Bite Size Methods

“I’ve avoided judgments about the adequacy of any mode of representation, not taking any of them as the yardstick against which all other methods should be judged. Nor have I adopted the slightly more relativistic position that, while the jobs to be done may differ, there is a best way of doing each kind of job. That isn’t relativistic asceticism on my part either. It seems more useful, more likely to lead to new understanding of representations, to think of every way of representing social reality as perfect – for something. The question is, what something is it good for?”

Howard Becker, 2007, Telling About Society.

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Bite Size Theory: The Representative Claim

“Representation is about claim-making, and it is purposeful: makers of claims are trying to achieve acceptance and other effects through the conceptions of subject and object that they construct.”

Michael Saward, The Representative Claim, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Whatever happened to postcolonial theory?

Apparently, my doctoral thesis might soon be digitalized, and therefore made much more readily available to all and sundry [UPDATE: it’s here!]. I’m vain enough to accept the offer, and insecure enough to worry about what the enhanced accessibility might do for my reputation should anyone ever go off and download it. It is, or was, about postcolonial theory, amongst other things (occasionally, I remember that I got my current job on the basis of claims to be a postcolonial geographer). And it is, of course, oddly, my main professional credential, as both a researcher and a teacher.

I sometimes wonder what ever happened to postcolonial theory, which seemed very important once upon time – but has now become the basis for a fairly standard paradigm of geopolitical power, ‘imperialism’ with a smarter theory of culture attached. And I was reminded of this question by a recent, perhaps ongoing debate in the pages of New Literary History, on ‘the state of postcolonial studies’. Kicked off by a couple of contributions by Dipesh Chakrabarty and Robert Young, it has been continued through responses by the likes of Simon During and Benita Parry. It’s interesting that this debate revolves around topics such as climate change, and land, and settler colonialism – nothing ‘anaemic’ about those things. But the terms of the debate also acknowledge that ‘the postcolonial’ has lost some of its fizz in theory-land.

For a while now, I have been surprised and a little perplexed about the degree to which, certainly in geography, Edward Said’s model of colonial discourse in Orientalism has become the basic reference point for an understanding of the relevance of postcolonial theory. This odd resurgence seems to have taken place somewhere between the publication of Derek Gregory’s Geographical Imaginations and his The Colonial Present. I say that it’s odd because the re-centering of ‘Orientalism’ as the paradigm of power-inflected knowledge seems to have erased from view the debates that I remember being important twenty years ago, which were all about the inadequacy, conceptually and empirically, of the ‘projection’ model of ‘discourse’ that Said originally articulated in Orientalism, and of the associated claims about ‘power’ (Said’s own post-Orientalism work evidences the force of these criticisms in its move towards more pragmatic models of cultural representation).

You can still see the residue of these debates in the constant worry that ‘discourse’ must always be connected to ‘materiality’, or assertions that ‘representations’ have ‘performative’ effects. But these have become empty slogans that close-down the fundamental questions about the adequacy of concepts of representation, meaning, and subjectivity inherited from a canon of ‘French Theory’ (and they tend to authorise vague, unsubstantiated claims about the continuities between historical colonialisms and contemporary geopolitics). Above all, what these slogans do is protect the central idea tying together post-structuralist thought – the idea that ‘subjectivity’ is made and re-made through mediums of knowledge and representation, certainly; but more fundamentally, the very idea that social formations and political regimes are made to hang together by bringing off subject-effects, however these are conceptualised – ‘representationally’ or ‘affectively’.

The continued attachment to this model of power, and of the centrality of ‘the cultural’ to it, might have something to do with the way in which it underwrites models of research (it helps to make historical work, embedded in documentary analysis, as well as the analysis of lots of cultural practices, seem very important); but especially, perhaps, the degree to which it underwrites models of critical pedagogy.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about a little recently is the idea that we should all be seeking ‘synergies’ between research and teaching – almost always, this means finding ways to plug in more or less specialised research findings into teaching programmes. As such, it betrays a horribly ‘academic’ model of what teaching is good for – a kind of dissemination of findings, a medium for inducting people into proper understanding. I have never heard anyone seriously argue that teaching should inform research, other perhaps than in terms of certain models of dialogue or collaboration (of course, postcolonial theory is one of the sources for the idea that ‘the classroom’ is a site of engaged scholarship; but higher education teaching doesn’t, of course, go on in ‘classrooms’, with all the associated baggage that term implies. HE students are grown ups, not well thought of as impressionable or naïve youngsters; most student learning goes on in the gaps and interstices and loops between ‘contact’ hours, not in the presence of the academic oracle).

A constant, and growing, worry I have is about the idea that the sorts of cutting-edge research that circulates in a great deal of ‘critical’ social science, certainly in human geography, but more broadly in any field touched by cultural theory, should be allowed anywhere near teaching programmes. Cutting-edge theory, and the sorts of empirical projects informed and confirmed by it, is all about unpicking, disrupting, and revealing – across different theoretical traditions, being ‘critical’ is primarily understood as an epistemological operation which combines exposure and correction. For as long as I have been an academic, twenty-five years plus now (aagh…), ‘theory’ in these fields has primarily focussed on the enabling us to tell stories about the construction of things – whether under the heading ‘constructionism’, or one or other of its variants – making, composing, enacting, performing, assembling, and so on. And there are a set of pedagogic assumptions built in to this range of theory, whether or not it is ever concerned with teaching per se. The critical edge, the political frisson, of successive paradigms of work rests on the idea that showing how things are made, showing that things are performed, showing that things are contingent, has a potentially transformative effect on people’s most deeply held beliefs, ways of thinking, or ways of feeling their way around the world.

The pedagogic pay-off of this type of research knowledge, then, revolves around the idea that the purpose of critical scholarship is to interrupt the understandings and interests that students, or other audiences, might already have, and which might have animated them to arrive at your door in the first place – and to replace them with improved understandings and thought. Thinking of teaching in terms of ‘subjectivity’ (really as a scene of dis-identification, of counter-interpellation, or even of de-subjectification), underwrites the idea that the primary purpose of teaching is to challenge common sense, interrupt taken for granted assumptions, and disrupt received ways of seeing.

Apart from presupposing an almost impossibly flexible model of ‘subjectivity’, there seems to me something almost self-defeating, certainly from the perspective of geographical education, in assuming that the primary function of research and teaching should be to basically de-legitimise the structures of curiosity that attract students in the first place.

Anyway, I think the re-centering of Orientalism and ‘Orientalism’ as the universal critical paradigm for postcolonial theory is one example of this broader formation of critical pedagogy, stretching across research and teaching. Amongst other things, this re-centering marginalises, again, a set of alternative ‘postcolonial’ intellectual traditions arising from different places – for example, I think here of the arguments of writers such as Robert Young or Christopher Miller that African colonialism and postcolonialism did not fit the model of ‘geographical imaginations’ inherited from Said. Nor, one might suppose, would the experience of the Americas. One thing that emerges from debates focussed on colonialism and anti-colonialism in these places is a much more ‘pragmatic’ model of colonial discourse, for example. If you don’t take Literature, or aesthetic fields more generally, as exemplars for the politics of knowledge, you end up with different models of the use of knowledge in the world. And, in turn, it might be possible to find different models of what critical pedagogy might involve – models which are less hampered by ‘postcolonial scruples’, and prepared to take the risk of positively affirming some old-fashioned geographical curiosity as the very condition of ‘learning from other regions’. I think this is one of the lessons, for example, of Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, which pivots around Paulin Hountondji’s account of Africa’s ‘theoretical extraversion’, or the Comaroff’s more recent Theory from the South.

Where can I find real democracy?

Simon Critchley has a short piece in The Guardian today, on the lessons and future of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. It argues that these events show us that ‘true politics’ involves two things – ‘a demand that flows from the perception of injustice’; and ‘a location where that demand is articulated’. There is, he concludes, therefore ‘no poitics without location’.

I’m interested in this sort of argument, and its appeal to these contemporary events, because they resonate with some of my own intellectual predispositions, yet I find something troubling about them (I’ve been trying to express some of the worries while e-chatting recently with Mark Purcell at Paths to the Possible about some of these things). I like the idea that politics, of the sort we like at least, democratic-y politics of a more or less radical sort, arises from a ‘felt sense of injustice’ as Honneth puts it somewhere, and have been trying to write about this idea and how it might be used to think about the relationships between democracy, place and space. So I keep writing papers which have titles like ‘locating democracy’, but the point of them is that actually (democractic) politics doesn’t have a location at all, it’s dispersed across different spaces; it might not even have a proper relation to any specific spatial figure of whatever sort.

Critchley’s piece is just one example of a range of academic commentaries which tend to repeat fairly uncritically the self-representation of activists about the political forms of Occupy, Indignados, and other movements – that these really are the emobodiment of a genuine re-birth of direct, consensual democracy stripped of the parasitical intrusions of representative politics. That’s what ‘real democracy’ turns out to mean.

I think it should be possible to affirm one’s solidarity with these movements without necessarily reiterating these claims without question. It should be possible to analyse the rhetoric and practice of anti-representation in these movements – ‘no parties, no banners’ – as a phenomenon worthy of investigation, not just present such claims as a matter of fact. Jodi Dean and Jason Jones have a really interesting piece on the question of how to think representation in relation to OWS, and it’s one of the few things of it’s sort that I can think of (it’s part of a special edition on the topic of ‘in defence of representation’). I’ve just started reading Pierre Rosanvallon’s Democratic Legitimacy, and it seems to me, for example, that these movements might fit quite well into his genealogy of the emergence of new modes of democratic legtimacy based on values of proximity and presence – my point being that what is required is an analytic imagination that can recognise the emergence of new forms without simply reproducing simplistic dualisms between direct and representative democracy which, while politically effective perhaps, don’t have much interpretative purchase if you think about it for a moment.

Back to Critchley; his piece starts out with a standard narrative device, we’ve all done it: power, as the ability to get things done, has become spatially divorced from politics, the means of getting things done (a globalization cliché he draws from Bauman). Well, maybe, maybe not, but even if this were the case, it would seem to require some thought about how poloitics can be re-spatialised to match the scaling up of power – an argument made by various traditions of thought, including plenty of geographers, and a staple of David Held-style cosmopolitanism. This is easier said than done in theory and practice no doubt, and the diagnosis might just be flawed anyway. But what I’m not sure about is whether Critchley’s conclusion from his starting point follows at all – that the divorce means we need to think about ‘true politics’ in terms of the figure of location. Something seems to get to go astray in the reasoning that starts by saying that power and politics have become too distant from one another and end up by saying that the most effective response is to take a stand in one place (after all, the most interesting aspect of these movements might well be not their ‘occupation’ strategies per se, but the movement of the strategies – that’s why they are called movements).

The attachment to location seems to have something to do with Critchley’s chosen view of contemporary protest movements as embodying values of directness, horizontality, assembly – it’s just one example I think of more general intellectual ‘moment’ in which the idea of true politics and real democracy has become associated with an image of the spaces of politics and democracy as real, physical places of co-presence and gathering together.

If one goes back to Critchley’s point about demands and injustice, then the figure of location seems, again, not to be quite adequate. If demands need to be articulated, then I’m not sure they need a location at all – a specific point, a localisation in space and time. They are, after all, articulated – a demand has a spatiality that is open to connection, combination, joining up. Not one of punctual presence or location. The space of demands generated by injustice is strung out, not gathered together.

Which doesn’t mean that ‘real spaces’ aren’t important. I just think it might be better to think of these spaces of demonstration as enacting a demonstrative force that is better thought of in terms, say, of the idea of spaces of address developed by Kurt Ivesen‘s work on public space. Or of locations as starting places, temporary stopping points. Which might well be move akin to the political geography of ‘occupying’. Even then, though, there might be pause for thought – Crtitchley ends with a call to move on and apply the force of this ‘true politics’ to the London Olympics, a recommendation which might well suggest a form of politics reduced to the purely tactical, tracking the eventalization of the world wrought by spectacular capital with events of its own. So much for getting things done.

And one final thought – Critchley is one of my favourite thinkers, his book on ethics and deconstruction was a fundamental influence on my thinking as a graduate student. It’s one place, though not the first (that was an essay by Nancy Fraser) where I remember learning about the importance of Claude Lefort to a whole strand of French thought that at that time was still being rudely called postmodern. I just wonder, remembering those things I learnt from reading Critchley back then, whether an analysis of true politics and real democracy that rests on the idea that power and politics have become divorced hasn’t lapsed into a certain sort of romantic amnesia about which it should really know better. Conceptually, normatively, the idea that power and politics should be married together, as it were, might be only rather ambivalently ‘democratic’, at best. Which isn’t to say that they should be separated, it’s just that what matters is the quality of the relationship. And conceptualising that relationship, its optimum shape, needs better analysis than can be provided by claims about the importance of location or the form of ‘true politics’.

The Femicide Machine: new book by Sergio González Rodríguez

I have just read a little book, an essay really, by the Mexican writer Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine. He is one of a number of writers and journalists who have campaigned for justice for the hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez over the last two decades, or more. This is a subject that the geographer Melissa Wright has written extensively about, for example. Rodríguez’s book does not provide a load of background to this phenomenon – others, like Charles Bowden and Diana Washington Valdez do that – but it does provide a lite-touch theoretical contextualisation of what at first appears to be an almost incomprehensible level of misogynistic violence, and in particular, of the almost systematic failure of Mexican authorities to address the murders effectively. The language is Deleuzian, providing a sense in which ‘the femicide machine’ thrives in the spaces opened up by the concatenation between ‘the war machine’ (Mexico’s enrollment in ‘the war on drugs’) and ‘the criminal machine’, all in the context of the longer history of maquiladora-based industrial and urban development in northern Mexico (I think he might miss a theoretical trick by not connecting ‘assembly’-based manufacturing with ‘assemblages’, but that might not be the main point of the book). This is the ‘trasnlineal’ space of the US/Mexico ‘transborder’ zone, a space which  Rodríguez characterises by quoting Cormac McCarthy’s line that it is here that ‘the probability of the actual is absolute’.

I’m interested in this issue because 7 years ago now (7 years? Where did they go?), I was involved with some filming for an OU course which used the campaigns against femicide in Juárez as a case study for teaching students about the geographies of global responsibility. This was actually before things got really bad, since 2006, with the ratcheting up of militarised anti-drug trafficking on both sides of the border. It was at the time that Amnesty, the UN, Eve Ensler, and others were actively making the Juárez murders into an international issue – this is the issue that we focussed on (along with other issues, such as control of water along the border, the movements of people over the border, and work in the maquiladora – it’s not too late to sign up for the course). It was both a fascinating experience, and at times a very uncomfortable one, not least interviewing women involved in the femicide campaigns; and being detained by the Mexican army, for wandering across the Rio Grande (there was no water in it at the time; technically, we were trying to get into the USA, the U.S. Border Patrol just told us to go back, the Army weren’t pleased).

Actually, I think the most important part of Rodríguez’s book is not the analysis, interesting as it is, so much as the Epilogue, titled ‘Instructions for Taking Textual Photographs’. This consists of a ‘photographic mise-en-scene’ in which he narrates, in the first person voice of one mother, the circumstances surrounding the abduction, murder, and (non-)investigation of her daughter. The narrative here reaffirms the line of the preceding chapters, about how the perpetrators are known and hide in plain sight. This is followed by 20 pages of ‘photographs’; only, there are no photographs – just the captions, a line or a few sentences each, re-iterating the ‘scenes’ from the first person narrative, including ‘photos’ incriminating the perpetrators. It’s an interesting device with which to raise the question about the politics of representation of femicide and it’s victims, certainly. But by presenting the ‘photos’ (which presumably are both real and imagined, judging from their listed content) in this way, he is making the same point about the degree to which the real mystery here is not ‘who did it’ but why so little has been done to address the murders and the demands of victims’ families. The captions indicate the ‘truth’ of the case, the absence of the photos stand as a kind of accusation about a culture of institutionalised impunity – the book is, after all, a manifesto, an intervention.

Either that, or Semiotext(e) just can’t afford to reproduce photos in their books.