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'Filosofía pirata, edición libre', discussion with Perro Tuerto y Pucho (El Rancho Electrónico) y Gabriela Méndez Cota (Universidad Iberoamericana) for the Mexico city radio station Ibero 909.fm, September 12, 2019.

Open Humanities Press – The Inhumanist Manifesto

Pirate Philosophy, This Is Not A Pipe Podcast

HyperCritical Theory

Übercapitalism and What Can Be Done About It

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Masked Media (limited edition paper-only publication for The House That Heals The Soul exhibition, Tetley, Leeds, 2018) 


 The Inhumanist Manifesto: Extended Play (Techne Lab, 2017)

Open Access

Most of Gary's work is freely available to read and download either here in Media Gifts or in Coventry University's online repositories PURE here, and CURVE here 

Radical Open Access

Wednesday
Nov102010

‘Follow the money’: the political economy of open access in the humanities

(The following is a slightly revised version of a lecture given at the 1st Conference on Open Access Scholarly Publishing held by The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association and the DOAJ/Lund University Libraries, Lund, Sweden, September 14-16, 2009.)


I’ve been asked to talk about the challenges and opportunities of publishing open access journals in the humanities; and to talk about the experiences of Open Humanities Press (OHP) in particular. I’m going to start by focusing on OHP, just to set the stage for some broader comments on publishing OA in the humanities.

Open Humanities Press was founded by Sigi Jöttkandt, David Ottina, Paul Ashton and myself as the first open-access publishing ‘house’ explicitly dedicated to critical and cultural theory. It was launched in May 2008 by an international group of scholars including Alain Badiou, Jonathan Culler, Steven Greenblatt and Gayatri Spivak, in response to the perceived crisis whereby: academic publishers in the area have cut back on the number of research-led titles they bring out, in order to focus on readers, introductions, text books and reference works; and libraries are finding it difficult to afford the research that is published, both books and journals. In this respect OHP’s mission is a deceptively simple one: it’s to make leading works of critical and cultural thought freely and permanently available, on a worldwide basis, by publishing them open access.

In the first instance OHP consisted of a collective of already existing, high-quality, independent or ‘scholar published’ open access journals in philosophy, cultural studies, literary criticism and political theory. These include Culture Machine, Fibreculture, Vectors and Film-Philosophy. ‘Our feeling was that there were quite a few excellent open access peer-reviewed journals, but they weren't getting recognition because they were a bit isolated. By collecting the journals under a single banner we hoped to show both the humanities and the open access communities that there’s actually quite a bit of significant OA activity in the humanities’ (OHP Steering Group). 

OHP’s initial intention was to establish a reputation with its journals, before proceeding to tackle the more difficult problem of publishing book-length material open access:  difficult because of issues of economics and prestige I’ll come on to in a moment. However, things have developed much faster than we anticipated and, almost by popular demand, we have now an OHP monograph project,  run in collaboration with the University of Michigan Library’s Scholarly Publishing Office, UC-Irvine, UCLA Library, and the Public Knowledge Project, headed by John Willinsky at Stanford University.  The idea of the monograph project is to move forward both open access publishing in the humanities, and the open access publishing of humanities monographs. And we’ve launching our monograph project with five high-profile book series: New Metaphysics, eds Bruno Latour and Graham Harman; Unidentified Theoretical Objects, ed. Wlad Godzich; Critical Climate Change, eds Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook; Global Conversations, ed. Ngugi wa Thiong'o; Liquid Books, eds Gary Hall and Clare Birchall.

So that’s Open Humanities Press.

Now, the first thing I want to say concerning the funding of open access in the humanities, is we need to recognize that the humanities have developed a very different set of professional cultures to the Science, Technology and Medicine (STMs), who have tended to dominate the discussion around OA so far. What works in the STMs doesn’t necessary work in the humanities:

a.    open-access in the humanities continues to be dogged by the perception that online publication is somehow less ‘credible’ than print, and that it lacks rigorous standards of quality control. This leads to open access journals being regarded as less trustworthy and desirable places to publish; and as too professionally risky, for early career scholars especially;

b.    open access in the humanities is also caught uncomfortably between two stools. On the one hand, all the talk of publishing services, platforms and tools is too just geeky for many humanities scholars. On the other, compared to the likes of tactical media, mash-ups, internet piracy and hacktervism, open access is too tame, too institutional, managerial and bureaucratic for many of those in the humanities concerned with new media; 

In the humanities, the message about the importance of open access also often comes from university managers and administrators; and, because there’s something of a clash of ideology between managers and academics, OA is not perceived as being radical or cool in the way peer-to-peer file sharing or even open source is;

c. one of the main models of funding open-access in the sciences, author-side fees, is also not easily transferable to the humanities.  Authors in the humanities are simply not used to paying to have their work published – even if it is a matter of just covering the cost of its production and processing and calling them ‘publication’ or ‘processing’ fees - and associate doing so with vanity publishing. At present they’re also less likely to obtain the grants from either funding bodies or their institutions necessary to cover the cost of publishing author-pays. That the humanities receive only a fraction of the amount of government funding the STMs do only compounds the problem. As does the fact that higher rejection rates in the humanities, as compared to the STMs, means any grants would have to be significantly larger. And that’s just to publish journal articles. Publishing books author-pays would be more expensive still.

So OHP, like most of the journals it encompasses, operates at the moment on a zero revenue, zero expenses basis. Any funding comes indirectly: via our institutions paying our salaries as academics. We’re simply using some of the time we’re given to conduct research to create open access publishing opportunities for others.  Of course some academics may be given reduced teaching or administrative loads by the institutions for setting things like this up, others may have PhD students or graduate assistants they can get to do some of the work. (Another indirect source of funding worth mentioning occurs via our institutions sometimes paying for the hosting of content - my thanks to Marta Brunner for this point.) But I suspect most are just donating their time and energy to open access as a service to the profession because they believe in it. What’s more, as Sigi Jottkandt has pointed out, ‘this largely volunteer effort is the norm rather than the exception’ when it comes to sustainable no-fee journal publishing in many humanities fields, in both OA and non-OA sectors’.   

Operating on a zero revenue, zero expenses basis like this can be a significant source of strength to many independent humanities journals and their publishers.  It makes it easier for them to publish highly specialised, experimental, inter- or trans-disciplinary research; research that does not always fit into the kind of neat disciplinary categories and divisions with which for-profit publishers like to order their lists, but which may nevertheless help to push scholarship in exciting new directions. It also makes it easier for such journals to publish research which, in challenging established disciplines, styles and frameworks, may fall between the different stools represented by the various academic departments, learned societies, scholarly associations, and research councils, but which may nevertheless help to push a field in exciting new directions and generate important new areas of inquiry.

Yet it can also be a potential weakness. It opens up many such scholar published journals to being positioned as functioning on an amateur, shoe-string basis, almost as cottage-industries.  Compared to a journal produced by, say, a large, for-profit, corporately owned press, they’re far more vulnerable to being accused of being unable to sustain high academic standards in terms of their production, editing, copy-editing, proofing and peer reviewing processes. They’re also more vulnerable to being accused of being of being unable to maintain consistently high academic standards in terms of the quality of their long term sustainability, the marketing and distribution services they can offer, their ability to be picked up by prestige-endowing indexes, and all the other add-on features they can provide such as journal archiving, contents alerts, word searches, discussion forums, etc. As I noted in Digitize This Book!, while this also applies to ‘independent’ print journals, it  is especially the case with regard to online-only journals, the vast majority of which are ‘still considered too new and unfamiliar to have gained the level of institutional recognition required for them to be thought of as being “established” and “of known quality”.’  

It’s precisely this perception of open access in the humanities that OHP is designed to counter by directly addressing these issues to ensure OA publishing, in certain areas of the humanities at least, meets ‘the levels of professionalism our peers expect from publications they associate with academic “quality”’.

I want to emphasize two points here:

1.    first, open access, as it’s been championed in the STMs, can’t simply be rolled out unproblematically into the humanities; and any attempt to do so is likely to face a number of significant challenges, as we’ve seen;  

2.    second, any attempt to develop OA in the humanities also needs to recognise that the humanities, in turn, are going to have an impact on open access.  So, contrary to the impression that’s given by most writing on this subject, it’s not just the humanities that are going to be fundamentally transformed by this process, via the development of OA journals and publishers such as OHP; open access is likely to undergo a significant transformation, too.

For instance, to my mind the open access movement quite simply has to place more emphasis on books than it has done to date. If it doesn’t, then its impact on the humanities will prove negligible, since it’s books published with esteemed international presses, rather than articles in high-ranking journals, that are still the ‘gold standard’ in many humanities fields.

But the humanities also have a long tradition of exposing and subverting many of the assumptions on which OA, as it’s been championed in the STMs, is based, including those associated with notions of writing, the text, the work and the author – to the point where the humanities and the sciences may actually be incommensurable in many respects.

Now radical differences of this sort often get played down at OA events such as this. Sure, we can have what Richard Poynder refers to as a ‘bad tempered wrangles’ over relatively ‘minor issues’ such as ‘metadata, copyright, and distributed versus central archives’.  But in the main the emphasis in the OA movement is on presenting a more or less unified front in the face of criticisms from governments, publishers, lobbyists and so forth, lest we provide them with further ammunition to attack open access, dilute our message, or otherwise distract ourselves from what we’re all supposed to agree is the main task at hand: the achievement of universal, free, online access to research. (Poynder, for example, speaks in terms of ‘working together for the common good’.)   However, I’d maintain it’s important not to see the presence of such differences and conflicts as a purely negative thing - as it might be perceived, say, by those working in the liberal tradition, with its “rationalist belief in the availability of a universal consensus based on reason”.  

In fact, if one of the impulses behind open access is to make knowledge and research – and with it society – more open and democratic, then I’d argue the existence of such dissensus will actually help in achieving this ambition. As the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has shown, far from placing democracy at risk, a certain degree of difference and confrontation constitutes the very possibility of its existence. For Mouffe, ‘a well functioning democracy calls for a clash of legitimate democratic political positions’.

Speaking of metadata, this is one of the reasons why, in contrast to many in the OA community, I’ve maintained ‘that standards for preparing metadata should be generated in a plurality of different ways and places. Rather than adhering to the fantasy of having one single, fully integrated global archive... I’d argue instead for a multiplicity of different and at times conflicting and even incommensurable open-access archives, journals, databases and other publishing experiments.’  So I don’t see the fact that, because there are so many multi-format information materials, there’s no one efficient means of searching across them all that has yet been developed, as a problem or failing. For me, the fantasy of having one place to search for scholarship and research such as a fully integrated, indexed and linked Global Archive must remain precisely that: ‘a (totalizing and totalitarian) fantasy.’

None of which is to imply there can no longer be an OA community. It’s just to acknowledge that difference and conflict are what makes a community, and indeed the common, possible. We thus need to think the nature of community, of being together and holding something in common, a little differently. As the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy asks:

What is a community? It is neither a macro-organism nor a big family... The common, having-in-common or being in common, excludes from itself interior unity, subsistence, and presence in and by itself. Being with, being together, and even being ‘united’ are precisely not a matter of being ‘one’. Of communities that are at one with themselves, there are only dead ones.

(Jean-Luc Nancy, A Finite Thinking, edited by Simon Sparks (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003) p.285)

To provide you with another example of how the humanities may come to shape OA: I’d argue that the willingness of the humanities to critically interrogate many of the assumptions on which OA is currently based can help the OA community to avoid that fate anticipated by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard contended that the widespread use of computers and databases, in exteriorizing knowledge in relation to the ‘knower’, was producing a major alteration in the status and nature of knowledge, away from questions of what is socially just and scientifically true and toward a concern simply with ‘optimizing the system’s performance’.  Thirty years later and a lot of OA conferences and debates are indeed taken up with showing how the externalisation of knowledge in online journals and archives can be used to make the existing system of academic research and publication much more efficient. So we have John Houghton’s study showing that OA is actually the most cost effective mechanism for scholarly publishing;  while others have discussed at length the increases open access and related software make possible - in the amount of material that can be published and stored, the number of people who can have access to it, the impact of that material, the range of distribution, the speed and ease of reporting and information retrieval, leading to what Peter Suber earlier called ‘better metrics’, reductions in staffing, production and reproduction costs etc.

(Incidentally, I wonder if this doesn’t partly explain why quite a few people associated with OA have a somewhat grumpy, ‘dogmatic’ public persona:

I mean, if they moralistically believe they already know the optimum way to achieve universal open access, and thus maximize the performance of the existing system of research – be it via interoperable institutional repositories or whatever - then presumably they can often only act negatively, to correct the delays, errors and inefficiencies they perceive in the ideas of others.)

Now the humanities could help prevent the OA movement from becoming even more moralistically and dogmatically obsessed with maximising performance, solving technical problems and eliminating inefficiencies than it already is, I think. (The attempt to avoid slipping into such technical discourse is just one reason why, elsewhere, I haven’t gone into the practical, ‘nuts and bolts’ of publishing open access.) At the same time, the humanities could help the OA community to grow, precisely by forcing scholars to confront issues of politics and social justice, in the manner of much humanities scholarship –  as doing so would be a really powerful way of encouraging more researchers in the humanities to actually publish open access. (Certainly, few of the arguments we currently use to persuade the humanities to publish OA have been particularly effective. So perhaps it’s time to try a different approach.)

For example, many humanities disciplines like to think of themselves as being politically engaged. Yet the humanities have something of a blind spot of their own when it comes to the politics of the academic publishing industries which actually make them possible – especially as those industries have become increasingly consolidated and profit-intensive in recent the years.

In an article on the political economy of academic journal publishing in general, and that of cultural studies in particular, Ted Striphas provides the example of Taylor and Francis/Informa. Their list features over 60 cultural studies journals, among them some of the most highly respected in the field including Cultural Studies, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Feminist Media Studies, and Parallax. Yet many cultural studies scholars would be shocked to learn that one of Informa’s subsidiaries was recently working for the US Army to assess how well it ‘had achieved its goal of “battlefield digitization”.’ The US Air Force, meanwhile, used the same subsidiary to help improve its management systems for U-2 spy planes.    

Which is not to say there’s something inherently immoral about the armed forces – just that scholars may want to be critically informed about their publishers’ financial links and connections; especially if those scholars are publishing research, say, criticising military intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I realise it’s unfair to single cultural studies out like this; it’s not the only humanities field to have such a blind spot. What makes cultural studies’ naivety so noteworthy is the way it prides itself on being a ‘serious’ political project, as Stuart Hall puts it. According to Hall, the political cultural studies intellectual has a responsibility to ‘know more’ than those on the other side.   Indeed, it’s precisely this political aspect that singles cultural studies out from other fields of thought, for Hall, and helps to establishes the difference of its identity as cultural studies: the fact that ‘there is something at stake in cultural studies in a way that I think, and hope, is not exactly true of many other very important intellectual and critical practices’, he writes.  But if so, then as far as Striphas is concerned, this injunction has to include knowing more about ‘the formidable network of social, economic, legal, and infrastructural linkages to the publishing industry that sustains’ cultural studies and its politically engaged intellectuals, and shapes the conditions in which their knowledge and research ‘can – and increasingly cannot – circulate’. To this end Striphas stresses the importance of always scratching below the surface to discover ‘just who the corporate parents and siblings’ of those academic journals we publish in are, and what other activities they are involved with.  

As someone who identifies with cultural studies to a large extent,  it’s long seemed significant to me that cultural studies intellectuals, who otherwise appear so keen to wear their political commitment on their sleeves, are noticeably less keen when it comes to interrogating their own politico-institutional practices. The relative lack of interest the majority of the field have shown to date in making their own research available OA is a case in point. And, certainly, I think highlighting the politics of their publishing practices would be an effective way of persuading many in the humanities – and cultural studies in particular - to engage with open access.

1.    For one thing, it’d mean OA wouldn’t appear so tame, so institutional, managerial and bureaucratic;

2.    For another, scratching below the surface like this would offer an additional means of tackling the problem whereby OA scholar published journals, operating independently of the profit-intensive conglomerates, are often regarded in the humanities as less desirable places to publish.

We’ve already seen how OHP is specifically designed to address this issue. But could we not level the playing field even further, simply by asking where the money is coming from to fund the more ‘professionally run’ journals, not to mention what other activities their parent companies are connected to? Would doing so not have the effect of turning the very financial independence of many small-scale journal publishers, from a potential weakness, into a source of strength and credibility? Not least because it means they’re far less likely to be owned by a publisher whose parent company is involved in activities that many academics, if they knew about them, would not feel comfortable about continuing to donate their time and labour to support.

This is why I want to suggest that we, as a community of academics, authors, editors, publishers, librarians and so on, establish an initiative whereby all academic editors and publishers are asked to make freely available, on an annual basis, details of both their sources of income and funding, and all the sources of financial income and support pertaining to the journals they run. Furthermore, as part of this initiative, I suggest we set up an equivalent directory to the Directory of Open Access Journals (here at Lund)  - only in this case documenting all these various sources of income and support, together with information as to who the owners of the different academic journals in our respective fields are and, just as importantly, the other divisions, subsidiaries and activities of their various organisations, companies, and associations.  

I should stress I’m not suggesting that all corporately owned journals are the politically co-opted tools of global capitalism, while the smaller independent journals or those published on a non-profit basis by learned societies, scholarly associations and university presses somehow escape all this. Despite the possible implications of the word ‘full’, it’s not my intention to imply that anyone can be sufficiently outside of the forces of global capital to be politically and ethically ‘pure’ in this respect. None of this has emerged out of a sense of moralism on my part. Some of my best friends are editors of journals published and owned by corporate presses.

(Again, Marta Brunner makes an interesting and important point here, to the effect that: ‘many of us who work in public universities are already implicated by the ties of our institutions (e.g. to the military, to defence labs) that pay our salaries and therefore would also be paying for our open access publishing, to a certain extent, given... the volunteer economy of humanities-based OA’ - Marta Brunner, personal correspondence.)

Nevertheless, such an ‘Open Scholarship Full Disclosure Initiative’ would be of great assistance, I believe, in furnishing researchers, in all areas, with the knowledge to make responsible political decisions as to whom they wish to publish and work with. For instance, as a result of the information obtained some scholars may take a decision not to subscribe to, publish in, edit, peer review manuscripts or otherwise work for journals owned by multinationals involved in supporting the military; or that have particularly high library subscription charges;  or that refuse to endorse, as a bare minimum, the self-archiving by authors of the refereed and accepted final drafts of their articles in institutional open access repositories. (Or they may of course decide that none of these issues are of a particular concern to them and continue with their editorial and peer-review activities as before.)

But I also believe it’ll go a long way toward encouraging those in the humanities to become more aware of their interdependence as scholars on the publishing industry, and the need to become more politically involved in it; and consequently to see online journals – and OA journals especially - as attractive and desirable places to publish their work.  

At the very least, I’m convinced such an initiative would encourage both the editors and publishers of journals, and the owners of journal publishers and their subsidiaries, to behave more responsibly in political terms. What’s more, it’d be capable of having an impact even if the editors and publishers of those journals produced by the large, international, for-profit presses refused to play ball and provide full disclosure themselves:

a.    because such an initiative would raise awareness of the politics of journal funding and ownership more generally;

b.    because those editors and publishers who don't provide full disclosure would risk appearing as if they have something to hide - especially since this initiative taps into current public discourse around freedom of information and open data;

c.    but it would also hopefully have the effect of encouraging more scholars to research where the funding of such journals comes from, who their parent companies, institutions and organisations are, and what other activities they are involved in and connected to; and to make the results widely known and easily accessible.

It’s also worth emphasising that such an initiative would not require a huge amount of time and effort. After all, ‘Reed Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, and Taylor & Francis/Informa... publish about 6,000 journals between them’.   So to cover 6,000 journals, or somewhere between a quarter and a fifth of all peer-reviewed journals, we only need to research and disclose details of four corporations!  

Wednesday
Oct132010

Affirmative media theory and the post-9/11 world (part 2)

(The following is a slightly revised version of a text first published on 21 September, 2010, by the Creative Research Centre at Montclair State University. Part 1 of 'Affirmative Media Theory and the Post-9/11 World', again first published by the Creative Research Centre, is available below.)

 

To be sure, there’s something seductive about the thought of producing the kind of big idea or constructive theoretical discourse that is able to capture and explain how the world has changed and become a different place after 9/11. Let’s take just the most frequently rehearsed of those examples with which we are regularly confronted: that the awful events at the World Trade Center and Pentagon on that day in 2001 are connected to the ‘war on terror’, the ‘axis of evil’, the ‘clash of civilizations’, the introduction of the PATRIOT Act, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the abuses in Abu Ghraib, indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, the so-called ‘global economic crisis’ that began in 2008, the election of Barak Hussein Obama in 2009, the continuing debate over the place of Muslims in US society - even the ‘return to the Real’ after the apparent triumph of (postmodern theories of) the society of the spectacle, the simulacrum and the hyper-real.

Yet when it comes to deciding how to respond to events and narratives of this sort – which we must, no matter how much and how often they are framed as being ‘self-evident’ – do we not also need to ask: why do big ideas and constructive theoretical discourses appear so compelling and refreshing at the moment, in these circumstances in particular? What exactly is the nature of this sense of frustration and fatigue with thinkers and theories – let’s not call them deconstructive – whose serious understanding of, and strenuous engagement with, antagonism, ambiguity, difference, hospitality, responsibility, singularity and openness, renders them wary of too easily dividing history into moments, movements, trends or turns, and cautious of creating strong, reconstructive, thirst-quenching philosophies of their own? From where does the desire spring for what are positioned, by way of contrast, as enabling and empowering systems of thought? Why here? Why now? And, yes, what is the effectivity of such ideas and discourses? What do they do? How can we be sure, for instance, that they don’t function primarily to replicate the forces of neoliberal capitalist globalisation?

To repeat: none of this is to claim big ideas and ‘constructive, explanatory’ discourses aren’t capable of being extremely interesting and important. Of course they are (especially in the hands of philosophers as consistently creative, challenging and sophisticated as Badiou, Hardt and Negri, Stiegler and Žižek). Yet how are we to decide if the idea of the post-9/11 world, persuasive though it may be, is viable, ‘capable of functioning successfully’, of being ‘able to live’ with the ‘enigma that is our life’, if this overarching-concept is so easily incorporated – in these ‘particular circumstances’ especially – into inhospitable, violent, controlling discourses or totalizing theoretical explanations (or posturing displays of male power and intellect)?

Let me raise just a few of the most obvious issues that would need to be rigorously and patiently worked through:

How is the use of the ‘post’ in this prepositional phrase to be understood? Is it referring to that which comes afterwards in a linear process of historical progression? Is the post meant to indicate some sort of fundamental fracture, boundary or dividing line designed to separate the pre-9/11 world from what came afterwards? Or is the post being used here to draw attention to that which, in an odd, paradoxical way comes not just after but before, too, just as ‘post’ is positioned before ‘9/11 world’ in the phrase ‘post-9/11 world’? In other words, does post-9/11 mean a certain world has come to an end, or is it more accurate to think of 9/11 and what has happened since as a part of that world, as that world in the nascent state?  Is the concept of the post-9/11 world referring to the coming of a new world, or the process of rewriting some of the features of the old? 

What is meant by ‘9/11’? Whose 9/11? Which 9/11? Arundhati Roy, writing in September 2002, is able to locate a number of places around the world for the 11th of September has long held significance:

Twenty-nine years ago, in Chile, on the 11th of September, General Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in a CIA-backed coup...

On the 11th September 1922, ignoring Arab outrage, the British government proclaimed a mandate in Palestine, a follow up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration [which]... promised European Zionists a national home for Jewish people...

It was on the 11th September 1990 that George W. Bush Sr., then President of the US, made a speech to a joint session of Congress announcing his Government’s decision to go to war against Iraq.

(Arundhati Roy, ‘Come September’, The Algebra of Infinite Justice (London: Flamingo, 2002) p.280, 283, 288-289.)

Of course your website indicates that by 9/11 you mean the terrible attacks on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001. I have no wish to detract from the pain and suffering associated with those events. The question arises nonetheless: on what basis can we take the decision to single out and privilege those tragic events over and above the others Roy identifies that also took place on 9/11? How can we do so, and how can we speak of what you refer to as a ‘post-9/11 generation’, without being complicit in those processes by which the attacks in New York have already been appropriated by a range of social, political, economic, ideological, cultural and aesthetic discourses for reasons to do with security, surveillance, biopolitics, justifying the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and so on (discourses which can make the experience of writing about 9/11 fraught, to say the least)?

This is not to imply a decision to privilege 9/11/01 can’t be made. It’s merely to point out that such questions need to be addressed if this decision is to be taken responsibly and the implications of doing so for the ways in which we teach and write and act assumed and endured.

As for the last part of this phrase (you’ll have gathered there’s nothing ‘inherently’ viable about this concept for me), is it possible to begin to creatively think and imagine using the idea of a post-9/11 ‘world’ without universalizing a singularly US set of events? After all, even the formulation 9/11, with its echo of 911, seems very North American: in the UK we often tend to refer to September 11.

Yes, the Twin Towers were a symbol of World Finance Capital. Yes, the attacks on them were mediated around the world in ‘real time’. Yes, an article in Le Monde published the next day declared ‘We are all Americans! We are all New Yorkers’. (Has the phrase ‘post-9/11 world’ been chosen deliberately to draw attention to American-led neoliberal globalisation? It’s certainly difficult to propose alternatives to either with regard to the world’s social imaginary without risking being made to appear fanatical or extremist.)  Nevertheless, on what basis can we justify totalizing or globalizing these specific events in this manner? And how can we do so without inscribing 9/11 in the logic of evaluation inherent to neoliberalism’s audit culture (‘in the sense that the Holocaust’s singularity and horror would “equal” that of 9/11’ perhaps, but that of Hurricane Katrina or the Deepwater Horizon oilrig explosion would not);  or participating in the way 9/11 has often been made to overshadow other world historical events in the mythic imaginary: the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August, 1954; Nixon’s decoupling of the US dollar from the gold standard in 1971 (which can be seen as one of the roots of the current economic crisis); the gas disaster at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal on December 2-3, 1984; the 1999 alter-globalisation protests in Seattle; the 2003 invasion of Iraq, recently described by the ex-head of MI5 in the UK as having ‘radicalised a whole generation of young people... who saw our involvement in Iraq... as being an attack on Islam’ – and that’s to name only those events that come most readily to mind? 

Even if we confine ourselves to acts of non-state terrorism, there’s the Oklahoma City bombing of 19/4, 1995; the Madrid bombing of 3/11, 2004; London 7/7; and the attacks in Mumbai of November 2008.  Why would we not try to creatively think and imagine using the concept of a post-2-3/12 world? A post-19/4 world? A post-7/7 world?

Whose post-9/11 world is this exactly? Who wants this post-9/11 world?


Sunday
Sep192010

Affirmative media theory and the post-9/11 world (part 1)

(The following is a slightly revised version of a text first published on 2 September, 2010, by the Creative Research Centre at Montclair State University. Part II of 'Affirmative Media Theory and the Post-9/11 World', again first published by the Creative Research Centre, is now available above.)

 

Thank you for the invitation to contribute to your born-digital, dynamic, nimble, open-source, collaborative space at Montclair State University. I’m very happy to join the conversation of your Creative Research Centre and take part in your symposium, ‘The Uses of the Imagination in the Post-9/11 World’.

You’ve asked me to address ‘the inherent viability of the concept of the “post-9/11 world”’ and explain what this ‘over-arching concept’ means to me.  Perhaps you’ll forgive me, then, if I begin by telling you a little about my own research. This currently involves a series of born-digital, open, dynamic, collaborative projects I’m provisionally calling ‘media gifts’. Operating at the intersections of art, theory and new media, these gifts employ digital media to actualise critical and cultural theory. As such, their primary focus is not on building a picture of the world by establishing what something is and how it exists, before proclaiming, say, that we’ve moved from the closed spaces of disciplinary societies to the more spirit- or gas-like forces of the societies of control, as Gilles Deleuze would have it.

Instead, the projects I’ve been working on over the last few years – which include a ‘liquid book’, a series of internet television programmes, and an experiment that investigates some of the implications of internet piracy through the creation of an actual ‘pirate’ text   – are instances of media and mediation that endeavor to produce the effects they name or things of which they speak.


The reason I wanted to start with these projects is because they function for me as a means of thinking through what it means to ‘do philosophy’ and ‘do media theory’ in the current theoretico-political climate.  I see them as a way of practicing an affirmative media theory or philosophy in which analysis and critique are not abandoned but take more creative, inventive and imaginative forms. The different projects in the series thus each in their own way experiment with the potential new media technologies hold for making affective, singular interventions in the here and now.


The possibility of philosophy today 

Having said that, I want to make it clear I’m not positioning the affirmative media theory I’m endeavouring to practice with these media gifts in a relation of contrast to earlier, supposedly less affirmative, theoretical paradigms.

 

(A desire to avoid positioning the affirmative media philosophy I’m attempting to practice in a relation of contrast to previous theoretical paradigms is one of the reasons I’ve taken the decision not to explicitly relate the media gifts series to the so-called affective turn. For an example of the latter, see Richard Grusin’s recent book on affect and mediality after 9/11, where he writes:

one of the attractions of affect theory is that it provides an alternative model of the human subject and its motivations to the post-structuralist psychoanalytic models favoured by most contemporary cultural and media theorists. Affectivity helps shift the focus from representation to mediation, deploying an ontological model that refuses the dualism built into the concept of representation. Affectivity entails an ontology of multiplicity that refuses what Bruno Latour has characterized as the modern divide, variously understood in terms of such fundamental oppositions as those between human and non-human, mind and the world, culture and nature, or civilization and savagery. Drawing on varieties of what Nigel Thrift calls ‘non-representational theory’, I concern myself with the things that mediation does rather than what media mean or represent.  

(Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2010) p.7)

Another of my reasons for not relating the media gifts series to affect theory lies with the fact that, as I have already intimated, I’m not so interested in developing ontologies or ontological models of understanding the world.

Still another is that, just as such affect theory attempts to do away with oppositions and dualisms, so it simultaneously (and often unconsciously and unwittingly) seems to repeat and reinforce them – in the case of the passage from Grusin above, most obviously between before and after 9/11, between representational and non-representational theory, and between post-structuralist psychoanalytic models and affect theory itself. And that’s without even mentioning the way Grusin’s book is constantly concerned with providing a
representation of the logics and practices of mediation after 9/11; and with explaining what things such as the global credit crunch mean in this context in a manner it’s frequently difficult to differentiate from the kind of cultural and media theory he positions his book as representing an alternative to:

remediation no longer operates within the binary logic of reality versus mediation, concerning itself instead with mobility, connectivity, and flow. The real is no longer that which is free from mediation, but that which is thoroughly enmeshed with networks of social, technical, aesthetic, political, cultural, or economic mediation. The real is defined not in terms of representational accuracy, but in terms of liquidity or mobility. In this sense the credit crisis of 2008 was a crisis precisely of the real – as the problem of capital that didn’t move, of credit that didn’t flow, was seen as both the cause and consequence of the financial crisis. In the hypermediated post-capitalism of the twenty-first century, wealth is not representation but mobility.
            (Richard Grusin, ibid, p.3))

 

In a discussion with Alain Badiou that took place in New York in 2006, Simon Critchley constructs a narrative of this latter kind when describing the ‘overwhelmingly conceptually creative and also enabling and empowering’ nature of the former’s system of thought.  For Critchley, the current situation of theory is characterised, on the one hand, by ‘a sense of frustration and fatigue with a whole range of theoretical paradigms: paradigms having been exhausted, paradigms having been led into a cul-de-sac, of making promises that they didn’t keep or simply giving some apocalyptic elucidation to our sense of imprisonment’; and, on the other, by a ‘tremendous thirst for a constructive, explanatory and empowering theoretical discourse’. It’s a thirst that Badiou’s philosophy apparently goes some way toward quenching. It’s ‘refreshing’, Critchley declares.

This desire for constructive, explanatory and empowering theoretical discourses of the kind offered not just by Badiou, I would propose, but in their different ways by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Bernard Stiegler, Slavoj Žižek, and others, too, is of course understandable. I can’t help wondering, though, if such discourses aren’t also a manifestation, to some degree at least, of what Germaine Greer has characterized as male display (although the books Greer is thinking of are Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, rather than Badiou’s Being and Event or volumes by the likes of Nicolas Bourriaud and Marc Auge that put forward theories of the altermodern and supermodernity):

 

Every week, either by snail mail or e-mail, I get a book that explains everything. Without exception, they are all written by men... There is no answer to everything, and only a deluded male would spend his life trying to find it. The most deluded think they have actually found it. ... Brandishing the ‘big idea’ is a bookish version of male display, and as such a product of the same mind-set as that behind the manuscripts that litter my desk. To explain is in some sense to control. Proselytizing has always been a male preserve. ... I would hope that fewer women have so far featured in the big-ideas landscape because, by and large, they are more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for. Giving credence to a big idea is a way of permitting ourselves to skirt strenuous engagement with the enigma that is our life.

(Germaine Greer, in Germaine Greer, Andrew Lycett and John Douglas, ‘The Week in Books: The Male Desire for Explanation; the Real Quantum of Solace; and Merchandising Fiction’, The Guardian, 1 November, 2008)


Still, as I say, I can recognise the appeal of enabling and empowering theoretical discourses to a certain extent. It’s a different aspect of the current situation of theory as it’s glossed by Critchley I’m particularly concerned with here.

Critchley – who is himself the author of The Ethics of Deconstruction and co-author of Deconstruction and Pragmatism – is careful to name no names as to which exhausted theoretical paradigms he has in mind. But given that a ‘certain discourse, let’s call it deconstructive’, Critchley suggests, is also explicitly placed in a relation of contrast to Badiou’s ‘very different’ creative, constructive philosophy, I wonder if deconstruction is not at least part of what he is referring to?  If so, then I have to say I find it difficult to recognise deconstruction, and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida especially (with which the term deconstruction is most closely associated, and which is very important for me), in any description that opposes it to that which is conceptually creative, enabling, explanatory and empowering. Derrida’s thought is all of these things – although in a different way to Badiou’s philosophical system, it’s true.  The interest of Derrida and deconstruction lies with systems – including what Badiou, in the same discussion with Critchley, refers to as ‘the classical field of philosophy’ – but also with what destabilizes, disrupts, escapes, exceeds, interrupts and undoes systems. And this would apply to Badiou’s own system of thought (‘and this is a system’, Critchley points out). This doesn’t mean deconstruction can be positioned as ‘melancholic’, though, and contrasted to construction and ‘reconstruction’, as Critchley and Badiou would have it.

For all his interest in radical politics, theatre, poetry, cinema, mathematics, psychoanalysis and the question of love, there’s an intriguing return to philosophy, and with it a certain disciplinarity, evident in Badiou’s work (as opposed to the interdisciplinarity associated with cultural studies, say, or the trans-disciplinarity of your CRC). Badiou refers to this as being very much a philosophical decision on his part:

And finally my philosophical decision – there is always something like a decision in philosophy, there is not always continuity: you have to decide something and my decision was very simple and very clear. It was that philosophy was possible. It’s a very simple sentence, but in the context it was something new. Philosophy is possible in the sense that we can do something which is in the classical tradition of philosophy and nevertheless in our contemporary experience. There is in my condition no contradiction between our world, our concrete experiences, an idea of radical politics for example, a new form of art, new experiences in love, and the new mathematics. There is no contradiction between our world and something in the philosophical field that is finally not in rupture but assumes a continuity with the philosophical tradition from Plato to today.

And we can take one further step, something like that. So we have not to begin by melancholic considerations about the state of affairs of philosophy: deconstruction, end of philosophy, end of metaphysics, and so on. This vision of the history of thinking is not mine.  And so I have proposed – in Being and Event in fact – a new constructive way for philosophical concepts and something like a reconstruction – against deconstruction – of the classical field of philosophy itself.

(Alain Badiou, ‘”Ours Is Not A Terrible Situation” - Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley at Labyrinth Books’, NY, March 6, 2006)


Yet what kind of decision is actually being taken here? What is it based on or grounded in? How philosophical is this decision by Badiou?  Couldn’t it be said that any decision to the effect that philosophy is possible, that a ‘reconstruction – against deconstruction – of the classical field of philosophy’ is possible, has to be taken by Badiou in advance of philosophy; and that his decision in favour of a ‘new constructive way for philosophical concepts’ therefore takes Badiou outside or beyond philosophy at precisely the moment he is claiming to have returned to or defended it? As such, doesn’t any such decision do violence not just to deconstruction but also to the classical tradition of philosophy?

These are questions that Derrida and deconstruction can help with. For Derrida’s philosophy is nothing if it is not a thinking of the impossible decision. As someone else associated with deconstruction, J. Hillis Miller, puts it:


Responsibility... must be, if it is to exist at all, always excessive, always impossible to discharge. Otherwise it will risk being the repetition of a program of understanding and action already in place… My responsibility in each reading is to decide and to act, but I must do so in a situation where the grounds of decision are impossible to know. As Kierkegaard somewhere says, ‘The moment of decision is madness’. The action, in this case, often takes the form of teaching or writing that cannot claim to ground itself on pre-existing knowledge or established tradition but is what Derrida calls ‘l’invention de l’autre [the invention of the other’].

(J. Hillis Miller, in J. Hillis Miller and Manuel Asensi, Black Holes: J. Hillis Miller; or, Toward Boustropedonic Reading (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999) p.491)


From this perspective, what’s so helpful about Derrida’s thought is not that it disavows the possibility of taking a decision in favour of a reconstruction of the classical field of philosophy; it’s that Derrida enables us to understand how any such decision necessarily involves a moment of madness. This is important; because once we appreciate the decision is the invention of the other, of the other in us, we can endeavour to assume, or better, endure ‘in a passion’, rather than simply act out, the implications of this realisation for the way we teach, write and act, in an effort to make the impossible decisions that confront us – including those concerning philosophy - as responsibly as possible. 


The concept of the post-9/11 world

Why am I raising all this here, in response to your invitation to address ‘the inherent viability of the concept of the post-9/11 world’? I’m doing so because if Critchley is right and the current situation of theory is characterised by a thirst for constructive, explanatory and empowering theoretical discourses then, as I say, I can understand this. I can also appreciate that the concept of the ‘post-9/11 world’ may be of service in this context (including, perhaps, in terms of what Badiou refers to as the political name or poetic event). And, of course, it has already been adopted as a new means of historical periodisation by some. But as far as practicing a creative, affirmative media theory or philosophy is concerned, it seems to me that whether what you are referring to as the ‘over-arching’ concept of the post-9/11 world is ‘viable’ or not, in the sense in which my dictionary defines viable - as ‘being capable of functioning successfully, practicable’, as being ‘able to live in particular circumstances’ - is just such an impossible decision.


Thursday
Aug052010

Paper - the most radical technology of all?

Media Gifts, the book, concludes (if that is the right word to use about an open, distributed,  multi-platform, multi-locational, multiple identity book) with a project that has something of an odd status in relation to the others. This is a text on the performance artist Stelarc called ‘Para-site’.

Stelarc experiments with issues concerning the relation between the human, the body, and technology, including new information and communication technologies. So, for example, his Stomach Sculpture is an art work where an extending/retracting structure, designed to operate in the stomach cavity, was inserted into the body. Brainwaves, bloodflow and muscle signals were amplified and broadcast, and the inside of the lungs, stomach and colon filmed and screened - all of which served to highlight and place in question distinctions between the public and the private as the inside of the body was revealed to be at once both internal and external.

In an introduction we co-wrote to Stelarc Mechaniques du Corps/Body Mechanics, a retrospective catalogue for his exhibition at Centre des Arts, Enghien-les-Bains, France, April, 2009, Joanna Zylinska and I argued that Stelarc can best be understood in terms of his self-declared posture of indifference – his desire not to control the performance so much as let it unfold. (So, as is the case with these media gifts projects – although of course our work is very different: for one thing I’m nowhere near as physically brave as he is, especially when it comes to the prospect of pain - Stelarc wouldn’t conduct his artistic experiments with some fixed results or intended outcomes in mind. Rather he would want to remain open to the new and unexpected.)

But Stelarc’s ‘posture of indifference’ can also be read as being ‘in–difference’, as an opening of oneself to what is not in one (e.g. technology). In short, in-difference becomes an hospitality toward an infinite alterity (in the Levinasian/Derridean sense). It’s also a bodily passivity, a letting oneself be-together-with-difference, with-technology.

It’s worth emphasizing that in saying this, Zylinska and I were not referring to the pairing of two separate entities: the ‘human’ and ‘technology’. For us, human agency and human corporeality is always reliant upon, connected to, and becoming with, tekhnē.

As I put in ‘Para-site’,  what Stelarc repeatedly demonstrates is that technology is both fundamental to, and a disturbance of, our sense of the human. The body’s relation to technology is not therefore one of opposites, in which an original, natural, unified human self or identity comes into contact with an external, foreign, alien technology which it can use as a tool or bodily prosthesis, the skin acting as a boundary line to divide and separate the two. Technology is not simply external. ‘Technology is what defines being human’, for Stelarc.’ It’s not an antagonistic alien sort of object, it’s part of our human nature. It constructs our human nature.’ This means that, in the words of Jacques Derrida, ‘there is no natural originary body’, since:

technology has not simply added itself, from the outside or after the fact, as a foreign body… this foreign or dangerous supplement is “originarily” at work and in place in the supposedly ideal interiority of the “body and soul”. It is indeed at the heart of the heart.

(Jacques Derrida, 'The Rhetoric of Drugs', Points... Interviews, 1974—1994 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995) pp.244-5)

What Stelarc performs with his investigations into how different developments in technology - robotics, the Internet, virtual reality systems, prosthetics, medical procedures - alter our conception of the human and of the human body, is the way in which technology escapes the control of its inventors to produce unseen and unforseeable changes and possibilities; and thus a future - for the self, the human, for the body and for technology - which can be neither programmed nor predicted.

From this perspective Stelarc’s indifference appears as a far more responsive and responsible way of undertaking an art project. For if you perform in expectation, the actual performative aspect of the performance collapses. Art practice – and the practice of the writer, philosopher or theorist, I would argue - then becomes nothing more than an execution of a programme already decided and mapped out in advance; whereas, as Stelarc says, quoting Wittgenstein, ‘Thinking happens [on] the paper on which you write’. Whatever happens, in other words, only happens in and through the actual performance.

So, when it came to producing my own project on Stelarc, ‘Para-site’, what I did was weave short passages of my own text, together with some passages taken from Stelarc’s writings, to form a kind of non-linear work designed to enter into a prosthetic and parasitical relationship with its ‘host’ subject: Stelarc.  

The thinking behind this was that in order to understand Stelarc’s performances we, too, need to adopt a ‘posture of in-difference’, and experiment with inventing new techniques of analysis which are capable of responding to Stelarc’s performances with an answering in-difference. Like Stelarc, then, we too have to create an hospitable ‘space for an encounter with... what is radically different’, as Zylinska puts it, and rethink the nature, boundaries and performance of the written text accordingly.

Now, because a version had already appeared in ink-on-paper form, I hadn’t initially thought about including ‘Para-site’ in the media gifts series. It was only much later that I began to consider the idea. It is certainly tempting to think I might update this project in order to include it in the series: not only in terms of its content, by referring to Stelarc’s ‘Ear on Arm’, which he’s partially realised now, as well as a number of other works he’s completed since I wrote ‘Para-site’. I might also update it in terms of its form by using the kind of new media I’ve been talking about – internet TV, wikis, peer-to-peer file sharing.

In the end, however, I have decided not to do this. Partly because, while experimenting is closely aligned for me with most kinds of critical consciousness, I don’t want to suggest there’s something intrinsically radical about using new technology for such performative experiments. In fact, the impact or effectivity of such new media experimentation is often less – precisely because a lot of these strategies around open access, free, libre content and free circulation have become ‘ordinary’ thanks to the sheer ubiquity of new technology.    

Derrida made a similar point when explaining why he didn’t continue with the non-linear textual experiments he performed in books such as Glas and The Post Card after computers and software became relatively commonplace:

It was well before computers that I risked the most refractory texts in relation to the norms of linear writing. It would be easier for me now to do this work of dislocation or typographical invention – of graftings, insertions, cuttings, and pastings – but I’m not very interested in that any more from that point of view and in that form. That was theorised and that was done – then. The path was broken experimentally for these new typographies long ago, and today it has become ordinary. So we must invention other ‘disorders’, ones that are more discreet, less self-congratulatory and exhibitionist, and this time contemporary with the computer. What I was able to try to change in the matter of page formatting I did in the archaic age, if I can call it that, when I was still writing by hand or with the old typewriter. In 1979 I wrote The Post Card on an electric typewriter (even though I’m already talking a lot in it about computers and software), but Glas – whose unusual page format also appeared as a short treatise on the organ, sketching a history of organology up to the present – was written on a little mechanical Olivetti.

(Jacques Derrida, ‘The Word Processor’, Paper Machine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005) pp.25-26)

Here, too, then, the responsible decision as to which media to use in these experiments and in what way must be taken in an undecidable terrain. We can’t decide in advance that new media, or IPTV, or internet piracy - or robotics, prosthetics or medical procedures, for that matter - are always and everywhere the political or artistic way to go. As Stelarc’s quote from Wittgenstein neatly illustrates, paper can also be used as a radical, experimental medium to great effect. In fact, such is the ubiquity of new media, that the really radical thing to do today might be precisely to use paper technology.

Which is why, while I do intend to add ‘Para-site’ to the published version of the media gifts series, I’ve decided to leave this particular ‘gift’ in its ink-on-paper form – as a way of emphasizing this.

Tuesday
Jun292010

The academic as public intellectual

Q1. 'I suppose the key question is how far do academics as public intellectuals remain central to serious discussion of the big challenges which face us?'

In the UK when we speak of the intellectual we tend to have in mind figures such as Jean-Paul Sartre or Edward Said, who in 1993 devoted his own Reith Lectures on the subject. However, the likes of Sartre and Said represent just one version or model of the intellectual: that of the political intellectual, someone who expands their role beyond their core area of expertise to both speak to a larger public and attempt to intervene somehow in the political life of society. There are other ways of acting as an intellectual besides this. For instance, the intellectual can also be understood as a socio-professional category: as applying to those whose professions involve them explicitly in engaging with knowledge, ideas, culture or learning. Academics, writers, journalists and artists such as Terry Eagleton, Zadie Smith, Gary Younge and Tracey Emin would all perhaps be intellectuals according to this definition. Or the intellectual can be understood more in cultural terms: as referring to those who engage in learned activities and practices but who have a certain standing in society or culture that provides them with opportunities for addressing a wider audience than is otherwise generally the case for members of their profession. The Nobel Prize winning scientist James Watson – celebrated for his part in the discovery of DNA - would be an example of someone who fits the socio-professional category of the intellectual, and who subsequently tried to move into the cultural arena with his ill-advised comments on race.

The topic is further complicated by the way in which these different definitions of the intellectual often coincide and overlap. For instance, as the cases of Said and Watson illustrate, most of the above conceptions have their starting point in ideas of the intellectual as a socio-professional category. People must have occupations that involve them explicitly in engaging with knowledge, ideas, culture or learning before they can then be thought of as being political or cultural intellectuals. This is why, when it comes to the issue of celebrity influence, although Jamie Oliver is able to use his expertise and celebrity as a TV chef to tackle wider social issues, including the standard of food served to children in schools, he’s not perceived as being an intellectual. Similarly, the musician Chris Martin of Coldplay, with his support for Fairtrade, or the Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher, with his use of Twitter to promote World Malaria Day, may have involved themselves with wider social and political issues. But they don’t have careers that involve them in engaging with knowledge and ‘learned ideas’. So they may be socially or politically engaged celebrities, but they’re not intellectuals.


Q2. 'Did the intellectual have more influence in the past?'

When people suggest that intellectuals are not as central to the big questions that face us as they were, that they perhaps don’t have as much influence as they did in the past, and have been replaced to a large extent by think-tanks, spin doctors, pundits, even celebrities, what they usually have in mind, as I say, is the kind of figure represented by Sartre and Said - or Bertrand Russell, with his campaigning for nuclear disarmament in the 1950s and 1960s. And because for various reasons those kind of intellectuals are not so visible in the UK mainstream media at the moment – although they’re still around, especially in other parts of the world (Noam Chomsky would be an obvious example) – it’s easy for people to announce, as from time to time they do, that the intellectual is dead, or at best something of an endangered species. But we do still have intellectuals, and influential ones, at that. Even in the UK. Even in academia. It’s just that they’re not necessarily political intellectuals in the Sartre/Said/Chomsky mould. The intellectuals we have in Britain tend to be of the more ‘sociological’ or ‘cultural’ kind.

One explanation for this that has been put forward concerns the way in which, in England at least, intellectuals, historically, have been more closely associated with the ruling elite - gentlemen’s clubs and Oxbridge colleges, as opposed to the cafes and factory shop-floors of the continent – and with the tradition of the gentleman as amateur scholar. Suspicious of abstract ideas – as characterised by the emphasis in France on the universal values of freedom, justice and liberty – intellectuals here have tended to focus instead quite nostalgically on the people, places, architecture and landscape of England. Think Roger Scruton’s England: An Elegy.

All of which perhaps explains why so many sociological and cultural intellectuals in England today are quite liberal, humanist, middle-brow and, for want of a better word, ‘journalistic’.


Q3. 'Have academics as intellectuals been marginalized by trends such as an increasing distrust of authority and expertise (which means that we hear as much about global warming and the crisis in the Middle East from celebrities as from specialists in international relations or climate science)?'

Actually, it goes further than that: I’m not sure how many such sociological or cultural intellectuals would explicitly claim to be intellectuals at all. This is both because of the myth that England, historically, doesn’t really have intellectuals (that’s primarily a political, abstract, European if not indeed French phenomenon); and because of the pejorative connotations of the term. In England, the intellectual is often viewed quite negatively and in a hostile fashion: as someone who is arrogant, pretentious and full of self-importance; someone who tries to give off an air of superiority by using difficult and overly complex language and ideas. Witness the manner in which the writing of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida – who would not have identified himself as an intellectual in any simple sense - is frequently condemned as being ‘headache-inducingly difficult’. Paradoxically, to be viewed approvingly as being intellectual in England today, it’s better not to be too intellectual at all. So Alain de Botton is generally accepted in England as a more or less intellectual figure, as he can write clearly on ideas and culture and communicate with a wider public, even attain the Holy Grail of a ‘popular readership’; while Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler are often not so well thought of, as their philosophy is regarded as being far too complicated and abstract. (After all, ‘who has ever truly got to the bottom of ... Jacques Derrida’s work?’) This idea that English culture is somehow not very intellectual, even non-intellectual, and that this is by and large a good thing, may also be one reason why we’d apparently rather hear from celebrities on climate change than intellectuals or academic experts. (As articles in the Times Higher Education have made clear, government is not particularly keen on taking advice directly from academic specialists either. This is because what the latter have to say is frequently multivalenced and inconclusive, ‘better at identifying problems... than at offering solutions’. Policymakers much prefer to be advised by think-tanks who can provide ‘hard-evidence... in three bullet points’.)

The above mention of Alain de Botton brings to mind yet another concept of the intellectual, one I haven’t referred to explicitly yet, and which has actually only become prevalent in Britain and the US in the last 15 years or so (I think this time-frame is significant). This is the 'public intellectual' you began with, the very name of which seems to me to be indicative of a certain anxiety over the ability of other, supposedly 'non-public intellectuals' to communicate with the 'outside world'. After all, what would a non-public intellectual be, given that in most definitions of the term the intellectual has to communicate with the public in some way in order to be an intellectual? Anyway, the public intellectual is supposed to do things like write accessible pieces for newspapers and magazines and appear on radio and the TV. By becoming a symbolic entrepreneur in this way, she or he is lauded for having escaped the narrow and limiting confines of their particular institution: be it the university, laboratory, art gallery, NGO or policy institute. Examples would include not just de Botton, but Shami Chakrabarti, Simon Schama and David Starkey.


Q4. 'Are there pressures within the academy which discourage 'reaching out' or wide-ranging generalists who are willing to speak well beyond their core areas of expertise?'

There are certainly such pressures within the academy, yes. For many people those pressures associated with the RAE would no doubt be the first that come to mind in this respect. But there is also a certain amount of pressure being placed on academics these days to act as public intellectuals and to communicate their research and ideas to a wider public outside the institutional context in which they work. The argument here is that, because tax payers fund their research, academics have an obligation to make their work accessible to the public: in the form of communicating with journalists, or by appearing in the media, or even by writing blogs. However, despite having said that it could apply to what I’m doing here, I’m not entirely comfortable with this role of the academic as public intellectual. For one thing, it seems to me to risk going along too closely - and somewhat uncritically (especially in view of the present financial meltdown and general loss of faith in the idea of unbalanced economic growth) - with the current government and research council emphasis on valuing academic research in terms of its potential ‘economic and social impact’ and ability to be useful to business, industry and the public at large.

For another, it often results in a demand being placed upon academics to be inclusive, and to avoid difficult philosophical or theoretical ‘jargon’, in order to communicate better with non-experts and so-called ‘ordinary people’. But don’t academics sometimes need to be difficult, challenging, inaccessible, boring, unproductive, inefficient, uneconomic, non-user friendly? Isn’t that a crucial part of our role, too – both as academics and as intellectuals, public or otherwise? When so much of the rest of contemporary culture places such a high premium on being popular, inclusive, accessible and instrumentally useful, isn’t it important that there are at least some places and spaces for exploring ideas that are difficult, challenging and time-consuming to understand, and which are not always justifiable in strictly economic terms?


Q5. 'Or is that just that, as one door to influence closes, another opens somewhere else, using different media and communications tools?'

I think that in this case there may be something in that, at this particular historical moment at least. For instance, where I work, at Coventry School of Art and Design, we’ve been exploring the idea of using some of the different means of media and communication that are now available to academics at relatively low cost – open access online publishing, peer-to-peer file sharing networks and so on – to disseminate what, for shorthand, might be referred to as ‘intellectual’ ideas. Let me provide you with just one brief example, using material cut and pasted from an article I published recently. This concerns experiments Pete Woodbridge and myself, together with a colleague from the University of Kent, Clare Birchall, have been making with IPTV. IPTV stands for Internet Protocol TeleVision. In its broadest sense, IPTV is the term for all those techniques which use computer networks to deliver audio-visual programming. So YouTube can be thought of as an emerging grass-roots IPTV system, especially as its audience increasingly uses it to distribute audio-visual content that they have created, rather than sharing their favourite video clips from films and TV programmes that have been produced by others.

Many people see IPTV as having the potential to do for the moving image what the web is currently doing for print.  However, the reason we’re experimenting with IPTV is because it seems to us that the UK at the moment contains surprisingly few spaces, other than the university, that are open to intellectual academic work. As I’ve said, the mainstream media are predominantly liberal, humanist, middle-brow and journalistic in approach, their discussions of art, science, literature and philosophy being primarily opinion-based and focused on biographical details. (I’m still waiting for an edition of Newsnight Review to feature a text by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, let alone Giorgio Agamben, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi or Roberto Esposito.) Meanwhile, many publishers are barely producing books for third year undergraduate students, let alone research monographs aimed at other scholars. There thus seems to be a need to invent new ways of communicating intellectual academic ideas and research both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the university. We want to explore IPTV’s potential for this, and for doing so relatively easily and cheaply: not so much because we believe academics should try to find means of connecting with audiences outside the institution, audiences that scholarly books and journals cannot, or can no longer, reach. We’re not interested in being public intellectuals or some kind of new media personalities. (It’d be hard to find more camera-shy people than us. Which is why we are now experimenting with a less individualistic, presenter-focused way of making these programmes.) Rather, the reason we want to experiment with IPTV is because, as J. Macgregor Wise put it in his contribution to New Cultural Studies, a book Clare and I published a couple of years ago now, different forms of communication ‘do different things’ and ‘have the potential for different effectivities’ - even for leading us to conceive what we do as academics differently.

(This is a revised version of a text originally written in response to questions from  Matthew Reisz of the Times Higher Education on the topic of the (changing) role of the academic as public intellectual. Reisz’s subsequent article was published as Matthew Reisz, ‘Listen and Learn’, Times Higher Education,  28 May-3 June, 2009.)