My notes on Strathern, M., & Latimer, J. (2019). A conversation. The Sociological Review, 67(2), 481–496.

In this interesting conversation with Marilyn Strathern, who I had the pleasure to meet when Jana Bacevic organised a a masterclass with her at our department, Joanna Latimer explores the act of writing and the influence Strathern’s has had on her own. Joanna explains her experience of how Strathern’s writing “has this kind of extraordinary way of entering into one” such that “your parts become my own, and then I discover I can’t think without your parts”. As Strathern explains, her writing is intensely conversational even if the reader might not be aware of exactly who she is having the conversation with:

And it may be that this sense of always being in conversation contributes to that. There’s an ethical side to it, and of course when I was doing my work on intellectual property I sort of touched on it, which is that, you know, nothing actually ever sprang from Zeus’s head fully formed. I mean one is in debt, one is incredibly in debt, one is always taking what other people have done, whether one knows it or not. It’s not always that I have a particular person in mind, or I’m writing for people who’ve provided me with the means to do so. Rather, you stand on, stand on the shoulders of giants and all the rest of it. I’m very conscious, that one is just simply turning the soil until the next person comes along. So there’s that aspect. There’s also the intellectual chase that one gets into, getting into somebody’s argument. It does its work, it sparks you off, and you really want to pull it apart or you want to put it back together again or you want to take bits out. There are things that you think you could do otherwise. And so forth. And that’s very often in relation to specific arguments.

It is writing which seeks to “turn your reader over”, as Joanna puts it, by upending the conventional and the assumed. Marilyn describes her object as “recurrent habits of thought people just get into, time and again”, some of which provoke “real anger, I mean I’m cross”. It left me with a strong sense of the intimacy of writing, almost as vectors of entanglement through which the concerns of the writer spill over their boundaries and into the reader. There’s a really interesting section connected to this about Marilyn’s  preference for the word person over terms like identity or individual. These are bound into an imaginary which needs to be critiqued and other choices create the opportunity to get out from under them: 

Person is a term that I get from orthodox classical British social anthropology. A person is a social configuration. It’s always a relational construct. It doesn’t have the [vernacular] implications of individuality that identity has. I think that’s where the preference is. […] But because person is slightly unusual in English, after all we do use it, everyone knows what we mean, and there are contexts where we use it on an everyday basis – like ‘a person in their own right’ – but actually we don’t use it as much as we would use the word individual for example, or human being, or whatever. Slightly unusual. And it tends to be in legal language, doesn’t it? Person of no fixed abode. Whereas we’d [ordinarily] say man or woman, or whatever.

There’s a micro-podcast here in which I respond to Joanna Latimer’s presentation of an early version of this paper at a workshop last year. My talk is at 40 mins:

What is the relationship between social media and individualism? It is often claimed that these platforms engender a preoccupation with the self, easily cast in terms of individualism. But it is a preoccupation which is just as often claimed to be profoundly social, in so far as that it involves a concern with how many facets of the self are perceived by others, as mediated through social media platforms. It occurs to me that de Tocqueville’s distinction between individualism and egotism could be useful in helping clarify this issue. Though egotism and individualism are commonly assumed to go together, such that individualism as a cultural force will foster egotism in individuals, de Tocqueville saw the distinction rather differently:

Our [European] fathers were only acquainted with egotism. Egotism is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from [others] so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Egotism originates in blind instinct: individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment … Egotism blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but, in the long run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright egotism.

In an old essay about Heidegger’s conception of language, the philosopher Charles Taylor invokes the notion of ‘words of power’ to explain the power of Hitler’s rhetoric. Once we move away from a sense of language as an expression of individual meanings and purposes, we find ourselves somewhere entirely differently:

The silence is where there are not yet (the right) words but where we are interpellated by entities to disclose them as things. Of course this does not happen before language; it can only happen in its midst. Bu within a language and because of its telos, we are pushed to find unprecedented words, which we draw out of silence. This stillness contrasts with the noisy Gerede in which we fill the world with expressions of our selves and our purposes. (pg 124)

What Taylor calls ‘words of power’ are words which retrieve the inchoate from this silence, imbuing them with power because they so sharply contrast with the dull forgetfulness of our everyday use of language. To use a term Taylor adopts much later in his career, they resonate. Longings, fears, aspirations and resentments retrieved in this way have a charge because they’ve existed beneath the surface. Words of power give voice to them and, though simply words, they’re qualitative distinct from the words we use in everyday life. They give reality and shape to something which has been latent within and between us, contrary to the relative superficiality and vacuity of much of our everyday use of language.

This is a power of words which standard theories of language struggle to make sense of. However Heidegger’s theory is oblivious to their dangerous uses because, as Taylor puts it, “Heidegger has no place for the retrieval of evil in his system”. Whereas as Taylor uses this concept to make sense of Hitler’s words of power:

The danger comes from the fact that so much can be retrieved from the gray zone of repression and forgetfulness. There are also resentments and hatreds and dreams of omnipotence and revenge, and they can be released by their own appropriate words of power. Hitler was a world-historical genius in only one respect, but that was in finding dark words of power, sayings that could capture and elevate the fears, longings and hatreds of a people into something demonic. (pg 125)

The inability of liberal commentators to make sense of Trump’s rise necessitates that we take him seriously on a philosophical level. The implausibility of President Trump, I still splutter when I say or type this, reveal the faded frames within which we assess him and with which we must necessarily now dispense. He’s created a new frame and those faculties which render him obscene (the cruelty, the vulgarity and the absurdity) are both an obstacle to understanding him but also the necessary condition. What are Trump’s words of power?

We are led by very very stupid people. We cannot let it continue …. we lose everything, we lose military, we cannot beat ISIS, give me a break … we can’t beat anybody … it will change. We will have so much winning, if I get elected, that you may get bored with winning … We are going to turn this country around. We are going to start winning big league … We are going to have such a strong military that no one is going to mess with us.

Trump speaks the language of individualism and meritocracy so familiar from the last few decades. But he does so in a way that gives voice to latent grievance, as opposed to the dull(ing) language of self-described progressives. There are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, there are ‘smart’ people and ‘stupid’ people. The culture of meritocracy became manichean over time, while failing to offer the moral resources to interpret the position of the ‘losers’ and the ‘stupid’. This has happened in the UK as well, as I discuss with Will Davies in this podcast:

The idea that there are those ‘left behind’ who feel ‘ignored’ isn’t new. But as Steve Hall, Simon Winlow and co have pointed out in their work on the far right, a left captured by liberal professionals (a case also made powerfully by Thomas Frank about the Democratic party) has proven systematically unable to give voice to these experiences. The closest that the centre-left has come, in the guise of a Clinton or Blair, has been to offer more of the same: a reinforcement of the prevailing culture of meritocracy and a sterile language of opportunity. There is no necessity about how this injuries are expressed, though there is a path-dependency to how they have been articulated..

The darkness we can see emerging in the US and Europe has been growing throughout the seeming moderation, presaged by its easy and partial articulation into a preoccupation with borders or the radical Islamic threat which threatens to destroy us. To put it as straight forwardly as possible: resentments have been accumulating across large swathes of the population, without any cultural framework within which they could be meaningfully articulated. The cultural horizons of our political culture have narrowed precipitously while structural consequences have been germinating.

However it’s important not to reproduce the facile notion of the ‘left behind’ which is now entering into elite discourse. The claim that the ‘losers’ of globalisation have been ignored and now must be attended to is a crucial component in the rise of what Malcolm James calls popularist post-welfare capitalism. It imputes a homogeneity to experience, it naturalises the rightist articulation of that experience and it fails to address the underlying foreclosure which has been the creeping post-democratisation of the recent years. It also fails to recognise the role of the relatively affluent, those who do not look like losers, whose experience at the very least needs to be understood.

Rather than a construct like ‘left behind’, we should accept the descriptive and explanatory void that currently exists while looking to ethnographic and qualitative studies (existing and otherwise) in order to fill it. There are factors in play here which need to be attended to extremely closely, such as the rural character of Trump’s working class support.

Meanwhile we need to find leftist words of power. Urgently.

This isn’t a new idea but I’ve rarely encountered it expressed so concisely:

The idea that individuals create wealth and that all governments do is come along and tax them is what Varoufakis calls “a preposterous reversal of the truth”.

“There is an amazing myth in our enterprise culture that wealth is created individually and then appropriated by the state to be distributed.

“We are conceptualising what is happening in society as if we are an archipelago of Robinson Crusoes, everybody on an island, creating our own thing individually and then a boat comes along and collects it and redistributes it. It’s not true. We are not individual producers, we produce things collectively.”

He points to an iPhone.

“This machine, inside of it, contains technologies that were created collectively. Not only through collaboration but a lot of public funding. Every single technology in there was created by government grant.”

Sometimes the noise other people make bothers me. I mean really pisses me off. The kind of irritation which makes it impossible to ignore the noise, leaving your attention locked in and your perceptual field narrowed until there is only you and that noise. On those occasions where I talk myself out of it, I often realise there’s nothing particularly egregious about the noise in question. It’s just that a particular confluence of circumstances has conspired to make the noise enormously disruptive to me. The problem of the noise is both relational and emergent. It’s not a problem in and of itself. This is reflected by the fact that on other occasions, similar noise barely registers, maybe eventually prompting me to wonder “has that been audible for a while?”

This is a useful thing to register when learning to live with noise. But there are limits to personal adaptation. It doesn’t follow that disruptive noise is subjective, simply because our experience of it as subjects has an obvious range that is in turn modulated through our responses as subjects. I used to live in between two pubs, literally in between them, one of which attracted what, to me at least, was the most obnoxious clientèle imaginable. It’s in Earlsdon in Coventry, for those who know the area and are wondering. There were particular characteristics of the venue, as well as the area itself, which contributed to the production of disruptive noise on the weekends. I might be able to modulate my response to that noise but the circumstances were generative of it, not my own perceptual capacities. Likewise the cockerel who lived in my neighbour’s back garden at the same flat. I didn’t get much sleep that year.

I find ‘disruptive noise’ ontologically interesting because it’s hard to have a substantive discussion about how to regulate it which doesn’t fall into an objective/subjective dichotomy. Subjective prescriptions are inadequate (“why do you let it bother you so much? just try and put it out of your head”) when there’s drunken fights outside your door at midnight and a cockerel crowing outside your window at 5am. I’m very glad I don’t live there any more. Objective prescriptions also seem inadequate to me because of the potentially open-ended character that’s lent to the problem by the subjective dimension, for lack of a better word. If noise becomes disruptive whenever any particular person at any particular time finds it disruptive then interventions become rather disturbingly authoritarian, allowing fleeting whims of irritated (and sometimes irritating) people to lead to the suppression of activities which most people would find reasonable.

If you google for stories of noise complaints, it soon becomes obvious quite what a range of circumstances councils are called upon to deal with. In some cases, people’s lives are literally destroyed by the noise of others. A couple of minutes down my ex-partner’s street was a house which, for 6 months, had (bad) techno playing constantly at high volume whenever I passed. Living so close to each other, yet not together, I passed that house at all hours of the day and night. The music was always playing. It must have destroyed the lives of the people living next door. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve found people online complaining that they can hear their neighbours talking after 10pm. From the report, it seems their neighbours are talking at normal volume in their house in the evening. But for whatever reason, the complainers are unable to tune this out and become fixated on this utterly everyday life noise at the expense of their own lives.

This raises the question for me of whether this inability to live with the noise of others, something which I’ve occasionally recognised in myself but learnt to dismiss as unreasonable through my internal conversation, might be on the rise? If we conceive of ourselves as bounded and autonomous, experiencing life through the constraining prism of our own imagined independence and isolation, involuntary exposure to noise takes on an ambivalent status. It both undercuts our imagined atomism, revealing the interdependencies through which sociality is constituted, as well as appears as an attack upon it. It feels like an intrusion of other isolated individuals upon our own isolation, while leaving us inclined to fight it off in order to restore the hermetic seal which perceptually props up our imagined a-relational nature.

When I talk about a-relational here, I mean it in the Thatcherite sense of ‘individuals and their families’. I’ve often wondered about the Tory fixation on council refuse policies and suspect there’s a similar mechanism at work. If an English Man’s home is his castle then what does that make the bins outside, the people who come to collect it each week and the organisational structure this routine presupposes? The politics of bins are a messy and quotidian instance of the politics of individuality.

I’m suggesting that changing policies for bin collection is threatening to this imagined individuality in the same way and for the same reasons that intrusive noise is experienced as an assault upon it. We imaginatively deny our inviolable being-with-others, the fact we are always already placed within a network of relations, such that recurrent reminders of it becomes fetish objects: they take on power and significance far beyond their literal meaning and consequences, challenging us to either fight off this threat to how we conceive of our place within the world or learn to live with it as something other than a threat. Crucially, I don’t think the challenge of being-with-others entails subjective adjustment. It might involve telling yourself that on this particular occasion you should let something lie but it might equally involve taking action, trying to establish a new common ground through which interdependency can be something conducive to flourishing rather than a threat to well-being.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the bookshop in Kings Cross while waiting for the Eurostar and came across this disturbing book:

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Given I was on my way to a much needed holiday, I didn’t buy the book at the time, intrigued though I was by it. I just went on Amazon to finally purchase it and was genuinely surprised to discover that this isn’t the only one:

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The author is a psychologist at Oxford who seems to be carving out a media career as Dr. Psychopath. However there are also many other texts with ‘psychopath’ in the title which intrigue me. Many seem to be self-published texts offering advice on avoiding manipulation by ‘psychopaths’. Others are confessional texts of various sorts. Whereas others seem to be popular science books which, I imagine, likely come close to the territory of Kevin Dutton’s books at points.

The New Individualism: The Emotional Costs of Globalization. Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert. Revised Edition. London: Routledge, 2009. 248pp. 10 0415560705 paperback, £20.99. 

Originally published in 2006, this revised edition is updated to respond to critics and to review its thesis in light of the financial crisis. In essence though, that thesis remains unchanged. As Elliott and Lemert continue to argue, contemporary globalization has enmeshed individuals throughout the world in historically unique circumstances placing an unavoidable burden on each individual to reflexively manage their own life – creating a new and pervasive individualism. Though the authors distinguish their work from other approaches the core point is not fundamentally original. Elliott and Lemert acknowledge their debt to Bauman, Beck, and Giddens, in terms of whom the general conceptualisation is stated as ‘the individualisation thesis’ rather than the ‘new individualism’.

In any case, The New Individualism remains the most recent and most intellectually enthusiastic statement of an idea which, more than perhaps anything else sociology has produced in the neoliberal age, captures the spirit of that age.  As such, it is worthy of sustained critical engagement.

The New Individualism asks the right questions but gives the wrong answers and this failure is a consequence of the theoretical and methodological inadequacies of the approach adopted by the author. Furthermore, these failures are symptomatic of much wider problems in the body of work which Elliott and Lemert are drawing on in this book. However, there are elements of enduring value that can be salvaged from the individualization thesis. I argue that Archer’s recent work holds the key to this salvage operation.

Below I highlight which aspects of The New Individualism ought to be retained  and, through doing so, map out the contours of a theoretical and methodological approach more suited to understanding the personal and emotional ramifications of contemporary social changes. I argue that, in realist terms, what is missing in regard of the focus on the individual is a conceptualisation of reflexivity as mediating between the structural and the agential or global forces and psychic life.

Pre-print available here. Published in the Journal of Critical Realism.