Which character from the Irvine Welsh novels has the most depth? While Francis Begbie might have counted as the most vivid, particularly as he was brought to life in Robert Carlyle’s unforgettable performance, I’d be surprised if anyone thought of him as the deepest. Yet that’s the impression one is left with after reading Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Blade Artist. I don’t mean depth in terms of the psychological coherence of the characterisation, as much as that Welsh has clearly spent a great deal of time reflecting on Begbie and what makes him who he is.

The Blade Artist begins in California. We meet Jim Begbie, succesful artist and devoted husband and father, facing down two men on the beach who threaten his wife and daughters. We soon see the remarkable, most of all happy, life he has built for himself across the Atlantic. A balance which is shattered by the news that his son Sean has been murdered, prompting Begbie to fly back to Edinburgh in order to attend the funeral.

His transition is explored through his return to Leith and reacquaintance with the familiar figures from his older life. He finds himself sympathising with the police’s lack of interest in his son Sean’s murder, wondering to himself “Why indulge people like that when they would simply take each other out if you left them to their own devices?”. He’s baffled in the face of old rivals, astonished “now to think that he cared enough about this guy to consider doing that”. In the face of the leering optimism of Sean’s mother that they might reconcile, he can only find her grotesque and idiotic.

Finding his way to an old boxing gym when he returns, he suddenly relates to past acquaintances in a new way. Those who had “been keeping him at arm’s length for years” were now suddenly “welcoming him into the ‘he used to be a bam but he’s alright now’ club”. They had joined this club a long time ago but in finding membership in it, he realises there’s still a place for himself in the city and once more feels at home there.

There were two figures integral to his transformation. The first, John Dick, “believed in him, despite Franco being determined to present all the evidence to the contrary” and ran the prison scheme which “brought in the writers, poets and artists, to see if anything would gel” and “Saw a spark ignite in a few, Frank Begbie being the most unlikely. Amongst these was Melanie, the art therapist, now his wife:

But who was she? She was good and strong and I was bad and weak. That’s what hit me most of all from being around her. That I was weak. The notion was ridiculous; it went against everything I’d come to believe about my persona and image, against the way I’d consciously forged myself over the years. Yet who else but a weak man would spend half his life letting others lock him up like an animal?

I was one of the weakest people on the planet. I had zero control over my darker impulses. Therefore I was constant jail fodder. Some mouthy cunt got wide; they had to be decimated on the spot, and I was back in prison. Thus such nonentities were in total command of my destiny. That was my first major epiphany: I was weak because I wasn’t in control of myself. Melanie was in control of herself. In order to be with somebody like her, to live a free life, not in a tenement or scheme on the breadline, or even a suburb and crippled with a lifetime of debt, I needed a free mind. I had to get control of myself.

His work began to receive recognition when he was granted day release to take part in an exhibition in Edinburgh. It soon won celebrity sponsorship, with prominent figures fixating on his portrayal of the life he had denied the man he killed, as well as his wider tendency to mutilate representations of celebrities in the name of art. Social recognition comes to provide a momentum of its own, sweeping him along in changes that are already underway, not least of all through his relationship with Melanie.

Much of all his change involves a changed relation to himself. Throughout the story, we see Begbie respond to situations through self-restraint, in full awareness of his inclination to lash out. This illustrates the continuity of his character, as the old impulses are marginalised rather than annihilated. What has changed is how he relates to himself and the world, with new concerns leading to an eery distance from the social world which formed him.

To the outside world, such a change is baffling. It comes from nowhere and invites accusations of insubstantiality. An accusation that has a kernel of truth given that he is still the same person, he simply orientates himself to the world in a different way. But there were moments in his past in which he sought change:

Ah’m just no feelin it, he says, recalling slivers of alcohol-fuelled violence, bonhomie and shagging. Then the long periods in between, of being stuck in a cell. Coming out. A fresh start. A new bird. Big plans. Resolutions made.

Then another wide cunt. Another incident.

Rather than a life time of stasis being followed by a sudden change, we can instead see his life as involving a whole sequence of impeded attempts to change. Frustrated attempts to become something other than he was, lacking both external guidance and the conditions within which he might enjoy success. For all its flaws as a novel, The Blade Artist captures the dynamism inherent in becoming who we are, the constant activity at work even when people fail to outwardly change and the possibility of significant transformation which always remains latent within them. In the end do we really change? The Blade Artist would suggest not but does so in a way that reminds us of the limitations of treating fictional portrayals as akin to qualitative data.

From The Mediated Construction of Reality, by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, loc 2896-2912:

While there are only so many bodies of a certain size that can fit into a finite space –there are certain natural limits to spatial packing, beyond which the attempt to pack just has to stop (otherwise, bodies get crushed) –the same is not true in time: there is literally no limit to how many messages, each sent in a non-synchronous mode, can ‘be there together’ in one’s inbox, each requiring response ‘now’ across a range of communicative platforms. The situation is very different with white noise, where countless signals cancel each other out so that nothing distinct can be heard. The challenge of communication overload is that each message can be heard –as the carrier of a distinct meaning –yet it cannot be attended to, since the time required for doing so is lacking. In this way, contemporary arrangements for communication tend to generate time-packing demands on individuals, from moment-to-moment, which along with the related of communicative obligations they can never, in principle, fulfil.

‘thin time’ where there is no wider normative framework for ordering action-sequences relative to each other. But they are deeply problematic in ‘thick’ time, or what Robert Hassan (2003, p. 233) calls ‘network time’, that is, ‘digitally compressed clock-time’ in which the temporal calibration of obligations within particular figurations is intensified. The contemporary workplace and the social relations of those periods of intense change in one’s social networks (such as adolescence or early adulthood) are likely to be periods of ‘thick time’ when the burden of communicative obligations left unfulfilled due to time-deficits is felt more strongly (Turkle, 2011). Problems of coordination in periods of ‘thick time’ become potential problems for any wider figurational order.

In The Mediated Construction of Social Reality, Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp take issue with the primacy of face-to-face interaction that has so often been assumed within social thought. Our embodied interaction is taken to be primary, often assumed to be unmediated, with the mediation of interaction through technology seen as additional to it. From loc 697:

Berger and Luckmann, as was common in sociology for a long time, wrote as if there is first face-to-face ‘everyday life’ and then there is a supplement: what we do, technologically, to mediate that everyday life. This was hardly true through most of human history, at least since the discovery of writing, but today it would simply be bizarre to ignore how the reality of everyday life is inseparably linked with media, when supermarket checkouts read our credit cards with our personal data, when our everyday communication happens to a high degree via mobile devices, platforms and interactive systems, and when children learn to play through the means of internet-connected tablets. Under these circumstances it makes no sense at all to think of everyday reality as a ‘pure experience’ that can be contrasted with a (somehow secondary) ‘mediated experience’. Everyday reality, from the beginning, is in many respects mediated, which means that the complex social world of interconnections constructed from everyday life’s foundations is mediatized.

Much rests on how we conceptualise face-to-face interaction. If we demarcate it as a sphere of interaction which is in some sense given, it obscures the role of media in shaping such interactions and how these interactions in turn contribute to the shaping of media. As they write on loc 632:

We cannot analyse the social world via a simple division between ‘pure’ face-to-face communication and a separate presentation of the world to us ‘through’ media. Many of the communicative practices by which we construct our social world are media-related ones. Our daily communication comprises much more than direct face-to-face communication: mediated communication –by television, phones, platforms, apps, etc. –is interwoven with our face-to-face communication in manifold ways. Our face-to-face interaction is continuously interwoven with media-related practices: while we talk to someone, we might check something on our mobile phones, get text messages, refer to various media contents.

The challenge lies in conceptualising such interweaving. If we see interaction as constituted through its mediation, it becomes difficult to unpick how particular interactions might be shaped in particular ways by particular media. This is why I think a causal powers approach to media could be so valuable, even if it’s currently rather underdeveloped. This is what I think Couldry and Hepp do, albeit using a different terminology, in their analysis of longer term processes of mediatization. Each of these four changes, discussed on loc 918, make specific claims about how the causal powers of media facilitate the emergence of new dynamics in face-to-face interaction:

But, unimaginably for Schutz or anyone writing up to the 1980s, even our mediated communication can have enhancements which make them closer in specific responses to the face-to-face communication; for instance, video calls with simultaneous text messaging and email stream, enabling two parties to share simultaneous focused attention on the same external communicative stream, that is, an email attachment or website (contrast the simple phone call). A second deepening is the embedding not just of particular communicative streams into everyday life, but of the inputs from past communications (continuous streams of information from both Mitwelt and Umwelt): think of the feedback loop that operates when, while communicating with somebody else face to face, we are also checking information on earlier interactions on our smartphone, involving other communication partners. We are involved in a ‘multi-level’ construction of the social world, acting on various ‘levels’ of communication at the same time. Third, and also unimaginable to Schutz, is the already discussed continuous availability of media as a current resource in face-to-face communication, from showing pictures on one’s digital device to the use of video even in the most intimate of settings. And fourth, we are living through an integration of all these three shifts into the habits and norms of all communicative behaviour, both face to face and mediated. Increasingly we expect that our comments and gestures can be mediated for future commentary, circulation, etc., unless, that is, we insist they should not be re-circulated (Tomlinson, 2007, pp. 94–123).

A disturbing scenario from John Urry’s What is the Future? From loc 2996-3045:

The final scenario involves the development of the Fortress City. Rich societies break away from the poorer into fortified enclaves. Those able to live in gated and armed encampments would do so, with much privatizing of what were, in many societies, public or collective functions (Davis 2000; Graham 2011; Leichenko, Thomas, Baines 2010: 142). Outside the enclaves would be ‘wild zones’ which the powerful would pass through as fast as possible. Systems of long-range mobility would only be available for the super-rich. Bauman maintains that one key technique of power is: ‘escape, slippage, elision and avoidance, the effective rejection of any territorial confinement’ –to have the power to avoid being trapped by others, to escape into ‘sheer inaccessibility’ (2000: 11). There are many examples of such elites exiting from where obligations would be extracted. The elite, we can suggest, are increasingly ‘absentee landlords’ with potential for exit mobility, if and when the ‘going gets tough’ (Bauman 2000: 13; Urry 2014a).

This future involves ‘fortressed’ walled cities and an extensive ‘security-ization’ of populations, similar in some ways to cities in the medieval period which provided protection against raiders, invaders and diseases. Those outside the enclaves would be unable or unwilling to travel far. Long-distance travel would be risky and probably only undertaken if people or machines were armed. The rich would mainly travel in the air in armed helicopters or light aircraft, a pattern already prefigured in contemporary Sao Paulo, as noted above (Budd 2013; Cwerner 2009). Futurists Gallopin, Hammond, Raskin and Swart thus argued: ‘the elite retreat to protected enclaves, mostly in historically rich nations, but in favoured enclaves in poor nations, as well …Pollution is also exported outside the enclaves, contributing to the extreme environmental deterioration induced by the unsustainable practices of the desperately poor and by the extraction of resources for the wealthy’ (1997: 34). 

Such an energy-and knowledge-starved city would entail falling standards of living, a greater focus upon the ‘products’ of the increasingly privatized security industry, probable re-localization of mobility patterns, towns and cities built for visitors deteriorating into ghost towns, and an increasing frequency of resource-related ‘new wars’ (Kaldor, Karl, Said 2007). These would involve private mercenaries as well as statist military forces; de-professionalized armies (sometimes made up of ‘boys’); the use of cheap weapons bought through the market/ internet; an asymmetry of military force with no fixed ‘fronts’ or treaties and peace processes; the military targeting of civilians through, inter alia, suicide bombing and drone attacks; the role of warlords combining entrepreneurial and military skills; and the tendency for such wars to last interminable periods of time. Lives in the Fortress City would be conducted with the continuous spectre of warfare, the militarization of young men and the raping of women and girls as constant threats to a decent life. 

This is a ‘neo-Mediaevalist’ vision of cities of the future. As in the Middle Ages, there would be little democracy, limited state power to govern legitimately, many non-state bodies with a mix of military and ideological powers, much illegal movement of peoples across borders, various empires, many new wars and intense conflict over scarce resources. City lives would be as in Hobbes’ Leviathan: ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Lovelock points to the ‘peaking’ of oil, gas and water, as well as ‘western life’ more generally. Shortages will make economic production and social lives more local than appeared likely during the increasingly mobile twentieth century (see Chapter 3 above).

From I Hate The Internet: A Novel pg 189-190:

Like Ray Kurzweil, who Christine identified with Dolos, the Greek spirit of trickery and guile. Ray Kurzweil was the king of technological liberation theology. Or, in other words, he was king of the most intolerable of all intolerable bullshit. He believed in a future where computers would reach a moment of technological singularity. The technological singularity was a bullshit phrase invented by the Science Fiction writer Vernor Vinge. 

The technological singularity was the name for a theoretical moment in the future when computers would achieve a critical mass of artificial intelligence and wake up and change everything. The way that computers would change everything is by emerging into consciousness and telling people like Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge that they were fucking awesome. The computers and Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge would hang out and kick back and rule the universe forever. 

This is not an exaggeration. This is what Ray Kurzweil believed. This bullshit was reported by major American media outlets. This bullshit was taken as gospel by cub reporters who did not understand regular old intelligence, let alone intelligence crafted by man. So Ray Kurzweil was the god of lies. Who would deny the puissance of a man who thought that his computer was going to wake up and hang out with him and tell him he was awesome? Everyone in Silicon Valley loved Ray Kurzweil. He was their High Priest of Intolerable Bullshit. He was the Seer of Pseudoscience. He worked for Google. He was a director of engineering.

In his wonderful memoir, Adults In The Room, Yanis Varoufakis reflects on the frustrations of politics and how they compare to academia. From loc 5504:

Possibly because of my academic background, this was the Brussels experience I least expected and found most frustrating. In academia one gets used to having one’s thesis torn apart, sometimes with little decorum; what one never experiences is dead silence, a refusal to engage, a pretence that no thesis has been put forward at all. At a party when you find yourself stuck with a self-centred bore who says what they want to say irrespective of your contribution to the conversation, you can take your glass and disappear to some distant corner of the room. But when your country’s recovery depends on the ongoing conversation, when there is no other corner of the room to retreat to, irritation can turn into despair –or fury if you grasp what is really going on: a tactic whose purpose is to nullify anything that is inimical to the troika’s power.

I found it fascinating to read this. Since encountering this paper by Richard French a few years ago, I’ve been interested in the implicit conceptions of politics which animate the publicly-orientated activity of academics. How do they think power works? How do they think problems are solved? How do they think challenges are negotiated? It seems as if Varoufakis’s intellectual interests (particularly game theory and political economy) left him well attuned to the dynamics of power but his nostalgia for academia certainly resonates with what French argues here:

Many academics misunderstand public life and the conditions under which policy is made. This article examines misconceptions in three major academic traditions—policy as science (e.g., ‘evidence-based policy’), normative political theory, and the mini-public school of deliberative democracy—and argues that the practical implications of each of these traditions are limited by their partial, shallow and etiolated vision of politics. Three constitutive features of public life, competition, publicity and uncertainty, compromise the potential of these traditions to affect in any fundamental way the practice of politics. Dissatisfaction with real existing democracy is not the consequence of some intellectual or moral failure uniquely characteristic of the persona publica, and attempts to reform it are misdirected to the extent that they imagine a better public life modeled on academic ideals.

What does it mean for policy to be insulated from politics? That’s the question we ultimately confront when investigating the putative depoliticisation of the economy. Matters which should be publicly resolved, through organised processes of contestation, instead get decided privately. We can cite examples of such transitions, consider whether they embody a broader tendency and offer explanations which account for this direction of travel.

However I’ve often wondered about the micro-social aspects of such a transition, specifically how policy makers make sense of this depoliticisation. Is it a naked power grab? Is it a response to the vagaries of the electorate? Is it an attempt to address issues of socio-economic change which are seen as being impossible to raise with the public?  Yanis Varoufakis offers a partial answer to these questions in his gripping accounts of Eurogroup negotiations in his political memoir Adults In The Rooms. From loc 4202

As he spoke, Schäuble directed a piercing look at Sapin. ‘Elections cannot be allowed to change economic policy,’ he began. Greece had obligations that could not be reconsidered until the Greek programme had been completed, as per the agreements between my predecessors and the troika. The fact that the Greek programme could not be completed was apparently of no concern to him. What startled me more than Wolfgang Schäuble’s belief that elections are irrelevant was his total lack of compunction in admitting to this view. His reasoning was simple: if every time one of the nineteen member states changed government the Eurogroup was forced to go back to the drawing board, then its overall economic policies would be derailed. Of course he had a point: democracy had indeed died the moment the Eurogroup acquired the authority to dictate economic policy to member states without anything resembling federal democratic sovereignty.

I happened to be reading this page of Yanis Varoufakis’ political memoir a few moments before Macron’s near certain victory was announced. From loc 3398:

Emmanuel Macron listened actively and engaged directly, his eyes radiant and ready to display his approval or disagreement. The fact that he had good English and a grasp of macroeconomics as well meant we were soon on the same page regarding Europe’s need for a genuine investment programme that would put its trillions of idle savings to work for the collective good. From my first meeting with him, I regretted dearly that it was Sapin who represented France in the Eurogroup and not Macron. Had they swapped roles, things might have ended up differently.

From loc 4308:

only one Frenchman was lending moral support, Emmanuel Macron, the French economy minister. Having no seat in the Eurogroup himself, he had called to wish me well just as I was stepping into the meeting. During the negotiations over the communiqué he sent me regular requests for updates. What was my feeling? How was the meeting going? I replied that I was prepared to bend over backwards to make a decent communiqué possible. ‘The first draft was appalling, let’s hope that they will not prove ridiculously stubborn,’ I texted him. At 10.43 Emmanuel responded, advising me to keep cool and seek a compromise but only if they moved in our direction. At 11.02 I texted back, ‘They are pushing us out of the door … They wanted to roll me into a communiqué that not even Samaras would have signed.’

Soon after becoming Finance Minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis found himself surrounded by civil servants whose loyalties he could not assume and staff parachuted in by a political party with which he had little prior affiliation. In his political memoir, Adults In The Room, he recounts his impulse to find “a minder whose loyalties would not be shared with any of my new Syriza comrades, let alone the deputy PM”. He turned to an old friend from university to serve this purpose, describing on loc 2873 the risks he sought protection from:

‘To keep me out of jail, Wassily,’ I replied. He understood. Ministers of finance are at the mercy of their minders. They sign dozens of documents, decrees, contracts and appointments daily. It is humanly impossible to examine closely everything they sign. All it takes is a hostile or absent-minded aide, and suddenly the minister faces the wrath of the public or a summons to court.

What is the danger here? The pace at which he is forced to work, the number of documents which he must formally assess, preclude a meaningful engagement with their content. This is something which could be exploited by those able to exercise an influence over what goes into his in-tray. The specific risks he faced were unique to his role as Finance Minister, as well as the times and circumstances under which he served.

However is there a broader lesson here about distraction and culpability? To what extent do our moral and legal notions of culpability rest on an assumption of the considered evaluation of our actions? If this is the case, it follows that distraction is something which political philosophers ought to take seriously. It has consequences at the moral level, in terms of how we attribute responsibility to persons. But it is also something we should consider in legal terms, if the attribution of culpability rests on assumptions about the socio-temporal conditions for evaluation which were absent in practice.

There’s a helpful summary on Wikipedia of the degrees of culpability recognised in criminal law in the United States:

  • A person causes a result purposely if the result is his/her goal in doing the action that causes it,
  • A person causes a result knowingly if he/she knows that the result is virtually certain to occur from the action he/she undertakes,
  • A person causes a result recklessly if he/she is aware of and disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk of the result occurring from the action, and
  • A person causes a result negligently if there is a substantial and unjustifiable risk he/she is unaware of but should be aware of.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culpability

If we accept the argument that distraction is socially and culturally produced, should this lead us to qualify the third and fourth dimensions of culpability? I want to sustain the argument that recklessness and negligence are in an important sense liable to be produced systematically, even if it remains extremely difficult to quantify such a claim. What does distraction mean for political theory and political philosophy?

In his political memoir, Adults In The Room, Yanis Varoufakis recounts a meeting with Larry Summer which took place in April 2015. Only months into his tenure as Finance Minister, he looked to this architect of the neoliberal world order for support as hostilities with European leaders over Greece’s fiscal future rapidly intensified. Coming straight from a meeting at the IMF in Washington, Varoufakis was met with an immediate warning from Summers that he had “made a big mistake”. This began a long conversation which ended with a fascinating warning. From loc 1050:

Finally, after agreeing our next steps, and before the combined effects of fatigue and alcohol forced us to call it a night, Summers looked at me intensely and asked a question so well rehearsed that I suspected he had used it to test others before me. 

‘There are two kinds of politicians,’ he said: ‘insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions. The insiders, for their part, follow a sacrosanct rule: never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do. Their reward? Access to inside information and a chance, though no guarantee, of influencing powerful people and outcomes.’ With that Summers arrived at his question. ‘So, Yanis,’ he said, ‘which of the two are you?’

When reading of this exchange in a review of the memoir, I immediately thought back to a story Elizabeth Warren had told about an encounter with Summers in a Washington curry restaurant early in her move from academia to politics. Upon purchasing Varoufakis’s book, I found that I wasn’t the only person to notice this parallel and be fascinated by it. As he recounts in an end note to the book:

A few months after I had resigned the ministry, my good friend and academic colleague Tony Aspromourgos, upon hearing about my exchanges with Larry Summers, confirmed my suspicion when he sent me this quotation from Senator Elizabeth Warren, documented in 2014: 

Late in the evening, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice … He teed it up this way: I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People –powerful people –listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: they don’t criticize other insiders. I had been warned. John Cassidy (2014), ‘Elizabeth Warren’s Moment’, New York Review of Books, Vol. 61 (no. 9), 22/ 5–4/ 6/ 14, pp. 4–8.

Could this be seen as the professional socialisation of technocratic elites? Does Summers engage in a particularly practiced and performative example of something which takes a cruder form elsewhere? Does he particularly focus on those like Varoufakis and Warren who have moved from the academy to politics? As he reflects on loc 156, the technocratic oath is something which transcends agreements of strategy and analysis:

We spoke the same economic language, despite different political ideologies, and had no difficulty reaching a quick agreement on what our aims and tactics ought to be. Nevertheless, my answer had clearly bothered him, even if he did not show it. He would have got into his taxi a much happier man, I felt, had I demonstrated some interest in becoming an insider. As this book’s publication confirms, that was never likely to happen.

In his Debating Humanity, Daniel Chernilo compares the approaches taken by Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt to the question of thinking. Both began with the philosophical tradition’s opposition between thinking and action: in this sense it implies withdrawal in some sense, relative to a world of activity. However Heidegger saw this thinking as an activity for the chosen few. From pg 80:

For Heidegger, on the contrary, it is defined in terms of the fundamental realisation that thinking is exclusively to do with thinking itself. Thinking is the professional craft of the philosopher; the slow, painful and authoritative listening to the great minds of the past in a process that leads to understand the one idea that a genuine thinker may be able to develop over the course of a lifetime.

This is a radically slow conception of thinking. So slow as to preclude the vast majority of humanity from truly engaging in it. The human disappears in Heidegger’s conception of thought, as the irrelevant site through which thought occurs. His approach to thinking entailed that we leave out the thinker, as thought itself proceeds on a level which is entirely independent of the one who thinks. In contrast, Arendt casts thinking in a thoroughly quotidian frame as “the internal dialogue of a thinking ego that is directed to objects in the world”, ascribing to this “general anthropological capacity of stop and think” the ability of humans “not only to regain some control over their lives but to creatively envisage something that is new” (pg. 80). It is, as Chernilo puts it, “precisely the human quality of thinking that makes thinking worthy of attention” for Ardent (pg. 81).

What caught my imagination about Chernilo’s account is his contrast between the worldliness of Arendt’s conception of thought in contrast to the worldlessness of Heidegger’s. This distinction is one we could usefully apply to contemporary debates on distraction, distinguishing between what I think are two clear tendencies:

  • Constructing ‘distraction’ in terms of a lost past, contrasting the attentional commitment presumed to have once been possible with the fragmentation assumed to define the life of the contemporary mind. What was one slow has become fast, what was once quiet has become loud and human beings (or in some cases only ‘millennials’) are seen to have undergone a process of loss.
  • Constructing ‘distraction’ as a practical impediment to the capacity to withdraw from the world so as to reflect on it. Distraction is cashed out in terms of specific impediments to thought, inviting us to consider what withdrawal actually means and the socio-temporal conditions which can facilitate it.

If we reject the former in favour of the latter, it no longer seems plausible to frame ‘distraction’ in epochal terms. Perhaps more importantly, we can begin to explore the socio-temporal and socio-technical conditions within which we ‘stop and think’, as well as how we can individually and collectively exercise an influence over them. We must insist on worldliness in how we characterise the life of the mind. Or at the very least I should finally get round to reading this book I’ve intended to for years.

Ever since I was a philosophy student, I’ve been interested in how we conceptualise individuals and groups. The two are connected in my mind because, if groups are composed of individuals, our concept of individuals is going to condition our concept of groups and vice versa. However discussion at this level of abstraction can seem remote from the real world. In fact this is what led me away from philosophy and into sociology when I encountered it as a masters student. But this wasn’t my rejecting a focus on concepts as much as a desire to see how those concepts operate in the world.

I was thinking of these issues again when reading Jana Bacevic’s From Class To Identity, a study of education reforms in former Yugoslavia. How we conceptualise agency is a key concern of the book from the outset at the level of its object (claims about groups are a crucial factor in educational reform) and its explanatory framework (claims about groups are crucial to explaining the link between education and conflict). For instance “linear, one dimensional or causal explanations” such as “educational discourses -> exclusionary identities -> war” make (inadequate) assumptions about agency while being “hardly helpful in the understanding of the dynamics between education and conflict” (pg 7). Agency is often left unexamined in such processes, particularly when researchers are examining trends at the macro-social level. From pg 9:

Consider, for instance, practices of military recruitment: going into the army (in countries without mandatory conscription) is frequently the choice of people who come from poor, discriminated or otherwise marginalized backgrounds. Knowing the ubiquitous (and at least partially causal) connection between education, income and social status, it is both reasonable and empirically sustainable to assume that these people also happen to have lower educational levels. But do they go to war because they are not educated? Or do they go to war because they are poor and marginalized, so enlisting may give them an opportunity to earn (legally or illegally) wealth, security, and status they could otherwise not hope to attain?

If we fail to recognise the role of agency in such dynamics, we render the political opaque. From pg 17-18:

In other words, instead of the teleological understanding of the political dynamics of the Western Balkans as progress towards European integration and away from the communist past, this book will aim to bring the political back into the analysis of policymaking. In this context, the notion of “political” is closest to the meaning in which theorists such as Chantal Mouffe (2005, 1993), Ernesto Laclau (1994), and Jacques Ranciere (e.g. 2010) utilize it (cf. Ruitenberg 2011, 98). This means understanding politics as a place of, and for, the challenging, contestation, transformation and deliberation of different ideologies related to what constitutes a good society, who should rule it, and how its benefits should be distributed.

Treating agency in the abstract is not a retreat from the political but rather a precondition for its adequate exploration. Claims about individuals and groups are fundamentally contestable, if not necessarily contested, constituting vectors through which political struggle is pursued. The success of such strategies leads their advocates to leave the stage, with the results of their scheming appearing to be self-evident and incontestable. But these deploy particular understandings of individuals and groups which exercise a causal influence through their embedding in policy agendas and organisational processes. From pg 19:

Rather than a self understood and “natural” part either of dealing with the communist legacy, or of European integration of the region, then, policy agendas and particular decisions are seen as fundamentally political, in the sense in which they actively engage in creating, constructing, defining, organizing, using and mobilizing, or, alternatively, suppressing, containing, manipulating and controlling particular political and group identities.

We face a challenge in distinguishing between these various claims about agency, the social processes through which they are rendered natural and the real properties and powers of agents in virtue of which they are able to pursue or contest such claims. Abstraction is crucial to meeting this challenge because it allows us to distinguish between individual/groups and the claims made about them. In part this is a matter of theoretical literacy, ensuring we have the vocabulary we need in order to draw these distinctions, preventing us from getting tied up in the discursive contest and letting the world which is being contested slip away from us. But it’s also concerned with the reality of the agents themselves, their characteristics and capacities, the contexts that have shaped them and how they’ve shaped those contexts.

Earlier this morning, I found myself impatiently waiting in my local petrol station to purchase a drink before I went swimming. The woman in front me in the queue was rather slow. Initially seeming surprised that money would be required for the transaction, she proceeded to initiate an entirely different process to locate her coins after handing over the necessary notes. Having completed the exchange, she gathered her things with a similar lack of pace, slowly preparing to leave the shop. It was at that point that she gently chided me for rushing her, suddenly leaving me aware that this was in fact what I was doing by impatiently lingering while effectively pointing towards the cashier with my drink.

With this newfound awareness, my irritation at her transmuted into an irritation with myself. Why was I being so impatient? Why was I being needlessly rude? It immediately occurred to me that this was an example of what I mean by cognitive triage. Having woken up later than planned, I started the day with a vivid sense of all the tasks I had to complete, with one leading in sequence to the next. There were a couple of things that had to be done today but this sense of urgency mostly reflected a desire to be on top of things before I headed off to the midlands for the rest of the week.

It was an anticipatory urgency: a haste animated by the fear of falling behind in the future. This can be distinguished from rushing to meet a deadline. The imminent arrival of a deadline offers a fixed temporal horizon for an activity. One rushes and then ceases to rush. In contrast, anticipatory urgency is potentially open-ended. If an upcoming event is a threat to ‘being on top of things’ then where to draw the line in terms of what is required to be prepared? My suggestion is that anticipatory urgency engenders a peculiarly hasty form of haste. It involves rushing in a rushed way. Not simply speeding up to meet a deadline but trying to speed up one’s speeding up. How much can I get done before I go away? How prepared do I need to be? It’s a reflexive orientation that can bring out the worst in people, as my rudeness in the garage illustrates.

There is a pleasure in speed, as Milan Kundera powerfully captures in his Slowness. There is the possibility of transcendence. On pg 3-4 he describes the inner experience of a man on a motorbike:

the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instance of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy. In that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

In contrast, I’d argue, anticipatory urgency precludes this. One is not cut off from past and future but profoundly implicated in the relationship between the two. The present is subordinated the future, with the usual texture of temporality being reduced to an endless sequence of moments. Each one is simply a challenge lying in the way of reaching the next. It creates flat time. This suppression of relationality is licensed by the promise that the important events will come and our anticipatory urgency will have left us properly open to them. But the more time we spent in a state of anticipatory urgency, the less likely it is that this promise will ever be realised.

What does social media mean for academic writing? Most answers to this question focus on how such platforms might constrain or enable the expression of complex ideas. For instance, we might encounter scepticism that one could express conceptual nuance in 140 characters or an enthusiasm for blogging as offering new ways to explore theoretical questions beyond the confines of the journal article. However these discussions only rarely turn to writing in a more biographical sense, as a recurrent activity which is both personally meaningful and professionally necessary.

Social media is certainly offering us more occasions for writing. The most obvious form this takes is the personal blog, providing one with a platform for exploration whenever we are taken by the feel of an idea worth exploring. However I suspect that many academics who sustain a personal blog do so because it serves a purpose prior to writing, serving as a common-place book or ideas garden. In such cases, the time spent blogging serves as a preparation for writing, even if it is sometimes an oblique one. There is no necessary tension here between blogging and writing, even if sometimes the former can hinder the latter, for instance when the familiarity of the blog draws us away from more formal writing that might not be going well.

What about online writing that doesn’t serve this preparatory function? In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the challenge of ephemera increasingly confronting academics. I mean ephemera in the literal sense of “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time”. Long-established examples include book reviews, newsletter articles and short pieces in magazines. With the growth of social media, we are seeing a rapid expansion in opportunities to produce such ephemera. Multi-author blogs and online magazines will often be sources of invitations to write, as well as offering opportunities for this to qualified parties who are seeking them out. Such writing rarely constitutes much of a commitment in its own terms. One of many reasons I enjoy writing of this sort is that the usual temporal horizon rarely exceeds a few hours work. For instance, it might take a while to read a book for review but not to write the review itself.

To call ephemera a ‘challenge’ may be misleading. In many ways, I remain convinced this is an opportunity, for the enjoyment of intellectual richness and diversity at the level of both individual scholars and scholarly communities. But unlike blogging in the preparatory sense discussed above, it can often take away from time and energy available for ‘real’ writing. The number of opportunities can itself prove problematic, as invitations and inclinations lead to over-commitment in the face of this abundance. For instance, in the next couple of weeks, I’m supposed to write an article for a magazine, a book review for a blog symposium, a blog post for a newspaper and a piece of sociological fiction for a zine. If I’m being realistic, it seems unlikely I’ll complete them all and thus the writing that was chosen rather than invited is likely to fall by the wayside. Though I think it’s a shame that I experience this as in some sense a distraction, despite my enthusiasm for the planned pieces. Much of this is related to journal articles, as things I should be writing but feel little inclination to, leaving it hard not to see a distance from academia as involving a gain rather than a loss of intellectual freedom.


A subsequent conversation made me think back to Richard Rorty’s remark about universities enabling one to “read books and report what one thinks about them”. Is the promise of ephemera a matter of keeping in touch with this aspiration within a university system which militates against its realisation?

In Solar, by Ian McEwan, we encounter the weary figure of Michael Beard, the nobel laureate and serial womaniser who has long lived off his early contribution to theoretical physics. By the time he approaches his 60s, he is a chaotic and directionless man, nonetheless ubiquitously affirmed within the academy and beyond:

He held an honorary university post in Geneva and did no teaching there, lent his name, his title, Professor Beard, Nobel laureate, to letterheads, to institutes, signed up to international ‘initiatives’, sat on a Royal Commission on science funding, spoke on the radio in layman’s terms about Einstein or photons or quantum mechanisms, helped out with grant applications, was a consultant editor on three scholarly journals, wrote peer reviews and references, took an interest in the gossip, the politics of science, the positioning, the special pleading, the terrifying nationalism, the tweaking of colossal sums out of ignorant ministers and bureaucrats for one more practical accelerator or rented instrument space on a new satellite, appeared at giant conventions in the US – eleven thousand physicists in one place! – listened to post-docs explain their research, gave with minimal variation the same series of lectures on the calculations underpinning the Beard-Einstein Conflation that had brought him his prize,awarded prizes and medals himself, accepted honorary degrees, and gave after-dinner speeches and eulogies for retiring or about-to-cremated colleagues. (pg. 14)

This is a man who enjoys celebrity, “in an inward, specialised world”, leaving him able to drift “from year to year, vaguely weary of himself, bereft of alternatives” (pg. 14). He remains blissfully ignorant of the post-docs who work with him, neither having the inclination nor the energy to learn to differentiate them. He reasons that it is “better to treat them all the same, somewhat distantly, or as if they were one person” rather than “insult one Mike by resuming a conversation that might have been with the other, or to assume that the fellow with the ponytail and glasses, Scots accent and no wrist string was unique, or was not called Mike” (pg. 20). It was only after half a dozen trips to his research centre that he realised that the same post-doc had acted as driver each time. As he awaits the end of his fifth marriage, he relies on the incoming mail to offer him escape from the peculiar turgidity that privilege has brought to his life:

After morosely clinging to stupid hopes, he began to watch the post and emails for the invitation that would take him far away from Belsize Park and shake some independent life into his sorry frame. About half a dozen a week arrived throughout the year, but so far nothing had interested him among the inducements to give lectures on the shore of a plutocratic north-Italian lake, or in an unexciting German schloss, and he felt too weak and raw to discuss the Conflation before one more colleague-crowded conference in New Delhi or Los Angeles. He had no idea what he wanted, but he thought he would know it when he saw it. (pg. 22-23).

He often felt he had “coasted all his life on an obscure young man’s work, a far cleverer and more devoted theoretical physicist than he could ever hope to be” (pg. 50). Ironically, it was this very talent and devotion which led him to become the middle man plagued by “a certain mental deficiency, an emptiness, a restless boredom” that could only be obscured “by the daily round or sleep” (pg. 49). His intellectual engagement now more often entailed flipping through the Scientific American, perpetually distracted by his “lifetime’s habit” of being “inconveniently watchful for his own name” (pg. 49).

I described myself as an ‘academic technologist’ for a number of years. During my part-time PhD, I’d drifted into a number of roles which felt connected but which were difficult to summarise: training people to use NVIVO, writing digital scholarship resources, advising on CAQDAS strategy for research projects, running workshops about social media and maintaining social media feeds. Since then I’ve ceased to use the description, in part because I got sufficiently sick of talking about NVIVO that I resolved never to approach the topic again, but also because the term didn’t really seem to have much purchase. I rarely felt people understood what I meant by it. But unlike ‘digital sociologist’, their lack of understanding wasn’t coupled with some degree of interest in finding out.

Perhaps research technologist would have been a better term. This is what Andy Tattersall uses in a thought-provoking essay at the LSE Impact Blog. He identifies a strange lacunae which has also long-fascinated me: a proliferation of digital tools emerging from outside the academy, increasing numbers of technology startups focused on the academy, strategic investment in tools and platforms by institutions but specific features of academic labour which are hindering uptake:

Whilst this work is a great help to those aware of it, the reality is a majority of academics are either unaware of or unwilling to engage with the myriad tools and technologies at their disposal (beyond social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, ResearchGate, etc.). There are several reasons for this: workload and deadline pressures; fear of technology; ethical implications around their use and their application, especially when it comes to third party software; or too much choice.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/03/27/following-the-success-of-the-learning-technologist-is-it-time-for-a-research-equivalent/

I’d add to this that their engagement with social networking sites is inevitably shaped by the conditions of academic labour in ways which can prove detrimental. The research technologist, on Tattersall’s account, emerges to mediate between different stakeholders in these transformations and to help academics negotiate these changes in an effective way:

But with so many tools available, how do academics navigate their way through them? How do they make the connection between technology and useful application? And who helps them charter these scary, unpredictable waters?

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/03/27/following-the-success-of-the-learning-technologist-is-it-time-for-a-research-equivalent/

The parallel he draws is with the learning technologist: “this group of centralised, university-educated professionals help drive teaching innovations that are underpinned by technology”. As he describes the practical activity performed in such a role:

It would support research and its dissemination in the use of video, animation, infographics, social media, online discussion, mobile device use, and social networks, to name just a few technologies. The learning technologist applies pedagogical reasoning for their technology choices, and the research equivalent would need to assess the same considerations. Not only that but good communication skills, information literacy, and an understanding of data protection, ethics, and what constitutes a good technology – and how it can be applied to a specific research setting in a sustainable and timely manner – are all essential. For example, the use of video to disseminate research around speech therapy would potentially be more useful than an infographic. In the same way, an infographic published in a blog post might be a better way of conveying the results of a public health project.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/03/27/following-the-success-of-the-learning-technologist-is-it-time-for-a-research-equivalent/

On this understanding, I could easily be described as a research technologist who specialised in disseminating sociology. I have a broad acquaintance with the discipline, understand its different intellectual currents and am very familiar with the sociological sensibility that unites much of them. Someone operating in this role might step in to do the dissemination work on behalf of an individual or a project. But the intellectual familiarity also facilitates their entering into the project, in a relatively narrow capacity, in order to support and guide this activity. The point is not only to undertake the activity, it’s the capacity to work with researchers as they do this and to understand the practical challenges they face over and above the technology itself:

The reason why in-house support could benefit the practice and dissemination of research is that researchers are very pressured for time, and often don’t know what they need regarding research technologies and especially dissemination. Secondly, when they do know what they want, they often need it “as soon as possible”. These two problems are more solvable within the department, especially as researchers often don’t know where to go for specific help. The research technologist would be a designated, focused role, embedded within the department. They’d be a signpost to new ways of working, problem solving and, most importantly, be able to consider all issues of ethics and/or compliance when passing on advice.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/03/27/following-the-success-of-the-learning-technologist-is-it-time-for-a-research-equivalent/

This involves a familiarity with the issues encountered in technology use, rather than simply the tool or platform itself. Andy’s example of guiding researchers through the experience of dealing with hostility and abuse on Twitter is an excellent example. I really like his vision of “a kind of ‘Swiss Army knife’ professional, who can exploit the burgeoning number of opportunities afforded by the many new technologies out there” but I suspect I’ll still continue to call myself a digital sociologist for the time being.

Here’s a really interesting presentation by Matthew Dovey about the emergence of this role and the purpose it serves:

In his detailed study of Sartre’s rise to prominence as an authoritative public intellectual, Patrick Baert argues that the general intellectualism embodied by Sartre depended upon social conditions which no longer obtain. Such intellectuals “address a wide range of subjects without being experts as such” and speak “at, rather than with, their audience” (pg. 185). In doing so, they depend upon a broad support for intellectual life within society alongside a concentration of cultural and intellectual capital within a small elite. Without the hierarchy this gives rise to, one in which enough of the subordinate are invested, it cannot be tenable to pronounce with such perceived authority across such a broad range of subjects. This hierarchy is manifested both in educational institutions but also in the disciplines from which such general intellectuals emerge. However general intellectuals are not dependent upon these institutions, instead being able to leverage their authority into income from the media (non-fiction, print journalism, broadcast media) and often being able to rely on family wealth. The authority invested in their discipline, alongside “the confidence of the right habitus and an elite education” mean “they can speak to a wide range of social and political issues without being criticised for dilettantism” (pg. 185).

What led to their decline? Baert identifies numerous intellectual factors, including the emergence of theoretical movements which “questioned, if not undermined, the erstwhile superiority of philosophy over other vocabularies” (g. 185). The professionalisation of the social sciences facilitated the challenge of claims by philosophers about the social world which were effectively just bad sociology. Their expansion meant that there were now subject experts in areas upon which philosophers used to make pronouncements, implicitly or explicitly casting such outpourings of opinion as inadequate. Much as the authority of philosophy was undermined from within, so too was educational authority eroded from without as mass higher education contributed to a softening of the disjuncture between educational elite and the population at large. As Baert puts it, “with higher education also comes a growing scepticism towards epistemic and moral authority, an increasing recognition of the fallibility of knowledge and of the existence of alternative perspectives” (pg. 186). The declining acceptability of speaking at such public audiences was compounded by the erosion of the deferential attitudes which had previously characterised the media. Indeed, over time the media came to include subject experts who felt competent challenging the lauded experts.

Baert suggests that social media further intensifies this trend. He recognises that gatekeepers still exist online and that most bloggers have little audience. But nonetheless he argues that “the technology has made a difference, once which surely has further lessened the likelihood of authoritative public intellectuals” (pg. 186-187). In the place of such generalists, we see expert public intellectuals who resemble what Foucault described as the specific intellectual. Such figures “draw on their professional knowledge, whether derived from their research in the social and natural sciences, to engage with wider societal or political issues that go beyond their narrow expertise” (pg. 187). Their capacity to exert an influence rests on “intellect and acquired knowledge, and mastery of the inductive technology (observational skill, statistical methods, lab machinery etc.) to acquire or verify that knowledge” (pg 187-188). Dialogical public intellectuals often draw on the affordances of new technology to “get their message across” and position themselves against those who rely on traditional media, “emphasising how the new technologies permit frequent and intense interaction” (pg. 189). In doing so, they embody a prior trend towards more iterative and dialogical forms of engagement, constructing themselves as learning from their public while the public learn from them.

It’s striking how much less detailed Baert’s description of the latter category is compared to the preceding two. Indeed the only figure named is Michael Burawoy, in relation to his plea for public sociology rather than his performance of it. This intellectual self-presentation is something which investigation might reveal to be a self-marketing strategy for intellectuals seeking to stake out ground within an increasingly competitive marketplace of ideas, within which social media has removed barriers to entry while also generating a whole new arena of interaction through which to cultivate a relationship with one’s hoped for audience. To be fair to him, Baert perhaps recognises this, stressing that “the situation is often more complex than the bloggers themselves tend to acknowledge” and point out they will often continue to write for newspapers and magazines etc (pg. 189). But how seriously this claim to dialogical interaction should be taken is an empirical question. How much does this interaction shape their views? How much of this interaction do they respond substantively to? How long do they spend each week engaging in such interaction? Without substantive interaction, this dialogical relation is in part imagined, a constructed audience reproduced in the mind and reality through limited interaction with a small subset of it.

My suggestion is that social media is far more hospitable to the conditions of the general intellectual than Baert suggests. The intellectual self-presentation of the dialogical scholar, orientated towards extending their network and cultivating their online audience, represents a strategy conducive to success in the attention economy if they can balance this time-demanding pursuit with the exigencies of their day job. The increasing reliance of journalists, particularly freelancers, on social media for networking and research mean such figures will inevitably be invited to contribute to features and discussions beyond their area of expertise. Even if the dialogic public intellectual has a self-understanding grounded in circumscribed expertise, their digital footprint will inevitably push beyond this and lead others to tempt them still further.

In a way, this post is the latest part of an extended conversation with myself about whether to say ‘yes’ when I get asked to contribute to features on subjects I have opinions about but no expertise. To name some recent examples: selfie culture, conspiracy theories, algorithmic culture, hipsters, the meaning of tolerance. With one exception, I’ve always said ‘no’, largely out of caution. It’s possible there has been a misunderstanding, such that someone infers the existence of a trajectory of research from one blog post on a topic whereas actually that single blog post represents the sum total of my engagement. It’s also possible they’re made in relation to a university affiliation, something which I’m certain is the case with those last minute e-mails explaining the journalist has an imminent deadline and needs an expert quote taking an agreed stance to complete a nearly finished article.

But I suspect something more is going on, in which the price of admission to public platforms has changed from expertise to a capacity for cogency, a quickness in response and the willingness to comment. The invitations are there for generalists emerging from the academy, liable only to grow if they pursue even the most basic strategies of visibility and connection through social media. The rewards are there, in so far as such activity can be plausibly glossed as public engagement potentially generative of impact. The costs potentially faced by generalists are weak from within the academy, liable to be restricted to those who have an extremely high profile and thus counteract the anonymity of abundance or those who inadvertently provoke a controversy with ill-thought out statements on controversial topics that lead them to be held to account. Under such conditions, the reflexivity of the individual intellectual becomes key, something unlikely to change when the academy remains as fragmented as is currently the case.

What it means to be an intellectual is changing in an age of social media and we’ve yet to really get to grips with what this means.