Changing the Subject: On The Priority of Injustice

The third theme that I have noticed running through The Priority of Injustice in my own re-read through of the whole thing follows on from the themes of ‘spatial grammar’ and the imperative of not seeking to correct other people’s flawed ontologies that I have already mentioned. I have come to view with deep distrust views of the task of Theory as a means of laying bare the aesthetic or affective or cognitive devices that reproduce people’s subjection. The idea that ‘people have been got at’, as Alan Sinfield once put it, is a recurring theme of a great deal of contemporary critical thought, especially when influenced by traditions of ideology critique – an influence that can be traced from theories of ideological state apparatuses through ideas about discourse and representation through to current fascinations with affect and atmospheres and algorithms. Across this range, the idea that politics – both of the sort one doesn’t approve and of the sort one hopes to support – works through changing the subject is a constant.

My interest in the theme of the ordinary is in no small part shaped by an effort to find a way of thinking that escapes the scholastic frame of reference that underwrites the ‘changing the subject’ paradigm. The ordinary is a theme that one can find in various thinkers – in Raymond Williams or Charles Taylor, for example, it is used as a counterpart to ideas of the privileged or the elect qualities of culture. This sense does have some presence in the more specific, but also somewhat elusive, sense of the ordinary that is indebted to Stanley Cavell’s work, elaborated, for example, in the writings of Veena Das. Ordinariness, in a Cavellian spirit, is a matter of affirming that the experience of the distance between the given and the possible is not an extraordinary one – it does not require a crisis, or a rupture, or some disruption of routine for this distance to be felt or apprehended. One reason that this affirmation is important, in relation to theories of subjectivity and subjectification, is that it throws into new relief the interpretation of contingency, whether of meaning or identity. The trick of being able to see all settled or inherited patterns of meaning as arbitrary (and interpreting arbitrariness as basically the same as ‘changeable’) easily leads to a scholastic temptation, as defined by Pierre Bourdieu, of projecting back onto practices under investigation the distance (social and analytical) that enables them to be objectified in the first place, and then transposing the revealed distance between the theoretical possibility of change and practical acceptance into a theory of power (i.e. power works by fixing and naturalising what are in fact fluid and contingent relations). Invoking Cavell, I would argue that this whole way of thinking misplaces “the vulnerability to doubt” that is one of his phrases for the ordinary, by failing to see that skepticism is a constant standing possibility of life, or, as I put it in the book, by not accepting the fact “that the world as we know it is not all that it may seem is an ever-present condition of action”.

Reflecting on all this as I have re-read my own book has made me think that there is actually a really interesting shift evident in the way in which change is figured in social theory over the last couple of decades (a shift that is really a line of important division, not a succession from one way of thinking to another). Explaining social change is, of course, a fairly basic concern of all sorts of social science, and usually involves some genre or another in which action is placed within a broader frame of context, or conditions, or constraint. Various traditions of thought, from the historicism of Weberian sociology to dialectically informed Marxism to theories of resilience, all tend to take it for granted that change is an intrinsic feature of social life – what’s a stake is how it is manifested. But with the ascendancy of subject-centred theories, under the sway of poststructuralist theories and the turn to ontology in particular, one can see the emergence of a different interpretation of change. In these strands of thought – whether it in theories of hegemony or of the distribution of the sensible or ontological politics or assemblage – it is presumed that the task of theory is to account for the stabilisation, ordering, or fixing of life into patterns of serial reproducibility. Change, in these accounts, is extraordinary – the objective is to establish theoretically the very possibility of change itself.

The difference here – between thinking of change as an ordinary feature of life that is manifested in various ways, or thinking of change as a rare event that interrupts orderly routines and stable patterns – seems to me now to be quite central to the contrast that I work through in The Priority of Injustice between action-oriented styles of social theory and subject-centric theories (which would include theories that remain fixated on demonstrating the illusory qualities of ‘the subject’). The latter traditions of thought are strongly attached to images of change as a punctual event – the echoes of classical ideas of revolution remain clear – that disrupts otherwise settled, more or less fixed habits. In the book, I suggest that this range of theory shares in an “unexamined idea of time: political time consists of a kind of punctuated equilibrium, where moments of dramatic and wholesale transformation of entire fields of action interrupt periods of durable and predictable routine.”

The set of relations between concepts of subjectivity-as-subjectification, ontologies of order, and images of change is in turn related to a remarkably resilient, shall we say, notion of the tasks of critique, understood primarily as a practice of denaturalization of apparently naturalized phenomenon – of demonstrating the theoretical possibility of the change-abilty of practices that are, apparently, lived and experienced as eternal and inevitable (the assumption that this is how life is ordinarily lived and experienced is, to reiterate, best thought of as a necessary projection of the methodological protocols derived from ontologized theories of subjectification).

The difference between action-oriented theories and subject-centric ones is partly related, in my discussion, to different attitudes to what Maeve Cooke calls “the justificatory dilemma” facing any avowedly critical theory, referring to the responsibility to justify that existing relationships both can and should be changed. To cut a long story short, subject-centric theories tend either to elide the problem of validity (justifying the vision of alternative futures that underwrites critique) into demonstrations of the plausibility of change, or, if more honest, they elevate openness to change and defamiliarization as the highest normative aspiration available to us (as the very essence of democracy, for example). The difference between these two styles of theory is the central narrative device in The Priority of Injustice – in particular, I use a simple contrast made by Axel Honneth to organize my discussion and evaluation of various strands of democratic theory. Honneth suggests that there are two broad paths out of what he calls the ‘productionist paradigm’ of critical theory (i.e. classical Marxism), in which substitutes for the lost faith in the universalizing agency of the industrial proletariat are found either in more pluralised accounts of rationalities of action (i.e. there’s more to life than labour), or in the search for deep ontological sources of the principle of negativity once invested in the working class (i.e. in antagonism, in abundance, lack, or even more perfectly, in the very gaps and fissures of ontological difference itself).

As you can probably tell, I am drawn towards the action-oriented strands of thought that Honneth points towards, and this informs my attempt to redeem something of value from the increasingly predictable literature on ‘the political’. If there is something distinctive that defines ‘the political’, then it’s not found in some irreducible force of antagonism, or in us/them relations, or in the ever present fact of violence. I commend Mary Dietz’s argument that what defines politics is an irreducible dimension of strategic action – this Machiavellian perspective helps us see that Foucault is the exemplary theorist of politics for our times, because Foucault is fascinated by strategic forms of action (that’s what Habermas and other similar thinkers haven’t liked about his work, and this dislike is what helps us see Foucault as first and foremost a theorist of action rather than ‘power’ -or, that what’s interesting about what he has to say about ‘power’ is the parts which are couched in the vocabulary of action). And all of this just means that rather than thinking of the distinction between politics and the political on the layer-cake analogy derived from political readings of Heidegger, it’s best thought of as directing our attention to the analysis of the different ratios between action and its conditions (that’s a reference to Kenneth Burke that I don’t make in The Priority of Injustice, but which I am thinking of developing properly in my next book).

Another thing to say about all of this is that the contrast between overly ontological readings of ‘the political’ and more ‘phenomenological’ versions that I prefer almost, but not quite exactly, maps directly onto the related contrast between realist/disassociative interpretations of the political and idealist/associative interpretations – my claim is that the significant choice is not between a grim and realist view of politics versus a rosier, more collective view; it’s between more social-theoretical traditions of action theory versus more culturalist-philosophical styles of subject-centric thought.

This argument about concepts of action and the subject is important because it goes to the central issue of how to understand democracy as a mode of the sharing of rule. There are different images of ‘sharing’ available to us, after all – it can be understood in terms of the singular will of all, or on the model of naturalistic consensus found in anarchism, or of being duped into acceding to rule by identifying with available distributions of the seeable and sayable, or, if you prefer, in terms of being bound to respect decisions to which one was at least in some respect a party. Subject-centric views of political life tend to rely on rather wooly ideas about consensus – consensus tends to be used to refer to any and all occasions in which action can be shown to accord to or attune with various background conditions, so that it isn’t even the name for a process of agreement. The relevant value in democratic theory isn’t really consensus anyway (not even in old uncle Habermas), it’s consent, which isn’t the same thing – consent has to be sought or won, and is almost certainly always grudging anyway, but the importance of holding this contrast open – between straw-figures of consensus and ideas of consent – is that it roots us back towards the importance of analysing the relations between ‘the politics of power’ and ‘the politics of support’ (I discuss all of that in Chapter 4 of the book, The Scandal of Consent, in which the dividing line between action-oriented theories and subject-centric theories is located within broadly poststructuralist strands of thought, so that Stuart Hall and Partha Chatterjee are shown to be much better guides to the dynamics of democratic politics than Laclau and Mouffe or Ranciere).

There is a geographical dimension to this strand of my argument too, in case you were wondering. A chain of associations derived from the subject-centric strand of thought has come to define a veritable paradigm of spatial politics in human geography, urban studies, and related fields:

  • the image of political time that contrasts images of settlement and order with moments of interruption and rupture lends itself to a view of proper politics as best exemplified by dramatic disruptions in and of public space;
  • it underwrites the view that proper politics inhabits margins and fissures, offset against mainstreams and the status quo;
  • it is closely associated, as we have seen, with a view of critique as a process of defamiliarization;
  • and it supports and is supported by understandings of how people’s subjectivities are functional effects of mediated systems of malevolent power.

Here then, the long shadow of Althusser’s notion of interpellation is still evident – it is the master-metaphor that one so often still finds governing the political interpretation of all sorts of other theory or theorists, all the way from Foucault to psychoanalysis and various points between. This combination of associations finds expression in an explicitly spatial model of politics as changing-the-subject:

  • subjects are formed, in this paradigm, by being ‘enframed’, by being set-in-place (before a painting, a chain of signifiers, a field of perception, a structure of address, or just immersed in an atmosphere);
  • throw in an orthodox interpretation of the relational formation of subjectivity, in which any collective identity as ‘We’ is constitutively posited against an abjected ‘Them’ (an interpretation of favoured sources that is just wrong), so that subject-formation appears as form of exclusionary territorialization;
  • and you arrive at a framework for analysing any and all practices as scenes for the reproduction of various exclusions and/or always potential sites for the creative reconfiguration of the imaginary identifications before which people remain, in the last instance (as they say), necessarily enthralled.

That, then, is what I am trying to work through, particularly in Part 2 of The Priority of Injustice, although these themes run across the whole thing. As I say, the contrast between action-oriented and subject-centric theories, which you may or may not find too stylized for your own tastes, captures for me something important that allows me to differentiate between strands of thought often bundled together in discussions of poststructuralism, or Continental philosophy, or political ontology – basically, I use this distinction to peel off various thinkers from that broad grouping, and draw them closer to strands of thought working a Habermasian vein with which they are normally not be associated. But I’ll say a little more about that re-arrangement next time.


Emergent Publics?

croftI gave a talk week ago or so at a conference on New Perspectives on the Problems of the Public, at the University of Westminster. I presented a version of a paper titled ‘Theorising Emergent Publics’, soon to be published I hope, and which is an attempt to say out loud some of the things I learnt through my involvement on the ESRC Emergent Publics project that Nick Mahony, Janet Newman and myself ‘convened’ a few years back now. The paper tries to think through the problem of making use of concepts like the public sphere, or public space, public-whatever, which are inherently normative but which have an empirical reference, and to do so in a non-reductive, not-backward-looking way. The term ‘emergent’ is meant to flag this problem of thinking about how to use normative concepts as they are meant to be used – evaluatively – in relation to ‘new’ formations of public life which don’t conform to established models of what public life is and should be.

Last time I talked about this theme, at an event in Ottawa, I came away having realised that the issue of ‘attention’ really deserved, well, more attention in discussions of publicness (that’s one paper I still haven’t written up…). This time, someone asked me what the ‘emergent’ bit meant in the title of the paper. Good question! It’s taken 6 years for anyone to ask that one. This is a dimension of the Emergent Publics project that we never really developed, it’s true (I have collected an awful lot of things to read on this topic…. Another unwritten paper). The thing about ‘emergent’ or ‘emergence’ is that it’s not just a smart word for saying ‘new things’, although it is that too. That’s what the question was getting at, I think (obviously, at the time, I blagged my way around the difficult question). Without consulting that pile of paper I mentioned, here is my first-cut at the different strands of thought that one might invoke to think through what the relevance of ‘emergent’ might be in talking about ‘emergent publics’ (actually, the Understanding Society blog by Daniel Little has a set of discussions on this topic and its relevance to social theory which is probably the best place to start):

–       One obvious reference point is Raymond Williams’ account of dominant, residual and emergent cultural formations. This is most useful as a descriptive framework, as a kind of starting point for mapping out relationships and assessing the relative powers of different practices.

–       Next, depending on your age and inclination, perhaps we should mention critical realism, a field in which the idea of ’emergent properties’ is particularly important. In terms of public things, what this sense, derived of course from a wider set of debates across science and the humanities, points towards is the sense that ‘publics’ arise from conditions to which they are irreducibly linked but also to which they cannot be reduced. I have in the past discussed this sort of idea with reference to the motif of the parasite, drawn from deconstruction, suggesting that publicness is inherently parasitical, or supplementary if you prefer. I’m not sure that this idea has caught on.

–       The notion of ‘emergence’ in social theory, whatever usage you alight upon, is always referencing the ‘proper’ sense of this idea drawn from physics, biology, and strands of philosophy of mind, particularly around ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness. Whereas in social theory, emergence is a really cool thing to invoke, I think it’s fair to say that in these fields it’s a much more contested idea – important certainly, but far from having the stable, established authority that social science wants the idea of emergence to carry.

–       Never mind, let’s keep going, because then there is perhaps currently the most sexy version of emergence-talk, associated with William Connolly and other versions of Spinoza-inflected vitalist styles of political theory. Connolly’s account of affect, pluralism, neuropolitics and such things cashes out in a discussion of ‘emergent causality’, which sounds like a great idea – the idea that events have conditions, certainly, but that you can’t quite anticipate how any set of given conditions will generate new forms. Now, not only might this not be so distinctive as one might think if you’re old/clunky enough to remember the hey-day of critical realism, but worse, or is it better, yes, it’s better, Connolly seems not to have noticed that his own account of emergent causality is pretty much identical to what Louis Althusser and his friends once called ‘structural causality’. Of course, ‘structural’ causality sounds a little bit deterministic, but it’s actually all about how structures rub up against each other and generate entirely surprising events, like the Russian revolution happening in, oh, Russia – that wasn’t meant to happen, was it? (somewhere along the way, if you’re following, this chain of associations might remind you, or help you see for the first time, or notice what was obvious, that structuralism as a tradition invented the analysis of ‘contingency’ – post-structuralism might, then, be just a footnote to that tradition). Anyway, anyway, by the time one has spotted the ‘overdetermined’ and ‘contradictory’ family resemblances between the ideas of emergence in Althusser, Connolly, Deleuze and anyone else who thinks it’s really obvious what Spinoza was really on about, then you will have arrived at the realization that ‘emergence’ is perhaps not able to do all the work you might want it to do. Emergence is often invoked against the idea of ‘linear causality’ in this sort of work, an idea which is really just a useful straw figure.

–     And then there is Hayek. Oops. The idea that markets are best thought of as ‘spontaneous orders’, which Hayek didn’t invent but did refine and then popularise in a particular way, has been picked up and taken seriously by, for example, Andrew Sayer (remember the critical realist interest in ideas of emergence), and more recently by Warren Magnusson.

There might be other strands I haven’t thought of (I’m writing this off the top of my head). But ending with Hayek is fun, isn’t it? It underlines the degree to which thinking about the ‘emergent’ bit of emergent publics should really have two dimensions to it: the normative/evaluative puzzle, certainly, but also the sense in which publicness is not something best thought of by analogy to our received ideas about construction and/or contingency. One of the things I have noticed about discussions of publicness in my ongoing ethnography of academic understandings of public value over the last few years is a constant temptation to infer a particular lesson from the observation that publics, public spheres, public spaces are not natural, but variable, constructed, assembled: it is routinely assumed that this means that publics, if they are not naturally given, must be actively made, for good or ill; and that by extension, of course, that ‘we’ should be involved in making them better, in better ways.

So, dare I say that Hayek might be really important to theorising the politics of public formation? Maybe that just means that, at the very least, using the vocabulary of ‘emergence’ in relation to publicness should lead us to be more attentive to the hubris that easily attaches itself to discussions of this topic, in which we all too easily find that other people are not virtuous enough but then console ourselves in imagining that our role as academics is to help them be better versions of themselves.

Keywords Project

OELHere is an interesting website for a project developing the analysis of Keywords, after Raymond Williams – I’ve only just seen this, via Progressive Geographies. Includes, amongst other things, an interesting entry on ‘urban‘, as well as videos (High Theory from the 1980s) and other resources – including considerations of the relationship between Williams’ methodology and that of William Empson (I’ve always liked Empson’s notion of the ‘compacted doctrine’, although it’s a bit more arty than Williams’ notion).

The video material is great – mostly from the 1986 conference that generated the collection The Linguistics of Writing, which when I was little was one of the most mind-blowing things I read – it includes a snippet of Mary Louise Pratt talking about the ‘linguistics of contact’, a theme from her auto-critique of speech act theory and other ‘linguistic utopias’ which is one of the backgrounds to the her work on colonial and postcolonial ‘contact zones’ (in my head, I sometimes think of myself as having written a PhD inspired by discovering the connection between these two facets of Pratt’s work; then again, sometimes I remember it as being about the difference, so to speak, between Derrida and Ricoeur. I’m not sure it ended up looking like either). Anyway, all still good stuff, and not only for nostalgic reasons, if you’re at all still interested in things like the ordinary, pragmatics, and other backwaters of Theoryland.