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Victor Frankenstein’s Banquet

November 3, 2014

Elliot Rose:

I wrote this a little while ago, on attitudes towards GM technology, and how conventional opposition is more usually based on sensationalist ideology rather than engagement with the difficult complexities involved. Some time after Greenpeace signed their name to an open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, arguing against having an EC chief scientific advisor. Rather than have the selection process open to scrutiny (so that those with corporate affiliations – and therefore conflicts of interest – would find it harder to be appointed) and have their  advice publically published (for similar reasons) the letter – signed by 9 organisations (including, for some reason, the “Cancer Prevention and Education Society”) – argued against the very position of a scientific advisor. Their sop to the necessity of evidence-led, scientific advice was that advice could come from “a variety of independent, multi-disciplinary sources….” In short: lobbying. I’m perhaps being cynical, but it’s the multinational corporations who really have the power when it comes to lobbying, not groups like Greenpeace, since they have more money to throw at the issue (and a charity should really spend its money on the cause it was founded to deal with, not meetings with bureaucrats).

Originally posted on Unfortunate Conflict of Evidence:

Perhaps I’ve just misunderstood Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: the point I took away has always been that it is essentially Victor’s own fault that his creation becomes monstrous. His disgust, rejection and eventual fear initially creates and then subsequently sustains the creature’s sense of alienation, which in turn creates its hostile reaction both to him and to the world in general. Surely it’s therefore slightly odd, and yet rather apposite, that genetically modified organisms are so often referred to as “Frankenstein foods”. The phrase is thrown around a lot, and is clearly chosen because it sounds scary and creates the appropriate rhetorical effect that the speaker wishes to evoke.

But it is appropriate because the instinctive and emotive reaction by some to the prospect of genetically modified food and organisms is inherently counterproductive and only invites problems later on. Many people seem to loathe the idea of GMOs and resist them at every turn…

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SSPT Profiles – Elliot Rose

October 24, 2014

Over the coming weeks we will be publishing a series of profiles of the fine graduate students whose hard work makes the journal possible. The idea is to give an insight into the research being conducted by all of us, in what is hopefully a more interesting and revealing format than those short university bios that everyone has and nobody reads. Sort of like an answer to that question, ‘so, what is your research on’, if you were asked in the pub and happened to have a laptop to hand.

My name is Elliot and as (outgoing) web editor and one of the people pushing to get people to add to this blog it seems only right I stick my head above the parapet and do so myself.


My research concerns the idea of human nature, and in particular the various ways in which people have articulated this idea in relation to the social context. Human nature, the notion of what human beings (“naturally”) are, continues to be a contentious concept, not least because it has so often been used to ground normative claims about society – “that’s just human nature” is a common rhetorical trope. Human nature is often seen as monolithic and inflexible, a hard determination of what we are, and on these grounds used as a oratorical court of appeal. Conversely many make the claim that not only are such notions inextricably influenced (almost “tainted” or “infected”) by socially inculcated norms and values, but that this social milieu, coupled with a supposed human plasticity, effectively overrides any innate dispositions, and “human nature” is thus whatever society makes it in a given time and context. There is consequently a widespread tendency to ignore the issue of human nature, or repudiate it as ideologically suspect, just as much as there is a tendency to blindly appeal to it in suspect ways.

This can be problematic because many philosophers, sociologists and political theorists do in fact make assumptions about what people are – they generally presume something about human capacities, proclivities and responsivity, and how these fit into their higher-order work on society. In short, they start with a broadly acceptable philosophical anthropology, in many cases tacitly and without acknowledgement. However coherent the resulting social or political theory may be in itself, these tacitly held conceptions of human nature may not reflect reality at lower strata. It might be that human beings are not sufficiently rational to be Homo economicus (and all the evidence suggests they are not); or that their need for a sense of themselves within a community comes not from their relations to their product, but from an animal desire for affection and friendship.

My work has therefore been directed at human nature theories: how human nature is construed by theorists, where they look for it, and how they integrate their view of it with their view of society. I am primarily interested in the stratification of approaches. Some look for deep roots, a metaphysical or biological rule that governs the formation of human nature – an algorithm of human existence. Others attempt to explain human life in terms of “holistic” analyses of politics (although here I’m using “politics” as a shorthand for an array of economic, social, cultural and political approaches, depending on the theorists’ interests), only dipping into the lower strata when they need to posit a response on behalf of individual agents. In between these is a panoply of strata, incorporating neural systems, individual psychology and desire, interpersonal behaviour, group psychology, and the movements of socio-cultural formations/entities.

Once we acknowledge this stratification of approaches to human nature we can begin to see that it is it not the monolithic, inflexible caricature, nor is it the infinitely flexible tabula rasa, but is in fact an active and contested field of enquiry in its own right. Furthermore I would argue that not only does the binary division not exist, but many who would deny the existence of human nature routinely employ their own conception of it in their work (indeed it could be argued that their work is one way to approach human nature, given the social and political nature of the human animal). These two positions – roughly analogous to the nature vs. nurture division – in fact represent divergent approaches to the strata that make up human existence, rather than an actually existing binary opposition between competing, mutually-exclusive causal influences.

Gary Larson - Far side

Gary Larson – Far side

Significantly, the denial or deferment of a discussion of human nature also leaves social and political theorists bereft, not only of empirical checks or verifications of the underpinning anthropology of their discipline/theory, but also of potentially useful materiel for their own efforts. This is the argument I want to put forward in the later stages of my thesis. Human nature can be viewed as raw material, which is tempered and shaped by politics, and a better understanding of it can inform decisions relating to our attainment of political ends. (Marx and Freud can both be seen as examples of this position, and their thinking, perhaps ironically, forms much of the theoretical background of positions that ignore or are hostile to the very notion of human nature.) As an example, if we understand the underlying cognitive processes behind in-group/out-group identification, then we might shed light on both the pervasiveness/persistence of ideological self-identification and the potential means to direct it away from harmful (exclusionary) political formations.

This is the position I’m currently in. I think the importance of the study of human nature is highlighted by political scientist Gary Olson, who argues is Empathy Imperiled that the empathetic capacity of human beings is being reduced to the bare minimum by our culture, and what is left is carefully managed to create corporate “brand awareness” and patriotic fervour, whilst being directed away from actual ethical issues. Reclaiming empathy is, on this view, a political project ultimately aimed at reclaiming something important about human nature itself. But empathy is in turn part of this process: it is a tool for recognising the plight of the other and, through this recognition, the realities of our political landscape. This is why I think talking about human nature is important, but first it looks like we need to rethink how we formulate our own theories and ideas about what it is, and what we are (and can or could be).

SSPT Profiles – Richard Weir

October 17, 2014

Over the coming weeks we will be publishing a series of profiles of the fine graduate students whose hard work makes the journal possible. The idea is to give an insight into the research being conducted by all of us, in what is hopefully a more interesting and revealing format than those short university bios that everyone has and nobody reads. Sort of like an answer to that question, ‘so, what is your research on’, if you were asked in the pub and happened to have a laptop to hand.

As editor I have the unenviable task of going first. I hope you enjoy and don’t forget to keep checking back for profiles written by people whose research is far more interesting than my own!


For the most part my PhD has followed a course that I am sure will be familiar to many doctoral students. I began working on a quite specific topic that I had originally become acquainted with during my undergraduate, and gradually became increasingly frustrated with almost everything written on the subject until I decided that it was all wrong and that a fresh start was needed.

The specific topic in question is generally known as collective intentionality—a subject with either a very short or a very long backstory, depending on how you choose to look at it. The long story situates the idea within a line of questioning that has festered at the heart of social theory, in all of its guises, for the best part of the last century and a half: If we are trying to examine and understand society, what exactly are we looking at? What are the units of analysis? And what does it mean to do something socially or collectively? On the other hand the short story only goes back 20 years or so, and points to the foundational work of several key authors (most notably John Searle, Margaret Gilbert, Raimo Tuomela, and Michael Bratman), who started talking about the idea of collective intentions as a possible response to the methodology that had come to dominate mainstream sociology at the time: individualism. Where the latter posited that when studying society the only units of analysis available to the theorist were individuals, collective intentionality argued that the ability of individuals to form intentions that did not relate to them only as individuals, but ranged over groups of which they were members, meant that groups could very often be valid objects of study in their own right.

As some see it, one of the biggest problems for this theory is how little of individualism it actually wants to give up. While the whole point of collective intentionality is to provide a basis for a sound alternative methodology, this soundness is achieved by giving up as little of individualism as possible (individualism being perceived as lacking in numerous respects, but ultimately a solid foundation), and steering clear of the strongly collectivist areas of thought that John Searle described as ‘ontologically mysterious’.

While I share these reservations, I do not feel that they strike at the heart of what is truly unconvincing about the idea of collective intentionality. After all, the attempt to carve a middle path between the two extremes of individualism and collectivism can easily be seen as the field’s greatest strength. I share the intuition that an answer to the question of what it means to act collectively is only going to be found in this fertile and hazy ground between individuality and the loss of that individuality wholly to the collective. The far bigger problem, as far as I am concerned, is that the idea of collective intentionality is completely unequipped to explore this murky territory, as much as it might desire to do so.

This problem is masked by frequent references to the term ‘we’. Thus, virtually every analysis of these supposedly collective intentions involves, at some level, some reference to ‘we’ (either the respective individuals in the collective think of themselves as a ‘we’ or their own individual thoughts make a reference to ‘we’ such that they are all linked). However, these references to ‘we’ are never themselves analysed. As such, what is missed is that the term ‘we’ is itself ambiguous between either an individualistic or collectivist reading. In other words, collective intentionality seeks the middle ground between the individual and the collective by relying on intentionality that makes reference to ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, but talk of ‘we’ is already suggestive of precisely this middle ground and requires its own analysis. The question that collective intentionality set out to answer has, therefore, been merely sublimated.

It is this critique that is the dominant focus of the first few chapters of my thesis (the chapters within which I find myself perennially stuck). I agree that individualism offers a thoroughly unsatisfactory analysis of society. And I agree that our analysis ought to be formed on ontologically solid foundations. But, I argue, it is because collective intentionality as an idea seeks to bypass crucial questions of subjectivity that must be at the heart of any such ontology that it fails. It fails to grapple with the question of what it means to be the possessor of an intentional state and what it would mean for a group, that is for a ‘we’, to be such a possessor. In no small part this is because, in taking individualism as its foundation, collective intentionality as an idea tends to take for granted the individual as the sovereign seat of subjectivity and casts off any suggestion to the contrary into the category of Searle’s ontologically mysterious collectivists.

In coming towards the latter stages of my PhD my focus has now turned towards offering some preliminary responses (or perhaps ‘gestures’ would be the more accurate description) of my own to these questions of subjectivity that I feel have been neglected. In this regard my work has followed what I view as two largely distinct, but complimentary trajectories. The first is focused on several fringe authors in the field who have tried to tackle questions of subjectivity and argue, at least in part, for its extension to groups (most notably Carol Rovane and Michael Bacharach). This work, I believe, can point us in the right direction, but unfortunately falls short in several key respects. The second trajectory is guided by my increasing conviction that only a phenomenologically minded approach can deal with the inherent ambiguity involved in thinking and acting collectively. In particular I have become fascinated with the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the idea of body intentionality. Some of this work is now being taken up in the cognitive sciences under the guise of embodied cognition, albeit in an inevitably watered-down way, and has begun to exert quite a lot of influence amongst those concerned with collectivity. What is crucial for me, however, is that this way of thinking allows us to begin to theorise both thought and subjectivity as features that are intrinsically extended out into the world. It allows us to detach these concepts from the sovereignty of the individual and therefore move further away from the limiting tenets of individualism that have had a largely negative impact on theories of collective intentionality to date.

So that is where things currently stand for me. In all likelihood, and if the past is anything to go by, I will have changed my mind completely by the end of the week. However, and as that most important of deadlines looms (the one where they won’t give me any more money), I hope to try and stick to the script- no matter what!

RW

Seminar Series – Autumn 2014

October 6, 2014

We’re pleased to announce the programme for the CSPT research seminar series for Autumn 2014. All are very welcome to attend. Please visit the weekly seminars page for more information. You can download the programme as a PDF file here.

Centre for Social and Political Thought Research Seminars: October 3rd, Lucy Finchett-Maddock (Sussex): ‘Protest, Property and the Commons – Being Naughty with Law’.

October 1, 2014

Dear Everyone,

For our inaugural research seminar we are hosting a talk by Lucy
Finchett-Maddock (Sussex University) on the subject “Protest, Property and the Commons – Being Naughty with Law’.

The Seminar will take place on Friday, October 3rd in Arts A108 from
15:00-17:00. All are welcome. Please find attached an abstract of the talk:

‘Protest, Property and the Commons – Being Naughty with Law’
In this seminar will be discussed the central themes of the upcoming monograph ‘Protest, Property and the Commons: Performances of Law and Resistance’ (Routledge, 2015). Emanating from a PhD thesis on squatting in London, the central elements of the book are concerned with the manner in which state law manifests itself and is used in resistance movements, as well as the other way around; the constitutional understanding of law as the law of the peoples originating with its constituents and in resistance itself. By choosing to focus on squatting and ‘social centre’ movements, the role of ‘occupation’ of space and place in understanding the construction of property is important, whereby literature on both spatial and temporal understandings of law and resistance are most useful in seeing the movement of law within struggle and vice versa. What has become clearer, by thinking law and resistance as a series of performances (and through using poststructuralist as well as posthumanist performativity theories), is the inevitable importance of not only space but time (or indeed ‘space-time’) in the institutionalisation of protest as it becomes forms of legality, most lucidly property as the focus on squatting and social centres describes so clearly. Recent work on liminality and ‘naughtiness’ will be referred to in order to elucidate these movements between resistance and law, and their theatrical, oft mischievous elements.

CFP: Studies in Social and Political Thought Annual Conference, “Extremes and Extremism”

March 18, 2014
by

Studies in Social and Political Thought Annual Conference June 5th 2014. University of Sussex.

 

Theme: Extremes and Extremism 

 

Keynote Speaker: Prof. Andrew Bowie

 

Call for Papers.

 

Extremes and Extremism of many different forms have become central questions of social and political thought in the past few years. Often a way to discredit an opponent or social movement, to be in the extreme has carried with it many loaded connotations. The rise of both the far right and far left have challenged the liberal consensus of political pragmatism. Taken together with the ‘war on terror’ and the perceived necessity of austerity, governments have sought ever more extreme measures. The recent NSA and GCHQ revelations demonstrate the lengths governments are willing to go in the name of national security. Austerity legislation in many countries has been seen as an attack on the most vulnerable. The reactions to these measures, in the wake of the financial crisis, have included mass protest, political gains for parties on the margins and a huge increase in state sponsored violence.

 

To say that we live in times of extremity appears to be a way of shifting meaning and understanding into pre-existing intellectual discourse. To for example label the Assad regime in Syria as extreme does not aid greater understanding but perhaps merely pushes discourse into ideology. To counter terrorist organisations by describing them as forms of extremism does not illuminate but rather makes opaque the reasons behind such organisations.

 

Extremes and extremism cannot only be seen in terms of the obviously political; philosophically the idea of the extreme is well documented and can be seen in writes as diverse as the Stoics, Nietzsche and Marxism. It could also be argued that economic theories such as Hayek could be understood in extreme terms.

 

We are therefore seeking papers of around 20 minutes that will engage theoretically and practically with central concepts of extremes and extremism, and their relationship with the social, economic, or political manifestations. We will also accept papers that do not deal exclusively with the main topic of the conference but are engaged with issues in the general area of social and political thought.

 

Possible approaches include, but are not limited to:

 

Liberalism and Political Theory, Political Parties, Contract Theory, Recognition Theory, Nietzsche, Marxism, Theories of Biopolitics, Instrumental Reason, Critical Theory, Post-Colonialism, Discourse and Democratic Theory, Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, Power and Resistance, Hegemony, Sovereignty, Revolution and Legitimacy.

 

Please send abstracts of up to 350 words to Alex Elliott at, elliottalex64@gmail.com by 20/04/14. Successful applicants will be notified early May 2014.

Howard Caygill’s Gillian Rose Memorial Lecture, Recording Now Available

March 3, 2014

We are pleased to announce that the 2013 Gillian Rose Memorial Lecture, delivered by Howard Caygill, is now available as an MP3.

You can download it via this link or on our Archives page, along with a number of other recordings of guest talks from the Centre for Social and Political Thought weekly research seminar series.

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