Category Archives: Reading Journal

“Deviant and non-average practices” — Fam, Lahiri-Dutt & Sofoulis (2015), Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices

Fam, D., Lahiri-Dutt, K., & Sofoulis, Z. (2015). Scaling Down: Researching Household Water Practices. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies14(3), 639-651. [link]

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(A timely rediscovery that echoes with Carson’s digs at Accelerationism… )

This is the introductory editorial piece from a special issue devoted to qualitative demand-side approaches to water consumption research; while the focus is on water, much of what’s being argued here is just as applicable to other infrastructurally-mediated consumptive practices—which is to say, pretty much all of them. The special issue “captures and emphasises the importance of local information and on-the-ground interactions, as well as discursive processes and embodied knowledge, in researching everyday water practices in the sites of households and similar locales.” (p642; strongly reminiscent of Haraway’s situated knowledges)

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The paper begins with a critique of the ‘scaling-up’ dogma as an indicative feature of technocratic approaches which:

“… [treat] social change as an engineering problem, where individuals within the society are provided expert opinions aimed at changing their attitudes to produce a more economically rationalist and efficient set of water consumption behaviours. […] The preoccupation with scaling up tends to go with a preference for psychodemographic approaches […] that aim to produce behavioural modifications in populations of consumers, such as through mass media campaigns pitched to an imagined ‘average’ consumer.” (p640)

(This is our old friend the knowledge deficit model, shown decades ago in medical research to have no empirical or theoretical basis, but which is still central to a huge swathe of interventions into consumption. See also the literature on “imagined publics”, which should not be confused with “imagined communities”; the latter imagines itself, while the former is imagined by communication professionals.)

“The foremost implication [of scaling down] is scalar, or geographical: the household is not a mere building block of some larger social unit, nor a convenient site for accessing individuals and their psychologies, but is an entity worth studying in its own right […] a household-scale approach reveals that households are internally differentiated and include specialist domains of practice, often linked to the gender, ages and cultural backgrounds of its members, rather than unique psychologies and behavioural choices.” (p642; also “lived sociotechnical realities”, the household as a particular configuration of infrastructural affordances in relation with the values and meanings held by household members)

The real value of going beyond the bell-curve: “the deviant and non-average practices revealed in smaller-scale qualitative studies indicate what scope there is for experimentation and innovation” (p642); this is why most “innovations” research is tautologous  hindsight, because it can’t recognise a successful change until long after it’s actually proven itself and become average.

That said, household-level studies don’t produce an infinity of social variation; because of contextual commonalities across a geographical area (e.g. divisions of labour, domestic and paid, within the household; infrastructural affordances), “a handful of main types may be distinguished” in a regionally-bounded study. (p643)

There follows a very brief archaeology of the role of cultural theory in addressing consumption cultures and practices: Bordieu (channeling Spinoza); Giddens’s “structuration” (discursive vs. practical conciousnesses); theories of practice, which “focus on the things that people do and view patterns of consumption as embedded in the social context in which they are done”. (p644)

“A focus on practice does not abolish concern with individual motivation, but reduces individual psychology to just one of many social, technological and habitual factors that shape a practice and that are enacted in it.” (p645, emphasis added)

A scaled-down approach … reveals that not all end-users are created equal.” (p648)

“Social research is particularly valuable at the early stages of adapting to new technologies, when learning is still taking place, practice has not yet been automated into a routine, and technologies have not yet retreated into the background of awareness.” (p648)

Closes with an observation that “unreactive” metadata collection strategies beloved by positivist research paradigms (e.g. smart metering for utilities) explicitly devalue the knowledges of their (often unknowing and unconsulted) subjects; by contrast, participatory methods allow people to articulate what is meaningful to themselves, for themselves; this reinstates both the possibility of, and agency for, bottom-up change.

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Nothing hugely new in this one, at least for me—I’ve known Zoe Sofoulis for a good few years, and this is very much a standard (if still mostly ignored) set of arguments in favour of the sort of practice-theory-rooted research she (and others) favour. But there’s some good frames and quotes in there, making it a useful citation for arguments against the status quo of consumption research and/or policy intervention.

“A model of how to be and how to behave”: Szeman (2015), Entrepreneurship as the New Common Sense

Szeman, I. (2015). Entrepreneurship as the new common sense. South Atlantic Quarterly, 114(3), 471-490. [link]

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Via a Wired article on the start-up Boomtrain, Szeman introduces the increasingly ubiquitous entrepreneurial story, “narratives that make it seem as if financial and social success is, in the main, inevitable in the new world of the devices and gadgets that increasingly mediate our lives” (p472); despite the less than rosy story of Boomtrain in the article, this “cautionary tale does little to deflate the dream of entrepreneurial success currently circulating in the world [… it’s] an exception to a now general and widely-accepted rule: the entrepreneur has become a model of how to be and how to behave, and not only in the world of business. Entrepreneurship has come to permeate our social imaginaries in a way that has quickly transformed its claims and demands on us from fantasy into reality.” (ibid)

Szeman next discusses the original definition of the entrepreneur as a “bearer of risk” (see Cantillon, 2010) in an otherwise orderly and boring economic system dominated by states and large collectivist corporations; he cites Willard Whyte’s Organisation Man (a regular touchstone of Keller Easterling’s, IIRC) as a template for the contemporary form of corporate power, if not its content (hints of D&G’s nomadology here) in order to observe that, on one level, not much seems to have changed. What has changed is the status of the entrepreneur: once a minor character in the capitalist pantheon, this archetype is now exemplary:

“Entrepreneurship is a sticky idea around which contradictory and multiple constellations of other ideas coalesce; like many instances of common sense [to be clear, Szeman is implicitly deploying the Gramscian formulation of ‘common sense’ throughout this paper], this one sutures together certain (irresolvable) contradictions and challenges, making the existing situation seem natural, to-be-expected, and thus not only bearable but (in this case) anticipated and exciting […] the entrepreneur is the neoliberal subject par excellence — the perfect figure for a world in which the market has replaced society, and one whose idealization and legitimation in turn affirms the necessity and veracity of this epochal transition.” – p474

As a result, “political, economic, aesthetic and educational structures have been and are still being reshaped” around the entrepreneurial archetype (ibid); governments are very much complicit in this shift, with a particular focus on youth through the HE system — and from my own current standpoint within a Russell Group university in the UK, this is painfully hard to refute. Entrepreneurial course-products are “explicitly designed to create new forms and modes of subjectivity […] The language of risk and uncertainty that has always accompanied entrepreneurial activity has become generalised […] risk is a universal condition of existence.” (p475, my bold emphasis)

This risk has two dimensions:

  1. “the disappearance of sites and spaces for accumulation” (ibid): state and capital are both desperate to innovate their processes; “increasingly limited possibilities of growth” make entrepreneurs the ideal subjects, as they put the most effort into finding new possibilities for the lowest capital outlay;
  2. precarity (cf. Butler): assurances and insurances slowly and socially built up against corporeal vulnerability have been eroded and/or dismantled since the 1980s (if not before).

“… precarity has in fact become a universalised condition of contemporary existence due to the practices of the neoliberal state and global finance. Entrepreneurial subjects arise in response to this universal precarity: they are actors needed by states and capital alike to invent new forms and spaces of accumulation, but they also constitute a new form of subjectivity appropriate to the uncertainties that attend contemporary capitalism.” (p476)

“In a perverse way, the new programs of entrepreneurship appear to meet a demand that preexisted them, and not vice versa” (p477); the situation has “produced opportunities [for the entrepreneurial subject] hitherto unavailable.” (ibid) Success or failure is purely a matter of individual ability and/or desire; everyone is assumed to start from the same equal footing; structural inequalities effectively elided (or reframed as the whining of losers / the politics of envy?). There is a confusion of formal freedoms with actual freedoms, a contradictory assumption that the freedoms within capitalism might somehow transcend capitalism’s inherent limits. Examples include libertarian seasteading, Thiel’s drop-out-of-college fellowship fund, and ‘sharing economy’ evangelism (note that this piece was likely written in 2014, before the sharing economy backlash was briefly mainstreamed), all of which “imagine a better, more fulfilling world peopled by autopoetic microentrepreneurs [… These technoutopian desires] constitute attempts to rethink process without ever questioning the system in which those processes operate; and rather than imagining different futures, they remain trapped in a perpetual present, a cycle of unending creative destruction in which nothing fundamental can ever change.” (p478, author’s italics, my bold emphasis)

Linguistic and social shifts reframe poor people as potential entrepreneurs whose energies lie dormant in the absence of the appropriate programs to enable their flourishing (see Federici, “ideologies of microentrepreneurship”); these shifts in turn enable and/or legitimise:

  1. the rollback or elimination of social safety-nets;
  2. a change in self-perception among the poor, in which they internalise the ‘entrepreneur or nothing narrative’ wholesale; “poverty can now only be a personal failing” (p479, see Karim, “a political economy of shame”).

This subjectivity is perhaps even more ubiquitous in the Global South, as manifest in the “hawkers, importers, market merchants, restaurateurs, scavengers, mechanics [and others] whose work takes place off the books all over the world.” (p480)

“One last point needs to be made: not only are we all expected to be entrepreneurs today, we are all expected to like it; from the perspective of entrepreneurial common sense, there are no unhappy entrepreneurs.” — p480, author’s italics

This is fine.

“… as the utopian situation for the entrepreneur remains always the present, cruel optimism turns virtue into vice […] even as entrepreneurs insist on the significance of their contributions to shaping the future, they occupy an ahistorical landscape in which time stands still.” — p 481, author’s italics, my bold emphasis

Referring to Dardot & Laval, the imperative of maximum performance in all spheres of life, as exemplified by professional sports, has become mandatory for all (p482); the entrepreneurial subject requires little or no monitoring or management system (other than the underlying precarity of the context in which they are operating — cf this super-bleak bit from Charlie Stross); engenders a sort of pathological hyperproductivity and a dissolution of the  already-porous borders between ‘work’ and ‘life’; the self as a perpetual metaproject. The unironic appropriation of Beckett’s “fail better” riff from Worstward Ho as the de facto motto of entrepreneurial culture (I have done this myself); Freud’s repetition compulsion. “The repetition of failure becomes a badge of pride, a marker of living well, of engaging in properly ethical behaviour, and of having achieved the good life.” (p483)

“The status of entrepreneurship as a new common sense of subjectivity and economic practice […] would suggest that it constitutes an ideal subjectivity for neoliberal forms of governmentality, one that it has been searching for all along. […] It is a mechanism of selfhood and subject formation that begins from the premise that there is no one to count on, no one who can do anything for you other than you yourself.” HOWEVER: “Entrepreneurship may be simultaneously the height of neoliberal subject formation and its limit — a peak on the other side of which lie subjects with no fidelity to governments or states.” — p484, author’s italics

I’m not sure I buy Szeman’s final ray of hope, here (he goes on to suggest that this notion of Peak Neoliberal Subject Formation represents a “kernel of political possibility”), but that’s because I really want to buy it, and it seems far too easy a way out of something that seems otherwise almost entirely inescapable. As noted above, this was likely written at least four years ago; that sure as shit wasn’t a peak year for the dynamics of entrepreneurial subject formation, for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate. Overall, this is one of those valuable papers which serves to provide a solid suite of references and arguments for an intuition that I’ve harboured since the early Nineties: that the huckster story has become a hero’s story.

(Cf. Only Fools & Horses, which — not to deny its values as comedy and popular entertainment, lest I be lynched and/or have my passport rescinded — would seem to stand as an early document in the subject formation that Szeman is talking about here: Del-boy is a huckster and a serial failure, and that’s exactly why we’re encouraged to, and ultimately do, identify with him.)

Pretty sure there’s some sort of overlap with the wizards of innovation trope, too — though that story tends to have a different generic feel, perhaps because told from a different POV and for a more select (and, indeed, generic) audience.

Surrealism comes for us all: Miéville’s Last Days of New Paris

The Rex’s guards search them and incompetently question them and let them in to noise and warmth and the smell of drink, dirt, and sweat. Rows of seat-stubs slope down the tumbling hall. people are dancing. Women and men watch the huge screen from a raised half-floor above. What is showing is snips of images, monochrome light. Someone in the projection booth is stringing bits together, grabbing ripped-up centimeters of whatever film is by their fingers and running it for seconds, then replacing it. Melodramas, old silent movies, entertainments, news, documentary footage.

Surrealism comes for us all, Thibaut thinks.

I imagine that Last Days of New Paris is an even richer read if you’re more familiar with the canon of Surrealist art than myself; you don’t need to be an expert, certainly (and the glossary/bestiary of manifestations that Miéville provides at the end of the book offers the opportunity to become something more of one, should you wish), but I imagine it might be a tough read unless you know the basics.

But then Miéville is never an easy read, and that could be what I enjoy about his work: it demands effort from the reader, but that effort is rewarded with rich layerings of irony and metaphor. I’m not going to unpack the book entire, because this isn’t a review proper so much as a recommendation of a book I’ve enjoyed, but this tale of a multivalent fight for the soul of a Nazi-occupied Paris of an alternate 1950s has — if you choose to read fiction in search of such things –plenty to say about the timeline (and the particular moment) which you and I actually do inhabit: the art of war meets the war of art; fascism’s loathing for and longing to exploit the subversive power of of the image; greed, betrayal, guilt, chaos, loyalty, ideology; bargains made, promises kept, deals broken, lies told.

And if you don’t choose to read fiction for such things, well: rogue impossibilities ripped from art history at war with Nazis and demons from Hell in the streets of mid-20th Century Paris! A pulpy premise whose execution only occasionally allows that pulpiness to surface, written in that hard-to-pin-down but nonetheless idiosyncratic Miévillean prose style: images only half-described that nonetheless and unexpectedly unfold fully in the mind’s eye; sentences that twist upon themselves or terminate unexpectedly like trap streets.  It’s a text (in part, at least) about Surrealism, but is it a Surreal text? I’ve no idea; ask an expert.

Of special technical interest — and if you’re the type that worries about spoilers, then you’d probably best consider this your warning of the potential presence thereof — is the Afterword, which reframes the story of Thibaut’s adventures as a twice-told tale from an alternate timeline (and perhaps also something of a club story?), delivered to Miéville under strange circumstances by an unreliable narrator whom Miéville (within the text, or at least within this outer frame thereof) comes to assume is rather more reliable than he’s playing it.

I’m of two minds as to whether this device was strictly necessary, in the sense that the novella preceding it could conceivably have stood alone perfectly well in its absence*. But I’m certain that the device changes the stance in which the story stands, and that Miéville had a particular effect in mind when he decided not only to (re)frame it thus, but also to do so in an afterword rather than a preamble: we initially take the story as we find it, and only afterwards do we have it twisted so as to more explicitly connect its other reality to our own. On one level, I admire the strategy and the execution alike; but on another, I wonder what I would have taken from the novella without the framing narrative appended.

Then again, given that one of the tenets of Surrealism was that an object or image introduced into a seemingly inappropriate context has the power to provoke revolutionary thoughts and feelings, perhaps my inability to resolve this question to my satisfaction is exactly the point.

* — In the sense that it’s Miéville’s work, and hence none of my business, the framing narrative is of course self-evidently necessary. I’m not trying to edit the man’s fiction in retrospect, merely to understand how it works, and thus to perhaps intuit the why behind the how.

Ravens, reductionism and consciousness

We’ll never find proof for the existence of consciousness by picking the animal apart, or by looking at its parts in isolation. That’s like trying to understand the caching behavior of ravens by grinding them up, examining ever smaller parts down to the molecules, and studying them through the laws of physics or chemistry. That’s backwards. To the biologists life is made of matter, but the nature of every living thing in the cosmos is time-bound. Every living thing is, like a book, more than ink and paper. It is a record of history spanning over two billion years. The more we dissect and look at the parts disconnected, the more we destroy what we are trying to find—the more we destroy what took millions of years to make. Mind, like life or liveness, is an emergent property that is a historical phenomenon, though also still a wholly physical one. It reveals itself far above and beyond its component parts, in this case, primarily the nerve cells with their infinite interconnections that cannot and will not ever be unraveled one and all. Consciousness is not a thing. It is a continuum without boundaries. We can most readily see its presence or absence in the extremes.

Excerpt from Mind of the Raven, Bernd Heirrich (1999), p339.

Been enjoying this book about late-20th-Century studies of the birds that are my family namesake, my picking up of which had absolutely nothing to do with a rapidly developing Odin complex, no sirree.

The most remarkable thing about it, besides the insights into the complex (and quite probably conscious) behaviours of ravens, are the descriptions of Heinrich’s experimental methods, which involve a great deal of living out in the woods of Maine and dragging around animal carcasses of assorted sizes and origins; guy scrapes up a whole lotta roadkill. Lab-coat-and-test-tube biology, this is not; I believe one of the labels for this sort of work is behavioural ecology, but even that seems a little too restrictive. A lucid (if sometimes pedestrian) writer, cautious and careful in his descriptions of experimental processes but, as indicated above, not afraid to share his philosophies and theories when they go beyond the boundaries of what peer reviewers will accept (which is quite often).

What kind of bomb

“For a long time I have suspected there is no way out. I can do nothing I am not. I have been living destructively towards the writer in me for some time, guiltily conscious of doing so all along, cf. the critical justification in terms of the objective death of a historical tradition: a decadent at a tremendous turning point in history, constitutionally incapable of turning with it as a writer, I am living my personal Dada. In all of this there is a terrible emotional smear. The steel of the logic has to be daily strengthened to contain the volcanic element within. It grows daily more hard to contain. I am a kind of bomb.”

— from Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi, 1960; quoted in Lipstick Traces by the staggeringly prolix but insightful Greil Marcus