John Lanchester’s Crisis in the Classroom

Tutorials with some of the victims of Nick Clegg’s bare-faced lies recommenced today amidst news that the economic recovery rollercoaster is now poised for an unprecedented third dip. The ongoing economic crisis, I reckon, is eventually going to bring an associated terminological crisis into being. How many more dips lie on the horizon? What term should we use to describe a seventh or even a fifteenth dip? Is this the sort of thing which non-repentant macro-economists lose sleep over? Contemporary economic terminology has become undeniably if unintentionally evocative -  I for one find it very difficult to think of the path to recovery and not think of the Euthansia Coaster. Grown ups will will no doubt draw more serious inferences.  

So within today’s session we read John Lanchester’s recent analysis of the nation’s finances together. Lanchester is the author of Capital, a sprawling fictionalised account of crisis-based London life, he is a sort of Marxist of an explicitly empirical persuasion and, thankfully for today’s purposes, he is also an erudite, concise, and above all clear economic commentator. When I grow up I want to be quite like John Lanchester. The article’s main concern is with explaining how, despite the fact that the coalition government’s austerity campaign is failing with respect to it’s own structural deficit management goals, only 28% of the British public are in favour of increased welfare spending. Fraser Nelson has since pointed out that austerity is also demonstrably failing to reduce the debt without much by way of public uproar.

The upshot? The majority of the British public seem opposed to heightened welfare spending, even though government spending is increasing. 90% of the British public believe the national debt is falling, even though it is rising. What is to be made of all this, Lanchester asks? Austerity is not working, economically speaking, but it still seems to be working, politically speaking – such is “the shit we’re in”. It is in keeping with this entry’s fairground-centric tenure to remark that people usually recommend rollercoasters upon emotional rather than technical grounds. 

Lanchester’s article is not without it’s challenges, of course, not least of all in a classroom of students with no more than ten weeks of Higher Education under their belts. So we’re approaching the article with the respect it deserves and the attention it requires. Today we read it together, once, in an effort to attempt to condense it’s 4,507 words into something like an elevator speech. “Austerity: economically redundant, politically expedient”, and variations on this theme, is where we got in the few minutes we had left for discussion. The more interesting discussion awaits. I’ve asked the students to read the article a second and then third time in advance of our next meeting. For the second time, each student will make a note of every single instance where something Lanchester has written is in any way un-clear to them. I proposed the following five headings:

* People

* Institutions and Bodies

* Concepts and Theories

*Turns of Phrase

* Calculations

* Sources of Evidence  

Each student will send their list to me and, once I’ve received a list from each of the students in each of the three groups I run, I will create an aggregate document. I told the students that I counted 21 potential moments of unclarity, spread across the five categories. I guess the figure will come closer to 30 once everybody has gotten their documents in – we’ll see - I’ll post back the results once they’re all in, towards the end of next week. In addition to asking each student to fill out an individual list, I’ve also invited them to propose additional categories and, for the particularly ambitious, to propose an alternative typology. If nothing else, these ambitious counter-typologies will offer us a productive segue way into Borges’ Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’s Taxonomy. We’ll again see!

During our next meeting, then, each student will take responsibility for discussing a particular category in more detail and thereby to describe, and potentially challenge, aspects of Lanchester’s argument, to the rest of the cohort. Once we’ve done this, finally, I’ll ask the students to discuss how the article relates to them as economic subjects, in the abstract, as well as as pedagogical subjects paying for the privilege of discussing austerity, in the concrete. Again, I’ll report back on all of this.

Hard Cash update

The edited book project, Hard Cash, that Stephen Dunne and myself are organizing is entering a new phase.  We’ve got promises (some a little vague so far, but that’s what thumbscrews were invented for) from 18 authors (including several members of CPPE).  Topics range widely as expected, including the strongly empirical, the purely theoretical, the historical, the psychoanalytic and the downright strange.  It’s looking very good.  Any tardy CPPE-ers out there who still want to chip something in can do so, but you better be quick.

The project will be the subject of a two-day workshop on 6th and 7th December this year hosted by ULSM, at which we hope to bring together as many of the authors as possible for a pre-writing exchange of ideas and general party.  Attendance contingent on the promise of a chapter….

Beyond that, the first submission deadline for chapters will be the end of May 2013.  In the intervening period, as well as writing our own sparkling contributions, Stephen and I will be hassling publishers of various stripes in the hope that they will not only publish it, but even give us money – hard cash, of course - to do so.



The Zone

Very interesting essay by architect and theorist Keller Easterling in Design Observer concerning the grwoth and proliferation of ‘The Zone’ – the plethora of urban offshore economic spaces that have developed over the past century or so.  Easterling traces the origins of these spaces back (at least) to the Roman port of Delos which prefigured many aspects of the freeport and the Export Processing Zone.

Although, as she argues, these contradictory ‘sovereign’ spaces are ancient, their contemporary spread is changing the nature of urban space – turning it, as she puts it, into “a mobile, monetized technology”.  Whilst this itself is not new, the spread of these spaces, and the many different forms they now take suggests that any attempt to regulate them will be confronted with such a bewildering array of different ‘zones’ as to be utterly confounded.  Certainly the history of attempts to rein in the excesses of such zones as tax havens and tax shelters (not that it has been particularly robust) is not encouraging.

I particularly like the concept of ‘extrastatecraft’ she develops – neatly encapsulating the contradictory process of a statecraft that is specifically intended to use the state to evade the state in any and all forms.

Call for ‘Hard Cash’ proposals

Further to the email that has been round the CPPE list, here is a call for proposals/submissions* for the edited book ‘Hard Cash’ that myself and Stephen Dunne will be compiling over the next few months: 

 Hard Cash Invite

As you’ll see from the attached file, we’re planning to kick the whole thing off formally in the Autumn with a CPPE-hosted workshop at ULSM at which those participating can outline what they intend for their contribution, play with ideas, get feedback and/or snarf the biscuits.

In addition to putting this on the blog. we’ll also be targeting particular individuals that we might want to encourage to contribute.  If anyone knows of anyone doing deeply funky money-related stuff that we might not already know about, please let us know and we’ll get on to them.  We have a few names already, but more are very welcome. 

Angus and Stephen

* the Chapter titles included in the call have all been proposed already, but are at varying stages of development – hence we have anonymised them.  They’re just here for guidance.  And yes, we’ve cleaned at least one of them up a bit so that no “members” get put off by vulgarity.  We know how sensitive you all are…..

Consuming Consumption

Just over five years ago the University of Leicester allowed me to start referring to myself as a Lecturer in Social Theory and Consumption. I remember calling a friend up at the time in order to impose the good news upon him. He acted how I had hoped any friend would have acted within such a situation: by conspicuously avoiding a congratulatory tone, by stubbornly insisting upon the relative global insignificance of the event and, in an obviously well rehearsed tone of cynical resignation, by drawlingly bemoaning how yet another pretentious pseudo-intellectual was now sure to become yet another self-righteously pretentious pseudo-intellectual. The more than apparent symmetry between the occasion for this conversation, on the one hand, and my demonstrable ability to reasonably predict the course of its’ development, on the other, led me into believing this was a passage of life I would subsequently come to lament. Rather than mutually contemplating the poetry of a moment opening up to the inevitability of its passing, however, my friend and I instead remained true to the tenure of many of our previous dialogues by refusing to give so much as an inch to one another. “What the fuck do you know about tuberculosis anyway Dunner?” he snarlingly inquired. By way of dismissive response I patronisingly underlined how, by actually taking some time to listen to me at some point in his life, he might come to avoid prematurely misfiring so many contemptuous arrows into his own foot. 

It isn’t only within discussions between my friend and I that consumption is bound to go through a laborious degree of terminological give and take, of course. Those for whom it doesn’t conjure up associations of blood-spattered handkerchiefs concealed in denial have more than enough scope for conversational incompatibility remaining at their disposal. Etymologically and ecologically, we are regularly met with the suggestion that consumption is one of the names for destruction or annihilation; anthropologically, it often denotes a mode of communication; economically, it presupposes production; whereas aesthetically, it often serves to designate a mode of experience, or even to stand in as a name for experience itself. In what way are these various lines of enquiry to be brought together? What should a student of consumption actually study? What isn’t consumption? The first joke I tell my new students every year riffs on how the study of consumption seems all consuming precisely because it is logically self-consuming. Nobody ever laughs at the joke and this only goes to prove, by way of self-fulfilling prophecy, that I’ve gone and misunderstood the desires of my consumers.   

The most obvious way in which consumption is rendered observable and verifiable today, of course, is as a key economic indicator. This is one of the many domiciles claimed by the sovereign consumer of neo-liberal economics which sees its’ own property rights everywhere: the free to choose citizen who votes for parties at the polling station and for producers at the supermarket. Approaching consumption as an empirically demonstrable category makes it possible for analysts to put paid to the terminological ambiguity in which consumption is traditionally shrouded as a means of seeming to directly address the pressing macro-economic anxieties of the day. The anti-recessionary tonic will be concocted out of some parts consumer confidence, after all, so the contemporary student of consumption would be presumably well advised to apply themselves less to the question of what consumption is, or to whether it should prevail, and more to the problem of how to increase consumption’s occurrence for the sake of bringing the promised land which exists beyond recession that little bit closer to home.

J.K. Galbraith famously lambasted the seeming delusions of such a view of consumption over half a century ago. The Affluent Society develops a strident critique of what would become known as neo-liberalism’s account of consumer demand as a logical and moral imperative by gesturing toward the short sightedness inherent in the treating of all matters of public policy as matters of private preference. On the one hand, in an analysis that remains timely, Galbraith’s book polemically underlines the logical and moral hazards inherent within any macro-economic policy which would facilitate increased consumption by way of relaxed financial regulation. On the other hand, perhaps less in keeping with our time, Galbraith neglects to seriously consider why such an obnoxiously deluded world-view might come to persist. Consider the recent example of intelligent creatures finding themselves compelled to consider snow as a moral issue rather than as a meteorological event. With Galbraith, we might well sneer at such moments of patronisingly nonsensical hubris. Nevertheless, we repeatedly fall back upon this economic deterministic outlook on the world with alarming regularity and despite our better judgment. Of course snow isn’t a moral issue but for the purposes of how we now see the world lets think and act as if it was. Galbraith explains the persistence of such nonsense simply on the basis of the vested interests contained within the preservation of what he calls the conventional wisdom. If only it were so straightforward.

These notes are occasioned by the fact that less than a fortnight ago I attended a conference which I had spent much of the past year co-organising with Norah Campbell and Alan Bradshaw. As luck would have it, our conference on the Politics of Consumption, in Dublin, was synchronous with a strong public mobilisation against the privatisation of Ireland’s system of water provision. The timing of the event seemed to have run in our favour whilst the hard work of our contributors more than justified our many background endeavours. From Ben Fine’s opening keynote speech on Consumption Matters, through to Kate Soper’s keynote on The Politics of Prosperity and onto to the closing roundtable on The Politics of Consumption in Ireland, we were treated to a variety of provocations and analyses which addressed the phenomenon of consumption in its conceptual and political complexity. The event’s programme is here, audio recordings are available on request and a special issue of ephemera will follow towards the beginning of next year.

To briefly come back to my friend, I should say that he laughed right into my Skype mediated face when I suggested he should come along to the event for the sake of learning something. I take this as evidence for how consumption is partially a matter of individual dispositions which cannot be reduced to extra-individual phenomena. He takes such an account as evidence for the self-righteously pretentious pseudo-intellectualism he had previously predicted. As the producer of this text, of course, I’m bound to go for option one. Let us assume for similar reasons that my friend will go for option two. Which of the options would you choose? Stated otherwise: in what way will you express your freedom? This is the logic of the sovereign consumer applied to the act of critical reading. It is analogous to the form of democracy advocated by neo-liberal economics in as much as the aggregation of choice events is ultimately treated as a mode of justification which cannot be legitimately challenged.

To oppose this model at its roots, however, it isn’t so much a question of opposing potentially absurd choices in themselves, or even in total, so much as it is a question of opposing the abstract proposition that it is better to be able to choose, than not. This fundamental alternative brings us towards a potential paradox by virtue of the fact that it too can be understood as a matter of choice, of preference, of consumption. The inherent difficulty in opposing the logic of the sovereign consumer ultimately becomes the very paradox of choosing to choose against choice. This is a paradox which makes for a series of entertaining pedagogical and philosophical activity, for sure, but it also happens to be the paradox out of which an account of the consumer which neo-liberal economics would be incapable of accommodating might, or might not, eventually become produced.


There were strong echoes of Stefano Harney’s recent seminar at the Exterritory event in Paris this week.  Exterritory is a project initiated by Israeli artists, filmmakers and curators Ruti Sela and Mayaan Amir in 2009, to explore some of the many contradictions produced by the struggle over land in the Palestine/Israel conflict.  Because both sides lay claim in various ways to ‘territory’ (conceived in multiple ways), Ruti and Mayaan wanted to explore the possibility of stepping outside territory altogether to innovate modes of resistance and to highlight the absurdities of the battle over land.  This has involved many different events over the years, most strikingly their projection of images of the region and its many people onto the sails of yachts at night in international waters off the Israeli coast.

Anne Davidian from the Evens Foundation opens the Exterritory symposium

The event in Paris – co-hosted by the Kadist and Evens Foundations – was the first of a number of planned symposia bringing together artists, curators, academics and other oddments to consider what ‘exterritory’ might mean in practice.  The Paris symposium explored various aspects of exterritorial and extraterritorial space (the distinction between the two being far more meaningful in French).  The first session included (defiantly non-) geographer Stuart Elden’s thought-provoking analysis of the construction of ‘exile’ in Shakespeare’s plays and Laurent Jeanpierre‘s examination of theoretical and juridical notions of exterritoriality. The second session consisted of my own rambling thoughts inspired by events of 2008 and the ‘flash-crash’ – ‘Where has all the (xeno)money gone?‘ – and Dana Diminescu‘s fascinating exploration of the complex and emergent spatialities of migration. All four papers were skilfully brought together by the contribution of Anat Ben David, one of Ruti and Mayaan’s regular collaborators on Exterritory.

Angus getting flash with the Flash-Crash

All sorts of cross-cutting themes and resonances emerged from the papers and subsequent discussion that I won’t rehearse here (the event was filmed and will eventually appear on-line) but for me the most striking aspect was the ubiquity of social, economic, political, individual, collective, planned and spontaneous ‘spaces’ that do not conform to the established norms of legally-defined and reproduced ‘territoriality’.  Indeed, by the time we’d worked through the ambiguous spatialities of exile, xenomoney, migration, cyberspace, exception, and many others, territory itself was beginning to look like the minority sport.  Which, of course, makes it all the more interesting that so much of our legal, institutional, police, military and political activity should be devoted to what emerges as a very narrow and privileged mode of living in and thinking about the world.

Disciplining Greece….again

On the day that Greece is once again being harangued about ‘austerity’ by the wealthy of Europe, a resonant thought from Henry Miller writing in 1944:

“In her hour of greatest need Greece was betrayed by the great powers of the earth.  What in fact can they supply her with, assuming that they regain ascendancy over the common enemy?  Food, machinery, money perhaps.  And distorted codes of justice, of education, of economy.  And in return for these dubious gifts? In return they will ask, as all great powers have always asked, that Greece obediently play the role of cat’s paw.  Perhaps they will renew their archaeological burrowings, turn up new ruins, new evidences of ancient splendour.  And they will weep copious crocodile tears over the things of the past while rearming themselves to befoul the present beauties of the earth.  They will encourage their heroic little ally to fight again with the ancient ardour in the name of all that is un-Greek, un-Mediterranean.  At the utmost they will only be able to teach the people of Greece how to become efficient, soulless work dogs.”

Miller, H, 1944, Sunday After the War, New York, New Directions Books: 61