Saturday 6 December 2014

Police violence at Warwick University

The, to put it politely, heavy-handedness perpetrated by police officers against student demonstrators at Warwick University this week was shocking if not exactly surprising. As we have learned several times over the past few years, universities around the world now protect their hierarchy first and their students second. Likewise, the police are now seemingly incapable of distinguishing young people acting disobediently but legitimately from errant lumps of flesh to be first aggravated and then pacified by whatever means are necessary. Both these are common threads running through far more than this one isolated case.

(Link to other relevant resources, including an alumni petition. This open letter at Critical Legal Thinking is particularly excellent in its composed forcefulness.)

The Vice Chancellor's personal response is a masterpiece of contorted vacuity, including this gem:
I, like many others, have been saddened by the images of what then occurred which saw police and students having to engage in and resolve an unnecessarily challenging situation which led on from the actions of one individual.
The 'one individual' in question being a student who is alleged to have assaulted a member of university security personnel. For this the police were called and from that, for reasons yet to be explained in anything even approaching a satisfactory manner, the police felt the need to CS gas students at close range, drag a young woman around by her scarf and threaten others with a Taser electro-shock weapon (as Amnesty rightly insist upon it being called).

Whatever any individual may or may not have done, the fact that this kind of police behaviour on campus can be shrugged off as a 'challenging situation' is deplorable. Incidents of this sort have been more or less normalised in recent years and the wilful acquiescence of the 'powers that be' to this situation (as with every other blight on the university sector) is shameful.

It is most telling that the VC declines to comment directly on the actions of police but is perfectly happy to insinuate that all blame for this incident lies with the 'individual' (whose actions remain alleged). Even if this individual is found guilty of whatever it is they are claimed to have done, that doesn't justify the police's behaviour in dealing with what was by all accounts, up to their arrival, an otherwise placid and legitimate sit-in. That university suits are willing to hang one individual out to dry to save the blushes of the police speaks volumes of their priorities and makes a mockery of their duty of care.

How all this contrasts with Lawrence Green, an MA student at Warwick, who gave a wonderfully eloquent response to the incident, as a representative of the student perspective, on Channel 4 News a couple of nights ago. He argues the case far better than I can, and has more right to do so.

While the University's administrators are probably just trying to do what is best, in their view, for their institution, the contrast between their mealy-mouthed missives and the eloquent, passionate poise of their students is stunning. If only the suits could realise that it is precisely this sort of intelligent passion that their institution is there to cultivate. If only they still had some sense, from beneath the crushing decades of paperwork and commercialisation, of what they are actually there for...

Wednesday 3 December 2014

Monbiot on Britain's feudal present—an interesting case for agnotology

George Monbiot has been one of the most rigorous journalists in Britain for a long time now, if not the most (who else publishes footnotes with every article?). He's also surely one of the most diverse. Today's article on land ownership in Britain is a particular tour de force. (Entirely incidentally, apparently it's also the first he's written using voice recognition software. I don't know if it has affected his style, as he suggests, but there's certainly nothing wrong with it.)
The Scottish programme for government is the first serious attempt to address the nature of landholding in Britain since David Lloyd George’s budget of 1909. Some of its aims hardly sound radical until you understand the context. For example, it will seek to discover who owns the land. Big deal? Yes, in fact, it is. At the moment the owners of only 26% of the land in Scotland have been identified.
I've become interested in land politics in general recently and am going to be reading much more on it in the near future; however, it's this sort of agnotology (the study of ignorance or doubt) that really fascinates me. So much has been written on how knowledge is produced but relatively little on how it's prevented; so much on connection, so little on disconnection.

This also links very much to another issue Monbiot has written a lot about: tax havens. The production of ignorance and evasion of tax are closely linked—indeed, tax evasion/avoidance is largely to do with the production of ignorance with regard to who owns what where and when. It's all about having your cake and eating it too (paywalled article), as Ronen Palan has argued most ably—receiving the benefits of state protection without the responsibilities. And this is achieved largely by controlling access to information.

It's interesting that land ownership and taxation have risen together as issues here in Britain in the past few years, alongside the financial crises. Indeed, land and tax are tied closely together in Monbiot's article:
Consider Scotland’s determination to open up the question of property taxes, which might lead to the only system that is fair and comprehensive: land value taxation. Compare it with the fleabite of a mansion tax proposed by Ed Miliband, which, though it recoups only a tiny percentage of the unearned income of the richest owners, has so outraged the proprietorial class that some of them (yes, Griff Rhys Jones, I’m thinking of you) have threatened to leave the country. Good riddance.
Why is it that a tax on mansions can have such political purchase but one on land so little? Perhaps sprawling fields and woods turned into grouse hunting grounds don't scream opulence and wastefulness like the oversized and over-marbled pseudo-palaces of celebrity millionaires. But they probably should.

Reflections on An Inquiry into Modes of Existence as an experiment in the digital humanities

In the last week of July this year, I had the good fortune of attending the concluding workshops of Bruno Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence project. I've written several posts on and deriving from this in the past; however, I've not really reflected on the event itself as an experiment ‒ which is what it was; an experiment in the digital humanities. (See also this by Consuelo Vasquez.)

We were to play a 'Serious Game' ‒ that is, to test, trial and interrogate the 'Report' (i.e. the AIME book) produced by Latour as his 'Anthropology of the Moderns.' However, we were not at liberty to simply set about 'critiquing.' The attendees were divided into several roundtables that worked independently on politics, religion, economy, nature and diplomacy, respectively. Each table was to, first of all, review and synthesise the many contributions submitted to the project website. By the end of the week, we had to collectively write a 'Specbook' containing our indispensable values and requirements that would inform, first, the public seminar to be held the following week in which the chargés d'affaires (Barbara Cassin, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Annemarie Mol, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Deborah Danowski, Peter Weibel, Simon Schaffer, Clive Hamilton) would, each in their own way, begin to edge towards 'facing Gaia'; and, secondly, the eventual rewriting of the Report. At the end of each day, there was a plenary session where the groups came together and debated their findings.

At this point I should mention my own struggles ‒ travails, as we say in English... ‒ with having only the most rudimentary grasp of the French language. The roundtable on politics was held primarily in English (and this is were I spent the first part of the week); however, the plenary sessions were almost entirely in French (and with perfect justification since I was the only non-French speaker in attendance!). Although I was greatly aided by the interpretations of Cormac O'Keefe and Stephen Muecke, the most immediate consequences of this linguistic disjuncture were that (a) my head hurt a lot and (b) whenever I opened my mouth I ran the very serious risk of making a fool of myself, having only understood about 10% of what was going on. (Sure enough, that happened. However, I more or less got through the week in one piece!)

But back to the point. The thing that strikes me most about the way all this worked, retrospectively, is the very partial realisation of the 'game' aspect. Certainly, this was never going to be a run-of-the-mill academic workshop since we were playing a 'Serious Game' under quite unconventional conditions. However, it was not quite a 'role playing game' (something like a Model United Nations) either since there was no clearly defined narrative nor prescribed characters. As 'gamers' we were surely playing characters ‒ but those characters were, seemingly, ourselves.

The whole format of the event was consequently approached from an array (perhaps, at times, a disarray) of perspectives. At times it seemed as though every participant had their own idea of what was going on (though this may have been an impression imposed by my aforementioned linguistic marginality). This was liberating inasmuch as it permitted the event to evolve ‒ diverging, converging and improvising ‒ as it progressed. However, this freedom was by no means uncurtailed. The plenary session effectively acted as a 'sovereign voice' that stamped down on this or that, approving or denying certain lines of conjecture.

In other words, it was never completely clear what the rules were but it was occasionally made very clear what they were not. This is how the experiment was able to hang so loosely without falling apart altogether. (Schmitt, and so on...)

These occasionally crossed purposes, and the practical misalignments that resulted, came to a head particularly in the discussions of diplomacy (a roundtable that I participated in towards the end of the week). Every table was under instruction to 'deflate' its subject matter, and to do so both simultaneously and symmetrically. A deflated politics without a correspondingly humilous economy would be neoliberal; a deflated religion without its matching politics would be a cold and aggressive secularism, and so on. The diplomacy table interpreted its remit as covering both anthropology and philosophy. It then, and this was certainly the overwhelming judgement, inflated these institutions to a degree earning the label 'Kantian.' This really didn't go down well. The balloon burst.

Upon reflection, I think that the whole experiment may have worked better if it had been more of a 'role playing game' and, in that sense, more intensively fictionalised. Some attendees (myself included) were, at times, labouring under the misapprehension that we (the attendees) were ourselves 'diplomats.' It seems to me now that we should have thought of ourselves as, at most, attachés. We were doing nothing more than preparing briefing papers based upon our own, partial, naive perspectives (plus the electronic augmentations afforded by the contribution-collecting website), towards a negotiation that would be decidedly 'above our pay-grade.' The 'middle ground' was indeed the issue but it was not we who would go there.

Nevertheless, it was enormously refreshing and exciting to participate in an intellectual exercise that broke the usual conference/workshop format where various researchers assemble, read their pre-written papers, eat, drink and then fly back to wherever it is they came from. If this experiment seeds more creativity in the manners and modes by which ideas get debated and texts get drafted then it will have been a success for that alone.

However, on that point, a final difficulty sticks in my mind in particular: the difficulty of speaking under a condition of the suspension of 'true belief.' In other words, in order to participate in a game one does not act solely on the basis of one's own sense of self but, rather, upon the instructions received, the roles given or taken up. One must speak from a subject position that is not 'oneself' but is already the result of the displacement that necessarily occurs in anticipation of negotiation.

This happened, I think, only fleetingly and inconsistently. The participant to have adopted such a pose most explicitly was the chargé d'affaires Simon Schaffer,   who made a point of embodying a diplomatic persona and thus not 'saying what he really thinks.' While there were many personae flying about the place, I'm not convinced that the specific form of detachment necessary for the diplomatic game was widely achieved ‒ at least not as widely as it could have been. Indeed, some clung to their 'true beliefs' with a passion.

To be 'detached' with regard to any firm, pre-given ground but not, for that reason, 'disinterested' ‒ such discursive techniques are still to a large extent awaiting if not their invention then certainly their adoption.

And this brings me back to my previous remarks: the experiment only partially broke free of the conventions and standards of existing academic discursive formats. At times the 'game' relapsed into something much more closely resembling a conventional 'conference' or 'workshop' than, I think, was intended. The gravitational pull of engrained habits remained too strong and the deterritorialisation effected by the territorialising motions of the 'rules of the game' was too weak precisely because the rules themselves were too weakly specified. Truly leaving the orbit of arbitrary convention would, however counter-intuitively, have required a stronger and more arbitrary imposition of a counter-convention for the purposes of the game. Stronger, more challenging rules, roles and narratives would have meant a greater pull towards dissociating 'true belief' from speech-action and would, therefore, have established a more diplomatic event, a more thoroughly and impressively prepared 'middle ground.'

That said, I count myself very fortunate to have played a part in this experience ‒ perplexed, furrow-faced, pain-brained onlooker though I so often was!

Monday 1 December 2014

'The legal, the material, and the geophysical' ‒ Rachael Squire on Warwick postgrad political geography conference

I spent Thursday and Friday last week at the University of Warwick's 2014 postgraduate conference on political geography.

Rachael Squire of Royal Holloway has written up an excellent summary review of the proceedings. She also presented an outstanding paper on the sometimes weirdly creative territorial geopolitics found in the dispute between Gibraltar, Britain and Spain.

I didn't present anything ‒ or, indeed, submit an abstract to that end ‒ as I'm (a) up to my eyeballs in work as it is (article revisions, PhD applications, a full-time job...) and (b) not a graduate student at the moment anyway. However, it was nevertheless a fascinating and enjoyable event (perhaps even more so as I didn't have to worry about what I was going to have to say!).

'The Great Hedge of India' ‒ a work of historical materiology

As regular readers may have noticed, I've started to write short blog posts about books I've just finished reading and films I've just seen (when they're of some political or philosophical interest).

The last book of this kind that I've finished is Roy Moxham's The Great Hedge of India. I won't write too much in the way of description as Oliver Dixon wrote a nice summary on the Royal Holloway critical geopolitics blog a couple of weeks ago:
"British colonial history tells many remarkable tales, none more so than the story of the Great Hedge of India. This relatively unknown story was rediscovered recently by author, Roy Moxham. He tells of a botanical and architectural structure, an impenetrable 8ft high hedge, 1500 miles long, that stretched across Central India. How is it that a wall, comparable to The Great Wall of China, has completely vanished from the story of the British Raj? And what relevance does it have to bordering today?"
It's a fascinating book, engagingly written. Stylistically it's a mixture of personal travelogue and academically inflected journalism. It isn't especially dramatic or action packed but the way in which British colonial history is intertwined with techniques of violence, cartography and fortification, as well as the cruel, 'bare life' biopolitics of the salt tax is tremendous.

It is the epitome of what one might call trajectorial thinking, trajectorial geopolitics ‒ another more major exponent of this being Reviel Netz's magnificent Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. By this I mean that it does not begin with a domain and attempt to understand it as a whole that must be separated from other domains 'for analytical reasons'; moreover, it doesn't attempt to explain the whole's parts on the basis of systemic functions but, rather, works through an array of threads that cut across a complex, indeterminately delimited space, tracing cascades of action and reaction that, when knotted together, build up a partial picture of a world in motion. It is a kind of historical materiology.

The interesting historical materiological connection between Netz's and Moxham's books can be found in Nicholas Blomley's wonderful article Making Private Property: Enclosure, Common Right and the Work of Hedges (may be paywalled). Blomley refers to thorn bushes, such as those used in the Indian hedge, as 'organic barbed wire.' Before the developments that Netz traces, it was precisely these plants that were technologically enrolled in order to enclose spaces, for various reasons. These methods had many drawbacks.

The hedge that Moxham traces was only necessary but also only possible due to the extremely lucrative tax on salt imposed by the British. The hedge was costly to both build and maintain and, with its raison d'etre removed, it rapidly disappeared to such an extent that it was almost completely forgotten about. Barbed wire was not only cheap but also, crucially, inorganic and hence durable. On the battlefields of the World War I, it took enormous barrages of shelling to even partially dissolve the roll after roll of barbed wire that were lethally strewn between the trenches. By enrolling iron rather than various fragile, slow growing and imperfectly violent plant species, history was irreversibly transformed.

Read alongside Netz and Blomley, Moxham's work seems not only interesting but also profound. Were we to have more trajectorial accounts such as these, the world we perceive in motion through such mediators might be better understood.

How wolves change rivers and whales change climate through trophic cascades

After the very popular How Wolves Change Rivers, now How Whales Change Climate, narrated by George Monbiot.