I saw a wonderful exhibition this weekend, collecting work by Alex Prager combining photography and film in intricately staged hyper-real scenes. The collection that has been playing on mind since seeing it is Face In The Crowd. If you click on the screenshot below, it will take you to the website where you can see the work:

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The accompanying notes described how these are “dynamic tableaus where individual characters are presented in equally sharp focus, seemingly lost in their own internal conversations”. It reminds me of Hannah Starkey’s work in its fascination with how interiority plays out in social scenes, showing how private experience nonetheless has a public existence.

However I found the staging of the scenes troubling, as much as I recognise the intention behind them. It feels like the relationality is washed out, as if collectivity is exhausted by the artefact of the social situation. There’s a strange emptiness between inner and outer, with interaction reduced to staging such that the bonds of social life appear as little more than fragile constraints.

Each of these scenes is a collage of individuals rather than a collective, creating images which are sociological in their intention but not in their enactment. Individuals are either lost in the reality of their own lives or looking forlornly through the artifice of shared reality, as is the case with the red-haired woman in the image above. It foregrounds that artifice but also inflates it, losing track of how it functions as a collective tissue which knits together individual lives in the mundane interactions throughout the day.

It is scaffolding which often fades into the background, facilitating the relationality which is lost in these scenes. It is a deliberately stilted vision of the social, hugely succesful in its staging and producing an aesthetic which I find immensely unsettling.

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.

I read a really engaging chapter earlier by  called Authority’s Hidden Network: Obligations, Roles and the Morphogenesis of Authority. I’d encountered some of his earlier work (particularly his attempt, which I’m extremely sympathetic to, at a critical realist reading of Foucault) but I hadn’t realised he was now doing such fascinating work on social morphogenesis and normativity.

Obligations, like every feature of the personal, social and cultural realms are both structured and potentially subject to change at any moment. Because of this, obligations have a past and a future. They stretch through a certain period of time, variable in length, but only relatively enduring. Thus, if I promised to meet a friend in the pub every Wednesday evening, then I should still be bound by the obligation I had contracted in a week’s time. Yet, obligations are seldom eternal and their continuity is relative: some day, I may have good reasons to stop feeling obliged to attend that weekly pub meeting. Exploring these reasons gives us some insight into the articulation of obligations between the personal, social and cultural realms (see Archer 1995 for the distinction between personal, social and cultural properties). For instance, I may decide to quit drinking or to take my own promises more lightly (personal realm); my relation with that friend may get colder over time (social realm); or the practice of meeting in pubs can become unfashionable and other places might become more attractive as meeting places (cultural realm). This short illustration indicates that the relative continuity of obligations over time presupposes relative continuities in the personal, cultural and social realms. In the personal realm, a continuity of concern (for this friendship), and the values it entails, is presupposed. Indeed, if my (positive) valuation of the pub as a meeting place is transformed, then I may feel inclined to suggest a different meeting place; if my valuation of punctuality is transformed then I would feel inclined to show up late; if my concern for my friend’s well-being withers, then I may simply not show up without further warning! In the cultural realm, a continuity of meaning relatively to the content of our promise is also presupposed. If, say in 20 years’ time, virtual meetings become the convention, then I may feel inclined to suggest an internet meeting while expecting a positive response from my friend.

Similarly, if the word ‘pub’ comes to refer to what we currently call cafés, then the obligation might also be correspondingly affected. In short, my obligation is internally related to cultural emergent properties. In the social realm, obligations presuppose—and in turn constitute—relatively enduring continuities that can be located at the level of social roles and of the relations between them. Back to the example of meeting a friend in the pub; the social roles I personify bear on my being subject to the obligation of attending the meeting. For instance, if it is accepted that friends ought to keep their promises and care for one another, then I would have some obligation to attend and further obligation to let my friend know promptly in case of my not going. [..] Understanding how obligations and social roles are mutually constitutive is of import for the present study.First, because if roles are excluded from the picture, there is a risk of interpreting the normative commitments of people merely in terms of their personal attributes or in terms of the position they occupy within a network of relations. What would be missing in such a picture is an appreciation of the import of people’s efforts at playing their various social roles competently. These acts of personification are irreducible to the patterns of exchange in which people engage and cannot be subsumed under any personal data the inquirer may gather about participants. In other words, if I take my role as an employee seriously and if I am running late on a piece of work, then I may feel obliged to postpone that pub meeting. This obligation, stemming from my social role as an employee, depends on but cannot be explained away reductively by reference to my personal integrity or the fact that I have been meeting that friend every week over the last 2 years.

In essence he seems to be recasting authority in relational realist terms, with the aim of understanding observable relations of authority in terms of a “wider – and typically neglected – network of (significant) others whose expected attitudes are commonly used as a compass for agents engaging in relations of authority”. I’d strongly recommend this chapter to anyone interested in realist social theory (more so than anything I’ve encountered for a while) – it’s not perfect by any means but it’s hard not to get the impression he was compressing a developing long-term research agenda into a book chapter here. Underlying it is the recognition that a “conception of power that is relational and circular draws attention to agents’ attitudes and reflexive abilities” – so power is seen to be a relation in Foucault’s sense but with the caveat that the persons so related are understood as reflexive strong evaluators. Along with Archer’s recasting of the genesis of reflexivity in relational terms, his work here is important for ensuring that the claims made by realist social theory at the theoretical level do not lead to voluntarism at the explanatory level. It also contains what seems to be an ingenious critique of Weber but my grasp of Weber’s work is insufficient to judge if this is as accurate as it seems:

The rest of this chapter is dedicated to fleshing out a conception of authority that seeks to avoid the pitfalls identified above in the works of Weber: (i) ontological oscillations concerning the nature of authority; (ii) questionable conceptual links between legitimacy, obligation and right; (iii) insufficient attention to the processes through which people personify social roles that structure those relations of authority in which they are involved; and (iv) an excessive focus on the dyad ruler/ruler that obscures the network of (real or imagined) others whose beliefs and attitudes inform participants’ claims to authority and legitimacy.

An interview with Graham Harman:

it is especially surprising when the political Left embraces relational ontology (I am astonished that Peter Hallward defends such an ontology), because nothing is more politically reactionary than the idea that we are all exhaustively the products of our context. If I am nothing more than the logical outcome of neo-liberal, late capitalist America, then in the name of what am I supposed to rebel against it? I should instead be profoundly grateful to this system that produced me, since under a different system I would simply vanish and be replaced by a different entity defined by its different relational context. Political transformation is not supposed to be a form of suicide, but a form of liberation. And there can only be calls for liberation if there is something to be liberated— something that does not deserve to be stifled and oppressed by its currently mediocre or horrible conditions

What we are attempting to accomplish is to marry our concerns to a way of life that allows their realization, a way of life about which we can be wholehearted, investing ourselves in it with each personifying its requirements in our and unique manner. Hence we gain and maintain some governance over our own lives. This is a supremely reflexive tasks, entailing ‘strong evaluation’ of our social context in the light of our concerns and adjusting these concerns in the light of our circumstances.

Whilst everyone has to do this for themselves reflexively through their internal conversations, that does not imply that subjects have to do it alone. To engage in inner dialogue is to activate our personal powers but that does not make any of us individualistic monads. We all receive and use external information, we all engage in external as well as internal conversation and, above all, being human refers to a quintessentially relational being. Our human relations and the relationality between them form part of both our internal and our external conversations.

The Reflexive Imperative, Pg 15. Margaret S. Archer.  

Although reflexivity is a capacity of individuals, its exercise is not explicable in reductively individualistic terms. Not least of all because the process of coming to a modus vivendi, shaping a life within which the things that matters to us can cohere together in a satisfying and sustainable way, involves articulation. To understand what matters to us, what projects we can pursue to actualise these concerns and how to make a life for ourselves which incorporates them, we must elaborate a sense of who we are. Without others who are similarly occupied, attempting to articulate their personal identities and shape a life congruent with them, how could we do this? The relational dimension to human being doesn’t define our existence but it is both the spur to and the necessary condition for this struggle for self-definition. The meaningfulness of interiority is the flipside to our sociality.