Thursday, 31 August 2017

Stiegler’s University and the Horror of the Orphan in the films of Nicolas Winding Refn


Mark Featherstone

Apart from spending the summer working on a number of projects concerned with the idea of utopia in eastern thought; the philosophy of the German thinker Peter Sloterdijk; and debt and indebtedness, a couple of pieces I have been thinking about and working on for a year or so appeared in print. 

My article on the French writer Bernard Stiegler and ideas of higher education called Stiegler’s University was published in the journal, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies. This article, which concerns Stiegler’s theory of higher education as a battleground between stupidity and intelligence, connects to very real debates in education today about the impact of financialisation upon the way people learn and think about knowledge. Do people enter into education in order to pick up information that they can use in the world of work? Or do they want to learn and translate information into knowledge that will change their understanding of the world around them and the way they behave in that world with the consequence that they might be able to change it for the better? While Stiegler privileges the latter model of education in the name of improving people and society, the problem with higher education defined by debt is that people need to pick up knowledge, and more precisely information (which I think about in terms of undigested knowledge), that will enable them to make repayments and ultimately survive in a world defined by money and monetary valuations of everything. For Stiegler, the financialisation of higher education is, thus, what ensures its stupidity, and prevents the production of real intelligence that comes when people are able to think, change themselves, and as a result, the world around them. But, what, then is to be done? For Stiegler, we must rethink the role of higher education, which is not simply to teach skills for the workplace, but also to encourage people to think, explore, and develop with a view to both individual and social improvement. Of course, this can only happen in the context of an institution that enables and foregrounds freedom of thought, as opposed to a model of education concerned with economic returns, which in turn relies upon educational policy sensitive to the need to protect this space from market forces that constrain freedom by forcing people to think in narrow economic terms.

Following the publication of this piece, I also published an article on the cinema of the Danish-American Director Nicolas Winding Refn, called The Letting Go: The Horror of Being Orphaned in the Cinema of Nicolas Winding Refn in the Journal of Cultural Research. This piece emerged from a long standing engagement with Winding Refn’s film, which led me to include a chapter on his cinema in my recent book on utopia and globalisation (Planet Utopia), and my desire to extend my exploration of his focus on estrangement and loneliness in urban environments. After writing about Winding Refn’s lost child in my utopia book, I extended my discussion into orphan identity in his three most recent films, Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon, in order to show how he envisages the fate of the individual in contemporary global society. In Drive the main character, who importantly has no name (he is simply called Driver), lives a lonely life characterised by a desperate search for family which is endlessly thwarted by criminality, violence, and the evil of money. The same is the case in Only God Forgives which tells a similar story in the Thai capital, Bangkok. The difference here is that where Drive represents the main character endlessly on the run, trying to escape violence and find some form of comfort, Only God Forgives introduces Buddhist thinking to suggest that the solution to the problem of loneliness is ‘the letting go’ of the self and its various desires which translate into economic imperatives to consume and so on. Finally, I turn to Winding Refn’s most recent film, The Neon Demon, in order to show how he restages the problem of Only God Forgives in the LA fashion world. The choice that faces his central character (Elle Fanning’s Jessie) here is between the living death of the model (the women who is transformed into a thing by the fashion industry) or the real death she finally experiences when her vampyric rivals throw her into an empty swimming pool. That her rivals then consume her body in the name of trying to steal her beauty, which was always premised on her purity and naivety, shows that Winding Refn wants to leave the horror of the orphan in a state of suspension. While Jessie’s death symbolises her escape (her Buddhist ‘letting go’ of the world), her rivals continue their battle ‘to be somebody’, ‘to make it’, and ultimately ‘to belong’ somewhere in a world defined by alienation and estrangement.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Keele Sociology: Megan's experiences

Megan Hilditch graduated from Keele in July with first class honours in Sociology. She was awarded the prize for 'best overall performance in Sociology' and in this post she reflects on her experience of studying at Keele. 
After enjoying studying Sociology at A-level I decided to continue to study the subject at degree level. Sociology at Keele University appealed to me because of the variety of topics covered by modules and the breadth of research conducted by the sociology department, both of which have helped to make my time at Keele an enjoyable experience. This not only gave me the freedom to tailor my degree towards my own areas of interest due to the range of choices but also gave me the opportunity to learn about new and interesting issues; helping to make my experience a positive one. This positive experience was furthered by the Sociology staff who taught their areas of interest with passion and enthusiasm, making modules enjoyable and lectures worth turning up for.

During my time at Keele, I particularly enjoyed modules which dealt with the family, migration, and new technologies, as these modules addressed important contemporary issues and enabled me to view such topics through a critical lens. I also enjoyed modules concerned with urban living which involved individual research projects; as this allowed me to choose a specific area of interest which I wanted to learn more about and encouraged me to think creatively. Such modules have sparked my interest in city life and have led me to wish to pursue a career in city planning.

As well as enhancing my knowledge of sociology throughout my three years as an undergraduate at Keele, studying sociology has allowed me to develop a range transferable skills such as; communication skills, organisational skills, research skills and analytical skills. These have all helped me to develop as a person and will be beneficial to me in my future employment.

Overall, my experience of studying Sociology at Keele has been interesting and pleasurable and a choice that I am glad I made. I am extremely pleased to have achieved the award for best overall performance in Sociology and could not have done so without the Sociology staff who were always happy to offer help and advice.

 By Megan Hilditch

Thursday, 20 July 2017

First winner of the Ronnie Frankenberg Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Dissertation in Sociology

Chloe Dawson is the first winner of the Ronnie Frankenberg Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Dissertation in Sociology. This prize is awarded by Keele University and the Sociological Review Foundation Limited. In this post, Chloe reflects on winning this prize and her time studying at Keele.

Chloe on her graduation day.
Winning the Ronnie Frankenberg Prize for my dissertation was one of the proudest moments of my life. It is an honour to be associated with such a figure who has shaped and challenged the way we study sociology today. This is also a notion I have always held when studying sociology at Keele, that we should always challenge the way we view people and their behaviour, never taking stereotypes or popular views as something not to be explored. Due to this, my dissertation focussed on the ways in which women were excluded from the renowned sociological narrative of urban city life in the nineteenth century. For instance, I explored the way the department store revolutionised women’s new-found access to the city; from the Victorian, middle class values that chained women to domestic life, towards the possibility of them experiencing the city as males have always done. 

My research also led me to examine the portrayal of women in nineteenth century impressionist art, especially their activity within the public sphere. This allowed me to uncover how they have been excluded from the sociological writing of great urban theorists such as Walter Benjamin, Georg Simmel, Charles Baudelaire and David Harvey. Throughout, contemporary views were considered, such as Janet Wolff and Mica Nava’s, who tended to disagree on whether women were ignored within the nineteenth century city or that they simply were not very active during this time.
Interest in this topic has always been a part of my studies at Keele, as a History and Sociology dual honours student I have always enjoyed exploring the views and experiences of the past. The modules available to me have continuously allowed me to enhance this knowledge over my three-year degree; especially due to ‘Classical Sociology’, a first-year module, that introduced me to Georg Simmel and urban sociology thought. Meanwhile, history modules constantly expanded my understanding of the nineteenth century and the way women experienced life, they also deepened my skills of researching and writing about the past. Also, sociology at Keele aided my ability to view historical narrative with a critical eye, but also how these small individual accounts can help us to understand how society, as a whole, was experienced.

These are a few of the skills I will continue to use during my next chapter at Keele for my Masters in Social Science Research Methods. I have decided to stay at Keele due to my incredible experience over the past three years, not only for the beautiful campus or the people I have met but also because of the fantastic support I have been given from the university staff. My lecturers and tutors have always been there to guide me and help me achieve what I have today, providing constant assistance and encouragement. 

When I left school 3 years ago, with average A-Level results, I never could have imagined being given such an award – Keele has taught me that with enough time, dedication, and support, you can work hard enough to achieve such things as the Ronnie Frankenberg Prize for Outstanding Undergraduate Dissertation in Sociology. I think he would be very proud of Keele’s sociology department today.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Sociology at Keele in the Top 20 of the Complete University Guide 2018

Sociology at Keele University is 16th place in the UK in this well-respected league table. A result of the hard work of a committed and enthusiastic teaching team, delivering research-led cutting-edge ideas, Keele sociology continues to provide an excellent, friendly experience for students in our beautiful campus setting.

Keele sociology continues to be taught primarily by research-active lecturers who know their students through face-to-face contact. You can read more about Keele Sociology here.

If you want to find out more about our amazing staff, students and campus, please do get in touch. Our next Open Day is on Saturday 17th June 2017, or if you’re holding an offer or interested in studying with us and want to ask any questions – please contact us via email (, our Facebook page or Twitter.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Just out: ‘Omnus et Singulatim’: Establishing the Relationship Between Transitional Justice and Neoliberalism by Josh Bowsher

Dr Josh Bowsher, Teaching Fellow in Sociology, has published a new article. This article has emerged out of his interdisciplinary doctoral research which used social and cultural theory to examine the intersections between transitional justice and neoliberal forms of globalisation. 

Bowsher, J. (2017) ‘Omnus et Singulatim’: Establishing the Relationship Between Transitional Justice and Neoliberalism, in Law and Critique:

First developed by human rights lawyers and activists, transitional justice began following the democratisations in Latin America as a series of experiments designed to address the human rights legacies of the authoritarian regimes from which many countries emerged. Transitional justice now denotes a range of mechanisms, including truth commissions, criminal trials, lustration, and so on, used to deal with human rights legacies in societies emerging from conflict or authoritarian rule. A ‘global project’ of global governance, transitional justice is now intertwined with the peacebuilding initiatives of the United Nations (UN) and the World Bank, which advocate the use of transitional justice mechanisms in much of Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and some parts of South-East Asia. 

Much of the scholarship on transitional justice has remained “normative”, and seeks to investigate the relative merits of different approaches to transitional justice, in order to advocate various practices for the field. More recently, some scholars have taken a more critical perspective, questioning the assumptions that underlie transitional justice. Increasingly, these approaches have focused on the enduring relationship between transitional justice and the project of liberalism, focusing on the ways in which its discourses and practices often obfuscate or even exclude questions of socio-economic injustice and structural violence that are integral to understanding the periods before, during, and after conflict.
Nevertheless, by locating the emergence of transitional justice within the global rise of neoliberalism, I argue that transitional justice serves an important function in regards to the particularly neoliberal contours of many transitions. This relationship, I argue, can be understood by turning towards the conceptual terrain provided by recent research emerging from the field of critical neoliberalism studies. More precisely, the article insists that understanding the relationship between transitional justice and neoliberalism can be best understood by utilising the term “omnus et singulatim”.

Before I continue, I should explain my recourse to this term. After all, in commenting on his decision to name his 1979 Tanner lectures “Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of ‘Political Reason’”, Michel Foucault apologised, perhaps in a rare flash of self-consciousness, that ‘the title sounds pretentious’. Nevertheless, the conceptual terrain inaugurated by Foucault’s use of the term has become fertile ground for criticisms of forms of liberal government and their social dynamics, particularly in the work of Wendy Brown. For both Foucault and Brown, “omnus et singulatim” captures the paradox of a liberal (and neoliberal) form of government that is, on the one hand, obsessively concerned with individual liberties, and, on the other hand, must gather its individuals together into some sort of social body. Omnus et singulatim is thus the double movement, that simultaneous act of gathering society together and individualising its members, ‘achieving’, as Brown remarks ‘each through its seeming opposite.’ 

For my part, this term captures 3 things. Firstly, what Brown understands as neoliberalism’s propensity to individualise us as enterprises seeking to invest and profit from our human capital, all the while, integrating us as stakeholders into technocratic and administrative projects, divorced from any of their political implications. Secondly, it captures transitional justice’s attempts to construct narratives about the conflicts it attends to in individualising ways, that is through the physical suffering of individual victims, which is done in the name of reconciliation, a “bringing together” which is infused with the technocratic language of consensus. Finally, then it captures the dynamic, or the concrete practices through which the latter can perform a service for the former, bringing together war-torn societies in ways that do not challenge, but instead prefigure, the neoliberalising demands of post-conflict transition.

In a world that is dominated, by flexible, unwieldy, and often devastating neoliberalism(s), understanding the relationship between it and practices that both legitimise and substantively contribute to its various unfoldings and reconfigurations in post-conflict contexts is important. Hopefully this article may provide one way of approaching this problem.

Keele Sociologists at the BSA Annual Conference

The British Sociological Association annual conference kicks off today in Manchester. A number of Keele Sociologists will be presenting papers. More details below and do get in touch if you would like to know more about our research. Our contact details are here

Siobhan Holohan and Mark Featherstone
The loneliness of the hyper-connected age: individualism, social media, and the destruction of the social self 

Rebecca Leach 
Vicarious value: the social significance of 'turning over' North Staffordshire ceramic ware

Farida Henriette 
The development and display of commitment by different genders
and generations in the Seychelles

Ala Sirriyeh 
'The Great Meeting Place': Regeneration and Social Inclusion in 'Bradford Beach' 

Ala will also be chairing a panel which she has co-organised: 'Cities built to include? The theories and practice of inclusion in urban public space'.