Bruno Latour’s new project to facilitate Grass-roots Universalism with the help of 5 handsome white men.

Bruno Latour courtesy of CBS

Latour courtesy of CBS

Yesterday Bruno Latour, fêted french sociologist, doyen of Actor Network Theory and charming man about Paris, presented his new research project, An Inquiry Into The Modes Of Existence (AIME), to a distinguished gathering of academics at Copenhagen Business School. The collaborative research project takes the form of an online resource with the explicit aim to ‘facilitate reflexivity’. The researchers are calling for everybody, all over the world, to take part in this inclusive research project and co-create new and relevant bottom-up sociological theory.

To raise globally applicable issues and contributions from, and for, humanity, Latour has especially assembled a team of handsome white french men (and one Italian). The eloquent clique collaborated on a web platform aimed to elicit participatory Grass-roots Universalism. Crowd-sourcing of key meta-truths relies on participation and disagreement explained one particularly tall, attractive AIME member, urging the audience to log-in and contest their initial, ‘provocative’ ideas.

During the presentation the well-educated, immaculately groomed and luminously white audience scribbled furious notes, paying special attention to the login and submission advice, and I can only imagine started drafting universal truth submissions in their beautiful designer notebooks.

When the Q+A session rolled around, rapt attendees taking up the contestation invitation interrogated Latour and his attractive AIME team on their views of ways this new paradigm may affect the construction, application and abstraction of knowledge in different ways of calling modernity into question, how we gather articulations behind these increasingly vacuous signifiers and the political frontiers they generate, and how these beautifully complex meanings of practicing may perhaps completely transform ideas of the way we engage with the performativity of institutional regimes.

We can only wait with baited breath to see how this devilishly handsome band of privileged men, and participants from distinguished universities all over developed cities in western Europe, create an accessible, inclusive and universal voice for the entirety and complexity of our world.

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Rushing: a waste of time?

Ice swimming

Ice swimming

One of my favourite parts of immersing in Swedish culture is the sauna. Sweating in hot cedar and then dipping in the cold North Sea with the old dames of malmö has become somewhat of a mid-week ritual. One I’m loath to miss. Wednesday afternoons have become a flurry of finishing writings, jotting to-do-lists for tomorrow, sending brisk replies to emails and duking out the back door. Once home it’s a scramble for towel, thongs, water, sweater, keys and a victorious sally out into the street. Volume on full I hightail past the station, through the park, along the beach and arrive puffed, pink and ready to relax. Only to find I have not bought my wallet.

This is not so uncommon, last week some of my colleagues were gently ribbing another who bolted a sandwhich in two minutes flat so they could make it to their massage. Skynder sig för att lugna sig.

Speeding through tasks to have time to relax, to become speedier at tasks. Productivity, efficiencies, streamlining, just-in-time, lean manufacturing. Or in Annie Lennox’s words:

For me that animation would look like: research a lot, teach a lot, learn Swedish, write lots of grants, publish, publish, publish or perish, become a post-doc, research more, teach more, get more grants, publish more, get tenure, become a professor, do professor stuff, reproduce the overworked academic caricature. This is actually kind of my plan at the moment (minus the last bit). It would be nice to be a young professor. But why do I think that?

Maybe because everyone I know thinks that being a professor would be kind of cool. The privilege of sharpening ones own intellect and increasing reflexivity in students and investigating a subject you care passionately about becomes overshadowed by the social construct. It’s easy to go with the majority.

But what if the majority is wrong? Academia is saturated with urban legends of burnout. But who actually cares if you are 35, 40 or 60 when you get tenured? Would I rather be a stressed out, grey-haired young professor, or an older one with more travels, dances, books and friends tucked into the folds of my life experiences? But as a student, sometimes I feel too immersed in the humdrum rush, too busy perpetuating my own ambitious demised to stop and reflect on whether the ends or means are more important.

I read a beautiful piece of writing last weekend by David Graeber making a convincing argument that being alive is the ends, and therefor taking joy in ones abilities is the means. Perhaps that is why it is resonantly beautiful to listen to some of the professors in my department presenting ideas, or watch Beyoncé videos. These people are really good at what they are doing.

For now doing things that I am good at is the best reason to be alive. When I enjoy what I do, when I slow down, when I focus on what is in-front of me, I feel more alive. I can see deeper currents and produce more resonant research. And am probably a lot less likely to forget my wallet.

Life is the moments in between’ – 242,000,000 google hits

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Christmas Turkey

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Money

For the first time in my life I have a stable job. Which means for the first time in my life I have a stable income. Which also means, that for the very first time in my life, I have the chance to crystalise my thoughts on money.

Since leaving home, money has always been a means to an ends: paying rent, scraping through uni, drinking cask wine, travelling when I could. Now that I can do all of the above and have some left over, conventional wisdom says ‘save’, ‘buy a house’, ‘invest in your future.’  There is also another voice saying, ‘live a little’, ‘buy pretty things.’  I’m not really sure where these voices come from. But I did buy a very nice dress with my second pay check (I sent the first to my mum, better a decade late then never). This dress actually started an interesting chain of thoughts. The symbolic First Purchase.

The idea swirling tumbled out something about our society. Something about desires. Something about positional treadmills. Something about asymmetry of voice.

It reminded me of that quote from british economist Tim Jackson: ‘We spend money we don’t have, to buy things we don’t need, to make impressions that don’t last, on people we don’t care about.‘ He pretty much nails it.

I must’ve thought about it last year when I ambled about Alternative Hedonism (sorry Kate Soper, you got edited out by an over zealous sub). The Christmas consumption spirit gets a fair amourt of air-time in my brain around this time of year.

Sating desires only amplifies them. So what is actually important in life? I have food, home, friends, wine, music, health and work that I adore. And I can buy the things I need in fair-trade, organic, not-screwing-over-anyone-except-my-own-liver options. Anymore and there is the definite danger that I will be sucked into the status treadmill.

I sent the dress back.

But the thoughts keep coming.

Wealth distribution is fucked. This video has been watched 13 million times, and it’s easy to see why. Who the hell is this flaming galah with ten of his own bloody columns?! I’ve watched it three times today, getting steadily more riled up.

But then change ‘America’ to ‘The World’ and that flaming galah is me. I am in the richest 1% of people in the world, according to The Global Rich List. And if you’re reading this on an electronic device you probably are as well.

So what are we meant to do? Does using money mean becoming implicit in the system? Accessory to perpetuating inequality?

I have no idea what ‘economics’ really is. It seems like a sneaky way for powerful people to hide the fact that they are ripping us off. Highly credible academic Jürgen Habermas points out ‘law often provides illegitimate power with the mere semblance of legitimacy’ (1998, p.40). And this remains somehow invisible to us. Another credible academic, Alf Hornborg, said recently ‘any technology that is out of the price range of the average global citizen, probably conceals asymmetry of exchange.’ We get screwed over because we can’t understand the convoluted mechanisms of this abstract money concept. But we also participate in screwing over those with less financial power than us. When we are ignorant. When we buy cheap crap.

5 million deutsche marks

Whether or not one ‘decides’ to buy-into money, you have to admit it is kind of arbitrary. Just a vague promise of things or services in the future. But it can disappear in a puff of smoke, like it did for so many families during the Global Financial Crisis. Or for the Germans in the 192os. On a tenuously relevant note – here’s a photo I took of my friend’s million mark notes collection. Inflation.

Money is unreliable, but it is still everywhere. And bloody powerful. Everyone I’ve asked over the last few days has politely answered that ‘living without money isn’t for me.’ There are a few nice stories of people who have opted out of the financial system, but I’m not sure this would be a viable solution for our forecasted 9 billion co-habitants. I’m not even how sustainable it is for the opt-outers in the long run. Eventually they will need aged care or other services made possible by our financial system. Even though our economy is massively flawed, no enticing alternatives have emerged.

So who has the power to let power go?

I don’t know, but I do believe in education. At least if more people know how the system works there is a chance of more equal power distribution. Maybe I will donate my spare cash to schools. Write to me if you have any better ideas.

In the meantime I’m letting M.I.A. have the last word with her new single Exodus.

 

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Truth and reality

I do solemnly declare that I shall give the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I’ve never really thought much about what the truth is.

But Liv told me there is no such thing.

At face value truth seems quite straightforward. A description of a real object is truthful. But then what is real? Is anything objectively real? Don’t we all subject reality to our past experiences, opinions, judgements? Everything we see and hear goes through our personal filters and the closest we can get is some kind of approximation of each other’s experiences. Some relational truth in shared meaning.

But as Stuart Hall points out: meaning is not straightforward or transparent, facts are regularly passed through representation, changing and shifting significance with context. Meaning is never finally fixed, always approaching but never arriving at Absolute Truth (1997, p.9, his caps).

And Foucault thinks that you can create reality. “All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’”(1977, p.27).  No, I don’t think he was watching ‘the secret’ when he wrote that.

I guess this is kind of obvious in fashion magazines. Clothing designers believe that garments look better on thin models, photographers use thin models, and thin comes to represents beauty. Thin models in magazines, billboards, films. Thin is truly beautiful.

But then of course this is subjected to contestation. Big is beautiful. Black is beautiful. Grazie Vogue Italia.

Nothing and everything is beautiful. You are so beautiful to me. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Is truth in the tongue of the speaker?

Liv thinks that we can try to get closer to an objective knowledge by being honest about ourselves. Making explicit our worldviews, standpoints, contexts and perspectives. Making others aware of the biases in our truths. She explained to me that: ‘Truth like meaning, is always contextual. “Being’ has more to do with that objects are always presented to us within discursive articulations, and never as mere blank – existing – entities. Outside a discursive context objects have no being.”

And then she sent me a poignant if dense quote from Laclau: “…the moment of failure of objectivity is, the constitutive outside of the latter. The movement towards deeper strata does not reveal higher forms of objectivity but a gradually more radical contingency. The being of objects is, therefor, radically historical, and ‘objectivity’ is a social construction. It is in this sense that society does not ‘exist’ in so far as objectivity, as a system of differences that establishes the being of entities, always shows traces of its ultimate arbitrariness and only exists in the pragmatic – and as a consequence always incomplete – movement of its affirmation.” (1990, p.183).

To become more objective, real, truthful is to develop more and more abstract ways of thinking about the world.

Research is a constant quest to become a truthful speaker. But also an understandable and relatable one. Striving to give a true description of how objects really are; how the world really is; controlling for the plethora of experience and attendant values that shape the way we see things, in a way that is relevant and useful to everyday life.

And then finding perfect value-free recipients with whom to share perfect truths. Or creating them/us by igniting reflexivity in society/ourselves.

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The sharing compulsion

Why blog? Why share random thoughts with random people on the internet? Is it ego? Some self important identity project?

I hope not. The reflexive me wants this to be a selfless sharing compulsion aimed at contributing to our human super organism.

I was lucky to go to school in a time and country with an open and thorough(ish) education system. I benefitted from Australia’s government supported primary, secondary and tertiary education and was encouraged to pursue wisdom at every turn. I now have the opportunity to pursue a PhD in Sweden, to my mind, one of the most intellectually stimulating countries in the world.

This is all possible through no great effort on my behalf, the economic structures that enable education are part of current society. My mind belongs to society. Blogging is a small part of sharing the mind that has ended up inside my head. This is one way to shoulder some small intellectual responsibility. In Chomsky’s words: ‘western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.

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Just when I thought I was starting to get my head around some theories…

…Bourdieu makes sure it doesn’t go to my head… ‘the philosophical sense of distinction is another form of the visceral disgust at vulgarity which defines pure taste as an internalized social relationship, a social relationship made flesh; and a philosophically distinguished reading of the Critique of Judgement cannot be expected to uncover the social relationship of distinction at the heart of a work that is rightly regarded as the very symbol of philosophical distinction.’ (1984, p. 500).

from: rayartcenter.org

from: rayartcenter.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For someone who made a career out of academia he does not paint it in a very flattering light. So if, as he thinks, trying to understand the social world is nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt show off intellectual prowess, I guess I’ll take my head to the pub to drink humble beer instead. Happy anti-intellectual Friday!

 

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Is objectivity tarnished by participant sensitivity?

Seeing the world how it ‘really is’ is one of the fundamental aims of any research. Physicists study how matter really exists, biologists how organisms really exist, and sociologists how societies really exist. Studying people and societies is uniquely challenging as any researcher-observer is also part of a society and so must share some (un)conscious assumptions with the society being studied, and so it’s impossible to be as objective about human societies as it is about something further from the self, like cells. Obviously it’s hard to be fully cognisant of the context that we live in.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of being objective, many researchers have had a go at describing societies how they ‘really are’. From Marx’s capitalism, through Simmel’s social structuring and Bourdieu’s cultural capital, social scientists have tried to explain what we do, and why we do it. In the pursuit of objectively understanding human interactions, social scientists have conducted some seriously unethical experiments over the years (see The Top 10 Evil Human Experiments). Thankfully this has resulted in rigorous ethical guidelines that researchers must consider as part of any research. Now, for researchers in my generation, participant sensitivity is a given.

So – I was doing some (ethics approved) research last weekend, working alongside an oral historian, who collects in-depth stories from people to understand how they see the world. I was struck by his sense of solidarity with his ‘informants’, his natural empathy was a boon for eliciting interesting thoughts from our participants. Chatting to him over a knock-off beer I was impressed by his generous world-view and his allowance of everyday agency; he sees people as meaningfully controlling their own lives. This was thrown into stark contrast this week reading Distinction. Bourdieu’s 1984 tome uses both large cultural surveys and interviews to make inferences about the French class system. Bourdieu is disparaging about people’s ability to make choices out of the context that they are socialised in, and is often candidly disdainful of his informants, but he is one of the most widely cited contemporary sociologists. This has made me think about how closely researchers work with people, and how empathy can make us assign more agency than is observable. Perhaps the unsympathetic lens is more objective?

I went back to read Nobody was Dirty and my last sentence is “Credit should be given to individuals’ ability to embrace awareness and reflexivity in the reproduction of consumption practices.” I am now wondering if I only said this because I like my participants and want them(us) to have consciousness of their(our) own actions.

Is there a way to see the world how it really is while still being human?

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I’m really India

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Inventory of items on Kochi Beach

Kochi, formerly Cochin, was my first stop in India. I arrived late and woke to unexpected quiet. Preconceptions of bustling, burly India were subverted by a solar-panel corruption strike. Wandering the empty backstreets I ended up on a nearly deserted beach. It was covered in all sorts of fascinating objects, so I started an inventory.

Cochin beach

Incandescent light bulbs, unbroken: 3
Single thongs in various states of disrepair: 57
Plant matter (kg est): 988
Roma tomatoes, firm but ripe: 0.5
Red onion: 1
Goat carcass: 1
Glass bottles with lids: 14
Glass bottles without lids: 38
Plastic bottles: 21
Messages in bottles: 0
Boys teaching pet dogs to swim: 14
White Labradors resisting swimming lessons: 2
Coconut hulls: 67
Spent WD40 cans: 1
Petrol cans, with lids: 9
Miscellaneous lids: 72
Empty laundry liquid packet: 1
Plastic laundry basket, unbroken: 1
Unidentifiable plastic particles: 6,347
Styrofoam, assorted chunks: 5,217
Lolly wrappers: 245
Funeral sari: 1
Colombo crows: 7
Oversized seagulls: 19
Spare rickshaw parts, rusted: 33
Scooter seat cover, some water damage: 1

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