New book by Nick Couldry on media practices

I picked this up from the Conditions of Mediation page on Facebook – a new book by Nick  Couldry, Media, Society, World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice, further developing a practice-based approach to all things media-related.


Newish blog: Ecotechnics

I’m a bit behind here, but James Ash has a newish blog, called Ecotechnics, on ‘the relationship between technology, theory and space’ – regular posts on phenomenology, Stiegler, habits, practices, Malabou, Nancy, brains, that sort of thing, those sort of people. Well worth a follow.

Talking about practices

There is an interesting paper now online in Area by Russell Hitchings titled ‘People can talk about their practices’. Now, you might think that the immediate response to that assertion is ‘Of course they can’. After all, if they couldn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be able to. But Hitchings’ paper is intervening against what has become an orthodoxy of sorts, at least within the weird world of social and cultural geography, to the effect that interview methodologies, and talk-based methods more generally, are irredeemably ‘representational’ and therefore unable to ‘capture’ all that is most fecund about everyday, routine, habitual practices. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“This paper considers the value of using interviews to research routine practices. Interviewing could easily be framed as inappropriate for this task, either because such practices are too difficult for respondents to talk about as a result of having sedimented down into unthinking forms of embodied disposition or because this method is out of step with a current enthusiasm for research styles that do not focus unduly on the representational. The discussion starts with how some key proponents of social practice theory have characterised the possibility of talking with people about these matters before turning to my own experience with two interview projects that attempted to do so inside city offices and older person households. I conclude that people can often talk in quite revealing ways about actions they may usually take as a matter of course and offer suggestions about how to encourage them.”

Whatever happened to make an entire sub-discipline of human geography, supposedly one of the most important ones too, follow a theoretical and methodological path that leads to a point where an argument like that of Hitchings in this paper has to be articulated at all, and somewhat tentatively at that? I have to say that I have shared the same ‘unease’ that Hitchings mentions in his piece about having invested time in interview-style research – but then I remembered the problem isn’t really mine. We wrote about some of these same issues in our book on ethical consumption, in the chapter grandly called ‘Grammars of Responsibility’, which seeks to make sense of how interactive talk-data (i.e. focus groups) can help to throw light on everyday practices. I think the ‘non-representational’ prejudice that provoked this chapter, and seems to have provoked Hitchings’ piece too, revolves around three related intellectual moves:

1). One of the oddest, yet most resilient, themes of recent discussions about theory and methodology in human geography is the idea that ‘discourse’ and ‘textuality’ and ‘language’ have been thought of as ‘representational’ mediums until, roughly speaking, about 1996, when geographers discovered the joys of ‘non-representational’ styles of thought (i.e. finally got round to reading Deleuze). Needless to say, this is deeply silly. Doing things with words, indeed.

2). One of the recurring motifs of discussions about exciting and creative methodologies in this strand of human geography for more than a decade now has been the idea that some approaches can’t quite ‘capture’ aspects of practice, process, emergence, becoming – life itself. And some other approaches – non-textual, non-discursive ones, often ‘visual’ methodological approaches, by extension are presented as a little better, if not a lot better, at ‘capturing’ things that are in motion, emergent, inventive. Needless to say, no methodology is meant to aspire to capture anything, one way or the other. Social science is not best pursued on the assumption that what most matters is elusive or evasive.

And the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to). Knowing what some embodied sequence of movement is depends on ‘getting’ something about it, something about context, about intention, about meaning.

To presume otherwise – to presume that knowing the full significance of an observed action or interaction or sequence of events can somehow do without or marginalize the shared understandings expressed in the things that participants might have to say about them – is, again rather oddly, not only to negate the interpretative competency of ‘people’ who are the subjects of social science research, but is to reproduce a very old-fashioned preference amongst social scientists for third-person, externalist, causal accounts of action over and above those provided by first-person perspectives of participants.

3. There is a kind of ‘political’ failure involved in the denigration of language/discourse/textuality in the name of the non-representational. Geographers of a culturalist inclination have spent a decade or more worrying about the ‘symmetry’ between humans and non-humans. In the process, they have managed to forget about the more fundamental ‘symmetry’ that underwrites any such ontological levelling – the symmetry between academic/expert discourse and lay discourse. This is the symmetry at play in Luc Boltanski’s attempt to reconstruct the grounds of critique in social theory; in other terms, it’s also at stake in Andrew Sayer’s otherwise rather austere account of ‘why things matter to people’. John Levi Martin, in what is without doubt the funniest book of grand social theory I have ever read, The Explanation of Social Action, says the following about the suspicion of first-person perspectives in social theory: “Social science rejects the possibility of building on first-person explanations because, to be blunt, it distrusts persons and their cognitions”. Quite. Just because this attitude can come wrapped in protestations of it’s own political significance, sprinkled with avant-garde post-Marxist populism or anti/post-humanist self-righteousness, doesn’t mean that the basic point doesn’t still hold: the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days carries its own political imprint, one which denies the shared, levelled conditions of the very possibility of social science description in its assertion of the self-centred authority of the academic voyeur, freed by theoretical fiat from accountability to the utterances, the contra-dictions, of their research subjects.

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.

Theorizing the Arab Spring

I have a short comment piece now published online in Geoforum, which discusses various different academic responses to The Arab Spring – amongst media theorists, leading lights in ‘Continental philosophy’, and anthropologists and other social scientists. It’s an attempt to raise some questions about what we have come to think Theory is, as revealed by academic public commentary on these ongoing events – contrasting a version of Theory practiced as the imposition of pre-disposed theoretical frameworks on the world, and a version in which theoretical ideas are thought of as somewhat more accountable to the contingencies of the world.  

Avid readers of this blog (that’s you, Michael) might notice that this piece works over some more or less random thoughts already articulated back in February and March. Accidentally, this Geoforum piece became part of the experiment with this blogging-thing, as a way of turning a public-ish scrapbook into a slightly more honed piece of academic prose/analysis.

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).