SOAS Event, April 5th

“AGAINST THE FLOW: CRITICAL REALISM AND CRITIQUES OF CONTEMPORARY SOCIAL THOUGHT”

School of Oriental and African Studies, room 116
Saturday April 5th

100. – 2.00
John Urry, Prof of Sociology Lancaster University
“Complexity and Climate Change”.

2.15 – 3.30
Jonathan Joseph,
“A Critique of Networks and Flows”
Jamie Morgan,
“The curious agency-structure interactions of financial systems”
Kathryn Dean,
“Dangerous liaisons: new objects, new knowledges, or, the problems of theorising contemporary capitalism”
4.00 – 6.00
Alan Norrie,
“Structure, Flow and First Philosophy”
Nick Hostettler,
“Dialectical Critical Realism, Marxism and Critiques of Network theory: On Continuity and change in the theory and reality of civil society.”
Radha de Souza,
“Networks: Imperialism’s World After its Own Image”.
Ivan Horrocks,
“Revolution, transformation and reinvention: questioning the ‘inevitability’ of e-government”

Significant strands of contemporary social thought affirm a post-modern sense of a rupture with traditional social structures and theoretical traditions. Notably Castells, Lash, Urry, Giddens, Appadurai and Latour. They accord primacy to ‘networks’ and ‘flows’ to capture the nature of a novel mode of life in which previously taken-for-granted distinctions are either being destabilised or have been dissolved.

These forms of theory have are both symptom and cause of the change they describe. They emerged as part of the development of post-war political, military, economic and cultural institutions to become integral to contemporary forms of governmentality, though their capacity to manage real change, notably in the climate, is questionable. As such they need to be subject to ideology critique.

Both critical realism and Marxism can inform such critique, locating network thinking in the tradition of irrealism and by drawing out the continuities with earlier forms of civil society. However, both critical realism and Marxism can also develop through such critiques, deepening our sense of the historicity of categories and relations of modern social formation. Real complexities, for instance, can have implications for established conceptions of causality and for our relations to the natural environment.

For further details, including the full set of abstracts, contact nh8@soas.ac.uk

Abstracts
John Urry       “Complexity and Climate Change”.
This paper examine some major social changes relating to the contemporary conditions of life upon earth. It deals especially with emergent contradictions that stem from shifts within contemporary capitalism, from societies of discipline to societies of  control, from specialized and differentiated zones of consumption to mobile, de-differentiated consumptions of excess, and from low carbon to high carbon  societies. In focusing upon emergent contradictions I am claiming that capitalism is its own ‘gravedigger’. The gravedigging is being brought about by multiple mobilities, ‘excessive’ global consumption and rising carbon emissions that are destroying the global conditions of life upon earth. Marx and Engels wrote how modern bourgeois society: ‘is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’ (1888: 58). I examine below how contemporary capitalism through major emergent contradictions is bringing through climate change: ‘disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger[ing] the existence of bourgeois property’. I argue that examining the array of adaptive and co-evolving complex systems involved here is the best way of comprehending how ‘planet Earth does not generally engage in gradual change. It is far cruder and nastier’ (Fred Pearce).
Jonathan Joseph     “A Critique of Networks and Flows”
The purpose here is not to question the idea that networks and flows exist, but to look at the consequences of overstating their significance. This overstatement occurs when their existence is turned into the dominant condition of today’s society, something expressed in such terms as the ‘information society’ or the ‘network society’ or the ‘economy of signs and space’. In other words, information, networks, flows, scapes and signs are said to be the dominant features of a new type of society distinct from past societies and requiring a radical rethinking of how we understanding social life. In this sense there is something post-modern about this way of thinking in that these societies are said to come after the classical modern type of society. But this periodisation tends to avoid such a term and describes the break from the past not so much as a rupture with modernity as a break from industrial society. Accompanying this is the claim to have moved beyond the key features of industrial modernity including such things as class, the family, collective representations, the nation and the state. Such approaches also question traditional ways of theorising these societies, notably class analysis, feminism, the focus on sovereignty and power politics, state and place and, particularly important for this critique, the idea of social structure. The concepts of networks and flows are brought in to replace these features of modern society. The consequence of these new theories, it will be argued, is not just a failure to adequately analyse contemporary society, but actually to contribute to the reproduction of dominant power relations. This apparent paradox of a theory being at once misleading and yet socially influential will be explained through the notion of governmentality, which I deploy here as a form of ideology critique.
Jamie Morgan.  “The curious agency-structure interactions of financial systems”
Financial systems can be seen as curious kinds of agency-structure interactions where regulation, the design of financial ‘innovations’, patterned behaviour and the accumulation of events create particular opportunities that in turn generate various expectations and opportunities to act. These produce contradictory sets of actions and unintended consequences (for some that others then prey on) resulting in instability. The changes in market liquidity in de-centralised and liberalised finance systems is a typical example of this. Capital flows are less ephemeral and present-centred than a network flow understanding might make them appear.

Kathryn Dean   ‘Dangerous liaisons: new objects, new knowledges, or, the problems of theorising contemporary capitalism’.

This paper approaches theories of a postmodern cast as both symptom and expression of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. The key concepts associated with these theories —  ‘reflexivity’, ‘flows’, ‘networks’ ‘assemblages’, ‘connectivity’ – express the ‘logic of disintegration’ which Peter Dews has noted in relation to postructuralist philosophies. In doing so, they are attempting to capture the nature of a mode of life in which previously taken-for-granted distinctions are either under assault or have been dissolved. This empirical dissolution of distinctions has been made possible by an electronically and technoscientifically enabled neoliberal capitalism and it involves the dissolution of apparently clear chains of causality. In showing that such chains of causality can be artefacts rather than naturally given, Bhaskar’s Realist Theory of Science opened the path towards understanding causality conventionally rather than naturally, or, it implied a political theory of causality understood as a specific historico-cultural ordering of human and nonhuman life. His Dialectics has implied the misleading nature of modern scientific conventions relating to causality. More than this, though, Dialectics can be read as a means of theorising the mode of causality – one which tends to disorder rather than order — which has been emerging from neoliberalism. As such, it is possible that the dialectical version of critical realism is not, or need not be, wholly in opposition to postmodern theories. As a way of developing this thought, the paper will use Bruno Latour’s account of the ‘modern constitution’, described by him as nonmodern, as a means of understanding the inadequacy of modern accounts of causality and, more than this, as a clue to the theoretical distance that has been travelled between critical realism and dialectical critical realism.
Alan Norrie       “Flow and First Philosophy”  One of the main lines of thinking that underlies an emphasis on flow at the expense of structure in modern social theory is that which proceeds from Nietzsche to theorists in a poststructuralist vein such as Deleuze and Hardt and Negri. This paper is an attempt to think through the implications of the Nietzschean foundation to such thinking through a comparison with the approach to ontology taken by dialectical critical realism.

This comparison is carried out by considering different accounts of the Socratic-Platonist foundation of western philosophy. For Nietzscheanism, the pre-Socratic Greek world is the place of Dionysus and the earliest machinations of the Will to Power, a world of becoming rather than being, of process rather than durable atoms, of multiplicities rather than units. This generates a sense of flow and structurelessness that has come to inform an understanding of modern social life and the transformations taking place within it.   But the pre-Socratic world can be understood to be more complex than Nietzscheanism permits, including conceptions of real ontology and structure, alongside and related to process, as permitting conceptions of material generation and change. These too can be related to the present in order to comprehend the modern structuring of flow. The paper takes the form of an analysis of three accounts of the relevance of the Socratic-Platonic transition in western thought, those of Hegel, Nietzsche and Bhaskar, but most emphasis will be given to the latter two in this presentation.
Nick Hostettler     “Dialectical Critical Realism, Marxism and Critiques of Network theory: Continuity and change in theory and reality”
Network theory argues that contemporary social relations have undergone real change, with a transition from the ‘traditional’ social structures of state, bureaucracy, and related economic institutions to new administrative and communicative networks. This change is said to be so radical such that the concepts of Marxism no longer have purchase and that post-Marxist accounts of the new realities are required. The talk will argue that critical realist dialectics and Marxian accounts of capital are essential for understanding both the continuities of capitalist social formation and the genuine novelties of contemporary social forms. It will also argue that such an understanding depends on the dialectical loosening of the categories of Capital.
Radha de Souza,      “Imperialism: A World After its Own Image”.

The prominence of network thinking in social theory was long preceded by its development in the post-war institutions US imperialism. This talk will trace the historical development of network-thinking in military, economic and media institutions. Network thinking became an integral part of the self-understanding of the projects to transform the Imperial core and came to be understood as universally applicable. Imperial projects to institute network thinking beyond the core, however, expose the limits of its universalisability, as they entail coercive confrontations with substantially different and considerably more resistant social forms.
Ivan Horrocks  “Revolution, transformation and reinvention: questioning the ‘inevitability’ of e-government”
A techno-optimist view which basically sees technology as politically neutral and, more often than not, historically inevitable (and is therefore highly determinist), allied with claims for a fundamental shift in economic and social relations – from terrestrial structures and communities of geography to virtual networks and the ‘space of flows’ – has proved symbolically and ideologically crucial to the dimension of the information age ‘paradigm’ that I focus on in this paper: ‘government for the information age’.    My objective is to present a techno-sceptic and realist critique which argues that far from being revolutionary or inevitable the emergence of information age governance follows an institutional and organisational logic rooted in previous periods of rapid social and technological development. Furthermore, it owes more to the awakening – and subsequent political and economic dominance – of neo-liberalism than it does to technology. To illustrate my argument I briefly trace the development of government for the information age from its roots to its current manifestation – e-government. My argument will be that far from representing a new form of government for the information age, e-government promotes certain forms of consumer and managed democracy, advances the control of the policy process by established commercial interests and structures economic and social relations accordingly.

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