Monday, 29 April 2013

On the notion of the precariat


San Precario, patron saint of
all flex workers
The notion of the precariat - derived from "precarity" and "proletariat" - has made quite a career. For a long time I was used to hearing it primarily in street demonstratons, but nowadays it has become academically respectable. I suspected that this might happen already when I read Guy Standing's 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. But, still, I was quite stunned earlier this month, when I read in the news (here) that a team of British sociologists had employed it in its analysis of the results of the BBC's Great British Class Survey of 2013. The "precariat", they declared, was one of seven classes in British society, the one that was most deprived in terms of economic, cultural and social capital. Towering above it were the other six classes: the elite, the established middle classes, technical experts, new affluent workers, the traditional working class, and emergent service workers.

The results featured prominently on the BBC site, where the results were summarized by two of the team members, Mike Savage and Fiona Devine. Visitors to the homepage were also invited to take a simple test - in the "Great British class calculator: What class are you?" - to see in which class they would fit in. Curiously, precarity of employment appeared to play no role as a factor in this class calculation. Neither, as far as I could see, was it much of a criterion in the survey analysis itself (see Savage et al 2013). The "precariat" is simply the label used for the category of people who score lowest on all forms of capital. Why then did they use the term? This, they state, was largely due to inspiration from Standing (ibid 243).

More than any other, Standing has paved the way for the academic respectability of the term precariat. Unlike the analysts of the BBC survery, he is careful to link the precariat to the global shifts in production processes that engender precarization. But very much like them, he sees the precariat as belonging to the bottommost rung of the class ladder (below the elite, salariat, proficians, and the old manual working class, and flanked by the unemployed and social misfits). Like them, he also stresses that members of the precariat are deprived in many ways apart from job insecurity: they lack work-based identity, career prospects, self-esteem and social worth, and are insufficiently integrated in society and community (Standing 2011:9, 12, 21f, for a summary see Standing 2012).
While the definitions used by Standing and the analysts of the BBC survey are different, both locate the "precariat" at the bottom of the class ladder. Apart from suffering economic insecurity, members of the precariat are also prone to be socially isolated, culturally impoverished and lacking feelings of self-worth. This means that their notion of the precariat is rather narrow, since it leaves out a lot of people whose job situation is precarious but who might not be as deprived in other respects. To be sure, Standing acknowledges considerable variety in the composition of the precariat - which can contain migrants, people who drift into precarity from the "old" working class, as well as young people "over-credentialised for the flexi-jobs on offer". Still, as far as I can see the following groups would fall outside his notion of the precariat: students or young post-graduates (who may have careers), art workers (who often have a strong work-based identity or ”calling”), middle-aged dismissed workers (who also often have work-based identities), social withdrawers and mentally ill people (who often have support from families or institutions), day laborers (who again often have strong work-based identities), and many migrant workers (who may have communities supporting them).

Precariat or not?


It is not my intention here to criticize these scholars, but I'd like to counterpose their use of the notion to another one - a notion more common among activists. The term precariat was not invented by Standing. Without citing any references, he claims that it was first used by French sociologists in the 1980s to describe temporary or seasonal workers (Standing 2011:9). Be that as it may, the term only gained wide popularity though the EuroMayDays beginning in 2004. At that time, no-one really seemed to know where the term came from, except that it was said to have originated as street graffiti in Italy in 2003.

The sense in which the term was used by the EuroMayDay activists was well expressed by Alex Foti. Cross-cutting traditional class boundaries, he wrote that it included “chain-workers” as well as “brain-workers”, free-lancers as well as manufacturing temps. Unlike similar terms, like “flex worker”, he stressed that the term carried strong connotations of political agency: “The precariat is to postindustrialism as the proletariat was to industrialism: the non-pacified social subject" (Foti 2004, 2005).

A striking trait of this notion of the precariat is that it cross-cuts class, rather than designating a class by itself. Rather than limiting the notion to the most deprived, an effort is made to invite students, artists, actors, and others in the knowledge industries to identify with the precariat. People can be in the precariat even if they score high on cultural and social capital, provided that they lead precarious lives. Why, one might ask, is the term is not limited to the most deprived? I think there are two reasons. Firstly, what Foti and other activists in the Euro Mayday tried to do was not to pinpoint a new stratum so much as to suggest how widely different stratas were affected by precarization in contemporary capitalism. "We are hirable on demand, available on call, exploitable at will, and firable at whim. We are the precariat" (Foti 2005). Secondly, they sought to use the term polemically, to help forge a sense of solidarity among those people. What mattered was not what strata you belonged to so much as your realization that neoliberalism had created your predicament.

To bring out a little bit more of how the term has been employed by activists, let me illustrate with some material from Japan, where the media activist Sakurada Kazuya was the first to popularize the term through events at the NPO Remo in Osaka in 2005 (see Sakurada 2006). It gained wide currency when a special issue on the precariat appeared in the journal Impaction in early 2006. Soon afterwards it was picked up by the General Freeter Union (Furîtâ zenpan rôdô kumiai), which used it for its May Day street party (the "Freedom and Survival May Day") in Tokyo the same year, the term's first appearance in a street demonstration in Japan.

One of the early "Freedom and Survival May Day"
demonstratons (photo Mkimpo Kid?)
As one activist in the General Freeter Union pointed out, part of the attraction of the term was that it had originated from the worker movement itself, not from the corporate world or academics: “The word ‘precariat’ differs from, for example, the word ‘multitude, since it didn’t come into being as an academic term but was born from anonymous wall-graffiti” (Settsu 2006).

Interestingly, in Japan, the term came to take on a wider meaning than in the Euro Mayday. Apart from people forced into a state of uncertainty because of the labour market, it has also come to include mentally and physically disabled, social withdrawers, wrist-cutters, the homeless, overworked regular workers and even small shop-owners. A good example of this wide definition is this forceful announcement of a street party in 2006, written by an icon of the precarity movement in Japan, Amamiya Karin:
You to whom living is hard, freeters, NEETs, social withdrawers, paupers, working poor, workers on the verge of death from overwork, temp workers, illegal overstayers, regular employees without insurance, you who long for suicide, all kinds of addicts, all you with physical or mental handicaps, wristcutters, or in other words: all members of the precariat – let’s roll out on the street and demonstrate! (Amamiya 2006)
It should be noted that “precariat” is only one in a "family" of similar terms used in the Japanese precarity movement. Some groups stick with terms like “good-for-nothing” (dame) or “losers” while others prefer the simple “pauper” (binbô). Others terms appearing from time to time are those of “rabble” (uzômuzô), “desperados” (narazumono) or “unstable poor” (fuantei hinmin), all connoting lowly social status as well as a heterogeneous composition.

Students protesting against high university fees
The term precariat should, I think, be grasped in conjunction with these other terms. Common to them is, firstly, a self-deprecating humor lacking in the official or academic terminology. Secondly, the terms stress material and social deprivation, and imply identification with the underdog. Thirdly, they imply rebelliousness. Denigrating terms are taken over, but only to be turned into objects of polemical affirmation. When activists use terms like “losers” they are at the same time signaling their rejection of the value judgments inherent in it.

The polemical nature of these terms is connected to the fact that they so often appear fuzzy, ambiguous or paradoxical. To understand this, I think it is useful to recall Rancière’s suggestion that politics is quintessentially about “improper” names, or “misnomers”. According to him, the political act par excellence is what he calls subjectivation, an act whereby subaltern groups make themselves visible by polemically rejecting given identities, often in favor of new categories that appear unreasonable, “impossible” or paradoxical. Conversely, politics dies whenever groups submit to given, unambiguous categories, through what he calls “identification” (Rancière 1999). When demonstrators call themselves the “precariat” or “good-for-nothings” or “paupers”, then this is subjectivation, not identification. Flex workers may be submissive, but not the precariat.

To summarize, the "precariat" as used by activists differs from the academic notion by being used polemically by people recognizing themselves in it, instead of being imposed scientifically from above. It is not limited to the most down-trodden or worst-off, but is deliberately turned into a wide, elastic and ambiguous category capable of attracting many different kinds of groups and of being flexibly deployed according to the needs of the situation.
When academics like Standing or Savage et al use the term, there are few or no traces of the term’s activist roots and its subversive connotations. In their texts they seem to address a general non-precariat audience, without ever trying to get across to the people they refer to as the precariat. I am not accusing these academics of being apolitical or of aspiring to the impossible positivist dream of neutrality. As far as I know, they are progressive and probably even favorably inclined to the precarity movement. Standing, as is well known, has played an important role in promoting the idea of basic income. But the fundamental gesture of imposing a term from above remains - what Rancière saw as the provision of categories readymade for identification. 

My intention is not been to criticize the academic usage of the term "precariat", but rather to throw light on the other, activist usage which also still exists. Maybe it's a good thing that the term has become academically respectable. But academics should be clearer than they are now about the history of how the roots of the concept were nourished in activism - roots which are still alive, and which mustn't be run over by terminological Juggernauts. I hope that the day will never come when activists who use the term will be told by academically inspired besserwissers that they are not the "real" precariat.


Amamiya, Karin (2006) “Demo da, demo da, mô sugu demo da!” [Demonstration coming soon], Sugoi ikikata, entry for 2006-08-01.

Foti, Alex (2004) “Precarious Lexicon”, pp 18-20, Greenpepper Magazine (special issue: Precarity) 2 (Amsterdam, Greenpepper Project)

Foti, Alex (2005) “Mayday Mayday! Euro Flexworkers,Time To Get a Move On!”, EIPCP 04.

Rancière, Jacques (1999) Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.

Sakurada, Kazuya (2006) “Purekariâto kyôbô nôto” [Conspiracy notes for the precariat], Impaction 151 (April): 20-35.
Savage, Mike et al (2013) “A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC's Great British Class Survey Experiment”, Sociology 47(2):219-250.

Settsu, Tadashi (2006) “‘Purekariâto’ ni tsuite” [On the precariat], blog entry 2006-09-11.
Standing, Guy (2011) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Standing, Guy (2012) ”The Precariat: Why it Needs Deliberative Democracy”, Open Democracy, 21 January. 

Friday, 26 April 2013

Daruma-san has fallen

Woodblock by David Bull
(copyright M. Schumacher)
“Even if you fall, don’t worry. Just rise to your feet again.” This is a saying attributed to Bodhidharma, a legendary monk said to have introduced Zen (or Chan) Buddhism to China in the 5th or 6th century.

Bodhidharma is often depicted in Japan as a cute doll, known as Daruma-san. Sold in temples with blank, round eyes, you're supposed to fill in an eye and make a wish when you buy it and then fill in the remaining eye when the wish comes true. Apparently these dolls started to be made in the 18th century. Many are tumbler dolls, made in a round shape with a weight attached to the bottom so that the doll will automatically "rise to its feet" as soon as it is toppled over.

A friend of mine who is fluent in German once claimed that the doll expressed an important Zen truth: "unten schwer, oben leer". That may be true or not, but the popularity of the doll probably has more to do with the fact that it works as a symbol of recovery from illness or injuries and for rapidly overcoming difficulties. This symbolism is also expressed in a popular proverb connected to Bodhidharma, nana-korobi ya-oki, literally meaning "falling seven times, rising eight times", which is used to express the attitude of never giving up.

By Hakuin Ekaku (1685-1768)
There are also some gruesome legends about Bodhidharma which are connected to feet and eyes. According to Chinese legends, he is said to have meditated facing a wall for nine years until his legs atrophied and fell off. According to more recent Japanese legends, he is also said to have torn off his own eye lids in anger over having fallen asleep during meditation.

Being in bed with a calcaneus fracture, I guess it would be easy for me to be ironic about people talking about how easy it is to rise again. But actually, these legends about feet, falling and recovery made me look around for a little bit more to read about him and doing so proved to be a very pleasant pastime. 

One thing I found out through this nice collection of Buddhist artworks with commentaries by Mark Schumacher was that these stories about falling and rising were sometimes given a phallic symbolism. What falls and then quickly rises again is the male sexual organ. I'd really recommend interested readers to have a look at some of the artworks on his site - like so much else produced in Edo period Japan it is quite delightful and sure to guarantee a few laughs (as they were meant to do already then). Meanwhile, let me quote the relevant passage from Schumacher's text:
As shown above, Daruma artwork lent itself easily to phallic symbolism without any need for folkloric references. Yet, there is little doubt that Daruma's metamorphosis into the male organ was pushed along by the widespread use in the late Edo era of the armless and legless Daruma tumbler doll talisman against smallpox. When knocked on its side, the doll pops back to the upright position and therefore symbolizes (1) a speedy recovery from illness, akin to "getting back on one's feet;" or (2) resilience, undaunted spirit, and determination. Such imagery can be easily employed to describe the down-up, soft-hard nature of the male sexual organ. With only a little imagination, one can easily understand why Daruma paintings and talismanic representations fell naturally under the same phallic sway. Says scholar Bernard Faure: "Until the Meiji period, phallic representations of Daruma in stone or papier mache were sold. The name 'Daruma' was also a nickname given in the Edo period to prostitutes, perhaps because, like the doll, these specialists of tumble could raise the energy of their customers........ There is also in Zen iconography a representation of the 'erect Bodhidharma.' The sexual symbolism is played out in the ukiyoe [woodblock prints], where Daruma appears as woman — a courtesan, or a transvestite Daruma and Okame" (the quote is from this text by Faure)
One reason I liked this passage was that Schumacher here confirms so much about the phallic or yang associations connected to Bodhidharma that I myself once tried to excavate with the help of a few old artworks. I could have saved myself at least some of this interpretative toil by reading this earlier! (See my previous entries: "Big eyes" and "White and red").

Totem pole
Incidentally, the phallic symbolism also helps explain this -Takewo Yoshizaki's "Daruma-san totem pole", one of the few three-dimensional artworks produced by the young artists engaged in creating art in the "Cardboard Village" of homeless people living in the underground passages near the west exit of Shinjuku Station in the mid-90's (For a look at the artworks, see this site or Sakokawa Naoko's recently published photo collection, Shinjuku danbôru-mura). Take Jun'ichiro, another of the artists, often spoke about the underground passages as a womb. Perhaps the totem pole could be seen as a phallus that would impregnate this womb? In fact, many of the artworks depicted births or newborn babies. 

I once wrote a text on this cardboard village in which I pointed out how one of the most famous paintings - the "Shinjuku Left Eye" - was also connected to the Daruma-san motif. The painters had decided to paint it to supplement an existing art work, the "Shinjuku Eye" (a rather monumental glass eye located nearby that was made by Miyashita Yoshiko in the late 60's), thereby repeating the gesture of filling in a missing eye. The artists spoke about it as signifying the birth of a huge living creature, a monster living in the underground passages ready to howl its resentment and "turn its fangs against shit-Japan", symbolized by the Metropolitan Government skyscraper at the foot of which the passages ended.

Shinjuku's Left Eye
So here again the Daruma-san motif is connected, if not to a phallus, than to a kind of fertility idea and to the idea of a rectification of the world. Such symbolism was also present in artworks depicting Daruma-san in premodern Japan, where Daruma-san was for instance sometimes depicted as a namazu, a giant subterranean catfish through to cause earthquakes and used to symbolize the idea of yonaoshi, the rectification of the world, the punishment of the greedy and the redistribution of wealth (see Gregory Smits's site here or his "Shaking up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints", Journal of Social History 39:4, 2006). 

Daruma namazu, 1855 woodblock print
(courtesy Univeristy of Tokyo, via M. Schumacher)
Perhaps it's time to leave the phallic symbolism. The saying about just rising again if one happens to fall is one which I like and which I think may have some truth even outside the phallic context (however hard it might be for some to rise). Let me end by quoting one of my friends, who has a special talent for paraphrasing and détourning quotations. Once in a letter she wrote: "We are ridiculous! Disarm your enemies by laughing (AND THEN RISE!)". On another occasion she was feeling a bit blue and said: ”Even if you fall, don’t worry. Just stay in bed.”  Now there's some good advice which I will follow!

One step at the time

My foot, which underwent surgery four days ago, insists on constant attention like a child. Every movement I make is a trial. The fact that I must concentrate on every move involves me in an elaborate kind of dance, which I'm sure must look rather hilarious to my family. My body tells me that it needs to be this way or that. And no, the toes can't point that way. At the toilet, put your knee here. Breathe deeply if you need to. Now get down on all four. Point the leg skywards while you read the book!

It's a slow and awkward dance, but it still feels like a dance since the movements need to be right and since they absorb so much of my attention. Maybe it's like walking on thin ice. Maybe it's like climbing in a tree where I don't know if the branches will hold.

At the same time, no movement brings total relief. With every move, I grope towards a state that feels a tiny bit better, that's all. Like in a labyrinth, the exit from pain is nowhere in sight. I need to grope my way towards it. Sometimes it feels like there's a line which I cannot see, but which I can feel my way along.

Pain is my Ariadne's thread. It's what I want to get away from, but it's also my guide. It's the language of my nerves. It can come unexpectedly, in flashes. Sometimes it wells up like a wave. Usually it wants me to move, but sometimes it's just there, like a stone, an object demanding all my attention and refusing to go away.

When I talk about pain, I'm really talking about the movement of heart and mind. You guessed it, right? It's ki (or qi in Chinese), or part of ki to more precise. You all know it from Star Wars. It doesn't provide me with a map, but it can be quite stubborn about what my next move should be. It can be wrong, but usually, if I follow it, things become a little better. They lighten up somewhat. At least that's my experience so far. Here comes a generalization (somewhat on the cheap): Whenever you're stuck, do one thing at the time. One small step, and then another. It works for pain, for human relations and for too much work. Don't try to move the mountain. Go for the pebbles, and forget about the mountain. Think of how winter turns into spring. A little at the time!

Don't put the foot here! Point it in the other direction! Now, lower it to the floor! Let your toes touch the carpet! And listen to your stomach as well. It's time to get something to eat!

Labyrinth by Voitv

Sunday, 21 April 2013


Stuck now in my home with a heel fracture, I feel like I'm entering new territory. I'm awaiting operation now, pain is only moderate and I'm gradually learning how to go about doing daily tasks. My damaged foot has helped me get to know my body a bit better. As I wrote in a Facebook entry some time ago: "Dear body, I'm glad to see you again. It was a long time ago".

But this is not just about the body. Body and mind cannot be separated. If this feels like new territory, it's also because I'm rediscovering parts of my mind. I've long been used to thinking of my mind as possessing a certain geography, a landscape of emotions and cognitions that include some places that I almost never visit. To reach them I need to break with the routines of my daily life. Being home with a damaged foot is one way of achieving this.

During the first days after my accident, I sometimes ventured out on crutches into the living room, after my family had gone to sleep. I would feel like a ghost haunting the old places where it had once lived. During those days, I still felt a lot of pain, especially during the night. Lowering the foot to the floor would feel like sinking it into a bucket of pain. Still, strangely, I loved this pain, which so obviously was a sign that my body was still alive. I would also feel dreadfully stupid for the accident, which was all my own fault. In the midst of all this, I would feel and think, think and feel - a process which is typical of being alive in an emphatic sense, and which is contrary to the diluted life of everyday routine (a life when I think little and feel little).

It might be a trite commonplace by now, but one of the most stupid illusions produced by the routines of ordinary life is the illusion of self-sufficiency. Even though I know this, convalescence has helped me realize again how helpless I would be without others. Receiving the help of others is good, because it erodes pride.

One thought that struck me was that convalescence helps me prepare for the way I will probably die. I know little of dying, but what I know tells me that it is a process so full of pain and hardship that it seems absurdly unfair that most of us will have to undergo it when we are old and weak. Dying is a falling apart of the landscape of the mind, and the roads and cities of routine will be first to disappear. To be terminally ill is to live in a shrinking world. Gradually, the things that I have amassed during my life will lose importance. I will lose interest in books I once wanted to read. I will cease to care about things that once made me happy. I will still love people and I will wish them well. But the armies of pain and fatigue will advance every passing day. Every day will mean a further defeat, a discovery of a new incapacity, a further league added to the distance between me and the living.

I've seen people who have walked this road turn into almost angelic figures. Even as they grew weaker, they surprised me with their strength since they were able to preserve what was really important - kindness and, strangely, a clarity of vision surpassing that of us who, so full of sad confusion, had gathered around them - when everything else fell away.

I have no faith in life after death, but I do believe in a life beyond routine. Some places hidden among the hills are among the most precious and wonderful that I know of. Lush and sunny, they are places where a sweet wind is blowing, gently caressing my senses. Every time I find them, I feel that I have not lived in vain.

Where you are going, you can only enter empty-handed.
Whatever you find on the road, just leave it where it is.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Inherent Vice

I finished reading a great book yesterday. A book taking place in the late 60s. People have already started to sense that “the prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest”.

Near the end Doc is driving on the freeway. Caught in the night fog blowing in from the sea, he sees “one of the few things he’d ever seen anybody in this town, except for hippies, do for free”. The car drivers form a convoy, “a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog”, one car settling in behind the taillights of the other as they drive on.

The book, if anyone's interested, is Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The ignorant schoolmaster

JosephJacotot.jpg Just a few words about Rancière's The Ignorant Schoolmaster (Stanford University Press 1991). This book is a lot of things. Most immediately, it's the story of Joseph Jacotot, the teacher and educational philosopher who, while in exile in Brussels, discovered that students could learn perfectly well without any explanations from the teacher. Even the ignorant, he concluded, can teach. He called his method that of "intellectual emancipation".

It's also a story about the practice of equality. Not equality as a legal fiction, but about what happens the moment we really treat each other as equals. Equality, Rancière suggests, is real and a property of the people themselves, not a construction or semblance created through the public sphere of citizens.
We aren’t saying that the citizen is the ideal man, the inhabitant of an egalitarian political heaven that masks the reality of the inequality between concrete individuals. We are saying the opposite: that there is no equality except between men, that is to say, between individuals who regard each other only as reasonable beings. The citizen, on the contrary, the inhabitant of the political fiction, is man fallen into the land of inequality. (Rancière 1991:90) 
As Kristin Ross points out in her preface, the book is an attack on Althusser and Bourdieu, both scholars who personified the attitude of what Jacotot called the "old master", the master standing above the masses and pretending to possess superior knowledge. However, this passage shows that Rancière also attacks the idea of the public sphere as described by Habermas and Arendt. Both of the latter describe this as a sphere or realm where the semblance of equality is created among citizens through a systematic bracketing of real inequality.

This latter attack deserves a little more attention than I think it has been given (at least that's what I feel after a cursory look at the secondary literature). The attack is interesting, given that this public sphere, this realm of citizens, is surely what appears in Rancière's later writings as the "police", the order of the sensible.

In this book Rancière appears to adopt a position in regard to this realm that is close to Jacotot's, i.e. a kind of enlightened quietism which reminds me of Buddhism: ”the reasonable man [must] submit to the madness of being a citizen, while trying to safeguard his reason” (ibid. 91). Rather than rebelling against the dominant order, this "reasonable man" lives inside it while recognizing its madness and untruth. Emancipation, then, is purely intellectual, not a matter of actually challenging existing power relations. In later writings, Rancière instead tends to stress the need for this otherworldly reason to erupt into the fake order and shatter it. When what intellectuals speak about as the people or the masses raise their voices, "subjectivizing" themselves, they also upset the order that has been set up without asking them. Attacking that realm means that he, like Nancy Fraser, associates the realization of equality or truth with the eruption into this order of what is incompatible with it. But unlike her, he believes in no dialectical expansion of the order to make it more inclusive or egalitarian. The citizen is irremediably lost.

I must confess that while reading I scribbled down so many objections to Rancière's ideas that the margins have turned into quite a mess. Is the method really so egalitarian? Surely even an ignorant master is a master - isn't inequality rooted in the very institutional setting rather than in the teacher's pretense to possess knowledge? Is it really convincing to portray emancipation as a purely intellectual liberation? Do all explanations really have to be inegalitarian - how about dialogue and searching together?

But I agree with what I take to be the central thrust of Rancière's and Jacotot's method: that anyone can learn and that learning is possible without a teacher or master thought to possess superior knowledge. That’s how researchers learn. They learn by themselves or by talking to each other. I’ve always thought that all human beings are equally smart, provided that they are interested. Those who do bad in school are usually also those who are uninterested in the subjects (but they may be geniuses at car motors or true connaisseurs of football or fashion or whatever). The appearance of inequality stems from the fact that some are interested in things that are socially valued while others aren’t. I'm not sure Rancière provides much help when it comes to how these social values, and the power relations on which they rest, could be changed, but he does remind us that we can at least try to practice equality. Doing so is not just a matter of ethics, of showing proper respect. It's also a matter of not deluding ourselves, as we tend to do when we judge as the world does.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Lit windows / Summer psychogeography

Today, confined to my bed, I discovered among my drafts this fragmentary text, which I think dates from early June last year. I don't know what prudishness prevented me from publishing it, so... here goes. Welcome to the blogosphere, old fragment!  

I spent a pleasant afternoon in the park today - a picnick with my wife and her class mates. An Italian guy who looked like Bob Dylan on the Desire album offered my five-year old son his kite to fly with, and my son learnt to fly the kite for the first time ever.

Summer evenings have always exerted a strong pull on me, even when they are as cold as today. Since becoming a father I haven’t allowed myself many of these evening walks (except during my stays in Japan, where circumstances are different). Going out for a restless stroll tonight I felt very clearly what is so special about these evenings – an atmosphere of slight, but socially accepted inebriation. Don't get me wrong: I was technically sober. This atmosphere is present not only where people hang out, but also and perhaps even more intensely and poignantly in the deserted cobble stone streets. There I discovered today, in an unexpected place, the strangest shop... a place that was both, it seemed, a parfumery and an antiquity shop. What made me stop was a lightly dressed porcelain lady in an old-fashioned hairstyle who was holding a guitarr. A Western Enoshima Benten? Peering through the window I discovered a landscape of the most glorious kitsch that made me think about Aragon and Benjamin, my beloved gods. Diving like Li-Po into the river to fetch the moon, my heart soared through the window and its labyrinthine streets. In the dusk ahead a tram turned its headlights around and starting racing towards me – looking like some steam punk machinery from Teikoku Shônen or perhaps the cat bus in My neighbor Totoro. Flying onwards, my feet stumbling through the air, I ended up in a maze of geometrical red brick houses, vaguely reminiscent of an expressionistic painting, from which from some reason I felt that Alice's Queen of Hearts might emerge any moment.

My head is as full of kitsch as that shop window. But who cares? The night is beautiful. I love cobble stones. And these dour black facades surrounding me, like towering adult strangers gathering around a poor kid who has lost his way... Looking at these shadows with their rows of stately windows - behind which people live! - that were gently showering me with soft light, perhaps some diluted version of Tinkerbell's fairy dust, I felt these windows were like kind eyes looking down at me. Totally lost, not in but outside thought, all I knew was that I love to feel myself walking. I love this air, I love to feel myself breathe.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Why reading Foucault-inspired research makes me long for dialectics

I've been interested for some time in the possibility of using the notions of governmentality and counter-conducts in the study of social movements. In the existing governmentality literature, I think it's a pity that so little attention has been given to protest and social movements.

The problem is that, while there's plenty to fetch in Foucualt's work for social movement scholars, there is also a tendency in much of his work and among his followers to belittle resistance. This tendency is admittendly weak and perhaps marginal to his work, but it is nevertheless (to be frank) annoyingly persistent.

Take the closing words of the first volume of the History of Sexuality. Speaking of the ruses and stratagems that have made us think and speak of sex as central and precious to us, he writes: “The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our ‘liberation’ is in the balance” (Foucault 1990:159). What I find uncomfortable here is not at all the substance of his work on the basis of which he makes this statement. What makes me uncomfortable is its slight touch of nastiness, the malicious pleasure and perhaps sense of superiority I imagine it is supposed to produce in the reader.

Or take Carl Death's otherwise admirable article on how the notion of counter-conduct can be employed in resistance studies. Observing that summit protests produce subjectivities and identities, he draws the conclusion that the protests often fulfil an expressive function that serves to stabilize power. The “appearance of challenging power relation”, he writes, can “provide reassurance, a semblance of control and agency, and thereby re-legitimize established… forms of politics” (Death 2010:247). This conclusion may be correct, but surely it is also one-sided. Reading it, I again imagine hearing superior laughter, and again I feel uncomfortable.

How should I understand this tendency for Foucault-inspired research to gleefully restate how deluded protesters are? To begin with, let me spell out more clearly why I find this tendency troubling.

Firstly, this tendency seems to be utterly unecessary. It goes against the grain of what I take to be the main thrust of Foucault's writings, which stress the openness and unpredictability of the effects of power. Nothing says that the fact that power and resistance are mutually constitutive must necessarily mean that resistance always misses its target or that it is actually the victory of power in disguise.

I'm in sympathy with the attempts of Death and others to use Foucault’s ideas to develop an analytics of protest based on a governmentality perspective, in which freedom is not simplistically opposed to power but presupposed in governing. As Death points out, it's often preferrable in the analysis of protest to pay attention to how protest and government are mutually constitutive. Such a perspective captures the messiness of protest better than simple binary thinking. Sensibly, he also elsewhere claims not to be pessimistic about protest and states that he, like Foucault, instead tries to advocate an ethos of continual criticism. But ironical statements about how protests stabilize the establishment is not a way to escape the dichotomy of resistance and co-optation. Instead, they revive it by declaring the victory of co-optation. 

Secondly, the tendency to belittle resistance risks turning Foucauldian analysis into a straightjacket. Let me make a comparison with Hegel. Hegelian dialectics has long been criticized by so-called poststructuralists for the tendency to preclude escape from mediation, of being too watertight. Yet isn't Hegel actually sometimes more open to change and historical novelty than Foucault? Looking at the analyses in the Phenomenology one is immediately struck by Hegel's clear eye for how seemingly opposing forces can be mutually constitutive, the very fact that Foucault-inspired researchers like to stress so much. But unlike the latter, Hegel uses dialectics to show how established powers can be subverted by the very things they produce or “constitute”. The same, of course, goes for Marx: classes are mutually constituted, but the process of constitution itself undermines the system that constitutes them. The idea of mutual constitution is thus not new at all. It's old, and as Hegelian (or Marxist) dialectics show, it can be used in quite other ways than in Foucault.

The gesture which Hegel's critics like to criticize so much - that of gathering up opposing forces, of mercilessly running them through a dialectical round of "mutual constitution" before sending them onwards along a route foreordained by historical necessity - is of course foreign to the gist of Foucault's work. The latter nevertheless, unnecessarily, replicates this gesture in the repeted rhetorical relapses which he and his followers make into the ironic jargon of belittling resistance. 
Against this I think one needs to recall that, just as there is no law of necessary progress, there is also no law of necessary co-optation.

Against the "bad" Hegel and "bad" Foucault, I'd like to steer towards a synthesis of the "good" Hegel and the "good" Foucault. Does this sound surprising? But isn't there also a "good" Hegel - one whose dialectics isn't allergic to contingent imputs, to materiality or to a multiplicity of conflicts? I don't have the time to discuss him here. Let me just state that I think he is possible. As for the "good" Foucault, let me end by letting him speak for himself. The quote is from his discussion of whether it is right to revolt or not. He does not agree with those who say it is useless:

One does not dictate to those who risk their lives facing a power. Is it right to revolt, or not? Let us leave the question open. People revolt; that is a fact. And that is how subjectivity (not that of great men, but of anyone) is brought into history, breathing life into it. (Foucault 2000:452)


Death, Carl (2010) “Counter-conducts: A Foucauldian Analytics of Protest”, Social Movement Studies 9(3):235-251.

Foucault (1990) The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1 An Introduction (tr. of La volonté de savoir by Robert Hurley), London: Penguin Books.

Foucault (2000) “Useless to revolt?”, pp 449-453, in J D Faubion (ed) Essential Works of Foucault 1954 - 1984,Volume 3: Power, New York: New Press.
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