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  • Mark 7:26 pm on August 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , social variety, , ,   

    Conduits for variety 

    In his superb From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner vividly describes The Whole Earth Catalog and the horizon it opened up for many of its readers. From loc 1212:

    For many, the Catalog provided a first, and sometimes overwhelming, glimpse of the New Communalists’ intellectual world. Gareth Branwyn, for instance, a journalist who later wrote for Wired magazine, zine, recalled the day in 1971 when he saw his first copy of the Catalog: “I was instantly enthralled. I’d never seen anything like it. We lived in a small redneck neck town in Virginia-people didn’t think about such things as `whole systems’ and `nomadics’ and `Zen Buddhism.’… The Whole Earth Catalog changed my life. It was my doorway to Bucky Fuller, Gregory Bateson, whole systems, communes, and lots of other things that formed a foundation tion to a world model I’ve been building ever since.

    This is a conduit to variety (where to go, what to do and who to be) which had an enormous direct and indirect cultural impact. What interests me is the reception of this variety by individuals: how did it change lives? How did it lead people to conceive of their present differently? How did it lead them to imagine different futures?

    These are subtle questions which resist capture through quantitative measures, representing personal transformations which the individual themselves might not always narrativize in a straightforward manner. But conduits for variety is a concept I’m using to conceive of how media forms contribute to change in individual lives, including the social change ensuing from their aggregated actions as well as any subsequent participation in collective change.

     
  • Mark 7:19 am on August 26, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , scarcity, , ,   

    The lost lure of abundance 

    There’s an interesting extract on pg 52-53 of Infinite Distraction, by Dominic Pettman, discussing the seductions of abundance under conditions of scarcity:

    Those readers old enough to remember what it was like to live before the Internet will recall the strange phenomenon where the general noosphere seduced us by its sheer beckoning presence. Thus, we would find ourselves listening to terrible songs or talk shows on the radio in the car rather than listening to our perfectly sequenced mixtape or intriguing audiobook. Or we would end up flicking from channel to channel on the TV, preferring this cathodic wasteland to the stack of quality VHS videos that sat neglected in the corner of the living room. Such perverse behavior exhibits a profound and tenacious will-to-synchronize. Indeed, this is the source and continuing energy supply for everything we call “media” (or what Stiegler calls, following Derrida, our “grammaticization”). This crucial characteristic shapes the general desire to connect with the signals and traces of other monads, no matter how tedious or embarrassing these signals and traces may be. (Just take a look at the top ten movies, TV shows, and albums right now, for ample evidence of this claim.)

    It immediately brought me back to being a seven or eight-year-old, fascinated by the Sky TV that our neighbours had, in contrast to what was now experienced as the tedium of four channels. They had Simpsons! They had Wrestling! They had endless cartoons! In reality, the abundance that gripped me so much was a profound scarcity in terms of what was produced and circulating at that time, let alone what is available to me now through the iMac and broadband connection with which I am throwing this blog post out into the world.

    But it leaves me vividly recalling an earlier time, in which I was growing up within a cultural ecology profoundly different to the one I now inhabit. I remember the first time I visited an internet cafe, at a point where the idea of having the internet at home hadn’t occurred to me, being gripped by the information I could find on the computer. I used it to look up character backgrounds for Marvel comics, filling in the blanks that the comics I read had left me with. The affectivity of abundance seems interesting in retrospect: I was gripped by the possibility that gaps in my knowledge could be filled, however trivial those gaps now seem in retrospect. Has this lure of abundance now been comprehensively lost?

     
  • Mark 9:00 am on August 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , slow computing   

    CFP: Slow computing: A workshop on resistance in the algorithmic age 

    Call for Papers

    One-day workshop, Maynooth University, Ireland, December 14th, 2017

     Hosted by the Programmable City project at Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute and the Department of Geography

    In line with the parallel concepts of slow food (e.g. Miele & Murdoch 2002) or slow scholarship (Mountz et al 2015), ‘slow computing’ (Fraser 2017) is a provocation to resist. In this case, the idea of ‘slow computing’ prompts users of contemporary technologies to consider ways of refusing the invitation to enroll in data grabbing architectures – constituted in complex overlapping ways by today’s technology services and devices – and by accepting greater levels of inconvenience while also pursuing data security, privacy, and even a degree of isolation from the online worlds of social networks.

    The case for slow computing arises from the emerging form and nature of ‘the algorithmic age.’ As is widely noted across the sciences today (e.g. see Boyd & Crawford 2012; Kitchin 2014), the algorithmic age is propelled forward by a wide range of firms and government agencies pursuing the roll-out of data-driven and data-demanding technologies. The effects are varied, differentiated, and heavily debated. However, one obvious effect entails the re-formatting of consumers into data producers who (knowingly or unwittingly) generate millions of data points that technology firms can crunch and manipulate to understand specific markets and society as a whole, not to mention the public and private lives of everyday users. Once these users are dispossessed of the value they help create (Thatcher et al 2016), and then conceivably targeted in nefarious ways by advertisers and political campaigners (e.g. see Winston 2016), the subsequent implications for economic and democratic life are potentially far-reaching.

    As such, as we move further into a world of ‘big data’ and the so-called ‘digital economy,’ there is a need to ask how individuals – as well as civil society organizations, small firms, small-scale farmers, and many others – might continue to make appropriate and fruitful use of today’s technologies, but while also trying to avoid becoming another data point in the new data-aggregating market. Does slow computing offer a way to navigate the algorithmic age while taking justice seriously? Can slow computing become a part of diverse strategies or tactics of resistance today? Just what are the possibilities and limitations of slow computing?

    This one-day workshop invites participation from scholars, practitioners, artists and others who might be exploring these, or other related questions, about slow computing. Papers might contain explorations of:

    • Slow computing practices (whether using auto-ethnography, ethnography, or other qualitative or quantitative methodologies);
    • How slow computing technologies could be designed for private or public institutions;
    • The challenges facing actors who try to unplug, shield, or silo data or other products of social life from the digital economy;
    • The socio-political possibilities emerging from efforts to avoid data-grabbing architectures;
    • Efforts to raise awareness about the privacy implications of contemporary data-grabbing technologies.

    Confirmed keynote speaker: Prof. Stefania Milan, University of Amsterdam

    Those interested in participating should send a proposed title and abstract of no more than 250 words to Dr. Alistair Fraser – alistair.fraser@mu.ie – by September 29th 2017. Informal enquiries about the workshop can also be sent to the co-organizer, Prof. Rob Kitchin: rob.kitchin@mu.ie

    Works cited:

    Boyd, D. and Crawford, K. 2012. Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878

    Fraser, A. 2017. Land Grab / Data Grab. SocArXiv. May 19. osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/9utyh.

    Kitchin, R. 2014. Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts. Big Data & Society. doi:10.1177/2053951714528481

    Miele, M. and Murdoch, J., 2002. The practical aesthetics of traditional cuisines: slow food in Tuscany. Sociologia Ruralis, 42(4), pp.312-328. doi: 10.1111/1467-9523.00219

    Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyndman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T. and Curran, W., 2015. For slow scholarship: A feminist politics of resistance through collective action in the neoliberal university. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 14(4), pp.1235-1259.

    Thatcher. J., O’Sullivan, D., and Mahmoudi, D. 2016. ‘Data Colonialism through accumulation by dispossession: New metaphors for daily data. Environment & Planning D: Society & Space 34: 990-1006. doi: 10.1177/0263775816633195

    Winston, J. 2016. How the Trump campaign built an identity database and used facebook ads to win the election. Startup Grind, Nov 18.

     
  • Mark 2:56 pm on August 22, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Five thoughts on abstraction 

    1. Abstraction is active. It is something one does, in a fully embodied way, within a context. It is undertaken for reasons and structured by dispositions which are inevitably prior to the situation in which one is abstracting.
    2. Abstraction is relational. One always abstracts from an object, stepping back from its particularity in order to foreground specific attributes and background others. The abstraction itself thereby acquires characteristics as a cognitive entity, as well as discursive and material ones, if the abstraction is recorded in some way. This entails new relations with other cognitive and material objects e.g. similarity/dissimilarity.
    3. Abstraction is partial. In the obvious sense that one is abstracting from an object but also because of the multiplicity of attributes which characterise even the simplest object. There is always an element of choice, even if the horizon of this choosing are occluded by self or circumstances. It is also dependent on the subject’s engagement with the object i.e. the object one is abstracting from is not exhausted by one’s past perceptual, linguistic and cognitive engagement with it.
    4. Abstraction is interdependent. The role of past engagements in shaping our encounters with objects, as the pre-condition for further abstraction, means that past abstractions play a causal role in shaping present abstractions.  Therefore to call abstraction an activity shouldn’t imply it must be analysed in a unitary way.
    5. Abstraction is relative. All these claims imply a purposiveness to abstraction, albeit one that may be latent and unclear to the subject. This entails a relativity which is both epistemic and (partially) judgemental: what constitutes a better or worse abstraction is in part relative to the purpose underlying it.
     
  • Mark 7:47 pm on August 21, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Extracting oneself from the great twittering machine 

    What is social media for? This is the question I’ve found myself asking after spending the morning responding to this, as I contemplate calling it a day on the blog I’ve been editing for over seven years. I obviously have a stock answer to the question: social media is for all the things scholars did prior to social media, simply offering new means to these ends, as well as a few new ones. If you really wanted me to be schematic, I’d say it’s for building networkspublicising your workengaging with publics and managing information. Those are the purposes I discussed at length in my book anyway.

    However it would be dishonest to leave it here. As social media advocate and workshop facilitator, I answer the question by referring to the useful things which academics can do with social media. But the specificity of academics is not exhausted by their work, greedy though this social role might be, raising the question: what is social media really for? What is it for in addition to those useful things one can do with it? How might this feed back into the narrowly professional uses of social media, leaving an unspoken surplus which lingers on the periphery of our consciousness, after we have accounted for our use in terms of our professional responsibilities?

    There are lots of ways to characterise this. Marcus Gilroy-Ware recently framed it as filling the void. Jodi Dean writes of the affective intensities entrenching our capture by digital media. It could be a useful exercise to produce a review article collecting these attempts to characterise the psychic excess of social media use. But meanwhile the great twittering machine trundles on, something which I feel I’ve been far too bound into for a long time and increasingly long for distance from. I wonder how much subtle dissatisfaction there is elsewhere, amongst other academic users of social media, as well as how it finds expression in their lives (or doesn’t).

    It feels impossible for me to withdraw from social media entirely. Mainly because it’s integral to my day job, as well as for many of the projects I’m involved in. Plus I derive too much satisfaction from blogging. But it’s becoming clear to me that I’m happiest when I’m away from social media. It’s increasingly obvious to me that I don’t actually enjoy the blooming, buzzing confusion which it lends to my experience of the world. I’ve also claimed to be writing a book about digital distraction for the last couple of years, without getting this much further than the elaborate collection of notes which this blog represents.

    Therefore I plan to take an extended break. Hopefully much longer than the month last autumn which confirmed my growing dissatisfaction with social media. I’m writing this partly as an explanation for my absence, as well as suspecting it might be a useful auto-ethnographic note when I’m later writing about these questions in a professional capacity. It’s pretty easy to work out how to contact me through means other than social media so I’ll leave that to you.

     
  • Mark 8:23 am on August 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: andrew feinstein, , , , , , ,   

    The revolving door between Google and government 

    The notion of the ‘revolving door’ is something I’ve spent much time pondering when campaigning against the arms trade. I’ve talked to Andrew Feinstein, former South African MP and long-standing critic of the arms trade, for two podcasts which explored this issue. Here’s the most recent one I recorded. This is how Campaign Against the Arms Trade introduce the ‘revolving door’:

    A disturbing number of senior officials, military staff and ministers have passed through the revolving door to join arms companies and the security industry.

    They take with them contacts and privileged access – vital currency in delivering lucrative contracts.

    The realistic prospect of future employment also runs the risk of public servants acting in the interests of companies whilst still in office. And beyond individual decisions, the traffic to the private sector is part of the process of the public interest becoming conflated with corporate interest: It becomes normal to unquestioningly meet, collaborate and decide policy with the arms industry, then take work with it.

    There’s an important body of work, both analysis and activism, addressing this issue in relation to the defence sector. I’ve been thinking back to it recently after Move Fast and Break Things, by Jonathan Taplin, took aim at the emerging revolving door between Google and government. From pg 128-130:

    Putting aside the fact that Google chairman Eric Schmidt has visited the Obama White House more than any other corporate executive in America and that Google chief lobbyist Katherine Oyama was associate counsel to Vice President Joe Biden, the list of highly placed Googlers in the federal government is truly mind-boggling.

    • The US chief technology officer and one of her deputies are former Google employees.

    • The acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s antitrust division is a former antitrust attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, the Silicon Valley firm that represented Google.

    • The White House’s chief digital officer is a former Google employee. • One of the top assistants to the chairman of the FCC is a former Google employee and another ran a public lobbying firm funded in part by Google. • The director of United States Digital Service, responsible for fixing and maintaining Healthcare.gov, is a former Google employee.

    • The director of the US Patent and Trademark Office is the former head of patents at Google. And of course the revolving door goes both in and out of the government, as the Google Transparency Project (an independent watchdog report) clearly stated.

    • There have been fifty-three revolving-door moves between Google and the White House.

    • Those moves involved twenty-two former White House officials who left the administration to work for Google and thirty-one Google executives (or executives from Google’s main outside firms) who joined the White House or were appointed to federal advisory boards.

    • There have been twenty-eight revolving-door moves between Google and government that involve national security, intelligence, or the Department of Defense. Seven former national security and intelligence officials and eighteen Pentagon officials moved to Google, while three Google executives moved to the Defense Department.

    • There have been twenty-three revolving-door moves between Google and the State Department during the Obama administration. Eighteen former State Department officials joined Google, while five Google officials took up senior posts at the State Department.

    • There have been nine moves between either Google or its outside lobbying firms and the Federal Communications Commission, which handles a growing number of regulatory matters that have a major impact on the company’s bottom line.

    The dynamics of each are likely to be different. But there’s still much we can learn about how to address this newer ‘revolving door’ from those who have been campaigning against the much more entrenched one.

     
  • Mark 6:28 pm on August 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , kill all normies, leftism, , progress, rightism, , , ,   

    The uncoupling of transgression from progress 

    For a book of only 126 pages, Kill All Normies covers a remarkable amount of ground. Inevitably, the argument is underdeveloped at points and it perhaps offers less empirical detail about the alt-right than it promises, largely restricting its analysis to the study of (relatively) high profile cases and the inferences that can be made from them. But the underlying thesis is a provocative one, moving beyond the hyper-specificity of online culture and placing these politicised developments in an historical context.

    Nagle’s argument is that the alt-right should be understood as an online politics of transgression, a cultural movement which has generated a political upheaval through a particular confluence of circumstances: internecine war with the ‘Tumblr left’, interaction with a more traditionally politicised far-right culture within online spaces and platform dynamics which have accelerated the development of this strange cultural mix. But at the root of it is an uncoupling of transgression from progressive politics. From pg 28:

    Transgression has been embraced as a virtue within Western social liberalism ever since the 60s, typically applied today as it is in bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. So elevated has the virtue of transgression become in the criticism of art, argued Kieran Cashell, that contemporary art critics have been faced with a challenge: ‘either support transgression unconditionally or condemn the tendency and risk obsolescence amid suspicions of critical conservatism’ as the great art critic Robert Hughes often was. But, Cashell wrote, on the value placed upon transgression in contemporary art: ‘In the pursuit of the irrational, art has become negative, nasty and nihilistic.’ Literary critic Anthony Julius has also noted the resulting ‘unreflective contemporary endorsement of the transgressive’.

    Those who claim that the new right-wing sensibility online today is just more of the same old right, undeserving of attention or differentiation, are wrong. Although it is constantly changing, in this important early stage of its appeal, its ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression and nonconformity tells us many things about the nature of its appeal and about the liberal establishment it defines itself against. It has more in common with the 1968 left’s slogan ‘It is forbidden to forbid!’ than it does with anything most recognize as part of any traditionalist right.

    Her claim is that the association of transgression with the left has been predominately contingent, reflecting a past context in which new social movements organised against a broader culture which participants found stifling. We can see this in the “ease with which the broader alt-right and alt-light milieu can use transgressive styles” (pg 28) and the power incipient within the “new transgressive rightist sensibility” which has now begun to make itself felt politically (pg 33). While the transgressive sensibility strikes me as an inarguable feature of some of the cultural forms being subsumed under the category of ‘alt-right’, it is by no means true of all, though perhaps this points to the limitations of the category. There’s a straight-forward empirical question here but one tied in fascinating ways to a much broader array of emerging issues in political theory, political philosophy and progressive politics.

     
  • Mark 9:08 am on August 18, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    things I’ve been reading recently #37 

    • The Politics of Bitcoin by David Golumbia
    • Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle
    • Big Capital by Anna Minton
    • Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin
    • The Gospel of Self by Terry Heaton
    • The Baltimore Boys by Joel Ducker
     
  • Mark 9:13 pm on August 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Some thoughts on the ontology of games  

    What is a game? A standard definition is “a form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules” and this has been the working conception when I’ve encountered theoretical engagements with the notion of a game. But a recent symposium on eSports left me reflecting on how much more complex the ontology of games is when we consider contemporary video games, raising the question of whether digital games, particularly those played online, are something entirely different from their analogue predecessors.

    Consider how a game like poker has developed over time. This family of card games has a contested history, with many potential predecessors being claimed. It has also has many variants, with rules that are stabilised through a range of artefacts, from ‘how to’ guides through to cultural representations and rule books in tournaments. As much as these artefacts exercise a normative influence over how poker is played, it’s predominant mode of transmission is interpersonal, with changes in the game liable to be piecemeal and taking place over long periods of time. In contrast, the rules of online digital games can be changed at a moment’s notice, with these being an important vector through which the relationship between the developer and the users unfolds. Every game has an infrastructure that supports it, even if it as minimal as conversations that have previously taken place between different groups that play the game. But the infrastructure of digital games played online allows for granular analysis of game events and immediate modification of the game rules. These might impede the reproduction of the game, for instance if too many rule changes alienate players, but the capacity to make these changes is something new and interesting.

    There are also differences at the level of the virtual structure of the game: the latent order through which events unfold, driven by the rules of the game, but producing patterns which inevitably exceed what could be predicted from those rules alone. The complexity of digital games vastly exceeds that of analogue games, perhaps in a way which renders it impossible to render them formalistically in terms of branching probabilities. This isn’t always the case, particularly with older games which aren’t multiplayer. For instance I find it difficult to understand how something like this speed run of Super Mario 3 is possible unless there is, in principle, a ‘correct’ move to make at every point in the process, even if it doesn’t involve adherence to the formal rules of the game:

    But more complex games, particularly those in which many players compete online, would seem to be a different phenomenon altogether. However is the challenge this poses ontological or epistemology? Is there no underlying (virtual) structure or is it simply too complex to be mapped? I find the former claim untenable because in principle it seems obvious to me that any particular instance of the game could be analysed, with sufficient data, in order to explain why it unfolded in the way they it did. This presupposes a structure in relation to which those outcomes become explicable. In which case, the problem is epistemic and perhaps suggests that other methods, perhaps data scientific ones, might be necessary. With enough  data could the contours of such a virtual game structure be fallibly traced out, even if it resists analysis through other means?

     
  • Mark 7:44 am on August 16, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    The ascent of the spiralists 

    I wrote recently about a short article by Michael Burawoy in which he bemoaned the ascendancy of the spiralists within universities. These relentlessly ambitious new entrants to the university system see it as a theatre within which they can make themselves known, spiralling into the university before once more spiralling out of it to bigger and better things. As Burawoy describes them:

    Spiralists enter the university from the outside with little knowledge of its inner workings. They don’t trust the local administration and instead cultivate, promote and protect each other through mutual recruitment, at the same time boosting their corporate-level incomes and contributing to administrative bloat. At UC Berkeley, senior managers have increased five-fold over the last 20 years, rising to 1,256 in 2014, almost equal to the number of faculty, which has barely increased over the same period (from 1,257 to 1,300). While the number of faculty has remained stagnant, student enrollment has increased by 20 percent.

    Coming from the outside and concerned more about their future, spiralists are in the business of promoting their image — Dirks employed a firm to do just that at a cost of $200,000 to campus. Branding takes priority over ethics. This last year we have witnessed the cover up of sexual harassment by prominent faculty and administrators and the exoneration of punitive football coaching that led to the death of a football player and a $4.75 million civil suit — all designed to protect the Berkeley brand.

    While he appeared to be using ‘spiralist’ in a way that was as much rhetorical as anything else, I’ve had the concept stuck in my mind since then and firmly believe it’s a potentially powerful way of conceptualising a particular form of biographical trajectory within organisations. I just encountered another example of spiralists at work in The Gospel of Self: How Jesus Joined the GOP, a reflective confessional written by one of the leading figures in the creation of modern televangelism in the United States. On loc 2196-2214 he bemoans the ascent of the spiralists in American television:

    Of all the things that the press obscures in the gathering and reporting of news, this career self-interest bothers me most. Many, if not most, of the reporting staff at any local news operation don’t really want to be there. Each TV station is viewed as a stepping-stone to a bigger market, and so many enter through the front door with one foot already out the back. Their work in the smaller market includes the strong motivation to do highly flamboyant pieces for their résumé tape that will quickly grab the attention of a “more important” news director elsewhere. It is why the farm system for local TV news is corrupt. The business is almost entirely self-centered and self-driven.

    Where else can we see the spiralists at work? If we take a ‘spiralist’ to be a new entrant to an organisation who has immediate and practical designs on moving upwards and/or outwards – as opposed to merely harbouring future ambitions, without formulating plans about how to achieve them through immediate action – it looks as if the spiralists are everywhere under present circumstances.

     
  • Mark 5:38 pm on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    From a cult of youth to a cult of age 

    In his memoir Hinterland, the former Labour Minister and acclaimed diarist Chris Mullin reflects on the cult of youth in British politics. This was manifested in the bright young things, lacking experience outside of politics and with little non-instrumental participation within it, coming to dominate the parties. But it was most striking in the leadership itself, with all three main party leaders in the 2010 general election having been elected to that post within five years of entering Parliament.

    Fast forward to 2017. The position of 68 year old Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is unassailable. 74 year old Vince Cable was elected unopposed, with competitors having been vanquished within a weakened party. Many see 68 year old David Davis as the most likely successor to Theresa May once she is inevitably disposed as Conservative leader. We can see a similar trend in US where the 71 year old Donald Trump will possibly face the 75 year old Bernie Sanders in the next election.

    What is going on here? It’s possible to read too much into the contingent outgrowths of messy intra-party processes. But there is prima facie evidence that a cult of youth is rapidly being replaced by a cult of age, at least as far as Anglo-American political leadership is concerned.

     
  • Mark 11:41 am on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , casual powers, , , , , , ,   

    Critical Realism and Object-Orientated Philosophy on the Status of Objects 

    One of the key points of disagreement between Object-Orientated Philosophy (OOP) and Critical Realism (CR) rests on the epistemic status of the object. While OOP and CR are in agreement that, as Harman puts it on pg 2-3 of his Immaterialism, objects should be treated as a “surplus exceeding its relations, quality, and actions”, CR takes a more optimistic view of the epistemological challenge posed by this surplus.

    The key issue concerns the potentiality of objects. From Harman’s perspective, CR’s concern for casual power still constitutes a form of reduction. It’s an improvement on reducing objects to their effects. But, as he writes on pg 52, it’s still reducing objects to their potential effects:

    Yet this purported advance still assumes that at the end of the day, nothing matters aside from what sort of impact a thing has or might eventually have on its surrounding. This risks obscuring our view of objects in a number of ways, which not only poses an ontological problem, but has methodological consequences as well.

    I maintain that some of these methodological consequences can be avoided through a sophisticated account of how those casual powers are activated. In this way, the category of ‘effects an object might have in future’ always involves reference to a variable context, raising issues of how the features of an object and the features of a context combine to produce effects.

    I’m nonetheless taking his challenge seriously. I’d earlier seen his account of objects as unduly pessimistic on an epistemic level: underestimating our capacity for knowledge of the parts, their relational organisation, their ensuing qualities, their ensuing powers and how these might be expressed in different contexts. But I increasingly realise that the CR formulation I’m so used to using, ‘properties and powers’, reflects a much clearer understanding of the properties than the powers. I think the former is often subordinated to the latter, such that properties are those features of objects we invoke in order to explain their causal powers. There’s a depth to the ‘surplus’ of objects which I realise I hadn’t previously grasped, even if I’m still not entirely certain about Harman’s account of it.

     
  • Mark 11:06 am on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: analytical dualism, , , , , , , , , , ,   

    Archer and Harman on modes of reduction 

    Reading Immaterialism by Graham Harman, I’m struck by the overlap between his account of ‘duomining’ and Margaret Archer’s critique of conflation. As he writes on pg 27-28,

    “If we reduce an object downward to its pieces, we cannot explain emergence; if we reduce it upwards to its effects, we cannot explain change.”

    While Archer’s argument is made in terms of the structure/agency problem, it can easily be recast in terms of structure alone. If we reduce social structure to the individuals who comprise it (alongside other material elements, which Archer is less sensitive to), we cannot explain how certain arrangements of people and things assume characteristics which the same ‘pieces’ lack in other arrangements (upwards conflation). If we focus solely on the effects of social structure, identifying how it constrains and enables individuals, we cannot explain how that structure might itself undergo change because it is the only causal power we admit (downwards conflation).

    However this is only an overlap, as Archer and Harman’s arguments about modes of reduction are made for different reasons and they later diverge. Archer is concerned with the analytical temptations which inhere in the structure/agency problem that social science invariably confronts, even when it attempts to suppress it through various means. In contrast, Harman is concerned with ‘undermining’ and ‘overmining’ as two fundamental forms of knowledge which cannot be avoided: “what a thing is made of” (undermining) and “what a thing does” (overmining) (pg 28). Archer is concerned with a denial of relationality, as well as its temporal unfolding, with downwards and upwards conflation charged with suppressing the interplay over time between the different kinds of entities which make up the social word. Harman is concerned with the denial of objects as such, reducing their reality to the parts and their effects, losing a grip on the entity which is composed of these parts and capable of these effects without being reducible to either.

    Both approaches explore a tension between the analytical and the ontological. Harman’s notion of overmining, which I found much less straightforward to grasp than his notion of undermining, identifies its roots in the tendency to treat objects as mysterious and unknowable in themselves. An ontological claim licenses an analytical one, as the analyst focuses upon the effects of objects as something epistemically tractable in contrast to the objects themselves. Even if they continue to recognise the reality of the object, it is a notional recognition which doesn’t enter into their analysis. This is something Harman addresses explicitly on pg 28:

    After all, any claim that a thing is convertible into knowledge cannot account for the obvious and permanent difference between a thing and knowledge of it: if we had perfect mathematised knowledge of a dog, this knowledge would still not be a dog. It will be said that this is a “straw man” argument, since philosophers are obviously aware that knowledge is different from its object. Yet it is not a question of whether philosophers are personally “aware” of this, but of whether their philosophies sufficiently account for it.”

    To which we might add: ‘and whether they incline social scientists drawing on their ideas to factor this awareness into their explanations’. This interface between the ontological and the analytical one is one that has long fascinated me: how does theory constrain and enable the explanations which enter into social inquiry? What other forms of ‘conceptual slippage’ can we identify as ontological claims contribute to social analysis?

     
  • Mark 5:30 pm on August 13, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    Call for Participation: Sociology and Social Media, Problems and Prospects 

    A Sociological Review Foundation Workshop
    Goldsmiths, University of London
    Saturday 2nd December 2017
    09.30-18.00, followed by wine reception

    The Sociological Review is delighted to announce the opportunity to take part in a one-day workshop on Sociology and social media. This workshop will be taking place exactly a year after the Value & Values event. It will allow issues to be raised by the sociological community and provide a forum in which they can be discussed, instigating a public debate about the implications of social media for sociology.

    Social media has rapidly become a central part of British Sociology, with most academic departments, research centers and journals now maintaining an online presence. Social media has also increasingly been taken up by sociologists as individuals, though perhaps in part as a response to the pressures of an institutional culture demanding ‘impact’. Some sociologists relish intervention in public debates, while others see it as a burden. Some claim that social media offers exciting new forums for scholarly debate, while others see it as a turn away from serious scholarship, driven by the impact agenda and an uncritical embrace of platform capitalism.

    We believe that social media offers profound opportunities for the discipline at a time when its institutional presence is imperilled. However, realising these opportunities necessitates that we think systematically about how the discipline and its practitioners embrace social media, working to develop shared standards about online behaviour and shared aspirations about how sociologists can use this space productively.  If social media is here to stay, we urgently need to address what this means for the discipline in a way that extends beyond the individualised responses which have heretofore been dominant.

    Call for Participation

    Sociology and Social Media: Problems and Prospects is an attempt to initiate what we hope will be a much broader conversation. We invite contributions in two forms:

    Issues: five-minute talks framing a practical issue social media raises for the discipline. There will be four discussion sessions on the day: trolling and harassment, professional standards, career development, public sociology and miscellaneous. Each issue should be pitched to one of these categories. We hope to record each five-minute question and publish it on our blog for further discussion, including blog posts from those not present at the event.

    Proposals: ten-minute talks identifying potential solutions to problems which social media raises, offering proposals about courses of action which individual practitioners or the discipline as a whole should pursue. These talks will also be recorded and published on the blog to facilitate further discussion.

    The deadline for call for applications of participation is September 18th 2017, 17.00 BST. We cannot accept any late applications. Decisions will be communicated on 16th October 2017

    Applications for Participation

    Registration Only

    Registration is free, but it is essential that you register.

    Please note, places are strictly limited. In the event that you are no longer able to attend this workshop, please email Jenny Thatcher: events@thesociologicalreview.com. Failure to give notice of cancellation or ‘no shows’ may result in rejection of applications to attend future TSRF events.

    Registration Only

    Travel Bursaries 

    There are a limited number of travel bursaries available for ECRs and PGRs who have their call for participation accepted. Applications for bursaries should be made during the submission of participation. Bursaries will be capped at £150.00 for UK based applicants and £250.00 for non-UK based applicants.

    For academic inquiries about this event please contact Mark Carrigan: mark@markcarrigan.net

    All other inquiries about this event including applications, bursaries etc, should be directed to Jenny Thatcher: events@thesociologicalreview.com

     
  • Mark 6:29 pm on August 10, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , disaster,   

    Elites preparing for disaster 

    There’s a disturbing snippet in Naomi Klein’s latest book, No Is Not Enough, discussing the growing market for disaster-preparation amongst well-heeled elites. While it’s possible there’s a large element of conspicuous consumption at work here, amongst people who have more disposable income than things they can buy with it, it nonetheless makes for disturbing reading. From loc 177-178:

    These days, luxury real estate developments in New York have begun marketing exclusive private disaster amenities to would-be residents—everything from emergency lighting to private water pumps and generators to thirteen-foot floodgates. One Manhattan condominium boasts of its watertight utility rooms sealed “submarine-style,” in case another Superstorm Sandy hits the coast. Trump’s golf courses are trying to prepare too. In Ireland, Trump International Golf Links and Hotel applied to build a two-mile-long, thirteen-foot wall to protect the coastal property from rising seas and increasingly dangerous storms. Evan Osnos recently reported in the New Yorker that, in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street, the more serious high-end survivalists are hedging against climate disruption and social collapse by buying space in custom-built underground bunkers in Kansas (protected by heavily armed mercenaries) and building escape homes on high ground in New Zealand. It goes without saying that you need your own private jet to get there—the ultimate Green Zone. At the ultra-extreme end of this trend is PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, a major Trump donor and member of his transition team. Thiel underwrote an initiative called the Seasteading Institute, cofounded by Patri Friedman (grandson of Milton) in 2008. The goal of Seasteading is for wealthy people to eventually secede into fully independent nation-states, floating in the open ocean—protected from sea-level rise and fully self-sufficient. Anybody who doesn’t like being taxed or regulated will simply be able to, as the movement’s manifesto states, “vote with your boat.” Thiel recently has appeared to lose interest in the project, saying that the logistics of building floating nation-states were “not quite feasible,” but it continues.

     
  • Mark 6:21 pm on August 10, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    Online armies at your command 

    Towards the end of Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle discusses the chilling effect liable to ensue from the online harassment which journalists critical of the alt-right often now find themselves subject to. From pg 118:

    Multiple journalists and citizens have described in horrifying detail the attacks and threats against those who criticize Trump or figures of the online Trumpian right, especially if the critic is female, black or Jewish, but also if they’re a ‘cuckservative’. They now have the ability to send thousands of the most obsessed, unhinged and angry people on the Internet after someone if they dare to speak against the president or his prominent alt-light and alt-right fans. Although the mainstream media is still quite anti-Trump, it would be naïve to think this isn’t going to result in a chilling of critical thought and speech in the coming years, as fewer and fewer may have the stomach for it.

    Perhaps I’m being a pedant but I found myself frustrated by the phrase “ability to send” here. I’m not denying this possibility, in fact I’m fascinated by what I’ve come to think of as ‘shadow mobilisation‘, but it’s not obvious to me this is what happens here. There clearly isn’t anything approaching a command-and-control dynamic, something which I think Nagle wouldn’t dispute, hence we need to be careful about how we characterise the co-ordination and coercion which operates in different cases. I’ve rarely encountered an issue for which empirical research seemed so politically urgent.

     
  • Mark 8:04 am on August 9, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   

    The populist right are demotic, rather than democratic 

    In an important essay earlier this year, Jan-Werner Müller identifies a dangerous tendency for leftist critics to take the claims of right-populist demagogues at face value. Suddenly vindicated in their struggle with the ‘third way’ that has dominated the centre-left, the claims of nascent populists to speak for a ‘left behind’ majority, created by the neoliberalism which has consumed mainstream social democratic parties, has imbued many leftists with a newfound self-confidence.

    This risks simplifying events with a complex array of causes, like the vote for Brexit and Trump’s election, imputing them to the quasi-magical capacity of populists to speak directly to the people. In doing so, it hinders the detailed analysis of these events which we so urgently need: see for instance this important essay by Mike Davis which discusses the American conservative movement’s massive investment in political infrastructure across every state in the country.

    However it also lends credence to the populist right, supporting claims of speaking for those left behind which belie the naked class hatred which some of these figures exhibited in the recent past. This is what Angela Nagle argues in her important book Kill All Normies. From pg 101:

    Ann Coulter had long drawn upon the elite fear of the hysterical and easily led crowd. In her book Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America explaining how ‘the liberal mob is destroying America’ she drew upon Gustave LeBon, the misanthropists’ favorite theorist of the masses. Her writing on overbreeding, overcrowding swarms of immigrants is a direct continuation of this theme, which has been consistent in elite circles since the beginning of industrialized urbanized mass society, first applied to their multiplying native proletariat and later to new waves of immigrants. Before the ‘ordinary people’ narrative became suddenly ubiquitous on the new online right after the election results, Milo could be seen in photo shoots wearing a ‘Stop Being Poor’ T-shirt, a quote from the heiress Paris Hilton, one of his idols. After the election results he was giving talks about the white working class. The hard alt-right had also rejected the idea that the masses were their naturally traditionalist allies any longer, as the conservative establishment had typically believed. Instead, they had argued that the great mass of society had been tainted and indoctrinated by liberal feminist multiculturalism, and were close to beyond redemption. It was no longer ‘five minutes to midnight’ as the anti-immigration right had long claimed but well past midnight. While the Trumpians are busy quickly rewriting history, it is important to remember that behind the ‘populist’ president, the rhetoric of his young online far-right vanguard had long been characterized by an extreme subcultural snobbishness toward the masses and mass culture.

    I wonder if Graham Turner’s distinction between the demotic and the democratic, made in the context of reality television, might be useful here. One could be said to involve foregrounding ‘the people’ as an imagined construct, the other involves empowering people as a social reality. The populist right is demotic, not democratic. This is what the leftist critique of mainstream social democracy, which I’m otherwise entirely in agreement with, risks obscuring.

     
  • Mark 8:36 pm on August 6, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: actor network theory, , , , object-orientated ontology, , ,   

    The Surplus of Objects 

    In Immaterialism, Graham Harman offers a provocative critique of Latour’s social theory, praising Actor-Network Theory as “the most important philosophical method to emerge since phenomenology in 1900” (pg. 1) while also regarding its account of objects as philosophically deficient. While he accepts the ANT thesis that objects mediate human relations, something which chips away at the pervasive anthropocentrism of social theory, it nonetheless reinforces a human-centric world view in a subtle and interesting way. From pg 6:

    To say that objects mediate relations is to make the crucial point that unlike herds of animals, human society is massively stabilized by such nonhuman objects as brick walls, barbed wire, wedding rings, ranks, titles, coins, clothing, tattoos, medallions, and diplomas (Latour 1996). What this still misses is that the vast majority of relations in the universe do not involve human beings, those obscure inhabitants of an average-sized planet near a middling sun, one of 100 billion stars near the fringe of an undistinguished galaxy among at least 100 billion others.

    The commitment of ANT to defining actors through actions, itself understood in terms of effects on other actors, “allows objects no surplus of reality beyond whatever they modify, transform, perturb, or create” (pg. 10). Without this surplus, Harman questions how it can be possible for them to change. It is only when we recognise “an object is more than its components” and “less than its current actions” that its capacity to do otherwise becomes conceivable (pg. 11). Exactly what the surplus is, as well as how it underwrites this potentiality, might vary. As Harman notes of himself on pg 11:

    The author Harman who currently types these words in the University of Florida Library while wearing a black sweater is far too specific to be the Harman who will leave Florida next Sunday and can remove the sweater whenever he pleases.

    These features of the object which aren’t exhausted in its present actions are what account for its future capacities. If my specificity is exhausted in my writing of this blog post, it becomes mysterious how I cooked dinner or planned a trip earlier. There are the facts of these other actions but myself, as a unifying nexus in which these properties and powers converge, becomes emptied out into a frantic existence of constant process.

    I couldn’t agree more with Harman’s claim that every object should be considered “as a surplus exceeding its relations, qualities, and actions” (pg. 3-4). Where I part company is with his epistemic pessimism. From pg 17-18:

    And whereas naive realism thinks that reality exists outside the mind and we can know it, object-orientated realism holds that reality exists outside the mind and we cannot know it. Therefore, we gain access to it only by indirect, allusive, or vicarious means. Nor does reality exist only “outside the mind,” as if humans were the only entities with an outside. Instead, reality exists as a surplus even beyond the causal interactions of dust and raindrops, never fully expressed in the world of inanimate relations any more than in the human sphere.

    This leaves me preoccupied by variance. My issue is not with the claim itself, as much as with it being framed in a way which makes it hard to unpack how this might vary between objects and contexts. How much surplus remains when we consider a given action? It depends on the action, the actor and the context. I don’t for a second believe this can be reduced to calculus but I nonetheless maintain there are differences of degree. I’m not convinced that the surplus of objects is quite as epistemically intractable as Harman makes it sound.

     
  • Mark 9:10 am on August 5, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , london, , , ,   

    How widespread is shadow mobilisation? 

    In the last few years, I’ve become interested in what I think of as shadow mobilisation: assembling people under false pretences and/or in a way intended to create a misleading impressions of the mobilisation. This is often framed in terms of astroturfing – fake grass roots – however it appears to me to extend beyond this. It would be a mistake to see it as a new thing but it might be out present conditions are making it easier and more likely.

    It implies a relationship between the instigators and those mobilised, either through manipulation or reimbursement, which is fundamentally asymmetrical. One group has the capacity to plan, enact and reflect on these mobilisations while the other is a mereaggregate, induced to action on an individual-by-individual basis, furthering an agenda which might cohere with their own individual concerns but has no basis in collective concerns. In this sense, shadow mobilisations are a facimale of collectivity. 

    If we accept the adequacy of this concept, it raises many questions. Foremost amongst them though is how widespread such shadow mobilisations are, as well as the conditions which facilitate this. I’ve come across examples in many sectors and I wish I’d been recording these systematically. The most recent comes in Anna Minton’s Big Capital, an illuminating study of how global capital is transforming London. From loc 1281-1297:

    In a House of Commons debate in 2013, Labour MP Thomas Docherty, a former lobbyist, shared with Parliament some of the techniques of his former colleagues, recounting stories of lobbyists being planted in public meetings to heckle people who opposed their clients’ schemes. His stories chime with a wealth of anecdotal evidence of dirty tricks, including fake letter-writing campaigns and even actors attending planning meetings. Martyn, a film maker from Brighton, described to me how he had been offered ‘cash in brown envelopes’ to attend a planning meeting and pose as a supporter of Frank Gehry’s controversial plans for an iconic new development of 750 luxury apartments on the seafront. He remembers how ‘at least five of us’ from the drama school where he was studying were approached by an events company and asked if they’d like to participate. ‘We were told to go there and shout down the local opposition to the development. A couple of people were pointed out to us –residents, leaders of the local opposition –and we were told to be louder than them and be positive about the development. We were paid on exit, cash in hand, I think it was £50 or £100. I was there and I’m not proud of it. It is something that horrifies me,’ he said. 36 In Parliament, Docherty described dirty tricks as ‘utterly unacceptable’, although ‘not a crime’.

    While each particular case of this manipulation of the planning process occurs on a small scale, it reflects an asymmetry we can see in other cases of shadow mobilisation. Residents who coordinate their action, potentially constituting an organised collective in the process, confront organisations which deploy their resources towards drowning this nascent collectivity through a shadow mobilisation. As Minton points out, such activity sometimes occurs alongside organised harassment, suggesting the ethical climate in which shadow mobilisation is seen as a viable strategy by those pursuing private profit.

     
    • Susan Marie Martin 9:30 am on August 5, 2017 Permalink

      I think the term ‘shadow mobilization’ works best for the reasons you give. Reminiscent of how Medovi’s ‘future-tense narrative’ of capitalism works (Globalization as Narrative and Its Three Critiques). Historically, events such as the Gold Rush or the World’s Fair (any location, any epoch) could be examples of shadow mobilization?

    • Mark 8:47 pm on August 6, 2017 Permalink

      That’s a really interesting suggestion, thanks.

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