Foucault and Problematization: new paper in nonsite.org

UntitledShameless self-promotion time again: I have a paper out in the latest issue of the online humanities journal, nonsite.org. The issue as a whole is on the theme of Situation. My paper is entitled On Problematization: Elaborations on a theme in “late Foucault”. It’s an experiment in seeing how much mileage along the path of developing useable social science concepts you can get out of a few passing remarks from a master-thinker . Here is the abstract:

“The notion of problematization has recently been identified as a key to interpreting the arc of Michel Foucault’s work. In the social sciences as well as in the humanities, problematization is often invoked to support a method of critical debunking. I argue that a more nuanced reading of elaborations of this notion by Foucault and others points to an alternative interpretation. This alternative turns on appreciating that problematizations are best thought of as creative responses to uncertain situations, an idea presented by Foucault in an account of the plural rationalities of ethical action. It is argued that to fully realize the potential of the idea of problematization, some of the founding assumptions and manoeuvres of critical social analysis need to be interrupted. The notion lends itself to an understanding of the inherent problematicity of all action, and therefore to a more modest understanding of the tasks of social inquiry.”

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Sharing My Thoughts

My colleague Sam Kinsley has raised some questions about the uses of blogs by academics, reflecting on his updated list of Geography-related blogs. He discerns a pattern whereby there is a tendency for blogs to be used primarily as “conduits for personal research”, not so much as conversational mediums that convene collective knowledge production. Via Twitter he asked a few people what we thought about his observations, so I am going to say out loud a more or less random collection of things that having ‘A blog of one’s own’ have taught me over the last few years, including some ideas that I aired a couple of years ago in a session at the AAG on social media use in geography. (One thing I should say straight away is that actually, I’m still not 100% sure about how to use all the widgets available on WordPress to post responses to Tweets about Facebook posts that you might want to re-blog as well as generating email alerts).

My starting point for thinking about all this is a remark by Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker a few years ago now, where he described a blog as “a means of sharing your pet peeves and off-the-cuff theories of everything with the entire planet”. He contrasted blogs with books, which have a longer time horizon, and rather more substance as a result. Various people objected to the characterization, but it seems fair enough to me, and it certainly fits with my sense of my own attachment to this blog.

There is of course a line of thinking about blogs as terribly exciting spaces for creative thinking. Some people think that they are zones freed from the ‘policing’ function of conventional academic publishing; the rise of Speculative Realism has been presented as a model for blog-centric philosophical innovation (i.e. the blogosphere as a space for the validation of philosophy as ‘Making Things Up’). There are over-theorised accounts of the significance of blog culture; there are more sober and realistic accounts, like the one by Melissa Gregg that Sam cites; there are serious models of the role of blogging and other social media as mediums both for extended academic communication and for public engagement. All I want to do here is try to articulate what’s in it for Me, because of course, blogging is all about the ‘Me’.

 

A Short History of Pop Theory

This blog has existed for almost 5 years, which suddenly seems a long time. It is not, I should say, the most important thing in my life. Although I have blogged about some of the most important things in my life, like the birth of my children and the death of my parents, because it is about Me. I had been a reader of blogs for a while before 2010, not least from 2008 and the blog-mediated excitement of following the 2008 US Presidential election. I started the blog mainly because I acquired an iPhone, and it seemed like having a ‘smart’ phone required being familiar with some of the smart things it could do for you. A couple of people at the OU, Scott Rodgers and Kellie Payne, had tried out blogging in relation to their work and I think I was encouraged by their examples too.

The impetus for taking blogging more seriously was two weeks of paternity leave in February 2011 (I know how this sounds, trust me), during which we spent most of our time sitting in front of the TV, zonked out, sleep-deprived, watching the news – it was the two weeks when it all started kicking off in Tunisia, then Egypt, then Libya. The great thing about an iPad is that you can read, even write, one handed while also holding a small baby (I also realise this might be easier for the non-nursing participants in the post-natal childcare adventures). So I started reading various other blogs where theory-people were doing instantaneous analysis of the Arab Spring, and began re-blogging, re-tweeting, and writing little comments on all this. Those things seemed to generate more attention for the blog, and so did a mention for Pop Theory on CritGeogForum. At that point, more so than before, I think I began to have a sense of a not-so-imaginary community in which Pop Theory circulated. That actually changed how I approached it somewhat – knowing that not just anyone might be reading what you write about, but it might be read people who you might know personally or at least share the same professional space with, has a certain sort of disciplinary effect. My blogging activity has also altered since I left the OU and started work at Exeter, because the things I have been doing ‘at work’ have shifted: I am supposed to be writing a book at the moment, so any spare writing-time I have I feel obliged to give to that task, whereas before, I was in a heavy course production period, which was fun, but meant that the blog served as a kind of outlet for otherwise squeezed ‘research’ ideas, and also, I had a professional excuse for learning just how social media worked because we were making online modules for the first time.

The point of all that is to indicate that, for me, at least, blogging has been a part-time, more or less accidental activity, something I have invested energy and thought in at certain times more than others. But blogging is not what I do – Stuart Elden has a line, I think in an interview, saying that he blogs about his work, not that it is the primary medium for his writing, which captures it well. The main thing of course about having a blog is that you can say what you want, in principle, without going through the tribulations of peer review. Which means that the things you write on your own blog don’t have the same value as those you write in peer-reviewed journals or in books and book chapters (it’s called Pop Theory, not Properly Thought Through Theory).

All of which is simply to say that Pop Theory is the trace of my becoming inscribed into newish digital worlds (isn’t blogging actually about Naughties?).

 

Doing things with WordPress.com

So here are my 5 Uses of a Blog, the 5 things I find myself telling myself are the worthy reasons to keep going with an activity which actually, most of the time, seems like a distraction about which I should probably feel a little guilty.

1). It’s about Me. I use it to project my own work, and some half-baked ideas too, but especially to publicize new publications, that sort of thing. Blogging strikes me as best thought of not as a conversational medium at all, but as a form of micro-broadcasting: it’s a way of ‘getting things out there’, alongside other platforms like Twitter and Academia.com and the like. There is nothing to be ashamed of about this. There is a serious point here though, which is about how we imagine academic life as a collective project actually works. I’m not sure this is best modelled on the to-and-fro of dialogue at all. The collective, and also the public, aspects of academic life are dependent on what we might all once have called ‘time-space distanciation’ – mediums of storage that facilitate the construction of anonymous publics. This is even more the case in a world of tags, and search engines, and citation indexes, and so on, than before. So in principle, to go back to Sam’s observations, there is no reason why a wholly ‘Lone Wolf’ vocation should be thought of as standing in tension with collective knowledge production at all.

2). Having a blog can serve as a means of constructing ‘a college of one’s own’. I have actually developed some unexpected conversations because of this blog, although the primary medium for these have been email and then face-to-face contact, not the Comment functions of the blog itself; in a way, I think a blog like this is just an extension of having a personal webpage on your department site.

3). I do think of this blog as an aspect of my own extended mind, a scrapbook of sorts, a kind of one-stop-shop where I can recall various things I might have read, or thought, or re-tweeted. Of course, I also have two offices (one at work, one at home) piled with books and papers and illegible notes, so it’s not quite a one-stop-shop at all. But I can see how a blog can serve as a way in which one can curate one’s own on-going thinking.

4). I’ve already mentioned this, but perhaps the main use I have made of this blog is a way of learning about social media – I know about Twitter and Facebook mainly because of this blog. I have learnt that “If you build it…”, then it doesn’t mean “They Will Come” at all. They might. But who knows why. I have learnt about the vicissitudes of attention.

Way back in 2011, there was a moment when the traffic to Pop Theory went through the roof, but this seemed entirely to do with the fact that a few weeks before, I had posted a short piece on Derek Parfit’s new book, which I had not read and didn’t actually have anything to say about (that was the point of the post). Parfit was profiled in The New Yorker that month though, and obviously anyone Googling ‘Derek Parfit’ seemed to be getting links to my blog. An example, I guess, of the degree to which the attention you can generate through a blog is not necessarily anything much to do with the substance of what you yourself have to say.

I have learnt that Titles Matter: see What are the humanities good for? and Cultural Geography is Dead!

Pop Theory also has a regular stream of traffic from searches for ‘Swindon+roundabout’, for no other reason that I might have mentioned that topic once; as well as from searches for former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who of course shares a name with a philosopher of some note who I have also mentioned occasionally.

These are examples of how the attention generated by blogging – that is, the public-forming dynamic of this ‘medium’ – can be rather passive, accidental, if not entirely random.

5). I remember when I started this blog I had an idea of using it as a medium to develop my ‘writing’, a theme that people such as Lauren Berlant and Les Back have discussed. I have found this aspect rather disappointing, although certainly enlightening. I have mainly discovered that I have no innate writing ability at all. It turns out that it’s really difficult to write interesting stories, to find a beginning, and to end properly, about things that seemed to be interesting to you in your head or in your own experience. Which might be why I am an academic in the first place.

In short, Pop Theory is not quite a hobby, since it has accidentally become more of an aspect of my work life than I expected. It’s about Me. It might also be one small part of a culture of sharing, which is a good model for collective life after all, a much better model certainly than other practices, such as conversation or dialogue. Sharing only makes sense if things are separable. And individualism is underrated.

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Urban Refugees: New book in Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics Series

urI’m delighted that the first book in the Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics Series has just been published – Urban Refugees: Challenges in Protection, Services and Policy, edited by Koichi Koizumi and Gerhard Hoffstaedter. Congratulations to the editors and all the contributors.

As Series Editor, I’ll also take this opportunity to remind anyone out there with a book idea, a half-finished book manuscript, or an edited collection in mind, to consider the series as a possible outlet – further details here. Do let me know if you have any questions about the series. Forthcoming titles in the Series include books that address a range of issues including ‘the commons’, migration and radical autonomy, and popular geopolitics; and beyond that, books addressing the politics of theatre, psychological governance, political street art, and the politics of architecture.

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Space, Politics and Aesthetics: New book by Mustafa Dikeç

9780748685974I took part in a ‘conversation’ on the theme of Spaces of Democracy yesterday at UCL, organised by Liza Griffin and others, one of a series of events co-organised by the Bartlett School and the OU’s OpenSpace research centre. The other participants were Erik Swyngedouw and Mustafa Dikeç. I gave a potted version of the argument of the book I’m meant to be writing, in response to the question ‘Does democracy need the city?‘.

Mustafa has a new book hot off the presses, Space, Politics and Aesthetics, about thinking spatially about politics alongside Arendt, Nancy, and Ranciere. There is already one review available here.

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(How) Should we Read Heidegger?

Scan 130690059-3Just noticed this in Geografica Helvetica (via a tweet from Juliet Fall about this journal being open access now) – a ‘debate’ emerging, perhaps, about the implications for geographical thought of the latest revelations in Heidegger’s ‘black notebooks‘, published last year (not very flattering revelations, which is of course saying something). Benedikt Korf raises the question of whether there isn’t something irredeemably tainted, poisonous, about Heidegger’s thought. Ulf Strohmayer takes up the challenge thus laid down, arguing that the best way to respond is to delve even deeper into Heidegger’s thought – a not uncommon response to the sorts of questions Benedikt raises. Somewhere between the two pieces, the question of the degree to which the fascination with/of Heidegger depends upon all the biographical stuff (Nazi, adulterer, prude, anti-semite, etc) is passed over.

Of course, it might always be possible to go along in geography without worrying about Heidegger’s thought at all, one way or the other.

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Cultural Geography is Dead! Long Live Cultural Geography?

I’ve been pondering a new paper in Progress in Human Geography by my former OU colleague, Gillian Rose, which addresses the conceptual and methodological challenges presented to cultural geography by the emergence of digital modes of cultural practice. The paper is entitled ‘Rethinking the geographies of cultural “objects” through digital technologies: interface, network and friction’. Here is the abstract:

This paper addresses how geographers conceptualize cultural artifacts. Many geographical studies of cultural objects continue to depend heavily on an approach developed as part of the ‘new cultural geography’ in the 1980s. That approach examined the cultural politics of representations of place, space and landscape by undertaking close readings of specific cultural objects. Over three decades on, the cultural field (certainly in the Global North) has changed fundamentally, as digital technologies for the creation and dissemination of meaning have become extraordinarily pervasive and diverse. Yet geographical studies of cultural objects have thus far neglected to consider the conceptual and methodological implications of this shift. This paper argues that such studies must begin to map the complexities of digitally-mediated cultural production, circulation and interpretation. It will argue that, to do this, it is necessary to move away from the attentive gaze on stable cultural objects as formulated by some of the new cultural geography, and instead focus on mapping the dynamics of the production, circulation and modification of meaning at digital interfaces and across frictional networks.”

There is a lot going on in the paper, but two things strike me as important about it: first, it brings into view, that is, it explicitly names the distinctive object of analysis upon which a significant amount of so-called ‘new cultural geography’ depended; and then, secondly, it announces that this object of analysis and associated methodologies of ‘reading’ are more or less redundant. That’s not quite how Gillian puts it, admittedly, but it’s not far off. (It should probably be noted that not all forms of ‘reading’ necessarily presume the specific type of ‘object’ that Gillian defines in her paper – more on that below).

Now, I happen to think that to a large extent both ‘new cultural geography’ and ‘the cultural turn’ really refer to a series of missed opportunities. And it’s in light of this prejudice of mine that I have been provoked by Gillian’s paper.  Amongst other things, I have always wondered how this entire field has ever managed to be taken quite so seriously, indeed how it ever managed to take itself quite so seriously, while seeming to be constituted as if radio and television were never invented, or indeed as if The Beatles, Elvis, or The Supremes never happened (interesting work on these worlds had tended to be produced by economic geographers and others, not by cultural geographers). Cultural Geography has always seemed to me to be a bit un-Pop. This is partly, as my colleague Sam Kinsley has suggested, to do with an aversion to considering ‘vulgar’ cultural forms as worthy of attention; but as he further suggests, this has implications for how geographers think about what one might call the ‘ontology of media’.

My second frame for thinking about Gillian’s argument is a broader thought, another prejudice of mine if you will, about the ways in which human geography’s narratives of disciplinary ‘progress’ often tend to invest heavily in the idea that the best way of moving forward is by compounding a series of previously accumulated errors (see: ‘non-representational theory’).

So here, I want to pinpoint one or two aspects of Gillian’s argument about the challenge of digital technologies to cultural geography that might be framed slightly differently: partly these are matters to do with the constitutive elision of ‘the fact of television’, to borrow a phrase from Stanley Cavell, although I would be inclined to extend this into a more encompassing notion of ‘the fact of pop'; and beyond this, to questions of how to avoid mis-attributing to one specific media form a set of relational features around which a broader project of differentiating cultural mediums might be pursued.

IMG_32821). The work of art before and after the age of digital reproduction

The focus of Gillian’s paper is with “the legacy of those new cultural geographers who were concerned to interpret cultural objects”. She is referring to what one might characterise as the self-consciously ‘arty’ end of the spectrum of approaches to cultural analysis in geography, not so much because of its focus on arty-artefacts per se, but because of a distinctively arty concept of the object of cultural analysis. As she puts it, the focus is on discerning the meanings of “stable cultural objects”, such as maps, buildings, films, novels, and photographs. The paper does not say so clearly, but this is a strand of work that has operated with a quite distinct set of understandings of “meaning” and “reading”, when compared, say to the type of ethnographic work on ordinary food cultures developed by Peter Jackson (which elaborates a clear sense of the notion that ‘meaning is use’), or the work developed by Don Mitchell excavating the hidden injuries of landscape, or indeed Gillian’s own work on the practices of domestic photography. I’ll leave it others to determine how extensive the particular strand of work targeted by Gillian in this piece is representative of the best of the whole field.

Gillian’s argument is that the assumptions about the stable objects of cultural geography have been unsettled by the rise of digital modes of cultural production and distribution. As she puts it, “since the creation of so many cultural objects – though certainly not all, and not everywhere – is digitally mediated now, the stable cultural object is currently the rare exception rather than the rule.” The related claim that “close reading of stable cultural objects is ill-equipped to engage with the defining characteristics of contemporary, digitally-mediated cultural activity” is true enough. But I do wonder why the kind of approach that Gillian focuses on in this discussion was ever considered adequate, 25 years ago and ever since? Or, to put it another way, why is it that it is the fact of digital technology that seems to be the occasion for presenting cultural geography (of one sort at least) with the challenge of grappling with the constitutive role of technologies of dispersal, iteration, recomposition and translation in cultural life? And further, what might be elided by making ‘the digital’ so central to this conceptual and methodological disruption?

In accounting for the predilection for analysing stable cultural objects, Gillian refers to Walter Benjamin’s account of ‘aura’. Her suggestion is that the canonical objects of cultural geography were ‘auratic’ objects: “the new cultural geography emerged at a historical moment when the vast majority of cultural objects could be traced back to an original: an original manuscript, a building, a reel of film, a map.” Gillian’s strong implication is that these forms are, indeed, auratic objects. Now, it seems more plausible that this may have been how cultural geography constructed its objects of analysis. Either way, in so far as it holds true, then it is actually quite extraordinary. Benjamin’s point, in so far as it is a simple one, was that the auratic understanding of cultural artefacts was lost to modernity, and that modern modes of cultural practice opened up wholly new forms of apprehending and experiencing meaning. The argument is an inherently spatial one, in so far as aura is a concept related to the here-and-now presence of a subject before an object as the scene for a certain sort of aesthetic experience. The loss of aura is, in turn, a kind of shattering or dislocation of aesthetic experience, but crucially, of course it is a ‘loss’ that is found to be always already inscribed within the movement of cultural life (I am paraphrasing here, and largely based on  half-forgotten readings of Samuel Weber’s rendition of Benjamin’s work on ‘mediauras‘ and on the centrality of the suffix ‘-abilites‘ to Benjamin’s style of conceptual analysis).

To be clear, Gillian’s presentation of how cultural geography addresses a stable cultural object certainly rings true to me. But in so far as it is accurate, we should be clear that this is the result of a motivated theoretical construction, it is not a result of the innate characteristics of cultural practice three decades ago. The significance of Benjamin’s accounts of aura, of ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, of translation, and other themes, all written in the 1920s and 1930s, has always been in providing prescient resources for understanding the spatially dispersed and temporally strung-out forms of culture that already defined his time (print, film, radio) as well as ones soon to come (television, video, digital). Which gives rise to the question of how in the world cultural geography ever got away with holding so strongly to what, from a strictly Benjaminian perspective, looks like a distinctively pre-modern concept of culture?

Gillian’s claim in the paper is that received methods of “close reading” of “cultural texts” need to be reconsidered, indeed supplanted, because of the changes wrought by the rise of digital technologies: “For in the three decades or so since the emergence of the new cultural geography, both cultural objects and the technologies and practices in which they are embedded have altered significantly. Over the past 30 years there have been profound changes in the processes and practices of cultural production, in the circulation and display of cultural objects, and in the processes of audiencing, participation and critique.” Taken in isolation, this reads as an uncontroversial claim. But remember, what Gillian is arguing here is that these new developments challenge a notion of ‘stable cultural objects’ understood as more or less ‘auratic’ forms, containing more or less determinate meanings. My point is that this notion of culture was already redundant way back in the 1980s, when we were all busy learning to love our video machines and wrecking the music industry by taping the Top40 from the radio and listening to mix-tapes on our Walkmans. Cultural meaning did not become dispersed across multiple sites, spread across multiple media platforms, ‘massified’, or split up and recombined across fragile networks only recently, in the last couple of decades. Nor did this start in the 20s or 30s, when Benjamin was writing (his point is that it has always been happening, that it a movement that lies at the source of any and all ‘originals’).

I am trying to make two related points. First, that digital technologies no doubt introduce all sorts of new dimensions into cultural life, but that whatever these might be, they are not best understood by reference to the idea of stable cultural objects that have held cultural geography in thrall. Secondly, the stability of cultural objects presumed by cultural geography, according to Gillian’s account, should not be mistaken as some sort of inherent ‘material’ feature of forms such as the novel, films, or photographs. If this is how cultural geography thought of its objects of analysis from the 1980s onwards, then this is something that needs to be accounted for on other grounds (as a specific response to a certain intuition of loss, perhaps?). Approaching paintings, or photos, or novels as stable cultural objects to be read for meaning is a particular achievement, one that depends on various procedures such as practices of exhibiting, or paratextual networks of reviewing and marketing. Take, for example, the way in which ‘Film’ has become a staple object of analysis not just in cultural geography, but in other fields such as Classics and Political Theory in the last three decades. Before that, the academic analysis of Film, and its most famous theoretical products such as Auteur Theory or Screen Theory, were largely the preserve of specialist film schools. Now, we can all do it. This generalisation of ‘Film’ as a potential stable object of academic analysis is dependent, of course, on the widespread dissemination of video technology from the 1980s onwards, that is, it is dependent on the widespread and cheap distribution of an archive of film history, and the possibility of recording films off the telly, and in turn the possibility for anyone to watch and re-watch, stop and pause and rewind, and to do so not only as ‘research’ but also as a teachable methodology.

This is just one example of how the stable cultural objects that cultural geography focussed on were made available by a series of distributed, networked, mobile technologies that stand as the conditions of possibility of that imputed autonomy and stability. (You could make a similar argument about the degree to which the emergence of a shareable canon of Theory upon which ‘the cultural turn’ depended, that could be learnt and mastered even in an odd discipline like Geography, was dependent on the photocopier). And I invoke this example because it indicates how the attributes that Gillian defines as peculiarly new ones, associated with digital technologies, are not just discernible in other modes of cultural practice, but more precisely, that the erasure of these modes of mediation from ‘new cultural geography’ might well be the condition for the particular framing of the challenge of digital technology as it is now felt in geography and articulated so clearly in Gillian’s paper.

IMG_32862). Acknowledging media

Gillian’s argument is that the artefacts of digital technologies are distinguished by three features, understood by reference to the magical signifier ‘materiality': they are mutable, multimedial, and mass. I think the categories are really useful, but they clearly do not categorically distinguish digital artefacts from non-digital ones (they only appear to do so because of what we have established to be a bizarrely restrictive construction of the object of cultural-geographic analysis). I think there is a danger here of reserving for one particular mode of cultural practice, the digitally mediated, a set of features that actually should be better understood as relational terms of comparative analysis and judgement, as if they were attributes of a particular mode. The language of ‘materiality’ just reinforces this tendency, which is a kind of category error.

Lots of practices of meaning are mutable (you can forge other people’s handwriting, or fake photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald in the backyard (maybe)); lots of cultural forms are multi-medial (song is a theatrical form, an amplified form, a recorded form, only sometimes all at the same time; films have soundtracks); writing, as Raymond Williams memorably demonstrated, is a form inscribed in all sort of non-literary cultural forms, from public speaking to theatre to television and film (and digital technologies are significant not least, surely, for reviving and inventing a range of practices of literacy); and ‘mass’ culture, defined by what Gillian refers to as ‘the sheer amount of cultural production now’, but which really refers to a difficulty of containing and tracking where meaning flows that is not just about quantity, has been with us for quite some time, at least since the time of Caxton.

I suspect that the difference that digital technologies makes to these practices of translation, movement, and projection is better theorised in terms of the reconfiguration of parameters of speed, expertise, perhaps crucially, cost. Trying to pin down the distinctive features of digital technology by reference to the assumptions made about stable cultural objects, assumptions that we have seen depended on pretending that a whole history of modern media simply did not impinge on cultural-geographic analysis, threatens to misapprehend not so much what is new and different about digital technologies, but rather to misconstrue how to go about conceptualising what is new and different about any media practice. Going back to Benjamin, one thing we might think about is the idea that historically novel forms actually throw into new relief the characteristics of ‘old’ ones – they enable us to acknowledge features of the old ones previously unavailable to perception or sense. Related to this, we might pause and consider the degree to which thinking seriously about culture and media and technology really requires us to engage in some reflection on the nature of a particular sort of reasoning, namely analogical reasoning. ‘New’ media and the cultural forms they make possible are routinely made sense of through a process of selecting and enforcing authoritative analogies: this is the case in legal decision-making about new technologies; it is also evident in the very names given to innovative forms of cultural expression associated with new digital practices – forms such as e-mail, webpages, YouTube. These are not mere lazy affectations, they are small indices of the ways in which ‘new’ media forms emerge through process of learning that draw on formal and informal competencies to draw and act upon appropriate analogies.

Gillian’s analysis of these three features of digital technology culminates in a claim about the distinctive spatiality of digital culture, according to which the analytical challenge is to appreciate that “meaning is performed and materialized at specific sites; it is accessed, made to travel, searched for, modified, patched and laboured over in an uneven, variable and frictional network held together by diverse forms of work which do not always succeed in making meaning move.” This is a great description of how we might conceptualise the geography of meaning; only, it seems to me that it stands as a perfectly good description of modern print cultures, or of how broadcasting emerged as a cultural form in the 1920s, or indeed, a quite good paraphrase of what certain sorts of literary theorists once conceptualised as ‘textuality’. Again, my point is not to suggest that there is nothing new or distinctive or unsettling about digital media, just that the interesting question is to ask how these dimensions are configured by this mode of meaning-making, rather than supposing that they are emphatically characteristics of this mode alone.

There are important questions raised by Gillian’s paper about how one might approach the task of doing ‘media ontology’. I happen to think that thinking in terms of the ‘materialies’ of particular media or forms or technologies is likely to lead us astray, not least by encouraging the mis-atttribution of relational modalities or emergent ‘-abilities’ to singular forms or technologies. I prefer thinking about what Albert Hirschman liked to call ‘structural characteristics’ of practices, by which he meant the different combinations of spatial and temporal wiggle-room or latitude that shaped the pathways of different projects. I also like Cavell’s style of thinking through the ontology of film, as well as television, one which gets at what is distinctive about different mediums by asking, for example, what it is about a new medium that attracts disapproval. But more profoundly, Cavell thinks of the ontology of different mediums as what it is that they allow to be revealed or acknowledged about the human condition (and yes, this requires a certain sort of ‘reading’ of more or less canonical objects, but not of the sort which would be much approved of by cultural geographers I suspect (it would appear too naively characterological); besides, perhaps we should also allow that there is more than one way of ‘reading’ a ‘cultural text’, that Fredric Jameson’s style of addressing a film or novel as a totalising crystallisation of historical epochs is not quite the same as the reading by Robert Pippin of Westerns or Noir as allegories for certain recurrent political dilemmas, and further, that none of these examples looks much like anything undertaken in cultural geography).

Cavell’s discussion of ‘the fact of television‘ revolves around the idea that there might be something about TV that seems to resist acknowledgement, that it seems to be a medium distinguished by it being so taken-for-grantedly there and available (the occasion for Cavell’s discussion was the early 1980s ‘video revolution’). So the absence of TV from cultural geography is not necessarily a failure, it might be part of a broader phenomenon (one related, while I think about it, to the degree to which a great deal of critical academic discourse is shaped by an understanding of pressing political imperatives that derive from the world routinely disclosed to us as ‘News’). One of Cavell’s recurring concerns is with thinking of the distinctive qualities of different mediums in terms of genre. The problem of genre is for him the entry point for acknowledging the ontological qualities of film, or television, or painting. One of the qualities of film that passes over into television, he suggests, is the series; television, in turn, he suggests, is characterised not by particular objects, more by formats (like the sit-com). The point of recalling this sort of analysis is to indicate how the singular, stable objects of cultural analysis are made available to us from within these elusively structured modes of making meaning (and by the forms of forgetting that inhere within them too).

Anyway, all of this work about ‘genres’, ‘structural characteristics’, and ‘-abilities’ has one thing in common that might still meet with resistance from the paradigm of new cultural geography that Gillian’s paper addresses: none of it allows one to suppose that the best way of approaching cultural analysis is by supposing that cultural forms somehow shape or change subjectivities. The idea of subjectivity is the principle of totalization that continues to anchor cultural geography – from the presumption that culture is a medium for the construction or, worse, the production of subjectivity; to the ways in which this same idea remains the primary reference point for asserting the significance of stories about affectively imbued flows and encounters; and now, it seems, an interest in distinctive forms of digital or online subjectivity. It is this idea – that there is a thing called ‘subjectivity’ that it is the task of cultural analysis to comprehend in all its contingency and variety by attending to its modes of production – that is the most enduring feature of the paradigm of analysis that focusses on finding the meaning of stable cultural objects. And for as long as this anchor point remains in place, taken for granted even when disavowed, little progress will have been made in moving beyond the closures of the new cultural geography.

IMG_32843). The pressure for meaning

I have been assuming throughout my discussion here that Gillian is essentially correct in saying that the new cultural geography rose to prominence through the elevation of a distinctive method of reading for the meanings of stable cultural objects. I have suggested that this should be recognised as a motivated construction, rather than a more or less natural response to the ‘materialities’ of pre-digital media cultures. And I have tried to raise some questions about what we are to make of this closure of questions about the mediums of media cultures, a closure that I think might well continue to frame discussions of the challenge presented by digital technologies to established paradigms of geographical analysis. I have also suggested there is one thing that remains constant across Gillian’s discussion of the new cultural geography and its stable cultural objects, and the new forms associated with the interfaces, frictions and networks of digital cultures: the assumption that the main thing at stake is understanding something called ‘subjectivity’. What remains constant, across more constructivist approaches, self-righteously ‘non-representational’ approaches, and new work on digital culture, is the strong idea that cultural technologies do things to people, and that understanding what they do to people is the key concern that justifies ‘critical’ analysis.

The persistence of this problematic of subjectivity is indicated by Gillian’s refrain about the need to attend to how the “forms of contemporary subjectivity” are being changed by digital technologies. Once upon a time, the idea that subjectivity was constructed through culture depended on the assumption of stable spatial and temporal relations between a singular cultural object and a fixed viewer/reader. These days, the image that recurs is one of mobile bodies immersed within environments saturated with affectively configured meanings, moving from one screen to the next. In both cases, ‘the subject’ is assumed to be totally encompassed within the milieu of its own subjection. It’s the recurring image that once underwrote important arguments about ‘cultural politics’ and assertions of ‘resistance’, and which now underwrites misanthropic arguments about the ability of states to manipulate people’s feelings or about the real subsumption of subjectivity to capital.

In Gillian’s argument, there is an analytical slippage involved in counterposing the idealised model of a viewer/reader in front of a photo, film, or book to a nuanced description of the conditions through which digital technologies enable cultural forms to be produced and circulated. This is not comparing like with like, it should be admitted. I’ve already suggested that the conditions through which those stable cultural objects are made available for analysis are not quite so different from the conditions defined as distinctively ‘digital’. But one might perhaps be a little more charitable towards the analytical constructs of the new cultural geography. One thing that this mode of analysis does at least begin to approximate is the ordinary ways in which cultural forms are apprehended – as novels, as films, and so on. The concepts of ‘reading’ invoked in such work were highly stylised version of more ordinary modes of engaging with cultural forms, to be sure. But they do at least acknowledge that people engage with identifiable cultural forms, and not with technologies. Gillian’s characterisation of the distinctive features of digital culture seems to take for granted the adequacy of the previous formation of stable cultural objects in their own time, but in the wrong way. Reckoning only with the obvious limitations of that paradigm threatens to erase its virtues (an appreciation of the ordinary forms through which culture circulates): a complex, nuanced understanding of the modes of production and distribution of cultural forms is, after all, only ever interesting in relation to a concern with those ordinary formations – it is not a substitute for them, and it is certainly not the secret to understanding how power is exercised through mediated cultural artefacts.

It is best not to think of any type of understanding of the conditions of meaning as somehow throwing ‘critical’ light upon ordinary forms of engagement; as revealing constructions of subjectivity, the exercise of power, or the manipulations of affect. It is better to think of any such understanding as a resource for the better appreciation of what is at stake in those ordinary forms of apprehending cultural forms. Having outlined an account of the networks through which digital culture circulates, Gillian suggests in her conclusion that there is a need for “a richer analytical vocabulary for the power relations performed through this convergent network”. Perhaps what is really needed is a reassessment of the very idea that culture is a medium for exercising power at all; and a reassessment too of the idea which anchors this assumption about power, namely that it is at all respectable to think of people’s subjectivities as primarily formed in a subordinate relationship with their favoured cultural forms. In fundamental respects, the paradigm of cultural analysis that Gillian dissects in this paper might well get things the wrong way around, making a mistake that the diagnosis of digital cultures is only likely to compound for as long as it is not recognised: what William Kentridge calls the ‘pressure for meaning’ is not best thought of as an imperative imposed upon subjects by so many produced, circulated, distributed, dispersed cultural forms; it is, rather, something that we bring to those forms, more or less expertly, more or less successfully, and with more or less serious or hilarious consequences.

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Urban thought and its problems

IMG_3222Here is the full version of a paper presented last week at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, in Chicago, entitled ‘Problematizations: situating contemporary urban thought‘. It’s the first effort to say out loud something about different strands of work I have been doing as part of my Leverhulme-funded project on ‘the urbanization of responsibility‘. It’s very much a work in progress.

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Geography and the Priority of Injustice

Geo & Injustice_REVNext week I’m attending the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, in Chicago – organising a couple of sessions ON Cases, Spaces and Situations, as well as giving a paper on problematization and urban theory. I’m then going on to visit the Geography Department at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington. I’m giving a talk there on the theme of ‘the priority of injustice‘, and the relevance of recent work on this theme to how the central normative concept of radical and critical human geography is approached. This is the first time I will have talked to the central argument of my book, still in progress, and tentatively entitled Democracy and the Geographies of Justice. I’m looking forward to the challenge of having to say out loud and in public what it’s meant to be about.

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What are the humanities good for?

SMAGThere is, apparently, a ‘war against the humanities‘ going on in British higher education, according to a piece in The Observer this weekend. The piece cites as its primary evidence for this ‘war’ the perspectives of scholars from the humanities, of course, lamenting the effects of changes to funding regimes but also the culture of management in British Universities on the proper pursuit of scholarship.

I always worry when ‘the humanities’ is used as a catch-all to encompass the social sciences as well as more ‘arts’-type fields. It is true, of course, that both arts and social sciences disciplines have suffered from the same funding changes since 2010, but I’m not quite sure that the standard ‘whither the humanities?’ style of criticism of higher education policy over this period necessarily sheds much light on what is really going on, or on how best to evaluate it. The piece in The Observer shares various features of a broader genre of criticism of higher education transformation in the name of ‘the humanities':

First, as already noted, it conflates a range of different disciplines, but presents next to no insight from anyone who looks or sounds like a social scientist. No doubt we could argue about whether the social sciences counts as ‘humanities’ or not, but in this sort of piece, it turns out that ‘the humanities’ really means literary and arts-based fields and forms of analysis. Therein lay the values most under threat from funding changes and top-down management styles and impact agendas. Amongst other things, one effect of this elision of social science is a tendency to present ‘the sciences’ as the more or less unwitting bad guys in the story. Two cultures, all over again, one of which is always a bit too uncultured.

Second, the lament about the squeezing of ‘humanities’ is often enough made in the name of the values of criticism and critique, but I do wonder whether we should really look for our models of these practices from ‘the humanities’ anymore? To be fair, there is a ‘social science’ version of the same lament. John Holmwood, for example, has written in much the same vein recently about the apparent marginalisation of the critical voice of social sciences in British public debate. Holmwood worries that social science is being shaped too pragmatically, in such a way as to displace attention to social structures. I dare say that an appeal to the value of social science as lying in access to knowledge of structures and possibilities of change bears some structural similarity to the form of discerning insight that ‘the humanities’ are meant to have. In both cases, ‘critique’ is the magical practice that is best able to articulate with public worlds by maintaining a certain sort of distance from them.

The genre is remarkably resilient, it seems, even resurgent. Unhappily, it turns on quite conventional oppositions between (bad) instrumental knowledge and (good) critical knowledge. Somewhere in between, the scope for thinking about different versions of instrumentality gets lost, and the critical voice gets snared in its own contradictions, being forced to disavow various public entanglements (the impact agenda, most obviously, or treating students as adults, rather more implicitly), in the name of a weakly expressed ideal of the worldly force of ‘really useless knowledge’.

There is much to lament about the state of British higher education. And there is, of course, a ‘campaign for social science‘, which has recently managed to produce a deeply embarrassing representation of the value of social science that might well confirm all one’s suspicions about the selling-out of social scientists to ‘neoliberal agendas’ (we are in ‘the business of people‘, apparently). Social science is, of course, a divided field, as Holmwood implies. So too, one might suspect, are ‘the humanities’. The resilience of the ‘two cultures’ genre has been evident since 2010, at least, when arguments in the defence of the ‘public university’ took off in response to Coalition policy changes. It was evident, for example, in the controversy around the AHRC’s alignment with ‘the big society’ agenda (remember that?). That episode illustrated the division within the humanities I just mentioned, rather than an impure imposition of pernicious instrumentalism from the outside. It turns out, of course, that the humanities are really good at being instrumentally useful, at knowing how to ‘sell-out'; not least, humanities fields have been at the forefront of legitimizing the impact agenda both in principle and in practice (as evidenced by evaluations of impact submissions and indicators in the 2014 REF exercise).

The ‘two cultures’ genre is always a trap, not least in the current conjuncture when the defence of ‘the value of the humanities’ is made alongside sweeping references to neoliberalization of higher education. Like it or not, the restructuring of higher education in Britain, and elsewhere, is explicitly made in the name of public values like accountability and social mobility; as a result, the defence of ‘the humanities’ always already suffers from a populist deficit when articulated from within the confines of the two cultures genre, however refined that has become in the hands of Stefan Collini or Martha Nussbaum. ‘Neoliberalism’ is, of course, a social science concept, but not a very good one, especially in this context, because in its most sophisticated varieties, it doesn’t allow you to recognise that contemporary political-economic processes involve the reconfiguration of the means and ends of public life, rather than just a straightforward diminution of public life (here represented by ‘the humanities’) in the face of privatisation, individualism, and competition.

Herein lies the real problem with the elision of social science into a precious view of ‘the humanities’ as the repository of irreducibly qualitative values: the defence of the humanities is generally made via a simplistic conceptual vocabulary of ‘the market’, ‘the state’, ‘bureaucracy’, and other hoary old figures of the forces of philistinism. There is a critique, certainly, to be made of trends in higher education in the UK, but it probably requires better social science, better social theory, than the prevalent defence of ‘the humanities’ seems able or willing to muster. It would require, amongst other things, giving up on the idea that critique is a special preserve of ‘the humanities’, or indeed that it requires discerning access to structural analysis.

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