Thursday, September 14, 2017

Ways of seeing: Bauman on strangerhood & the aesthetics of urban research

Rethinking Urban Global Justice: An international academic conference for critical urban studies

Image: Rodanthi Tzanelli 2014 

Open Session 11:15 – 12:45 / Exhibition Hall:

Liquid Cities? Exploring Zygmunt Bauman’s Contribution to Urban Studies.
Distinguished social theorist and longtime Professor of Sociology at University of Leeds, Zygmunt Bauman passed away aged 91 earlier this year.

The founding director of University of Leeds Bauman Institute, Mark Davis leads a discussion with colleagues (Adrian FavellThomas Campbell, Dariusz Brzeziński and Rodanthi Tzanelli) from the School of Sociology and Social Policy about Bauman’s legacy to the field.

Link to presentation by Rodanthi Tzanelli

13 September 2017

Bauman’s legacy in urban studies has a distinctive political flair that connects to his critique of the ways urban strangers (tourists, migrants, vagabonds and pilgrims) become socially positioned, ‘interpellated’ or represented by various constituencies and groups (including researchers).

I argue that his reference to ways of seeing as political tools does not compromise his analysis of liquid urbanism as an aesthetic project, but works politics and aesthetics into a distinctive proposition on the ‘right to the city’ for all. This proposition forms (in the tradition of Simmel’s sociology), a moral basis for which cognitive and affective ambivalences function as epistemological tools. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Seminar Presentation, Edinburgh Napier University: The Economies of Mega-Events

Business School, Graiglockhart Campus

14 June 2017

The economies of mega-events: Decolonising the Olympic norm of hospitality in social science scholarship 

Rodanthi Tzanelli, University of Leeds, UK  

My presentation considers mega-events as capitalist ventures, promoting re-organisations of time and space in host cultures to enable them to respond to various mobilities of business, technological and infrastructural development, tourism and professional migration, and cultural representation. I specifically examine the Olympic Games as a ‘hospitality enterprise’ still connected to the Olympic values of reciprocity and fair competition. However, contra Marxist and Foucaultian scholarship in the field, I argue that we should split this enterprise into two forms of economy that organise mega-event labour to ensure the provision of hospitality: the ‘artificial economy’ looks after surveillance, security and the control of leisure in the Olympic city; the ‘economy of imagination’ looks after the mega-event as a creative venture, thus producing architectural legacies and ceremonial art to enhance and circulate (broadcast) the host’s cultural atmospheres. 

The current scholarly focus on the ‘artificial economy’ as an economy of guest and heritage protection, and the progressive displacement of the ‘imaginative economy’ to the fields of tourism, popular culture, leisure studies and so forth, are normative through and through. They introduce a symbolically gendered division of labour that we also encounter in tourism and hospitality business, moralising economic flows and demoting mega-event leisure regimes (associated with the mega-event’s architectural and ceremonial art, or tourism imaginaries connected to the host’s cultural atmosphere) to superficial, ‘cosmetic’ pursuits. Such arguments reproduce old political discourses that valorise (masculinise) nationalism and feminise national culture that do (should) not belong to contemporary globalised environments of economic transaction, cross-cultural fertilisation and international policy exchange.  

Biographical note
Rodanthi Tzanelli is Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Leeds, UK. Her research is on globalisation, cosmopolitanism and mobilities theory. Rodanthi previously held visiting fellowships at CEMORE (Lancaster University) and Oxford University. She is currently serving on the international advisory board of the Global Studies Community (University of Urbana-Champaign, USA), the Centre for the Study of Hospitality (University of Caxias do Sul, Brazil), the Ikarian Centre for Social and Political Research (Ikaria, Greece) and the EUMEDNET (Universidad de Málaga, Spain). She is also on the editorial board of international journals such as Cultural Sociology (BSA, UK), Athens Journal of Social Sciences (Greece) and Anuario de Turismo y Sociedad (Colombia). Rodanthi is author of numerous articles, book chapters and electronic essays, and 10 monographs. Her latest book, Mega-Events as Economies of the Imagination: Creating Atmospheres for Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 will be published with Routledge. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Manhandling the nation: Putin’s globalised imaginary of Russia

Digital image-coding and embodied power
A few decades ago, scholars such as Benedict Anderson argued that nations were imagined in the nineteenth century not through face-to-face communications, but via two channels of global mobility: print cultures (books, newspapers) and capitalism (international and national transactions). Fast-forward, in our digital age, we see at least a few similarities with this pattern of community-construction – although some may claim that, these days, ‘nations’ are primarily imagined as entrepreneurial machines happy to join the ‘right’ global networks so as to consolidate inter-state power and global domination. With the collapse of the Soviet Block in the 1990s and the subsequent rise of new Asian ‘super-power’ possibilities, alongside the re-organisation of titular state nationalisms in Europe and the emergence of a pro-capitalist New Russia, we are far from declaring the United States as the ultimate winner of post-Cold War geopolitics. Instead, we are left with an unstable global terrain, on which statist-backed global business disseminates and promotes various political projects. The projects are increasingly more attached to particular ‘charismatic leaders’. Such individuals are left to stand as signifiers, symbols of specific national and international policies. And once in this game, even business networks may lose control over those leaders’ decision-making.

The real power of these symbols rests in the way the process of mediation itself reduces any leader’s decision-making into a ‘style’. Although there are media networks keen to calibrate and encourage such individuals’ flamboyant attitude, several open new media sites, not necessarily attached to particular political projects of ultra-nationalist, racist or sexist content (all variants of nationalist mobilisation, as I proceed to explain), provide these charismatic personalities with opportunities to self-advertise the symbols that they come to stand for. Invariably drawing on image, these mediations provide a narrative of the ‘nation’ in global spaces of cultural, economic and political transaction. Trump’s much-debated twittering aggressiveness is one such case in point: on the one hand, it prompted deep psychological evaluations of the President, raising questions of planetary security. On the other, however, it tied individual political style to the power of this type of money-making machines that prioritise glamorization over conscience (Barber, Sevastopulo and Tett, 2 April 2017). So what, if Trump is a bit sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic and the likes? He is a good businessman with an iron fist – and it oils the press with his peppery, if inappropriate, shenanigans.

Putin no beaks on image-making
Putin is another frightening instance of globally networked glamorization that draws on the populist potential of open digital media sites. A quick view of his Instagram photographs can tell a story about concerted strategies of nationalist image-making. In online photographs of the leader, there is a pronounced split between two public personas: the first denotes a neat professional President in various civilised contexts of political negotiation; the second projects an athletic, semi-naked man mastering nature (through the performance of noble leisurely activities, such as fishing, hunting, horse-riding) (Reuters, 5 December 2011) – including the nature of his own athletic body (through body-building activities). The two personas obey to some conventions of masculine self-presentation, which are shared between Western and many non-Western and non-European cultures. Therefore, do not be fooled: these are not photographs of a man, but of an idea. The idea is the hegemonic image of a valorised Russia, ready to expunge any natural impurities we may associate with variations of symbolic, cognitive, physical and emotional diversity. From killing wild animals to taming a rare tiger (Instagram, 23 November 2010), to defeating a Japanese Judo expert (Instagram, 5 September 2000), Putin’s image-coding is dedicated to a relentless adverting of New Russia political empowerment as a Darwinian-like process of natural selection.

But then, this self-advertising strategy clashes with other reporting about the leader’s ‘sensitive’ side: Putin is caught on camera crying at the movies; surrounded by friendly dolphins in the water; or hugging dogs. Media set to subvert his carefully stylised image have produced explicit associations of his nakedness with queer sexuality, even alluding that the President is gay (see Buzzfeed, 24 July 2013). But such humorous discourse simply inverts political reality: it releases the negative of a violent representation, which will, surely, see the published world in all its vivid colours one day. All we have to do is remember the conviction and imprisonment of pro-LGBT and feminist Pussy Riots punk band (Maria Alyokhina, 24, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30) over anti-Putin protests in 2012. The sentence for ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, which was allegedly engineered by Putin himself, had, at the time, provoked widespread European and American political outcry (Elder, 17 August 2012; BBC News, 17 August 2012). So, lest we consider such events as isolated episodes, we should better place them in chrono-spatially mobile, global chains of violence: if Putin imprisoned the Pussies back in 2012, Trump would proudly declare in 2016 that, as a famous man, he can grab them any time he wants (Jacobs, Siddiqui and Bixby, 8 October 2016). Apparently, fame and a ruthless style of manly transaction in world politics can buy you anything – for yourself and those for whom you allegedly stand: the hoi polloi. It is ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’ such charisma leads that needs to be convinced this is the right form of conduct – and the ‘righter’ this gets, the better for the future of home-grown, and retrogressive populism.

The globally mobile chain of violence secures the future of retrogressive political establishment in global contexts in alarming ways. In her first visit to Russia after about two years, Angela Merkel pressurised Vladimir Putin into investigating reports of the torture, persecution and subsequent deaths of gay men in Chechnya (Connolly, 2 May 2017). Putin’s anti-LGBT action had previously established Kemlin’s corroboration of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s denials of anti-gay purge. Like Kadyrov, who insisted that no ‘hard’ evidence of human rights violations were provided, Putin shunted aside the matter. Notably, such Chechen violent ‘activism’ is backed by Islamic organisations in the country, which see the presence of gay communities as an insult to the ‘centuries-old traditions of Chechen society [and] the dignity of Chechen men’ (Walker, 21 April 2017). In fact, it has been argued by others with great clarity that making LGBT identity visible in a society resting on hypermasculine codes is seen as an intolerable act of rebellion that calls for punishment (Estemirova, 22 April 2017). Unsurprisingly, only foreign satire of Putin’s sexuality can go unpunished.

Trumping on dignity and the sport of pussy-catching
Although the ethical epicentre of such state-sanctioned violence appears to be gender and sexuality, its core is, in fact, a broader plea for diversity and equality. The damage such populist strategies cause on a pretty frail matrix of international cooperation is serious – never mind the good laugh at Trump’s or Putin’s ‘antiques’. The normalisation of insult and the concerted purging of what global leadership considers as private ignominies (sexual, ethnic, racialized, gendered or physical/mental difference) is felt on a planetary scale. Unfortunately, this dehumanising action finds ample support within pro-hate media channels.

Note, for example, that one of Russia’s biggest newspapers, the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, felt free to comment in hateful ways about Manchester’s Gay Village, just after the international outcry against Kremlin’s gay persecution. It is such a pleasure ‘that there are no such gay streets in Moscow’, or ugly women ‘having rolls of fat “hanging from their bodies” and wearing leggings and miniskirts’, the reporter noted.  ‘Let’s remain Russian…Start normal families. Have children in wedlock. And not confuse love with debauchery’, she concluded (Dearden, 5 May 2017). The legitimation of ethno-national purity through denigrations of Western everyday style and custom are standard populist press strategies directed to patriotic consumers. But where will the honourable Russian nation-family stand on crucial international negotiations, after the downright rejection of its significant global interlocutors’ banal cultures? And what does such resentful speech achieve in terms of peace-making and international cooperation?

Barber, L., Sevastopulo, D. and Tett, G. (2 April 2017). Donald Trump: Without Twitter, I would not be here — FT interview. Financial Times.

BBC News (17 August 2012). Pussy Riot members jailed for two years for hooliganism.

BuzzFeed (24 July 2013). The 16 most homoerotic photos of Vladimir Putin.

Connolly, K. (2 May 2017). Merkel presses Putin over anti-gay purge in Chechnya. The Guardian.

Elder, M. (17 August 2012). Pussy Riot sentenced to two years in prison colony over anti-Putin protest. The Guardian.

Estemirova, L. (22 April 2017). In macho Chechnya, being gay is an act of intolerable rebellion. The Guardian.

Dearden, L. (5 May 2017). Russia's biggest newspaper attacks Manchester over “disgusting” gay couples and “many fat people”. The Independent.

Jacobs, B. Siddiqui, S. and Bixby, S. (8 October 2016). “You can do anything”: Trump brags on tape about using fame to get women.

Reuters (5 December 2011). Putin’s macho image.

Walker, (21 April 2017). Chechnya leader rejects reports of anti-gay purge. The Guardian.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Go Ape with style: From tourist leisure to securitisation

Image: 'Roundhay Park', by Rodanthi Tzanelli (May 2014)

Leeds is experiencing its own evolutionary moment on the Darwinian scale of global urban development and competition, and its City Council is not taking a back seat on this front. The ‘Go Ape’ tree top adventure centre is advertised as a forthcoming development in the expansion of leisure at Roundhay Park, one of the biggest urban parks in Europe. The Park, which is the leafy pride of North Leeds, is bordered by the suburb of Roundhay to the west and Oakwood to the south, two affluent areas of the city. Stretching across about 700 acres, including two lakes, two adventure playgrounds, two cafes, a skate park, sports pitches, and the famous Tropical World with its surrounding gardens (all owned by the Leeds City Council), Roundhay Park is visited weekly by tourists and schools as an educational and tourist attraction.

‘Go Ape’ is an exciting project that bears the potential to put Leeds - a Northern English city too far from the capital that gets all the glamour of creative industrial development, and yet close to some of the most physically beautiful parts of the country -  on the map of global urban retreats. But we should also read the smaller letters in this enterprise, to realise how it may alter balances between technocratic, social and environmental complexities in the area. Technocratically, the project hits all the right strings when it comes to lifting the city out of recession traps and an impeding ‘hard Brexit’ that threatens whatever tourist profile it managed to acquire next to the historic city of York – an old domestic and international cultural tourist destination. The three planned ‘Go Ape’ entertainment sites compensate for any lack of historic interest with innovative leisure close to nature – a revamped eco-friendly touristic experience. Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, Leeds City Council’s Executive Member for the Environment and Sustainability, stated:

Due to ongoing significant reductions in government funding, we are always looking for new ways to be enterprising and the work that we plan to undertake at the three sites underlines our ongoing commitment as a council to help ensure that each attraction continues to thrive and offer visitors from the city and beyond a great experience for many years to come. Our recent investment in Tropical World which has seen visitor numbers rise by 45% compared to pre-development is a great example of what can be achieved by investing in one of our sites to raise the quality, boost income and in the long-term save money for the council. This is something that we now want to replicate again at Tropical World, Lotherton Hall Bird Garden and Home Farm, Temple Newsam.

No such ambition can evade criticism - including reactions from those it claims to benefit in the long term. Different interest constituencies will read different things into such initiatives. A recent petition appeared on to stop this project from going ahead because of its potential to destroy what Roundhay Park represented for many decades: a haven from the noisy urban life of Leeds and a little Paradisiac escape for families and other groups seeking respite from busy mid-week environments. Framed as the potential loss of a real, earthly utopian spot to the demons of business-orientated development, the petition gathered over 3,000 signatures and is about to be sent to Councillor Yeadon. A relevant article on Yorkshire Post (13 October 2016) had previously initiated a vivid conversation amongst readers over the benefits and problems of having such a multi-sited development in the area, including risks for its potential users. Plans to build a high-wire adventure course featuring aerial zip wires and rope walks raised concerns about noise and traffic problems. A BBC report featured Richard Critchley, Chair of Friends of Roundhay Park saying: ‘We are frightened that we are commercialising and selling off the park bit by bit’.

With 29 locations in the UK and 12 in the United States, Go Ape, which promises to generate about 30 jobs in Roundhay, Leeds, is the business venture of the Mayhews family. Set up in 2002, with inspiration from the couple’s holiday in France, it grew as a theme park enterprise so much, that today it can be associated with other touristic ventures we find in remote countries such as Japan, where artificial islands serve as leisure zones next to overpopulated urban centres. The benefit of the ‘Go Ape’ project is that, unlike artificial resorts, it is based on the reorganisation of natural landscapes, thus prioritising the user’s imaginative connectivity to nature. The idea is to allow visitors to activate the inner child in them, to be a carefree tourist for a few hours in a day, before becoming worrisome urbanites again. Proof that this is amongst the objectives is that, in addition to expanding ‘Go Ape’ into the US, the couple also launched in 2014 ‘Air Space’, an indoor trampoline business in two locations (Wolverhampton, West Midlands, and East Kilbride in Scotland). More explicitly orientated towards combinations of sports activities with childhood memories, trampoline gaming engages visitors in adrenaline-pumping rituals usually reserved for children.

There are issues to address here, especially with regards to the Ram Wood development of ‘Go Ape’ resorts. Yes, most of the development will upgrade empty grounds visited only by hard-core walkers. But concerns over of sound pollution or environmental modification, though the easiest to capture the public imagination (it certainly attracted my attention as a peace-seeking adult) are probably the least damaging to consider (and did Roundhay Park not commence its life as modified landscape, after all?). More important is the intrusion of business into the community’s common space, where environmental heritage with a social angle is concerned. Roundhay Park was created in an Act of Parliament, which was obtained on 21 June 1871, passing the land on to the City Council. Part of the Park’s public inauguration was to donate to localities a gift of leisure, thus designating a few square miles as common space for free walks and family or friend gatherings. The commercialisation of parts of this space redefines this history, thus taking away from locals what they thought of as part of Leeds’ autonomous autobiographical record.

There are even more pressing concerns to address. Some surviving Yorkshire Post readers’ comments suggest, for example, that there are risks involved in turning an area neighbouring ‘disreputable’ Harehills into children’s playground. Add perhaps to this the uses of ‘Go Ape’ by teenagers, young women and other ‘vulnerable groups’ to complete a picture of environmental racism. By this I refer to the designation of whole territories as leisure enclaves in need of segmentation, not only on the basis of ‘race’ or ‘class’ (an obvious connection, given the mention of Harehills resident profiles in Yorkshire Post), but also of age and gender. The securitisation of leisure zones in the developed world is now a common occurrence, where independent business casts its promising and much-needed nets. This involves surveillance run by corporate agencies and barely controlled by local authorities. We can just cast a look at the proliferation of contemporary phobias and philias (Islamophobia, paedophilia and the likes) across the world today to consider where this is going, if left unattended at this early stage. If newspaper readers point to ‘risks’ of this type at this stage, then we may not be talking about leisure innovation but about the militarisation of a once common space. And these are just the thoughts of a concerned citizen before any expert auditing.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Popular culture and populist pedagogy: The re-making of Ed Balls

Image: 'Strictly Come Dancing Judges. In Cake', by RachelIH_,       3 December 2008 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

‘Edxit’ does not mean ‘Edxit’
Let’s say many of us will miss Ed Balls’ idiosyncratic dancing in Strictly Come Dancing every Saturday evening. Still, I cannot but be amazed at the rising popularity of an ex politician, whose career ended on a very low note. Is it that the same voters who turned their back on him less than two years ago are plagued by amnesia? Is popular culture turning, on the back of a lingering recession, once again, into the maiden of populist propaganda? Ed Balls himself did not validate the speculations of Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two presenter, Zoe Ball that he might return to politics after his tear-induced ‘Edxit’ from the show on Saturday 27 November.  So, is there anything left to discuss here?

Perhaps we approach the ‘Ed Balls phenomenon’ from the wrong perspective. Guardian journalist Zoe Williams’ suggestion that we live in an era of renewed interest in retro nostalgia that reinforces social conservatism from the back door is certainly intriguing. The whole Strictly craze certainly thrives in stylistic reproductions, now complete with ‘short journeys’ back in time through various dance genres, costumes, music and songs. Yet, if not careful, one may ‘ditch’ the fun/leisure element of such trends out of the door together with any suspect political propagandism: art and its political uses do not always coincide because of the former’s ubiquitous (digital and televised) mediation. Still, let us keep popular retrospectivism in sight for a while, as a way into the hearts of national and international audiences. If retro does something well every time is that it speaks to the hearts of the people. Right: the people. Strictly Judge Len Goodman called Balls a ‘champion of the people’ a couple of times during the ex-politician’s ten-week appearance on the show. There is depth in such a nomination: the public voted Balls several times over more able fellow celebrity dancers, sending them out before him. As his appeal rose to ‘mini star’ levels, video clips of his dancing began to accumulate on You Tube more and journalistic analyses began to populate both the mainstream and tabloid press. Perhaps we should begin then from there: why would damning, frivolous and speculative political commentary produce novel discourses on a post- New Labour persona? Above all, how?

Hero to zero, to hero (Gangnam style)
It may be wrong to consider Balls’ Strictly participation as a one-purpose strategy: for a super-active public figure that shaped national politics for a long while, to be demoted ‘from hero to zero’ is not fun. Ed Balls himself stressed the fun and endearing elements of his involvement in what might have commenced more as a risky activity or a chore, but had turned into a community-building project, however fleeting and shrinking, every week. But have a careful look at Ed’s dance routines, cleverly choreographed by his professional partner Katya Jones; examine the audience of the live show, the reactions and comments of the Strictly Judges or Balls’ very own life partner, Yvette Cooper, in the auditorium’s ‘back benches’. Week after week, the widely anticipated ‘Balls event’ was staged (dance moves, camera angles and even the dance couple’s facial expressions) as a sort of comedy, subversive of social mores (Ed riding Katya Gangnam-style) but faithful to audience entertainment. Watch carefully and take notes.

After closer inspection of all these details we are getting somewhere: for decades, Balls built his public persona around an ennobled, yet clearly discernible habitus involving soft machismo (Balls would notoriously take seriously his play in the annual journalists v. MPs football competition), confrontational performance in the House of Commons and carefully orchestrated movement and intervention in the country’s commons spaces (notably we hardly read anything about his party-going habits or intimate social skills until his Strictly ascendance). His Strictly biographical record acted like an onion-peeling process: it stripped the first and very thick layer of alleged masculine decency off his being, leaving Ed completely naked in front of a national audience alternating between tears of elation and sadness (for his departure). The ‘Strictly Balls’ constructs by default a surgical gaze, willing to cut more slices off the ex-political ‘object’s’ public (in)decency, ever hungrier for more of this ‘object’s’ slapstick, theatrical-like dance-acting. Couple this now with the persistence of retro routines in the show and the ex-politician’s pronounced, carefully crafted, if natural, ‘campness’ (fish-mouth faces, wide eyes staring at cameras, waving hands and attempted hip action) and what you get is the emergence a deliberately feminised public actor. I stress the term ‘camp’ rather than ‘kitsch’ here, for reasons pointing to the inglorious passage of ‘retro’ from style to populist propaganda befit for the lower, less literate social orders: ‘campness’ is befit for conscious display as a sort of symbolic capital by the ‘knowing’ middle classes, whereas ‘kitsch’ is cheap unreflexively reproduced ‘high culture’ by the working classes (see on this Holliday and Potts 2012). The cute and camp Ed is not an idiot but a playful public persona emerging out of the ruins of a glorious political career. It may be true that Ed Balls has no plans to return to politics, but his political past will always haunt public discourse about him at least at a symbolic level. Anne Widdecombe’s Strictly appearance in 2010 (with  Anton du Beke) is a different but comparable case in point. Widdecombe was not queer however, nor was she camp and her presence faded away within weeks after her early exodus from the show. Balls’ long reign was marked by the fact that his campness is also queer through and through, but his queerness is not a trait based exclusively or primarily on gender or age.

Forerunners of queer theory such as Teresa de Lauretis (1987) were concerned with how Western social orders deploy rigid standards of gender and sexual intelligibility as a method of social regulation: we all have to comply with them (nay, visually display them), or we are socially criticized and/or excluded. But these days, much like ethnicity and race, gender and sexuality function as mobile goods in regional, national and global markets. To appear to be ‘somehow’ (Asian, black, sexy, hyper-feminine, gay or macho) successfully and with a difference guarantees one a glamorous place in the market – a perfect neoliberal ‘exit route’ from economic deadlocks espoused by New Labour in the 1990s, when Balls was at his professional apex. To be queer a-la Ed is to be everything and nothing, confusing enough to ‘pass’ as a novelty but replete with emotional depth and breadth for which we can easily vote in a post-democratic fashion. This does sound a bit like politics beyond politics, an apolitical stance that celebrity politicians cannot afford but fallen political stars can use. In 2016, just after the release of his ‘crafted’ intimate voice, Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics, Balls’ queer Strictly appearance advertised his new meta-political persona and (deliberately or not) confused former angry voters: he was not a fierce bull in the Commons’ china shop, after all, but a home-maker, a father, a loving spouse, a sensitive writer and now an aspiring, if adorably clumsy, dancer.

Retro: the return of the popular (or populist?) repressed
This is Ed Balls’ new queer identity: indecisive towards the past, experimental about the future, uncompromising about his commitment to his family, openly emotional in discussions about the Strictly camaraderie – above all, pliably vulnerable. Proof of its success is an astute but equally inconclusive analysis of Ed’s optional future careers (ranging from Great British Bake Off host to Pantomime Dame and Political pundit for Hire, amongst other things) on the BBC News.  It is as if, in the ‘New Ed’ we discover a version of the new ‘Public Man’, who is not afraid of emotional exposure.  And yet, one wonders whether this is a Man comparable to Sennett’s (1977, 2011) gloomy human portrait of impartial indifference to democracy in favour of self-gain on the global neoliberal stage. One also wonders whether Ed Balls the real human has anything to do with his expanding fame at all, which is managed by media networks. Perhaps the guy just wanted to have some fun – don’t we all?

De Lauretis, T. (1987), Technologies of Gender, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Holliday, R. and Potts, T. (2012), Kitsch! Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Sennett, R. (1977) The Fall of Public Man. New York: CUP.
Sennett, R. (2011). The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. New York, WW Norton & Company.

Monday, October 31, 2016

On (giving and taking) money

Image:'Money' by Kyrill Afonin 13 September 2011
(Flickr/Creative Commons)

I am fond of Georg Simmel’s formal sociology: his notion of ‘forms’ as separated from ‘content’ in the increasing rationalisation of social life. More recently, I took an interest in his approach to money to consider the issue of economic quantification of social interaction. This is peculiar for someone primarily interested in cultural productions of togetherness, if one does not know that I explore utopian visions of the future. Unfortunately, most would see money (or, rather ‘wealth’) as integral to productions and destructions of hope. Hence my interest: in reflecting on the ways money passes hands in everyday life; how different cultures conjure up different transactional rituals; and, more specifically, what ‘rationalisation’ might mean in contemporary contexts of association. I forgive Simmel’s absence on the last point, as he is not our contemporary, but wonder if treating money as ontologically exterior (to us) ‘things’, or if bracketing exchange as rational action would address issues of culture. Simmel himself admitted in The Philosophy of Money (1900) that ‘the possibility of finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning’ is possible. For me culture is not structure but an interplay between structure and agency – which is why Simmel’s generic conclusion on ‘rationalisation’ is not enough. Nor is the treatment of ‘money’ as objects excised from performances of giving-and-taking.

OK, maybe I am more interested in philosophies of giving and taking. But Simmel is still to be considered. I am only interested in offering vignettes and ‘glimpses’ at a programmatic statement on money as the gift encompassing the donor’s essence. Holders and recipients of money are, for me, part of a system not exactly ‘autopoetic’ in form.  On this, I remain incurably Maussian, tracking the notion of monetary exchange back to so-called ‘primitive’ reciprocal cycles (of material and immaterial things commonly recognised as ‘gifts’). Anthropologists have furthered Mauss’ (1954) work in the most intriguing ways - amongst them, we can count Sahlins (1965, 1972, 1976, 2013) and Gudeman (1986, 2001, 2008, 2015) for a start. So I wish to observe on form that conceals variations in content (of monetary exchange).

 Image: 'Transaction' by Erwin Schoonderwaldt 12 February 2012 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Cultural fast-tracking: in British society money changes hands in everyday settings in such a tactile style that one wonders if we got the stereotype of the ‘cold Englishman (or woman)’ all wrong. English people are not afraid to fondle money when they give them away – in fact, pointing them to customers in an exaggerated manner seems part of the professional etiquette (of a seller). Not a problem if hands touch or fondle either. Once I held a note at the tip of my fingers to pass to a bus driver, and he responded in the grumpiest manner by refusing to return coins to me (he placed them on he till). Brits are virtuosos of tactile connectivity when it comes to returning coins – a phenomenon one never encounters in some Mediterranean countries. Greeks slam coins on the tray they have in front of them, often counting them for you in disdain (amusingly, if you thank them, they may think you mock their custom). Counting change (in your palm) is popular amongst Pakistani taxi drivers, in a public display of honesty. Often, however, the same drivers adopt the ‘middle ground’ approach between the direct British touch with the customer’s hand and the distance of a Greek ‘cash dispensing’ attitude. Other Asian cultures, such as the Indonesian, might favour touch but react to visual directness – there are less limits to accidental bodily connectivity and many to its visual measurement and apprehension. So, even though the content of transaction remains the same, the form changes. But variations in form may also have a story to say about differences in content: what the/form act of giving/returning/receiving stands for in culturally specific human interactions.

The global advent of Westernisation-as-modernisation counters a neat separation of ‘things’ to use in transactions, transactional networks and global (within a society) socialisation patterns. Money can become an actant in human interactions, mediating affect, emotion and reason in various combinations. And if we want to understand its place in a culture, we must consider relationalities between the form and content of transactions – their performative patterns in everyday life.

Gudeman, S. (1986) Economics as Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Gudeman, S. (2001) The Anthropology of Economy. Malden: Blackwell.
Gudeman, S. (2008) Economy’s Tension. New York: Berghahn.
Gudeman, S. (2015) ‘Piketty and Anthropology’, Anthropological Forum, 25 (1): 66-83.
Mauss, M. (1954) The Gift. London: Free Press.
Sahlins, M. (1965) ‘On the sociology of primitive exchange’, in M. Banton (ed.) The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology. London: Tavistock, 139–236.
Sahlins, M. (1972) Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine.
Sahlins, M. (1976) Culture and Practical Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Saturday, August 27, 2016

Lifting the market’s scene: Burkinology and the right to be otherwise

Image: 'Burkini not allowed' by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño (Flickr/Creative Commons) 

I promised myself not to do too much computer work on my holidays, but felt compelled to take an hour or so to provide this note on the circus ‘controversy’ of the ‘burkini ban’. Interestingly, this controversy stemmed from a digital ‘rumour’, a privately video-recorded encounter of local police with a bathing Muslim woman in the new swimming clothing. The police was caught on camera asking the woman to remove the clothing – a humiliating demand for anyone rejecting the Western cult of Western holiday (s)exposure. Several places proceeded to bar clothing that “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks”. The Nice ban in particular referred to the truck attack in the city on 14 July that claimed 86 lives, as well as the murder 12 days later of a Catholic priest near the northern city of Rouen.

How can a woman with her children on the beach pose a threat or insult the memory of violence? Please note that I have little interest in defending religious pleas for respect of a custom that has been publicly discussed as conservative and ‘patriarchal’ in its proclivity to endorse the treatment of women as ‘human property’ on the one hand, and a ‘means of resistance’ towards Western imperialist hegemony on the other. It all depends on the Western or Eastern perspective you adopt, so you are bound to be on someone’s losing end and target range. Let us consider instead for a while, how several media conduits ‘framed’ (after human rights and feminist activists) the issue as a violation of women’s control over their own body.

Undoubtedly, there is something about this line of argumentation we cannot forgo. But its unmistakable racial blindness, the replacement of a taboo in global politics (an attack on the non-Muslim ‘Other’s’ right to self-presentation) with a ‘progressive’ statement on gender inequality is as scandalising as it is peculiarly comical. The slippage has been picked up upon by Muslim and non-Muslim women protesters outside London’s French Embassy, who, in bikinis and burkinis sat on spread sand to play with their children and display their banners. ‘The war on terror does not begin inside a woman’s wardrobe,’ one protester noted.

Hence my opening reference to the ‘circus’: although public debates on gender rights take for granted all women’s integration into consumer circuits (it is no problem to discuss the advertising or distribution and purchase of burkinis as such), they might condemn individual (and by extension collective) displays of the fashion by their users, if they do not conform to given Western norms. I wonder if what is debated is actually understood or merely ‘modified’ to placate the audience – a bit like Mohammed Farah’s customary genuflection after his victories, which always lacks religious interpretation by commentators. Where there is a taboo, there is silence – and so is the case with the obvious insertion of the new Muslim femininity’s public display in contemporary global markets.

 Image: 'Burkini' by Cabellmon (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Once you considered this perspective, you open one of Pandora’s Hidden Boxes. The Box talks about the ways popular cultural representations serve as an uncomfortable reminder of our inability to think in and act on the other’s terms. But this exceeds the contours of anti-Islamophobic debates: it took several decades for the bikini to be established as the symbol of female emancipation from patriarchal control – a victory achieved only thanks to the prevalence of market imperatives. As uncomfortable as this realisation may be to critics of capitalism, it helps to put things in new perspective. In the alleged burkini ‘clash of civilisations’, we could potentially encounter a re-negotiation of global market hegemonies that can decide to support or reject cultural inclusivity. The French decision to ban the garment from public spaces can thus be construed as retrogressive and parochial in the language of fashion only under certain conditions. ‘Fashion’ is, after all, a path to Western civilisation, a way to tame the savage body and tailor the alien soul to the demands of industrial production and consumption. It is telling that a relevant widely circulated ‘joke’ on ‘Burkinology’ figures a photo in which two motorbikers in full gear, suit and helmet, sunbathe among half-naked holiday makers. In case one presumes this is a creative protest, it must be stressed that the true meaning of the image is lost. A quick reverse image search for the photo on Google shows that it was uploaded to this French motorcycling forum in 2014 and on as far back as 2012. Yet, the photo’s new viral spread in recent days via Twitter and Facebook has been firmly connected to the burkini clashes. The revamped ‘joke’ in the social media is titled ‘Motokini’, cleverly suggesting in my humble opinion that the adoption of culturally inclusive swimwear is just a subcultural craze, akin to those maintained by motobikers’ clubs.

It must be getting hot with all this stuff on you. As holiday day draws to a close for many of us, the Burkini Controversy seems more like a painful reminder of what will be (imminently) lost for a good few months: the idea and experience of sun-kissing relaxation on the coast of some beautiful seaside resort. Perhaps this harbours the domination of Western logic in the controversy: to ‘enjoy’ you must shed your everyday constraints and have a dip in the water carefree. The idea of holiday as entertainment or recreation is bound up with this lack of restraint – and how a Muslim woman, ‘bound and gagged’ in a burkini, as it were, enjoy her bathing and let others enjoy it too? Here, the French motto of equality, fraternity and freedom takes a hard punch in the stomach, for those set to digest the heritage and right to be human on one’s own peaceful terms.

I am supposed to on cybernetic holidays, so I leave the rest of you ponder on all these issues.