality’, it is normally to support a further round of ultra-critical vigilance in revealing the unfortunate by-products of governing or subjectification associated with such movements. In so far as the ‘new’ voice of Foucault comes to support the regime of truth around which the imperatives of academic critique are already formed, and not least to support a model of critique centred on the problematization of subjectivity (one’s own as much as other people’s), then nothing much will have been added, and the sorts of questions which Ferguson raises will likely continue to find expression only on the margins of this intellectual field.

On difficulty: Derek Parfit’s new book is published

From Political Theory, news that Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, a two-volume work, has now been published. It is already being hailed as the most important work of moral philosophy since the 1870s. This is hardcore stuff, dealing with the fundamental issues of reason, rationality, and normativity.

Parfit’s classic Reasons and Persons is, I think, the most difficult thing I have ever read, or even tried to read. Back in the day, sceptics used to complain that French theory was willfully difficult compared to the clarity of ‘proper’ English language philosophy. I have always found this a bit disingenuous – it’s easy to read Continental Philosophy if you ‘grew up’ with it, as it were. And the sparse prose style of English-language ‘analytical’ style philosophy is its own sort of esotericism, especially once it’s couched within a broader frame of reference in which what’s at stake is often presumed in advance rather than explicitly signalled (the lack of referencing in this style of work is really an indication that it’s not trying to help the reader learn, unless they are already in the know; compare that to Derrida, who in his classic works actually just includes large extracts of Saussure, or Rousseau, so you get shown what it is they are saying that he is commenting upon – much friendlier, much better pedagogy).

I think the reason that a book like Parfit’s was so difficult was not intrinsic to it, of course, but because of my lack of feel for the context, the practice, of this sort of philosophical writing (the practice from within which one would be able to grasp not so much why this style of analysis matters, but what the point of it is meant to be). I actually think Reasons and Persons is fascinating – interesting stuff about the importance of thinking temporally rather than ‘spatially’ about the self, for example; its’ ‘atheism’ is clearly meant to be scandalous in a certain way. But it’s not part of a world that I inhabit – reading this sort of thing is like a hobby, in so far as it doesn’t really relate to the fields of work in which I am able to pass.

It’s also true, of course, that this style of philosophy is much more self-enclosed than ‘continental’ work – there is not really the same sort of secondary literature on a writer like Parfit which one finds on Foucault, or Derrida, or Deleuze (only very recently have publishers like Polity begun to publish critical introductions to thinkers like Cavell, Bernard Williams, Dummett, and the like). ‘Continental’ philosophy has always circulated, on the other hand, in translation – I don’t mean only, or even primarily, in terms of translations from one language to another – but in terms of the simultaneous circulation of the ‘original’ text (in translation) and a literature of both exegesis and critical commentary – Derrida-with-Culler, Derrida-with-Norris; Foucault via Edward Said; Foucault included in Dreyfus and Rabinow; Habermas via Held, or Giddens; Irigaray or Cixous or Kristeva via Toril Moi; pretty much everyone via Literary Theory. And so on.

If one were a card-carrying Foucauldian of a certain vintage, one might even suggest that these different styles of philosophical writing are defined by the very distinctive ‘author-effects’ through which key texts are disseminated and/or contained. It’s standard enough to observe that ‘Theory’ grew and developed through cultures of academic celebrity – a condition pilloried in turn by writers like David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury (my favourite of this genre is his Mensonge). English-language philosophy has its own author-effects, no doubt, they are just very different – not least, this is a style of writing that is systematically self-effacing in certain ways (all those initials: how to tell that A.J. was Freddie and G.E.M. was Elizabeth?).

In fundamental respects, it seems to me, these two styles of writing are distinguished not least by their different relationships to space, dare I say – the problem with the ‘geographical’ framing of Continental versus Anglo/Analytical, apart from anything else, is that it suggests two fixed locations – but ‘continental’ philosophy, as Theory, is shaped by always being in movement, in translation, across language and discipline; a writer like Parfit, whose new book has actually been circulating in draft for some years (that’s why there is already an edited collection out about it, and critical commentaries in the newly published two volumes) writes into what would appear to be much more of a known than an imagined community, one where the personae of the philosopher is no less important, just not in the same way as it is for the genre characterised by multiple biographies of Foucault and fanzines, apparently, for Judith Butler.

So, the ‘difficulty’ is no doubt mine; perhaps I should just get another hobby (or who knows, maybe Parfit’s new book is much easier, I haven’t seen it – though I have read a rather forbidding essay on ‘normativity’ which I think probably makes up a chapter of it, which didn’t make me confident that this would be the case). But perhaps too, the difficulty is an index of the degree to which one of these genres has succeeded in its own popularisation – is indeed internally defined by this movement towards a certain sort of general reader, of an overly qualified sort, like me – compared to the other one, the one which is supposed to be defined by the clarity of its argumentative style, but seems content to circulate amongst a world in which in-jokes about High Table at All Souls can be made to carry the full weight of serious philosophical demonstration (see G.A. Cohen’s otherwise wonderful account of the political value of conservatism for the left).

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.

Whatever happened to social theory?

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

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

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

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