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  • Mark 10:06 am on August 30, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: post-humanities,   

    Should we read the platform in post-human terms? 

    To elevate _the platform_ in this way can easily be read in post-human terms, building analysis around inhuman agents which in an important sense act behind the back of our familiar human subjects. This would be a reading in keeping with the theoretical mood of the times where, as theorist of the post humanities Rosi Braidotti (2013: 2) puts it, “Discourses and representations of the non-human, the inhuman, the anti-human, the inhumane and the posthuman proliferate and overlap in our globalised, technologically mediated societies”. While we share Braidotti’s (2013: 4) sense of what “the task of critical theorists should be in the world today, namely, to provide adequate presentations of our situated historical location”, it is nonetheless our conviction that this ambition needs to be detached from the framing of the _posthumanities_: we accept the notion of a post human condition in the broader sense while rejecting the valorisation of _posthumanism_ and maintaining that breathless invocations of the post human constituted a form of epochal theorising which obscure continuities and rob us of precisely the social coordinates which they originally intended to provide (Savage 2010, Al-Amoudi and Morgan 2018). These frameworks too easily end up as the mirror image of the neo-empiricism which theorists like Braidotti righty bemoan, tacitly accepting the eviscerated humanity on which the behavioural apparatus of planetary scale computation is predicated (Bratton 2017, Carrigan 2018).

    If we see the partial humanism of the liberal enlightenment as a cultural project to be resisted, rightly charged with providing the intellectual framework for imperialism and Eurocentrism, why would we not treat other cultural projects of human representation with the same scepticism? As Braidotti (2013: 27) writes of humanism, it “is neither an ideal nor an objective statistical average or middle ground” but rather “a systematised standard of recognisability – of Sameness – by which all others can be assessed, regulated and allotted to a designated social location”. Can we not see a comparable arrogance and enforced standardised in the post-human? When modernity’s crimes are unpicked with such epistemological sophistication then why are the “challenge presented by contemporary technology-driven global economies” so easily hypostasised (Braidotti 2013: 38)? Our claim is not so much that these are wrong as that there is something about the theoretical edifice of the post humanities, as an animating and animated vector of inquiry at a time when critical theory trends towards exhaustion, which fails to grasp the specificity of the present in its enthusiastic repudiation of the past. There has indeed a significant change underway in the conditions of human life but if we too quickly dispense with the category of the human then it becomes difficult to understand how and why platforms operate the way they do, leaving us confined to merely noting their operation as a challenge to a conception of the human which we are not sure all that many people really hold.

     
  • Mark 6:29 am on August 30, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: authoriality, authorship, ,   

    Your authorial fingerprint 

    From Going Public by Arlene Stein and Jessie Daniels, pg 80-81:

    An author’s voice is simply his or her “unique authorial fingerprint,” according to Theresa MacPhail, a New York University professor of science and technology studies. 19 If an author has a distinctive voice, she writes, “then we can often accurately attribute a text to its correct author even if her identity is concealed.” You can tell by her habitual turn of phrase, particular way of organizing a text, or distinctive way of talking with her readers. In graduate school, social scientists often learn how to shed their distinctive voices. Some journal editors even seem to require it. But retaining that voice can make one’s prose more engaging and show that it is written by a living, breathing, human being who is passionate about a particular subject—and wishes to convey her understanding of it to others. All readers like to know something about their authors, and appreciate an author whose voice is clear and resonant, with whom they can identify.

     
    • BeingQuest 2:53 am on September 1, 2019 Permalink

      THIS is a gorgeous thought. And so welcoming. Thanks for the Reflection.

  • Mark 12:41 pm on August 29, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , sub-hegemonic,   

    The sub-hegemonic power of social media 

    This is a fascinating idea from Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine. Exercising power without a strategic framework, shaping the social through a machinic repetition driven by nothing more considered than keeping users on the platform for longer & preparing a climate in which advertising can be sold. From loc 2745:

    The underground persuasion of reality-shaping is what big tech does really well. It is quite different from what used to be called hegemony. Hegemony is a strategy of obtaining leadership of a broad civil society coalition to achieve political goals. It means building alliances with other groups by taking their interests and desires seriously, rather than just coercing them. It means offering moral leadership rather than simply material incentives. At their most successful, ruling groups are able to explain their own interests in terms of an ‘historic mission’ for the whole society. In the Cold War era, the struggle against communism was this sort of mission. While it surveilled and repressed communists, left-wing trade unionists and radical civil-rights activists, it also won broad popular consent. What the platforms have done is far more subterranean. The Twittering Machine proposes nothing, declares nothing good or bad, but works on the infrastructures of everyday life. It might be called a sub-hegemonic practice.

    There is an agnosticism about content which is often misunderstood. As he writes on loc 2663, we can’t explain the spread of ‘extreme’ content without accounting for algorithmic amplifications but that does not in itself explain why this content resonates to the extent it does. To understand the platform we must look beyond it:

    But what is so addictive about ‘extreme’ content? Part of the answer is that much of what is characterized as extreme in this context is conspiracy infotainment: for example, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, the algorithms were promoting anti-Clinton conspiracy stories. 8 When so many distrust the news, and find it frustrating and confusing, infotainment seems to be less ‘hard work’. It offers what can feel like critical thinking in a recognizably digestible and pleasurable way. In the face of official agnotology–the practice of deliberately producing mass ignorance on major issues–it can feel empowering. But it may also be that the algorithms pick up on dark yearnings simmering below the supposedly consensual surface of politics. So not only do far-right YouTubers network, collaborate and signal-boost one another’s brands, driving their collective content up the viewing charts. Not only are they careful enough to avoid trigger words likely to be caught by an anti-hate speech algorithm. They can expect the platform to promote them precisely because of how riveting their content is supposed, by the algorithms, to be. Zeynep Tufekci argues that ‘YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century’.

    It’s not a strategic colonisation of the social as much as something more subtly insidious, blindly weaving its way into the social fabric. From loc 2698:

    It herds users together in temporary groupings based on this data. It establishes correlations over whole data populations between certain types of content and certain behaviours: stimulus and response. It works only because of the response. There has to be something in some viewers waiting to be switched on. The algorithms, by responding to actual behaviour, are picking up on user desires, which may not even be known to the user. They are digitalizing the unconscious. The platforms thus listen intently to our desires, as we confess them, and give them a numerical value. In the mathematical language of informatics, collective wants can be manipulated, engineered and connected to a solution. And new technologies have only been as successful as they have been by positioning themselves as magical solutions. Not just to individual dilemmas, but to the bigger crises and dysfunctions of late capitalism. If mass media is a one-way information monopoly, turn to the feed, the blog, the podcast. If the news fails, turn to citizen journalism for ‘unfiltered’ news. If you’re underemployed, bid for jobs on TaskRabbit. If you’ve got little money but own a car, use it to make some spare money on the side. If you’re undervalued in life, bid for a share in microcelebrity. If politicians let you down, hold them to account on Twitter. If you suffer from a nameless hunger, keep scrolling. The business model of the platforms presupposes not just the average share of individual misery but a society reliably in crisis.

     
  • Mark 7:18 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    Rethinking the craft of social research 

    “It is still the case that most social scientists view the research encounter as an interface between an observer and the observed, producing either quantitative or qualitative data. Equally, the dissemination of research findings are confined to conventional paper forms of publishing, and research excellence is measured and audited through such forms, be it in monographs or academic journals. It remains the case that in social science the inclusion of audio or visual material in the context of ethnographic social research has been little more than ‘eye candy’ or ‘background listening’ to the main event on the page. The relatively inexpensive nature of these easy-to-use media offers researchers a new opportunity to develop innovative approaches to how we conduct and present social research. There are more opportunities than at any other moment to rethink the craft of social research beyond the dominance of the word and figure and to reconsider our reliance on ‘the interview’ (often taking place across a table in particular place) as the prime technology for generating ‘data’.”

    – Les Back in Live sociology: social research and its futures

     
  • Mark 7:14 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    The impact of social theory 

    The Sociological Review has just published a thought-provoking review of Doug Porpora’s Reconstructing Sociology: The Critical Realist Approach. It gives a lucid, though brief, overview of the book’s core arguments: seven myths which afflict American sociology and seven philosophical counter-points. But what caught my attention was the account of how theoretical work can increase the discipline’s capacity for impact:

    Porpora shows how critical realism adjudicates across the plethora of sociological paradigms to create new consistency, which can strengthen the validity and usefulness of our discipline. Imagine governments redefining obesity or poor mental health from medical problems into social problems, to be tackled by wide-ranging interdisciplinary research coordinated through a coherent framework of sociology and covering, for example, the related economics and politics, industries and services, healthcare and urban planning, with studies of the complex everyday life of the groups and individuals concerned.

    http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0038026117701357

    The point is overstated but it’s nonetheless important: the internal dissensus of sociology militates against policy impact. The meta-theoretical (dis)orderliness of disciplines underpins the inarguable reality that “economists and psychologists are introduced as self-evidently respected scientists, whereas sociologists, if they are included at all, seem more likely to evoke scepticism than respect”. Rather than theoretical work being a distraction from aspiring to this status, it is in actual fact a condition for it:

    One defence of our discipline’s diversity is that its adaptable rich variety can embrace numerous theories, methods and topics. However, variety does not preclude coherence, and coherence does not demand narrow uniformity – like the neoclassical mantras that now monopolise economics. Medicine is a hugely varied discipline yet, fortunately for society’s healthcare, it is unified by powerful common values and theories about causal realities. By contrast, and unfortunately for society’s wellbeing, sociology is split not only by disagreements but, more seriously, by basic contradictions: positivism accepts pristine independent social facts and aims to discover general laws, whereas interpretivism sees only local contingent variety; statistics and experiments are set against ethnography; sociology is variously taken to be value-free, relativist or a moral endeavour.

    http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0038026117701357

    Bringing meta-theoretical order to sociology doesn’t entail imposition of a unified paradigm on the discipline. It simply necessitates that we “position its many valuable insights and methods in relation to one another, showing how they connect and interact within larger relations, to be more like a coherent jigsaw puzzle in progress, rather than a heap of pieces”. Can we find unifying principles, providing standards by which we might draw out connections between otherwise isolated outputs of the discipline, which respect the intellectual diversity of the sociological enterprise? Can we begin to agree on standards about what constitutes ‘better’ and ‘worse’ sociology?

    The problem is that disciplines most in need of such standards, in order to provide a centripetal mechanism, prove least able to establish them. Calling for such standards doesn’t entail a final resolution of theoretical questions, as if we all have to agree on the same answers in order to move forward as a collective project. But it does entail clarity about why we are asking the questions to which we are offering different answers.

     
  • Mark 7:11 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    Sociological Images: Blogging as Public Sociology 

    In this paper the team behind the continually fantastic Sociological Images reflect on blogging as public sociology:

    Sociological Images is a website aimed at a broad public audience that encourages readers to develop and apply a sociological imagination. The site includes short, accessible posts published daily. Each includes one or more images and accompanying commentary. Reaching approximately 20,000 readers per day, Sociological Images illustrates the potential for using websites as a platform for public engagement in the social sciences. This report provides an overview of the site’s history, approach, reach, and impact. The authors also discuss some challenges facing academics interested in blogging for a general audience and some of the features that contribute to the popularity of the site.

    http://ssc.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/04/24/0894439312442356.abstract

     
  • Mark 7:08 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: anthony giddens   

    The Political Economy of Publishing Social Theory 

    From How to become an internationally famous British social theorist by Stewart Clegg, 585-586:

    “Giddens’s later concerns with structure and agency allow him to tap into many prestigious intellectual products as resources, such as linguistics, analytical philosophy and the Heideggerian tradition. These connections allow for far great consumption in more differentiated markets. The vague term ‘social theory’ gives freer scope, allowing Giddens to range freely and widely. The theoretical strategy has been to announce, from New Rules on, the deficiency of the orthodox consensus in some critical respect such as consideration of ‘war’, ‘space’, ‘time’, and then to borrow from cognate disciplines, such as international relations, history and geography, to remedy the defect. This gives Giddens a master key, wrapped up in the grammar of structuration, for addressing some important things that other theories omit. One can claim both transcendence of everything that has gone before and modesty in dialogue with friends and admirers who bring to attention other things not yet integrated into the system. Learn the Giddens system and you unlock the doors of greater perception by becoming acquainted with disciplines, ideas and figures whom one would not normally meet. If you are not familiar with a field, no worries – once you’ve read Giddens on ‘space-time’ distanciation you will appear as knowledgeable as the next human geographer – all the time you are doing social theory. The programme is ifnitely stretchable (although in practice it rarely addresses contemporary economics). Moreover, when specialists, offer corrections, that simply offers the opportunity for further debate, perhaps subsequent adjustment. It all keeps the product in the discerning public eye.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-954X.1992.tb00403.x/abstract

    This review essay is fascinating for many reasons. But perhaps the most important is that it opens up the connections between what Nicos Mouzelis convincingly analyses asintellectual de-differentiationwith the political economy of scholarly publishing. Crudely, blurring intellectual boundaries expands the market for social theorists.

     
  • Mark 7:07 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ,   

    Your ‘daily dose of Sociological Imagination’: reflections on social media and public sociology 

    Your ‘daily dose of Sociological Imagination’: reflections on social media and public sociology
    by Mark Carrigan and Milena Kremakova 

    This website’s raison d’etre was initially nebulous, tentative and ambitious all at the same time: we wanted to create a new online space for public sociology.  We hoped to establish something that was more than a blog, yet neither an institutionally bound magazine, nor an academic journal.  The existence of such a space would allow us to channel the eclectic range of interesting and useful content that we found ourselves wanting to share and publicise, as people who had much broader interests than our respective research topics.  We also envisaged site to be independent from the academic institution/s or other workplaces at which we found ourselves at that moment or in the future.  The very first post on the Sociological Imagination (hereafter also abbreviated as SI) pledged to ‘offer an ongoing forum within which the ethical and political commitments underlying much sociology can be explicitly and passionately linked to the actual practice of social research itself.’  Over time, the site’s purpose has stabilised in a pleasingly organic way and today it resembles a Boing Boing or Brainpickings for sociologists.  We publish original articles, commentaries on current events or debates, research profiles and podcast interviews, as well as a diverse range of multimedia material from across the web.  We have also begun to post calls for papers and event announcements, sometimes for projects in which we are involved ourselves, but more usually simply because we have read about them and found them interesting, or people have requested our help with promoting something and we are keen that the site be useful to others.  In short, SI tries to provide a ‘community service’ to other sociologists by pooling together a serendipitous range of relevant sociological content and allowing space for both silent reading and public engagement.

    At the time of writing, with the site’s third birthday imminent, it had received 263,523 visits (with 196,559 unique) and 396,773 page views.  35.7% of these visitors came from the US, 24.3% came from the UK, and other countries where the site is popular include Canada, Australia, Philippines, India, Germany and South Africa.  The website had 5,371 twitter followers (now 10,000+) and 721 facebook friends.  We have posted at least once daily, with the initial post always at 8am leading to a current total of 1,371 posts.  The regular 8 am post happened somewhat accidentally, but we decided to stick to it for the sake of consistency – and also, thinking of UK-based readers, it was a convenient time at the start of the working day.  We imagined sociology-minded readers sitting down at their desks with a cup of coffee in the morning and waking up their own sociological imaginations by reading something brief and intriguing which they might otherwise not have found.  This regularity led one twitter follower to describe the site as their ‘daily dose of the sociological imagination’ which we adopted as a slogan for the site, though it has more recently been supplanted by ‘committing sociology’ in homage to the diverting statement that ‘this is not a time to commit sociology’ made by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the wake of a foiled terror attack (25 April, 2013).

    While the nature of the site has transformed into something predominately curatorial, collating all manner of multi-media material which we think both sociologically interesting and likely to interest sociologists, we do have an increasing sense that websites like ours have a more important role to play in academic life.  They have the potential to establish and practice a more visible and more accessible sociology (and other disciplines).  This is relevant both outside of and within higher education.  The blogosphere provides a space for many elements which are often squeezed out by competition and specialisation in the neoliberal academy: discussions of scholarship and workflow, debates over broader disciplinary and professional questions, and an engagement with intellectual questions which is fun, driven by curiosity and purged of instrumental motivations.

    The first of these topics in particular poses a challenge to digital sceptics who would see online activity as a diversion from the ‘real’ business of academic life.  This attitude, however, neglects the fact that illuminating, sophisticated and reflective discussions about scholarship and work in progress are increasingly common online and, in a more quotidian sense, the full range of social media tools being used by academics are making formerly ‘backstage’ aspects of academic practice newly visible.  Moreover, these type of discussions are often more fruitful than traditional academic modes of publishing because of the frequency with which they take place across, often even relying on, boundaries of specialisation. One of us has written elsewhere about the idea of continuous publishing and its benefits not only for readers, but also for the writer (Carrigan & Lockley, 2013).  If we treat academic blogging as a continuous mode of publishing (that is, a continuous mode of making work public), the blog becomes an active space in which to brainstorm and store new ideas, catalogue notes on literature, reflect on fieldwork, develop future texts or projects, organise and refine your thoughts and arguments, and – thanks to its publicity – engage in discussion with others.  Importantly, it can also help fight writer’s block and procrastination.  Furthermore, the relatively insubstantial time investment required to follow someone’s blog or twitter feeds means it becomes possible to learn about particular topics, sometimes whole areas of inquiry, in a way which simply would not be feasible if the only option was to reach journal articles or monographs outside of one’s own research specialisation (because of time constraints, the financial expense required, or even because of not knowing about their existence).

    There is an important sense in which the scholarly web is becoming a playground for para academics: the torrents of open culture both demand and reward creative engagement outside ones own formal training. However, what is even more exciting is the extent to which digital communication makes sociology visible and accessible outside the academy – to those who have completed sociology degrees or other qualifications but have long since drifted away, as well as others who simply stumble across sociological materials online (the frequency with which this occurs suggests that, contra sceptics, the internet will not lead to the death of serendipity).  As a sociological tool, websites like SI have several important advantages over traditional academic publishing:

    ● First and foremost, sites such as SI have a democratising effect on sociology.  They offer the potential of both instant and continuous feedback – without requiring it.  Unlike a journal article, they can host comments and discussions literally on the same page as the text which prompted them.  They also allow almost real time written discussion which, unlike conference papers, is unlimited in time and volume, yet is not forced upon those readers who do not wish to comment.

    ● They are displaced/placeless, allowing access to the content to anyone regardless  of limitations of place, time, disability, or other constraints.

    ● They are an easy ways to record more fleeting and less well developed arguments which could be (or not be) developed further at any time in the future, either by their author or by a reader.

    ● As we have both found by writing about eclectic content, and hopefully readers have also found by reading it, this format gives food for thought and opens up new avenues for using sociological tools for the analysis of new problems.  Recently we have discovered and posted about a new subfield of sociology called Astrosociology; about one scholar‘s work on 3D visualisation of Kant‘s ‘Critique of pure reason’ which is redefining epistemology and the sociology of learning, Animal studies, and other ‘niche’ topics within sociology about which we previously knew little or nothing at all.  The curatorial capacity in which we explore these topics lends a purpose to the task of curiosity-driven exploration – which, in turn, belies the oppressive habits of mind often introjected within graduate school, e.g. ‘I can’t waste time on this just because it’s interesting.

    Nonetheless, it still seems that a process of mainstreaming the digital, which has arguably begun in some disciplines, remains far away in sociology.  This creates a gap between traditional sociology and the young, increasingly computer literate generations of sociology students and future sociologists.  There are notable exceptions (our favourite group blogs include Cyborgology, Sociological Images and Everyday Sociology) and there has been an observable growth of sociologists blogging in a personal capacity.  Nonetheless the relative absence of sociological voices from the blogosphere has been notable and, it seems, this is indicative of a broader failure to seize the opportunities afforded by digital tools.  Daniels and Feagin (2011) describe how the uptake of digital tools in sociology lags behind that which can be seen in the humanities:

    ‘All these changes in scholarship have been taken up with a great deal more enthusiasm by some in the academy than others.  Our colleagues in the humanities have embraced digital technologies much more readily than those of us in sociology or the social sciences more generally.  A casual survey of the blogosphere reveals that those in the humanities (and law schools) are much more likely to maintain academic blogs than social scientists.  In terms of scholarship, humanities scholars have been, for more than ten years, innovating ways to combine traditional scholarship with digital technologies.  To name just a two examples, scholars in English have established a searchable online database of the papers of Emily Dickinson and historians have developed a site that offers a 3D digital model showing the urban development of ancient Rome in A.D. 320. There are significant institutions being built in the digital humanities including the annual Digital Humanities Conference, which began in 1989, and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities.

    Sociology lags far behind in the adoption of digital tools for scholarly work.  As Paul DiMaggio and colleagues noted in 2001, “sociologists have been slow to take up the study of the Internet” (“The Social Implications of the Internet,” Annual Review of Sociology, 2001, p.1). While there are notable exceptions, such as Andrew Beveridge’s digitizing of Census maps (http://www.socialexplorer.com), when looking at the field as a whole these sorts of innovations are rare in sociology. In contrast to the decade-long conference in the digital humanities, there is no annual conference on “digital sociology.”  Sociology graduate students Nathan Jurgensen and PJ Rey recently organized a conference on “Theorizing the Web,” that drew luminaries in sociology Saskia Sassen and George Ritzer, but this is the first sociology conference (that we are aware of) to focus exclusively on understanding the digital era from a sociological perspective. Analogously, there is no large institution, like the NEH seeking to fund digitally informed sociological research. The reasons for this sociological lag when it comes to the Internet are still not clear, but some point to the problems of getting digital publication projects recognized by tenure and promotion review committees.’

    Though we are sympathetic to such arguments about the desirability of winning recognition for digital publication projects, we would suggest that the point can be overstated and that, furthermore, doing so risk losing sight of the unprecedented freedom presently afforded by these technologies for para academics.  Calls for ‘recognition’ of digital scholarship too easily collapse into an instrumentalist logic which calls for blogging et al to be incorporated within the metrics of prevailing audit culture.  This is an understandable aim for those who are precariously situated within the contemporary academy but nonetheless perhaps a short-sighted one.  Digital opportunities could too easily slide into digital opportunism: if ‘digital publication projects’ win ‘recognition’ within institutions then what is to stop the pathologies which afflict the contemporary academy (audit culture, instrumentalism and alienation) migrating to the digital sphere?  Is institutional recognition of digital scholarship worthwhile if it distorts the practices (which at their best are paradigmatic of communicating for its own intrinsic value rather than extrinsic institutional rewards) which render digital scholarship attractive in the first place?

    In the rest of this chapter we link C. Wright Mills’ concept of ‘sociological imagination’ with our own experiences of learning, sharing, thinking and creating online as sociologists, as well as how this work has mattered to us and, we hope, mattered to other people.  Much of our discussion addresses sociology (and sociologists) specifically because of our own academic circumstances and the aforementioned digital lag observable when sociological engagement online is compared to other disciplines. Nonetheless, we hope the discussion retains some relevance beyond the small corner of the academy we contingently (and precariously) occupy.

    The Sociological Imagination

    The concept of Sociological Imagination entered circulation in the 1959 book of the same name by the American Sociologist C. Wright Mills.  It moves from a prophetic opening (‘Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps’) through to a lacerating critique of the dominant trends within American sociology at the time (offering a scathing series of ‘translations’ of passages taken from the grand doyen of 20th century American sociology, Talcott Parson, which though surely offering amusement to endless cohorts of grad students, probably was not the author’s wisest career move) and an elaborated vision of what sociology could be.  This centres around the eponymous concept of the Sociological Imagination – the quality of mind which ‘enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society’ and so ‘understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals’ (Mills, 1959: 5).  In doing so, Mills laid out a vision for sociology, emphatically political and engaged, founded on drawing out the interconnections between the grand sweep of history and the unfolding of individual lives.  However, it was far from universally praised at the time of publication, as can be seen in the early review of the book by Edward Shils quoted in Gane and Back (2013):

    “Imagine a burly cowpuncher on the long, slow ride from the Panhandle of Texas to Columbia University, carrying in his saddle-bag some books which he reads with absorption while his horse trots along. Imagine that among the books are some novels of Kafka, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and essays of Max Weber. Imagine the style and imagery that would result from the interaction of the cowboy- student and his studies. Imagine also that en route he passes through Madison, Wisconsin, that seat of a decaying populism and that, on arriving at his destination in New York, he encounters Madison Avenue, that street full of reeking phantasies of the manipulation of the human will and of what is painful to America’s well-wishers and enjoyable to its detractors. Imagine the first Madison disclosing to the learned cowpuncher his subsequent political mode, the second an object of his hatred…The end result of such an imaginary grand tour would be a work like The Sociological Imagination”

    Nonetheless, the book has come to be seen as a sociological classic, not least of all because of the value which so many sociologists have recurrently found in its passionate challenge to the professionalisation of sociology and the ivory tower intellectualism which it can so often engender.  Crucially, the sociological imagination is not something over which professional sociologists can be said to have a monopoly.  Indeed the extent to which this sensibility finds itself manifested within the academy can be taken as an index of the relative vitality or otherwise of the discipline.  Mills was intensely critical of the professional sociology from which he found himself ever more estranged over time, lamenting the tendency of his contemporaries to ‘slip so readily into unintelligibility’.  He identified the roots of this problems as inhering in the widespread tendency within the professionalising sociology of his time to self-consciously seek legitimation as a scientific discipline.  As Gane and Back (2012) go on to write,

    ‘For sociology to be to be effective, especially beyond the academy, it must have literary ambitions. Mills’ assessment of the quality of the sociological writings of his time is damning. He argues that there is a “serious crisis in literacy” in which sociologists are “very much involved” (1959:239). Mills’ position here is an extension of his earlier attack on Parsons and Lazarsfeld, and is just as fierce in tone. He observes that “a turgid and polysyllabic prose does seem to prevail in the social sciences” (Mills, 1959:239), and adds that this style of writing has nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter. Mills explains the prevalence of this style, instead, in terms of a quest for status. He declares: “Desire for status is one reason why academic men slip so readily into unintelligibility. And that, in turn, is one reason why they do not have the status they desire” (Mills, 1959:240). This thirst for status is said to be driven by an underlying desire for the sociologist to achieve recognition as a “scientist”; something, he argues, that led to sociology written in clear and accessible prose (including, presumably, his own work) to be dismissed by many as mere journalism.’

    Mills saw the promise of sociology as being undermined by this quest for status and the sclerotic forms of expression he saw associated with it, with sociologists prone to ‘stereotyped ways of writing which do away with the full experience by keeping them detached throughout their operations’ almost as if ‘they are deadly afraid to take chance of modifying themselves in the process of their work’ (Mills, 2001: 111).  He saw this failure of vision and expression in what could almost be construed as epochal terms, representing a failure of sociological imagination at precisely the moment when this distinctive sensibility was most needed.  Mills was, in many ways, estranged from the academic establishment and this was, in part, both cause and a consequence of his critique.  This estrangement gave him a degree of intellectual freedom from the cultural norms prevalent within the professional sociology of his day and this was in turn entrenched by the manner in which he employed that freedom to pull apart many of the orthodoxies which he saw as so inimical to his  understanding of sociology’s promise.

    This estrangement can be overstated and, though this is a chapter about para academic life, it would be manifestly untrue to suggest by way of ahistorical retrospection that Mills himself was a para academic.  Clearly he was not.  Nonetheless, he could, perhaps, serve a viable role model for para academics – in his case the estrangement was predominantly cultural rather than structural but, nonetheless, there was estrangement.  The relationship between his unceasingly critical orientation towards professional sociology and the profoundly creative use of the freedom afforded to him by this critical outlook and relative estrangement is worth reflecting on.  His position in relation to the sociological establishment afforded him a degree of freedom and he used this to diagnose the ills which afflicted the sociology of his day and, crucially, pursued a lifelong project of rethinking sociological craft in view of these disciplinary and institutional ailments.

    We would suggest that the blogosphere affords a parallel degree of freedom to para academics: a place of respite from the distorting tendencies engendered by the pursuit of status within higher education. While our discussion in this chapter focus predominantly on blogging, there is a broader claim to be made here about ‘digital scholarship’ and its complex relationship to the broader academic world within which it is emerging. The notion of digital scholarship drawn upon here is largely that offered by Weller (2012) who understands the constitution of a ‘digital scholar’ in a deliberately open way:

    A digital scholar need not be a recognised academic, and equally does not include anyone who posts something online. For now, a definition of someone who employs digital, networked and open approaches to demonstrate specialism in a field is probably sufficient to progress.’

    It would be absurd to claim that all digital scholars are para academics – manifestly this is not the case.  Nor would it be tenable to suggest that all para academics are, could or should become digital scholars (even if we would not be surprised if this happens in a couple of decades when today’s youngest generations enter professional research).  Nonetheless, we argue there is a contingent complementarity between the role of the digital scholar and that of the para academic, with the embrace of the former offering substantial opportunities to those thrown into the latter role.  As Weller (2012) goes on to observe, ‘in a digital, networked, open world people become less defined by the institution to which they belong and more by the network and online identity they establish’ and, as a consequence, ‘a well-respected digital scholar may well be someone who has no institutional affiliation’.  Part of the difficulty faced by those precariously employed within the academy is the long standing dependence of those so positioned on institutions as the means through which one can come to articulate a viable and efficacious professional identity.  This is precisely the dependence which digital scholarship is weakening and it is for this reason that we should treat calls for digital scholarship to be ‘recognised’ with caution.

    The risk is that incorporating digital outputs too readily into the evaluative frameworks of contemporary higher education might erode many of the things which are so refreshing about the uses which academics are making of these online tools.  As it stands academic bloggers enjoy a degree of freedom from the sorts of pressures which concerned Mills, which have surely only intensified and expanded since the time he was writing, which makes it imperative that this not be threatened through too hasty a process of mainstreaming.  Digital scholarship can, at its best, allow alternative infrastructures of communication and evaluation to emerge which, as well as being personally liberating to those active within them, holds out the promise of providing an independent vantage point from which the deleterious tendencies within the broader academy can be identified, analysed and resisted. This can take a variety of forms:

    1. The boundary between academic scholarship and ‘public engagement’ becomes blurred.  Even digital scholarship geared towards a narrowly specialised audience enjoys an intrinsic visibility which traditional scholarship does not.  In so far as digital scholars work with an awareness of this visibility it inculcates a tendency towards openness, in the sense of disrupting many of the habitual modes of academic expression which are intricately tied up in traditional modes of academic publishing.  Or in other words: it’s easier to avoid the temptation to use jargon when blogging than it is when writing a journal article because you are aware that readers of the former are far more unlikely to understand the jargon than readers of the latter.  The tendency to ‘slip so readily into unintelligibility’ decried by Mills is checked by the peculiarly public form of writing entailed by blogging and other modes of digital scholarship.
    2. This visibility goes hand-in-hand with discoverability.  It is easier to discover those engaged in digital scholarship both for others within the academy and those outside it.  This has important implications for the public status of academic work. While the traditional understanding of public intellectualism has been bound up in broadcast media, digital communications facilitates narrowcasting (Poe, 2012).  The image of the public intellectual as a world renowned figure communicating globally about issues of universal concern can give way to a much more democratic image of academics in general communicating about their research to those who find it interesting.  There will always be such an audience, no matter how niche the topic appears to be, yet prior to digital communications it was impossible to establish the necessary connections – hence the hegemony of the broadcast model of public intellectualism.
    3. Many taken for granted norms pertaining to scholarly communications are, at least in part, functions of the limitations inherent in non-digital communication systems.  For instance as Weller  (2011: 156) observes, ‘a journal article is a certain length, and the journal publication cycle is determined as much by the economics of printing as it by any consideration of the best methods for sharing knowledge’.  This is an example of an interconnection between form (the journal article) and function (communication of scholarly knowledge) having been shaped by the economics of analogue technology.  Digital technology creates opportunities to find innovative forms for long standing functions and because of their relatively peripheral status within the academy, para academics are best placed to undertake the innovation and experimentation to which this digital turn so naturally leads.
    4. Digital scholarship also tends to reveal the linkages between what Bourdieu (2003) describes as public scholarship and private commitment.  Whereas the two are clearly demarcated within mainstream academic culture, with the legitimacy of the former often seen to rest on the exclusion of the latter, digital communication tends to preclude such a demarcation.  This helps create the possibility of a more up front and less alienated social science, more open to those outside the academy and clearer about the beliefs and values which underlie scholarly projects.
    5. Some of the advantages of para academic work are accompanied with disadvantages.  As Weller (2012) observes, peer networks are integral to scholarship, representing the ‘people who scholars share ideas with, collaborate with on research projects, review papers for, discuss ideas with and get feedback from’.  Yet, before the rise of the internet and, more latterly and significantly, social networking tools, the constitutions of this peer network was limited to those with whom one interacted in person on a regular basis.  The rise of Internet communication has enabled ‘scholars to build up a network of peers who perform the same role in their scholarly activity as the networks founded on face-to-face contact’ thus reducing the disadvantages inherent in the enforced mobility; however, the basic inequality between the para academic and the traditionally employed academic remains, for example in caused by the relative lack of resources and precarious employment conditions which typically characterise the working life of the para academic.

    Our Sociological Imagination

    This project has value for us because of both its sheer continuity (we have worked willingly on the site for three years now) but also the independence which that continuity has in relation to each of our respective trajectories through the (para)academic world.  It is something which has consistently accompanied us in our professional involvements, in the sense that it has had direct and indirect implications for our other activities and professional identities, however it has always been experientially distinct from these.  We experience it as a form of free space which provides a public forum for what is otherwise private activity: thinking, reading around other subjects, and generally having fun through understanding society and developing analytical tools.  The fun and creative aspect of sociology seems to be insufficiently present in the academic curriculum: or at least less so than in mathematics and computer science (as one of us has discovered through her recent fieldwork).  It would probably be inaccurate to suggest the project is utterly insulated from instrumental reasons, but these are entirely secondary: i.e., we have become aware of ways in which the project has been instrumentally useful to us but we never sought to pursue it for these reasons.  It is a liberating counterbalance to the frequently stifling and laborious experiences of writing conference papers, articles for publication, or a PhD thesis.  The effort that goes into crafting a small SI piece is sometimes no smaller than the effort that went into an equally-sized portion of a journal paper.  But each SI article is driven by pure curiosity and interest – and some are more polished than others.  Part of this freedom, obviously, comes with the different genre and size of the articles that appear on SI.  Most of the site’s content is written in a less formal style and the range of possible formats is almost infinite, unlike the strictly regimented format and style of, say, journal articles in sociology.  Over the years, we have both found that this free format is precisely what has allowed us to post consistently, regardless of any other commitments we have, so as to never put off writing an SI post when an interesting idea comes to mind.  We have developed an informal writing style, much like a cross between sociology and journalism, but without losing the ability to write serious pieces.  Furthermore, it is partly thanks to this free format that we have gained an eclectic range of both ad hoc and consistent contributors, some of whom are freelance sociologists, others students in the social sciences, others in academic positions, and yet others non-sociologists who have an interest and something to say about one of our topics.

    Our consistent sociological ‘thinking aloud’ through SI has certainly been beneficial for our personal writing abilities, but more importantly, this format has suited the purpose of what we imagine as public sociology.  It is sociology spilling out of the confines of academia into the broader world, but without completely severing the link with academic research or losing sight of the worthwhile aspects of research embedded within institutions.  Admittedly, the informality and the lack of restraints on format also pose constrains: while the range of SI topics is wide, the coverage tends to be superficial, contrary to the very narrow focus of a journal or conference paper (although some of the posts have featured extensive literature research and analysis and could well form drafts for academic papers or book chapters). This is why we do not see SI as something that either of us could do full-time, or something for which we ought to abandon our other (academic or non-academic) research which affords us the depth and engagement with one particular sociological topic or subdiscipline.  In fact, our work on SI has benefitted from our respective academic work and our empirical research experience – just as it, in turn, neatly complements our other academic and non-academic work.

    Although the Sociological Imagination exists predominantly online, it often leaves the virtual world and crosses over to offline activities, some of which can be seen as academic and others para academic.  An example of this cross-over is a workshop which we organised in June 2011, devoted to the sociology of sport.  The workshop took place at Warwick University (where both of us were then based).  It brought together three researchers in the sociology of sport, was easily accessible to anyone at the university, and open to anyone else outside the university who was able to attend.  The ‘offline’ workshop was preceded by a week of one or two daily posts on different aspects of sociology of sport, introducing researchers and guest articles, and followed by audio and video podcasts of the presentations and discussions.  Since neither of us is a specialist in the sociology of sport, we did not write original articles, but approached several researchers of sport for guest contributions.  Our role as editors focused on finding relevant authors and contributions, curating interesting content, linking the online theme with the workshop, planning and crafting each of the posts, and providing both an online and a physical space for researchers and students interested in sociological aspects of sport.  The Week of Sport on SI thus had several functions: on the one hand, it resulted in a typical academic workshop, but on the other, the it was also a joint online-offline space-time which created a forum for topic-driven public sociology, publicising the work of researchers and accessible to anyone with an interest in the topic, including our online readers who could not attend the workshop.  This and other occasions when we have linked SI with the ‘offline world’ have been equally rewarding in terms of quality of discussion, the possibility for us or our readers to follow up on an interesting topic or meet interesting researchers in real (or virtual) life.

    In its own limited and local way, this felt as if the digital activity which had become so important to us had ‘spilled over’ from its artificial mooring with the ‘virtual’ world, coming to occupy what was then the shared institutional space within which our mundane day-to-day para academic lives unfolded.  It pointed to exciting new possibilities which, it would feel dishonest not to point out, we have not yet explored to the fullest, as the exigencies of daily life inevitably preclude a further opening of the cracks that suddenly became visible in established institutional structures.  But the possibilities are exciting nonetheless and they point to an alternative trajectory for the digital activity of para academics: one which resists the temptation to leverage digital scholarship for instrumental gain and opposes its incorporation into the existing audit culture.  Instead we have tried to point towards a potential expansion out of para academic digital scholarship which opposes its incorporation into existing structures.  We have suggested C. Wright Mills as an exemplar of the public and professional orientations this might involve and sought to ‘join the dots’ between contemporary discussions of public sociology, digital scholarship and para-academia.

    References
    Bourdieu, P. (2003). Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2. London: Verso.
    Carrigan, M., & Lockley, P. (2013) Continual publishing across journals, blogs and social media maximises impact by increasing the size of the ‘academic footprint’.  Retrieved June 30th from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2011/10/26/academic-footprint/
    Daniels, J., & Feagin, J. (2011). The (coming) social media revolution in the academy. Fast Capitalism8(2).
    Gane, N., & Back, L. (2012). C. Wright Mills 50 Years On: The Promise and Craft of Sociology Revisited. Theory, Culture & Society29(7-8), 399-421.
    Mills, C.W. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
    Mills, C.W. (2001). C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. University of California Press.
    Poe, M. (2012). What Can University Presses Do? Retrieved June 30th from http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/07/09/essay-what-university-presses-should-do
    Weller, M. (2011). The Digital Scholar: How technology is transforming academic practice. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

     
  • Mark 7:05 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    Big Data and the ‘‘Book of Society” 

    An important point from the paper Big Data, social physics, and spatial analysis: The early years by Trevor J Barnes and Matthew W Wilson:

    The most immediate invocation of monism by Big Data is its assumption that the social world can be mathematized in the same way as the natural world. Just as Galileo thought that the Book of Nature is written in the language of mathematics, there is a parallel belief within Big Data about the ‘‘Book of Society.’’ Without the supposition that the social world can be fully made over as numbers, Big Data would have no purchase. We also suggest that monism is invoked by Big Data in a second form, at least implicitly. When Big Data deploys models of spatial analysis monism is presumed, because those models partly rest on a social physics that makes monism foundational.

    http://bds.sagepub.com/content/1/1/2053951714535365.abstract

     
  • Mark 7:03 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    Rethinking Empirical Social Science 

    In this paper in Dialogues in Human Geography, Evelyn Ruppert from Goldsmiths College makes a case for the need to rethink empirical social science in the face of the epistemological and methodological challenge of ‘big data’:

    While Big Data – the vast amounts of digital information generated, accumulated and stored in myriad databases and repositories, both online and offline – does present specific challenges to the geography discipline, I would suggest that it also calls for interdisciplinary approaches perhaps more than ever. There are of course many different rationales for interdisciplinarity but in the case of Big Data I will attend to two. First, the distributed relations and entanglements of ownership and expertise that make up Big Data call not only for interdisciplinary approaches but also cross- sectoral engagements between the social sciences, industry, government and business. And second, the ontological and epistemological consequences of methods that take up Big Data cut across disciplines and provide an opportunity for collaboration on the underlying theoretical propositions as well as the vexed political questions of data privacy, rights, ethics and ownership.

    […]

    All of these arguments for interdisciplinarity and collaboration are not a call for turning social scientists into statisticians or computer scientists, but for ‘socialising’ what could otherwise become a positivist science of individuals and societies or lead to re-inscribing a division between quantitative and qualitative methods. Retreating and engaging in internal debates within social science disciplines cannot achieve this, as Savage and Burrows (2007) also warn. Instead, it means to explore methods of doing immersive interdisciplinary data work by innovatively, critically and reflexively engaging with new forms of data. This calls for experimenting with various data sources and techniques, innovating methods, and working with researchers in computing and other sciences.

    Dialogues in Human Geography. November 2013 vol. 3 no. 3 268-273

    There’s a pre-print available here.

     
  • Mark 7:03 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    Sociology and, of and in Web 2.0 

    In this 2007 paper David Beer and Roger Burrows suggest that “by the time you get to read this paper in its published form, even in the hypertextual pages of Sociological Research Online, what it describes may well have become part of the cultural mainstream”. Seven years later, the paper certainly seems prescient, even if the eponymous term ‘Web 2.0’ has fallen out of use and the now ubiquitous phrase ‘social media’ fails to feature anywhere in the paper. There are many suggestions they made which can now be seen in much of the work increasingly conducted under the category of ‘digital sociology’:

    There are two issues here. First, we need to be inside of the networks, online communities, and collaborative movements to be able to see what is going on and describe it. If we take Facebook for instance, it is not possible to enter into and observe the network without becoming a member, providing an institutional email, entering some personal details and generating a profile. Therefore, in order to get some idea of users and their practices it is necessary to become a ‘wikizen’. The social researcher will need to be immersed, they will need to be participatory, and they will need to ‘get inside’ and make some ‘friends’. We will have to become part of the collaborative cultures of Web 2.0, we will need to build our own profiles, make some flickering friendships, expose our own choices, preferences and views, and make ethical decisions about what we reveal and the information we filter out of these communities and into our findings. Our ability to carry out virtual ethnographies will – by necessity – involve moving from the role of observer to that of participant observer.

    4.4 A second issue is that once inside these networks we may explore the possibilities of using Web 2.0 applications, and particularly the interactive potentials of SNS, as research tools or research technologies (this is not necessarily limited to research into Web 2.0, SNS could be used to conduct research on any topic). Interviews and even focus groups could comfortably be conducted through SNS, either privately or in the open. Of course, there are a range of alternatives here. We can imagine the construction of virtual ethnographies accounting for these communities of users and their practices. Perhaps, more significantly, what we have, particularly with SNS, are vast archives on the everyday lives of individuals – a sort of ongoing codification of habitus – their preferences, choices, views, gender, physical attributes, geographical location, background, employment and educational history, photographs of them in different places, with different people and different things. These are open and accessible archives of (what was once thought of as sensitive) information that may be used to develop understandings of these people and to track out communities or networks of friends. These archives could be used to track preferences, connections, personal histories, views, friendships that may be data-mined, mapped, network analysed, discourse analysed and so on. There are possibilities then for tailoring innovative research strategies that take advantage of the interactive potentials of these new media and of the data that they hold.

    http://www.socresonline.org.uk/12/5/17.html

    However I wonder how widely social media has influenced the practice of those teaching sociology? There are certainly examples of using services like twiter and youtube for pedagogical experimentation and innovation. But how widespread are these? Beer and Burrows offer a few suggestions towards the end of their paper:

    As a final note, once we have entered into these Web 2.0 applications it may also be worth giving some thought as to how they may be used to teach sociology. We can imagine here students building their own sociologically motivated mashups, collaborating to put together wiki’s on sociological topics, running seminars online through SNS, continuing to use SNS groups and profiles to informally discuss sociology or using folksonomies to tag and collate sociology content online (allowing students to create their own reading lists, or perhaps even using SNS as archived data sources on which to draw for short term research projects and dissertations). Of course, this may already be happening.

    http://www.socresonline.org.uk/12/5/17.html

    Does sociological teaching lag behind sociological research in its embrace of the possibilities which social media affords? Or are those utilising social media in their teaching practice not receiving the recognition they deserve? Are innovations failing to diffuse because they’re lodged within existing departments and networks rather than feeding into a more pervasive shift in our understanding of what it is to learn sociology and how sociology can be taught? Is this a matter of teaching repertoires which needed to be expended to take account of these new possibilities? We’d love to know what you think and are particularly keen to feature any experimental uses of social media in teaching that you’d like to tell our readers about.

     
  • Mark 6:31 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    The Founder 

    The Founder tells the story of Ray Kroc, the driven yet craven man who was the first owner of McDonalds. Not the founder, the first owner. The distinction is a crucial one and the plot of the film hinges on how it became possible for Kroc to be one but my the other. While side stepping the question of whether a historically accurate description can constitute a spoiler, I don’t want to ruin the plot of the film. Suffice to say, it revolves around the relationship between the dour though respectable McDonald brothers and the aggressively upwardly mobile Kroc who eventually elbows them out. He neither invents nor builds anything. The innovations are all theirs, from the abolition of at-car service to the carnivorous choreography of the burger assembly line. Yet it is Kroc who initiates the franchising system, bringing about a McDonalds in every state while getting rich off the speedee system developed by the two brothers.

    It’s in this way that The Founder is a film of the moment, a dark fable about the triumph of aggression and acquisitiveness over creativity and graft. It would have been easy to play the McDonalds brother for comic effect, reducing them to superficial anachronisms to be pushed around by the aspirational Kroc on his trajectory to being a man of the future America. But the portrayal of them is complex and multifaceted, even if it is perhaps too prone to positioning them in a way which avoids engaging with the complexities inherent in the labour relations of capitalism. Small business owners are still nonetheless business owners, even when they’re being cast in a narrative of opposition against the coming corruption that Kroc represents.

    It would also have been too easy to cast them as forerunners of rationalisation, initiating a process which it took the over-weening ambition of Kroc to bring to fruition. But the reality is more complex, with their commitment to their initial project being a moral one: a commitment to rationalist choreography, the excellence that becomes possible through careful practice of a collective activity until it is as elaborately routinised as can possibly be. The reality is mundane, involving stop watches and clipboards. But they believe in what they are doing. Unlike Croc who merely sees it as a route away from his own inadequacies, an escape from the turgid rhythms of life as a traveling salesman and the possibility to win the esteem he has always craved.

    It’s this representation of upwards mobility that I found really powerful. A willingness to dispense with everyone and everything on the way to the top. His job, his collaborators and his wife are all pieces of furniture to be cast off when attempting to rearrange them has grown tiresome. Slights and insults are fuel to this fire, underscoring the promise that one day he will have accumulated enough power and status to show everyone. One day no one will ever mock or deride him again. It’s a fragile self, driven by what the psychoanalyst and social theorist Ian Craib describes as fantasies of omnipotence: the inevitable disappointments of life do not give cause for reflection but rather fuels the drive towards accumulation. This self denies limits, it denies boundaries, it denies reality. All that ultimately exists is ‘I’ and woe betide those insubstantial players upon the stage of the world which happens to get in its way.

     
  • Mark 4:09 pm on August 27, 2019 Permalink | Reply
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    The fractal fascism taking shape around us 

    From Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine loc 2670-2776:

    What is more, hasty denunciations risk leaving us with the misapprehension of knowing what we’ve got ourselves into, while injecting an unhelpful nastiness, condescension and paranoia into the conversation. There has been a bonfire of digital vanities, bromides stacked upon platitudes, ‘digital democracy’, ‘the networked citizen’, ‘Twitter revolutionaries’ all going up in smoke. We, who stand in its glare, should be sceptical of provisional analyses being offered with too much certainty. We should nonetheless take seriously the fascist potential of the social industry, or its potential to intensify and accelerate proto-fascist tendencies already at work. The forms of fascism that we see in the twenty-first century may not resemble those of the past. The fascist movements of the interwar period were rooted in imperialist ideologies, popular militarism, paramilitary organizations and a world system run by colonial empires and menaced by socialist revolution. These circumstances will not return. The colonies are dead, most armies are professional and there isn’t an abundance of popular organization of any kind, let alone paramilitary organization. Nonetheless, liberal capitalism shows itself to be vulnerable, crisis-ridden and open to challenge by the racist, nationalist far right. And what, in such circumstances, are the cultural valences of the social industry that produces so much of our social life now? Which tendencies would it select for, and which would it mute? There is something about the way in which we interact on the platforms which, whatever else it does, magnifies our mobbishness, our demand for conformity, our sadism, our crankish preoccupation with being right on all subjects. Ironically, this despotic rectitude is allied with exactly the kind of ‘swarm’ propensities that were once idealized as the basis for a new kind of grass-roots power. The ‘swarm’, which began as a metaphor for conscientious citizens holding power to account, might well become a metaphor for the twenty-first century version of fascist street gangs.

    From loc 3042-3059:

    The Islamic State has fallen, with fighters controlling just 4 per cent of the territory they once did, but the organization known as ISIS remains. It is, among other things, a form of twenty-first-century fascism. Its use of the platforms shows us something about how new fascisms will work, in terms of their culture, communications and ideology. 51 It is, to use Jonathan Beller’s phrase, a form of ‘fractal fascism’. If the spectacle is a social relationship mediated by images, what Guy Debord called the concentrated spectacle of Führer celebrity worship has given way in the social industry to the diffuse spectacle of commodity images. 52 In the social industry, it’s one, two, three, many Führers. From ISIS to the alt-right, new fascisms are emerging around microcelebrities, mini-patriarchs and the flow of homogenized messages. If classical fascism directed narcissistic libido investments into the image of the leader, as the embodiment of the people and its historical destiny, neo-fascism harvests the algorithmic accumulation of sentiment in the form of identification-by-Twitterstorm. If the image of the fascist mass was once best captured by the bird’s-eye view of aerial photography, it is now available in a much higher-resolution bird’s eye view as metrics. And if classical fascism built its organization through recruitment from social organizations, such as veterans’ clubs, germinal neo-fascism recruits from the loose associational practices of the platforms. The networked social movement has acquired jackboots.

     
  • Mark 1:33 pm on August 22, 2019 Permalink | Reply
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    The attention sinks which stop us dreaming 

    From Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine loc 1148:

    The vacancies of attention that we must fill appear during public transport journeys, on lunch and toilet breaks, during impasses in dinner conversation, or in those frequent interludes in working life where there is nothing to do but the employee is obliged to look busy. If we didn’t have somewhere to put excess attention, who knows what dreams would come? The stars are a magnet for excess attention: attention-sinks. And they are made, not born.

     
  • Mark 1:33 pm on August 22, 2019 Permalink | Reply
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    Our tributes to the power the machine has over us 

    From Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine loc 1467:

    A feed filled with topless mirror shots, gym photos, new hair, and so on, might be seen as a peculiar form of idolatry. But it is less a tribute to the user than to the power that the machine has over the user. A power which, without prescribing anything, results in a very narrow account of what a self, a life, is really like. It orchestrates a paradoxically distracted, alienated form of attention.

     
  • Mark 6:59 pm on August 20, 2019 Permalink | Reply
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    Why social media shouldn’t be ignored by research policy 

    I wrote this as a contribution to the Society for Research Into Higher Education’s contribution to the ESRC Consultation on Leadership Development:

    The research literature suggests a significant minority of academics use social media as part of their working life, with social trends suggesting this number will only grow with time. It has become an informal back channel through which news, opportunities and ideas circulate, with important consequences for the structure of academic networks. This informal character is supplemented by official embrace of social media by academics departments, universities, research centres, research networks and learned societies. Increasingly large swathes of academic interaction take place through these platforms, leaving their absence from the consultation document slightly surprising. There is still a distinct lack of consensus about scholarly comportment online, what it is to use social media professionally and the role it ought to play in professionalisation socialisation. Its current uptake and likely expanding significance means it ought to be considered in terms of what leadership development will entail for present and forthcoming generations of academics.

    If anyone would like to help me get this conversation going then please get in touch!

     
  • Mark 8:40 am on August 17, 2019 Permalink | Reply
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    George Soros on the threat of techno-fascism 

    From this speech at Davos:

    The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind.” There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated.

    But there is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon. There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large, datarich IT monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developed system of state-sponsored surveillance. This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined. The countries in which such unholy marriages are likely to occur first are Russia and China. The Chinese IT companies in particular are fully equal to the American ones. They also enjoy the full support and protection of the Xi Jingping regime. The government of China is strong enough to protect its national champions, at least within its borders. US-based IT monopolies are already tempted to compromise themselves in order to gain entrance to these vast and fast-growing markets. The dictatorial leaders in these countries may be only too happy to collaborate with them since they want to improve their methods of control over their own populations and expand their power and influence in the United States and the rest of the world.

     
  • Mark 8:25 am on August 17, 2019 Permalink | Reply
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    Becoming ourselves through the media 

    From John Thompson’s Media & Modernity pg 41-42:

    In interpreting symbolic forms, individuals incorporate them into their own understanding of themselves and others. They use them as a vehicle for reflection and self-reflection, as a basis for thinking about themselves, about others and about the world to which they belong. I shall use the term ‘appropriation’ to refer to this extended process of understanding and self-understanding. To appropriate a message is to take hold of its meaningful content and make it one’s own. It is to assimilate the message and incorporate it into one’s life–a process that sometimes takes place effortlessly, and sometimes involves deliberate application. In appropriating a message we adapt it to our own lives and life contexts. We apply it to a set of circumstances which, in the case of media products, are generally different from the circumstances in which the message was produced.

     
    • landzek 6:39 pm on August 17, 2019 Permalink

      Hey mark. I thought of you the other day so I appreciate you posting something.

      .. I like that definition of appropriation by the way.

      But I was going to ask you, since you are more in twined and involved in computers, data, algorithm, social platforms and just basically computer technology, then I will Ever be…

      Perhaps you will know the answer to this question and or you might have a friend somewhere in your institution that might be interested in this and or have something to say about it:

      I was pondering the other day that it seems like it would be pretty easy to analyze the stock market and find out just how many orders are succeeding.

      I mean, everything is done with computers nowadays so it seems like there should be a huge data record on every single stock market bat that has been placed. And it seems like it would be a really valuable and interesting if there was an analysis of just how many positions are correct. Never mind in who, just plain data. It seems like it would be pretty easy to analyze various positions or bets placed and compare them to whether they paid off or whether they lost.

      Maybe you might know someone who knows why no one has undertaken such an endeavor.

      Because it seems like it would be very valuable information to have if, say, only 20% of all stock market positions were correct or something like that. Or just the opposite.

      What do you think?

    • Mark 8:27 am on August 20, 2019 Permalink

      This is my understanding of what computational finance people do with big data. There’s lots of empirical work beyond this about how financial markets operate in practice but it’s not really something I know anything about.

  • Mark 12:11 pm on August 16, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , new realism, , ,   

    The political significance of realism 

    This useful essay in the Hedgehog review links the contemporary flourishing of realism to the politics of ‘post-truth’, making a change from crass accusations that trump is the fault of postmodernism. While his focus is on speculative, critical and new realism, the point could be generalised to include new materialism, agential realism, ANT and assemblage theory as other forms of realism. It’s not so much that the rise of post-truth politics is encouraging the spread of realism but there’s an important idea to be explored here about the changing political context in which seemingly obscure debates about ontology and epistemology take place:

    While postmodern thought can bear only so much blame for a style of politics that destabilizes notions of reality and truth, Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, and Donald J. Trump have all profited from the collapse of a broad cultural consensus about what is plausibly true and what is “fake news,” a collapse to which popularized postmodernist suspiciousness has contributed. Having observed Berlusconi’s roughshod abuse of reality during the media mogul’s off-again on-again career as Italian prime minister, Ferraris argues that without the idea that some things are the way they are, no matter what anyone thinks about them, it is unclear how one might resist the claims of the powerful. “Contrary to what many postmodern thinkers believe,” he concludes, “there are reasonable grounds to think, first of all on the basis of the teachings of history, that reality and truth have always constituted the protection of the weak against the oppression of the strong.

    From Nedelisky, P. (2019). Reality: A Shopper’s Guide. The Hedgehog Review, 21(2), 57-71.

     
  • Mark 1:57 pm on August 14, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: institution, ,   

    What is an institution? 

    From John Thompson’s Media & Modernity pg 13:

    In some cases these positions acquire a certain stability by being institutionalized–that is, by becoming part of a relatively stable cluster of rules, resources and social relations. Institutions can be viewed as determinate sets of rules, resources and relations which have some degree of durability in time and some extension in space, and which are bound together for the purposes of pursuing some overall objectives. Institutions give a definite shape to pre-existing fields of interaction and, at the same time, they create new positions within these fields, as well as new sets of life trajectories for the individuals who occupy them.

     
    • BeingQuest 3:02 am on September 1, 2019 Permalink

      Worth thinking about, time and time again. Thanks for the Reflections.

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