Category Archives: Staff and Students

Breadline Britain: councils fund food banks to plug holes in welfare state

Professor Liz Dowler from Sociology@Warwick comments in this Guardian article about council funding of local food banks:

“Despite their apparent ‘win-win’ appeal to some councils, foodbanks conceal realities of poverty and hunger. They let the state off the hook from their obligation to ensure all have the means to live, and from showing political leadership to grapple creatively with poverty.”

Get on the way, Pussy Riot!

This article was originally posted on the MYPLACE blog. The MYPLACE blog first reported on ”Pussy Riot’s” anti-Putin punk prayer protest, in March. Now, as 3 members of the group have been sentenced to 2 years imprisonment for “hooliganism,” the University of Warwick’s Dr Ivan Gololobov writes on the scene in Moscow which forms the background to Pussy Riot’s rise to infamy.

For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website: HERE. Or follow the project on Twitter: HERE.

In the last few months a lot of media attention in Russia and abroad was drawn to the trial over three members of the feminist punk-band Pussy Riot arrested and charged with hooliganism for their performance ‘Punk-prayer’ that took place inside of the Christ the Saviour, the biggest Orthodox cathedral in Russia on the  21st of February  2012.  Musicians all over the world from Madonna, Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel, to Bjork, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Faith no More expressed their clear disagreement with the proposed sentence and showed their support to the arrested girls. Russian musicians, however, expressed surprisingly little interest to this affair. And if the silence of pop and rock stars whose careers vitally depend on good relations with the authorities is more than understandable, the absence of vocal response from underground musicians looks pretty strange.

It would be wrong to say that such reaction is completely absent, but interestingly enough it comes from rather unexpected corners of the scene. The first song produced in support to Pussy Riot was recorded by a well-known rapper Siava, famous for his colourful portraits of yobs’ life. The song was called Maliava Pussy Riot [A prison letter to Pussy Riot], it was released in April 2012 shortly after the arrest.

Since then, no one really added to this single voice until in August 2012 Elizium, an emo-core band from Nizhniy Novgorod came forward with the slogans of support to Pussy Riot on Kubana, the biggest open-air festival Kubana in the South of Russia, and BARTO, a feminist electro-punk band from Moscow recorded a track called Kis’ia eres’ [Heresy of little cats]

The silence of the Russian music underground, and what is more surprising – punk scene is, however, not that unpredictable. As a matter of fact Pussy Riot, although calling themselves a punk-band and using the sign of punk in their performances, never belonged to the Russian punk scene. They consider themselves as art-actionists, clearly place themselves in the context of contemporary Russian actionism, quoting the names of Prigov, Brener, Kulik and other art-provocateurs of the 1990s.

From the very beginning Pussy Riot was an art-project and their personal connection to the famous art-group Voina is not an accident in this regard. Ideology and actions of Pussy Riot are clearly oriented towards media reaction. The songs which appear in the internet are pre-recorded in studio, their actions are pre-rehearsed and sometimes include several takes, like the one in the Christ the Saviour, where footage from an identical action in a smaller church performed earlier was mixed in the main clip. This is, somehow, not particularly punky. In the same way as it is not particularly punky to stage a gig and to play without any audience, just for the cameras, portraying it later as a ‘concert’.

The punk-prayer is not over, it is being written now, and its after-effect appears to be much more important than the performance itself. Performance itself was not that interesting and, moreover, many found it appalling, but what happened next is by far much more appalling. This however made Russian music underground silent as it did not find the ways of reacting on this performance which appeared to be much more real than any ‘real’ punk concert, ironically suggesting that probably the only true rock and punk musician in Russia appeared to be rapper Siava, previously known for his hit Bodriachkom, patsanchiki  [Get on the way, lads], caution, explicit lyrics!!!

Review of ‘Sociology of Intellectual Life’ by Steve Fuller

Given the brewing conflicts within British higher education it seems like an opportune moment for a thorough sociological analysis of academia. Such an analysis would supplement the expansive literature on the subjugation of higher education to market forces through a careful consideration of the consequences this process holds for the state of intellectual life and production of knowledge. This is the promise which Steve Fuller’s new book hold outs. The Sociology of Intellectual Life is divided into four chapters framed around Humbolt’s ideal of the modern university. The first relates to the institutions itself. The second considers its ideological justification. The third examines the kind of person the university hopes to produce. The fourth draws these strands together in an affirmation of the crucial virtue Fuller sees as absent within modern academia.

In the first chapter Fuller presents the university as a solution to what he terms ‘the modern problem of knowledge in society’: how can knowledge be universal in its scope while also universally accessible? In pre-modern times there was no such problem because knowledge was seen by its nature to be an elite possession which conferred authority. This was supplemented by an enlightenment ideal of the democratization of knowledge through the institution of the university. However this ideal now finds itself under threat on all sides, as managerialism increasingly prevails within the university in response to  pervasive outside demands that learning be subjugated to all manner of market imperatives.

In the second chapter Fuller offers a sociological exploration of the status of philosophy in this modern academic environment. He traces a decline from the magisterial Kantian understanding of philosophy as a discipline which grounds all else to one which simply offers clarification of the intellectual output of other disciplines. In the process philosophy is seen to have ceded something crucial to the special sciences which in turn weakens the support it can offer to the ideal of knowledge which is universal in its scope.

In the third chapter Fuller considers the changing role of the intellectual. He attempts to recover a sense of “the intellectual as someone who is clearly of academic descent but not necessarily of academic destiny”. He suggests that a distinguished history of the intellectual can be traced from the court intellectuals of enlightenment Prussia through the expansion of academic tenure to the modern public intellectuals able to enjoy commercial success. However this traditions find itself under threat through an increasing aversion to intellectual risk-taking on the part of modern academics driven by an interest in the insular affairs of their discipline and a fear of the consequences which public involvement might hold.

In the final chapter Fuller advocates improvisation as a process through which intellectual life might find its redemption. He suggests that the costs associated with intellectual risk-taking on behalf of academics leaves it far too easy “to defer to the orthodoxy and to discount its dissenters”. He sketches out an image of a new academic culture more heterogeneous in its standards and more tolerant of dissent:

“So what would an improvisation-friendly academia look like? Certainly standards of public performance would shift. We would become more tolerant of people who speak crudely without notes, if they can improve as they take questions from the audience. But we would equally become less tolerant of people who refuse to take questions simply because they stray from their carefully prepared presentation. Instead of ‘sloppy/rigorous’, we would apply the binary ‘expansive/limited’ to describe the respective intellects of these people.”

It is here that Fuller’s arguments are at their most plausible. He’s surely correct in his claim that improvisation goes unrewarded (and indeed is actively disincentivised) within contemporary academia, as an overly restrictive career structure increasingly demands the sort of instrumental planning which too often precludes taking the time and effort to go out on a limb. Where his account is less plausible is in its embrace of ‘bullshit’. Though the application of this term might often represent a pernicious anti-intellectualism within mainstream culture, it can equally stand as a forthright affirmation of intellectual standards in the face of poor reasoning and vacuous arguments. Rather than accept ‘bullshit’ we should continue to affirm standards for scholarship while loosening the formalities associated with such standards on a situational basis: redefining academic conventions to suit new forums and new media on a case-by-case basis. In this way it might be possible to communicate research more easily beyond the academy (and more productively, creatively and agentially within it) without undermining the intellectual standards which ensure that academia has something to offer the wider life of society.

Mark Carrigan
4th Year PhD Student

Foucault, Biopolitics and Critique

In this podcast Claire Blencowe talks about her new book Biopolitical Experience:

Biopolitical Experience offers an original and comprehensive interpretation of Michel Foucault’s analysis of biopolitics – situating biopolitics in the context of embodied histories of subjectivity, affective investments and structures of experience. Going beyond lamentation at the horrors of biopolitical domination, the book develops a positive-critique of biopolitical experience: offering explanations as to the enormous appeal of biopolitical discourse; and cultivating an affirmative, ethical and productive response to the technologies of biopolitical racism and securitization. Such a response is not about life escaping power or a retreat from life, but rather involves critical work on the conditions of production of population life (becoming collective). In addition to a detailed account of Foucault’s writings on biopolitics, biology and experience the book offers a critique of some key contemporary interpretations of Foucault and develops the positive-critique of biopolitical experience by exploring the place of biopolitics, racism and contingency in feminist politics.


Wanted: Ph.D. student to put Harriet Martineau back in the sociological canon

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) was one of the most remarkable women of letters – perhaps ever. Her body of work ranged across the social and biological sciences and even theology. Wikipedia gives a good introduction to the breadth of her writing. However, if Martineau is remembered at all today, it is as the English translator of Auguste Comte’s work. But Martineau was a sociological pioneer in her own right, a friend of John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians, as well as a correspondent with all the major the intellectuals of the mid-19th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, and including Charles Darwin. By all accounts she was a formidable personality (a Germaine Greer-like figure perhaps) who stood out in her day for being able to earn a living from her writing without ever having to get married.

The person who appears to be the leading living scholar of her work is Deborah Logan, an American specialist in Victorian literature. This leaves plenty of scope for a sociological interpretation of Martineau’s oeuvre. As it happens, many of Martineau’s papers are housed at the University of Birmingham. Based on a twitter exchange yesterday between Jo VanEvery (@JoVanEvery), Mark Carrigan (@mark_carrigan), and myself, it dawned on me that Warwick (only 20 miles from Birmingham) would be a great place for someone to do a Ph.D. on Martineau’s significance in her own time and her continuing legacy, both in sociology and for feminism more generally.

I would welcome a student interested in undertaking this project. I think such a Ph.D. could be easily turned into a timely book. But keep in mind that you will need funding! I am happy to work with students interested in applying for funds but I have none at my disposal. (When approaching me (s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk), please already have a funding source in mind that you have good reason to believe would support this project. This means doing some homework about funders!)

Finally, a few years ago, I staged a play in which the main female role was that of Harriet Martineau. You can have look here.

Professor Steve Fuller 

Who will recognize Humanity 2.0 and will it recognize us?

If ‘Humanity 1.0’ is the proverbial ‘normal human being’ that our laws have been traditionally designed to empower and protect, then who is ‘Humanity 2.0’? For the most part, the prospects for ‘Humanity 2.0’ largely replay in a new key what I call in my new book the ‘bipolar disorder’ that has always accompanied the human condition: Are we ‘glorified animals’ who should become more embedded in nature or ‘minor deities’ with the potential to achieve full godlike powers? Until the modern period, theology was the natural home for this discussion. But nowadays it is increasingly the subject of public debate. On the one hand are those – often called ‘posthumanists’ – who believe that anthropocentrism is a dangerous conceit. They typically adopt a Darwinian view that we are just one amongst many species who cohabit the planet and who eventually will become extinct and replaced by something perhaps quite unrecognisable. On the other hand are those – often called ‘transhumanists’ – who believe in humanity’s unique ability (if not obligation) to take control of evolution and steer it in directions that project our most desirable features (usually our minds) into perpetuity, even if it means abandoning our biological bodies. While both views may seem wildly futuristic, in fact people are already beginning to live lives that assume one or the other future will come about.

(from Virtual Futures on Vimeo)

Social theory and social research – what went wrong?

Underlying much sociological explanation is an attempt to bridge the gap between the ‘micro’ and the ‘macro’ within the context of a specific empirical inquiry. As the authors of the paper cited below put it, “in the human and behavioural sciences, the analytical connection or co-relation between individual and social processes, between cognitive (mental) and social (group) structures, or between ‘habitus’ and ‘field’ … is often understood and elaborated as the big problem of bridging the ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ levels” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 68). The apparent diversity with which this ‘gap’ is characterised within social theory points to the intractability of the underlying issue: how do we make sense of the relationship between the individual actors we see around us and the wider social order which appears to shape but also be shaped by their actions? The dualisms which proliferate within social theory do so, in part, as a result of a failure to resolve this underlying question. An inability to establish consensus on the underlying explanatory question posed by social research has, as its flip side, the continual elaboration of a sometimes strikingly imprecise conceptual vocabulary which attempts to come to terms with various aspects of this foundational challenge: “constructivism-positivism, subjectivism-objectivism, intentionalism-functionalism, agency-structure, individual-society, or micro-macro” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 70). Depressingly large tracts of sociological discourse have proceeded from the personal investments and logical entailments which stem from occupying one side or another of these dualisms. Even as the last couple of decades have seen a variety of attempts to bridge these dichotomies, or even abandon them entirely as terms of reference, these moves have in turn bred new dichotomies (e.g. structurationist and post-structurationist) which, perhaps as the one last sign of my past life as a Rortyean philosophy student, never cease to appal me on an aesthetic level.

Drawing on the work of Nicos Mouzelis, Lydaki and Tsekeris argue that this “pluralization of approaches seriously impeded the epistemologically healthy capacity for meta-theory  - that is, for a sincere, uninterrupted and open-ended dialogue between opposing worldviews and paradigms” (Lydaki and Tsekeris 2011: 71). The proliferation of competing paradigms, often driven by technical polemics rather than practical disagreement over shared aims, worked to erode the common frame of reference within which sociologists were able to evaluate ‘theories’ as competing ways of making sense of underlying practical questions of explaining the social world. It contributed to a ghettoization of social theory, with its practical implementation too often limited to those who, having seen the explanatory gains which emerged from a particular approach, ensconced themselves within it and worked with others to elaborate it within its own theoretical terms of reference e.g. bourdieusian theory. As a consequence, social theory ossifies as, with the conceptual logics of particular theoretical approaches increasingly insulated from the practical logics encountered in the practice of social research, the point of social theory becomes increasingly unclear. Likewise the uses to which social theory is put within social research become less helpful than they would otherwise be because of this broader lack of clarity. It almost seems, perhaps, that social theory becomes something which sociologists are self-conscious about. In a way it should be. The characteristics which many find frustrating about contemporary social theory are, I wish to argue, indicative of things having gone badly wrong. They are a sign of people having talked too much, for too long, about predominately practical issues which, it seems, we might have come to some sort of working agreement on if circumstances had been different. My point is not that we should all agree on one ‘paradigm’ but simply that the fixation on ‘paradigms’ has precluded a consensus about the practical purposes which these sorts of discussions should serve.

Tsekeris, C., & Lydaki, A. (2011). The micro-macro dilemma in sociology: Perplexities and perspectives. Sociologija, 53(1), 67-82. doi:10.2298/SOC1101067T

Mark Carrigan
4th Year PhD Student

Steve Fuller on Consciousness

Experience Warwick: Mikey Davis, Sociology

Steve Fuller on Adaptive Preferences

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