Public Life in a Provincial Town

After 8 years, the imminent departure from Swindon by the end of the summer now looms on the horizon. This blog has been very much shaped by the experience of living in this non-University town, and while here, living in a very Respectable Street, I’ve written a book, acquired a second child, lost a second parent, been promoted, got a new job, but not quite turned 50.

Swindon, of course, has a certain sort of reputation as ‘a dump’, which is not quite fair, and even if it is, given the representative significance of Swindon in the history of British society, it’s no more of a dump than the rest of the country. Aroundaboutz, of course, in the surrounding countryside populated by plenty of Generals and Majors, there are all sorts of attractions, if you like White Horses and stones circles and if you can survive on a Farmboy’s Wages. And it’s not too far away from the Towers of London, if you fancy a day trip. But that’s still underselling Swindon itself, which has quite a few treasures all of its own. It’s a good place to visit if you like railway museums, odd art deco treasures, or want to trace the origins of the NHS. In the time I have lived here, one can trace the diminution of the public realm under the pressure of austerity, felt in the absence of Sure Start centres, libraries, bus services, and nurseries that were the elements of our daily life when we first moved here. But actually, a life here isn’t just the privatised experience of a New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage. There are things worth getting out and about for. You could even spend half a day on a self-made Diana Dors walking tour, culminating perhaps at Swindon’s very own answer to the Statue of Liberty.

So should you ever find yourself stuck here and in need of entertainment, or indeed if you find yourself Making Plans to pass close by, here is my personal guide to the best 10 things that public life in Swindon offers to you:

1). Top of the list is the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. A quite extraordinary place, mainly for the art collection (not to the mention the crocodile or the Mummy).

2). Town Gardens. A place for kids to play, the site of the best annual(ish) South Asian festival I’ve ever been to, and a place where sometimes, if you look carefully, you can catch a glimpse of the Mayor of Simpleton wandering around.

3). No public sphere is possible, as old uncle Habermas reminds us, without a thriving commercial life to sustain it. The Swindon Designer Outlet shopping centre might not sound much, but even if you don’t like shopping, go there – it’s in the remaining part of the Great Western railways works, so it’s like walking through a portal into the historical geography of the town.

4). And, still with Habermas, you need coffee shops too – visit Baila, a little slice of cosmopolitanism in Old Town. At nighttime, it might well be true that Life Begins at the Hop, but it should end here, in a Crowded Room full of discerning gin drinkers. By day, it’s a haven for home-workers happy to listen to acid jazz and not-so-obvious Motown.

5). Los Gatos, or just ‘the Spanish’, a small slice of authentic British ex-pat Tapas in Wiltshire, this was the ONLY nice place when we moved here, but now it is like a trusted old friend you know will always be there when other things disappoint. Great coffee.

6). The Arts Centre. Swindon has a proper, big theatre, The Wyvern, which is also worth a visit (especially for Jon Richardson’s ‘returning home’ gigs), but the Arts Centre is another little hidden gem, a place to see Am-Dram performances of The Crucible or watch Mark Thomas or see foreign films or listen to Thea Gilmore.

7). Swindon is a very sporty town, with a disappointing football team embedded in the community in all sorts of commendable ways, Speedway, and best of all, Ice Hockey. Go Wildcats! It’s just like Canada.

8). There are various things to do at Coate Water park, but the best one is to take a ride on the miniature railway – because it’s Swindon, so you have to find a way of riding on a steam train.

9). The Old Town Railway Path. Yes, yes, I know, it turns out that almost everything on the list is related to railways, but if you need a walk, this is great – this is another bit of historical geography, a disused railway cutting that overlooks the ‘The Front Garden’ between Swindon and the M4, now the site of a major new housing development, and gives you a view in the distance of the Science Museum‘s large-object store at Wroughton, and if you like Rock, you can even see some exposed Upper Jurassic geological formations (apparently). Certainly a place to get your Senses Working Overtime.

10). Oh, and then there is the musical heritage – you don’t even have to come here to experience any of this, but all of it makes so much more sense if you’ve lived here. This is Pop.



On the milieu of security: Paper and discussion in Dialogues in Human Geography

IMG_0167I have a piece newly published in Dialogues in Human Geography, grandly titled ‘On the milieu of security: Situating the emergence of new spaces of public action‘. As that may or may not indicate, it is a discussion of different ways in which issues of security are discussed in various fields of critical social science. It is one attempt to think through how ideas of problematization might re-cast the self-image of ‘critique’ in left theory, or at least, to elaborate further on two very different ways of doing things with Foucault (I’m sure there are more than tw0).

The formula for this new-ish journal is that lead articles are published alongside a series of commentaries. My interlocutors were Ben Anderson, Anne-Marie D’Aoust, Matt Hannah, Jess Pykett, William Walters, and, David Murakami Wood. And then there is response (‘The Scandal of Publicity‘) to their comments. It’s an interesting process, and I would have loved to write more in response to the commentaries, partly for clarification inevitably, but also because different people raised all sorts of issues I have lots to say about as well (like concepts of attention).

As with lots of my publications recently, this one was not so much planned as arising out of an invitation to think about a topic I didn’t know I was meant to know about. It dates back to a conference in Ottawa more than three years ago on the theme of Security and its Publics (organised by two of the commentators mentioned above, William and Anne-Marie). Efforts to publish a collection of the papers from the event fell foul of some rather shoddy practices from journal editors (not in geography, I should hasten to add). The turnaround for the piece in Dialogues, from submission to full publication, has been less than a year, which is remarkable considering that it involved not just getting referees for the original submission but also a whole bunch of coherent commentaries too. William and Anne-Marie have also published a piece which addresses some of the issue raised at the event, on the theme of ‘Bringing publics in critical security studies‘.

Here’s the abstract for my lead piece:

“Critical analysis of security presents processes of securitization as sinister threats to public values such as accountability, inclusion and transparency. By questioning some of the theoretical premises of this view of the milieu of security, it is argued that practices of securitization might be understood less as an assertive medium for the constitution of the social field and more as a responsive mode of problematization of the temporalities of concerted public action. The argument proceeds in stages. First, two ways in which publicness is figured in the critique of security are identified and the spatiality of securitization associated with them elaborated. Second, this view of the spatiality of securitization is then linked to two modes of temporality that apparently define the historical novelty of contemporary security practices. It is argued that uncovering the pernicious politics of security depends on identifying putative subject effects sought and achieved by programmes of rule. In contrast to this approach, an alternative inflection of the genealogical perspective on security is identified. This inflection seeks to diagnose problematizations to which security initiatives are a response, suggesting a reorientation of critical attention to investigating the reconfiguration of public life around various temporal registers of uncertainty, adjustment and repair. The article closes by arguing that the specific public values at stake in securitization should be given more credence.”

Theorising emergent public spheres

ActaI have previously mentioned attending a recent conference on publics and problems at Westminster, where I talked to a forthcoming paper titled Theorising emergent public spheres – well, it is now published, which is nice. The paper works through some ideas about how to think about the values of publicness, in relation to various issues arising from South African politics and public culture. I try to use the South African examples as occasions to think about how the values associated with  publicness always arise in contexts of ‘extension’, and therefore of transformation and translation, and not just of ‘application’ (the paper doesn’t actually put in like that though).

This paper sits alongside another one, more explicitly framed around how best to think about the value of public space, which together seek to spell out an analytical framework of sorts, or a set of questions at least, for investigating the formation of public life. These pieces are products of 5 years worth of workshopping around ‘public’ topics, including various ongoing invitations to listen or talk. I’m not sure if sitting around listening to what other people think about publicness, and specifically why they think it matters or not, counts as fieldwork but I have ended up thinking that this has been the ‘methodology’ I have been using to ‘theorise’ about these issues.

My paper is part of a theme issue of a South African journal, based at the University of Free State, called Acta AcademicaThe special issue on publics arises out of a workshop held in Bloemfontein back in 2012. It is also the first edition of the re-launched journal, which under the editorship of Lis Lange is now framed very clearly as a venue for “Critical views on society, culture and politics”:

“Acta Academica is an academic journal dedicated to scholarship in the humanities. The journal publishes scholarly articles that examine society, culture and politics past and present from a critical social theory perspective. The journal is also interested in scholarly work that examines how the humanities in the 21st Century are responding to the double imperative of theorising the world and changing it.”

The journal is available via the Sabinet platform, and it does also have an page (here). I have copies of the papers in this special issue should you be interested.

Introducing Human Geographies

IHGI have just received my copy of the new, 3rd edition of Introducing Human Geographies, “the leading guide to Human Geography for undergraduate students”. Technically, not published ’til 2014, but perhaps available in the better bookshops in time for Christmas. In the second edition, published in 2005, I wrote a chapter under the Issues sub-section with the title ‘Who cares?‘. This time, I have a chapter in the Horizons sub-section on ‘How to think about public space‘. This chapter is actually the first published piece in which I attempt to outline some of my own thinking about publicness that came out of an ESRC project on the theme of Emergent Publics which finished a while ago now…. I’m not sure an undergraduate textbook is necessarily the best place to try to articulate the fuzzy research agenda that I thought might have ’emerged’ from that project, but I suppose it might be a good way of catching the next generation early. Only time will tell.

Politics and public space

DSCF1014If you are stuck for holiday reading, perhaps a short debate on how best to theorise the relationship between public space and politics is what you are looking for? If you have access to the journal Policy and Politics, you will find a couple of responses in the current issue by myself and Quentin Stevens to a short provocation in the previous issue by John Parkinson entitled ‘Political public space: what it is, why it is special and why standard spatial nostrums mislead’. My contribution is really an elaboration of some aspects of Parkinson’s argument, an appreciation, just to show I am not only ‘critical’ when writing in critique-mode. To cut a long story short, Parkinson’s argument is that the ‘big-P’ political significance of certain sorts of public spaces is dangerously sidelined by arguments about the ‘little-P’, or shall we say, ‘cultural politics’ significance of public space understood as a field of broad, dispersed sociable encounters. I think he might be right. What is interesting about the ‘debate’ is that it does underscore the degree to which the precise relationship between political-politics uses of public space and cultural-politics uses of public space, to make a simple distinction, remains poorly theorised and difficult to investigate empirically in interesting ways (I think the significance of Parkinson’s argument, in his work on public space and democracy, lies precisely in focussing clear attention on the Big-P political relevance of uses of public space, something which is often taken for granted in more or less dismissive ways by arguments which are keen to claim ‘political’ relevance for any and all uses of public space).

The same issue of the journal also has an interesting collection of essays exploring the theme of Reconfiguring the Local Public Realm, which comes out of a workshop held in Bristol a couple of years or so ago, which I did attend and present a paper at, but was unable to contribute a final paper towards. It includes a range of pieces from planners, political scientists, and others – I would recommend the paper by Jeremy Seekings in particular, on the question of ‘Is the South Brazilian?

Arts of the Political by Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift: Review

A&TMy review of Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left has just been published on Antipode’s online Book Review page.  There is also a (shorter) review of the same book by Fred Inglis in the Times Higher. And the Mobilizing Ideas blog had a post about it a while ago too, in case you missed it (and are interested in these things).

Doing Public Things

DorsLast week I attended a workshop organised by CCIG’s publics research programme and the Creating Publics project (I was only able to attend one day of the three because of an outbreak of chicken-pox at home). The workshop was in part a moment in a collaborative project on Making Publics across time and space between some OU social science researchers and a humanities-based network based at McGill that has been behind the Making Publics project (MAP for short). There is a great set of CBC radio programmes that grew out of that project, covering a wide historical sweep of issues related to public formation.

The discussions at the workshop clarified for me the importance of thinking about the  grammar of conceptualizations of publicness. I have tried to write a little about this, in a paper submitted last month and a chapter that I have just got back for proof-reading, so it was on my mind already.

Everyone seems to agree that one should adopt a plural register when approaching public questions – that it is right and proper to talk about publics rather than the public. But I wonder whether it makes much difference if one pluralises the public, rather say than pluralising the public sphere or public space. Speaking of publics in the plural might not make much difference in so far as attention remains focussed on overly substantialised images of publics as more or less sociolgical group-like entities.

The default to thinking in terms of plural publics, thought of as a straightforward synonym for the conceptual issues raised by ideas such as the public sphere or public space, is associated with successive moves which emphasise the ‘constructed’ qualities of publics: publics are made, assembled, performed, or enacted, depending on one’s particular theoretical inclinations. All of these ideas tend to leave in place the strong impression that there is some sort of animating subject doing the making or assembling, and/or that the product of the assembling or enacting is also best thought of as some sort of collective subject. Something has been lost along the way: the sense of publicness as a subjectless process, to paraphrase old uncle Habermas. After all, ‘the public sphere’ might be a quite clunky translation of a concept that was not meant only to name an institutional form, but also, perhaps more importantly, to name a certain sort of action – acting publicly and acting in public understood as a distinctive  mode or medium of social organisation (see here and here for a neat summary of the continuing subtlety,  shall we say, of Habermas’ account of ‘the public sphere’ and the vicissitudes of its transition, indicating some of the reasons why fixating on publics might not be the advance it is sometimes assumed to be).

This is where the grammar of theories of publicness becomes important:

– If one talks in terms of making, enacting, or assembling publics, then the modalities of action are already presupposed (and the most important thing always seems to be the constructed qualities of publics, with slightly different inflections, as if publics were ever thought of as naturally occurring kinds). This type of formulation makes publicness the subject of a process that is not, strictly speaking, specifically public per se – I think perhaps only performativity has a genealogy that brings it up close to the distinctive problems of public action, in a way that assemblage, or enactment, for example do not quite share – these latter might be too comfortable in their assumptions about the sociality of collective action as distinct from its publicity.

– If, on the other hand, one talks of making things public – making science public, for example – then the emphasis is more squarely on publicness as a type of action. And this is where the fun starts – this action might be about sharing, or exposing, or making transparent or accountable or equally accessible….

My point, I suppose, is that one can either apply certain concepts of action derived from more or less proximate fields to understand the formation of publics; or, one can think a little more about the distinctively public qualities of certain types of action. I think the latter task is probably more difficult. The ‘politics’ of asserting that publics are performed, or enacted, or assembled tends to be relatively predictable and two-dimensional (since publics are made in contingent circumstances, they can be re-made, that sort of thing). The stake in theorising about distinctively public types of action is, I think, less satisfying: it requires thinking about power relations in more than two dimensions, in terms of the reconfiguration of plural public values – of openness, transparency, sharing, accessibility  and so on – rather than in terms of dualisms between public and private, universal and particular, natural or contingent, however ‘paradoxical’ those dualisms can be made to appear.

So my mid-year resolution is to try not to talk about publics at all, while trying to be more precise in usage when talking about public spheres, public spaces, and the types of action associated with processes and mediums of publicness.

Public action: making things visible or catching the attention?

I’ve been meaning to write down some thoughts provoked in particular by the workshop on Security and its Publics that I attended in Ottawa back in September, but other things have been in the way – including another workshop on Rethinking the Public, this time in Bloemfontein, which partly confirmed some of these thoughts even though it wasn’t limited to the security theme.  

Both events confirmed for me that there seems to be an almost automatic tendency for discussions of publicness to devolve into discussions of ‘the Public’, as if the main thing at stake was the status of a sociological entity, equivalent to a group, or a people, or a nation. Thought of like this, of course, ‘the Public’ is always either found wanting (not interested enough in the things they should be), or is being misled. This tendency to think of publicness in terms of a substantive subject is, perhaps, only compounded by the current interest in insisting that publics need to be theorised as ‘material’ or ‘materialised’. This just threatens to compound the problem of thinking of publicness in overly substantive terms, rather than as a weird, queer, perhaps magical quality that requires an account of action not substances.  

The Ottawa workshop included academics, activists, and artists (here is a reflection from Kate Milberry, one of the other participants) – the emphasis intellectually was shaped very much by critical security studies and IR: papers about drone strikes, the militarisation of the policing of protest, creeping surveillance of everyday life, that sort of thing. I presented a paper around the hunch that much of the critical analysis of security and ‘securitization’ has conceptual trouble imagining practices of policing, surveillance, war even, as ever possibly being pursued for legitimately public ends. The problem is conceptual in so far as it follows from an investment in certain sorts of theory which aren’t very good at thinking about the public mediums of action, not least of violent action – dark readings of Foucault, credulous readings of Agamben, that sort of thing.

There seem to be two senses of publicness operating in lots of this work – an implicit ideal of transparency and openness, which operates as the benchmark against which any and all practices of security are always already rendered suspect; and a sense of public space as a communicative milieu of a certain sort, either for ideological interpellation or affective contagion, through which fear and anxiety is routinely circulated. If you combine these two, then you get to the point where security practices are always counter to public values, because they are meant to operate out of the open, they are hidden, surreptitious, secretive, invisible, and yet brilliantly effective for all of that.

One of the things that crystallised for me at this workshop is the degree to which critical invocations of ‘public’ values often presume that publicness is all about visibility – hence the sense that securitization is problematic for public values because it is presumed that it is a process all about secreting things, hiding them away (I think there might be fundamental differences in how ‘security’ is thought in IR/critical security studies when compared, say, to fields working on ‘biosecurity’ and related topics – this is partly disciplinary, no doubt, but also something to do with different ways of reading Foucault and Foucault-sourced notions such as governmentality, biopolitics, and, well, security). I’m not sure I’m convinced that security practices and discourses should be thought of as presumptively illegitimate, undemocratic, or suspect just because they may involve some element of secrecy (which they may or may not anyway). Is secrecy necessarily opposed to the public values of democracy? Always?

The sense that securitization is at odds with democratic values begs some questions. What public values, for example, are at stake in processes of securitization? (Protection, order, etc – these are public values after all). Again, there is an interesting difference here with work on biosecurities, which does seem able to articulate security practices with thinking about publicness in a non-reductive way. More broadly, I came away thinking that the visibility/invisibility frame really isn’t a very helpful way of thinking about processes of public formation at all. It might even be an index of not thinking very hard about what the politics of public formation.

There seems to be an assumption in critical analysis of security that if only it were possible to make more widely visible various types of terrible thing – drone strikes, human rights abuses, unauthorised interrogation techniques, militarized policing – then ‘the public’ would naturally object. The analysis of security and its publics in this register of visibility sustains some standard critical gestures – critique is all about making things visible, uncovering hidden away things, perhaps bearing witness. The visual register tends to take for granted that ‘the public’ would and should, under the right circumstances, be horrified by the same things that upset the critic – it is assumed that the harms and wrongs of some practices should be self-evident, and this means this sort of critical analysis ends up coming close to always blaming ‘the Public’ for their indifference.

The two papers at the Ottawa workshop that seemed to stretch almost to breaking point the visual register in which security and its publics is theorised were, it turns out, both by geographers – Jennifer Hyndman talking about refugee camps in East Africa, and Alison Mountz talking about the use of islands as the location for off-shore detention centres by the US, UK and Australian governments. In both cases, there isn’t anything ‘invisible’ about the practices or places at issue – you can’t hide a refugee camp, they are in plain sight. Hyndman talked around the theme of ‘apprehending’, in terms of a kind of double, ambivalent political and epistemological sense of laying hold of and/or seizing, but also of learning about (I’m probably doing the argument an injustice). Likewise, Mountz framed her analysis in terms of drawing attention, distraction, things ignored, not just visibility and invisibility.

Apprehension and attention seem much more useful, conceptually, as more than mere figures of speech, than the metaphorics of visibility and invisibly for understandings processes of public formation. In particular, attention is a much better theme through which to hold in tension the sense of the public as a kind of sociological entity and the sense of publicness as involving some abstraction from more immediate social relations. It helps to pinpoint how ‘making things public’ might be less about making things visible, or seeing things, and more about noticing, paying attention, or being distracted, or indeed, attending to and caring.

The reason I like the idea of thinking of public formation in relation to notions of attention and attending is because, of course, there is an economy of attention that is a little more subtle than that suggested by visibility versus invisibly. Attention is a key concept in the economics of information and in some strands of media theory too. The general point is that attention is a scarce resource – you can’t pay attention to everything all at once; attention is, further, selective, and partial. And it’s often really hard work to get people to pay attention. Attention might be a much better theme around which to pursue a concern with the ‘materiality’ of public formation – for example, going back to the theme of security, it might be the case that some issues, some scenes and sights, resist attention almost by their very nature – including the horrors of violence and torture. It might be much more difficult to build sustained attention around some issues than others, because of the ‘aesthetic’ qualities of those issues.

I also think attention might be a fun way to get at what seems to me to a fundamental division within contemporary academic work on ‘public’ things. Lots of this work tends to think of publicness primarily as a communicative practice, in either deliberative-legitimatory ways or agonistic-oppositional ways. This work finds it really difficult to acknowledge that ‘public’ is also a name given to certain sorts of institutionalised, bureaucratic configurations – the public sector, public transport, that sort of thing. But public agencies, charged with delivering material goods and services, might also be thought of in terms of the analytics and economics of attention – in a sense, they are organised practices for sharing, distributing and providing attention, even of aggregating attention – for paying attention to some in the name of others, of delegating the responsibilities of attending. Giving attention, attending to the needs of ‘the public’, is what these agencies do. In principle.

Anyway, somewhere here, around the notion of attention, I think there might be a way of thinking about the family resemblances that connect different paradigms of public life – more communicative ones with more organisational ones.

And I think attention also challenges the terms of criticism through which public formation is discussed. The critique of securitization in terms of visibility and invisibility either overestimates the obvious normative pay-off of making things visible, or it ends up having to invest too much hope in the same rationalities of affective contagion that it takes as its object of critique in the first place. Issues may or may not rise to public attention, on the other hand, because of something about the issue that resists or repels attention; or lack of attention might be sociologically structured – people have other things to do, other things to pay attention to, other concerns to attend to. And above all, this all suggests paying more attention to the hard work involved in attracting and maintaining attention, as well as in distracting attention – harder than exposing things, or just hiding them away.

I wonder if it would be possible to imagine an account of public formation which does entirely without a visual vocabulary? This vocabulary gets in the way of thinking about the sorts of action involved in public practices, the sorts of action involved in noticing, caring, attending.

Is politics an enigma?

Via Derek Gregory at geographicalimaginations, I’ve just come across a short essay at Adbusters from Andrew Merrifield diagnosing the ‘spatial’ lessons of Occupy, which he presents in terms of the challenge of linking a clear and adequate Marxist theory of capitalism to the rather elusive practical challenge of doing politics in light of that sort of analysis. I guess the ‘engima’ that Andrew identifies might not be so puzzling if one did not imagine that the theory was quite so adequate, and if one did not suppose that ‘revolt’ was the only plausible model for thinking about politics. Oh well.

The essay does contain a nice description of what’s ‘public’ about occupied spaces, one that punctures the romance of ‘real’ spaces of assembly – publicness turns out to be about both situated encounters as well as catching the attention of more dispersed, disseminated audiences. A nice image, certainly, developed more fully in John Parkinson’s recent book which I mentioned a while back, for example, or in Kurt Ivesen’s work on spaces of public address , or various other places in which a stretched-out notion of public space is developed . It’s not really a terribly ‘revolting’ idea at all.

Security and its publics

O Canada! I’m off to a conference tomorrow, or a workshop at least, proper flying away from home sort of thing, first time for ages I’ve done one of these gigs. It’s on the theme of Security and its Publics, at Carleton University in Ottawa. I’m giving a paper rather grandly titled ‘Public time and the securitization of everything’. The website has some background.