Thursday, 29 November 2012

Keele Santander Research Scholarship for Spanish Graffiti Project

Dr Andy Zieleniec, lecturer in Sociology and Media Communication and Culture, has been awarded a £5000 Keele Santander Research Scholarship for his project on the Paradox and Playfulness in Spanish Urban Street Art.

Through the scholarship Andy will make site visits to Spain’s three largest cities, (Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia) to conduct ethnographic research and record the various styles, role and function of contemporary graffiti and to develop relationships with academics, artists and writers interested in this area of urban and cultural research.

The Santander grant will allow Andy to focus on the particular and specific experience of graffiti in some selected Spanish cities. Spain has a long history of wall art in the form of political murals and sloganising dating back to the Civil War and this has been carried through to the present day.
Graffiti, ‘writing on walls’ is as old as the architecture and buildings it appears on. There is a long history of people leaving signs of their passing in all ancient cultures, from the Pyramids, Hadrian’s Wall, the Parthenon and Constantinople. 

 However, from the 1960s and 1970s graffiti has been associated with urban youth culture and the politics of new social movements.
The influence of graffiti writers in Philadelphia and New York in creating new styles, using new techniques and materials and also of colonising more and more spaces in the city has become a global phenomenon. Graffiti in its many forms is now commonplace in cities across the world. It decorates or defaces, depending on your point of view walls across the world.
Graffiti can be considered a blight on the face of the modern city or it can be considered as the opportunity for disenfranchised predominantly urban youth to express themselves.

Alternatively graffiti is an art form that is exhibited in art galleries and bought and sold for large sums of money in auction houses around the world.  

The aim of the research is to apply theoretical perspectives on the production of urban space (Simmel, Lefebvre, Harvey etc.) to analyse how graffiti can be understood as acts of intervention and active engagement in the cityscape that resists the dominant discourses and approaches of planning and urban design by (mis)using and appropriating space.
That is, graffiti is an everyday practice and subcultural that changes the way we see, read and experience the city.
How we think about who has the power to design, plan, build and regulate the city impacts on who can use or shape everyday environments with their own input and use.
This ‘reading of the city’ through the signs and symbols written and painted on its building and streets reflects claims and demands for a more inclusive understanding of urban experience that prioritises a more democratic and inclusive ‘right to the city’, and one that emphasis an aesthetics of play, fun, humour, etc. instead of merely acts of anti-social vandalism.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Human Studies - Special issue on Transcendence and Transgression

by James Hardie-Bick

Ronnie Lippens (Criminology) and James Hardie-Bick (Sociology) have guest edited a special issue of Human Studies. This collection brings together a series of papers that explore the twin notions of transcendence and transgression. The collection includes three papers from our school. James Hardie-Bick explores the work of Ernest Becker on the nature of evil, Tony Kearon’s paper is on the bourgeois transcendent self and Ronnie Lippens' paper outlines three images of radical sovereignty in the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Paul Rebeyrolle.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Diogenes in Uruguay


Mark Featherstone

After spending the last few weeks watching austerity matches and riots across Europe and reading about the situation in Greece which has catapulted the far right group Golden Dawn into the political mainstream, I came upon a story about Uruguay’s peasant president, Jose Mujica, that makes startling reading for anybody who has grown cynical about the incestuous relationship between political power and money in Britain, Europe, America, China, and pretty much everywhere else. This cynicism is, of course, well founded because the core principle of neo-liberalism, the political-economic ideology introduced by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s / early 1980s, is that political freedom is inseparable from economic freedom. In other words, in a functioning democracy, the individual’s main concern, and main way of expressing themselves, should be economy. Elections are, thus, elections concerned with economy, rather than any abstract principles about social justice or such like. This is how it is today. In the west, at least, we imagine that democracy and capitalism are inseparable.

In reality this does not quite work out because the result of too much economic freedom or what we might call, following the late Andrew Glyn, capitalism unleashed, is a profoundly undemocratic turn caused by the need to manage increasing levels of inequality and unrest. This is the case because capitalism produces inequality and, in the dark days of contemporary capitalism, little sense that a belief in the modernising aspect of capitalist economics will ever really deliver the good life for the majority. Instead, what we have today is a majority who no longer believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and a minority who desperately and cynically cling to the fantasy that capitalism can work for everybody because it has worked for them and made them extremely rich off the backs of the labour of the poor and those living in a state of endless precariousness where poverty is always potentially just around the corner. In the face of this condition, democracy is not really an option, as the Greek situation has shown. Instead, what is required is a bureaucratic, authoritarian, brand of capitalism organised and run by technocrats who have absolutely no sense of political theory or ethics, but a good working knowledge of Machiavelli and the other classic theorists of power and manipulation. Contemporary China is the classic example of this shift, which involves the separation of capitalism and democracy and the new marriage of capitalism and authoritarianism, and this is why many commentators now speak about the Beijing, rather than Washington consensus.

How, then, does this relate to Mujica, president of Uruguay? The reason Mujica is such an interesting, and important, figure is because he flies in the face of the conventional, and cynical, wisdom which says that today, under conditions of neoliberal globalisation, capitalism and democracy, money and politics, are inseparable, and that no politician can see further than the obsession with economy – profit and growth are essential to the good society. According to this model, we cannot be happy unless we are labouring, making money, spending money, and living the good capitalist life. Mujica shuns this life. As the BBC report, he lives on a ramshackle farm on the outskirts of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and looks after cattle with his wife. He donates most of his salary to charity, drives an old VW beetle, and spends time with a three legged dog. Explaining his outlook on life, Mujica reflects upon the 14 years he spent in prison because of his membership of the communist guerrilla group, the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement. He explains that he was forced to live a more basic life and that he grew to see that one does not need to be a consumer. Indeed, he notes that this is impossible for most of the world, because the American consumer society model is completely unsustainable as a global socio-economic model.  This, then, is a politician who is absolutely not part of a global technocratic elite who cannot see beyond the idea of growth and the expansion of capitalism. On the contrary, I think the Mujica is the model of a new, more, humble politician, a man who stands outside of the cynical western elites, and is willing to point to a new more sustainable, human, future. He is absolutely not trapped by the old Thatcherite logic, There is No Alternative!

In this respect, Mujica’s story reminds me of the story of the Ancient Greek kynic Diogenes, who was famously called Diogenes the Dog for his simple living habits, and because he set up house in a barrel. According to the German writer Peter Sloterdijk, who has written a biography of Diogenes, he lived in a barrel and was called a Dog because he behaved like an animal. Does this mean, then, that Diogenes was an uncivilized beast? Perhaps, but this is not really Sloterdijk’s point, nor the value of thinking about Mujica, because the real beasts of contemporary society are us, the masses who are wedded to the infernal cycle of production and consumption which means that we never do anything, but simply reproduce the conditions of life. I cannot live without my luxuries, so I must work all hours God sends in order to keep myself in this situation. This is truly a natural condition, a metabolism, because we have no time to do anything other than work and shop. By shunning this life-style, what Diogenes offered, and Mujica offers, is ironically a vision of a more human life, where we have time to think, and live, without feeling like the end of the world is just around the next corner.

It is, of course, not easy to do this, and break away from the capitalist metabolism. As Sloterdijk explains, the opposite of the Ancient kynic, who basically walks away from the society that turns him or her into a beast of burden, is the contemporary cynic, who knows how bad things are but continues to behave in the same way anyway, simply because that’s how it is, and what one does. We follow the plan, because there is no other plan. But I think that now, under conditions of austerity riots and a general state of disbelief about the value of capitalism in realising people’s hopes for the future, we stand somewhere between Sloterdijk’s cynics and kynics. On the one hand, people know things are very bad, that capitalism does not work, and so on, but they are carrying on regardless, but on the other hand, they realise something must change, that the world needs to be organised along more human, sustainable, lines, simply because the alternative to doing nothing, and cynically carrying on may be complete social, political, and ecological devastation. This is, then, the question, today – cynically keep going, or leap into the unknown? Who would have thought that the answer to this most pressing of questions would reside with a contemporary Diogenes living on a ramshackle farm on the outskirts of Montevideo who would, I’m sure, absolutely reject the view that he has anything particularly learned to say about the problem of contemporary global society?

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Politicizing the police

by Bill Dixon

Voters in 41 police force areas outside London go to the polls tomorrow, Thursday 15th November, to elect police and crime commissioners (PCCs). It remains to be seen how many will take the trouble to venture out in mid-November to cast their votes for people they may well not have heard of standing for a position that few know very much about. Campaigning by candidates has been desultory and what we know about them and their plans for local policing is limited for most practical purposes to short statements on a Home Office-funded website.

Most of these statements have a dreary sameness about them with candidates eager to tap into public concerns about ‘anti-social behaviour’ by promising – swingeing cuts in police budgets notwithstanding - a more visible police presence on the streets. The more macho characters – it almost goes without saying that the overwhelming majority (157 out of 192 or 82%) are indeed men – throw in references to ‘zero tolerance’, while others promise to keep local police stations open, oppose privatization and cut red tape.

More interesting than any of this is the trouble that candidates have taken to distance themselves from politics and politicians. Independent candidates have been particularly keen to strike a pose as ordinary, everyday folk beholden to no-one but their constituents and themselves. Like so many pinnochios they are very, very proud to have no strings. But so too are some of the would-be commissioners with party political affiliations. They may have webbed feet, feathers and a tendency to quack; but ducks they definitely are not.

With the expenses saga still fresh in the minds of many voters – not to mention the odd politician preferring bush tucker in Queensland with Ant and Dec to trooping through the division lobbies at Westminster with David Cameron - it’s scarcely surprising that so many aspiring PCCs, proud of their local roots and anxious to connect with an increasingly cynical electorate, are keen to dissociate themselves from the dirty business of professional politics and the shady goings-on of out-of-touch metropolitan elites.

But keeping politics out of policing isn’t that simple. Even the words ‘politics’ and ‘police’ have a common ancestry and a history of entanglement in the business of government going back to one of the founding fathers of modern policing, the eighteenth century magistrate and writer, Patrick Colquhoun. Nor is contemporary policing the kind of consensual activity so many PCCs would have us believe it to be. As the eminent American theorist, Egon Bittner, observed many years ago, policing is about the use of non-negotiable coercive force. It is unavoidably adversarial. That force may be exercised by the police on our behalf. But we must never forget that it is used against our fellow citizens and may, one day, be used against us too. The good time being had by all after a family wedding may be nothing more than a horrible racket to the neighbours; our harmless fun their anti-social behaviour.

This capacity to use coercive force is a precious commodity. It is only right that those who use it for ‘us’ and against ‘them’ are called to account; whether we like it or not - and whether we like the people who do it or not - we live in a society where calling public servants to account for what they do is the stuff of democratic politics and elected politicians. And, whether they like it or not, the PCCs who emerge from these elections will be politicians. The sooner they accept that is what they are, stop posturing as men (and a few women) of the people, and get on with the demanding jobs they’ve been given the better.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Iain Duncan Smith and the ‘choices’ of welfare

by Emma Head

Last week, Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), Secretary of State for Work and Pensions gave a speech where he made a case for ‘cultural change’ in government and society concerning the role of the welfare state. IDS’s view of the British welfare state is that it leads individuals and families into long-term ‘dependence’ on benefits and discourages individuals from moving into paid work: ‘instead of supporting people in difficulty, the system all too often compounds that difficulty’. From this political position, the welfare state does not meet its founding aim of providing a temporary safety net, but traps the individual in a net they cannot escape from, and discourages them from wanting to strive for a life off benefits. The media coverage of this speech was interesting as it focused mainly on one aspect - the issue of family size for welfare recipients. In this speech IDS had asked, ‘should families [on benefits] expect never ending amounts of money for every child… when working households must make tough choices about what they can afford?’ In an interview  IDS suggested that those with large families should have their benefits capped and suggested that this cap could be applied once a family living on benefits had two children. This time the question IDS posed was ‘can there not be a limit to the fact you need to cut your cloth in accordance with what capabilities and finances you have?’

This idea of a two child family for those on benefits was widely reported and generated lots of online discussion. More than 1000 comments were made on this story on both the BBC and Mail Online sites. IDS was tapping into a theme that Conservative politicians have rehearsed before, most notably by Jeremy Hunt on Newsnight. IDS also seems to be tapping into ambivalent social attitudes towards larger families and a deeper discontent with the ‘choices’ that those on welfare are perceived to have.

It seems unlikely that this idea of a benefits cap based on family size would become a policy measure. If it did, what impact would it have? As with a number of Coalition government strategies, underlying this plan is an assumption that people make ‘choices’ that are economically rational. The rationale for a benefits cap based on family size, assumes that individuals know and rationally weigh up the financial costs and benefits of children long before conception. If this is the case, then this policy would save money in two ways: by limiting the welfare spend, and by shaping the decisions we make around family size. However, sociologists know that people often do not respond to policy initiatives in ways that follow economic rationality, and certainly not when we get into the territory of sex and reproduction. Research evidence tends to suggest that around 50 per cent of pregnancies are unplanned, so some larger families are by accident rather than by design.  Additionally, larger families make up only a small percentage of families in receipt of welfare and there is no good research evidence to document the claim that families continue to have children as a means to secure welfare payments. In terms of child benefit, an additional child adds an extra £13.40 a week to the household income.

In financial terms then, this kind of benefits cap would not have any significant impact on the government’s welfare budget. So what was the aim of this speech? If we look at the language IDS uses throughout the speech, one aim seems to have to been to continue a current theme of Conservative government to construct a particular image of British society and the welfare state. Here, we get an image of British society divided into two classes. The majority are the responsible taxpayers in 'working households' who live according to their means, who save money where possible and whose choices are curtailed by the reality of their financial situations. Two examples that IDS gives here are the working families who have to limit the number of children they have, and the young adults who remain living with their parents while they save money to buy a flat. This class is presented as in need of protection from those who are dependent on welfare. The minority on welfare are presented as able to exercise ‘choices’ that are out of reach of the majority, they can get ‘never ending amounts of money for every child’ and the young adults of this class move from parental home to their own home ‘without finding a job first’. Of course, this latter point might also apply to the children of the very rich in society, who don’t get a mention here.

This is a problematic, and socially divisive, version of Britain. In IDS’s speech we get the sense that these are two stable groups, however, this is not the case. Most people of working age who are reliant on welfare, will move into paid work at some point in the future. And many in the responsible taxpayer class are only a redundancy letter, relationship break up or illness away from claiming welfare. These two groups are also not so easily separated. Many adults in paid work are dependent on tax credits to supplement their low wages, to fund childcare, or both. Those who live ‘on welfare’ still pay taxes, for example, through VAT on goods and services. It also detracts attention away from the huge differences in material wealth of those in 'working households'.

Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of IDS’s speech is the idea that life on welfare is characterised by ‘choice’ - to have as many children as a family decides, to move into independent housing when adult children want. What gets lost here is the reality of life for those reliant on welfare payments. This reality is more likely to be one of enduring hardship, not endless choice.