I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies
And hypotheses can’t define how I be droppin’ these
Mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery
Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me
Battle-scarred shogun, explosion when my pen hits
Tremendous, ultra-violet shine blind forensics
I inspect view through the future see millennium
Killa Beez sold fifty gold sixty platinum
Shackling the masses with drastic rap tactics
I really liked this piece David Roberts on Vox, summarising Ezra Klein on the transformation of journalism. This is the context in which there’s a great unexplored potential for public sociology, as I’ve tried to argue:
The internet changed all that. There are no longer supply constraints — it is trivially cheap and easy to publish something on the web — and there are virtually no constraints left on the supply of information. Libraries are online. Government records are online. Every public figure’s every move is blogged or tweeted.
Two things follow. First, with supply constraints gone, there is no reason to confine web journalism to the length and formal constraints of journalism developed for paper. Any story can be as long as it needs to be, whether it’s 200 words or 2,000. Not every journalist must choose between the view-from-nowhere voice of the objective journalist and stale aphorisms of major newspaper editorial pages. There is room for a greater variety of length, form, tone, voice, and subject on the web.
And second, there’s more need for explanation. Because they were supply constrained, newspapers and newspaper journalists focused on what was new, what just happened, the incremental development. But lots of times, readers had no way of making sense of those developments or contextualizing them. They were getting the leaves, but they’d never gotten the trunk.
Especially as information and incremental developments explode in quantity, there is increasing public hunger for understanding — not so much what happened, but what it means.
The great question of our age is simply, WTF? WTF isn’t asking after what happened. It’s easy to find out what happened these days. Rather, it’s pointing at what happened and asking, well … WTF?
What’s the deal with that? How does it work? How good or bad is it, really? How does it connect with these other things? What can we learn from its history?
People want to know how the world works. They want to know why the things that are happening are happening. They don’t stop wanting to learn when they get out of school.
So journalism is inevitably shifting. These days, it is less about producing new information than it is about gathering information already on the record, evaluating it, and explaining and contextualizing it for an audience, perhaps with some analysis and argumentation for good measure.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s still plenty of information to be dug up. Investigative journalism still very much exists, though it is under-funded everywhere. I look on it with great admiration and some awe, but it’s not what I do. And though many are loathe to admit it, it’s not what most US journalists do these days.
It also has a lovely description of how to network without networking:
You should be interested in your subject. If you are, you will seek out people who know more than you and learn from them. You will share what you know with people who want to know more. You will trade stories with people engaged on the same subject. As a side effect, you will network. Let your curiosity be your guide.
The people who have come to my favorable attention over the years have done so because they ask smart questions, or point to information or sources I hadn’t seen, or connect me with other useful people. Whatever their roles or intentions, they know and care about the subject matter; they want to learn and they want to share what they know.
My notes on Maccarini, A. M. (2018). Trans-human (life-) time: Emergent biographies and the ‘deep change’in personal reﬂexivity. In Realist Responses to Post-Human Society: Ex Machina (pp. 138-164). Routledge.
One of the interesting features of the recent Centre for Social Ontology project on defending the human has been the realisation that many in the group are entirely open to the idea of trasnhumanism even while rejecting the notion of posthumanism. Andrea Macacarini draws the useful distinction between a post-human society (the radically other autonomous subjects, originally human or otherwise, as well as the ensuing social order emerging from them)and the trans-human change of human beings (transhumanization = processes through which an enduring and significant transition in human nature occurs, expanding their capacities and characteristics beyond the current species average), with the potential for each being found in two groups of phenomena: the inner transformation of humans through deep relationships with emerging technologies and the development of non-human and non-living entities which come to exhibit an apparently autonomous subjectivity. They are inevitably related in practice but need to be distinguished in principle because of the different relations they entail between (a) the relationship of human beings to emerging technological agents (b) how the character of human beings are changed by those relations. They lead, as Macacarini puts it, to a “criss of the idea of a human subject” with unique characteristics able to realise species-specific outcomes (pg 139).
His concern is with “conceivable forms of human enhancement that could lead to change human beings with respects to their species-specific features” in a way “affecting their self-awareness, self-understanding, and lifestyle”. However most account of these possibilities “begin with technological advancements and then work their way through the possible meanings, consequences, required adaptations, and side effects of such technical tools and developments on culture, society and human beings”. This means that social and cultural analysis is restricted to the consequence of these facts, as opposed to a sociological approach which entails treating “the post-human phenomenon as a fully social and cultural fact” i.e. the prior social and cultural factors which allow these technological developments to have the impact which they do (pg 140). He argues that we can identify prior social and cultural trends which anticipate transhuman tendencies, finding their expression in technological change but with origins that precede it. As he puts it, “deep change is taking place, building persons who conceive of themselves as ‘differently human’, and thereby come to perceive the ‘trans-humanizing’ techniques as desirable tools to fulfil their needs”. Doing so helps us move beyond the choice of siding with either “enthusiastic post-humanism or with worried humanist” whose concerns, as well as the space between them, “constitute the core matter of many studies” (pg 142).
He astutely identifies a ‘messianic hope in technology driven trans-humanization” underpinning “a hidden assumption, namely that post-human persons will represent the accomplishment of humans best dreams” (pg 144). This explains a certain optimism in the literature in response to problems he categorise as equality, collective survival and ontological dignity because post-humans are quietly assumed to retain and express the best of the human. Beyond the cognitive achievements and physical attributes of trans-humans what can we expect of their moral dispositions, deep identity and self-understanding? He makes this interesting methodological suggestion that the only way to address these questions is to “look into what humans are currently looking for when they seek self-enhancement, and why humans would want to become enhanced themselves” (pg 144).
He explores this through the notion of the biographical scheme, relevant because it is a point of intersection where structure and cultural condition the unfolding of the life-course. Biographical schemes organise our experience of temporality, integrating our activity and experience over time into a coherent whole which links our inner experience of time through to time in our relations with others and on to the outer sense of history unfolding. He discusses a number of temporal transformations which might contribute to this: social acceleration, timeless time (beyond human experience e.g. computing), no waiting culture (the immediacy of current concerns fade into a continuous present: “the quest for achieving well-being by overcoming temporal limits” as he puts it on pg 153), performance culture (ever increasing temporal efficiency). Under these conditions “human beings are increasingly requested to develop rapid decision making, an enhanced capacity for computation ,management of emotions, simultaneous consideration of many factors, the capacity to work and make good decisions under pressure, the aptitude for team work, creativity in looking for fresh solutions, and more” (pg 150). Coping with these pressure might be contingently compatible with transhuman enhancement, constituting a vector of change because these enhancements are liable to change the conditions e.g. by increasing the experienced competition which led people to use cognitive enhancers in the first place.
But what does this mean for human being? Macacarini draws on Archer’s conception of reflexivity over the life course, in which the necessity of selection (from available opportunities, as much as they might vary between people and across time and place) inevitably gives shape to a life as the accumulation of past-choices increasingly constraints future choices as the biological lifecourse unfolds. But this relies on the assumption of sequential experience (challenged by timeless time), locality (robotics and virtual reality), rhythmicity (challenged by performance culture and acceleration), irreversibility (challenged by emerging technologies such as anti-ageing innovations) and self-transcendence (challenged by longer lives and the experienced change of the social institutions through which self-transcendence was sought). If these changes are leading to a transhuman way to inhabit time then what does it mean for the ideals of living which intermingle with our approach to making our way through the world? He suggests the growth of “individuals who strive to ‘totalize’ themselves and to swallow as many simultaneous possibilities of action and experience as possible, rejecting any definite shape or enduring commitment” through their rejection of the necessity of selection (pg 159).
My notes on Burawoy, M. (2017). On Desmond: the limits of spontaneous sociology. Theory and Society, 46(4), 261-284.
The work of Matthew Desmond has won enormous acclaim in recent years, with Evicted being a book I recommend to anyone keen to understand the relevance of contemporary sociology. While recognising his talents as an ethnographer and writer, in this paper Michael Burawoy takes issue with the methodological approach advocated by Desmond, arguing that it represents a form of what Bourdieu called ‘spontaneous sociology’: a return to the naive empiricism of the Chicago school era that confines truth to the field site, presented in the guise of a theoretical revolution. Desmond has made the case that ethnographic practice reminds mired in substantialism, being left behind by what Andrew Abbott describes as a ‘quiet revolution’ in the social sciences: a relational turn which overcomes a dominant tendency where “the object of study is confined to isolated places, bounded groups and homogeneous cultures” as Burawoy summarises the case against substantialism on pg 263.
Nonetheless, Burawoy argues that Desmond struggles to identify examples of substantialist ethnography, with this purportedly dominant approach servicing to obscure the distinction between what Burawoy sees as the two forms of relational ethnography: “empiricist transactional ethnography and a theoretically-grounded structural ethnography” (pg 263). The former’s rejection of prior theory and comparison (the first seen as getting in the way of a pragmatic ontology of the field site by leaving the analyst bogged down in theoretical debates, the second as inevitably involving groups or places and thus substantialism) render it unable to grasp “forces beyond the field site that can only be explored with theoretical frameworks and comparative logic” as in structural ethnography (pg 263). Not only are the effects of wider structures circumscribed by this methodological stance, it goes hand-in-hand with a slide into “old style inductive ethnography in which sociological insights emerge spontaneously from the data”. As Burawoy continues on pg 264:
As a follower of Bourdieu, Desmond insists on the importance of constructing a scientific object that breaks with common sense. Yet his own ethnographies, far from breaking with the common sense of his participants, faithfully reproduce it. His objects of study, such as eviction, spring directly from the experience of his subjects, so that his work exemplifies what Bourdieu et al. (1991, p. 38) condemn, namely a hyperempiricism that abdicates the right and duty of theoretical construction in favour of spontaneous sociology. Paradoxically, the spontaneous sociology of Evicted makes it highly effective as a public sociology of exposé, but it comes at the cost of a critical perspective that would break with common sense and generate convincing policy proposals.
This slide follows from the rejection of comparison and past theory, falling back on the “the inductivist view that the field reveals insights in and of itself without explicitly engaging relevant literature, which is either dismissed as wrong-headed or ignored”: the ethnographer “mimics the experiences of those he studies” because the resources to facilitate an epistemological break (from common sense) in the construction of the research object have been discarded (pg 266). If I understand him correctly, Burawoy is concerned with the scholarly practice which makes this break possible. If you limit truth to what emerges from the field site then how do you ensure a distance from common sense? I’m not sure if Burawoy is saying it’s impossible but it’s certainly difficult. As he puts it on pg 276, “Desmond departs from Durkheim and Bourdieu for whom prior theorizing is essential for an epistemological shift, a shift from spontaneous sociology to scientific sociology”. In this sense, he’s saying Desmond’s approach runs counter to Bourdieu’s in spite of his invocation of it. He goes on to offer a clear summary of Bourdieu’s approach on pg 277:
Bourdieu’s epistemological break is based on a two-fold truth—the truth of the participant and the truth of the scientist between which there is an unbridgeable divide. That is to say, participants cannot connect their own world to the scientific understanding of the sociologist. In the game metaphor Bourdieu often deploys, players develop a commitment (illusio) to a taken-for-granted set of all absorbing and incontrovertible principles (nomos) governing the play of the game—while the scientist observing the game from without can see the conditions that make the game possible, conditions that are invisible to the players.
It follows from this that Bourdieu is “skeptical of participant observation, as it only reveals a partial truth, the subjective truth of the participant, unable of itself to reach an objective truth” (pg 278). Objectivity necessitates distance from the field site of precisely the sort which Burawoy claims Desmond’s approach precludes.
In the final part of the paper, Burawoy compares the Bourdieu’s public sociology to Desmond’s. The former was predicated on an “epistemological break with the epistemological break” that “establishes the conditions for a public sociology, a sociology that engages the public”, something which the insistence on distance from subaltern common sense had previously precluded (pg 279).The latter involves a “synergy of public and professional sociology, each bolstering and inspiring the other”, seen in Desmond’s scientific follow ups to Evicted and his copious scholarly end notes coupled with huge dissemination through popular media (pg 280). Unfortunately, argues Burawoy, it leads to poor policy sociology, producing recommendations which fail to grasp the broader dynamics in place. He writes on pg 281 of the wider social forces which “are invisible in Desmond’s account—forces that have to be unveiled and tackled if there is to be any solution to the housing problem”.
His objection is that “Desmond’s public sociology, important as it is, is limited to an exposé of the lived experience of housing insecurity”: it can’t get beyond the field site and hence is restricted to disseminating the common sense that is found there. This serves a purpose but it is a limited one. Burawoy ends with a call that resonates with me, stressing on pg 282 that the ‘underlying dilemma of ethnography’ is one of broader importance when the academic workplace is under threat: how do we relate to those we study?
Especially today, when the academic work- place is threatened by forces beyond, the underlying dilemma of ethnography—that we are part of the world we study—is pressingly germane to all social science and the academic world more generally. So we have to develop an understanding of our relation to those we study. We cannot confine ourselves to processes within the field site but must recognize how they are tied to the past and thus to the future, as well as to social forces that establish their conditions of existence. We cannot broach these problems without inherited bodies of knowledge—theories—that we continually reconstruct. That is what gives meaning and distinctiveness to sociology.
Reflecting on this a day later, I feel I should stress how much I like Matthew Desmond’s work. I regret the slightly click-baity header I gave these notes, though it does seem appropriate for the point Burawoy is making in his critique of Desmond’s cultivated atheoreticism. It would also be interesting to link up the argument Burawoy is making here to the critique Archer and Donati make of Mustafa Emirbayer’s relational sociology, as there’s a lot of overlap.
I am transforming
I am vibrating
I am glowing
I am flying
Look at me now
My notes on Yuill, S. (2005) Programming as Practice in J. Gibbons and K. Winwood, eds., Hothaus Papers: perspectives and paradigms in media arts, Birmingham: ARTicle Press.
What does it mean to program? In this intriguing paper Simon Yuill takes issue with responses to this question which reduce programming to a technical practice, reduced to its relationship to computer technology. He observes that the term derives from the Greek programma: ‘pro’ (coming in advance) and ‘Gramma’ (mark or line) meaning “a set of marks that ‘comes in advance’, anticipates and provides for something”. It’s a “form of mark-making that encodes and guides processes of production” sharing a common form with “architectural plans, music notation and textile patterns” (pg 87). In doing so, they also express aesthetics and new notional systems have been developed in order to facilitate aesthetic innovations. In this sense, if I understand him correctly, there’s an unavoidable relationship between the ‘programmatic practice’ and the cultural activity of which it is part. The notation itself can indicate technical possibilities which feed back into practice, as makers seek to realise a potential indicated by a notation system.
Programmatic practices record and communicative the assembly process of a cultural item, enabling that process to be “shared and communicated to others” (pg 88). As he puts it, “Where once craftsmen and architects would design directly into the artefacts they were creating, the introduction of programmatic practices enables designs to be produced in one location to be sent elsewhere and realised by other people”. For instance “Ibn Muqlah’s scripts were originally designed to facilitate the creation and use of written documents within the large bureaucratic system of the Abbasid empire” with their modular composition (I didn’t quite understand this: “the forms of letters were encoded according to a modular proportion based on a single dot”) “designed to increase reliability and ease of reproduction” so as to facilitate “transference of designs across distance and their continuation in use over time”. He uses the lovely expression, “the abstraction of design and plan from its realisation in any given medium” to conceptualise the possibilities opened up by this system of notation, including moving designs between media (pg 90).
The distance this affords and the reflection it encourages enables increasing complexity, though the artefact remains marked by the programmatic system on which it depends. He makes the fascinating observation that this underwrites structural distinctions, as occupational relations within organisations are determined by differing relationships to the programmatic systems e.g. “an architect and a builder, a composer and a performer, a designer and a weaver” (pg 88). This enables practices to spread, facilitating innovations to be communicated and standardised. As a corollary of this certain modes of encoding can come to be marked as legitimate, identifying a practitioner as an insider rather than an outsider or as belonging to a movement with a particular set of commitments. It is a deeply social process, by definition orientated towards others, not least of all because “encoding a process in an externalised exchangeable form” makes it possible for “that process to be inspected, analysed and critically reviewed” (pg 89). It also facilitates a movement “from poesis to praxis, from the immediate task of making to a more critically aware, self-reflexive interrogation of that task” (pg 89)
I found this article enormously thought-provoking, with its underlying argument being that “programming is not unique to computing” (pg 93) and that we miss the continuities which computer programming share with other forms of art practice if we fail to recognise this. New media facilitate an intensification and acceleration of programming practice, rather than marking a break with pre-existing forms (pg 94). Furthermore, the distinction between creators and users is breaking down due to the immense reactivity of the medium itself: the endless possibility for modification is not new but the ease and speed of modification is. This leaves us, Yuill argues, confronting programming as a site of ongoing production rather than the production of discrete artefacts. He ends by considering the new understandings of creativity and forms of creative practice these affordances might open up, liable to be missed if we remain fixated on the ‘technical’ character of programming. Much as other forms of programmatic practice are embedded in social structures, what is computer programming making possible and which of these possibilities are being realised?
There are many reasons to like Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends but the one I hadn’t expected was her depiction of theory anxiety:
I concluded that some kinds of reality have an unrealistic effect, which made me think of the theorist Jean Baudrillard, though I had never read his books and these were probably not the issues his writing addressed. (pg 28-29)
Afterwards I lay on my side with A Critique of Postcolonial Reason propped half-open on the pillow beside me. POCcasionally I lifted a finger to turn the page and allowed the heavy and confusing syntax to drift down through my eyes and my brain like fluid. I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me. (pg 94)
My notes on Andrejevic, M., Hearn, A., & Kennedy, H. (2015). Cultural studies of data mining: Introduction, European Journal of Cultural Studies 18(4-5), 379-394
In this introduction to an important special issue, Mark Andrejevic, Alison Hearn and Helen Kennedy that the ubiquity of data infrastructure in everyday life means that “we cannot afford to limit our thinking about data analysis technologies by approaching them solely as communication media” and offer a list of questions which we need to address:
what kinds of data are gathered, constructed and sold; how these processes are designed and implemented; to what ends data are deployed; who gets access to them; how their analysis is regulated (boyd and Crawford, 2012) and what, if any, possibilities for agency and better accountability data mining and analytics open up. (pg 380)
This creates a problem for cultural studies because data mining challenges established forms of representation, “promising to discern patterns that are so complex that they are beyond the reach of human perception, and in some cases of any meaningful explanation or interpretation”. It is not “not only a highly technical practice, it also tends to be non-transparent in its applications, which are generally privately owned and controlled”. It poses an ontological challenge to cultural studies, as well as epistemological and methodological ones. In the absence of access to the products of data mining, the authors suggest cultural studies is left theorising their effects.
If we approach data analysis technologies as communicative media, we miss a “shift away from interpretive approaches and meaning-making practices towards the project of arranging and sorting people (and things) in time and space” (pg 381). Data mining isn’t undertaken to understand the communication taking place, as much as to “arrange and sort people and their interactions”. They suggest that recent developments in social theory mirror this changing reality (pg 381-382):
Perhaps not coincidentally, recent forms of social and cultural theory mirror develop- ments in big data analytics; new materialism, object-oriented ontology, post-humanism and new medium theory – all of which are coming to play an important role in digital media studies – de-centre the human and her attendant political and cultural concerns in favour of a ‘flat’ ontology wherein humans are but one node, and perhaps not the most important, in complex networks of interactions and assemblages. Thus, analysis of the circulation of affects and effects rather than of meanings, content or representations, con- nected as they are to human-centred forms of meaning-making, has become a dominant trope in some influential current approaches to media. Such analyses tend to fashion themselves as anti-discursive in their rejection of a focus on representation and cognition and their turn towards bodies and things in their materiality (rather than their significa- tion).
They make the compelling argument that to “remain within the horizon of interpretation, explanation and narrative” can be a “strategic critical resource in the face of theoretical tendencies that reproduce the correlational logic of the database by focusing on patterns and effects rather than on interpretations or explanations” (pg 382). The promise of these new approaches to correct an excessively discursive focus risks an “over-correction” and a “view from nowhere” in which “the goal of comprehensiveness (the inclusion of all components of an endless network of inter-relations) tends towards a politically inert process of specification in which structures of power and influence dissipate into networks and assemblages” (pg 383). Pushing beyond human concerns too easily leads to ever more specific analyses which collapse the substance of interactions into their effects, leaving us with “no way of generating a dynamics of contestation and argument in a flat ontology of ever proliferating relations or objects” (pg 384).
This is not a claim that there is nothing beyond culture, but rather a reminder that invoking this beyond is intrinsically cultural and a call for “an interrogation of the embrace of a post-cultural imaginary within contemporary media theory” (pg 384). This imaginary often obscures the political economy of data infrastructure, compounding the existing tendency for the ‘virtual’ character of digital phenomenon to distract from their socio-economic materiality; for all their opacity, complexity and power they are just another phase in the technological development of human civilisation (pg 385). When we recognise this in becomes easier to reject the “celebratory presentism” and remember that “technological forms, and the rhetorics and analytic practices that accompany them, do not come from nowhere – they have histories, which shape and condition them, and inevitably bear the marks of the cultural, social and political conditions surrounding their production and implementation” (pg 385). They end this wonderful paper with a call to action which I’d like to explore in the digital public sociology book I’m writing with Lambros Fatsis (pg 393):
We need to develop new methodologies and new intellectual and critical competencies to tackle the embedded assumptions buried in the code and their political and cultural implications. Our ability to accomplish these things will require more than isolated scholarly effort; collaborative, politically engaged activist sensibilities will no doubt be required in order to push past the privatized digital enclosures and open up access to the algorithms, analytics, distributive regimes and infrastructural monopolies that are increasingly coming to condition the contours and substance of our daily lives.
My notes on Phelan, S., & Dawes, S. (2018, February 26). Liberalism and Neoliberalism. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Ed. Retrieved 18 Dec. 2018, from http://oxfordre.com/communication/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228613-e-176.
Liberalism and neoliberalism are nebulous categories, used in different ways to identify and disassociate from other identities. Liberalism has long been the hegemonic common sense of communications research while also being the explicit opponent for critical communications researchers, for whom it is a value system inseparable from capitalism. Neoliberalism in contrast is often seen as an antagonistic for both mainstream communications research and critical communications research. But it is complicated by some on the left collapsing the distinction them while some neoliberals are hostile to liberalism, seeing it as a front for left-wing values which are hostile to the free-market economy. The disagreement within these categories makes their meaning even more complex. For instance liberalism have been divided over matters such as the basis for autonomy, the significance of property rights and the legitimacy of state intervention, with the authors suggesting that ‘neoliberalism’ can be understood as “as a mark of difference from the political and ideological heterogeneity of the liberal tradition” now that a particular form of liberalism has become dominant. As the authors caution, “[l]ike the concept of liberalism, neoliberalism is therefore best theorized as a heterogeneous concept—the name for a cultural formation and ideology that escapes easy definition, because of its capacity to adapt to the political context and appropriate the fragments of other political ideologies and discourses”.
These nuances matter because they define the context in which the role of communications in social life are understood and politically evaluated. Conceptual distinctions have knock-on effects in political debates:
As many scholars have argued (Baker, 2002; Curran, 1979, 1991; Curran & Seaton, 2003; Keane, 1991; Thompson, 1995), the liberal theory of press freedom makes a series of unconvincing assumptions about the status of the press as an expression of public opinion, agency of information, and independent watchdog on power. Because liberal theory conflates freedom of the press with the commercial freedoms of media owners, freedom from state regulation fails to protect the press from the negative effects of market competition and the need to cut costs and boost profits. It also allows media owners to pursue their own private interests (i.e., their speech rights are privileged over all others), and use their power to steer public policies in a market-friendly direction, thus granting them even greater political power in the name of press freedom.
Another example is the tendency of some to collapse the distinction between liberalism/neoliberalism and what this means for our capacity to grasp the ‘safe space’ debates surrounding universities:
Nonetheless, the historically dominant journalism identity in Anglo-American media cultures and elsewhere (Hallin & Mancini, 2004) continues to be defined by a more open-ended liberal and Enlightenment commitment to the principles of press freedom and free speech, which cannot be reduced to the status of a “neoliberal” commitment. This perspective holds out the hope of reclaiming the idea of press freedom from the excesses of its corporate and marketized appropriation, and a first amendment absolutism that delights in ridiculing the “political correctness” of progressive liberals. It also highlights the need for radical normative and ethical alternatives to the liberal tradition (Freedman, 2014), not to renounce the principles of press freedom and free speech as such (they are never absolute principles (O’Neill, 2002; Street, 2001), but rather to recognize their manifestation in symbolically violent and racist forms that (willfully) annihilate the speech rights of different groups (Dawes, 2015). The urgency of these issues has been captured in recent debates about the need for “safe spaces” on university campuses in the United States and elsewhere, sometimes in opposition to journalism’s assumed authority to report on public events. Left activists interrogate journalism’s liberal universalism, because of its capacity to misrepresent and stymy the political agency of different groups, and misrecognize its own gendered and racialized biases. Conversely, some left-liberals—who might otherwise be sympathetic to activists’ political demands—question the seeming opposition to liberal free speech conventions (see Cooper, 2015; Read, 2015), voicing a critique that takes a more derisory, and sometimes repugnant, form in right-wing and libertarian discourses. However they are approached, these political disagreements are unlikely to be illuminated by analytical frameworks that collapse the distinction between liberalism and neoliberalism.
These political debates in turn influence how conceptual distinctions are contested, as in “the theoretical disputes between media and communication scholars who embraced post-structuralist, post-modernist, and post-Marxist theories, and those who retained a fidelity to Marxist theory” with one side criticising “what they saw as political economy’s tendency to see media, culture, and discourse as epiphenomena of economic processes, ultimately of secondary importance to an analysis of capitalist mechanisms and institutions” and the other critiquing cultural studies “for spawning its own form of analytical reductionism, where “everything” seemed to be explainable as text or discourse” . The authors end by making six suggestions for future communication scholarship working with the concepts of liberalism and neoliberalism:
- “First, contemporary critiques of neoliberalism need to avoid simply rehashing an older critique of liberalism, as if neoliberalism signified nothing other than a revival of a 19th-century free market or laissez-faire ideology (Foucault, 2009). Instead, we need to better grasp the political, economic, cultural, and historical specificity of neoliberalism, including its status as a critique of progressive left-liberal discourses and identities”
- “Second, researchers need to be alert to the ideological paradoxes and contradictions of neoliberal regimes (Freedman, 2014), including the potential discordances between different neoliberal theories”.
- “Third, the concept of press freedom offers one especially important illustration of the cultural politics of how (neo)liberal signifiers are differently articulated and institutionalized. Different scholars have noted how the concept of press and media freedom has been neoliberalized (Dawes, 2014a; Fenton, 2011; Phelan, 2014). The shift is symptomatic of how neoliberals have hegemonized the language of freedom, naturalizing a negative conception of it that can be deeply hostile to the notion of the state as an enabler of positive versions. Nonetheless, the historically dominant journalism identity in Anglo-American media cultures and elsewhere (Hallin & Mancini, 2004) continues to be defined by a more open-ended liberal and Enlightenment commitment to the principles of press freedom and free speech, which cannot be reduced to the status of a “neoliberal” commitment.”
- “Fourth, the question of press freedom prompts general reflection on the condition of liberal democracy in neoliberal regimes (which in turn calls to mind authoritarian forms of neoliberalism that depart from narratives that universalize a liberal democratic transition from Keynesianism to neoliberalism).”
- “Fifth, we need to better illuminate how both liberalism and neoliberalism are articulated as signifiers of political identification and antagonism.”
- “Finally, communication and media scholars can potentially enrich the wider interdisciplinary literature on neoliberalism by clarifying its status as a mediated and mediatized phenomenon”
My notes on Paolillo, J. C. (2018). The Flat Earth phenomenon on YouTube. First Monday, 23(12).
Even if the resurgent belief in a flat earth remains a marginal phenomenon, it is fascinating for what it reveals about YouTube. In this paper John C. Paolillo documents the emergence of this YouTube community and the issues which preoccupy them. This involved producing a database of flat earth videos:
To identify Flat Earth videos, channel and video metadata was collected in a manner similar to prior studies (Cheng, et al., 2008; Paolillo, 2008). Firefox together with the GreaseMonkey add-in was used to run a user script collecting video and channel IDs from the YouTube public developer API. The script communicated with a PHP/PostgreSQL backend to store the IDs. For each channel three standard “playlists” were retrieved: uploads (videos belonging to the channel), likes and favorites (videos marked as such by the channel owner) . Standard recursive crawling was applied: liked and favorited videos were used to identify new channels, whose playlists were retrieved, etc.  Crawling was done in multiple passes from July 2015 to January 2017, each time feeding in additional channels discovered via searching and browsing YouTube.
Two features I find particularly interesting are their hostility towards celebrity entrepreneurs and scientists, as well as public or private institutions like NASA or SpaceX who conduct publicity campaigns and the features they share with wider conspiracy culture, such as the invocation of popular culture dystopias and the notion of ‘red pilling’. These express themselves in a fixation on the epistemic status of their own claims and those of their opponents:
Flat Earth videos have an overwhelming preoccupation with epistemic status: lies, truth, proof, debunking, hoaxes, fakes, revelations, evidence, shilling, etc. all figure heavily in Flat Earth videos. Such an emphasis on knowledge requires that they present a basis from which to cast doubt on a round Earth (the “Globe Model”). The challenge is significant. Flat Earth belief only awkwardly reconciles with modern technologies like rockets (33), communication satellites, the Global Positioning System, the ISS (24), and interplanetary probes.
A whole range of strategies are deployed in the face of these challenges: “citation of religious or secular historical texts, reproduction of video evidence, experimentation and observation, mathematical analysis, speculation, bald contradiction, and ad hominem argument”. These are used to undermine established scientific authorities with the “Flat Earth Model” offered as a viable solution to what is presented as a debunked “Globe Model” (though as Paolillo points out, ‘model’ here is used in a diffuse and non-scientific sense). The material published by agencies like NASA and SpaceX is seized upon in the interest of correcting their claimed distortions. But these are supplemented by counter-experiments, driven by a radical empiricism, in which “viewers are told to not trust anything beyond their direct experience”. The failure of amateur experiments intended to establish the curvature of the earth are taken as proof of the flat-earth phenomenon. These are supplemented by appeals to authorities like engineers, military officers and airline pilots, used strategically to undermine other members of these groups who support the “Globe Model”.
Would we have seen the resurgence of flat earth belief without youtube? Their videos use genres such as vlogs, screencasts, interviews and documentaries, suggesting a deep engagement with the affordances of the platform. These are often accompanied by effective clickbait, competition between video producers, established memes such as ‘red pilling’ and invocation of fictional dystopias which all suggest a community well adapted to the attention ecology of the platform. Paolillo identifies this competition between flat-earthers for attention early on in the paper but doesn’t really develop the point. I wonder if the attentional darwinism of YouTube is as much an explanation of this resurgence as the material itself, which Paolillo explains in terms of a social psychology of stigma as more people are tarred by assocation with flat earth and thus acquire a stake in defending it. It provides an environment in which certain themes are liable to thrive (an overturning of established authority, revelatory esotericism, a radical empiricism perceived to be liberating etc) if packaged together in a way which takes advantage of the affordances fo the platform. What really interests me is the entrepreneurship of the YouTubers within the flat earth community, as well as how techniques spread between them and competition drove innovation.
My notes on The Shifting Rhythms of Academic Work. On Education. Journal for Research and Debate, 1(3)
In this short paper Fabian Cannizzo takes issue with an assumption he (plausibly) suggests underlies the vast majority of critical higher education literature, namely that “broad social transformations to the policy and organisational infrastructure of global academia have a deterministic relationship with academic work temporalities” (pg 1). This means that well established changes to the character of academic work are taken to produce unavoidable effects for academic staff, leaving analysts for instance reading back time pressure from expanding expectations (a perception he says is near universal amongst critical higher educations scholars). This reflects the absence of a diachronic analysis because when “conceptualised synchronically as part of a social structure of power relationships, temporality is reduced to a factor of structure itself” (pg 3). The qualification “as part of” does most of the work here but it’s a really interesting point to make nonetheless.
By denying that “neoliberal and managerial interventions into the organisation of academic life have systemic, logically-inferable influences over the temporal experience of academic work” (pg 1), he opens up the space through which the empirical relationship between systemic transformation and scholarly experience can be properly scrutinised. This makes its easier to recognise the performativity involved in scholarly characterisations of the scholarly field, with dichotomies of slow and fast work being normative characterisations through which “academic work routines and control are contested and legitimated” (pg 2), as well as the complexity of how injunctions by management are taken up by agents. His point about productivity culture here is an important one, observing in relation to the collegiality of academic blogging alongside their role for profile building and Shut Up and Write Groups with their seemingly strong focus on productivity that “these spaces allow for agentic experimentation with different rhythms, paces, senses of pressure and relief, social and technological infrastructures” (pg 3). This is precisely what is opened up when we move away from an opposition in which “the ‘fast’ times of productivity, media and economics are juxtaposed to the ‘slow’ times of thinking, learning and crafting” to instead focus on the temporal agency of academics themselves (pg 3).
This is a sickness that embraces me warmly
Something obscene, a machine that’ll speak for me
It makes me nervous
From Margaret Archer’s Social Origins of Educational Systems pg 4:
There is nothing more pointless than the debates which have now lasted for centuries about the ideal nature of education. The only function they serve is in helping individuals and groups to clarify their educational goals, to recognize the implications of their chosen aims, and sometimes to get others to share them. They remain sterile unless and until they are harnessed to an understanding of the processes by which present education can be changed to conform to the ideal.
From Margaret Archer’s The Social Origins of Educational Systems pg 6:
Historically the origins of the discipline are synonymous with the origins of macro-sociology –most of the early founding fathers asked big questions to which they gave equally big answers. Yet initially there was not thought to be anything distinctive or difficult about, for example, explaining political instability by reference to sedentary culture (Ibn Khaldun) or social order by religious organization (Maistre and Bonald). The reason for this seems to be that these thinkers did not simultaneously address themselves to the explanation of smaller phenomena: for when, in the nineteenth century, various writers sought to treat both small group interaction and events of the largest scale together, the problem of scope became immediately apparent and, with it, the nature of macro-sociology was clarified.
I’m finally reading Margaret Archer’s Social Origins of Educational Systems, the one major work of hers I hadn’t read which also happens to be the longest. It’s ironic that I’m coming to this now, as someone trained to be a social theorist who is in the process of becoming an (accidental) educationalist. This book was the point at which she moved away from sociology of education into social theorising in a more general sense. However the book is often misread as a ‘substantive work’ whereas her entire intellectual project can be found here, in some cases explicitly and in other cases embryonically. To give an example, the book opens with a theoretical defence of macro-sociology and a critique of methodological individualism which will be familiar to readers of her later books. From pg 11:
The bedrock of such explanations is individual dispositions. An event is explained when this outcome has been related to motives, aims, expectations, beliefs etc., that is to some intelligible reaction of man to his circumstances, on the part of individuals involved or of typical actors. However, as we have seen, any reference to groups or institutions must be eliminated for this to count as a complete explanation. The general difficulty involved here is of identifying such attitudes without reference to these social terms.
However we can see her (much later) work on reflexivity implicit within this. It’s hard to specify dispositions without social terms because these dispositions are more often than not about the social world. Even if the precise character of this aboutness goes unspecified, it’s clearly identified as an aporia in the position through which she is critically developing her own. The problem of reflexivity is effectively delineated three decades before she began developing a solution to it. Her concern at this stage is institutional, see below extract from pg 12, but this sets up the problem of reflexivity which remains once a the stratified ontology of critical realism helps develop her account beyond methodological individualism and collectivism. The remaining issue, the inseparability of individual dispositions and social referents, clearly pre-dates this later formulation of the problem in Being Human and Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation.
Can we, for example, account for electoral success in terms of certain diffused political attitudes without presupposing statements about ‘Parties’ and ‘Voting’? Can we explain educational attainment by achievement motivation without entailing propositions about ‘examinations’, ‘standards of excellence’, and ‘ascription’?
It’s also interesting to see how straight-forwardly she identified her approach as Neo-Weberian despite that being a label that I think she would have rejected within a decade or so. From pg 4:
Weber’s analysis which gave equal emphasis to the limitations that social structures impose on interaction and to the opportunity for innovatory action presented by the instability of such structures is the prototype of this theoretical approach. The kind of macro-sociology advocated here is seen as following the mainstream of the Weberian tradition. Pedigrees, however, can always be disputed and are no substitute for justifying the adoption of a particular approach.
I’m finally reading the immensely powerful Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich and I’m gripped by the sense he conveys of the “nonschooled learning” (pg 10) which institutionalised schooling precludes. From pg 8:
School appropriates the money, men, and good will available for education and in addition discourages other institutions from assuming educational tasks. Work, leisure, politics, city living, and even family life depend on schools for the habits and knowledge they presuppose, instead of becoming themselves the means of education.
He argues that obligatory schooling inevitably escalates, with more schooling being the only response to the demands which the existence of the school system creates, in turn leading to international rankings in which “Countries are rated like castes whose educational dignity is determined by the average years of schooling of its citizen” (pg 9). If I understand him correctly, he’s saying that schooling creates a framework in which the process through which competencies are acquired comes to substitute for the competencies themselves i.e. the fact of being in school comes to be seen as the important things, rather than the learning that was supposedly the reason for being there in the first place. In the process, other forms of learning go unvalued and unrecognised, as he explains on pg 12-13:
Teaching, it is true, may contribute to certain kinds of learning under certain circumstances. But most people acquire most of their knowledge outside school, and in school only insofar as school, in a few rich countries, has become their place fo confinement during an increasing part of their lives.
Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction. Normal children learn their first language casually, although faster if their parents pay attention to them. Most people who learn a second language well do so as a result of odd circumstances and not of sequential teaching. They go to live with their grandparents, they travel, or they fall in love with a foreigner. Fluency in reading is also more often than not a result of such extracurricular activities. Most people who read widely, and with pleasure, merely believe that they learned to do so in school; when challenged, they easily discard this illusion.
Interestingly, he talks about drill instruction as an effective means through which motivated students can learn complex skills. But it is one which schools do badly, in part because they feel to distinguish between skill acquisition and education, doing both badly in the process. Education in Illich’s sense involved the “open-ended, exploratory use of acquired skills” (pg 17) and shouldn’t be conditional upon obligatory attendance. Skill acquisition and education require different conditions, often mutually exclusive ones, with the former involving predictable steps and circumstances which the latter requires space from.
It’s not until I sit through An Entertaining Evening With Nigel Farage in Melbourne that I realise he’s not just a seven-times failed UK parliamentary candidate, but a bona fide YouTube star. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without YouTube,” Farage tells his audience of young men. Men who, when I ask, what do you think of Nigel Farage, say: “He’s an absolute legend.” Or: “He’s the dog’s bollocks.”
How did you come across him, I ask, Alex, a programmer who lives locally? “On YouTube. I was watching a Jordan Peterson video. He was recommended to me.”
I watch the speeches. They have titles like “Who the Hell [sic] You Think You Are? Nigel Farage throws egg in Eurocrat faces.” And “Can’t Barrage the Farrage [sic].” They’ve been viewed millions upon millions of times.
Richard Corbett, the leader of the Labour party in the European parliament, explains how it works. “Farage turns up once a month and often what he talks about has absolutely nothing to do with what’s being discussed. You think, what’s going on? And then you realise it’s got nothing to do with the parliament. It’s just for his social media output. Sometimes he doesn’t even hang around for the answers. Two minutes later, he’s back on the Eurostar and gone.” (Statistics for voting and attendances show Farage is ranked 738th out of 751 MEPs for productivity.)
Tuesday December 4th 12pm
Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Everyone welcome! It’s a short journey from Cambridge train station
We hear a lot about the coming ‘automation revolution’, but what might developments in machine learning and AI mean for researchers in the social sciences and humanities? In our next masterclass, Associate Professor Inger Mewburn (from the Australian National University and the Thesis Whisperer Blog) will talk about her forthcoming book on machine learning in the social sciences. What kinds of projects does machine learning make possible? What kind of collaborations can social scientists make to take advantage of these new tools and techniques? Do some of our PhD graduates have a future in bespoke algorithm design? Come along to this discussion on future social science practice.