Reflexively Indefensible

It comes on you slowly. The rage is all heat sweats. It has no immediate, single identifiable source. Uncomfortable family conversations. A devious implementation at work, one that is inarguable but also clearly unjust. A bad traffic encounter.

The heat sweats build, droplet by droplet. Condensation misting up the windows, until it gets so bad that you have to stop driving and wipe it away.

The clear view outside offers no respite. Grey in all directions and rapidly misting up again. You move on.

In 2014 it wasn’t immediately clear that publishing a book with the rage left in was the right thing to do. In 2017 it seems obvious. What I did with my book Small Towns, Austere Times, was try to show you how it feels when your class interests are being attacked and the attackers are being protected: This is how I have felt all my life.

Except this time, in my first book, Small Towns, Austere Times, the working class interests are being protected and the middle class ones are being attacked.

Now we see how the stifled rage of this situation was felt all over, not just by a researcher returning to his ‘home town’, whatever that means, and messily trying to make sense of it, but by everyone.

I ‘toured’ the book, for want of a better word, it sounds ridiculous. I received uncomfortable reactions. Then in Durham, at the Anthropology of Britain conference, I was told that a community group and some supportive Anthropologists were ‘furious’ with the book.

Welcome then, all of you, to rage. I sometimes wonder whether I should have done a nice little neat number and got a nice little neat academic position.

But I also sometimes wonder whether I should have opened the book with the following sentence: ‘This is a full declaration of class war’.

But I can’t inhabit that. It sounds ridiculous. It feels ridiculous. We all live among the smashed fragments, the broken middle.

However, in this book I still inhabit the symptoms of the class I emerged from. Maybe I should seek psychoanalysis and gain full pathological accreditation for my journey to The Other Side.

I definitely dumped a bunch of writhing psychological eels on all of your desks, with all their complex aromas, for very particular tastes. Lacan made a comment that children were, at a certain stage of development, ‘eggy’. Neither cultured nor uncultured by language. Neither raw nor cooked. This book is served neither raw nor cooked. It was semi-intentionally half-prepared in a university kitchen, before being delivered, undigestable for some, a delicacy for others.

The book is an intentional blistering sore. One of my respondents recently said of the book:

‘I admire the result and your ability to explain it, but there is something I am not convinced by, about how you have distinguished the target and measured out the anger and grief. I’m not clear in reading the book that you justify the public and half suppressed rage you direct at those involved. It feels like the rage is bigger than the identified target and therefore something else isn’t being identified – that perhaps stands behind the target – in this sense the question for me is not about whether angry ethnography and writing is justifiable, but about how accurate the investigation and diagnosis are, of the emotional responses of anger, rage and joy.’

I agree with much of that. I wasn’t fully aware of this dimension of the book, even when it came out.

The book is a living and livid sign of what happens if you consciously expose the psychological bare wires of research, but in trying to do that, you also semi-consciously expose your own attempt to cover some of that exposing, processes that will be at play in all research, at some level.

Or rather, processes that are usually more successfully concealed. I actually now think that if I have made a contribution to knowledge with this book, that is it.

The same respondent I just quoted called me an ‘impolite ethnographer’. I think ‘bloody rude’ fits better. In this book, I protect my own class interests and attack others. I am from the town I research, I went to its terrible secondary school and I watched my parents get by on twelve hour shifts before the minimum wage existed, in a house without much in it, that we were only in because the council decided to revoke a condemnation and sell it off for very little. They grew up surrounded by real rural poverty, in Warland, up the road, in houses you could only honestly call ‘hovels’, with stone floors. They are now desirable places to live.

But my work is not authoritative because of this either. I am very clear that ‘being from’ does not give me that. It is nervous, shaking, troubled. That is what ‘being from’ gives me. However, I think this is precisely what gives my book its legitimacy.

One universal about small town research is the base level ‘mood’ – in Heidegger’s sense of that word – that people do not like other accounts of ‘their town’. Todmorden is not ‘my town’, it never was, despite a traceable ancestry to the start of record-keeping. It isn’t now and it never will be.

This book is not necessarily mine now either, even though I take full authorial responsibility for it.

But that word in my respondent’s account: ‘justifiable’; justifiable to whom? The middle classes? Dear middle classes, this book is what happens when an ‘indigenous’ – I don’t like the word, in fact I hate it – tries to make work on your terms, in your project, and fails, but then offers that failure as the work.

Michael Keith has described how ‘angry writing’ is routinely excluded from academia, emotion is not just discouraged, but taboo. He also argues that in many ways the ethnographer is always already unethical. I agree with all of that.

Michael has addressed ‘the manner in which academic protocols fraudulently prohibit certain textual strategies whilst celebrating others’, that ‘in focusing on aesthetics, reflexive anthropologists evade rather than resolve questions both of ethics and of epistemology’ and that this ‘can be understood in terms of the responsibility of the author or scriptor with reference to the presence of anger in academic prose’.

Michael then outlines his urge to question ‘the manner in which anger routinely disqualifies writing from academic status.’

He says ‘what angers me about ethnographic work generally is that a sustained vogue for reflexivity so commonly casts a crisis of representation’ over everything and that the ‘smugness of the academy sits comfortably beside ostentatious angst over the academic method.’

‘Reflexivity’ he says, ‘decays into narcissism.’

‘What angers me specifically’ he says, is ‘that in the identity crises of everyday rites of credentialism’ academics ‘cast themselves as an “Other”, pursuing an elusive vogue in social theory, sociology, or, perhaps this week, anthropology.’

But for Michael none of this is ‘a passport to a ringside view of the exotic nor a form of methodological avant gardeism.’

He goes on to explain a moment where he recorded a number of racist dialogues from the back of a police car without intervening. He calls this ‘indefensible’, but adds, with bitterness and irony, that it was ‘reflexively so.’ If his work was reflexively indefensible for not intervening and naming, I wonder if my work is reflexively indefensible for doing so, or is that its rather sharp point?

What is clear is that many of the mainstream respondents think that the anger in my book disqualifies it from academic status.

It is not that they don’t have the ears to hear, it is much worse than that: They don’t have it mapped into the fibres and sinews of their bodies, it isn’t pulsing through their nervous systems like a disease.

Asking one to not live in one’s symptoms was in many ways what bourgeois modernity was all about. I inhabit my own symptoms and that is viewed as a disgrace.

But extreme caution must be exercised here: When the classed and gendered subject returns and offers their own pathologies as something that is indistinguishable from a kind of exclusive belonging, as a kind of entitled ethnocentrism, alarms bells should ring.

A former colleague is now researching me as a kind of exploded classed subject. I’m in her research, which is as interesting for me as for her.

The targets of my book do cover a bigger, more un-touchable, much more painful blister. A bigger set of targets. A couple appear in my book. They place willow woven garden tools against the walls of a ruined former health centre that is about to be turned into a supermarket, which actually never arrives. Another blistering sore, from anyone’s perspective.

This couple were militating in their own symbolic way against unseen powers, global powers, and they were militating in the local. Those powers were bigger than themselves and bigger than the ruined health centre.

That was probably around 2011, and now, in 2016, the Referendum on EU membership and the US election. It was a misrecognition becoming culture, the placing of those willow tools.

But I misrecognised my own rage too. I was them and they were me, at the same time as they seemed like my opposite. The neo-Nazi in my book was the same. The presentation of semi-concealed fury in the book, directed at certain targets, but not others, was offered as political honesty, but I must add to my conscious attempt to simultaneously conceal and reveal, a semi-conscious attempt to reveal and then belatedly conceal my own class anger and bitterness: An even bigger rage, a vaster grief and a longer mourning for a perceived lost stability that never existed; now everyone is doing it.

It’s the ‘new thing‘ although Hegel might call it a kind of negative geist, or Spinoza ‘the sad passions’.

The book had to come out in the form it did, for those processes to come to the surface. They were only retrospectively diagnosed.

If it had lain unpublished it would have lain undiagnosed, by myself or anyone else. It had to ‘come out’ in all senses. We have just seen an outing on a national scale. An exorcism.

Then we looked to America and saw it there too. Now it is all over the west. I think even if you are a highly ‘ethical’ researcher coming into my book, ethical in that you’ve done all the right things, as our institutions tell us to right now – not my version of ethics – then you won’t be spared in there. You won’t walk through unscathed, and that’s the point. That is the journey I want everyone to take. We are all in the broken middle, not just our ‘subjects’. It is supposed to be both troubled and troubling, it can be no other.

There are ramifications for departmental ethics here. The ethical confessional is at the wrong end of the church. It is by the door where you enter: It should be at the back as you leave; I am going in neither end.

In Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah there’s a scene in a barber’s shop, where the respondent can’t go on, but Lanzmann makes him. The story must be heard, for the future. Asking if this was or wasn’t ethical in some binary way is mad.

Ethical decisions are messy and bloody, they are not the imposition of some a priori agreed behaviours.

In Todmorden, during research, I sat and listened to a disgraceful speech about how the working classes cause all the damage in town, followed by a claim that a bunch of hippies who run a limited company provided ‘earth care from cradle to grave’, as the real ‘care’ was being badly done by a besieged and privatised NHS.

I think including that scene was both reflexive and ethical. Most universities wouldn’t agree. But many universities can no longer be called universities.

But then recently, I remembered how my aunt died. She choked to death in front of her husband, because of a misdiagnosis by a useless doctor who still practices, in Todmorden. And when that memory was retrieved, in fact just as it was forming, before it fully arrived, I felt the exact same swell of rage I felt at that talk, during research.

There is one misrecognition that has seemed to be difficult to shake, and I am hoping it will get easier now: What I have been trying to tell you all along is not whether green growing is a good thing or a bad thing; what I have been trying to tell you is what happens to the social under deracinated forms of localism.

Back then, there was casual everyday racism and horrible comments about migrants, now, to invoke Beck’s methodological nationalism, we have just uprooted ourselves again by one entire scale. We have retrenched to ‘the island’. Back then, there was a neo-Nazi, who I showed a picture of posing with guns, in front of swastikas and reproductions of romantic landscapes in oil, from his public blog, to a room in Sunderland with only fifteen academics in it, and got a pompous bollocking for it, and now there’s a savage spike in racist abuse and the MP Jo Cox is dead.**

If you really don’t get it by now and you are still angry with me then there is nothing more to do.

Britain is now the place for an anthropologist: I don’t count myself as one; but it is the place for an anthropologist because it is a land of sheer contradiction. Britain is a series of hubs in a global network of trade and finance, some of them offshore, oil rigs and so far Gibraltar and other strategic nodes. Yet the inhabitants just narrowly voted to impossibly make the border of the island contiguous with the border of the nation state.

This will be impossible. It was partly a vote for safety out of psychological fear when the results will only bring its opposite. Like Setha Low’s book on gated communities, fear of the other is only increased by distance and enclosure. I am convinced that a large part of this mess can be attributed to the fact that not everybody is educated to understand that the coastline and the nation state are not quite the same thing.

In the media, some maps of the Referendum voting results were presented in blue and yellow. 48% voted to remain, around 52% voted to leave. But what if we mapped the island’s voting in 48% and 52% grey? We would get a visual ash cloud, covering everything. 48% and 52% grey are almost impossible to tell apart.

But don’t get them confused, because that would be to invite trouble, and at exactly the same time, 48% and 52% grey are as opposite as black and white.

This is no riddle. There is no contradiction here. This grey is now the political hue of the entire island. It is a more accurate map than the blue and yellow ones: This is my particular dialectical take on things.*

The Leavers voted for the binary dream of an island cut off from the EU and in doing so they potentially brought the EU much closer. By triggering a second Scottish Referendum, they may have already placed a new un-moated EU nation right at their borders. How easy do Leave voters think that border will be to police? Without boat patrols and radar? Myriad individuals fleeing across the wilds, tunneling. After making a much easier trip to Scotland on an EU ticket, entry to England should be a cinch. That Leave-voting Cumbria will get these escapees first gives me some pleasure.

But these internal divisions could be seen immediately after the general election in 2015. Manchester wanted to secede to Scotland and if you believe Paul Mason’s new map of the island the day after the general election results, Scotland to Norway.

What is happening is very complex, but the big point to hold to here is that the attempt to block out the nightmare of otherness, to put walls between ourselves and the other, only ever brings the other closer.

Here we can add to the skill and craft of the anthropologist that of the psychoanalyst. I strongly suspected the result would go for Leave. The work I did on the Future of Cities project for the Government Office For Science mapped testimonies to ‘Britishness’ or ‘Englishness’: The picture we have just seen, erroneously recorded as ‘rural versus urban’ in the media recently, was already under that data, which was processed by Sundas Ali, not myself.

In the small town I wrote about, a large part of the working class subjects are post-industrial. ‘Rural’ is a confused and abused paradigm that is often applied to Todmorden.

A very large number of people turned out to vote on European Union membership who wouldn’t usually. This might give me pleasure, but this was a political bonfire of old rotting wood, of bitterness and resentment. 72-3% heat, with a 48-52% grey ash cloud. Choking, spluttering.*

There is now a politicised mass as well as a political mess, but what was clear about that vote is that the nation is split. Its psyche is divided into two warring halves.

One thing is certain. The new working class politics, if we can even call it that, is not going to be ideologically internationalist. Global powers rule them, they cannot see those powers, but they rightly loathe the effects of those powers in terms of how they play out in their lives.

This just happened at an island level, then we saw how the rage of it had been stifled all over the globe. I only showed it happening at the level of a small town, in myself as well as in those I encountered.

There isn’t necessarily a positive here, but where is it written that there needs to be one? Surely the bourgeois demands such things of the subjugated in order to continue that subjugation?

Opening it out, dissecting the sick social body and pinning the folds back to see what is at stake, what is eating at the organs, and negating, cutting so that we might return a more lively body than the one that went under, perhaps that is really all we can do.

It probably isn’t utopia as most academics think of it, but perhaps it is the only place the toxic masculine classed subject can go to.

Notes

Hanson, S. (2014) Small, Towns, Austere Times, the dialectics of deracinated localism. London: Zero.

Keith, M. (1992) ‘Angry Writing’, in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Vol 10, Issue 5. London: Sage.

* I made these points more fully in a small post-referendum book called Clocking Off, published by Fold Press.

** It is possible to argue that fifteen academics in a room is a big audience: The book hasn’t sold a hundred copies yet, and the month after appearing live on Radio 4 to discuss it, it sold ten copies worldwide, before returning to 0, +1 or minus figures each month (Zero charge me for review copies).

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