Cultural Geography is Dead! Long Live Cultural Geography?

I’ve been pondering a new paper in Progress in Human Geography by my former OU colleague, Gillian Rose, which addresses the conceptual and methodological challenges presented to cultural geography by the emergence of digital modes of cultural practice. The paper is entitled ‘Rethinking the geographies of cultural “objects” through digital technologies: interface, network and friction’. Here is the abstract:

This paper addresses how geographers conceptualize cultural artifacts. Many geographical studies of cultural objects continue to depend heavily on an approach developed as part of the ‘new cultural geography’ in the 1980s. That approach examined the cultural politics of representations of place, space and landscape by undertaking close readings of specific cultural objects. Over three decades on, the cultural field (certainly in the Global North) has changed fundamentally, as digital technologies for the creation and dissemination of meaning have become extraordinarily pervasive and diverse. Yet geographical studies of cultural objects have thus far neglected to consider the conceptual and methodological implications of this shift. This paper argues that such studies must begin to map the complexities of digitally-mediated cultural production, circulation and interpretation. It will argue that, to do this, it is necessary to move away from the attentive gaze on stable cultural objects as formulated by some of the new cultural geography, and instead focus on mapping the dynamics of the production, circulation and modification of meaning at digital interfaces and across frictional networks.”

There is a lot going on in the paper, but two things strike me as important about it: first, it brings into view, that is, it explicitly names the distinctive object of analysis upon which a significant amount of so-called ‘new cultural geography’ depended; and then, secondly, it announces that this object of analysis and associated methodologies of ‘reading’ are more or less redundant. That’s not quite how Gillian puts it, admittedly, but it’s not far off. (It should probably be noted that not all forms of ‘reading’ necessarily presume the specific type of ‘object’ that Gillian defines in her paper – more on that below).

Now, I happen to think that to a large extent both ‘new cultural geography’ and ‘the cultural turn’ really refer to a series of missed opportunities. And it’s in light of this prejudice of mine that I have been provoked by Gillian’s paper.  Amongst other things, I have always wondered how this entire field has ever managed to be taken quite so seriously, indeed how it ever managed to take itself quite so seriously, while seeming to be constituted as if radio and television were never invented, or indeed as if The Beatles, Elvis, or The Supremes never happened (interesting work on these worlds had tended to be produced by economic geographers and others, not by cultural geographers). Cultural Geography has always seemed to me to be a bit un-Pop. This is partly, as my colleague Sam Kinsley has suggested, to do with an aversion to considering ‘vulgar’ cultural forms as worthy of attention; but as he further suggests, this has implications for how geographers think about what one might call the ‘ontology of media’.

My second frame for thinking about Gillian’s argument is a broader thought, another prejudice of mine if you will, about the ways in which human geography’s narratives of disciplinary ‘progress’ often tend to invest heavily in the idea that the best way of moving forward is by compounding a series of previously accumulated errors (see: ‘non-representational theory’).

So here, I want to pinpoint one or two aspects of Gillian’s argument about the challenge of digital technologies to cultural geography that might be framed slightly differently: partly these are matters to do with the constitutive elision of ‘the fact of television’, to borrow a phrase from Stanley Cavell, although I would be inclined to extend this into a more encompassing notion of ‘the fact of pop’; and beyond this, to questions of how to avoid mis-attributing to one specific media form a set of relational features around which a broader project of differentiating cultural mediums might be pursued.

IMG_32821). The work of art before and after the age of digital reproduction

The focus of Gillian’s paper is with “the legacy of those new cultural geographers who were concerned to interpret cultural objects”. She is referring to what one might characterise as the self-consciously ‘arty’ end of the spectrum of approaches to cultural analysis in geography, not so much because of its focus on arty-artefacts per se, but because of a distinctively arty concept of the object of cultural analysis. As she puts it, the focus is on discerning the meanings of “stable cultural objects”, such as maps, buildings, films, novels, and photographs. The paper does not say so clearly, but this is a strand of work that has operated with a quite distinct set of understandings of “meaning” and “reading”, when compared, say to the type of ethnographic work on ordinary food cultures developed by Peter Jackson (which elaborates a clear sense of the notion that ‘meaning is use’), or the work developed by Don Mitchell excavating the hidden injuries of landscape, or indeed Gillian’s own work on the practices of domestic photography. I’ll leave it others to determine how extensive the particular strand of work targeted by Gillian in this piece is representative of the best of the whole field.

Gillian’s argument is that the assumptions about the stable objects of cultural geography have been unsettled by the rise of digital modes of cultural production and distribution. As she puts it, “since the creation of so many cultural objects – though certainly not all, and not everywhere – is digitally mediated now, the stable cultural object is currently the rare exception rather than the rule.” The related claim that “close reading of stable cultural objects is ill-equipped to engage with the defining characteristics of contemporary, digitally-mediated cultural activity” is true enough. But I do wonder why the kind of approach that Gillian focuses on in this discussion was ever considered adequate, 25 years ago and ever since? Or, to put it another way, why is it that it is the fact of digital technology that seems to be the occasion for presenting cultural geography (of one sort at least) with the challenge of grappling with the constitutive role of technologies of dispersal, iteration, recomposition and translation in cultural life? And further, what might be elided by making ‘the digital’ so central to this conceptual and methodological disruption?

In accounting for the predilection for analysing stable cultural objects, Gillian refers to Walter Benjamin’s account of ‘aura’. Her suggestion is that the canonical objects of cultural geography were ‘auratic’ objects: “the new cultural geography emerged at a historical moment when the vast majority of cultural objects could be traced back to an original: an original manuscript, a building, a reel of film, a map.” Gillian’s strong implication is that these forms are, indeed, auratic objects. Now, it seems more plausible that this may have been how cultural geography constructed its objects of analysis. Either way, in so far as it holds true, then it is actually quite extraordinary. Benjamin’s point, in so far as it is a simple one, was that the auratic understanding of cultural artefacts was lost to modernity, and that modern modes of cultural practice opened up wholly new forms of apprehending and experiencing meaning. The argument is an inherently spatial one, in so far as aura is a concept related to the here-and-now presence of a subject before an object as the scene for a certain sort of aesthetic experience. The loss of aura is, in turn, a kind of shattering or dislocation of aesthetic experience, but crucially, of course it is a ‘loss’ that is found to be always already inscribed within the movement of cultural life (I am paraphrasing here, and largely based on  half-forgotten readings of Samuel Weber’s rendition of Benjamin’s work on ‘mediauras‘ and on the centrality of the suffix ‘-abilites‘ to Benjamin’s style of conceptual analysis).

To be clear, Gillian’s presentation of how cultural geography addresses a stable cultural object certainly rings true to me. But in so far as it is accurate, we should be clear that this is the result of a motivated theoretical construction, it is not a result of the innate characteristics of cultural practice three decades ago. The significance of Benjamin’s accounts of aura, of ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, of translation, and other themes, all written in the 1920s and 1930s, has always been in providing prescient resources for understanding the spatially dispersed and temporally strung-out forms of culture that already defined his time (print, film, radio) as well as ones soon to come (television, video, digital). Which gives rise to the question of how in the world cultural geography ever got away with holding so strongly to what, from a strictly Benjaminian perspective, looks like a distinctively pre-modern concept of culture?

Gillian’s claim in the paper is that received methods of “close reading” of “cultural texts” need to be reconsidered, indeed supplanted, because of the changes wrought by the rise of digital technologies: “For in the three decades or so since the emergence of the new cultural geography, both cultural objects and the technologies and practices in which they are embedded have altered significantly. Over the past 30 years there have been profound changes in the processes and practices of cultural production, in the circulation and display of cultural objects, and in the processes of audiencing, participation and critique.” Taken in isolation, this reads as an uncontroversial claim. But remember, what Gillian is arguing here is that these new developments challenge a notion of ‘stable cultural objects’ understood as more or less ‘auratic’ forms, containing more or less determinate meanings. My point is that this notion of culture was already redundant way back in the 1980s, when we were all busy learning to love our video machines and wrecking the music industry by taping the Top40 from the radio and listening to mix-tapes on our Walkmans. Cultural meaning did not become dispersed across multiple sites, spread across multiple media platforms, ‘massified’, or split up and recombined across fragile networks only recently, in the last couple of decades. Nor did this start in the 20s or 30s, when Benjamin was writing (his point is that it has always been happening, that it a movement that lies at the source of any and all ‘originals’).

I am trying to make two related points. First, that digital technologies no doubt introduce all sorts of new dimensions into cultural life, but that whatever these might be, they are not best understood by reference to the idea of stable cultural objects that have held cultural geography in thrall. Secondly, the stability of cultural objects presumed by cultural geography, according to Gillian’s account, should not be mistaken as some sort of inherent ‘material’ feature of forms such as the novel, films, or photographs. If this is how cultural geography thought of its objects of analysis from the 1980s onwards, then this is something that needs to be accounted for on other grounds (as a specific response to a certain intuition of loss, perhaps?). Approaching paintings, or photos, or novels as stable cultural objects to be read for meaning is a particular achievement, one that depends on various procedures such as practices of exhibiting, or paratextual networks of reviewing and marketing. Take, for example, the way in which ‘Film’ has become a staple object of analysis not just in cultural geography, but in other fields such as Classics and Political Theory in the last three decades. Before that, the academic analysis of Film, and its most famous theoretical products such as Auteur Theory or Screen Theory, were largely the preserve of specialist film schools. Now, we can all do it. This generalisation of ‘Film’ as a potential stable object of academic analysis is dependent, of course, on the widespread dissemination of video technology from the 1980s onwards, that is, it is dependent on the widespread and cheap distribution of an archive of film history, and the possibility of recording films off the telly, and in turn the possibility for anyone to watch and re-watch, stop and pause and rewind, and to do so not only as ‘research’ but also as a teachable methodology.

This is just one example of how the stable cultural objects that cultural geography focussed on were made available by a series of distributed, networked, mobile technologies that stand as the conditions of possibility of that imputed autonomy and stability. (You could make a similar argument about the degree to which the emergence of a shareable canon of Theory upon which ‘the cultural turn’ depended, that could be learnt and mastered even in an odd discipline like Geography, was dependent on the photocopier). And I invoke this example because it indicates how the attributes that Gillian defines as peculiarly new ones, associated with digital technologies, are not just discernible in other modes of cultural practice, but more precisely, that the erasure of these modes of mediation from ‘new cultural geography’ might well be the condition for the particular framing of the challenge of digital technology as it is now felt in geography and articulated so clearly in Gillian’s paper.

IMG_32862). Acknowledging media

Gillian’s argument is that the artefacts of digital technologies are distinguished by three features, understood by reference to the magical signifier ‘materiality’: they are mutable, multimedial, and mass. I think the categories are really useful, but they clearly do not categorically distinguish digital artefacts from non-digital ones (they only appear to do so because of what we have established to be a bizarrely restrictive construction of the object of cultural-geographic analysis). I think there is a danger here of reserving for one particular mode of cultural practice, the digitally mediated, a set of features that actually should be better understood as relational terms of comparative analysis and judgement, as if they were attributes of a particular mode. The language of ‘materiality’ just reinforces this tendency, which is a kind of category error.

Lots of practices of meaning are mutable (you can forge other people’s handwriting, or fake photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald in the backyard (maybe)); lots of cultural forms are multi-medial (song is a theatrical form, an amplified form, a recorded form, only sometimes all at the same time; films have soundtracks); writing, as Raymond Williams memorably demonstrated, is a form inscribed in all sort of non-literary cultural forms, from public speaking to theatre to television and film (and digital technologies are significant not least, surely, for reviving and inventing a range of practices of literacy); and ‘mass’ culture, defined by what Gillian refers to as ‘the sheer amount of cultural production now’, but which really refers to a difficulty of containing and tracking where meaning flows that is not just about quantity, has been with us for quite some time, at least since the time of Caxton.

I suspect that the difference that digital technologies makes to these practices of translation, movement, and projection is better theorised in terms of the reconfiguration of parameters of speed, expertise, perhaps crucially, cost. Trying to pin down the distinctive features of digital technology by reference to the assumptions made about stable cultural objects, assumptions that we have seen depended on pretending that a whole history of modern media simply did not impinge on cultural-geographic analysis, threatens to misapprehend not so much what is new and different about digital technologies, but rather to misconstrue how to go about conceptualising what is new and different about any media practice. Going back to Benjamin, one thing we might think about is the idea that historically novel forms actually throw into new relief the characteristics of ‘old’ ones – they enable us to acknowledge features of the old ones previously unavailable to perception or sense. Related to this, we might pause and consider the degree to which thinking seriously about culture and media and technology really requires us to engage in some reflection on the nature of a particular sort of reasoning, namely analogical reasoning. ‘New’ media and the cultural forms they make possible are routinely made sense of through a process of selecting and enforcing authoritative analogies: this is the case in legal decision-making about new technologies; it is also evident in the very names given to innovative forms of cultural expression associated with new digital practices – forms such as e-mail, webpages, YouTube. These are not mere lazy affectations, they are small indices of the ways in which ‘new’ media forms emerge through process of learning that draw on formal and informal competencies to draw and act upon appropriate analogies.

Gillian’s analysis of these three features of digital technology culminates in a claim about the distinctive spatiality of digital culture, according to which the analytical challenge is to appreciate that “meaning is performed and materialized at specific sites; it is accessed, made to travel, searched for, modified, patched and laboured over in an uneven, variable and frictional network held together by diverse forms of work which do not always succeed in making meaning move.” This is a great description of how we might conceptualise the geography of meaning; only, it seems to me that it stands as a perfectly good description of modern print cultures, or of how broadcasting emerged as a cultural form in the 1920s, or indeed, a quite good paraphrase of what certain sorts of literary theorists once conceptualised as ‘textuality’. Again, my point is not to suggest that there is nothing new or distinctive or unsettling about digital media, just that the interesting question is to ask how these dimensions are configured by this mode of meaning-making, rather than supposing that they are emphatically characteristics of this mode alone.

There are important questions raised by Gillian’s paper about how one might approach the task of doing ‘media ontology’. I happen to think that thinking in terms of the ‘materialies’ of particular media or forms or technologies is likely to lead us astray, not least by encouraging the mis-atttribution of relational modalities or emergent ‘-abilities’ to singular forms or technologies. I prefer thinking about what Albert Hirschman liked to call ‘structural characteristics’ of practices, by which he meant the different combinations of spatial and temporal wiggle-room or latitude that shaped the pathways of different projects. I also like Cavell’s style of thinking through the ontology of film, as well as television, one which gets at what is distinctive about different mediums by asking, for example, what it is about a new medium that attracts disapproval. But more profoundly, Cavell thinks of the ontology of different mediums as what it is that they allow to be revealed or acknowledged about the human condition (and yes, this requires a certain sort of ‘reading’ of more or less canonical objects, but not of the sort which would be much approved of by cultural geographers I suspect (it would appear too naively characterological); besides, perhaps we should also allow that there is more than one way of ‘reading’ a ‘cultural text’, that Fredric Jameson’s style of addressing a film or novel as a totalising crystallisation of historical epochs is not quite the same as the reading by Robert Pippin of Westerns or Noir as allegories for certain recurrent political dilemmas, and further, that none of these examples looks much like anything undertaken in cultural geography).

Cavell’s discussion of ‘the fact of television‘ revolves around the idea that there might be something about TV that seems to resist acknowledgement, that it seems to be a medium distinguished by it being so taken-for-grantedly there and available (the occasion for Cavell’s discussion was the early 1980s ‘video revolution’). So the absence of TV from cultural geography is not necessarily a failure, it might be part of a broader phenomenon (one related, while I think about it, to the degree to which a great deal of critical academic discourse is shaped by an understanding of pressing political imperatives that derive from the world routinely disclosed to us as ‘News’). One of Cavell’s recurring concerns is with thinking of the distinctive qualities of different mediums in terms of genre. The problem of genre is for him the entry point for acknowledging the ontological qualities of film, or television, or painting. One of the qualities of film that passes over into television, he suggests, is the series; television, in turn, he suggests, is characterised not by particular objects, more by formats (like the sit-com). The point of recalling this sort of analysis is to indicate how the singular, stable objects of cultural analysis are made available to us from within these elusively structured modes of making meaning (and by the forms of forgetting that inhere within them too).

Anyway, all of this work about ‘genres’, ‘structural characteristics’, and ‘-abilities’ has one thing in common that might still meet with resistance from the paradigm of new cultural geography that Gillian’s paper addresses: none of it allows one to suppose that the best way of approaching cultural analysis is by supposing that cultural forms somehow shape or change subjectivities. The idea of subjectivity is the principle of totalization that continues to anchor cultural geography – from the presumption that culture is a medium for the construction or, worse, the production of subjectivity; to the ways in which this same idea remains the primary reference point for asserting the significance of stories about affectively imbued flows and encounters; and now, it seems, an interest in distinctive forms of digital or online subjectivity. It is this idea – that there is a thing called ‘subjectivity’ that it is the task of cultural analysis to comprehend in all its contingency and variety by attending to its modes of production – that is the most enduring feature of the paradigm of analysis that focusses on finding the meaning of stable cultural objects. And for as long as this anchor point remains in place, taken for granted even when disavowed, little progress will have been made in moving beyond the closures of the new cultural geography.

IMG_32843). The pressure for meaning

I have been assuming throughout my discussion here that Gillian is essentially correct in saying that the new cultural geography rose to prominence through the elevation of a distinctive method of reading for the meanings of stable cultural objects. I have suggested that this should be recognised as a motivated construction, rather than a more or less natural response to the ‘materialities’ of pre-digital media cultures. And I have tried to raise some questions about what we are to make of this closure of questions about the mediums of media cultures, a closure that I think might well continue to frame discussions of the challenge presented by digital technologies to established paradigms of geographical analysis. I have also suggested there is one thing that remains constant across Gillian’s discussion of the new cultural geography and its stable cultural objects, and the new forms associated with the interfaces, frictions and networks of digital cultures: the assumption that the main thing at stake is understanding something called ‘subjectivity’. What remains constant, across more constructivist approaches, self-righteously ‘non-representational’ approaches, and new work on digital culture, is the strong idea that cultural technologies do things to people, and that understanding what they do to people is the key concern that justifies ‘critical’ analysis.

The persistence of this problematic of subjectivity is indicated by Gillian’s refrain about the need to attend to how the “forms of contemporary subjectivity” are being changed by digital technologies. Once upon a time, the idea that subjectivity was constructed through culture depended on the assumption of stable spatial and temporal relations between a singular cultural object and a fixed viewer/reader. These days, the image that recurs is one of mobile bodies immersed within environments saturated with affectively configured meanings, moving from one screen to the next. In both cases, ‘the subject’ is assumed to be totally encompassed within the milieu of its own subjection. It’s the recurring image that once underwrote important arguments about ‘cultural politics’ and assertions of ‘resistance’, and which now underwrites misanthropic arguments about the ability of states to manipulate people’s feelings or about the real subsumption of subjectivity to capital.

In Gillian’s argument, there is an analytical slippage involved in counterposing the idealised model of a viewer/reader in front of a photo, film, or book to a nuanced description of the conditions through which digital technologies enable cultural forms to be produced and circulated. This is not comparing like with like, it should be admitted. I’ve already suggested that the conditions through which those stable cultural objects are made available for analysis are not quite so different from the conditions defined as distinctively ‘digital’. But one might perhaps be a little more charitable towards the analytical constructs of the new cultural geography. One thing that this mode of analysis does at least begin to approximate is the ordinary ways in which cultural forms are apprehended – as novels, as films, and so on. The concepts of ‘reading’ invoked in such work were highly stylised version of more ordinary modes of engaging with cultural forms, to be sure. But they do at least acknowledge that people engage with identifiable cultural forms, and not with technologies. Gillian’s characterisation of the distinctive features of digital culture seems to take for granted the adequacy of the previous formation of stable cultural objects in their own time, but in the wrong way. Reckoning only with the obvious limitations of that paradigm threatens to erase its virtues (an appreciation of the ordinary forms through which culture circulates): a complex, nuanced understanding of the modes of production and distribution of cultural forms is, after all, only ever interesting in relation to a concern with those ordinary formations – it is not a substitute for them, and it is certainly not the secret to understanding how power is exercised through mediated cultural artefacts.

It is best not to think of any type of understanding of the conditions of meaning as somehow throwing ‘critical’ light upon ordinary forms of engagement; as revealing constructions of subjectivity, the exercise of power, or the manipulations of affect. It is better to think of any such understanding as a resource for the better appreciation of what is at stake in those ordinary forms of apprehending cultural forms. Having outlined an account of the networks through which digital culture circulates, Gillian suggests in her conclusion that there is a need for “a richer analytical vocabulary for the power relations performed through this convergent network”. Perhaps what is really needed is a reassessment of the very idea that culture is a medium for exercising power at all; and a reassessment too of the idea which anchors this assumption about power, namely that it is at all respectable to think of people’s subjectivities as primarily formed in a subordinate relationship with their favoured cultural forms. In fundamental respects, the paradigm of cultural analysis that Gillian dissects in this paper might well get things the wrong way around, making a mistake that the diagnosis of digital cultures is only likely to compound for as long as it is not recognised: what William Kentridge calls the ‘pressure for meaning’ is not best thought of as an imperative imposed upon subjects by so many produced, circulated, distributed, dispersed cultural forms; it is, rather, something that we bring to those forms, more or less expertly, more or less successfully, and with more or less serious or hilarious consequences.

Bite Size Theory: Ontological Relativity

“Ontology is indeed doubly relative. Specifying the universe of a theory makes sense only relative to some background theory, and only relative to some choice of a manual of translation of one theory into the other”.

W.V. Quine, 1969, Ontological Relativity and other essays, Columbia University Press.

Deflating political ontology

Scan 130260001Looking for something else, I came across a piece by Martin Saar on the theme of
What is Political Ontology? It’s in the Dutch journal Krisis, and it is a review of the expanded, German-language edition of Oliver Marchart’s book on post-foundational political thought (it appears to have added a discussion of Agamben, amongst other things).

Saar raises three related questions at the end of his review. First, he notes that there might be more than one understanding of ‘ontology’ flying around discussions of political ontology and ontological politics – in addition to the by now rather standard Heideggerian-inflected one that Marchart elaborates, he notes a Deleuzian-materialist-pluralist style, and also a ‘social ontology’ version related to Hegelian-inflected styles (like Honneth I guess). He does not mention, but one might throw into the mix, the sense of ‘ontological politics’ that circulates around STS/ANT-inflected worlds, from Latour, John Law, Anne-Marie Mol and the like. This seems to be a quite distinctive (and preferable) notion of onto-talk, one which is more concerned with tracing the deep commitments that shape practices (as a result, it also seems to find it difficult not to find itself constrained to invent new and more complex ways of saying ‘constructed’), rather than making very grand philosophical claims about the foundationally post-foundational contingency of necessary contingency.

Saar’s second point is one about the practice of philosophy that political ontology represents – this is the theme that animates me, the sense that work of this sort is characterised by certain sorts of rhetorical and argumentative devices and conventions that might, if you look at them carefully, be somewhat at odds with proclamations about a democratic/emancipatory ethos and such things. And it relates to the third point that Saar raises, about the degree to which elaborate political ontologies premised on variants of the politics/political distinction struggle not to reduce ‘real’ politics to so many stylized facts which confirm one or other of the a priori propositions laid out by the theory – they are always cashed-out as ‘applied political ontology’ as Saar puts it.  Again, a key difference from the ANT-STS style of ‘onto-pol’ talk, which informs rather more robust, that is, tentative, empirical work than does standard philosophized political ontology, whose great contribution to methodology has been to develop a weird style of semiotized ‘Discourse Theory’ which reduces all politics to a practice of naming (I find the claim made by adherents to the ontological-difference-equals-political-difference style of political theory which Saar is discussing in this piece, to the effect that this work is distinctive because unlike other political theories it puts conflict, contestation and antagonism at the centre of things, rather unconvincing on the face of it – this is an emphasis in all sorts of work, from Michael Walzer to Bernard Crick. What might be distinctive is the insistence on deriving these facets of political life from more or less elaborate philosophical claims about contingency, or lack, or abundance; and it is this move that seems to shape the methodological pay-offs of such work, which point in the direction of looking at what, in another theoretical idiom, one might call processes of framing as the privileged focus of analysis).

Does ‘ontology’ matter?

At Social EpistemologyZsuzsa Gille questions whether ontological positions on ‘matter’ have any necessary ‘political valence’ – in response to a piece by Myra Hird on indeterminacy and waste. I find it quite peculiar that people do still make arguments which presume that ontological claims have political significance – mainly, because the significance that they are meant to have always ends up looking a little predictable: things could be different, things are a little bit contingent, things are open to transformation, and by all sorts of influences, things could be more inclusive. Not sure one really needs a strong or even a weak ontology to find those sorts of ideas persuasive – the presumption that one does need ‘ontology’ to open up new political possibilities perhaps tells us more about what people think politics is, rather than what ‘ontology’ is good for.

Varieties of ‘the political’

Scan 130330022-6I gave a research seminar at Exeter last week, talking through an argument I have been knocking around for a while about how to draw on certain strains of political theory in order to clarify what cities might have to do with democracy. It’s actually quite difficult to set about this task at the moment without bumping into some version of an argument about the post-democratic city and the apparently post-political contemporary condition. But I did my best to do so, and for the most part succeeded.

I remain rather puzzled by just how much airtime the ‘post-political’ story has gotten, even if only as a reference point around which people interested in issues like contestation and democracy feel the need to orient themselves (in that sense, it surely qualifies as having a hegemonic status in more lefty varieties of human geography). There is something patently absurd about a frame of analysis, however wrapped around with citations and quotes from retro-style master philosophers, which predetermines in advance that all sorts of interesting looking political phenomena are not, in fact, properly political at all – because they seem not to conform to a risibly constricted definition of what the properly political should look like. There is more than a touch of Humpty-Dumpty in the way that the ‘post-political’ has come to be conceptualised in geography and urban studies and related fields.

The topic of the post-political did come up after the talk, in the Q&A and over coffee afterwards, and this set me to thinking, on the way home mainly, about the trajectory taken by ideas about ‘the political’ since I can first remember coming across them (I can remember reading Nancy Fraser write about this notion, and its importance to certain strands of French poststructuralism, when I started out as a graduate student, in her collection Unruly Practices; then in Simon Critchley’s book on The Ethics of Deconstruction, via the collections of Lefort’s writing published by Polity around that time). The first time you read about the distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’, I suspect, in whatever form, it is an arresting idea. It can open up new avenues of inquiry. But as versions of this distinction have diffused through Theory-land, so it has become a progressively more simplistic theme.

In its ‘hegemonic’ form, the concept of ‘the political’ has become associated with a relentlessly dualistic style of thinking – one that offsets contestation against consensus, disruption against stability, openness against closure.  Guess which side of each pair counts as being ‘properly’ political? Surely it shouldn’t be quite so difficult to imagine politics as involving, ‘properly’, a range of relationships between questioning, challenging, acting, deciding, enmity, friendship, compromise, brokering, deal-making, principle, antagonism, hypocrisy, and the like.

I think you can identify three broad variants of the politics/political distinction circulating in Theory-land, some of which might be more dominant in some fields in some times than the others (the three-fold distinction is a bit rough and ready, but hey, this is a blogpost remember, it’s not a refereed academic journal article).

Picture 0241). First, most recently, there is the currently very loud variant which takes the form of diagnosing pretty much anything and everything as ‘post-political’ – via selective invocations of Zizek, Badiou, sometimes Ranciere, perhaps Mouffe, and never mind all the conflations involved. Perhaps also via a nod in the direction of some more or less antiquarian philosophical authority, Spinoza perhaps, or Aristotle (Marx has a famous line about Aristotle not being able to quite grasp the secret of the relation between human labour, equality, and value because he lived in a society founded on slavery. It seems to me the same thought might apply equally well to the question of just how far one should extend unquestioned authority to thinkers whose notions of, say, democracy were formulated before, for example, women were enfranchised).

This is the variant of ‘the political’ under which the politics of climate change, or of human rights, or of multiculturalism all turn out to be, yes, you guessed it, not properly political at all. As menacing to the properly political, as really oriented to closing down the properly political – because in some way apparently too concerned with compromise, coalition building, negotiation, bargaining, or other grubby practices very often thought to epitomise politics, for good or ill. Occupy, and notions of the Commons, would also seem to qualify as tending towards the post-political. The analysis of the post-political serves as an adjunct to discourses of ‘hegemonic neoliberalism’, and shares in some of the same problems – not least the tendency to over-estimate the degree to which the success of political programmes must depend on some degree of ideological trickery at the level of ‘subjectivization’.

As I have said, the defining feature of this variant is the claim that there is one, single, dare one say essential, sense of ‘the political’, which is proper (not necessarily real, but certainly proper). There is a common enough conflation of proper politics with proper democracy in this style of work, although the stronger inflection is one which just makes the properly political a smart way of saying ‘revolution’ – a notion which, if you think about, might not be terribly political itself, just a way of wishing for short cuts.

In discussions of the post-political, one finds the culmination of one strong tendency lying behind a range of conceptualisations of ‘the political’ – a more or less explicit reassertion of the primacy of philosophical reason over the impudence of social science, and/or over those more modest concepts of philosophical practice that presume that philosophy stands alongside rather than over and above other fields of inquiry. (In this respect, the latest round of strongly philosophically grounded arguments about the post-political stand in interesting contrast to the drift in other strains of non-‘Continental’ political theory and political philosophy to want to draw closer to empirical fields of political inquiry, in say the recent work of Raymond Geuss or Jeremy Waldron).

Methodologically, the analysis of our post-political condition depends on a weird slippage – when one finds an example of partisan political action making use of consensual rhetoric, or of a political action culminating in a decision being made in the favour of some interests rather than others, or at the expense of others, then what you have found, it turns out, is not politics being done at all, but the end of politics, the closing down of the properly political. One would have thought that it’s not that difficult to recognise that politics is a game that turns on different ways of relating the partisan and the common, the partial and the universal, the specific and the general, at the level of rhetoric and action; dare one say it, even the consensual and the a(nta)gonistic (that’s what compromise, bargaining, deal-making are after all). One might also think that the literature on the politics/the political distinction has some interesting ways of understanding the dynamics of those relations. One would have thought, too, that the fact that some people end up being better at politics than others – that it’s a game of winners and losers – could be understood as an important part of the game, worthy of some analytical attention, and not just interpreted as being an effort to end of the game.

Scan 130260009-152). The analysis of post-political conditions is a simplistic rendition of one tendency within a broader range of discussions of ‘the political’. In this broader tradition, out of which the post-political is distilled, you can find all sorts of versions of the distinction between politics and the political at work, presented in a variety of relations: ones of ontological depth, ones of constitutive outsides and closures, ones of imaginary constitutions. It would be worth considering just how ‘local’ this range of literature is, across its variety – it is shaped by a distinctively late-twentieth century response to mid-century historical events, mediated by a culturally specific discourse of totalitarianism.

There is no doubt plenty of scope here for the dualistic default which leads to the diagnosis of post-political conditions, but I suspect if read ‘properly’, oops, then what remains of value in work worrying away at the relation between politics and the political in a more or less ontological, more or less phenomenological lineage, is the sense of a non-reductive relationship between the ontic and the ontological, or perhaps the actual and virtual. The ‘retreat of the political’ was never just about the retreat of proper politics, after all. The problem may be the temptations offered by the conceptual spatialisations of constitutive outsides and distributions of the sensible – all to easily lending themselves as they do to an application to stylized social facts in which the aim is to hunt down closures and exclusions and expulsions and repressions, always ready to re-energise the properly political if given half the chance.

In this variant of ‘the political’, it would seem to me that the lesson is that a particular formation of ordinary politics could always be thought of as an expression of some possible variety of ‘the political’; or perhaps as disclosing some hitherto unimagined possibility of ‘the political’. And there is no reason to suppose that these manifestations necessarily close off or exclude potentials. Why should we conceptualise politics or the political according to this economy of scarcity, after all?

The difference in interpretation I am suggesting here is something like the difference between a straightforward notion of something being lost in the translation of a text, and a more ‘Benjaminian’ notion of translation being the medium in which translat-ability is disclosed as the very life of the text. By which I mean, first, that there is nothing proper about the political or politics; and second, that in trying to think about politics and change, it might be better to look ahead rather than constantly look backwards.

DS air monitoring Settler's Engen3. My sense of there being a third variant of the concept of ‘the political’ is meant to gesture at a less canonical understanding – it might still have some theoretical ummph behind it, with reference to Pierre Rosanvallon for example; or Habermas even, or Latour, or Foucault, or other thinkers who less obviously belong to the canon of thinking that underwrites discussions of the political and the post-political (or sit less easily in it at least). Whether or not one can authorise this third variant of thinking about ‘the political’ by reference to appropriate thinkers, it actually seems to me to be the only interesting thing one can do with the politics/’the political’ distinction once you have read about it for the second, third or fourth time. This variant of ‘the political’ is a more resolutely genealogical understanding, departing more fully from the recurrent tendency to model discussions of the political on some more or less sophisticated understanding of ontological difference. Here, all that the concept of the political does, and all that the implied distinction that it opens up helps with, is to point you in the direction of looking at the hand-in-hand mutations of the forms and contents of politics. Of course, you still need some working notion of what counts as politics and/or political do this, but there is no reason to suppose our working definitions have to pick out a depth of ontological solidity of some sort, however fluid and wobbly those depths might turn out to be, or alight on some ahistorical notion of the properly political act. I’m not sure a genealogy of politics, or of anything faintly political, could possibly get under way if you thought that there was something proper to politics and the political. It would be a kind of contradiction in terms.

DSCF2192So I guess this all leaves me thinking about why the genealogical interpretation of what is, after all, a fairly simple idea (that what shows up as political in one context might not show up in others, that political issues are framed differently in different situations, that new issues and new understandings of politics can emerge, and that these boundaries are where some, not all, political action takes place), why the genealogical interpretation seems not to resonate more strongly. And why, even when it does, it easily falls back onto judgments about closures and exclusions. This might have something to do with the imperative of ‘The politics of …’ in contemporary Theory-land – the demand that each and every analysis have a political point to it. The analysis of post-political trajectories seems to be perfect for this sort of task – it lends itself easily to the challenge of having not only to describe and explain social events, but to pass judgment on them too, by providing a ready-made template for identifying closures and exclusions, naturalisations and orderings, norms enforced or norms evaded (which is, of course, what a norm is, one way or the other).

The judgement of things being or trending to the ‘post-political’ allows you to have your normative cake without having to pay the normative price: by suggesting that it is proper politics per se that is menaced, you don’t really have to go into great detail about whether particular patterns of decision or inaction are justified or not. You just need to invoke a vague, unspecified sense of proper politics as being all about contestation and questioning, perhaps calling this democracy too. This normative duplicity works not least through the persistent spatialisation of political concepts in this strain of work, allied to the ‘scarcity’-based interpretation of concept of ‘the political’. But think about it for just a moment: decisions, to take one favoured example, don’t exclude, or close things off. They are particular types of action that take place in time, and things go on after they are taken, in more or less anticipated directions. In short, diagnoses of the ‘post-political’ this-or-that have no meaningful sense of political time.

Affect theory: the debate continues (sort of)

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

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

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

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

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