Saturday
Sep082018

CfP: Post-H(uman) index? Politics, metrics, and agency in the accelerated academy November 29th and 30th Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

CfP: Post-H(uman) index? Politics, Metrics, and Agency in the Accelerated Academy 

 

November 29th and 30th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge 

Organised by Jana Bacevic, Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal 

Keynote: Liberalism Must Be Defeated: The Obsolescence of Bourgeois Theory in the Anthropocene by Gary Hall, Director of Centre for Postdigital Cultures at Coventry University, UK. 

The conference seeks to conceptualise change in contemporary knowledge production in a way that transcends the dichotomy between theoretical frameworks that emphasise the role of humans (e.g. pragmatism, cultural sociology, critical realism, Bourdieusian sociology) and those that seek to dissolve the human and/or focus on non-human actors (actor-network theory, poststructuralism, STS, new materialism, transhumanism). Bringing together scholars in social sciences and humanities whose work engages with relationships between the human, post-human, metrics, and agency in the ‘neoliberal’ university, the conference addresses the methodological implications of how we theorise human agency, the agency of technical systems, and the relationships between them, in order to foster and support critical scholarship and engagement the current (and future) socio-political environment requires. 

It is by now widely accepted that the transformation of the structures of governance and funding of higher education and research – including pressures to produce more and faster, and the associated proliferation of instruments of measurement such as citation (‘H’) indexes and rankings – pose serious challenges to the future of the academia. The critique of these trends has mostly taken the form of calls to ‘slow down’, or assertion of the intrinsic value/unquantifiable character of scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. While these narratives highlight important aspects of academics’ experience of neoliberal restructuring, they often end up reproducing the inter- and intra-disciplinary division between theoretical and interpretative frameworks that foreground human agency (focusing on student movements, working experiences of academics, or decision-making) and those that foreground the performativity of non-human agents (focusing on the role of metrics, indexes, analytics or institutions). 

This intellectual fragmentation constrains attempts to study these processes in genuinely interdisciplinary ways. On the rare occasions when meaningful exchange does happen, conceptual, ideological, and institutional fault lines hinder sustained dialogue, often leading to the reassertion of old certainties in lieu of engagement with complex relational, institutional, socio-technical, and political/policy realities of transformation. The conference aims to provide an intellectual and institutional framework that challenges this dichotomy, and seeks to develop ways of thinking that are mutually reinforcing, rather than exclusive. It focuses on the issue of the (post)human as the ontological underpinning to the descriptive and explanatory work needed, as well as the normative horizon for resistance. 

It links with preceding events in Accelerated Academy, an international interdisciplinary network assembled to develop new approaches to the analysis of higher education around critical interrogation of the concept of ‘acceleration’. The first event (Prague, December 2015) focused on metricisation and power in the academy; the second, smaller symposium (Warwick, September 2016), was dedicated to theories and experiences of anxiety and work in relation to acceleration; the third (Leiden, December 2016) to the politics and sociology of evaluation in universities; the fourth (Prague, May 2018) explored academic timescapes and the challenges posed by their complexity; the fifth (Cambridge, June 2018) reflected on the role of agency in the transformation of the academy. 

This conference engages with and responds to the growing interest in scholarship on trans- and post-humanism, and its impact on understanding change in the context of knowledge production. It also has wider theoretical significance, as the intellectual dichotomy of the human and non-human is confronted in any attempt to understand socio-technical changes unfolding in digital(ised) capitalism. In this sense, we aim to address broader questions of social ontology and explanatory methodology posed by the imbrication of the social and the technical, and, not less importantly, the questions this raises for conceptualising agency and resistance in the ‘accelerated’ academy. 

We invite contributions for 30 minute talks which speak to any of these themes. If you would like to submit a proposal then please contact mac228@cam.ac.uk with a 500 word abstract and short biographical note by September 30th. There will be no charge to attend the conference.

 

Thursday
Jul122018

Postdigital Intimacies symposium: 19 July 2018, Coventry University

Postdigital Intimacies Symposium

Date: Thursday 19 July 2018 

Time: 11:00am - 4:30pm - Includes Lunch

(Post Symposium Drink at Drapers Bar & Kitchen from 5pm) 


Location: The Grass, DMLL, Lanchester Library, Centre for Postdigital Cultures (CPC), Coventry University

The postdigtial intimacies symposium brings together a network of researchers at Coventry University and our wider global networks who are looking to make sense of how we relate to ourselves and to others in complex, anxious, unequal worlds. This symposium will be the beginning of a collaborative, negotiated and participatory collective, which will look to define new questions about and how we shape of intimacies into the future. 

Engage with us online via twitter: @CovUni_CPC

The registration page is also available now https://goo.gl/HXoH9z 

 

Thursday
Jul052018

Research Fellow, Centre for Postdigital Cultures

The Centre for Postdigital Cultures (CPC) is a new Faculty Research Centre at Coventry University. We are looking to recruit a developer with knowledge of new technologies such as Xtended Reality and those associated with open access publishing. Our Research Fellow/developer will be equally happy with building platforms as they are with contributing to funding bids and academic papers. The person we employ will be involved in all technical aspects of the Research Centre from uploading website content to creating virtual reality scenarios and will have the people skills to work with those at all levels of technical understanding.


You will be qualified in object oriented programming languages such as c#, c++, Java, Java scripts and swift with proven experience of development in modern web development languages like PHP and HTML5. Plus you will possess some experience in 2D/3D modelling using software such as 3DS max and Photoshop and Maya for digital asset creation and Unity 3D or Unreal game engines for developing game-based and immersive experiences.

This is the chance for you to join the CPC team in the early stages of growth and to play a significant role in the development of impactful research activity within the emerging field of postdigital cultures. Led by Professor Gary Hall, the Centre explores how innovations in postdigital cultures can enable 21st century society respond to the challenges it faces at a global, national and local level.  

  • how we receive, consume and process information
  • how we learn, work, and travel
  • how we engage and regenerate our communities and cities  

 What Do We Mean By Postdigital Cultures?

"The digital" can no longer be understood as a separate domain of media and culture. If we actually examine the digital - rather than taking it for granted we already know what it means - we see that today digital information processing is present in every aspect of our lives. This includes our global communication, entertainment, education, energy, banking, health, transport, manufacturing, food, and water-supply systems. Attention therefore needs to turn from "the digital", to the various overlapping processes and infrastructures that shape and organise the digital, and that the digital helps to shape and organise in turn.

The CPC investigates such enmeshed digital models of culture, society, and the creative economy for the 21st century "post digital" world.

Research Areas covered by the centre include:

  • Post-capitalist Economies
  • Post-humanities
  • Affirmative Disruption and Open Media
  • Immersive and Playful Cultures, Creative Archiving and International Heritage
  • Digital Arts and Humanities
  • The 21st Century University and Art School

Members of the CPC include Janneke Adema, Adrienne Evans, Valeria Graziano, Kaja Marczewska, Marcel Mars and Miriam de Rosa. 

The role of the Research Fellow Developer is to plan, develop and manage collaborative and individual research projects, using their specialist technical skills. 

This will include implementing new technology platforms and applications integral to the research projects of the CPC (for example, those associated with open access publishing and immersive XR technology) which address issues at an international scale using research as a driving force for global change.  It is also to develop ideas for generating income and to seek funding opportunities for routes to disseminate research findings that inform teaching and build the reputation of the University whilst advancing knowledge in the field.

The Job Description and Person Specification is available here.
Tuesday
Jun122018

On the Obsolescence of Bourgeois Theory in the Anthropocene

Many thinkers are currently attempting to replace the tyranny of the human with an emphasis on the nonhuman, the posthuman and the Anthropocene. Yet as I showed in Pirate Philosophy, such post-theory theorists continue to remain bound up with the human in the very performance of their attempts to think through and beyond it. Regardless of the anti-humanist philosophies they profess — be they inspired by Deleuze, Kittler or Latour  — in their practices, in the forms their work takes, in the ways they create, publish and disseminate it, in their associated upholding of notions of individual human rights, freedom, property and so on, they continue to operate in terms of a liberal, humanist model of what it is to be a theorist. 

What forms is critical theory to take then if, in its performance, it is not to be simply liberal and humanist – nor indeed human — but something else besides? To put this question another way: what are the possibilities for inhuman modes of theory? By this I mean theory that is able to take account of and assume (rather than ignore or otherwise deny) an intra-active relation with both human and nonhuman others, be they animals, plants, objects, technologies, the environment or the cosmos?

Bacteria on mobile phones

Why ‘inhuman’? My use of this term is intended to emphasise that the human cannot be simply contrasted to the nonhuman. There is no such thing as the nonhuman – nor the human for that matter. The nonhuman is already in(the)human. Each is born out of its relation to the other. The inhuman is thus a mode of being, thinking and doing with the nonhuman. It follows that any such inhuman theory could also be understood as an instance of the inhumanities. For if the inhuman equals the human intertwined with the nonhuman, then a humanities with this intra-active inhuman figure at their heart must become the inhumanities.

Of course, such an intra-active understanding of authorship and subjectivity could be gathered under the sign of the posthuman and posthumanities. As Janneke Adema and I have shown, however, approaches to the posthumanities have been dominated by the ‘posthuman humanities’ of Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, Cary Wolfe and others. My proposal is that the above transformative conception of the human and the humanities can therefore on occasion be more productively articulated in terms of the inhuman. The idea is that such a rhetorical and conceptual shift might enable us to better challenge to the self-identical, liberal humanist subject that serves as a blind spot or datum point in so many theories — not just of the humanities, but of the posthuman and posthumanities too. Indeed, building on the argument developed by McKenzie Wark in ‘On the Obsolescence of the Bourgeois Novel in the Anthropocene’, could we go so far as to characterise the inability of so much contemporary theory to operate according to a more inhuman mode of philosophy as a sign of its obsolescence? (1)

Wark’s text on the bourgeois novel was published on the blog of Verso Books as an addition to the collection of critical appreciations he provides in his 2017 volume General Intellects: Twenty-One Thinkers For The Twenty-First Century. While the chapters in General Intellects offer succinct analyses of individual thinkers such as Isabelle Stengers, Timothy Morton and Quentin Meillassoux, Wark’s focus in ‘On the Obsolescence of the Bourgeois Novel’ is The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by the writer and novelist Amitav Ghosh. In this non-fiction book Ghosh contemplates the environmental crisis and global warming from a literary perspective that has origins in the Indian subcontinent. As far as he is concerned, it is not just about ecological problems, or even capitalism and its carbon-based political economy. Climate change is about empire: it is about imperialism. Above all it is about climate justice. Providing an account of Ghosh’s influential lectures on the great derangement thus enables Wark to conceive of a geo-humanities project that brings earth science into contact with ‘post-colonial voices that have pushed back against imperial mappings of the world.’ At the same time, he acknowledges that approaching climate change in terms of social justice brings with it a conceptual challenge. As Wark articulates it when quoting from The Great Derangement:  ‘One has to avoid excluding the diversity of human voices, and yet at the same time avoid excluding the non-human world and rendering it a mere background, or "environment." One has to voice “the urgent proximity of nonhuman presences”’.

Ghosh approaches this conceptual challenge as a literary problem. The difficulty, however, is that climate change goes beyond what can be expressed in the form of the bourgeois novel. The issue for Wark is summed up by the fact that ‘fiction that takes climate change seriously is not taken seriously as fiction’. Hence, for him, some of the best responses to the Anthropocene have been provided by science fiction. Hence, too, Ghosh’s concern that we are now ‘entering into a great derangement’. Wark describes this as ‘a time when art and literature concealed rather than articulated the nature of the times and the time of nature.’ Instead of dealing with the Anthropocene, novels become choked with what, following Franco Moretti, can be termed ‘filler, the everyday life of bourgeois society, its objects, decors, styles and habits'.

The reason the bourgeois novel is obsolete, then, is because it has not ‘adapted to new probabilities.’ Nowhere is this more apparent according to Wark than with respect to the ‘centrality of the improbable’, by which he means the Anthropocene as an epoch  that ‘alters a predictable one’ so that it is no longer about either gradual or catastrophic time, orderly or apocalyptic change, but rather a temporality of a third type. (It’s here he sees Rob Nixon’s notion of slow violence as coming into play.) Instead, Wark characterises the bourgeois novel as ‘a genre of fantasy fiction smeared with naturalistic details — filler — to make it appear otherwise. It excludes the totality so that bourgeois subjects can keep prattling on about their precious “inner lives.”’

Yet critical theory has not adapted in the Anthropocene either. In fact, to include contemporary theory seriously in the argument Wark makes about literature and art only serves to place further emphasis on the idea that we are arriving at ‘a great derangement’, a period when no element remains in its original place. For ours is a time when theory too can be said to obscure rather than express the changing nature of the times and the time of nature. As with the bourgeois novel, it’s a derangement that works through formal limitations – and this despite the fact that one of the reasons critical theory continues to be important is because of its ability to denaturalize the parameters within which our professional forms, methods, and procedures of knowledge operate. In the case of theory (and both literary and genre fiction, I might add, although this seems to be something that the commercially-minded, liberal humanist professional in Wark prevents him from seeing, at least in his essay on Ghosh),(2) these limitations involve the named individualistic human author, the codex book, the fixed and finished text, originality, authenticity, copyright and so on. And as with the modern novel, the screening out of this scaffolding — this ‘faded frame’, as David Theo Goldberg has referred to it — ‘“continues to be essential”’ to the functioning of what we might now rather teasingly refer to as bourgeois theory. To further paraphrase Ghosh by way of Wark, here then is the great irony of theory in the Anthropocene: ‘the very gestures with which it conjures up’ nonhuman actors, objects and elements ‘are actually a concealment’ of them.

The performance of serious theory today is thus as formally limited to liberal humanism as the novel. (As Wark says in his essay on Moretti: ‘It is about making something of this world, not transcending it in favor of another.’ So there is no adventuring into the unknown, ‘no spontaneous bravery’, ‘“few surprises”’. It might be ‘hard work’, being a bourgeois writer or theorist, ‘but it’s a steady job’.) This means it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for even the most radical of theories to do anything other than exclude the diversity of human and nonhuman presences. To resample and remix Wark’s text on the novel in the Anthropocene as a means of further undercutting notions of the author as self-identical human individual: anything that would actually impact on the concealment of theory’s established scaffolding, how it’s created, published and circulated, is regarded as not proper, experimental, odd, and risks banishment. ‘But from what? Polite bourgeois society?’ The for-profit world of Verso books and Routledge journals where proper theory can be found?

In this way theory eliminates the ‘improbable’ — including non-humanist, non-liberal, non-grammatological, non-rivalrous or non-commodifiable ways of being and doing — ‘from serious consideration’. 

(As examples designed to provoke further speculation I could refer here to the fact that the Amazon has recently been declared a 'subject of rights' by Colombia’s supreme court in a bid to protect it from further deforestation; that the Whanganui river in New Zealand has been given the same rights as a human person; and that an orang-utan in Argentina called Sandra has been declared by the courts there to also have legal rights. If nonhuman things can now have rights and be the party of interest in administrative proceedings, can we envisage reaching a point in the future where a work of critical theory can be legally and professionally recognised as having been co-authored by an ape, a river, a forest, an ecosystem, even by nature in general? If so, what then would the consequences be for our notions of the author, originality and copyright? Does even asking such improbable questions not involve us in imposing legal and professional strictures designed for humans onto nature?) Certainly, from the point of view of bourgeois theory, that which is outside its inherited liberal humanist frame in this respect can only appear as ‘strange’, ‘weird’, ‘freaky’. Any such ‘strangeness’ emanating from an actual engagement with the implications of the Anthropocene  can thus be kept in the ‘background’, the unmarked environment in which theory takes place, or moved into it. 

Like the bourgeois novel, such theory — with rare exceptions — ‘draws a sharp distinction between the human and the nonhuman’, not to mention the ‘collective and collaborative’. Here, too, the actions of individual human agents are treated as ‘discontinuous with other agents’, elements and energies (including ‘the masses, peoples, movements’), even though ‘“the earth of the Anthropocene is precisely a world of insistent, inescapable continuities…”’.

We can thus see that bourgeois theory clearly ‘isn’t working’. The nonhuman, climate change, the Anthropocence in general, all exceed what the form of proper theory can currently express. Like the novel, it has not adapted to the new reality ushered in by the Anthropocene, including all those laws and legal decisions that are starting to pile up around the question of the rights of nature. Certainly, the last thing such theorists want is for any of this to actually impact on their own ways of performing as authors. Instead, theory ‘imposes itself on a nature it cannot really perceive or value’. Just as ‘serious fiction, like bourgeois culture, now seems rather unserious, indeed frivolous’, so too does serious theory.

The nonhuman may be what a lot of contemporary theory studies and writes about, but it cannot take seriously the implications of the nonhuman for theory. As a result, the current landfill of theoretical literature on the Anthropocene is merely a form of bourgeois liberal humanism smeared with nonhuman filler — objects, technologies, animals, insects, plants, fungi, compost, stones, geological formations — to make it appear otherwise

 

Endnotes

1) I should stress that my understanding of the inhuman is somewhat different from that of Wark. For him, the inhuman is ‘an apparatus of labor and technology. Indeed, the inhuman is the zone where the partition between the human and nonhuman is negotiated, at the expense of rendering the inhuman labor in between invisible. There is no such thing as a "history of ideas," only of the labor and technics of producing them’ (McKenzie Wark, ‘On the Obsolescence of the Bourgeois Novel in the Anthropocene’, Verso (blog), August 16, 2017:  https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3356-on-the-obsolescence-of-the-bourgeois-novel-in-the-anthropocene).

2) Wark comes a little closer to doing so in his earlier text on Franco Moretti and the bourgeois novel, 'The Engine Room of Literature'. Here he suggests that 'Moretti’s evolutionary model for thinking about the novel', in which the:

tree of literature is constantly sprouting new branches, but some die off, taking their place in the fossil record of 'the great unread.' … explains very well ... how the market feedback loop exaggerates differences in success between the more and less fit kinds of literary form.

 It is a ‘matrix of bourgeois culture’ in which ‘all of literary criticism participates’, according to Wark, regardless of whether it does so consciously or not. In the higher echelons ‘it may be all high-minded talk of resistant readings and counter-canons, but down in the engine room the business of literature is all about making variants on products for a panoply of markets.’ 

It would be interesting to pursue this line of thought in the context of Isabel Waidner’s argument about experimental literature in the U.K. and elsewhere being extremely white and middle class, to the exclusion of queer, working class and other nonconforming voices. See her introduction to Liberating the Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature. Suffice it to say for now that it leads Wark to conclude that: 'It must surely pass through the minds of many professional readers of Moretti that our works, too, are just variations of forms, thrown on the market, where a fickle readership — mostly of grad students — decides for itself whether the form addresses the actual tensions they experience in everyday life.'

 

Monday
Jun042018

Suspended Sentences: An Interview with Stelarc

'Suspended Sentences: An Interview with Stelarc', conducted by Joanna Zylinska and myself, has been published in Stelarc's Stretched Skin: Obsolete, Uncertain and Indifferent Body (Oslo: PS Media, 2018).


Stretched Skin: Obsolete, Uncertain and Indifferent Body, by Stelarc is a beautifully bound book with 200 pages containing stunning images from various photographers and informative texts about Stelarc’s suspension performances. In addition to texts by the artist, it include articles (some previously printed, others newly commissioned) about Stelarc and his work by writers including Darren Tofts and Shannon Bell.

For over 40 years, Stelarc has been pushing the physical, conceptual, and technological boundaries of the body. His work has inspired and awed people the world over, and given many a new perspective on what the body means, where it begins and, indeed, ends. His first book Obsolete Body was published in 1984 as a compilation of Stelarc's suspension performances, it is now a very rare and expensive book to come by. But Obsolete Body, while the source of many people's inspiration, does not tell the whole story or contain a complete record of Stelarc's suspension performances. After its publication, Stelarc continued and expanded his work, and those performances have never been seen in print.

Stretched Skin focuses on all of Stelarc's suspension performances—from the very first in 1976 to the most recent in in 2012, including the collaborations with Håvve Fjell and Wings of Desire in 2012 and 2013. The book also contains some of Stelarc's other performances; where they have direct relevance to, or lead up to, the suspension series.