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.
Sahlins, M. (2013) ‘On the Culture of Material Value and the cosmography of riches’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 3 (2): 161-95.
Simmel, G. (1900) The Philosophy of Money. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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 FunnyJunk.com 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.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The return of philoxenia? Mediatised worldmaking and thanatourist imaginaries in Greece

Edinburgh Napier University

Image: Ardvreck, 'Project 404' (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Presenter: Rodanthi Tzanelli
School of Sociology & Social Policy, University of Leeds
The presentation interrogates the rationale of contemporary Greek hospitality through two types of tourism imaginaries in the context of the current European economic crisis. A radical change in the ‘picture’ of the country circulates in global media conduits that connects to past and present conceptions of philoxenia: the love of strangers, who can nevertheless be both tourists and refugees for Greeks. More specifically, I detect the emergence of a new dark and slum imaginary, which is propagated by both native and global intellectuals-activists and artists and globally disseminated in the blogosphere, the press and via other new media formats. I argue that the new imaginary of darkness, which is not dissociated from the gentleness and aesthetic-cum-emotional engagement with the other/stranger, bears the potential to re-invent Greece as a tourist destination. The change, which is informed by the European histories of art, slum and dark tourism, draws on middle-class refinement and philanthropy. But it also has its by-products in the domestic public sphere, which attains a revamped cosmopolitan ethos. This is so, because such blended foreign and domestic activist participation promotes a heroicised native ethos of salvation, closer to native histories of uprooting and forced relocation. The impoverished Greeks are recognised in this new imaginary as welcoming, empathic hosts (phíloi tõn xénõn) for the new non-Greek refugees from war-trodden world zones, and not just for affluent tourists. The paper interrogates the axiological basis of such ‘worldmaking processes’ that exceed but do not eliminate the monetary rationale of hospitality, as this is fed back into dark travel. Fusing cognitive/strategic, aesthetic and emotional motivation, these processes bear the potential to bring together tourism and wider global social imaginaries not in spite of, but in coordination with new neoliberal imaginaries of mobility.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

On how to attain a passport (but still lose your citizenship)

I came to the UK some 16 years ago. An old saying at the place I grew up in, one of the provincial backwaters of Greece, has it that ‘where you hear about many cherries, take a small basket’. The idea that big promises are often inflated and opportunistic is common sense, but my basket was big and I was much younger some 16 years ago. Also, the native certainty that where I was going, I would meet civilisation, was indisputable – the cherries would be many, no doubt.  Sure, I wanted education I could not get in Greece for a variety of reasons, and a job, but above all, I wanted freedom and respect. Over the coming years, my basket filled half or more: I attained some moderate recognition by peers, my new friends and family; also, I became an academic and preserved most of my beliefs and values in a culture that promised more tolerance, more openness to difference and more social opportunity.

As of 23 June, my basket started hosting some rotten fruit, even though I am still who I more or less wanted to be at a younger age. After being granted British citizenship rights last year, I could, at last, feel relief to not have to deal with Greek bureaucracy any more. I have outlined this dreadful journey to renew my passport in 2011 (unsuccessfully) elsewhere, so I will not dwell more on this unfortunate incident. Here I want to conclude with some reflections on the current state of my adopted country in the aftermath of the Brexit; and my own current state!

Few would disagree at this stage that the outcome of the referendum was a travesty of democracy, dressed in the clothes of due, decent process. The overall rhetoric of the pro-Brexit Tory and extreme right, the mediatised propaganda, matched the expectations of a demoralized and disenfranchised working class (by the self-same propagandists, who would constantly tarnish others or erode the country’s welfare support and proceed to blame it all on migrants), with few educational capital to assess the consequences of withdrawal from the EU, and the nebulous, backward-looking ethos of a third age with little interest in the future (and no personal future). The investment by the right was made in the politics of death: the working class saw the eradication of their social rights and access to a better life as a symptom of foreign invasion (by migrants of all kinds). The older voters, facing physical finitude anyway voted for the recovery of heaven in a green (non-European!) England before their own death. Death all-around became a safe bet for those political circles wanting to seize power, but the right excelled in such thanatological mantras. On their part, both the old and the working classes were investing in a better aftermath, constructed by political lies, inaccuracies about the economic benefits of the exit and a grotesque xenophobic celebration of future ethno-national purity for England. An intelligent scriptwriter could have made an acclaimed horror parody out of this mess – but of course, interesting cinematic variations on such British cultural pathologies have been cast by a mature Danny Boyle and a young Peter Jackson.

Next to these hallucinating social groups, we can find those plagued by total indifference to their future. More correctly, I would not attribute nihilism but plain indifference-as-stupidity to such socially heterogeneous groups: as an amusing article in Washington Post noted, on the day of the referendum, the top question on Google’s search engine from UK users was ‘What is the EU?’ (Or some variation of it anyway). The metropolitan press and the Anglophone media flooded with reporting on how people regretted casting a negative vote, how they want to ‘take it all back’ now (it is not that easy, Tory spokesmen retort). Disorientated old women appeared on the news explaining that they do not really know why they voted for Brexit, or what it really means, but they hated Cameron anyway.

After this circus of (suggestive, by all means) impressions, came more organised cries for help: the realisation that London and the country’s large peripheral cities will be stripped of their European status, but also of their cosmopolitan atmosphere – so important for the maintenance of their global economic networks and their all-essential creative industries – suggested that it is not just money that will go away, but also the culture of which Brits are admired abroad. Mourning the loss of glamour was followed by a panic over the preservation of intellectual capital in the country – the reality of a brain-drain in the British Higher Education’s international profile of employees. The consternation pointed to the loss of a more enlarged notion of civic participation, so essential for the maintenance of the country’s migrant makeup (often integral to its international reputation and achievements). An electronic petition to Parliament to consider a second referendum started on 24 June from half a million signatures, only to climb up to 3,459,624 on 26 June as I write this – and it is still climbing in numbers, a heavy traffic that crashes the Government website. Those who voted to remain in the EU, but especially academics, also sign another petition, addressed to the EU, with a plea to retain their European citizenship: ‘this may take the form of a European Passport, or a fast-track to citizenship of a nation within the EU’, the petition helpfully suggests (I smile bitterly as I read this). 

I have signed both petitions, and will sign more, as there is hope things might improve. Hope resides in pressure (by educated or not people who ‘want back in’, by media networks and organised bloggers, by those celebrities willing to help in achieving the country’s reversal of fortunes) but also in the realisation in London’s political headquarters that a conservative volte-face may actually save face for those careless politicians of all constituencies. And what I say ‘save face’, I mean it in the strictest anthropological sense - for, these political figures that pushed Britain down this cliff, with their lies, egotistic ambitions or silence, are male in their vast majority and adhere to a misogynistic and racist conduct that reigned (or still reigns) in fascistic regimes.  

 My basket is not empty, but it has some inedible cherries. I said good bye to Greece with the intention to become full citizen in both social and political terms elsewhere. Now I find myself in the most peculiar position: circumstances (including physical constrictions and a commitment to equality the Greek state refuses to show to women and the disabled) make it difficult to renew my Greek passport; the acquisition of a British passport granted me again with legal cross-border mobility, but the Brexit stripped me of my European citizenship. The only proof of my European-ness now is a piece of laminate paper I detest, a document born out of Greece’s authoritarian past adhering to the strictest biopolitical principles: my ID. Which is why I signed the petition to the EU to acquire a European passport. So, to answer the question with which I closed the post ‘On how not to renew your passport’: I do not belong to a country beyond my official documents and credentials; I belong to a transnational group of people who observe the principles of dignity, peace, equality and freedom; altogether, we sign a plea not to destroy a decades-long project that has given us legislation on welfare and protected our basic human rights. I do not wish to sing EU’s praises – it is a politico-economic formation that has harmed and benefitted. Nor do I claim expertise on European affairs. But the right to transnational connectivity, inclusion and mobility should be for all, and at the moment, the incompetence, lack of intelligence and misguided ambition of some, damages the prospects of others. If something has to change, the Brexit is not the obvious answer.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Remembering John Urry (Leeds to Lancaster)

John Urry, 1946-2016

I have devised these two presentations as a response to a call Chia-ling Lai made to former students (in the broadest and narrowest sense) of John to participate in a collated video of recollections from encounters with this great scholar. Chia-ling primarily wanted us to discuss our intellectual relationship with John – how our own research connects to his and how we engaged with his multiple projects. I gather that I do more than that in the longer presentation, where I say a few things about who I thought John was as a scholar and a public intellectual as well as a person. In the shortest presentation I specifically respond to Chia-ling’s invitation to make a collective picture of John in relation to his colleagues, interlocutors and students.

My experience with new media is still limited. But recording myself externalizing thoughts about someone who stands as one of my significant others (my list is growing with new living colleagues all the time), then watching the complete narrative, I realized how uncomfortable I found the process. This becomes obvious in kinaesthetic aspects in both videos. I decided to leave them unedited – I am unable to participate in commemorative events in person, so this is my small, if insignificant, contribution. Some clips will appear in a relevant event in the 2016 ISA Forum in Vienna.

Click hereto watch the longer clip
Click here to watch the shorter clip

2 June 2016

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Towards an art of ‘Being Human 3.0’? Interrogations of Greece’s new imaginaries of mobility

"Tourism in the European economic crisis: Mediatised worldmaking and new tourist imaginaries in Greece" (Rodanthi Tzanelli, University of Leeds, UK & Maximiliano E Korstanje , University of Palermo, Argentina) 


The presentation explores the rationale and origins of changing imaginaries of tourism in Greece in the context of the current economic crisis. I highlight a radical change in the picture of the country that circulates in global media conduits (YouTube, Facebook, official press websites and personal blogs). To examine this shift, I reflect on past media representations of Greece as an idyllic peasant and working-class site. Then I highlight that today such representations are being recycled by Greeks living and studying abroad in virtual sites. These representations, which focus on embodied understandings of happiness and well-being, are challenged by the current economic crisis. Instead, new dark and slum tourist imaginaries emerge and propagated by native and global intellectuals-activists. Originally, ‘dark tourism’ or ‘thanatourism’ had a double identification: (a) travels to sites of disaster but also ruined spaces of industrial modernity, and (b) visitations to heritage sites of slavery, hence personal pilgrimage to distant family pasts. Dark tourism has always been connected to artistic (embodied, performative but also pictorial) and moral sentiments (of loss and resurrection of human togetherness). As a continuation of thanatourisn/dark tourism, slum tourism has been irrevocably associated with Western industrial modernity and the global consequences of unplanned urbanisation (poverty and racial inequality).

The new imaginaries both test in practice and bear the potential to re-invent Greece as a tourist destination. The change is informed by the European histories of (a) art and dark tourism focusing on middle-class refinement and (b) individualised-come-collective welfare interventions. This might assist in Greece’s upgrading as a cultural tourist destination in global value hierarchies in ways obeying to neoliberal imperatives. The new imaginaries prognosticate the death of society and attempt to rescue it through ‘positive action’ that informs two types of agency: one looks to global public engagement through artistic enactments of suffering and heroism; the second enables local (rural, island, peripheral) empowerment by international recognition. To exemplify these two types of blended native and foreign agency I provide two examples: the first comes from Ai WeiWei’s recent artistic and humanitarian engagement with the ways Greece copes with the Syrian refugee crisis. The second example considers the recent nomination of Lesbos residents involved in salvaging Syrian refugees for the Nobel Prize by an international community of scholars.

I argue that, if we look past the dangers of such positive action (incitement of nationalist sentiment), and into the nature of such interventions, we encounter an ideal type of tourist: a romantic, hypermobile and aesthetically reflexive subject, determined to rescue the ideals of community and well-being from the dangers of material and moral destitution. Though both ‘examples’ of agents value proximate engagement with Greece’s woes and refugee hosting experience, significantly, their social action achieves maximum potency in the cybersphere. In the cybersphere, social conflict and inequality or xenophobia are erased and Greek community is also ‘morphed’ into an aesthetically reflexive, philanthropic collective agent. This digital resuscitation of ‘humanity’ finds its analogue in John Urry’s Tourism 3.0 – in that it asserts ‘mobility’ as a ‘universal right’ in the face of Greece’s economic and political adversity. As economists now pronounce Greece’s slide into the ‘Third World’, the making of ‘Humanity 3.0’ invites critical engagement with class and racialized imaginaries of belonging in Europe.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Reading from Leeds, 2016: ‘Lash, S and Urry, J. (1994) Economies of Signs & Space. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage’: A diary.

Image: 'Dream' by Ling, 23 March 2007 (Flickr/Creative Commons)



GROUP CONVENOR Professor Adrian Favell

Reflexive mourning
This post summarises impressions from my zillionth reading of a book that has shaped the way I approach the social world. Not having received formal sociological education, save my undergraduate travails into anthropological theory and subsequent personal investment during and then continuously after my PhD in multiple the social sciences, meant that I needed a stimulus and concrete human inspiration to proceed in uncharted territory. John Urry’s work provided this, amongst other intellectually sophisticated voices. This time I read Economies of Signs and Space in three phases/acts: first like a Lacanian dreamer, allowing my unconscious to pick what matters most to me and kill what does not; then as a collector of impressions, in John’s sociological fashion, to generate a meaningful repository of ideas; and finally, like a Foucaultian archivist, who does some violence to past realities. I hope that those who dip into this post forgive me for my custom and the fact that Scott Lash takes a back seat in this narrative – he too is of course very important in my current work and I know well that his contribution to Economies was pivotal. I guess this post is my own tribute to John. It produces thanatourist pilgrimage in conjunction with a friend’s posting on Facebook of photographs from John’s funeral and wake. I am almost sure he would have appreciated the performance.
It is rather difficult to summarise this 326-page book. Its conceptual, analytical and empirical span covers as diverse questions as those of (post)modern subjectivity, contemporary class transformations, the changing structures of capitalist accumulation, mobilities such as migration, travel, tourism and technologies, new social movements tied to new concerns such as environmentalism and the role of locality within global consciousness and globalisation processes. These are only few of the themes covered in this magnum opus. I would argue that in John’s case Economies contained the seeds from which his 21st-century mobilities project grew and budded into a ‘paradigm’ embracing aspects of global socio-cultural transformations, as well epistemological frameworks connected to the development of science, technology and complexity. Poignantly, his latest interest in futures, concretised in the recent foundation of a centre at Lancaster University (Social Futures), will not be developed by him. But I would say that, in some respects, even this centre is laterally connected to the early vision of interconnected mobilities that he proffered in Economies in collaboration with Scott Lash.

Reminiscing on Economies’ archival roots
Before presenting some impressions from the book, a note is necessary on the conceptual background of the project. Like most ‘grand projects’, it did not spring out of nowhere but was connected to intensive intellectual deliberations over the status of late 20th-century economic, socio-cultural and political changes in the UK and globally. I guess here the dreamer meets the romantic historian in me. But I strongly believe that place and context prove crucial coordinates in our reading of the book – that more specifically, we should try to understand its dominant discourses as a reaction to the impact of state and de-centred, organisational policies on local community, peripheral and central regions in increasingly globalised contexts. As a follow-up from The End of Organised Capitalism, Economies tried to respond to critics on the authors’ typification of economic ‘branching out’ of economies by country. The call to consider ‘dis-organisation’ was not of course to be taken literally, but this is precisely what a shallow reading of The End invited at the time. Gracefully, Lash and Urry proceeded to develop their thesis further in Economies – but of course the book does a lot more than this, as it provides a cultural outlook that was missing from The End.

As a self-contained project, Economies belongs to a vision of the future in difficult times for the British North, where Lancaster is located (in which both Lash and Urry were professionally based at the time). To understand who the authors’ immediate interlocutors were, one may inspect the short Preface, which is populated by a blend of people who were educated and/or worked in Northern regions of the country and went on to become internationally renowned scholars (such densely populated by names prefaces would become a norm in John’s books). Several of these names belonged to a Lancaster University sociology reading group on regionalism. One of them is today my colleague at Leeds. Again, this is crucial for our understanding of the overall thesis: as the authors themselves acknowledge indirectly in the latter parts of the book (Chapter on ‘Post-industrial Spaces’), the impact of Thatcherite policies on the North in the 1980s (largely held accountable for the rapid de-industrialisation of the region and the rise in unemployment) was connected at least in Lancaster (also in other parts of the North) to a political shift to the left.

 In reality, Thatcher came into focus in this picture for Lancaster a bit later but still with a vengeance. Mostly a pro-Conservative town, which experienced de-industrialisation from the 1960s and an extensive service growth sector, Lancaster became pro-Labour in the 1980s and 1990s, then also Green (these days we see a shift backwards in local elections, as if we come full circle). In the 1980s, when the regionalism group was active (see P. Bagguley, M. Lawson, D. Shapiro, S. Walby and A. Warde (1990) Restructuring: Place, Class and Gender. London: Sage, a much-cited book in Economies), the ward was Labour, slowly shifting from manual working to professional middle class and with an emerging activist ethos tied to the role of the public intellectual. There is a Frankfurt School ‘undercurrent’ that flows in Lash and Urry’s project that never surfaces in Economies, but, rest assured, it is flowing freely and generously, with all its pros and cons. This stream intersects and hybridises with third way voices. Giddens’ critical and creative use (‘reflexive modernisation’) in the book is not random; nor is the belief in the emergence of aesthetically-informed social action, which also manages to counter first generation Frankfurt School distaste for the popular aesthetic (in cultural industries). The authors were recording what was going on around them as much as they were reflecting on their own agential role in these new realities. I would argue that Economies’ overarching cultural and political discourse matches its authors’ already by that time established interests: Urry’s early concern with interest groups and revolution and later investigation into tourism-informed systems of mobility, and Lash’s earlier industrial/organisational sociology and later more culturally-orientated focus on social theory, modernity and the new cultural industries. The ‘shift’ in their collaborative work from purely political to socio-cultural processes as an economic overlay is filtered through a distinctively Simmelian reading of Marx’s second volume of Capital in Economies. Where Kantian aesthetics is used in conjunction with Baudelaire and Baudrillard’s poststructuralism to criticise Giddens’ ‘cognitive’ emphasis on reflexivity, Economies figures the most obvious (to me!) innovative fusion of Lash and Urry’s sociological vision. But more on this below.

Economy, culture and the moral sphere
In an overwhelmingly Marxist academia, Economies’ poststructuralist emphasis on cultural, rather than purely political, economy, was not received well. These days I make the extra mile to teach my students the difference between the two economies, stressing that the former is not Marxist but Marxian-inspired only! Economies innovates on this question but at the time many raised an eyebrow at its authors’ ‘culturalist’ discourse (an English anti-French malaise, in my opinion). Another thing that critics shunted aside was an emphasis on moral economies of mobility (one of John’s colleagues, Andrew Sayer, is a world expert on this subject). There is a number of key terms employed in the thesis, some of which return in different parts of the book. The term ‘economies’ in the title connects to Marxist political economy only to some extent, as the concern with processes of signification in contemporary markets stresses the novelty of reflexivity and hermeneutics in contemporary socio-cultural change. Also, the term ‘space’ suggests the presence of delinking of production and consumption from social milieus in line with Baudrillard’s dystopianism and urban sociology’s concern with place socialities. There is, however, also a less pessimistic note in such transformations, connected to new class formations: interpretation by the new reflexive subjects, the authors argue, is pivotal for social change and triggers creative innovation. There we detect the influence of Bourdieu’s sociology of distinction, rather than of Marx’s; also, of consumption rather than production practices.

Note how the book begins with an acknowledgment of Marx’s circuits of production as central to modernity. The two-tiered capital-flows that the authors proceed to discuss across different chapters (money, commodities, means of production and labour power) move through space and work across different temporalities. They clarify that they intend to concretise (in terms of context, geography and social practice) what Marx left abstract in his work as ‘production circuits’. Lash and Urry’s ‘circuits’ exceed those of money and embrace the human plasticity of social reality: they become constitutive of meaning-making as a creative but not a priori determined process. I cannot forgo the feeling that Schumpeter somehow affected their elaboration on this, but as he does not appear in the bibliography, I note this as my own suspicion.

There we have the beginnings of the theory of mobility, which in recent years moved through prominent critical readers of Marx – most notably, of course, Foucault and his conception of ‘governance’. Interestingly, Economies says little about ‘power circuits’ in governmental terms and even less about the biopolitical base of production, accumulation and consumption. It does stress, however, the role of race and gender in ‘Ungovernable Spaces’ (Ch. 6), but sidelines them in favour of class, poverty and inequality indicators in the ghetto. If space is important in the central thesis, time is even more important for the conceptualisation of contemporary transformations in work patterns and lifestyles. In chapters 9 and 10, which are dedicated to the analysis of time and mobility, we find the voices of both authors in unison, considering the temporal dimensions of technology as the organisation of the social. Though neither Urry nor Lash would become Foucaultians, again we see parallels with Foucault’s poststructuralist consideration of economic-come-political structuring of institutions and organisations. But of course Economies takes a decisive turn away from all this when it pronounces a post-Fordist separation of forms of capital as objects and labour power as subjects. The new consumer capitalism order, the authors argue, is based on the continuous production of signification from objects, with which subjects (who are now cast as both producers and consumers) struggle to cope.

What is ‘aesthetic’ in aesthetic reflexivity? (Not the senses! L)
As soon as we encounter Baudrillard’s dystopia, we are moved to a counter-argument and one of the book’s core theses: if such proliferation of meaning confuses, it also opens up possibilities for the reconstitution of community, subjectivity, work and leisure (a point notably figuring in Urry’s reflections on digital mobilities after 2000 and in his Mobilities (Polity, 2007)). This proliferation leads to the heterogenisation of space and contemporary life, providing the contours of a reflexive human subjectivity. There is an element of Giddensianism in this argument, but the idea that contemporary subjects reflect upon phenomena and material objects only cognitively is replaced in Economies with the progressive aestheticisation of production and consumption. Aesthetic reflexivity entails self-interpretation, rather than self-monitoring (as is the case with Giddens’ cognitive reflexivity), is self-hermeneutic and based on pre-judgements in Gadamer’s tradition of hermeneutics. Thus, ‘being-in-the-world’, being a cosmopolitan in everyday life, is externalised and shared with others through expressive practices that at least in socio-economic terms are manifest in product design. For Lash and Urry design enables aesthetic reflexivity both at production and consumption ends, but not in a Thatcherite ‘entrepreneurial individualism’ in the absence of society. Here I state what I think that the authors want to argue: design makes social cohesion possible in novel forms (subculturally, ethnically, neotribally etc.) through the pervasive and exponential use of information and communication structures. I think (and this is my interpretation) that Hollinshead’s () recent playful tribute to Urry’s contribution to the social sciences as the ‘harbinger of the death of distance’ can be connected to Economies’ discourse.

There are more influences the authors acknowledge in the formation of their argument – Charles Taylor’s take on the aesthetic/allegorical sources of the modern self, Marcel Mauss and Pierre Bourdieu’s ‘effectively pre-cognitive understandings and classifications and the habitus’ (Economies, 7). But, as is the case with Bourdieu, they never resolve the conundrum generated by their passage from the cognitive to the aesthetic: both appear to belong to the domain of the conscious as hermeneutic products. Bourdieu never clarified whether habitus is a fully articulated product of the conscious layers of modernity – nor did he answer to elitist accusations concerning the material basis of social distinction. Instead, he devised a second term, hexis, to address the embodied and pre-conscious aspects of habitus. Economies does not fully resolve this gap either: its authors speak of pre-cognition in aesthetic reflexivity. But one wonders: how can we reflect before reflecting upon social reality? Another problem that follows from this black spot is the role of emotion in aesthetic reflexivity: if affect can be pre-cognitive (but largely useless at least in production processes), then emotion (the fully articulated feeling, ridden with intentionality) is certainly a crucial component in production and consumption circuits (hence in the hermeneutics of the aesthetic). Economies is full of sporadic references to affect but there is no systematic analysis of emotion, save some specific references to Hochschild’s Managed Heart that do little to address the question in its theoretical totality.

In fact, the emphasis on the significance of aesthetic reflexivity in the production of expert systems and new knowledge economies errs on the side of the conscious, so we are left we little to learn about the heart. I hope I am forgiven here, as this has been part of a long-standing interest of mine, partly inspired by this book. There is little clarification of Kantian aesthetics in Economies, leaving open a door to those hostile to the book’s thesis on circuits of production-consumption that places the visual at the top of an aesthetic hierarchy. Economies’ Kant ought not to be read as a proponent of the sensory aesthetic – unfortunately, the emphasis on design principles gives the impression that Kant is misread by the authors, when this may not be the case. Interrogations of the postmodern nature of aesthetic reflexivity by allegorical means (allegory transcends theological moralism but remains a moral project, as opposed to premodern symbolism, they claim) stand at the centre of the less structured, nearly anarchist, contemporary social formations. But, again, where is the emotional component in these new configurations? Note also, that new movements need symbols to communicate belonging rather than fully formed allegories – but, again, we fall back on a visual evaluation of aesthetic reflexivity. I would argue that to understand Economies’ postmodern ethos, visual hierarchies should give analytical way to pathial ones – after pathos or emotion – if we are to study for example the role of our 21st-century individual and communal belonging.

Structure (in defence of agency J)
The book is divided into four parts. Here I have to work a bit in Foucault’s style, to guess who did what in the overall structure of the work, as well as what each bit contributes to the overall thesis. Again, I stand corrected by those who may have more first-hand knowledge on the book’s history. Part I examines theoretically the global economy of flows and the rise of postmodern reflexivity, with chapter 3 as its best exposition of the authors’ readings of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens on expert systems and individualisation.

Part II looks at the structural conditions of reflexivity in chapter 4, through examples of production systems (Japanese, German and Anglo-American). The model/thesis of Economies is closely connected to the Anglo-American reflexive accumulation, which is seen as a corollary of reflexive consumption – in contradistinction to the German and Japanese highly modern reflexive production. Chapter 5 applies these models to culture industries (Scott Lash’s main interest at the time) to reflect on the ways these now function more as service industries. This observation links to the book’s main thesis: the main aesthetically reflexive agents in contemporary capitalist environments represent a service class that both produces and consumes. There is a strong Americanised edge in this aspect of the argument that I would attribute to Scott Lash. The following two chapters (6 and 7) read closer to Urry’s classical left-wing education (though work on industrial structuring in them is probably done by Lash), with a strong emphasis on the losers of reflexive modernity: migrants, the underclass and ethnic minorities. Here we see a strong emphasis on the moral economies of mobility that classical Marxist critics of Economies ignored.

In Part III chapter 8 looks at the intensification of design service provision in both public and private sectors and its consequences. Chapter 9 examines changes in conceptions and organisations of time (though, personally, I would have liked to see more clarification on how and if the two connect). The argument is that, especially changing work and leisure patterns led to the replacement of clock time by an increasingly instantaneous, glacial or evolutionary time, leading to reconfigurations of memory. This ‘speeding up’ argument became part of Urry’s later elaborations on mobilities. However, I do think the chapter places unilateral emphasis on the public domain, leaving private configurations of time and sociality largely unacknowledged. Clock time is still very present in the private sphere, where possible, and I fear that discarding its intimate presence may actually endorse rather unsavoury slides to social evolutionism. Whereas Economies’ argument on the aesthetic maintains a distinctively neo-Romantic ethos, this chapter re-rationalises contemporary life, bringing Giddens’ influence back into focus.

In Part IV Chapter 10 completes the argument with a focus on travel and the prevalence of risk. The claim that aesthetic modernisation is followed by a shift from ‘legislation’ to ‘interpretation’ (borrowed from Bauman’s (1987) thesis), both in expert systems and in lay environments, is also connected to the ‘end of tourism’ and the rise in combined mobilities. Chapter 11 deals directly with the role of localities and regions in globalisation processes. The reflexive demand to think globally but act locally is viewed as the core of contemporary global culture, increasingly dictating a shift from national to cosmopolitan patterns of civic belonging. The prevalence of informational flows and post-national networks of mobility usher humans to postmodern domains and patterns of belonging and action.

Brighter futures in dark times
And there you have it: a series of impressions on a book that was inspired by a collection of dreamers and concretised/written by two future leaders (as both of them would become). My personal engagement with John Urry – a sensitive, thoughtful and rather modest person for his status – suggested that, just like his other books, Economies must have been a project that spoke first from the heart, rather than the brain, but in a quiet tone. I am sure his globally spread students and collaborators will agree with me in one thing: that his intellectual engagement with social phenomena was always forward-looking, always in favour of opening closed doors and examining possibilities. His collaboration with Scott Lash yielded great results, as is the case when two highly creative minds meet. I hope that new strong leaders like John will emerge in the social sciences, as kind and creative as he was. I hope that they will also speak about John’s work in innovative ways, critically or not, in favour of better futures.

Bauman, Z. (1987) Legislators and Interpreters. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Hollinshead, K. (2016) ‘A portrait of John Urry – harbinger of the death of distance’, Anatolia, 27 (2): 309-316.

Lash, S. and Urry, J. (1994) Economies of Signs and Space. London: Sage.