Keep Mrs. Honeyman right out of sight

A week of protest, demonstrations, rioting, flash looting, vandalism and violence across towns and cities in England has been another occasion for the expression of instant opinion and analysis by academics and intellectuals.

The president and vice-chair of the British Sociological Association (BSA) made a public claim for the relevance of sociology in the wake of the riots, primarily on the grounds that sociologists know that ‘crowds are not rational’. Really? Since when? A peculiar claim indeed, one which seemed to conflate ‘emotions’ with ‘lack of reason’, and invited us to regress a hundred years or so back to Gustave Le Bon, and running counter to a wide range of social science that has spent decades demonstrating  precisely the opposite.

The Mandy Rice-Davies Award for this week goes to Zygmunt Bauman, for whom these events were all a symptom of rampant consumerism – actually a widely shared view amongst much of the commentariat, from left to right. David Harvey developed the extended analogy between the ‘feral rats’ doing the looting and ‘feral’ bankers and capitalists going unpunished for their crimes in bringing about global financial chaos. An analogy which, one might suppose, did not really throw much explanatory light upon last weeks’ events at all. Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett discerned a general sense of cynicism born of inequality as laying behind the riots.

Some commentators were keen to insist on a link between these events and the Coalitions’ agenda of austerity and cuts – but the link was only presented as a ‘context’, which rather begged the important question about how the relationship between contexts and conditions on the one hand, and actions and events on the other, is actually meant to be mediated. A number of people alighted upon an academic paper which finds a correlation between fiscal austerity and social ‘unrest’, in order to shore up the argument that there was a link between rioting and cuts.

Much of the commentary I have seen has suggested that ‘the right’ is keen to deny any and all causal analysis of these events, invoking pure criminality and mindless irresponsibility. This seems to be wrong-headed, and probably continues a long-standing failure to credit the post-Thatcherite right in the UK with having a quite well-developed social theory of our contemporary malaise. There are various sorts of causal accounts on the right – from Peter Oborne, whose account alights upon inequality and unaccountable elites in a way that easily resonates in fact with various left narratives, to the lunacy of David Starkey’s claim that the riots happened because ‘whites have become black’, and not in a good way. In between these positions, there is of course the prevalent Tory position, which invests heavily in ‘culture of poverty’ style arguments, focussing on family structures, moral failures, cultures of entitlement, and the like. There is a whole strand of social thought and research informing this style of analysis of course, and it is on this terrain, like or not, that the politics of academic analysis on these issues is likely to be fought. What these classically conservative narratives have going for them, of course, is that they specify and identify mechanisms, and potential objects of intervention, which mediate between broad structural processes and observable patterns of group behaviour and individual action. It is this ‘pragmatic’ emphasis that is missing in the grander narratives of consumerism, neoliberalism, feral capitalism and the like which emanate from the left, and which makes those critical narratives politically weak – consoling in their own way, for sure, but not really identifying practical paths of action, beyond general calls either for revolution, solidarity, or to rally round and ‘take responsibility’.

Somewhere amongst all this, I did happen upon some more informative contributions, although these tended to reinforce the sense that academics are better placed to think slowly through events rather than squeeze them into their pre-existing frames. The ESRC did a better job than the BSA by publicising the work of David Waddington and Clifford Stott on the complex dynamics of policing and public (dis-)order – work that explicitly counters the sense that rioting is ‘irrational’. Society and Space re-posted a series of academic analyses of policing and urban unrest from different historical and geographical contexts. And Paul Rogers drew attention to a recently published analysis of the dynamics of urban rioting and community reconstruction in Bradford from 2001 to 2010 which also seems pertinent going forward.

None of these examples reflected directly on events of last week, but each seems to promise more by way of understanding the causes and conditions and possible consequences of those events than much of the more instant reaction. Above all, each of these examples draws into focus the intricate roles of policing in contemporary democratic politics – another issue which, it seems to me, much of the theory-left has consistently failed to think through, happy to think of policing as merely an instrument of state control and oppression, a version of ‘the repressive state apparatuses’. This week has crystallised the issue of ‘cuts’ to the public services more acutely than ever before, certainly, but not because the cuts stand as a background condition or cause. Rather, it is because the consequences for the public order, in the broadest possible sense, of shrinking the resources and recalibrating the organisational structures of agencies charged with protecting and sustaining public life have been so starkly dramatised. In terms of both funding issues but also of principles of accountability and independence, policing has suddenly become the central terrain of debate and contestation around which the shape of public life is likely to be shaped in the next few years. And it’s good to remember that it’s when the call is to “start assembling the boys from the fort” that things start to get really worrying.

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).

It all comes together in Frankfurt

Ooh, this looks interesting – in a parallel universe, I’d like to be in Frankfurt for the next couple of weeks to attend this set of lectures on Normativity. This is one of my favourite topics these days, and I have been trying to write about the ideas of this set of thinkers, and failing to find a way to do so which seems to fit with conventions in critical human geography. There is a resistance to certain styles of reasoning in this world, which is often covered over by appeals to what does and doesn’t  count as ‘political’, which seems to make this strand of philosophy oddly beyond the pale. Maybe because this stuff is just really difficult, in a way that a canon of French dudes, inflected by Heidegger, might not be, despite appearances? Or that it is difficult in a serious way?