Almost Famous

jhbThe Sociological Review blog has a series of articles on what it calls Superstar Professors, including commentaries on thinkers such as Zizek, Giddens, and Bauman. There are some interesting thoughts raised in the posts published so far, including reflections on the relationship between MOOCs and academic celebrity, and on the relevance of recent debates in the sociology of ideas (the work of Cimic, Gross, and Baert for example) in accounting for the ‘success’ of certain strands of thought.

There is, though, a rather predictable tone to these pieces, in which the apparent ‘rise’ of ‘star authors’ is taken as a sign of standards of ‘scholarship and intellectual quality’ being undermined by the unfortunate pressures of commerce and the market. It’s actually a recurrent problem of trying to analyse seriously the relationship between ‘thought’ and its conditions, this temptation to fall back on a style of evaluation in which one identifies the instrumental and strategic calculations that shape academic life in an act of disapproving exposure.

I have an amateurish interest in these things, partly related to some current thinking about how to research the living histories of ideas, partly as a more general interest in understanding cultures of theory. Long ago, Murray Low and I wrote a paper in which we tried to conceptualise the relationship between what was then called French Theory and the changing dynamics of academic publishing (in the interim, one might be inclined to extend the analysis to investigating the formation over the last two decades of ‘Continental Philosophy’ as the name for a serious, canonical field of intellectual curiosity, as distinct from a term of abuse). Slightly less long ago, I also did some work on the complex relations between commercial dynamics, public institutions, and cultures of aesthetic evaluation that shaped the formation of a canon of post-colonial African literary writing.

I tend now to think of those projects as part of a wider, long standing interest in understanding the variable formation of public life. One thing I take for granted, on the basis of things learnt from these projects certainly, but it’s also a pretty basic feature of any decent account of the concept of the public sphere, is that the relationship between public life and markets, public life and commercial practices, public life and processes of exchange, is an internal, constitutive, and integral one. Contradictory, no doubt, often tragic in a Habermasian kind of way, but nevertheless, a type of relationship which requires a rather more careful style of analysis than the one provided by simple claims that the standards of intellectual life are menaced by such worldly matters. 

 

 

Are there 15 ways to be unhappy? Surfing Bruno Latour’s ‘An Inquiry into Modes of Existence’

1). Samin’ and changin’

DSCF1034I have had Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry in Modes of Existence (AIME) kicking around my desk since last summer, thinking it’s the sort of book one should probably read in case it turns out to be mind-blowingly important. I finally got round to reading it, in a certain manner, recently, encouraged by the setting up of a reading group by the NAMBIO research group in the Geography here at Exeter, which I have actually not been able to attend until this week. I might not be able to go to the next one meeting either, so in the spirit of stretched-out, online thinking that this book is meant to exemplify, I thought I’d try to articulate some of the thoughts that it has provoked in me. (The book is just one element of a more ambitious ‘digital humanities’ project – a website, basically, with some further written material, a glossary, and some interactive activities, where you are invited to assist in the empirical fleshing out of Latour’s ambitious analytical framework).

AIME is a book that invites a certain sort of engagement, and not only because of this hyper-textual dimension to the print version. It has an interesting narrative structure, apart from anything else, involving a series of deferrals from a lead narrator (let’s agree to call him ‘Latour’), telling the story of what an ethnographer amongst ‘the Moderns’ might expect to find, and then ‘the Moderns’ themselves (‘the Moderns’ are a people who believe in sharp distinctions between words and thing, apparently. Their voices are not heard at all, throughout. Which may or may not lead you to think they are a made-up people). If I remembered more literary theory, I think I might be able to name this sort of narrative device, which creates both an implied distance between the narrator and the world being described (that of ‘the Moderns’), and an implied first-person intimacy between the narrator and the reader as sharing in the same insights about those who are written about in the third person.

There is lots going on in the book, which is I guess part of the ongoing ‘coming out as a philosopher’ which Latour announced a while ago, but more precisely is a fleshing out of the awkward attempt of giving some normative substance to the distinctive ontological drift of Latour’s work, evident in discussions of such things as ‘learning to be affected’ and ‘matters of concern’ (I particularly like the bits on habit, and the general theme of ‘prepositions’, which bought to my mind the work of Gerard Genette on ‘thresholds of interpretation’). What I found most entertaining, and the reason I felt the book might be worth reading, is the way in which it attempts to outline an analytic framework for discerning the internal normativity of different fields of practice (this is not how Latour puts it, I’m translating). I think Latour’s project has various resemblances with similar projects: everything from Foucault’s outlines for doing the ‘history of thought’ (well, actually, it everything and anything by Foucault); Boltanski and Thevenot’s account of the coordinating function of practices of justification in various ‘economies of worth’; the analysis of the rationalities of different forms of action by Habermas, of course, and of the different interests served by different forms of knowledge in particular; Goffman’s frame analysis; field theory, from Bourdieu through to Fligstein and McAdam; Rainer Forst’s consideration of normative orders…. You can add your own examples of the sort of thing I’m getting at, if you want. Michael Oakeshott’s Experience and its Modes, perhaps? Kenneth Burke on the ‘grammar of motives’? Needless to say, none of these resemblances is noticed in AIME. I guess they might not pass muster as being adequately attuned to the demands of “ontological realism” (on the other hand, all of them suppose to a greater or lesser degree that conflict is an irreducible dynamic of life in a way in which Latour’s account of controversies arising from mistakes does not).

What has always struck me as most interesting about Latour’s work and that of others associated with ANT and STS is not the grand ontological claims, but the demonstration of the ways in which responsibility, accountability, obligation and the like are dispersed across networks of motives and machines, intentions and insects. From key-fobs to speed-bumps, it’s not interesting to think of all this work as about ontology and materiality; hasn’t it always been about norms (not ontonorms; just norms – the conjunction makes no difference: the onto- is the easy bit; the norms are the difficult part). If you take these stories as primarily about ontological issues, about symmetry between human and non-human actants, or, more interestingly, as being about distributed agency, then you still miss what seems to me most interesting about them: the key-fob story, from Latour, is about particular values, such as honesty; the speed-bumps is about a different combination of values, such as safety, legality, efficiency. On this reading, this style of onto-inflected work has always been about norms, and in interesting ways (although that only raises the question of why it’s own authors didn’t seem to notice until quite recently, and/or feel the need to explicate this now). The reason these strands of canonical ANT are interesting, it seems to me, is because they focus attention on some of the weird dimensions of ‘moral’ action: the ways in which the actions for which people might well be held responsible, in one sense or other, can be caused by all sorts of factors beyond their intention or control. These ideas can be found in other fields of social theory and philosophy, no doubt, but I like the idea of reading ANT/STS in this way, against the grain of its own publicity, for sure. Not least because I think it’s a way of drawing attention to an irreducible, shall we say, ‘humanist’ reference in this work, without which it might just not resonate – but a reference the full consequences of which, I also think, are systematically evaded by recourse to the easy trumping of ontological claims (what sort of being cares about ontology, after all?).

In this respect, it’s notable that Latour’s new book is actually all about speech, and more precisely, about the ethics of speech. It is anchored around a concern to elaborate on how different fields of practice are distinguished by their own forms of truth and falsity, in order to assist us all in avoiding making category mistakes. Latour wants to be able to clear up conflicts between the values that shape distinct fields (between science and, perhaps, social studies of science, for example?). These conflicts arise, he seems to suppose, because truth-and-falsity-talk in one realm (e.g. in science) is mistaken for truth-and-falsity-talk in another (e.g. in law). That’s why Gilbert Ryle’s notion of ‘category mistakes’ is so important to the analysis in AIME – Latour wants to help us to avoid making errors of this sort, so that we might all be able to get on a little better. Now, I really like the idea of category mistakes (although I always tend to say ‘category error’, I think because of sitting through lectures by Terry Eagleton long ago. Eagleton has always had a rather good way of mobilizing this idea. I’m not sure if getting the name of this notion actually wrong counts as an error, or a mistake. But it might matter, as we’ll see: you can correct mistakes, and learn from them: error is the stuff of life). If Latour wants to help us avoid category mistakes, he also wants to free speech from “the awkward constraints peculiar to Modernism”. These constraints seem to turn around that clear-cut distinction between words and things, which Latour just can’t help continuously ascribing to the ‘modern’ subjects of his account. The concern with avoiding mistakes is shaped by the imperative to develop the art of ‘speaking well to one’s interlocutors’, by learning to be sensitive to what it is that those from other fields of life are actually doing, what they are going through, what they are concerned about. It is this moral imperative that justifies Latour’s development of a typology of an elaborate typology of different ‘modes of existence’, each defined by its own, proper, forms of forms of truth of falsity.

As I have already admitted, I tend to read the notion of ‘modes of existence’ through the lens of a whole family of related ideas in contemporary social theory. It helps, as a way of working out what might be distinctive about Latour’s approach (it also helps if you suspend one’s credulity towards the terms of interpretation Latour himself provides – the stuff about the moderns, the grand claims about ontology, the non-human, that sort of thing: all those terms that have become slogans). Roughly speaking, modes of existence are different orders, let’s say, of practice, or life, perhaps, depending on your inclination; as I say, they might look like ‘fields’. Each one (in the course of the book, Latour identifies 15, but that’s not meant to be exhaustive) is associated with ‘distinct forms of experience’; they lay down ‘experiential conditions’ that have their own truth and falsity. Whether this talk of variable forms of experience evokes memories of reading Foucault depends on your own intellectual heritage, I suppose; whether or not Latour’s idea that each mode of existence is characterized by its own proper forms of veridiction also brings Foucault to mind, for you, depends on which bits of Foucault you most like to read. Whether or not you would like to hear more about the personal qualities required in speaking the truth, as a first person practice of ethical truth-telling, which this notion of veridiction perhaps brings to mind depends perhaps on whether you think Foucault is a more profound thinker about the limits of the human than Latour.

Latour’s project is to identify, he says, the principles of judgment that each mode of existence appeals to in order to decide what is true and false. Modes of existence are presented as having forms of truth and falsity proper to them, a recurrent line in the book. What’s involved here, then, is a multiplication of the truth and falsity, across distinct realms of practice. This is not the only thing that distinguishes modes of existence – they are also distinguished by different forms of ‘hiatus’ (the problems or worries or interruptions they suffer from); ‘trajectories’, ‘beings to institute’, ‘alterations’ (there is a really helpful table at the back of the book which helps you to get a sense of what all these mean across the different modes of existence; one thing that seemed to be agreed in the reading meeting which I attended is that across the 15 modes Latour identifies, there are different kinds of modes of existence: from specific fields of practice such as law and politics and religion, through to things which sound more like names for generic processes, like network, preposition, reproduction ). It is, though, the variable forms of truth and falsity that is given most weight: the other dimensions are readily available for description, whereas it is these variable forms of ‘truthing’, if I can borrow a term from Nancy Sinatra, that need to be negotiated in order to better cultivate the virtue of ‘speaking well’.

I’m not sure if any of this will make sense unless you are in the middle of reading this book, and I’m probably not the best person to ask to provide a clear (and balanced) exposition of the key concepts in AIME. Although nor, it seems, is Latour. It does read like a book designed to be read in reading groups, where everyone sits around spotting the allusions to other thinkers, trying to piece together what it is that a new term is really referring to (the material on the website doesn’t help, it just has more of the same type of fleeting definition).

2). Doing things with Austin

DSCF1168What most interests me about AIME is Latour’s use of a specific strand of ordinary language philosophy (he refers to it as speech act theory, which I think is itself telling), and in particular, the reference to the work of J.L. Austin. Latour does not give much attention to the possibility that the reference to Ryle might give the impression of a certain sort of prescriptive intent behind his project. Ryle was interested in correcting other people’s mistakes, by showing that whole ways of thinking about problems were flawed. Austin engaged in some of this too, not least in Sense and Sensibilia (where, amongst other things, he shows how claims about ‘reality’ are easily deployed to shut other people up). But the appeal to Austin here, it seems to me, opens up some questions about the values implicit in Latour’s approach to identifying modes of existence. I guess this is not the most likely line of questioning that AIME will generate – but it’s honourable concern with helping to clarify and correct mistakes and enable more diplomatic negotiation of controversies suggests is not beyond ‘critique’, if we are allowed to still use such a word.

Austin is, it should be said, just one amongst a series of names or concepts drawn from the canon of ‘modern’ philosophy of language and/or linguistics that Latour uses: we have actants, competence and performance, shifters, speech acts, prepositions. If I were engaged in a proper reading, the repeated borrowing or paraphrase of concepts from this resolutely ‘modern’ line of thinking about language would garner much more attention. What is one to make of the fact Latour seems unable to reconstruct the real pluralism of values in an ontological register without recourse to this range of concepts (I’m not making the cheap point that he is writing it all down, using language; the point is that the conceptual architecture being used is certainly resolutely ‘modern’, historically speaking, although not quite in the sense that Latour uses this term). If this book was the only source you had available to you with which to reconstruct the concerns of ‘modern’ thought, then in fact you would find quite a lot of evidence that ‘the moderns’ have all sorts of ways of talking about the world that did not suppose sharp distinctions between words and things.

Reference to Austin is one of the defining features of French Theory – everyone from Lacan to Ricouer, de Certeu to Deleuze & Guattari have recourse to some version of Austin’s thought. Latour’s use is distinctive, however, not least because he appeals to Austin in order to bolster what is an explicitly metaphysical, ontological project. What in particular Latour claims to be taking from Austin and from ‘speech act theory’ is the idea of ‘felicity and infelicity conditions’, “notions which make it possible to contrast very different types of veridiction without reducing them to a single model”. The idea that modes of existence can be identified by their distinctive felicity and infelicity conditions recurs throughout the book. Now, it seems to me, that this reference to Austin, and speech act theory, and to felicity and infelicity conditions deserves to be treated seriously. Austin certainly gave a lot of attention to ‘infelicities’, most obviously in How to do things with words. To borrow a phrase from Foucault talking about Canguilhem, Austin was a philosopher of error, in the sense that he sought to understand action by analyzing the ways in which actions went wrong and how in turn this generated certain sorts of accounting and evaluation (which is not quite the same thing as Anscombe’s story about intentionality being a function of forms of description, although I’m not quite sure why, or can’t say why off the top of my head, although I also think it can’t just be because she didn’t like him). Being able to tell whether an action was an accident or a mistake, whether it needed to be excused or justified – these were the sorts of things that Austin worried away at. The degree to which this project was oriented by a concern to correct and clarify is open to interpretation: it depends, somewhat, on whose ‘Austin’ you most like – John Searle’s, Derrida’s, Stanley Cavell’s, Shoshona Felman’s, Mary Louise Pratt’s, Judith Butler’s? And depending on which ‘Austin’ you prefer, you may or may not still think that what Austin was doing was pluralizing forms of truth, or whether it was something altogether more interesting and disturbing, something to do with suggesting that there was more to things going well or going awry than truth and falsity.

I’ve already mentioned the idea that Latour’s work has already contained a set of lessons about responsibility, accountability, obligation and the like. The reason to draw attention to this is to flag up one possible link with Austin, perhaps, many of whose examples draw from questions about Tort law and related issues, and overlap with the legal philosophy developed by Herbert Hart and Tony Honoré. One reason to make the link is because it helps to see what Austin might have been concerned with in developing, first, and most famously, the distinction between performative and constatives and, then, junking it and replacing it with a more complex conceptual framework of locutionary acts, perlocutionary acts, and illocutionary acts. So, yes, there is a lot of infelicity-talk in Austin, but that using this sort of term isn’t really a smart way of saying that there is more than one version of truth and falsity. There is something else going on. Nor does Austin doesn’t talk much about there being conditions of felicity and infelicity (felicity doesn’t have much of a role in Austin’s stories at all). This idea seems to resonate most strongly with John Searle’s formalization of Austin, in which he outlined the conditions that allowed one to properly categorize certain acts as being, well, more or less proper (the paradigm case is, of course, promising). Latour’s usage seems, to me at least, to echo quite strongly the concern with proper categorization that one finds in Searle (but without Searle’s concern, for example, with thinking through conditions such as sincerity). It’s the prescriptive side of Austin, if you like. What Latour does not acknowledge, shall we say, at least not in this analysis, is the degree to which Austin might not be concerned with pluralizing orders of truth and falsity at all, but with thinking of forms accountability and evaluation (of judgement) that are not restricted to truth and falsity. Latour actually keeps alluding to this, to be fair, without properly following up: he tends to mark distinctions and then collapse them again, referring to ‘truth and falsity, satisfactory and unsatisfactory’, ‘truth and false, good and bad’, ‘truthful or deceitful’. The second terms in these sorts of remarks aren’t just variations of truth or falsity: they indicate different orders of evaluation (truth can be quite unsatisfactory, after all). That, one might suppose, is precisely why Austin talked about infelicities – he was interested in various forms through which things went astray, or turned out well, or came off as intended, or ended unhappily. Another way of putting this is that Austin was interested in the faculty of judgment, and did not reduce this to a matter of assessing truth and falsity, however contextual ones understanding of those terms. Knowing how to speak well to others might well involve being able to tell when there is more than truth or falsity at stake; so might knowing when not to feel obliged to do so at all.

Latour doesn’t seem that interested in getting at this aspect of modes of existence, and this disinterest seems to be wrapped up in a certain sort of ontological anxiety. When, in AIME, Latour first mentions Austin, he quickly asserts that to really make use of the ideas in speech act theory that he likes “we shall need to go beyond the linguistic or language-bound version of the inquiry to make these modes more substantial realities”. What an odd worry to have, to think that one needs to take a tradition of analysis beyond language? Why the default to the spatialization of ‘language’? What sort of prejudice is it that still requires you to present a concern with matters of language as requiring this sort of aggrandizing correction? Elsewhere, in an interview published last year trailing the publication of AIME, Latour talks of his ambition to develop “a sort of ontological form of speech act theory. If you could ontologize speech act theory, you would get the concept of modes of existence”. Well, maybe you would, although I’m not sure if Latour hasn’t really just succeeded in ontologizing Foucault’s notion of ‘episteme’ instead. This line makes me ask what would it mean to ontologize Austin, specifically? (Would that be an error, or a mistake? Would it be excusable? Justifiable? And does it matter that those questions might sound different in other natural languages?). ‘Ontologize’ here seems to mean, at a minimum, moving beyond language, not restricting the analysis of conditions of (in)felicity to speech acts. The project of articulating plural values, says Latour, has to be done “for real” (his inverted commas) and not ‘merely in words’. Ho hum. In trying to identify the (in)felicity conditions of modes of existence to do justice to the diversity of values, Latour announces that “it would do no good to settle for saying that it is simply a matter of different ‘language games’”. Were we to do so, our generosity would actually be a cover for extreme stinginess, since it is to LANGUAGE, but still not to being, that we would be entrusting the task of accounting for diversity”.

Again, where does this sharp distinction between language and being come from? Who exactly believes in this? Who is fooling whom? Last time I looked, agreeing in ‘language games’ was all about agreeing in ‘forms of life’ (and this is not agreeing on the latter by means of the former – the difference is not of the kind that Latour insists on imposing on it; the former is an index, or a trace, or a synecdoche of the latter). Or, to put it another way, Latour seems to be making a category mistake, because he seems to think that Austin and speech act theory and ordinary language philosophy and ‘analytical philosophy’ is all about language and speech. What if we make the effort to see that it might be all about acts. So, for example, matters of truth and falsity are referred, by Austin, to the circumstances of the acts being performed (which is not quite the same as the conditions). One fundamental theme in the history of doing things with J.L. Austin lies here, in the question of the degree to which the contexts to which Austin refers matters of meaning (that is, matters of intention, motive) is thought of as a kind of frame that precedes and, finally, prescribes different acts; or whether acts are thought to have an open structure, what, after Derrida (being nice about Austin) or even Butler (pretending not to be), a certain sort of iterability in the structure of the act; or in Canguilhem’s terms, whether these contexts are normative for those acts….. The differences of interpretation at stake aren’t about ‘ontology’ at all, however you construe that term. They are about different understandings of the force of norms (which is, after all, what Searle and Derrida argued about way back when). More or less inadvertently, Latour seems to have allied himself with Searle, in the sense that he wants to find rules that can help him enforce codes of proper conduct for speech (the point is not necessarily that allying oneself with Searle is a problem, but that one way or another, we are not in a realm where what really matters is claims about ontology, but understandings of the normativity of norms). If you really want to admit “more diversity in the beings admitted to existence”, then perhaps the best way of doing so is not to develop more sophisticated ontologies at all. The problem isn’t one of ontological insufficiency after all. It’s not a problem of not knowing enough about the qualities of the real in all its varieties. It might be more like a problem of acknowledgement. There are forms of relating that exhaust truth and falsity, however pluralized, without being rendered matters of subjective caprice: and they might well be more compelling for not being confined by that frame.

I realize that I’m engaging in my own form of allusive arm waving now, to Cavell, most obviously, because it’s Cavell’s Austin that I find most compelling. Also to Sandra Laugier (if you haven’t yet found the Dictionary of Untranslateables, she has some great entries in there on these sorts of issues). I’m just not sure that expanding the scope of communities of concern really requires getting everybody to agree to new models of ontology. Having the wrong picture of the world isn’t the problem. The problem is one of understanding practices of assent, agreement and approval. That might be Austin’s lesson.

3). All too human

IMG_0723I’m rambling now, and not really explaining well what it is that I have in my head. Reading Latour’s book made me realize how much Austin’s work might well overlap with Foucault’s late work on ethical truth-telling, that’s one thing floating around up there. But that’s not, I suspect, one of the intended take-home points. Latour seems uninterested in the personal qualities associated with different modes of existence. But this seems to me precisely what one might expect from an account that seeks to elaborate on the task of speaking well to others. So I’m left to wonder what sort of truth-telling it is that is involved in contemporary forms of onto-talk, of the sort outlined here by Latour. As I said at the start, I think what is most interesting about this book is precisely the degree to which it is all about the ethics of speech. I’m interested to see how much attention will be given to this aspect of the project. It is here that the limits of the ontological imagination seem to become most evident: this is an imagination that seems to suppose that the best way to foster preferred virtues lies in correcting some peoples’ mistaken views of themselves and their relation to the world by outlining an all encompassing pluralistic ontology. But ontology is just a smart word for metaphysics, which is in turn a smart word for the stuff you make up. Or, it’s just the word for the stuff you can’t help being committed to. One way or the other, outlining new ontological pictures of the world helps no-one. I happen to think that Latour might have chosen the wrong register in which to cultivate his preferred virtues, and that that might be because he has made a mistake in his diagnosis of what is lacking in the world.

Making Human Geography: New book by Kevin Cox

KCOX

I have just read Kevin Cox’s new book, Making Human Geography. It tells the story, as he sees it, of how over the last 50 years or so, human geography has become a field of sophisticated theoretical and methodological inquiry. He starts by admitting this is a ‘personal understanding’, and it has a strong ‘interpretative’ line that reflects is own convictions, not least about the continuing saliency not just of Marxism, but of geography’s Marxism, of ‘historical-geographical materialism’ as an explanatory framework. I guess this won’t be to everyone’s tastes (there is plenty to disagree with about Kevin’s account of all sorts of things). But one of the things that I liked about the book was its tone. He worries about the ‘eclecticism’ associated with contemporary human geography, especially in its self-consciously ‘critical’ varieties; but does not complain about fragmentation nor indulge in nostalgia for lost coherence. Above all, the book makes an assertive case for human geographer’s achievements in laying the groundwork for the on-going challenge of spatializing the social sciences. This is a book about the ‘strong ideas’ developed by geographers, not the geographical ideas you can find elsewhere – no Lefebvre here, no ‘methodological nationalism’. These sorts of absences might be something that not everyone will be comfortable with – after all, geography now inhabits a broad field in which various spatial and environmental vocabularies are shared, including political theory, media studies, science and technology studies, as well as ‘Continental Philosophy’. All sorts of theorists get to be classified as ‘spatial thinkers’. Geographers increasingly thrive in this interstitial field, finding it easier to ‘pass’ as just another social scientist or theorist (in turn, in the UK at least, the institutional form of Geography in higher education has been transformed by the capacity of what are now very seldom mere ‘Departments of Geography’ to act as hospitable homes for various fields of inter-disciplinary social science ). Just how to ‘wear’ the distinctive disciplinary understandings of space, or scale, or networks developed since the 1950s outlined in this book has become more and more of a challenge. Not least, the challenge is to avoid a certain sort of ‘take-my-ball-home’ chauvinism that is associated, for example, with arguments about using space ‘metaphorically’ compared to proper ‘material’ understandings. The story in this book revolves around the different concepts of space (the trusty triad of absolute, relative and relational space) that have shaped human geography. This is a much more helpful way of approaching inter-disciplinary conversations (though not without it’s own implicit chauvinisms I suspect).

Scan 130260001This book covers a lot of ground – everything from geographical deconstruction to the expansion method (which is much less interesting than it might sound) – even as it cleaves to its own distinctive narrative line. It’s accessibly written, reflecting its origins no doubt in many years of seminar teaching. In parts, it presumes quite a lot of familiarity with the discipline and its main players. Apart from anything else, it does a really good job of elaborating on how important the ‘quantitative-spatial revolution’ both was and still should be for human geography’s intellectual progress: one of the most interesting themes is the idea of quantification and spatialization as two distinct intellectual movements that converged in the 1950s and 1960s; it also makes the point that the development of quantitative spatial science since then has been more often than not focussed on issues of contextualisation, against the caricature of ‘generalisation’ and ‘law-finding’ often directed against this style of work. Again, I guess the call for some sort of rapprochement across quantitative and qualitative styles might not resonate that much in some ears – not only, but not least, because to a considerable extent the cross-generational formation of human geographers (like me) naturally attuned to the worlds of social theory, Continental Philosophy, or qualitative methodologies is dependent on an institutionalised blindness around quantitative social science (the reverse is true too, of course).

I don’t necessarily agree with how Kevin interprets human geography’s trajectory. For example, I don’t really recognise the presentation of change since the 1980s, in terms of various ‘Posts’ that displace the centrality of Marxism. It’s a standard presentation, no doubt. It easily underestimates just how central Marxism still is in human geography, compared to any other social science field I can think of. I’d tell that story differently (perhaps in terms of a succession of errors compounding themselves… perhaps as the triumph of certain ‘philosophical’ temptations over the modern dilemmas of social theory…; or perhaps, on reflection, more charitably, in the same tone of genuine curiosity that Kevin strikes in his version of the story). But I do think that his account focuses in on the fundamental points of tension around which any disciplinary field develops: issues of method, key concepts, and the question of how best to understand ‘why things happen and why’. Above all, I like the fact that this is unashamed celebration of what human geographers do as geographers, and why this is important for the social sciences more generally.

John Gray on Zizek

I’m not much of a fan of John Gray, but there are two things in his NYRB review of Zizek’s latest offerings that I really liked, one a general point not made often enough, one a specific  skewering of a certain style of political trumping perfected by Zizek:

1). Gray reminds us that Marx theorised empirically, an obvious point perhaps, but an important one in the context of the contemporary reassertion of Philosophical philosophising in post-Theory ‘Continental Philosophy’ especially. Far more important than internal divides, or not, between continental and analytical philosophy is the fundamental break in modern thinking associated with Marx, Weber, Freud, and the like towards what I guess we might still call social theory, or, to put it another way, not completely making stuff up, or even, thinking socially in the fullest sense. Foucault, who belongs to this break too no doubt, once wondered about why modern thought was associated with the ism-ization of proper names (that’s my gloss). But the relation to proper names, and real biographical figures, might actually be different between social theory and philosophy – its one way of telling the difference. And somewhere, the distinction has to do with the difference between investing in the pure thought of an individual, compared to learning from the interesting things someone had to say about the world in which they lived.

2). Just by quoting Zizek saying it a lot, Gray draws out how much of this style of left thinking depends on constantly claiming not only that some actual political movement was not quite faithful enough to a canonical thinker, but in particular constantly shocking us by saying that this or that extreme position is not radical enough. Gray quotes Zizek saying this about just about anyone and everything, and by so doing, reveals the silliness of the claim.

Whatever happened to social theory?

 I’ve just been reading the new book by Andrew Sayer, Why Things Matter to People. It is a full-scale elaboration of the importance for critical social science of what Sayer calls ‘lay normativity’ – people’s evaluative orientation, or relation of concern to the world around them. Sayer thinks this aspect of life is systematically downplayed or misrepresented in lots of social theory. I think he is probably right about that. The notion of lay normativity was used in Sayer’s previous book, The Moral Significance of Class, and the project on ethical consumption that I have been working on, for it seems like ages, made use of what we at least understood this term to be getting at – the importance of giving credence to the evaluations of their own practices that people provide in social science encounters, not least as being able to tell us something interesting about how practices work. Here is the publisher’s blurb for Sayer’s new book:

“Andrew Sayer undertakes a fundamental critique of social science’s difficulties in acknowledging that people’s relation to the world is one of concern. As sentient beings, capable of flourishing and suffering, and particularly vulnerable to how others treat us, our view of the world is substantially evaluative. Yet modernist ways of thinking encourage the common but extraordinary belief that values are beyond reason, and merely subjective or matters of convention, with little or nothing to do with the kind of beings people are, the quality of their social relations, their material circumstances or well-being. The author shows how social theory and philosophy need to change to reflect the complexity of everyday ethical concerns and the importance people attach to dignity. He argues for a robustly critical social science that explains and evaluates social life from the standpoint of human flourishing.”

It will be interesting to see what sort of traction, if any, Sayer’s book gets in critical human geography. Once upon a time, when I was little, Sayer was one of the big names of Theory in geography, in the 1980s heyday of critical realism. Apart from forays every so often to call for more robust normative reflection in the discipline (most recently in Antipode), Sayer is much less of a presence now. He wrote an excellent book in the mid ’90s, Radical Political Economy: A Critique, which I remember Marxist colleagues being apoplectic about because it took seriously non-‘dialectical’ styles of social thought and made productive use of Adam Smith and Hayek.The style of theory that Sayer performs, with its close attention to argumentation, is rather uncommon in geography now. I’m not necessarily sold on all of Sayer’s arguments – I think, for example, that he might find more support for his broad thesis about human vulnerability and ethics in thinkers such as Levinas or Derrida, or for the importance of everyday attachments to things that matter in styles of cultural theory concerned with thinking about the ordinary, such as Lauren Berlant’s work; these are not traditions Sayer has much patience with. Genre blindness? But I think his diagnosis of the limits of current styles of critical thinking has a lot going for it – critical thinking does find it really difficult to give credence to ordinary dispositions as having value in and of themselves beyond their function in systems of discipline, as effects of subjectification, or as indices of unconscious dynamics, or at best residues of untapped resistance or invention.

I happen to think that Sayer over-eggs the normativity-is-important cake by insisting on making the argument with reference to ethical theories – there is a less explicitly ‘moral’ strand of philosophy concerned with rationality, reason, embodiment, and values that might inform the sort of reconstruction of social science Sayer recommends. I have been trying to write about these same issues in a rather more tentative fashion, for a series of ‘reports’ on ‘Geography and Ethics’ due to be published any time soon. The first deals with some recent accounts of justice; the second with some of the philosophy mentioned above, focussing on notions of practical reason [Sayer has lots of interesting things to say on this topic]; the third is still to be written, and will focus on the kind of social theories of value, normativity and justification that Sayer, amongst others, has been developing.

Where angels fear to tread: Badiou, Zizek, and les événements

The concept of ‘event’ has become a hot topic in certain strains of cultural and political theory, inflected by the thought of Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, and others. It’s meant to be a figure for the surprising, unforeseen, ruptural, and, perhaps, the relation of the ‘exciting’ to the more routine, entrained, predictable. It’s also become, in some usages, a smart way of keeping alive a messianic fantasy of political revolution.

It’s been fun, given all the talk of ‘the event’ in theory-land, to see so many of the leading figures of ‘Continental Philosophy’ expound on the political events sweeping North Africa and the Middle East these last two months. Because what is notable is how many of these commentaries manage to find exactly what they want to find in Tunisia, or Egypt, or Libya – even if it’s confirmation of the pure contingency of ‘the event’.

So Alain Badiou has found confirmation of his own version of communism, replete with Orientalist flourishes about ‘Eastern winds’; Hardt and Negri had a nice piece in The Guardian, in which these events were all about the multitude, leaderless movements, and horizonality; Peter Hallward is one amongst a number who are inscribing these events into broader narratives of a revolt against neoliberalism. From a somewhat different position within contemporary Franco-philosophical scene, Andre Glucksmann is less sanguine.

Zizek’s interpretation of the uprising in Egypt is my favourite: “The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society. In contrast to Iran’s Khomeni revolution (where leftists had to smuggle their message into the predominantly Islamist frame), here the frame is clearly that of a universal secular call for freedom and justice, so that the Muslim Brotherhood had to adopt the language of secular demands.” This is a brilliantly self-aggrandizing assertion, one that underwrites the arrogation of interpretative authority to a cadre of bombastic universalists who don’t have to worry about what they do and don’t know about other places!

The projection on these worldly events of current theoretical perspectives has been a feature of lots of the commentary over the last month or so. It’s perhaps most obvious in the ongoing debate about the role of new media like Twitter in triggering and spreading political rebellion – where debate has oscillated between those who over-state the importance of new media, and those who dismiss this aspect. Jay Rosen has already analysed the rhetorical positions in these debates, which might be read as one moment in broader contemporary cultural debates about social technologies, wonderfully dissected by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker last week.

Amongst all this reflection, the best commentary I have found has been on the SSRC website, which contra Zizek, has provided lots of well-informed discussion by people who know about the region, including voices actively involved in these struggles (Noel McAfee at Gone Public has also provided useful links to regional voices). A couple of things stand out from these discussions – one is a more careful understanding of the secular qualities of these movements, discussed by Seyla Benhabib and John Boy for example; and the other is the importance of nationalist registers to these movements against authoritarian regimes. In both respects, the know-nothing universalism of Badiou or Zizek is revealed as somewhat limited in its analytical purchase. The best way to learn from these events, the welcome challenge presented in the commentaries by Badiou and Hardt & Negri, is to listen to people who know what they are talking about. That’s always a good way learning something you didn’t already think you knew.