Category Archives: Academic

Between methods and “inner experience”: The challenges of studying sexuality

In “Eroticism”, Georges Bataille discusses the need for methods and even science when approaching sex and sexuality. He argues that studying such subjective phenomenon, one could quit objective resources: data, methods, and traceability. One could, instead, use as scientific research oneself’s “inner” experience. As human beings, we have all experienced some erotic situation. In this case, it is a matter of how to transmit that knowledge. 

For Bataille, to communicate what one understands as eroticism, a realm close to that of religion, is to admit that “neither philosophy nor science can answer the questions that religious aspirations have set us.” On the other hand, while every scholar is acquainted with erotic experiences as any other human being is, we can neither stop behaving as subjects, not refrain from talking experience:

“My inquiry, then, based essentially on inner experience, springs from a different source from the work if religious, historians, ethnographers, and theologists. No doubt men working in these fields did have to ask whether they could assess the data under their consideration independently of the inner experience which on the one hand they share with their contemporaries and on the other resulted to some degree from their personal experiences modified by contact with the world constituting their fields of study (…)”

Bataille then hints at an alternative, to map “coincidences”:

“This difficulty is a general one, though it is relatively simple for me to imagine in what way my own inner experience coincides with that of other people and in what way it enables me to communicate with them.”

By the end of the book, he ponders on how research difficulties emerge even for those who try to study sexuality from a neutral point of view:

“If we affirm that guilty sexuality can be regarded as innocently material, our awareness, far from seeing sexual life as it is, neglects entirely those disturbing aspects which do not fit in with a clear picture. A clear picture is actually the first requirement but because of this, the truth escapes notice. Such aspects, felt to be accursed, remain in the twilight where are a prev to horror and anguish. By exonerating our sexual life from every trace of guilty science has no chance of seeing for what it is. Our ideas are clarified but at the cost of being blinkered. Science with its emphasis on precision cannot grasp the complexity of the system in which a few factors are pushed to extremes when it rejects the blurred and distinct realities of sexual life.”

Excerpt from:
Bataille, G. (2001). Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

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Reading Stuart Hall in 2017

Two fresh publications feature the life and work of academic and postcolonial thinker Stuart Hall: Familiar Stranger (Allen Lane) and Selected Writings (Duke University Press). Both were reviewed by Tony Jefferson for a recent edition of Theory, Culture, and Society. On Familiar Stranger we find:

“Originally conceived more than 20 years ago as a short dialogue outlining Hall’s intellectual trajectory, it grew to a manuscript of ‘over 300,000 words’(xiv) at the time of Hall’s death in 2014. Schwarz was then faced with a massive editing job and then, after discussing with the publishers, recasting everything ‘as a first-person narrative’(xv). The fact that it reads so smoothly is a testimony to Schwarz’s labour and his ability to ventriloquize Hall: ‘Some parts are verbatim, while many others have been constructed from fragments’(xv).”

Indeed, after reading this first book, it is evident that Hall’s depth and originality feels much untouched, even though Schwarz, the editor, admits in the preface to have worked hard to glue what were actually multiple excerpts. In fact, some parts were actually collected by email or during conversations, as Stuart Hall’s health deteriorated, delaying the book’s launch. The editor’s strategy has made the whole thing make sense as the book reads according to the sequence of Hall’s life in the UK. On Selected Political Writings, it is said:

There are seven essays on ‘The New Left and after’, eleven on ‘Thatcherism’ and three on ‘NeoLiberalism’, which are book ended by a concise contextualising ‘Introduction’ by the editors and an unfussily succinct ‘Afterword’ overviewing ‘Stuart Hall as a political intellectual’ by Michael Rustin. 54 years separate the first and last essay; but you would hardly know it. The themes are those thrown up by the changing political scene: changes in political parties (like post-war changes in the Conservative party, the birth of Thatcherism, the crisis of Labourism, the formation of a new social democratic bloc, New Labour); broader shifts (e.g. in class relations, political commitment, the New Left, racism, the growth of authoritarianism, new times, neoliberalism); and dramatic events (like the Cuban crisis). But the continuity in approach is remarkable.

This remarkable political trajectory is another chapter of the complex genius of Hall’s. In the end of the books, the reader will have witnessed a kind, but profoundly aware individual on the limitations of life in the so-imagined metropolis. At the same time these limitations aren’t enough to stop what turned out to be a strong engagement and frenetic militancy, to the extent that it often overshadowed that of the native inhabitants of the ex-Empire. As Jefferson asserts on Hall’s multiple lives:

Add to this the ‘double consciousness’ of a diasporic intellectual and one can begin to see the origins of an expanded view of the political and impatience with reductive thought of any kind.

The full review can be accessed here. To complete Hall’s deserved revival in Brexit Britain of 2017, a podcast presented by Ben Carrington fleshes out the multiple impressions Hall has caused during his academic life. Here, there are debates on immigration, racism, colonialism, and conscious Marxism that emerge in the voice of his ex-work partners, colleagues, and admirers. It is really worth listening, delivered in a fine-cut radio show in accessible and didactic format for non-UK spectators.

 

Book review: Activism on the web – Everyday struggles against digital capitalism by Veronica Barassi

As we witness phenomena such as Momentum, Labour’s digital assemblage that pushed for Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 General Election, we might want to remove digital activism out of commonplace. Beyond the rhetorics of the “phenomenon”, “social media-led change”, scholars have challenged the actual ICTs penetration in these activist realms by contrasting their relationship with digital capitalism. To what extent can they become bedfellows on what concerns commoditization, immediacy, and “digital labour”? These are central questions for Veronica Barassi in Digital Activism on the Web: Every Day Struggles Against Digital Capitalism.

This is an ethnography of three distinct groups of activists. First, she studies a UK-based initiative aimed at working for a positive image of Cuba, much connected to the UK left. The second one is a young collective battling for better public spaces in Milan. And the third NGO is based in Madrid, with the purpose of promoting politicized ecological discussions.

Barassi sees a gap in critical theories of the digital as they fail to address realistic settings. This could be solved by delving into the political roots of activists/users, inquiring into the self-referential language of the social networks. This failure at going deeper with what activists do, developing a closer look at their history and sense of strategy once on social media, for example. That could reverse the trend of having “thin” approaches to digital activism, as a “thick” approach would be one of more empiricism, cataloguing behaviours, mapping the real intention behind the use of digital assets in the everyday activism. To what extent participants are conscious not only of technologies, but of its implications, such as the evils from digital capitalism.

Indeed, digital capitalism can be a rather controversial concept. Barassi resolves it by furnishing her activist ethnography with three stable notions. By assigning categories such as the “self-centred communication and individualism”, followed by the “user-generated data to profit”, which leads to a discussion on “digital labour”, we are guided through the principles of her exploration. Aware that these areas are also objects of unresolved disputes among scholars, Barassi opens these concepts to further interpretations. In dialogue with similar explorations of networked activism, as seen in Castells (2011) or, more recently, in Gerbaudo (2012), Barassi’s attempt to rethink some of such meanings seems more settled as a kind of anthropological perception.

The author first focuses on activists’ self-projection through digital tools. The book skips normative divides such as the “new” and the “old”, “networked” or “non-networked” movements, as that would be to otherwise confirm a “thin” perception. Instead, We find the interesting idea of media imaginaries. While not necessarily connected with the digital capitalism discussion, we understand, for example, the reasons why a white-male group of activists from the UK has sought to transpose an “ideal” of Cuba to the heart of British politics. Crossing present, past, and future scenarios into the same media imaginaries appears as a key resource for them.

Back to the digital problem, Barassi’s ethnography intends to avoid a techno-determinist approach. For that reason, details on activist organizations emerge here as a priority for the study, as well as discussions on their routines. This conscious focus on the “human” part to some extent contrasts when activists admit that the Internet has” radically changed every day practices” (54);  it does not get clear how exactly this came to happen or to what degree their role as ordinary Internet users coexists with that of activists, or if both remain the same.

Barassi comes to later concede that activists switch between both receptors and participants of the technological agency.  However, likening activists’ opinion on technology with ideas of adoptions or concessions with the digital capitalism discourse seems a bit of a stretch. We risk to naturalize the action of corporate Internet giants, such as Google, by assuming that some of its interventions over people’s lives are not our concessions (browse on it, for example), while other actions (advertising, marketization) are so. The premises according to which one considers what digital capitalism is and where it extends to, how it is perceived, would need a bit more of development, under the risk of becoming too arbitrary.

On the other hand, by interpreting the interplay between activism and digital life through ethnographic data, we learn that activists are prone to negotiate the technological agency along with other values. Technology is the advent that gives a contemporary shape to their gestures, but which does not affect a hard, long-standing political core. Barassi treats this duality very well by allowing the digital discourse to be a  “contested space of meaning” (60). At one level the role of the corporate web is expected and pictured by the activists, at another, this is about each user’s idea of what the digital means to their lives.

Two final points approach the pressures from technology and its effects. The first one is about the “self-centred” nature of social media as an attitude-influencer. We realize that activists are rather critical of the “networked, individualist self” of the web, but that opinion seems to appear marginally, or on a case-by-case basis. In other words, activists might be self-centred, but a narcissist social media does not seem to affect collective processes of meaning and engagement, as they continue to acting as regular users.

On digital labour, insofar as no real consensus exists on this controversial topic, this book does not seem to side with the “techno-optimist” theses. Whether by clicking and liking exists as a type of work or not, digital labour embodies a rather virtual concern to the activists. Regardless of the kind of digital labour we are talking about, participants argue on the creation of a different type of “value”. Eventually, this particular kind of labour will not necessarily follow a capitalist logic, rather, it resembles a  representational goal, aimed at mocking “social worlds”, not necessarily a sort of production system (96).

As seen, activists’ accounts can inform the limits of the digital media usage, but it also sets the limits to scholars appropriation of this topic because it leads them to conform with much subjectivy from each user. Social movements’ action suggest much more complexity of terms such as digital labor, individualism, or immediacy than one would imagine. Therefore I wonder if an ethnographic approach is still what best suits this study. In reality, conversations have better worked to show that discussions on technology happen at a different pace when consumerism and technology are confronted with the activism reality. The book could have been slightly bolder by trying to translate other adoptions or refusals by activists, yet it shows a good use of the ethnographic when it focuses on purpose, rather than to confirm patterns for use of technology. 

It is noteworthy that the author can give a fascinating account from the ground. By visiting meetings, closely talking to activists, or relating to their past or present experiences, Barassi creates a valuable set of data that is captured under non-spectacular, media-oriented circumstances. Pity that the constant reference to “capitalist” discourses seems to lack echo in many of the activists’ testimonials. Instead of “digital capitalism”, activists seem to cope with the pressures of a generic “digital mind-set”, which may rival their old principles and offline loyalties.

The approach for activist magazines at the end of the book gives us a quick glance on how the legacy of struggle is far from being memorabilia. This part deserved to be further extended, perhaps by extracting more discourses from their past and comparing what we have in the present, if this doesn’t make another study. Overall, Barassi’s book has succeeded in demonstrating that, as far as activists acknowledge the pressures to adjust to a world of constant “new” digital capital, they also embody an ambiguous, slow-paced analogic side. In these negotiations, one must not assume that sides – pro or con – will be necessarily chosen. In that sense, Barassi’s book is a balanced and realistically grounded exercise.

 

References

Barassi, V. (2015). Activism on the web: Everyday struggles against digital capitalism. Routledge.

Castells, M. (2011). The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society, and culture (Vol. 1). John Wiley & Sons.

Downing, J. D. (2000). Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements. Sage Publications.

Gerbaudo, P. (2012). Tweets and the streets: Social media and contemporary activism. Pluto Press.