That’s the question I’ve been asking myself when reading through two books by Nick Couldry in which he develops a materialist phenomenological approach to understanding social reality. The first is The Mediated Construction of Social Reality (with Andreas Hepp) and the second is Media, Society, World. It’s in the latter book that he considers the representational power of media. From loc 683:

Media institutions, indeed all media producers, make representations: they re-present worlds (possible, imaginary, desirable, actual). Media make truth claims, explicit or implicit: the gaps and repetitions in media representations, if systematic enough, can distort people’s sense of what there is to see in the social and political domains.

There is a political economy underpinning this, in terms of the capacity to make such representations and the gains accruing from this capacity. The common reference points which accumulate as a consequence serve a broader economic purpose. From loc 701:

However, if basic consumer demand –for fashion, music, sport –is to be sustained at all, it requires ‘the media’ to provide common reference points towards which we turn to see what’s going on, what’s cool.

The interests and influence in play here have been crucial to the unfolding of late modernity. Media has been a site through which power has consolidated. What we are seeing with ‘post-truth’ is a deconsolidatiob of this apparatus, taking place at a number of different levels. From loc 886:

Representations matter. Representations are a material site for the exercise of, and struggle over, power. Put most simply, our sense of ‘what there is’ is always the result of social and political struggle, always a site where power has been at work. 150 But fully grasping this in relation to media is difficult: because the role of media institutions is to tell us ‘what there is’ –or at least what there is that is ‘new’ –media’s work involves covering over its daily entanglement in that site of power. Media aim to focus populations’ attention in a particular direction, on common sites of social and political knowledge. Media institutions’ embedding as the central focus of modern societies is the result of a history of institutional struggle that is becoming more, not less, intense in the digital media era. It is essential to deconstruct the apparently natural media ‘order’ of contemporary societies.

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).

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.

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 we are seeing with the growth of ‘fake news’ is perhaps the weaponisation of epistemology. In other words, ‘fake news’ as a construct is becoming a discursive component of our repertoire of contention. Far from entering a post-truth era, we are seeing truth becoming a mobilising device in a new way, encouraging ‘us’ to defend ourselves from ‘them’ predicated on the absolute falsity of their worldview. It’s the playing out in an epistemic register of what Chantal Mouffe, drawing on Carl Schmitt, describes as a friend/enemy distinction. Rather than the political other being an adversary to be struggled against, nonetheless regarded as legitimate, they are cast as an enemy to be destroyed. Rush Limbaugh offered a pure expression of the epistemological logic of the friend/enemy distinction in this 2009 rant:

What this fraud, what the uncovering of this hoax, exposes,” he said, “is the corruption that exists between government and academia and science and the media. Science has been corrupted. We know the media has been corrupted for a long time. Academia has been corrupted. None of what they do is real. It’s all lies!

We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.

The origins of this can be understood agnotologically: neo-sophists, with corporate funding, seeking to manufacture doubt where none previously existed. What’s being described as post-truth emerges at the intersection between corporate agnotology, political polarisation and post-democracy. The possibility to weaponise epistemology emerges coterminously with the breakdown of social solidarity. Agnotology contributes to the erosion of shared certainties in cumulative ways. It creates the conditions for what David Roberts calls tribal epistemology:

Over time, this leads to what you might call tribal epistemology: Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

Now tribal epistemology has found its way to the White House.

What I’m suggesting is that at this point we see epistemology move from being an elite weapon of war to part of the repertoire of contention. Once Trump begins to seriously struggle, how easy is it to imagine Whitehouse statements being dismissed as ‘fake news’ by the grassroots they used this notion to mobilise? How effectively could a nascent leader use this epistemic playbook against those who have brought it into the mainstream? As Roberts points out, this is a cultural tendency which has been present in American politics for quite some time:

That is the classic, some might say naive, view. But there has always been a powerful strain in conservatism (think the John Birch Society) that resists seeing itself as a participant in the game at all. It sees the game itself, its rules and referees, as captured by the other side, operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of transpartisan authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which one tribe seeks to dominate another.

That’s the view Limbaugh and others in right-wing media have consistently articulated. And it has found an increasingly receptive audience. Over time, the right’s base — unlike the left’s fractious and heterogeneous coalition of interest groups — has become increasingly homogeneous (mostly white, non-urban, and Christian) and like-minded (traditionalist, zero-sum values).

The friend/enemy distinction is, for lack of a better term, viral. At least under current conditions. Once people begin to think in these terms, it’s hard to counter it. Not least of all because reluctantly accepting the ‘rules of the game’ inevitably comes to be coded as either giving up or buying in. The reason for this is in part epistemological because tribal epistemology destroys the possibility for syncretism: people can no longer see A and B as elements that can be combined, even if unstable and contested ways. Instead and become an absolute disjunction. One sees the social world in terms that allow for no choice other than to choose between positions. The playing out of this, in the digital capitalism of 2017, rather terrifies me.

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

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

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

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

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

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


In his On the Ontological Mystery, Gabriel Marcel describes the experience of “an irresistible appeal which overturns the habitual perspectives just as a gust of wind might tumble down the panels of a stage set”. He is talking of a chance meeting with a stranger, but the image is a powerful one which characterises many episodes of what I think of as personal morphogenesis. Fateful moments, turning points and critical junctures often involve profound changes in the scenery of our lives. Things which we thought were solid fall apart. Suddenly what was fixed is revealed to be malleable. We realise that the background to our lives is not immutable, rather it was simply what had faded into the background. It is a sudden, dramatic and painful overturning of the strangely subtle process through which we ‘die a thousand deaths’, to use Roberto Unger’s phrase, as congealing layers of habit obscure our own agency.

I’m fascinated by these fateful moments because they are central to understanding agency. Their mysterious dynamics hold the secrets of our dual nature, free but always constrained, capable of choice but driven by automaticity. To adequately address the ontology of such fateful moments entails that we are careful about their epistemology. The mere fact of a moment being deemed fateful by a subject does not make it so. The poetics of ‘turning points’ often blind us to the mundane realities that preceded them, as the dramatic moment when the sense of our life ‘tumbles down like the panels of a stage set’ only came about because of many unnoticed gusts of wind that gradually eroded the foundations of this experienced order. 

It might sound voluntaristic to be concerned with these sudden dizzying encounters with freedom, but it’s precisely in such moments when we can be face to face with the recalcitrance of reality. Best laid plans go awry, people and things resist our demands and the order we sought to impose on the world proves to be a hope, rather than a blue print. An adequate phenomenology of ‘fateful moments’ must be orientated to the past, as well as the future. What renders these moments fateful is being torn between the two, rather than habitually chugging along as past investments propel us through present circumstances and into an expected future.

Investigating fateful moments can help elucidate this strained character of agency, forever caught between past and future, blind to the full range of opportunities and constraints confronted in the present. But fateful moments aren’t reducible to agency. They are something relational, multifaceted and dynamic. For this reason, they can also be profoundly macro-sociological in origin. Reading Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful At the Existential Cafe, which incidentally introduced me to the Marcel text I opened this discussion with, offers a wonderful account of how the grand sweep of historical events can reshape the lives of those caught within them. At risk of stating the obvious, wars are amongst many other things a terrifying social machinery for generating fateful moments. A concern for fateful moments does not represent a personalist myopia, but rather an ambition to stitch together the tapestry of social explanation from the most intimate aspects of personal experience through to the most dramatic instances of systemic change.

In an interesting chapter Frederic Vandenberghe explores the role of the individual in Bourdieu’s Sociology, as well as the critiques which Margaret Archer and Bernard Lahire make of it. His intention is to respond to a sociology he sees as hegemonic by developing a post-Bourdieusian theory of the social world that is not anti-Bourdieusian. His project, as I understand it, derives from a sense that Bourdieu’s sheer influence is distortive, polarising debate in a way that steers it away from concern with better or worse sociology to more or less accurate interpretations of the master.

How accurate is Vandenberghe’s account of Bourdieu’s influence? His 536,230 citations certainly offer quantitative evidence of this influence, but the claim that Bourdieu’s sociology is hegemonic seems more contentious to me. Nonetheless, he’s surely correct that the combination of its influence, diffusion and systematicity make it a force to be reckoned with. Or rather a force that must be reckoned with, a reference point that is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.

Both Archer and Lahire were deeply influenced by Bourdieu. My interview with her in here explores his influence on her thinking, as well as her time working with him as a post-doc in the early 60s. While, as Vandenberghe puts it, Lahire’s sociology is so “thoroughly Bourdieusian that he could well be considered the heterodox successor to the master (Loïc Wacquant being the official one)”. Both have worked at the intersection of sociology and psychology in recent years, with Lahire taking inspiration from Durkheim while Archer has looked to American pragmatism for intellectual resources. Vandenberghe argues that their work represents a social psychology of a new kind: orientated to “how groups, large and small, behave within in the individual mind” rather than “how individuals behave in small groups”. Their shared unit of analysis is the life, understood biographically, as a movement through the world constituted through choices. But the dissimilarity arises because Archer’s focus concerns how future projects shape present actions, whereas Lahire explains the present and the future in terms of past “dispositions and their activation in particular contexts in the present”. As he puts it, “His actors are pushed by their dispositions, while hers are pulled forward by their projects”.

From Vandenberghe’s exposition, it seems that Lahire’s critique of the concept of habitus resembles Archer’s in some ways: he “accuses Bourdieu of abusively generalising a particular model that only holds in exceptional situation (such as traditional societies and total institutions)”. But he make the same critique of the concept of field, “accusing Bourdieu of transforming a regional model into a general theory of the social world”. Instead he offers an account of the individual as “like a crumpled sheet or a rumpled rag”, with social space in all its dimensions unevenly folded up inside of them. Not unlike Archer, he sees what Bourdieu regarded as a marginal condition (the cleavage of the habitus) to instead be a general characteristic, at least under certain social and cultural conditions.

His exposition of Archer is excellent, rather unsurprisingly as one of the theorists most deeply conversant with her body of work as a whole. The slight exception to this is the latent teleology he reads into the concept of reflexivity, ignoring the extent to which we all practice each of these modes to varying degrees in everyday life. Oddly, he offers precisely this recognition as a suggestion of how her account of reflexivity can be improved, with his accusation of a “kind of disguised personality test” being an incisive critique of how her work on reflexivity is chronically misread, even by its advocates.

I agree with him however that Archer downplays the role of cultural structures, seeing them as something which “structures the situation from outside, not from inside in the form of subconscious schemes of perception, judgement and interpretation that prestructure the world and canalize action, excluding some options even before the actor becomes conscious of the situation”. His suggestion that we investigate empirically how the relative balance of reflexivity and disposition operates in particular action situations is one I find extremely plausible, perhaps demanding that we need methods other than the interview, as well as overcoming the relative neglect of situated embodied action within Archer’s work.

It’s an interesting chapter which I highly recommend. It’s left me wanting to return to my PhD, as well as investigating Lahire in greater depth. It strikes me that I’ve actually done something akin to what Vandenberghe advocates, synthesising Archer and Lahire, without actually having read Lahire. My curiosity demands that I establish whether or not this is the case.

Well over a decade ago, I was due to start a PhD in Political Philosophy looking at ideas of the individual within liberal thought. There are many reasons why I ultimately moved into a Sociology department instead, though my lack of regrets about this choice hasn’t stopped me occasionally wondering what might this thesis might have looked like. It occurred this morning when reading a collection of Bourdieu’s political writings (Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action) that one likely outcome would have been a subsequent study on liberalism’s difficulty with collectives. As Bourdieu writes, reproduced on pg 58:

Liberal philosophy identifies political action with solitary action, even silent and secret action, its paradigm being the vote ‘acquired’ by a party in the secret of the polling booth. In this way, by reducing group to series, the mobilised opinion of an organised or solidaristic collective is reduced to a statical aggregation of individually expressed opinions.

The difficulty posed by collectives concerns the empirical refutation of this often unstated principle. Actually existing collectives, with all their emergent mess, make it difficult to reduce group to series by methodological slight of hand. The noise and assertion which characterise them challenge us to treat them as collectives. But the broader edifice of liberal thought is dependent on melting collectives into aggregates:

Political action is thus reduced to a kind of economic action. The logic of the market or of the vote, in other words, the aggregation of individual strategies, imposes itself each time that groups are reduced to the state of aggregates – or, if you prefer, demobilised. When, in effect, a group is reduced to impotence (or to individual strategies of subversion, sabotage, wastefulness, go-slows, isolated protest, absenteeism, etc.), because it lacks power over itself, the common problem of each of its members remains in a state of unease and cannot be expressed as a political problem.

How should we conceive of the relationship between individuals and collectives? Much of what I’ve done in the last ten years is ultimately motivated by this question. This paper last year explored the biographical constitution of social movements under digital capitalism, arguing that ‘distracted people’ have much more inconsistent trajectories of participation, with implications for the emergent characteristics of social movements themselves:

Social movements often make an important contribution to the normative order within social life but how are their dynamics changing under conditions of social morphogenesis? It is clear that the emergence and normalisation of social media entail affordances for mobilisation that have important implications for social movements. However there is little agreement upon precisely what these implications are and whether they can or should be evaluated in general terms. This chapters takes a novel approach to this question, exploring the technological dimensions of social morphogenesis and their consequences for the ‘distracted people’ who comprise social movements. Using the relational realist theory developed by Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, I offer a novel account of the constitution of social movements that invites us to ask questions about the emergence and durability of new movements that are obscured by alternative theoretical approaches which fail to recognise both the emergent and relational constitution of collectives.

At some point I’d also like to pursue these issues at the level of cultural representation. For instance in the representation of mindless hoards posing a threat to the liberal order:

The relation between individuals and collectives plays out at many levels. My concern is to reclaim it as a meta-categorical feature of discourse, such that the connections between these different levels can be explored. I’m still rather far away from doing this, but at least the ambition is relatively clear to me now.

In an early essay on post-war Algeria, Pierre Bourdieu reflected on the existential experience of the urban sub-proletariat and its political significance. This is reproduced on pg 16 of Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action:

Habituation to prolonged unemployment and the most casual and poorly paid work, along with the lack of any regular employment, prevent the development of a coherent organisation either now or in future of a system of expectations towards which all activity and existence can be orientated. For want of possessing this minimum grasp on the present that is the precondition for a deliberate and rational effort to grasp the future, all these people are prey to incoherent resentment, rather than inspired by a genuine revolutionary consciousness; the lack of work, or its instability, go together with the absence of perspective on hopes and opinions, the absence of a system of rational projects and forecasts of which the will to revolution is an aspect. Enclosed in a condition marked by insecurity and incoherence, their own vision is generally itself uncertain and incoherent.

I’m immediately struck by the parallel between the experience he describes and what I write about as distraction in digital capitalism. As he puts it on pg 17, “Everyday life is experienced as the result of a kind of systematic plan dreamed up by a malign will”. People become objects to which things happen. Life becomes episodic, lacking in continuity. What narrative unity people experience is one of frustration, recurrent attempts to exercise agency being denied by forces that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. The tempo of life undermines the capacity to gain purchase upon the conditions of existence, impeding any capacity to reliably pursue a change in them, let alone overcome the obstacles inevitably encountered in such a pursuit. From pg 17:

With steady work and a regular age, with the appearance of real perspectives of social advance, an open and rational awareness of temporality can develop. At that point, the contradictions between over-ambitious expectation  and available possibilities, between opinions offered on an imaginary level and real attitudes, disappear. Action, judgements and aspirations arrange themselves as a function of a plan of life. it is then, and then only, that the revolutionary attitude takes the place of escape into dreams, fatalist resignation, or a raging resentment.

Could anyone recommend material I could read which explores this issue in greater depth? I’m immediately struck by how Archerian this Bourdieu seems. Or perhaps how much Archer was influenced by the Bourdieu of this period. But my broader interest is in how “disintegration and disarray supply a favourable soil for ideologies of passion, and possibly retrograde ones” (pg 19). How can distracted people be mobilised?

What I take Bourdieu to be saying is that collective action, if it is to be sustainable, necessitates a grounding in a degree of regularity within everyday life. The existential conditions of individual life, in a way shaped by but irreducible to the material conditions, provide a basis upon which different forms of collective action become more or less feasible.

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship to the idea of late modernity. It was the work of Bauman, Beck and Giddens which drew me into Sociology, presenting a till then cynical philosophy student with the possibility that one could meaningfully engage with the world and diagnose the times in a philosophical register. But coming to recognise the conceptual and empirical limitations of these accounts, as well as the methodological dangers which flow from them, profoundly shaped my subsequent trajectory as a sociologist. The first article I ever had published in a journal was a critique of a particularly weak instance of such theorising, suggesting that it was interesting because its ostentatious failings revealed problems that were more deeply concealed in more sophisticated examples of this approach. The broader tendency at work here has been incisively critiqued by Mike Savage as epochal theorising:

The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.

This is how I address the issues in my PhD, arguing that the canonisation of this work is something which invites explanation. Why have so many statements of epochal change emerged within British sociology? What was it about Britain and its sociology which engendered this tendency? Why have they proved so influential? Why have have these accounts proved so mobile, circulating across fields and subdisciplines which would likely otherwise prove disconnected? As I put it in the thesis, it “serves as a conduit linking a range of sociological sub-disciplines, ensuring that they can, at least in principle, be reincorporated in a substantive way into the same intellectual typology”:

To this end it takes the work on late modernity by Giddens (1990, 1991, 1992) as its foil, treating it as emblematic of a broader trend within contemporary social theory. Metaphors abound readily within this now canonical literature (Archer 2013a, Outwaite 2009) as all manner of empirical phenomena are incorporated into a dazzlingly panoramic frame of reference and presented as manifestations of the leading edge of social change. However for all its preoccupation with the new, there is something oddly dated about such work, with its apparent prospectiveness belying underlying continuities with long-standing traditions within British sociology (Savage 2010a, Savage and Burrows 2007). In spite of its self-styled epochal novelty, it can easily be read as a peculiarly a priori manifestation of a much broader preoccupation with ‘endings’ within contemporary sociology (Crow 2005). On such a view, the popularity of this work constitutes a puzzle which demands explanation and the opening chapter of this thesis aims to provide precisely this.

In an earlier article, Savage and Burrows describe this as a “kind of sociology which does not seek to define its expertise in terms of it empirical research skills, but in terms of its ability to provide an overview of a kind that is not intended to be tested by empirical research”. This claim is one which can be explored at the level of individual careers: how does a practice with such an obviously rhetorical dimension, in terms of offering panoramic visions of social change that prove persuasive, become a viable career strategy? It’s an argument for another blog post, but I believe the success of epochal theorising can be explained in terms of the incentive to monopolise the intellectual attention space that emerges within the accelerated academy. These attention-grabbing, non-empirical accounts constitute ascension strategies through which theorists ensure their incorporation into the intellectual landscape in a sustained way. Epochal theorising is a way to make yourself a reference point.

When we see it in these terms, the comparison to management literature comes to seem less unfair than might otherwise be the case. This is a summary of one such management theorist offered in One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, loc 4595:

In 1989, Handy was already comparing the “change” of our time to the experiences of the Incas when the conquistadors showed up. The One to One Future, a 1993 book by consultants Don Peppers and Martha Rogers that hails the rise of individualized marketing through fax machines and direct mail, begins by declaring that “we are passing through a technological discontinuity of epic proportions,” a “paradigm shift” that will unleash “cataclysmic changes.” In 1994, Competing for the Future held that we are on the verge of “a revolution as profound as that which gave birth to modern industry.” In more recent years, of course, the rhetoric has only escalated. The Dance of Change, a 1999 compendium of big thinkings on the subject, has by its fifteenth page referred to “change agents,” “change agendas,” “change initiatives,” “change programs,” “top-down change” (which is bogus change indeed), “inner” and “outer change,” “deep change processes,” “significant change,” and has settled on one term as more meaningful than all others: “profound change.” To illustrate the failure of rival theorists’ “change programs,” the book’s authors offer what may be the most pointless graph in the entire history of business thought: Without benefit of notation, figures, or sources we are shown how an arrow marked “Time” bucks and subsides on its way to the future while another marked “Potential (unrealized)” ascends tragically to the heavens.32

My provocative claim is that the epochal theorising which dominated British sociology in the 1990s and 2000s could be construed as nothing more than management theory. In fact perhaps it could even be regarded as less than management theory, in so far as that management theory enjoys a great degree of influence over the wider world. It could be said that British epochal theorising exercised such an influence over party politics, but I’m reminded of Tony Benn describing in his penultimate diaries how “Anthony Giddens just hovers round trying to put an ideological cloak around whatever is being discussed”. Is epochal theorising often just business bullshit without the social influence?

Earlier on this month, Hartmut Rosa gave a fascinating lecture at the LSE, marking the launch of this new book on the Sociology of Speed. It’s a great overview of his theory of acceleration, but it also included some things I hadn’t encountered before:

  1. His intellectual trajectory was shaped by encountering Charles Taylor’s work while at the LSE for two terms at the age of 23. I knew Taylor was a huge influence, given Rosa’s PhD was devoted to his work, but I hadn’t realised how linked to speed his interest was. As he describes it in the lecture, he was fascinated by Taylor’s focus on the role of strong evaluations in structuring how people orientate themselves to their lives but felt it lacked an important temporal dimension. Evidently, people often address the urgent rather than the important, suggesting temporal constraints subordinate ultimate concerns to practical considerations. My reaction to reading Taylor as a philosophy student was an overwhelming desire to sociologize his work, something Rosa does with an astonishing degree of systematicity, though of course there are alternative ways we could approach this task. Consider Doug Porpora’s wonderful Landscapes of the Soul.
  2. I recall the ‘contraction of the present’ from Social Acceleration but I’m unsure if it is the framing that has changed or my response to it. Rosa’s argument is that patterns of association and social practices change at an increasing rate. This means that the “decay rates of knowledge increase”: the purchase of our knowledge about the world and how it works degrades at an increasing rate because the reality of that world and how it works undergoes change at an increasing rate. The period of stability when “you know how the world works, who is where and how one does things” is contracting. If one accepts this claim, it has huge ramifications for how we engage with the idea of “information overload”. There’s a temporal dynamic to the overproduction of facts which is too little analysed.
  3. I like his description of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life as mysterious. We respond to this challenge by attempting to speed up life, seeking more episodes of action per unit of time. We multi-task, speed up each action and try to eliminate pauses and intervals. I like his example of taking the last possible train to an event, in order to avoid waiting once there. This is something I do entirely habitually, such that I rarely even consider allowing for contingencies unless there’s some reason to expect them. But when it goes wrong, the time saving action gets revealed as a false efficiency. There are so many examples like this, where what feels like saving time in fact costs us more time at some unpredictable point in the future. I’d like to hear more from Rosa on the ‘mysterious’ character of the subjective side of the accelerating pace of life because I think it suggests something important about chronoreflexivity: the limited scope of how we orientate ourselves to time & the way in which habitual orientations circumscribe considered decision making about efficiencies.
  4. He offers the useful trajectory of the downwards escalator which I don’t recall encountering before. This is a metaphor for how we find ourselves compelled to “run faster and faster to keep pace with the world”. Rosa suggests we stand on a downward escalator relative to every system we’re embedded within and that we stand on many overlapping escalators. Furthermore, “functional differentiation increases the number of escalators on which we stand”, proposing that this issue can be placed at the heart of sociological analysis. Every change within each system necessitates action from us in order to cope. As Rosa puts it “we have to run faster and faster, on more and more escalators, just to stay in place” and the “feeling that time is scare commodity” leads us to seek faster technologies. What Ruth Müller describes as anticipatory acceleration in the context of careers could be extended into a general theory of the relative autonomy of agency vis-a-vis temporal structures i.e. when the necessity of ‘running faster and faster’ becomes sufficiently engrained, we begin to accelerate in an open-ended way as a taken for granted approach to life. I’m very interested in the cultural role played by productivity discourse, life hacking etc in encouraging and consolidating such a response to the world. Plus technology is embedded in this discourse at the cultural level (it’s a central focus of discussion) and the agential level (the solutions offered are often technological).
  5. He stresses that we are not just victims of the speed logic, identifying how it is tied to our notion of freedom. Drawing on Blumenberg, he stresses how death comes too early, before we have completed the world and the possibilities it offers for us. The fast life on this view represents the full life. This is a familiar argument of Rosa’s but I’d previously read it as an inditement of acceleration, rather than an analysis that is appreciative of the promise while remaining sceptical about its viability
  6. He has a greater emphasis upon what has not speeded up than has previously been the case. He talks about five dimensions of deceleration: natural and anthropological limits, cultural practices that could speed up but haven’t, territorial zones insulated from speed up, segmental pockets of deceleration under pressure to speed up and intentional deceleration. This latter category is one which fascinates me and am writing about as ‘triaging strategies’ used to cope with acceleration. As Rosa describes it, these strategies pursue “slow down in order to keep up the high pace of life”. They are ways to cope with acceleration rather than challenges to the temporal structures of digital capitalism. He also recounts being told that the average speed of traffic in London has been going down for decades, representing an example of collective slow down as individuals seek to go fast. He claims that these five dimensions of deceleration are either residual or reactions. He argues there’s an asymmetry between deceleration and acceleration, grounded in the different mechanisms producing each.

These ideas made me think of one of my favourite genres of YouTube videos:


Rarely can a film have been as timely as Denial. It tells the story of the libel action the holocaust denying historian David Irving took against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, alleging that she had damaged his professional reputation as a historian by claiming he had wilfully distorted evidence. The film recounts the events leading up to the trial, before focusing on the trial itself and ending with the judge’s ruling that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism…[4][65] therefore the defence of justification succeeds…[5] It follows that there must be judgment for the Defendants.[66]

The film seems remarkably salient at a time when the liberal punditry seems to have uniformly endorsed the notion that we have entered a post-truth era, concisely defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief“. The importance of truth, the urgency of fighting for it, runs through the film and is explicitly invoked in the framing of it as a cultural product, as Rachel Weisz makes clear here: “It’s a true story, it’s a fight for truth and justice“.

The writer David Hare expands on this point in the same clip, explaining how “it’s not based on a true story, it is a true story … the words from the trial are the exact words. I don’t attribute to David Irving any line that he is not on record as having said, everything he says, we know he said“. It was great to discover this because I found the trial scenes riveting, though found it hard to wonder if the whole thing would have worked better on stage. The film seems to have underwhelmed critics, rather unfairly from my point of view, perhaps suggesting it was motivated by a commitment to realism of a sort liable to prove underwhelming on the big screen. However what struck me most about the film was the epistemological confusion underlying it, something which I think reflects a lot about the contemporary discourse of ‘post-truth’ and its limitations.

The avowed realism of the film obscures the inevitable cuts that the constraints of story telling necessitate. Irving had sued another historian at the same time, though the case did not go to court. He threatened a further historian with libel if passages concerning him weren’t removed from an upcoming book, prompting an American edition to be published with them but their erasure from the British edition. My point is not to criticise the film for excluding these details, despite their obvious relevance to the story, as much as to highlight the exclusions inherent in narrative. Likewise, with the court case itself, where the selection of a few incidents from a long trial were expertly used to dramatic effect. Again, these aren’t criticisms, just a reminder that even factual narratives (a term I prefer to ‘true story’) inevitably entail selecting from the pool of available facts, within the (media and genre specific) constraints of effective story-telling.

Much of the film can be read in terms of rallying forces for a defence of truth. The drama of the film rests on success in this endeavour, after overcoming much initial adversity. But framing the hard-drinking, hard-thinking Scottish barrister as a hero sits oddly with the commitment to truth in the film. After all, he’s lionised for his rhetorical skills, his capacity to pick apart the authority of Irving in a performatively compelling way. His most succesful tactics have nothing to do with the presentation of evidence, but rather involve getting under Irving’s skin in order to unsettle and undermine him. The concern here is not truth but persuasion. Specifically, the persuasion of a solitary judge, after Irving the litigant was persuaded to dispense with the jury because both sides agreed that the common folk could not be trusted to adjudicate on the truth when the relevant facts were as complex as they were in this case. Furthermore, the only thing that ensures the barrister is not cast as a mercenary is his deep commitment to this truth. This is slowly established over the course of the film, with Lipstadt eventually discovering that this is not just ‘another brief’ for him after all.

What made this film impressive to me was the way in which it explored the mechanics of persuasion in court, specifically how it was established convincingly that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence in order to establish the case for holocaust denial. In other words, it concerned the discursive machinery through which facts are consecrated and rendered socially efficacious. The apparent narratological inevitably of this being accompanied by a paean to truth speaks volumes about what has come to be accepted as ‘post-truth’. We might speak more accurately of post-fact. This is how Will Davies framed it in a New York times essay:

Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

The declining efficacy of facts is understood to be problematic because it undermines appreciation of truth. But reality always permits of multiple characterisations. As Roy Bhaskar put it on pg 55 of Reclaming Reality, “facts are things, but they are social not natural things, belonging to the transitive world of science, not the intransitive world of nature”. Facts are produced through interventions in the world, drawing on the labour of others and applying conceptual tools we rarely built ourselves. This is why a serious discussion of someone like Irving cannot avoid interrogating his proclaimed status as a professional historian, what this means and how it should shape our assessment of his capacity to marshal facts in authoritative ways. Indeed, this was crucial to making the case against him.

But if we see facts as self-grounded things, already made and waiting in the world to be discovered, it becomes difficult to acknowledge this. This might not matter when ‘our’ facts are socially efficacious, happily endorsed by all those we encounter and reflected back to us as common sense in the culture we engage with. But when these start to break down, the construction of ‘truth’ faces a fundamental tension: if facts are given then conflict over them must in some way reflect non-factual considerations, but if non-factual considerations consistently influence ‘matters of fact’ then facts cannot be given. This creates a crisis when we reach a situation in which facts have been ubiquitously weaponised. As Davies put it, “If you really want to find an expert willing to endorse a fact, and have sufficient money or political clout behind you, you probably can”.

This inconvenient truth could be ignored as long as there was a consensus in place. One which has now broken down, with the apparent mystery of our ‘post-truth’ era going hand-in-hand with a profound mystification of the political dimensions to how the consensual era of ‘truth’ preceding it was established. My point in writing this isn’t to preach constructionism. I share the ethos of Bhaskar’s book, one of the most powerful works of philosophy I’ve read: reclaim reality. Reclaiming reality involves recognising the reality of social construction, but resisting the dissolution of ‘truth’ into this. Figures like Irving thrive in the space opened up by the antinomies of (post)truth. If we reclaim reality, we can starve them at an epistemological level, before defeating them at a political level.

A couple of months ago, The New Statesman carried an interview with Tony Blair for the first time in a long time. Leaving aside how haunted the man looked in the portrait accompanying it, what stood out to me about it was how readily he had incorporated techno-speak into the language of the third way. Here are some examples:

One advantage of today’s social media is that you can build networks. Movements can begin at scale and build speed quickly. You’re not going to relate the answers to the challenges that we face by a Twitter exchange, so what I’m interested in doing is asking: what are the types of ideas that we should be taking forward? How do we provide a service to people who are in the front line of politics, so that we can provide some thinking and some ideas? The thing that’s really tragic about politics today is that the best ideas about politics aren’t in politics. I find the ideas are much more interesting in the technology sector, much more interesting ideas about how you change the world.-

I know we talk about this as a new thing, but many of us grew up with Enoch Powell. I mean, you remember the “rivers of blood” [speech], and black people were welcomed into the country and weren’t expelled, and that Britain was going to fall apart as a nation. I mean, these people are always on the wrong side of history, they always are, because that’s not the way the world is today. The world’s going to integrate more. It may integrate fast or slow, but it will integrate. Because technology, travel, migration, trade are bringing the world closer together. If you take a step back and you look at the broad sweep of history, this is actually a great time for humanity in many ways. You’ve had more people out of poverty than ever before in human history.-

I think what the Leave campaign created was a really interesting machine. You should learn from that. One of the things you have got to be able to do in modern politics is to build that platform of connections and networks. On the other hand, never ever forget that it starts with the right policies.

Open v closed is a really important debate today, because in a curious way the populism of the left and the populism of the right – at a certain point they meet each other. They tend to be isolationist. OK, the left is more anti-business, the right is more anti-immigrant, but they tend to be protectionist and they have an attitude to the process of globalisation that says this is a policy that is given by government and we can stop it and should stop it. Whereas my view about globalisation is that it’s a force essentially driven by people, by technological change, by the way the world has opened up. You’re not going to reverse that. The question is: how do we make that just and fair? That is the big question of our times. The centre left does not provide an answer to that, and we can and should.

This reflects something I’ve been noticing for some time: the similarity of 90s globalisation discourse to contemporary technology discourse. In fact, in many cases you can replace the word ‘globalisation’, from these 90s accounts, with ‘technology’ and there’s no semantic loss whatsoever. This is why we need to be deeply sceptical about, for instance, the automation debate. There’s clearly a real change underway, but it’s framed in a manner which sees the unfolding of technology as an inexorable process, one which offers the possibility of adaptation or displacement. What Morozov calls solutionism (“The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature”) can be seen as a particular kind of cultural response to this view of technology.

Amongst political actors, we should understand this rhetoric as emerging against a long-term trend towards depoliticisation. It discursively unites the ‘centre ground’ of career politicians, members of what George Osborne calls ‘the guild’, concerned with winning power in order to manage the unfolding of technological change. Amongst economic actors, we should understand this rhetoric as a way of legitimising one’s own work, deployed to win venture capital and to narrate the increasingly hegemonic character of the technology sector within capitalism as a whole. In the interaction between politics and economics, we should see this as a class project, as Thomas Frank argues in his Listen Liberal. From loc 2918-2934:

By that time, the place once filled by finance in the Democratic imagination had begun giving way to Silicon Valley, a different “creative-class” industry with billions to give in campaign contributions. Changes in the administration’s personnel paralleled the money story: at the beginning of the Obama years, the government’s revolving doors had all connected to Wall Street; within a few years, the people spinning them were either coming from or heading toward the West Coast. In 2014, David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s inspiring first presidential campaign, began to work his political magic for Uber. Jay Carney, the president’s former press secretary, hired on at Amazon the following year. Larry Summers, for his part, became an adviser for an outfit called OpenGov. Back in Washington, meanwhile, the president established a special federal unit that used Silicon Valley techniques and personnel to revolutionize the government’s web presence; starstruck tech journalists call it “Obama’s stealth startup.”

My argument is that we need to see the rhetoric of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ in systemic terms. We need to historicise these cultural forms and link their claims to the core questions of sociology inquiry. We need to update our theories of social change to better take account of socio-technical ‘innovation’. For instance, if we accept the construct of ‘late modernity’, are we seeing a radicalisation of it or are we in the process of transcending it? Should we dispense with ‘modernity’ talk altogether, however qualified, instead moving to talk of ‘platform capitalism’ or ‘digital capitalism’? These are key questions for social theory and ones which I’m increasingly gripped by.

A useful way to approach these is to scale down from the system level and look at particular spheres of life in which innovation talk is at its most pronounced. I’m currently reading a book of keynotes by the education writer Audrey Watters which reflects on these issues in terms of educational technology. One of her foremost concerns is the tendency of educational technology start-ups to exhibit a studied ignorance of the history of educational technology. Each putative innovation is presented as ungrounded, emerging from outside education to disrupt a fundamentally broken system, with only the recalcitrance of educators standing in its way:

And okay, in fairness, these folks are not historians. They’re computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts, software engineers. They’re entrepreneurs. But their lack of knowledge about the history of education and the history of education technology matters. It matters because it supports a prevailing narrative about innovation – where innovation comes from (according to this narrative, it comes from private industry, and not from public institutions; from Silicon Valley, that is, not from elsewhere in the world) and when it comes (there’s this fiercely myopic fixation on the future). The lack of knowledge about history matters too because it reflects and even enables a powerful strain in American ideology and in the ideology of the technology industry: that the past is irrelevant, that the past is a monolithic block of brokenness –unchanged and unchanging until it’s disrupted by technological innovation, or by the promise of technological innovation, by the future itself. (loc 326)

However, as she argues, this isn’t simply a forgetting of the history of education or the history of educational technology. Rather “It’s a rewriting of history, whether you see it as activist or accidental” (loc 351) and one which serves private interests. When history is reluctantly allowed on stage, it is inevitably couched in narrowly technological terms. Reflecting on the failure of the largely forgotten AllLearn initiative, opened in 2001 and closed in 2006, the economist Richard Levin, ascribed the problem to a lack of bandwidth:

It was too early. Bandwidth wasn’t adequate to support the video. But we gained a lot of experience of how to create courses, and then we used it starting in 2007 to create very high quality videos, now supported by adequate bandwidth in many parts of the world, with the Open Yale courses. We’ve released over 40 of them, and they gained a wide audience. (loc 471)

The reality is that broadband penetration had only increased by 8% between the end of AllLearn and the time of this interview. It was also the case that AllLearn sought to distribute materials via CD, as well as allowing users to switch off streaming video content that might be overly-testing for their internet connections. Given he was now speaking as Coursera’s CEO, presiding over a comparable initiative which had failed under his stewardship as Chair, we could perhaps see this as simply self-serving. Not unlike the erasure from history of past educational technology initiatives by start-up founders eagerly touting the ‘next big thing’. But I think Watters is right that this reflects something deeper about contemporary ideologies of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’.

Could we build up a systemic account of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ by looking at the particular discursive strategies used across a number of domains, as well as the material implications of their use. What would these other domains be?