I just read Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq and wrote a few lines #bookreviews
As What's App becomes the standard chat app, I ponder on the app inevitability based on a few McLuhan's insights.
After my PhD, part of my 2018 was dedicated to ensuring that all the research I did in the last three years could come to life.
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.”
Bataille, G. (2001). Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Stuart Hall’s considerable influence in the UK and abroad stems from his cultural, sociological and political trajectories (Back & Moreno Figueroa, 2014; Roman, 2015; Zhang, 2017), as these areas perfectly articulated throughout his life (Solomos, 2014). Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands (Penguin, 2017) is an excellent opportunity to glance over them in both personal and academic terms.
For those who aim to engage with the thought of the famous sociologist, Hall’s memoirs provide available, panoramic guidance. For those, like me, who seek in him the Jamaican immigrant, it is refreshing to see that the man has, in fact, lived in and out the establishment.
In reality, by centring the book’s narrative like that of a “stranger”, an image that Hall kept of himself until later life, editor Bill Schwarz allowed that a stream of conversations could unfold logically. We go through many of the doubts and concerns that spring from Hall’s move from Jamaica and become a witness of his awakening as an immigrant in Britain.
Kind, but mind-blowing, the emotional portraits of Jamaica appear to depict a place stuck in time. Many of these snapshots show how life in the colony is far from an assimilated narrative. Britain continued, by many senses, “present” in modern Jamaica.
The range of everyday situations that derive from Hall’s background is essential reading for anyone interested in seeing how colonialism works. Primarily because it is neither monochrome nor solemn: it was the White British man mocked on the streets of Kingston for its colourful clothes and excessively formal gestures; it was the Jamaicans’ detailed reproduction of the old British class order.
Indeed, Hall refuses to assess colonialism on binary grounds. Instead of “pessimism” (Jhally, 2016), one finds in his accounts a sophisticated dynamic that stirs a set of unrecognised identities. Colonialism is the drainage of other people’s culture and wisdom, as it is a lengthy collection of myths that will serve to probe the invader’s superiority.
The voice of the immigrant that underpins all this is the same of the academic. This is indistinctively a feature of Hall’s work (Ang, 2015). But we cannot stop perceiving how the former overshadows the latter. Tales of his life illustrate much of his theoretical points much more efficiently. For instance, his perception of physical difference, which manifests since his early stages of life (he was “the darkest” of his family). That context can clarify why he struggles in seeing himself as the “bursary-holder, Oxford student”, highlighting the “young colonial” who came to struggle with the vast collection of imperial icons.
This active consciousness of being “the other” while putting his efforts into developing familiarity with the concepts of this adopted nation creates an ambiguous scenario-setting throughout the book. The ability to accept and refuse the status-quo is something recurrent: on one side, Hall contradicts his otherness by engaging with British society at length; on the other, he enlists differences that do not go away.
Questions emerge on the nature of colonial or post-colonial taxonomy, if only for its epistemic view to be challenged. Hall quotes his wife Catherine (Hall) to ask: is Kettering a city in Northamptonshire or the little coast town in Jamaica of his memory? Allegorically, this sort of comparison also serves him to go back and analyse his family’s past behaviour, so black and yet so colonial.
Like many foreigners living in the so-called global cities of our time, Hall stashes away “colonial” moments to disclose them in crucial moments. For him, this continued ambivalence of an immigrant’s consciousness mustn’t reach the level of cynicism but as a by-product of diaspora: “I characterise my particular brand of being ‘out of place’ as the product of a ‘diasporic’ displacement.” Bhabba’s “in-between” or Du Bois’s “double consciousness” are two of the thought-inspiring theories on which he draws during the conversation.
To break away from the early colonial life, to join the ex-Empire, then find himself moving towards a “re-birth” amid post-colonialism are phases of Hall’s life that – amazingly – did not lead to resentment, or at least we don’t know it from the book. Despite the fact that he became the political protagonist and member of the academic elite that we know, his experience seems to have been one of discomfort, mainly when his political life had led him to tacit negotiations that entailed the racial, economic divides in Britain.
Familiar Stranger covers, for instance, the strategic ‘forgetfulness’ of the ex-Empire when new generations of Indian, African, and Afro-Caribbean immigrants arrived in the 1950s. For Hall, nobody could have possibly revived the memory of the British hosts, as they seemed to ask: “Who are these people? Where are they from?” The “disavowal of a collective force” has clashed with the long-dreamed expectation of millions who saw the British land as the promise, as in reality, it was the big “illusion” (a feeling also carried by Hall’s? it does not become not clear).
That the settlement of the colonial experience fails, Hall is aware, but where he dwells more often is on the link with the following decades of hardship, racism. Quoting the late 1950s’ riots as a response, Hall remembers how the “Windrush” generation would find itself continuously reacting to the most blatant racism in the media as a result. Readers might wonder what Hall would have made of 2017’s Grenfell Tower in flames.
Furthermore, the last two chapters of the book try to harmonise this back-and-forth journey from colonial to postcolonial, finding a possible projection of England as “home”. Hall lays out the case of Henry James, the White American author. James is one of the few literary names to grasp a broader diasporic side of living in Europe. James’ loyalty to his origins appears in his sense of impersonating a kind of immigrant that fearlessness assesses his position at the heart of the colonial heritage.
Again, we are back to discuss taxonomic choices. Hall’s prefers “British” over “English”, as he sees the latter term being “denied” for someone of his skin colour. By making these exercises of meaning, Halls settles his condition in British society, perhaps as a neutral element. Partner to a white woman; member of UK’s “radical” New Left; a protagonist in academia, these were his safe ports, as he categorically asserts: “I wanted to change British society not to adopt it”.
Nonetheless, some questions remain: Is complete integration, as we know, as Hall knows it, still a viable or replicable experience? How do we remember a younger generation of colonial or post-colonial taxonomies and repertoires in the age of identity-based positions? What place has the immigrant’s truth amid the ever-reproducing colonial myths? Is Hall’s genuine independence of mind still available for us, 21st -century immigrants in the UK and elsewhere?
Living the adopted reality without “giving himself away” is Hall’s inspiring tale of his life as an immigrant, from which we learn his unique mode of diasporic thinking (Rizvi, 2015).
In times of turbulence for immigrants around the world, and migratory journeys to Britain made increasingly harder (to be worsened after Brexit), Familiar Stranger enlightens on the impossibility of integration. As Eric Hobsbawm also mentions: A Polish man migrating into the UK will be a Polish man in the UK, not a new arrival to the “community”.
In the face of a wide range of limits imposed to any idea of one’s insertion in contemporary, cosmopolitan society, within and outside cultural borders, Hall’s reassessments can inspire a broader reflection on the everlasting effects of colonial taxonomies. This is seen to this date: the detachment (or forgetfulness) of the British locals on crucial aspects of their legacy around the world, as well as the detachment of the new immigrants of their adopted nations’ past.
In both cases, Hall’s voice still tells us that settling down in a foreign land should not drive one’s acceptance of inherited meanings as a given, but an invitation to adequately and moderately challenge them as they manifest in the everyday routine.
Ang, I. (2016). Stuart Hall and the tension between academic and intellectual work. International journal of cultural studies, 19(1), 29-41.
Bhabha, H. K. (1996). Culture’s in-between. Questions of cultural identity, 1, 53-60.
Back, L., & Moreno Figueroa, M. (2014). Following Stuart Hall. City, 18(3), 353-355.
Hall, S. (1993). Culture, community, nation. Cultural studies, 7(3), 349-363.
Hall, S.; Schwarz, B. (ed.) (2017) Familiar Stranger: A life between two islands. London: Penguin.
Roman, L. G. (2015). ‘Keywords’: Stuart Hall, an extraordinary educator, cultural politics and public pedagogies. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. 36 (2), 161-170
Rizvi, F. (2015). Stuart Hall on racism and the importance of diasporic thinking. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 36(2), 264-274.
Solomos, J. (2014). Stuart Hall: articulations of race, class and identity. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37(10), 1667-1675.
Zhang, L. (2017). How to understand Stuart Hall’s “identity” properly?. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 18(2), 188-196.
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.
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.
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.