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  • Mark 10:57 am on February 14, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Activism, Anthropocene, , , , , toxic, toxicity   

    The ontology of toxicity 

    My notes on Liboiron, M., Tironi, M., & Calvillo, N. (2018). Toxic politics: Acting in a permanently polluted world. Social studies of science48(3), 331-349.

    The authors of this paper take “a permanently polluted world” as their starting point. It is one where toxicity is ubiquitous, even if unevenly distributed. Unfortunately, “[t]he tonnage, ubiquity and longevity of industrial chemicals and their inextricable presence in living systems means that traditional models of action against toxicants such as clean up, avoidance, or antidote are anachronistic approaches to change ” (pg 332). The pervasiveness is such that we need to move beyond the traditional repertoire of management (separation, containment, clean up, immunisation) which is premised on a return to purity whiled depoliticising the production of that toxicity by treating it as a technical problem to be managed. In doing so, we can begin to see how toxic harm can work to maintain systems rather than being a pathology which ensues from systemic failure

    There is conceptual work required if we are to grasp the politics of toxicity, encompassing how we conceptualise toxic harm, provide evidence for it, formulate responses to it and grasp the interests reflected in its production and management. This involves rejecting a view of toxicity as “wayward particles behaving badly” (pg 333). As they explain on pg 334, toxicity is relational:

    Toxicity is a way to describe a disruption of particular existing orders, collectives, materials and relations. Toxicity and harm, in other words, are not settled categories (Ah-King and Hayward, 2013; Chen, 2012) because what counts as a good and right order is not settled.

    They suggest a distinction between toxins and toxicants. The former occurs naturally in cells, whereas the latter are “characterized by human creation via industrial processes, compositional heterogeneity, mass tonnage, wide economic production and distribution processes, temporal longevity, both acute and latent effects, and increasing ubiquity in homes, bodies and environments” (pg 334). This includes naturally occurring minerals which are rendered problematic through industrial processes that lead them to occur in specific forms, locations and scales productive of harm.

    Laws surrounding toxicants are based upon threshold limits, usually in relation to effects on human bodies. These are supplemented by cost benefit principles based around the avoidance of ‘excessive costs’ given available technologies. In this sense, the breakdown of order on one level (enabling toxicants to spread because it wouldn’t be ‘feasible’ to prevent it) facilitates the reproduction of order on another level (ensuring viable conditions for the continued reproduction of the commercial sector involved). I really like this insight and it’s one which can be incorporated into the morphogenetic approach in an extremely productive way.

    This focus on toxicity enables us to links together these levels, providing a multi-scalar politics of life. There is a temporality to toxicity in which a slow disaster is not easily apprehended. For this reason agents seek to make it legible as a event through actions like photography or protest actions. But this easily gives rise to a politics of representation, seeing the claims of environmentalists as (at best) on a par with the claims of commercial firms. Rendering these processes legible through mechanisms like sensational images can reproduce existing differences between centre and periphery, the heard and the unheard.

    Their interest is in modes of action “beyond governance-via-policy, in-the-streets-activism and science-as-usual” (pg 337). I’m not sure what their motivation is for this beyond the drive to “no longer privilege the modern humanist political subject and epistemologies based in claims and counter claims”: are they saying that a narrow politics of evidence and judgement has its corollary in public activism around public issues which have been established evidentially? I can see the analytical case for trying to get beyond this dichotomy but I’m not sure I see what is at stake politically in doing so. Their interest in actions such as  “the everyday, obligatory practices of tending to plants and others as toxic politics that do not necessarily result in scaled-up material change” doesn’t seem politically fruitful to me precisely because of the multi-scalar mode of analysis they offer (pg 341). Why should we challenge “activism as heroic, event-based and coherent” (pg 341)? Again I can see an analytical case for this, even if I disagree with it, but I don’t see what is at stake in this politically. It might be there are unintended consequences to thinking in terms of ‘effective outcomes’ but the force of this argument rests on an implicit claim about outcomes. Why is it important to “make room in dominant political imaginations for multiple forms of local, low resolution, uneventful, uneven, frustrated, desireful, ethical, appropriated and incommensurate forms of justice” (pg 343)?


  • Mark 8:23 am on April 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Activism, , edward said, , ,   

    The Avoidance of the Intellectual 

    Wonderful quote by Edward Said featured on Corey Robin’s blog:

    Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.

    For an intellectual these habits are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.


    It reminds me of C Wright Mills on the responsibility of the intellectual:

    As a type of social man, the intellectual does not have any one political direction, but the work of any man of knowledge, if he is the genuine article, does have a distinct kind of political relevance: his politics, in the first instance, are the politics of truth, for his job is the maintenance of an adequate definition of reality. In so far as he is politically adroit, the main tenet of this politics is to find out as much of the truth as he can, and to tell it to the right people, at the right time, and in the right way. Or, stated negatively: to deny publicly what he knows to be false, whenever it appears in the assertions of no matter whom … The intellectual ought to be the moral conscience of his society at least with reference to the value of truth, for in the defining instance, that is his politics. And he ought also to be a man absorbed in the attempt to know what is real and unreal.

  • Mark 1:16 pm on April 10, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Activism, , , radicalisation,   

    “I’m young enough to be all pissed off but I’m old enough to be jaded” 

  • Mark 10:09 pm on February 7, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Activism, , , , , student politics,   

    Misdirection as technique of governance, or, “it’s student activists attacking freedom of speech, not the state!” 

    Earlier today I read a Guardian article on the ‘crisis around debate’ at UK universities. It was a well written article with a valid argument that made some interesting points and to a certain extent some of these concerns had occurred to me in recent years. I’ve long been a proponent of no platform and it’s an issue I feel extremely strongly about – I helped lead the (unsuccessful) campaign to keep it in place at the Warwick SU and my relationships with quite a few people never really recovered from arguments over those few weeks. But I see no platform as a very specific strategy to deal with a very specific enemy. I find its effective generalisation extremely worrying, even if I sometimes share the hostility to those it is directed at.  So in one sense I found the article to be a perfectly valid contribution to an important debate.

    But in another sense, I found the article to be almost offensively stupid. It holds up left-wing student activists as the source of ‘a crisis around debate’ at UK universities at a time when parliament is considering a bill which, as the THE summarises, would mean universities “have a statutory duty to implement measures that prevent radicalisation that could lead to acts of terrorism”. Radical advocates would be barred from speaking on campus. Every local authority would be required to to “set up a panel to which the police can refer ‘identified individuals’ who are considered to be vulnerable to radicalisation” with universities as partners of local authorities in this process. We risk drifting into a police state – the words of the chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, not my own – while the Guardian is blaming this on student activists?

    We’ve already seen the police ask a university for attendees of a fracking debate. The president of the Lancaster Student’s Union was warned by police, who she discovered taking photos of her office, that she may have been committing a public order offence by displaying a poster in her office window. Police used CS gas and pulled a taser on Warwick students who were screaming in terror.  They launch secret operations to spy on peaceful student protestors. University staff are increasingly expected to function as proxy border guards. Police violence is increasingly an expectation at student protests, including some astonishing and egregious instances of brutality. Punitive bail conditions are becoming the norm for student activists and some university managements have gone out of their way to exclude and persecute ‘trouble makers’.

    But the ‘crisis of debate’ is being caused by left-wing activists? Get real. If we consider this broader context for even a moment then this case is offensively stupid at best and mendacious misdirection at worst.

  • Mark 8:58 pm on December 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Activism, , ,   

    Sexual Cultures 2: Academia Meets Activism 

    Sexuality activists/academics – do consider submitting to this and please pass it on.

    Due to the huge interest in the Sexual Cultures 2: Academia Meets Activism conference, we have extended the Call for Papers to 15 January 2015.  Please circulate widely and forward to individuals/networks who might be interested.

    Sexual Cultures 2: Academia Meets Activism

    April 8-10 2015 University of Sunderland London Campus, South Quay, London, UK

    This conference, co-hosted by the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sunderland, and the Onscenity Research Network will take place on April 8-10 2015 at the University of Sunderland London Campus, London, UK 

    The conference will host several keynote panels, bringing together key academics and activists on the topics of:

    • Sex and disability
    • Trans* and non-binary activism
    • Sex worker and stripper activism
    • Youth, race and sexuality

    Panellists will include: Andrea Cornwall, Kat Gupta, Kate Hardy, Laura Harvey, Alex Iantaffi, Jade Fernandez, Tuppy Owens, Emma Renold, Jessica Ringrose, Nabil Shaban, Jay Stewart.

    The overriding theme of the conference is the bringing together of academia with activism. Submissions are particularly welcomed from: academics who are also activists, activists who are also academics, academic/activists on the inside and outside of conventional academia, and academics and activists who are working together on projects relating to sexual cultures.

    The key themes of the conference are:

    Intersecting sex

    Many of the most important and current debates around sexual identities, practices and cultures in recent years have cohered around intersectionality. Sex is an area in which we particularly see intersections playing out between various forms and systems of oppression discrimination. For example, key debates concern the possibilities for consensual sex and agency within multiple intersecting structures of oppression; the ways in which ‘sexualization’ operates – and is discussed – in gendered, classed, and raced ways; which bodies and identities are considered to have the potential to be sexual or not, and which are regarded as intrinsically hypersexual or pathologically sexual. Papers in this strand will explore intersectional elements of sexual identity, practice, experience and culture, the ways in which academics and/or activists are engaging and intervening in these areas (online and offline), and the key points of tension and conflict that are emerging around these issues.

    Advising/educating sex

    Sex advice and education is a key area of concern in relation to sexual cultures. Sex advice and sex education are arenas in which cultural conceptualisations of sex are reproduced and perpetuated, as well as being potential sites for the resisting of dominant cultural understandings and offering alternative possibilities. Sex advice and education occur across various media and diverse professional contexts, including – for example – self-help books, problem pages, websites, online forums, news reporting, TV documentaries, and pornography, as well as school sex ed, youth work, sexual health clinics, sex therapy, sex coaching and sex work. Papers in this strand will explore the kinds ways in which intimacies are being mediated through various forms of sex advice and education, as well as considering the ways in which activists and/or academics are engaging and intervening in these areas (online and offline, in policy and in practice) and the forms of sex advice and education that are emerging from these engagements and interventions.

    Sex and technology

    Technologies of all kinds have been central to the ways in which sex is understood and experienced in contemporary societies. We are interested in papers that explore evolving technologies in the presentation of sex through print, photography, film and video to todays online and mobile media; the ways that technologies are increasingly integrated into everyday sex lives; the expansion of sex technologies in toy, doll, machine and robot manufacture, the marketing of drugs such as Viagra and cosmetic technologies such as body modification and genital surgery for enhancing sex; the expansion of sex work and recreation online; sex 2.0 practices, regimes and environments such as porn tubes, sex chat rooms and worlds like Second Life; and the shifting relations between bodies and machines in the present and in predictions of futuresex.

    Working sex

    In recent years sex work has become a potent site for the discussion of labour, commerce and sexual ethics, attracting increased academic attention and public concern. Papers in this strand of the conference will seek to develop our understanding of commercial sex, focus on conceptualizing emerging types of sexual labour, and explore the place of sex work of all kinds in contemporary society. They will ask how an investigation of contemporary forms of sex work and sex as work may shed new light on the study of cultural production, industry, commerce, and notions of commodification and labour. We are also seeking papers which are interested in exploring the connections between work and leisure, work and pleasure, sex work as forms of body and affective labour, and the ethics and politics of sexual labour.

    We invite proposals for the following:

    Panels, roundtable discussions, and workshops of up to four presenters/facilitators (1 hour)

    Papers/interactive events (20 minutes)

    Short Ignite papers (5 minutes/20 slides)


    We particularly welcome proposals for non-standard types of presentation which question the academic/activist distinction, such as fish bowl discussions, pecha kucha, creative methods workshops, and interactive workshops.

    All presenters are requested to make their material accessible to an audience which will include academics, activists, practitioners and community members.

    Deadline for the submission of proposals is January 15 2015.

    For all individual papers please submit a 150 word abstract and 150 word biographical note. Please indicate which key theme of the conference your paper belongs to.

    For panels, workshops and roundtable sessions please submit a 600-800 overview and set of abstracts with 150 word biographical notes. Please indicate which key theme of the conference you want your panel to be considered for.

    All submissions should be addressed to sexualcultures2[at]sunderland[dot]ac[dot]uk

  • Mark 7:17 am on October 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Activism, ,   

    Call for Papers: Feminism, Activism, Education 

    This looks interesting:

    Call for Papers

    If not now, when? Feminism in contemporary activist, social and educational contexts

    Political and socio-economic developments in recent years have created new opportunities and new battlegrounds for feminism, with women taking to the streets and demonstrating against the status quo, corruption, sexism, austerity and capitalism. On February 13th2011,

    demonstrations took place in various Italian cities, with over a million participants in total. They were coordinated by the feminist coalition Se Non Ora Quando? (If not now, when?). The demonstrations voiced the urgent need to reassert women’s dignity and renewed faith in the effectiveness of a popular feminist movement.

    There seems to be a pervasive optimism that feminism is now entering a new era, as evidence from different countries seems to suggest. At the same time, it is said that the advance of neoliberalism and the indisputable gains of feminism in the last thirty years have resulted in de-politicisation and a decline of interest in feminism. The mainstreaming of feminism has also raised concerns about its independent and autonomous existence.

    ‘If not now, when?’ invites potential contributors to consider the present moment of feminism and the presence of feminism on the streets and in mainstream society. It is seeking both theoretically informed and more empirical contributions on feminist endeavours, the strategies they employ and the values they uphold, the lessons learnt, and the new or emerging debates and challenges. In the context of a broadly defined feminist education, ‘If not now, when?’ also wishes to explore the pedagogical aspect of contemporary feminism, as well as testimonies of politicisation and mobilisation relevant to the formation of a feminist consciousness, especially in higher education.

    Further, and focusing on the present, it invites contributions on the theoretical ideas that are most relevant for feminism today. We are particularly interested in the notion of timeliness or kairos, the right time for something to happen as opposed to chronos or linear time. This temporal aspect of the contemporary feminism needs to be analysed and fully understood in the light of debates over the future of democracy, the welfare state, neoliberalism and globalisation. As evidence from the ‘periphery’ of Europe and the Mediterranean show that feminists decide to take to the streets again, we particularly welcome contributions that speak about the present and recent past of feminism in that part of the world, especially in the light of the significant political, social and economic changes in the region.

    Contributions might address the following topics:

    • Feminist alternatives to patriarchy and neoliberalism: contemporary strategies, theoretical ideas and practices;
    • Feminism in the academia and beyond: reflections on the past, emerging issues in the present, pedagogical prospects;
    • Contemporary feminist activism in the South of Europe and beyond: what do know, what do we learn?
    • Feminism, ethical values and the role of the individual;
    • Feminism and the idea time and timeliness (Kairos);
    • Is feminism still transformative or has it become too mainstream and confluent with dominant politics?
    • How could the insight, issues and strategies of popular movements be transformed into permanent advantages for feminism?
    • How does academic feminism respond to ideological, political and cultural demands outside the academia?

    350-500 word abstracts are due by 1st December 2014.

    Proposals should be for original works not previously published (including in conference proceedings) and that are not currently under consideration for another journal or edited collection. If your proposal is accepted for the special issue, a full draft (5000-7000 words) will be required by June 2015. Editors are happy to discuss ideas prior to the deadline.

    Proposals should be sent to:

    Olivia Guaraldo, University of Verona, Italy olivia.guaraldo@univr.it and

    Angela Voela, University of East London, UK  a.voela@uel.ac.uk

  • Mark 7:35 am on June 29, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Activism, ,   

    Call for Papers: Sexual Cultures 2: Academia Meets Activism 

    April 8-10 2015 University of Sunderland London Campus, South Quay, London, UK 

    This conference, co-hosted by the Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sunderland, and the Onscenity Research Network will take place on April 8-10 2015 at the University of Sunderland London Campus, London, UK

    Along with two keynote speakers addressing themes of intersectionality and sexual cultures, there will be keynote panels, bringing together key academics and activists on the topics of:

    ·         Sex and disability

    ·         Trans* and non-binary activism

    ·         Sex worker and stripper activism

    ·         Youth, race and sexuality

    The overriding theme of the conference is the bringing together of academia with activism. Submissions are particularly welcomed from: academics who are also activists, activists who are also academics, academic/activists on the inside and outside of conventional academia, and academics and activists who are working together on projects relating to sexual cultures.

    We particularly welcome proposals for non-standard types of presentation which question the academic/activist distinction, such as fish bowl discussions, pecha kucha, creative methods workshops, and interactive workshops.

    All presenters are requested to make their material accessible to an audience which will include academics, activists, practitioners and community members.

    Deadline for the submission of proposals is October 31 2014.

    For all individual papers please submit a 150 word abstract and 150 word biographical note. Please indicate which key theme of the conference your paper belongs to.

    For panels, workshops and roundtable sessions please submit a 600-800 overview and set of abstracts with 150 word biographical notes. Please indicate which key theme of the conference you want your panel to be considered for.

    All submissions should be addressed to sexualcultures2[at]sunderland[dot]ac[dot]uk 

    Full details available at http://www.onscenity.org/sexual-cultures-conference-2/

  • Mark 11:16 am on May 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Activism, ,   

    CfP: BSA Activism in Sociology Forum 

    BSA Activism in Sociology Forum welcomes new contributions from both established and early career researchers as well as sociologists outside of academia to share their hands-on activist experiences or reflections. Contributors are welcome to produce a new piece built around, but not limited to, the themes below or to respond to any future published pieces on the blog:

           Reflections on public sociology as an approach to the discipline in transcending the academy in order to engage with wider audiences
           Debates over public policy, political activism and the purposes of social movements
           The extra-academic purpose of sociology
           Turning private concerns into public issues (C Wright Mills, 1959)
           What’s the future of public Sociology?
           Applied sociology and “sociological practice” how we can use sociological knowledge in an applied setting
           Practicalities associated with field research: field access; collaboration with local partners
           Relationship between the researcher and the researched: researcher’s positionality;  power relations; insider-outsider dichotomy; boundary crossing
           Research ethics an public sociology

    If interested in contributing to the blog, please contact convenors (bsaactivism@gmail.com) with your ideas including (1) a detailed abstract (about 200 words), (2) a brief biography (you may also wish to publish anonymously). The total length of each contribution can be around 500-2,000 words.

    Best wishes, Jenny


  • Mark 1:41 pm on April 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Activism, , , ,   

    The Public Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (part 1) 

    The thing I like most about Bourdieu is his conception of public sociology. It seems clear to me that Bourdieu was a public sociologist, though others are less certain about this and I suspect it’s not a term he would have chosen to use himself. For a whole host of reasons, I’ve never been massively interested in much of Bourdieu’s work, though am far from antipathetic towards it. However his talks on public sociology had a great impact on me when I read them during the first year of my PhD and I’m rereading them for the public sociology book proposal I’m writing. It might also be a good prompt for me to delve slightly deeper into Bourdieu’s body of work than I ever have in the past (Weight of the World has been sitting unfinished on my shelf for years).

    There are a few key themes in these talks pertaining to public sociology. I’ve engaged with the political issues first because, as I understand the ethos underlying his arguments, it would be deeply misleading to abstract his statements about what public role sociology can and should play from the political challenges which define the context that sociologists inhabit. In this first post I’ll discuss his account of globalisation and advocacy of internationalism as a precursor to another post discussing his direct arguments about the need to challenge think tanks, the public role of social science and the personal challenges of academic activism. Bourdieu sees think tanks as deeply implicated in bringing about ‘globalisation’. He sees this as consisting of “hired thinkers and mercenary researchers … brought together with journalists and public relations experts” (pg 77) and this critique, which I largely share, brings something important to how we think about ‘public sociology’.

    The book of talks I’m basing these posts on is here. If anyone has suggestions for further work by Bourdieu that leads on directly from these themes, particularly the ones I’ll discuss in the second post, they’d be much appreciated. It’s not a big part of my planned project by any means but I would definitely like to read a bit further before I move on to some of the other people I’ll be engaging with.

    The Challenge of ‘Globalisation’ 

    The politics of these talks are rooted in the anti-globalisation movement of the late 90s and early 00s. As such, Bourdieu’s attentiveness to the political rhetoric of ‘globalisation’ is not a surprise. He draws attention to the double meaning of ‘globalisation’: the descriptive sense of a unification of the economic field and the normative sense of the desirability that these changes are supported through economic policy. The slight of hand arises because the former is often used to disguise the latter i.e. economic ‘reality’ is invoked to justify the pursuit of policies which are themselves responsible for the putative ‘reality’. The global market is a political creation, much as national markets had been, arising from “policy implemented by a set of agents and institutions, and the result of the application of rules deliberately created for specific ends, namely trade liberalisation (that is, the elimination of all national regulations restricting companies and their investments)” (pg 84). Bourdieu argues that ‘globalisation’ is a ‘pseudo-concept’, at once descriptive and prescriptive, which has replaced ‘modernization’ as the intellectualised trappings for the ideology of late capitalism.

    However something real and momentous is taking place. Bourdieu is concerned with the capacity of international institutions to “invisibly govern” national governments, which are preoccupied by the management of “secondary matters” and form a “political smoke screen that effectively masks the true sites of decision-making” (pg 91). He describes a “veritable invisible world government” constituted from “the big multinational firms, and their international boards, the great international institutions, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank, with their many subsidiary bodies, designated by complicated and often unpronounceable acronyms, and all the corresponding commissions and committees of unelected technocrats little known to the wider world (pg 78). This is a state of affairs that national governments have been wilfully complicit in bringing about, most strikingly those of a putatively social democratic inclination, the conduct of whom has “by extending or adopting the policy of conservative governments” made “this policy appear as the only possible one” giving “regulation measures complicit with business demands the appearance of invaluable achievements of a genuine social policy” (pg 58).

    The Internationalisation of Social Movements 

    It is because of the depoliticisation which accompanies ‘globalisation’, as the arena of decision-making moves ever further from the demos, that social movements must develop the capacity to act at a European level. In making this case, Bourdieu is rejecting what he sees as a manipulative dichotomy drawn between being pro-Europe and anti-Europe, instead rejecting the deployment of the rhetoric of cosmopolitanism in defence of the neoliberal project in Europe. His concern is to develop a capacity to pursue agendas at the european level in order to avoid the tendency to get dragged down by particularistic disputes, given that national governments often act as a ‘smoke screen’ for processes of change which have their origins at an international level. He sees great hope in the multiplication of social movements but great challenges involved in the integration necessary to constitute them as collective actors on the international stage. He offers a lot of interesting suggestions about the practical organisational forms coordination of this sort could take, with the necessity being to “establish a coordination of demands and actions while excluding attempts of any kind to take these movements over” (pg 42). I find his argument here most compelling when he discusses cultural production by social movements:

    There are currently many connections between movements and many shared undertakings, but these remain extremely dispersed within each country and even more so between countries. For example, there exist a great many critical newspapers, weeklies, or magazines in each country, not to mention internet sites, that are full of analyses, suggestions and proposals for the future of Europe and the world, but all this work is fragmented and no one reads it all. Those who produce these works are often in competition with one another; they criticise each other when their contributions are complementary and can be cumulated. (pg 43)

    If you consider the number of radical presses currently operating, with their varying degrees of size and political engagement, it’s hard not to see his point here. The advent of multi-author blogging has intensified this existing process, as the reduction of entry costs to near zero has led to a proliferation of websites which are, individually, a natural response to the question of ‘what to do?’ faced by those hoping to promulgate a counter-hegemonic politics but, collectively, this perhaps serves to fragment the very cultural terrain upon which it is hoped that an alternative ‘common sense’ will begin to take root.

  • Mark 5:23 pm on September 12, 2013 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic, Activism, , ,   

    Does Žižek take himself as seriously as other people do? Idolatry, activism and the academic left 

    So as most people reading this will probably realise, Žižek bashing and boosting has been somewhat in vogue within certain sections of the academic blogosphere in recent months. The Sociological Imagination was an enthusiastic part of this recently, through an ever-so-slightly polemic blog post penned by Steve Fuller,

    Slavoj Zizek may be great at beating up on grand old men of the anti-establishment such as Chomsky, but he is a total waste of space for a self-described ‘Left’ that wants to remain politically relevant in the 21st century. Whenever I read him, I think to myself: This guy either just wants us to feel good about ourselves after performing some self-contained Occupy-ish rituals or he is calling for outright violence in a prophylactic bloodbath. Zizek can’t seem to imagine any other political alternatives, which may suit his vast legions of followers, who are ‘politically inert’ by most conventional understandings of the phrase. This was really made clear to me in his latest piece for the Guardian, which celebrates the importance of cyberspace whistleblowers, who if ultimately regarded as ‘progressive’, will be for reasons that we have not quite yet figured out. At the moment, they look like fleas on the arse of history.


    This prompted a spate of obnoxious comments which I saw no point in posting. Previous articles I’d posted myself, which were far from dismissive of Žižek, had prompted people to post abuse at the @soc_imagination – it was initially amusing to be told I was a reactionary and have my scientism denounced before  it eventually just got tedious. But then I’ve always been mildly contemptuous of academic cultural politics in a way that I tend to keep to myself, lest I wander round the academy inadvertently insulting people. My intention in writing isn’t to be vituperative, in fact I’m trying very hard to avoid this, but simply to observe that the ratio of rhetoric to action among the academic left can often be distressingly low.  As a biographically orientated sociologist I have a pretty clear understanding of the reasons why this is so and, as someone whose activism has often been squeezed out while grappling with a far from ideal work/life balance over the last five years, this understanding is informed by self-reflection as much as social observation. However I nonetheless think this is a problem and, oddly enough, some of Žižek’s ideas have been important in elaborating my understanding of how this is so.

    Particularly his account of cynicism, which at least as I understand it*, argues that post-ideological culture tends towards an over-estimation of subjective belief: people congratulate themselves on not being ‘taken in’ by ideology while nonetheless construing their circumstances in a way which engenders objective complicity. My political problem with Žižek is the peculiarly post-ideological form of idolatry his work seems to engender – what difference does Žižek make? What’s the point of Žižek? I’ve never heard an answer to this question which isn’t irredeemably subjective, construing him as a diagnostician of late capitalism in a way which implicitly invokes some objective and proactive correlate, the specification of which is indefinitely deferred. Or in slightly plainer language:  Žižek fans always talk about him as if his work is deeply practical in its implications and yet never seem to say what these are exactly. My accusation is that his work often engenders a subjective sense of one’s political outlook as being intellectually sophisticated while contributing nothing, in fact often detracting from, objective action. This is what prompted me to write this post, which I’ll finish soon lest it become overly rambling, which I cite to illustrate my point in a way which will hopefully be conducive to friendly debate:

    Subsequently, this is also why I argue that Zizek provides us with the only space for the left. Any other leftist project (“social scientifically literate” or otherwise) is by definition fundamentally apolitical if they only remain within the possible, but Zizek allows us to revive the ‘politics proper’ which is central to some of the most radical sociologists and social theorists (including, I would argue, C. Wright-Mills whose criticism of abstract empiricism in describing the sociological imagination embodied the Marxian dictum that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it”). Zizek shows us a way to break from contemporary ‘social sciences’ which spends its time and resources describing society in an age where it is needed more than ever to change society for the better.


    On the contrary I think Žižek provides us with an intoxicating rhetoric to describe this aim but offers little to nothing which helps do it and in fact muddies the waters and makes ‘resistance’ seem much more theoretically complicated than it often is. I write in the paragraph above the quote that his work ‘seems’ to engender this tendency because I’m completely open to changing my mind about this. Plus it’s probably useful to reiterate the point that I read a lot of Žižek and, more so, I don’t do it in a ‘know thine enemy’ kind of way. I read him because I enjoy his work. I have more of a problem with how his work is taken up and deployed than I do with the man himself. Žižek clearly likes reading, writing and speaking. He lives the pampered life of the international academic superstar. He is a brand. He is also idolised. I’m not dismissing him on this basis – in fact I’m not dismissing him at all – not least of all because Chomsky, one of my  life long heroes, is just as much of a brand and is equally idolised. In fact it was this meeting of the two most high profile brands on the academic left which meant their public spat, contrived in large part by academic web editors such as myself, attracted the attention which it did. Nonetheless I do think the Žižek and Chomsky brands tend to dominate the intellectual attention space of the left, simply taking up room that would be occupied by other scholars and activists – thought this bothers me much more in the case of the latter than the former.

    *And I hasten to add that if I haven’t understood his meaning correctly then I couldn’t care less. I read Žižek because I find him enjoyable and often thought-provoking, approaching him in an exegetical way is like reading the Daily Mail. I understand why people might do it, I’m sure I’m intellectually capable of it but left to my own devices it’s the last thing in the world I’m ever going to choose to do.

    • Marika Rose (@MarikaRose) 9:52 pm on September 19, 2013 Permalink

      I think the thing that’s important to notice is that Zizek doesn’t ever exactly claim to *have* the answers to the current political situation. When he talks about what he’s actually trying to do, he says that he thinks that the role of philosophy isn’t to provide answers, it’s to help people ask the right questions. He specifically voices frustration at the way people come to him and ask him what they should *do* – that’s not his role. And he’s also pretty explicit insofar as he thinks that *we don’t know* what to do. He says (and this is something you could perhaps question) that the left is essentially stuck, it doesn’t have any genuinely transformative ideas or structures, and so philosophy is all the more important because if what you need is better answers then the first task is to think of some better questions.

    • Mark 10:36 pm on September 19, 2013 Permalink

      Yep that’s what I was trying to get at (put much better than I managed) when I said my problem is with his reception more than with the man himself. I think he compounds this ‘stuckness’ (partly through massively overstating it) by virtue of his position within the academic field. I don’t think philosophy is likely to provide ‘genuinely transformative ideas’ – I think something like the Real Utopias project is a much more potent source of political ideas and it frustrates me how innovative social science can be squeezed out by the way in which superstars like Zizek are received – which I truly don’t blame him for.

    • John 2:22 am on September 29, 2013 Permalink

      Please find a site which features the work of many individuals and groups who are lighting a candle in the face of the darkness as recently described by Henry Giroux in his essay titled Beyond Savage Politics & Dystopian Nightmares
      Plus the Signs of the Times

  • Mark 3:18 pm on October 26, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Activism, , Streets, Tweets,   

    Tweets and the Streets: an interview with Paolo Gerbaudo about social media and contemporary activism 

    I did a podcast earlier this week with Paolo Gerbaudo about his new book Tweets and the Streets. I’m going to properly edit it and post on Sociological Imagination but for a couple of reasons (I’m in the middle of moving SI between hosts & I’m rethinking the branding/editing of my podcasts) it will be a few weeks. But since it was such an interesting conversation I thought I’d post it online before then.

    Tweets and the Streets

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