Approaching public life

Via Thomas Gregersen at Political Theory, news of a special issue marking the 50th anniversary of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, and of a couple of reviews of Nancy Fraser’s Scales of Justice. The latest issue of Contemporary Political Theory has a section on Cavell’s political theory, too. Not sure I’ll ever have time to read any of these myself.

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.

Workshop on Creating Publics

Details of a workshop on Creating Publics, to be held at Westminster on 21st and 22nd July – co-convened by the Publics Programme at the OU and the Governance and Sustainability Research Group at Westminster. Details of who to contact if you are interested in attending are in the link.

‘From the blogosphere to the street’

Continuing the theme of how to understand the role of new media in helping to explain events in Egypt, the SSRC’s Immanent Frame blog site has two new excellent pieces by anthropologists, which place these practices in broader contexts, written by Charles Hirschkind and Farha Ghannam. Read together, they do a nice job of emphasizing two things: how new media practices like blogging are embedded in wider media ecologies, relating to and reconfiguring other media forms and practices, particularly of news making; and the important relationship between these reconfigurations of media publics and the politics of occupying and contesting urban public spaces.

What do ‘media’ do?

Following my post on the reporting of events in Egypt, Alex Marsh sent me a link to this think-piece by BBC correspondent Paul Mason, Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, which seeks to draw some general lessons from recent protest events in places as diverse as Greece, Ireland, North Africa and the UK. The piece has since been published in The Guardian, and has attracted some attention, not least as indicative of a BBC policy of encouraging journalists to engage in more detailed discussions via blogging.

Mason’s piece treads between a focus on ‘technology’ and a more interesting discussion of some of the sociological aspects of this range of events – the emphasis on the role of young, relatively highly educated people is surely correct. There is an inevitable journalistic emphasis on the newness of all of this, and the default assumption remains that this is really a story about how ‘technology’ transforms the conditions of political action. The geographer Tim Unwin has a list of various reports that address what he himself calls “the agency of mobile ‘phones and the use of social networking environments over the Internet” in shaping political upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt,  and beyond. His last comment is important: “Much research needs to be undertaken on the real role of ICTs in these ongoing political processes.  What seems apparent, though, is that many participants do indeed believe that these technologies are helping them achieve their objectives.” A certain view of the potential of digital communications is no doubt an important part of the ‘spontaneous philosophy’ of contemporary activism. Likewise, Mason’s think-piece refers in passing to how “activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri”. I’m not so sure this necessarily means “they have a better understanding of power”, but in so far as it is true, it does certainly mean they are likely to have a particular, well-formed view of how power operates, for better or ill. But it seems to me that both of these aspects of activist self-understanding – of ‘communications’ and of ‘power’ – are more interesting if they are understood as internal dimensions to this form of organisation, without requiring anyone to affirm the ‘objective’ validity of either of these views of how political action unfolds. The focus on the importance of new media in much of this reporting and commentary allows a narrative framing in which politics is rooted in a generalised but unformed sense of ‘grievance’ rooted in ‘poverty’ and ‘oppression’ which is then given expression by new communications opportunities – Manuel Castells neatly summarises this narrative in his comments on all this.

In short, there is a particular concept of the mediating work that ‘media’, old and new, perform in much of the commentary on the role of social media and digital technology in contemporary politics – they can be ascribed so much importance by virtue of being attributed a merely mediating function. Amongst other things, what disappears from view from this perspective is the different practices that different communications technologies help to configure – twitter and facebook are playing different roles in contemporary events in the Arab world to that played by Al-Jazeera. While much of the commentary out there is about how new media changes how politics is done, my sense is that the real imperative behind much of this kind of commentary is the attempt to understand the changed conditions under which news is made, and indeed, the changed conditions under which academic expertise about complex situations can be articulated in real-time (and there might be interesting elective affinities between certain self-understandings of activism and the focus of media reporting on individualising effects of new media).

For an antidote to some of the more detached commentary on events in Egypt and Tunisia, there are some interesting debates going on amongst anthropologists, which provide much more depth of understanding than is found in much of the technology-focussed discussion. There are a couple of more circumspect reflections on the role of media in these political eventsOne of these pieces makes the point that the focus on the new mediums of political change is a recurrent feature of reporting and commentary on these types of dramatic political events: “This is an evergreen story…The interest that’s focused on social media now, ten years ago was focused on web portals, before that it was focused on email and list-serves, before that it was television.” And in this respect, there is an interesting archive of reportage and commentary on the protests around the contested Iranian election in 2009, described by some as a ‘twitter revolution’, which two years on is an interesting case-study of how the global news narrative of politics as technological expression unfolds and then unravels over time.

Democracy Live

I came across an interesting theory blog the other day, called GonePublic, which belongs to Noelle McAfee, and focuses on links between philosophy, political theory and contemporary public life. She has a new book out, which I had not come across before, called Democracy and the Political Unconscious, which I haven’t yet read, but which sounds interesting in its emphasis on the relationships between collectively felt trauma and the challenges of building and sustaining democratic cultures. Her site also has a link to a recently published collection, Democracy in What State?, which includes contributions by some of the grandees of ‘continental-style’ political philosophy – Ranciere, Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, Nancy. Should make interesting reading, given the decided ambivalence about ‘democratic’ values one might impute to at least one or two of these thinkers. And while I am on the subject of things I haven’t read properly yet, there is also an interesting looking essay in Political Studies by Andy Dobson on Democracy and Nature, that thinks through the relevance of Latour’s provocations about nature and democracy by emphasising the importance of practices of listening as well as the well-trodden emphasis on speaking in recent democratic theory.

I stumbled across these references a week or so ago, and remembered them this week while finding myself watching a lot of day-time television, in that zonked-out, sleep-deprived way that one does in the first few days after the birth of a new child. We have sat glued to images of protest and violence in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. I wonder which, if any, of them would be most helpful for understanding what is going on there. Between them, these theoretical works look like they cover the shared terrain of cutting-edge democratic theory these days, which revolves around a couple of intertwined issues: how best to think of the mediums of inclusive democratic politics – in terms of deliberating, representing, and/or other modes of more or less embodied action; and how to square these images of how democratic politics should be best practiced with a more worldly acknowledgement that democracy is rarely founded democratically, but is shaped at its origins often by violence, trauma, and suffering. Of course, there is a style of theorising about ‘the political’ that presents these two sides as standing in a starkly contradictory, or aporetic relationship, so that democracies are always tainted at source by foundational violence. This serves as a way of reconfiguring some quite old-fashioned images of messianic revolution with ideals of democratic politics. Alternatively, there is an Arendtian vision in which the sorts of street protests going on in Egypt this last week or so are examples of a mode of collective, public action that is constitutively opposed to violence and yet is the very source of democratic energies.

Now I don’t know very much about Egypt, and am not inclined to over-interpret events there just for the sake of theoretical point-scoring. But watching these events, distracted by more real personal events and from a distance, I have been struck by how at times like this what you really want is contextual, social-scientific forms of analysis rather than interpretative political theory.  And, it’s also useful to have some sense of how things might be theorised by those more familiar with these contexts than the usual theory-suspects.

One of the riffs this past couple of week about Egypt, and before that about Tunisia, has been about the importance of social media like twitter and facebook in coordinating the protests and collective mobilizations that have shaken authoritarian regimes. To a large extent I think, this sort of emphasis is really an index of a culture of journalism that doesn’t know very much about the places where dramatic news events often take place, and is therefore forced to fall back on a familiar narrative line. Malcolm Gladwell has a neat little blog post on this theme here, in which he points out that the fact that the fact that events in Egypt have been partly shaped by the use of new media might be far down the list of relevant factors worthy of attention. His point is that the fascination with the mediums through which contemporary collective action is made possible, with the ‘how’, tends to distract attention from the content, from the ‘why’ of such action. There is a kind of flattening effect of this sort of news narrative, in so far as it makes political revolutions in Tunisia just another version of half-hearted online petition exercises led by government in the UK or the latest smart viral marketing campaigns of this or that underground pop song. The focus on the medium is not only exaggerated, as Gladwell suggests, but tends to obviate the need for any deeper analysis of why political events like this take place at all – I have actually learnt very little about Egyptian politics after a week of watching blanket news coverage from there.

Of the things I have had time to read on this issue, I enjoyed this piece on why the narrative that paints Egypt in 2011 as potentially a re-run of Iran in 1979 doesn’t hold up really helpful, precisely because it provided a basic outline of the social and organisational context in which these events are unfolding. It reminded me too of an old media studies analysis of the importance of tape cassettes to the Iranian revolution. Maybe each political revolution has its own  iconic ‘new media’ technology?

And the cassettes example isn’t as old sounding as it may appear. The anthropologist Charles Hirschkind has a detailed ethnographic account of the importance of taped sermons in shaping contemporary Islamic public spheres, in The Ethical Soundscape. One reason why this account resonates is that it reminds us that there is more to ‘media’ than just communicating – the ongoing importance of this media technology, in Hirschkind’s account, lies in the practices of self-sustained by a culture of listening, of being devout, of cultivating a particular spiritual and public ethics of life.

Hirschkind’s account of the practices of contemporary public life in Islamic societies like Egypt and Iran suggests a much more nuanced understanding of ‘public space’  than one often finds in spatial disciplines like geography or urban studies, which have a tendency to fetishize ‘real’ public spaces. I suppose the centrality of Tahrir Square to the events in Egypt in the last week might seem to confirm this emphasis. But I wonder. This seems to be an example of a struggle of over a specific site, as a symbolically important location rather than a site of real power, the control of which projects or reaches beyond its coordinates in space. A year or so ago I listened to a talk, at a workshop in Rome on political agency, by the Egyptian academic and activist Heba Raouf Ezzat, who talked about the vibrant but furtive quality of the political public sphere in Egypt. She recommended the work of Asef Bayat, who has written about new ‘post-Islamic’ social movement politics and the ordinariness of political action in the Middle East. Bayat has also written about the figure and reality of ‘the Arab street’, which he reconstructs as a complex of ideas and practices about the force of popular opinion, the fragility of state power, and the calibration of formal political processes to material conditions of life (what Africanist political theorists might call ‘the politics of the belly’). Bayat has updated this analysis of the new Arab street in the last week in relation to events in Tunisia and Egypt.

Between them, these sorts of analyses of the spaces of  political action are helpful in indicating the extent to which democratic energies might be understood as urbanized in certain respects without forcing one to fetishize a particular romantic image of the city as the scene of political life. There is an urbanity to the movements for change in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and elsewhere, it seems – in so far as they are peopled by labour activists, and professional classes, by women’s organisations, as well as by varieties of religious activism which are resolutely modern in their concerns and maybe often even ‘secular’ in their form. And it seems too there might be something resolutely urbanized about the ‘conjunctural’ factors at work in these recent events – the central importance of economic grievances over unemployment and food prices is indicative of the interplay between spatially extensive infrastructures of provisioning upon which contemporary urban living on the scale of a city like Cairo depends; and more contained, lived and shared experiences of stunted citizenship.

Universities and their public purposes

Nigel Thrift, sometime geographer and all round theorist, who is now Vice-Chancellor at Warwick, has a short note on The Chronicle of Higher Education blogsite WorldWise note on the complexity of the tensions shaping Higher Education today. Apart from the slightly sneering dismissal of ‘critique’ as a posture to adopt in relation to current changes to University financing in the UK context, this is a rather succinct summary of the complex relations into which ‘The University’ is woven. It is also a useful reminder of the degree to which the transformations triggered by post-election decisions in the UK are part of rather longer, more broadly shared processes of reconfiguration in global higher education. One thing that Thrift’s list of tensions brings out is how they all revolve around the basic tension of being (at least in part) publicly funded institutions which are expected to or aspire to deliver a complex and contrdictory range of public ‘goods’  – world class research, economically useful teaching and learning, social mobility, relevant solutions to all sorts of worldly problems. Rather than there being a single model of ‘the public’ to which Universities are expected to be responsive and accountable, Thrift’s list of tensions indicates the diverse range of public purposes and constituencies which have a stake in the future of higher education. Anyway, Thrift promises future posts focussing in more detail on these different tensions, which should be interesting to follow.

What is ‘public’ about the Public University?

 I was visiting UCL yesterday, where students are involved in an occupation as part of the ongoing campaign against the Coalition’s pernicious policy of higher education funding (we don’t have one at the OU, cos there aren’t any students at Walton Hall). These occupations are interesting not least because they are seeking to directly shame the VCs of individual institutions, who as a collective group have proved horribly supine in their response to the government’s decision to allow an increase in fees AND to slash public funding in support of teaching of all but a select ‘strategic’ subjects. The last few weeks have exposed clear divisions within the University sector, with representatives of the Russel Group and other research intensive institutions quietly accepting proposed changes as inevitable, while the most forceful criticisms of these proposals, and defence of the public value of higher education beyond the personal benefit derived by individual students, have been made by articulate VCs from institutions such as the University of Central Lancashire and Canterbury Christ Church. This division is so clear that it has generated a debate about whether the Universities UK, the umbrella representative body for the whole sector, has lost its legitimacy as an effective representative by adopting such an accommodating tone – you can track the tensions in recent articles and letters in the Times Higher.

All of this will come to a head this week when the Commons gets to vote on the tuition fees proposals. But one of the more important aspects of this campaign is the way that it has very quickly exposed fault lines around the terms in which the politics of newly austere public sphere is going to be fought out: on the one side, a set of arguments which invoke particular images of ‘fairness’ and focus all the attention on the idea of higher education as a system distributing benefits upon differentially advantaged individuals (on this criterion, of course, there are aspects of the current proposals that are easily commended – the OU has loudly celebrated the equalization of treatment of part-time students as potential high education debtors); on the other side, an argument about the public good of higher education residing in various collectively bestowed, and collectively enjoyed benefits which are more than the aggregate of all these personal benefits. The best thing I have read on this issue is Stefan Collini’s critique of the perfect-market idiocy that informs the Browne Review (whose membership is indicative of a shift in the ‘public’ quality of these sorts of reviews). Collini points out that the headline coverage of the Browne Review, and the protests and campaigns since too, has been on the issue of fees increases; and he elaborates on how there is a much more fundamental aspect of the Review, which is its proposed (and largely accepted by the Coalition) ‘dismantling of the public character of higher education’, which he describes as ‘breathtaking’ in its scale. The emphasis of Collini’s analysis on defending the public quality of higher education in a broad sense has quickly found expression in a newly established Campaign for the Public University. In a letter published in The Times earlier this week, the broader issue is clearly stated: “The issues at stake for the future of higher education are not only to do with the proposed increase in student tuition fees. We believe that the public university is essential both for cultivating democratic public life and creating the means for individuals to find fulfilment in creative and intellectual pursuits.” The letter also refers to the results of rather extensive research survey undertaken by Ipsos MORI on behalf of HEFCE and also published last week, which, to cut a long story short, showed rather widespread support amongst the public for government investment in higher education and a broad appreciation of the varied benefits (economic and non-economic, individual and collective) of higher education. The OU currently has a research centre, CHERI, which also focusses on exploring and promoting the public dimensions of higher education, engaging in empirical research but contributing to conceptualizations of the place of higher education in reconfiguring the public sphere – partly through links with CHERI, some of us hosted Craig Calhoun at the OU earlier this year, whose talk about the changing public status of Universities now seems even more pertinent than it did back in March – you can see the lecture here.

The only thing that worries me about the tone of debate at the moment around these issues is the danger that certain aspects of a rather tired Two Cultures debate are already being reproduced, so that ‘the public’ benefits worth defending from the more extensive marketization of higher education end up being represented in terms of the apparently non-instrumental value ascribed to ‘the humanities’. I think that path threatens to undermine much more expansive, inclusive understandings of the public qualities of higher education, by just reproducing some hoary old (class-bound) stereotypes about ‘really useless knowledge’ being the embodiment of the public value of University life. I think the challenge is to acknowledge and defend a pluralist range of ‘uses’ and ‘instrumentalities’ that higher education helps to sustain.

Rethinking the Public

Just a plug for a newly published collection of essays I helped edit with Nick Mahony and Janet Newman, Rethinking the Public, which explores different dimensions of contemporary processes of public formation, with case studies ranging from contemporary UK policy debates to colonial India, modern Brazil, and current ‘global’ activism. The chapters are written by bright new things, PhD students or recently completed PhD’s, and cover a range of fields in which questions of who or what constitutes a public are at stake – policy studies, media theory, urban studies and human geography, development studies, political theory, sociology.

Details of how to obtain a copy can be found at the Policy Press website:

The book develops out of an ESRC-funded research project on the theme of Emergent Publics, which has informed ongoing research initiatives amongst a group of scholars more or less loosely affiliated to the OU’s Public Research Programme in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance: