Visualising academic work

The postscript to my earlier post on Peter Fitzpatrick reminded me of something that has been going on for quite a while now. When I was working for the Finnish Institute in London, I had a full set of design tools available on my desktop by default. And so I familiarised myself with the basics of image manipulation, graphic design, desktop publishing and web design. I don’t think that I really thought I would have any use for those autodidactically acquired skills later on, and in all truth, whatever I may have since done, has never had any utilitarian value. It has simply given me pleasure. And I’ve been grateful to my ‘clients’ who have allowed me to indulge myself and have been kind enough not to complain too much.

One thing that I continue to do is design posters for academic events that do not comply with corporate house-styles. You’d be surprised how many colleagues prefer to communicate about their events with a poster that does not ‘benefit’ from the prestige of a ‘corporate brand’. My first clumsy attempts were simple white sheets with some decorative image, usually blurred, and just text indicating who, what, when and where. The poster I made for the talks by Denise Ferreira da Silva and Peter (link above) is a good example.

At Leicester, I made posters from a variety of templates. But usually they were dark images with white text. The poster for the Critical Legal Conference 2009 that I organised while I was there is a good example.

When I returned to Finland, I was asked (or, rather, I insisted that I be asked) to design something for a one-off seminar in which I was not personally otherwise involved. I don’t really know, but perhaps that is the reason why I’m still so pleased with the way in which the poster turned out. I’ve used the same 1920s modernist aesthetics for a few other posters, as well, but they’ve never been as successful. Maybe this was also due to the fact that I knew my ‘clients’ very well, and they communicated their own wishes to me in a very detailed way. For example the font used here (Romantha) was found after numerous trials and errors, and I’ve used the font quite a lot since. Note also the Sami reindeer taken from one shaman drum or another at the bottom right hand corner that I’ve since used to sign most of the posters I’ve designed for others (the lines curve into my initials).

Many will realise that the poster below advertising a two-day event was adopted from the cover designs with which Seuil serialises the French editions of Jacques Lacan’s seminars. The design is familiar enough to allow for the association, perhaps even without the text, but also different because it doesn’t look exactly like any of the individual covers in the series.

I keep returning to early modernism and spinoffs thereof. Strictly speaking the images below are not posters. Maybe exercises for posters at best. Earlier in the spring, a community college course on experimental photography that I was attending was cancelled due to the pandemic. We were offered the possibility of attending ‘virtually’ and completing the assignments as a form of distance learning. I serialised my own assignments into covers of a fictive modernist art magazine. In 1915, the New York photography pioneer Alfred Stieglitz founded the magazine 291, and 391 with Parisian Dadaist Francis Picabia at the helm followed two years later. 491 was up for grabs. These are the two last covers of my fictive magazine.

491_5 491_6

 

A new commitment

Well, more than a year has passed since my last post. It’s not as if nothing has happened. In addition to the usual teaching-related excuses, I can confidently say that I’ve kept writing, little by little, added seemingly connected bits and bobs into my Scrivener projects. But I should have developed those ideas here too, if only to somehow reframe my (occasionally) inaccessible formulations into something that at least resembles plain English. That was, after all, my original motivation.

So that’s what I’ll do, if not often, then at least more frequently than before. To mark my newly-found commitment, I’ve also updated the entry page to this blog including a new header image. It’s a dying Mexican white rose (echeveria elegans). I followed its gradual demise with my camera for a community college photography course that I took earlier this year. The plant was not sacrificed for the project, but it simply bears evidence of my inability to care properly for even the supposedly easiest of house plants.

It is, perhaps, also more appropriate than the one I used earlier because the default header image that WordPress offers for this particular theme is of a healthy plant of the same echeveria genus.

The legacy of Liu Xiaobo

More or less immediately following Liu Xiaobo’s death in 2017, I was asked to speak at a seminar bearing the name of this blog post at a time when it was unlikely that many from my home university, i.e. the organisers, would be presenting. Even though I could claim no expertise in either Liu as an individual or sinology more generally, I agreed because I thought that I might have something relevant to say about human rights. As it turned out, my contribution, entitled ‘Why Are Human Rights Important (Even For A Crit)?’ in the programme, fit in surprisingly well. I thank my co-speakers and other participants at the seminar, the real experts, for their encouragement.

***

In the second main section of Charter 08 on ‘fundamental concepts’, human rights are defined in this way:

Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens.

It is this type of liberal notion of human rights as some kind of stable substance (“human rights are this-or-that”) that one can somehow ‘have’ or ‘own’ that most critical scholars like me are weary of. For my part today, I would like to suggest another understanding of human rights, one that would not seem to be too farfetched in relation to the struggles that the legacy of Liu Xiaobo represents.

I take my cue from Claude Lefort, a French political philosopher (on Lefort, see e.g. Plot 2013). The main reason why Lefort’s name comes up so often in discussions about political theory is a distinction that he popularized between le politique or politics as a form of regime, usually translated as ’the political’, and la politique or social agency conflict-ridden by opposing and often irreconcilable interests, usually translated simply as ’politics’ (Lefort 1988). While ’politics’ in the second more conventional sense can be understood as the competition for power in all of its usual guises, Lefort’s use of the term ‘the political’, in turn, refers to the way in which a given society represents its own unity to itself as a collectivity. It could, then, be understood as a form of collective identity, a representation of the body politic through which society identifies itself claiming to be, for example, a ’liberal democracy’, or a ‘socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship’.

Lefort maintains that ’the political’ not only shapes collective life into more or less permanent social relations, but that it also stages individual interpretations of those relations. So individual interpretations as action require a setting, so to speak. Only these relations and individual interpretations of them can together provide form and meaning. In this sense, the dimensions of ’politics’ and ’the political’ are interwoven into one another so that the antagonistic or conflictual element of political action and activism is always reflected in a given society’s representation of itself. And vice versa. Neither dimension can exist independently of the other. So the human rights activism of Liu as something that we might call ‘politics’ in Lefort’s meaning only makes sense as a part of the collective self-representation of the ‘socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship’ to which he belonged.

Lefort elaborated in more detail two archetypal modern political ’regimes’, namely totalitarianism and democracy. As different as these regimes may be, they share a kinship even if they operate in diametrically opposite ways. In both totalitarianism and democracy, the regime of ’the political’ functions as a symbolic constitution in so far as it locates society’s unity at a particular point of power. As regimes, they are both attempts to respond to the same question, namely attempts to come to terms with the empty space that has been left behind after monarchical structures with their claim to the transcendental nature of the monarch’s divine power have lost their capacity to represent the corporeal unity of the body politic. Following the symbolic decapitation of the monarchical ruler, be it a king or an emperor, and the consequent dissolution of the kingdom or empire that he represented, power appears as an empty space. Democracy, in Lefort’s account, leaves that space empty. In the absence of kings, emperors, or, indeed, almighty political parties, those who exercise power can only be mortals who occupy positions of power temporarily or who can invest themselves in it only by force or cunning. Unity is unable to efface social division. This division is, Lefort claims, the true nature of democracy as a political regime:

Democracy inaugurates the experience of an ungraspable, uncontrollable society in which the people will be said to be sovereign, of course, but whose identity will constantly be open to question, whose identity will remain latent. (Lefort 1986a: 303-304)

In other words, the antagonistic and conflictual nature of ’politics’ that keeps the symbolic space of power empty is what characterizes ‘the political’ of the democratic regime. This is why we can depict Liu’s human rights activism as a ‘political’ struggle.

Totalitarianism, on the other hand, is an attempt to fill that space, to unify society by placing society itself in the empty space left behind after the regicide and the nonexistent body politic that dissolved with it. With violence and repression totalitarianism attempts (and I quote again) ’to weld power and society back together again, to efface all signs of social division, to banish the indetermination that haunts the democratic experience’ (end quote), or, in other words, to abolish the ’politics’ that would maintain the emptiness of that space. This describes well the environment in which Liu lived and worked. But please don’t get me wrong here: it describes well neo-liberal regimes, as well.

Lefort’s notion of democracy also has a legal dimension. It:

goes beyond the limits traditionally assigned to the état de droit. It tests out rights which have not yet been incorporated in it, it is the theatre of a contestation, whose object cannot be reduced to the preservation of a tacitly established pact but which takes form in centres that power cannot entirely master. (Lefort 1986b: 258)

Such rights are, indeed, ‘human rights’. Lefort’s position on rights may seem curious for a critical political theorist. And it has a very particular history. Unlike their Anglophone counterparts, French representatives of the so-called ‘post-Marxist’ or ‘radical democratic’ movement entertained a more optimistic view on the revolutionary potential of human rights. After decades of Marxist human rights critique, the discussion in France took this decisive turn in 1980 with Lefort’s seminal article ‘Politics and Human Rights’ (Lefort 1986b). For Lefort, human rights are specifically a politics of human rights equivalent to democratic politics. Lefort could not accept the critique of the early Marx who saw human rights merely as a consequence of the decomposition of society into isolated monadic citizens.

Views in this debate were far from uniform. A fitting counterpoint for Lefort would be his former student Marcel Guachet. Following the publication of Lefort’s article, Gauchet published his own intervention with the provocative title ’Human rights are not a politics’. Gauchet begins with an almost scornful stab at the renewed interest in human rights, a stab that is clearly aimed at, among others, his former teacher and friend:

and so the old becomes new, what was once the very definition of something suspect resurfaces as something beyond all suspicion, and so our antiquated, waffly and hypocritical human rights regain grace, innocence and a sulfurous audacity in the eyes of the most subtle and exigent members of the avant-garde. (Gauchet 1980: 3, my translation)

This stab reflects the rift that developed between political theorists like Lefort who, despite being ’post-Marxist’ in the aftermath of the hugely divisive Solzhenitsyn affair,  still made reference to Marx in their attempts at creating a social theory, and Gauchet who quickly became one of the key figures of the liberal left. Such an interpretation would seem to be at odds with presumed positions on human rights. For surely it would be the liberal’s lot to cherish the human rights that the post-Marxist ‘crit’, for his part, would reject.

The ’state of right’, the État de droit, as Lefort understands it, introduces a ’disincorporation’ of both power and right rather than their complete separation from each other. And so the ’state of right’ will always include within itself an ’opposition in terms of right’:

The rights of man (i.e. human rights; explain) reduce right to a basis which, despite its name, is without shape, is given as interior to itself and, for this reason, eludes all power which would claim to take hold of it whether religious or mythical, monarchical or popular. Consequently, these rights go beyond any particular formulation which has been given of them; and this means that their formulation contains the demand for their reformulation, or that acquired rights are not necessarily called upon to support new rights. (Lefort 1986b: 258)

Democracy is, then, the form of society in which the relationship of human rights to power is always external. In this ’savage democracy’, as it has been called, the law as the institution of human rights is, as Miguel Abensour, another former student and colleague, explains, no longer thought of as an instrument of social conservation, but as a potentially revolutionary source of authority for a society that constitutes itself as the indeterminate entity it is and will always be. In this sense, human rights are always in excess of what they have established. Once instituted in law, a constituent force will always reemerge in order to both reaffirm existing human rights and to create new ones:

A political stage opens according to which there is a struggle between the domestication of rights and its permanent destabilization-recreation via the integration of new rights, new demands that are henceforth considered as legitimate. According to Lefort, it is the existence of this incessantly reborn protest, this whirlwind of rights, that brings democracy beyond the traditional limits of the ’State of right’ [État de droit, Rechtsstaat]. (Abensour 2011: 108, translation modified)

The term ’savage democracy’ that Abensour accredits to Lefort is not a Hobbesian reference. So not a ‘war of all against all’. Nor is it, Abensour further insists, a reference to the political anthropologist Pierre Clastres (e.g. Clastres 1989) whose seminal work on the political structures of so-called primitive societies was a major influence for the young Lefort. Instead, Abensour claims that Lefort’s democracy is ’the form of society that, through the play of division, leaves the field open for the question the social asks of itself ceaselessly, a question in perpetual want of resolution but that is here recognized as interminable.’

So human rights can play a dual role both as a question being asked and as a mechanism that enables the asking. They’re certainly not some kind of stable substance, something that we could be born with and ‘have’, or nail down on a table and observe as if it was a ‘thing’. Human rights do not have a stable ontology. And through the politics of human rights they introduce further instability into any regime, ‘liberal democracy’ or ‘socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship’, that is in danger of coagulating into totalitarian structures.

This is the type of legacy that Liu’s human rights activism represents. Perhaps the emphasis is on ‘activism’ rather than on ‘human rights’.

***

Abensour, Miguel (2011) Democracy Against the State. Marx and the Machiavellian Moment. Trans. Max Blechman and Martin Breaugh. Cambridge: Polity.

Clastres, Pierre (1989) Society Against the State. Essays in Political Anthropology [1974]. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York, NY: Zone Books.

Gauchet, Marcel (1980) ‘Les droits de l’’homme ne sont pas une politique’, Le Débat, No. 3: 3-21.

Lefort, Claude (1986a) ‘The Image of the Body and Totalitarianism’, p. 292-306, in Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society. Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism. Trans. Alan Sheridan et al. Cambridge: Polity.

Lefort, Claude (1986b) ‘Politics and Human Rights’ [1980], p. 239-272, in Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society. Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism. Trans. Alan Sheridan et al. Cambridge: Polity.

Lefort, Claude (1988) ‘The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?’, p. 213-255, in Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory. Cambridge: Polity.

Plot, Martin (ed.) (2013) Claude Lefort: Thinker of the Political. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Universities and managerialism

After the events at the University of Helsinki in 2015/16, one new role that I took on was shop steward (well, deputy) for my union. Like a few other professorial colleagues from other Faculties that I’ve met, I cut down on other ‘useless’ administrative work to devote time to union activities because I was shocked by how crudely the redundancies, as necessary as they may have been, were put into practice. The activities that this role involves have given me a vantage point from which to observe labour relations at the University. In addition, membership in the University’s Equality Committee complements these observations.

One such observation is telling and an indication of how far we still are from any ideal situation. Despite the rather damming review that Professor Sue Scott wrote on those events based mainly on interviews conducted with members of staff, and despite the first reaction of university management acknowledging the criticism, the most striking thing is the employer’s current tone: a lack of humility, and an insistence on going forward, even when those affected wish to look closer at what specifically went wrong and what we could learn from mistakes made. Further, the University’s decision to not make the review public ( a supposedly exclusively ‘internal’ matter) reinforces that tone.

Finns tend to think that British universities represent the worst bits of managerialism in the sector. But in my experience, things in the UK were organised in clearer, more transparent and more equitable ways, despite delimiting democracy to the deliberative kind and the possible micro-managing excesses of individual university managers. In Finland — or at least in Helsinki — we have the worst of two worlds: a Czarist tradition of heavy and inefficient administration coupled with an overzealous and amateurish adaption of management practices from the private sector.

We Finns have a lot to learn. And a little bit of humility wouldn’t hurt either.

Sort of a newbie

I can’t really claim to be a newbie to blogging. In addition to this personal site, I manage several others, as well. One is dedicated to my teaching, another to the research project that I co-direct with colleagues from Sweden. During the course of this year, I’ve opened two further WordPress sites. One marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies that I translated into Finnish quite some time ago, and the most recent one, still under construction, is an attempt to initiate a socio-legal agenda at the Faculty. In addition, I am webmaster for the site of the Finnish national section of the IVR. So plenty of sites, all on the WordPress platform (and a few dormant Tumblr sites, as well).

But I think that that is the issue: they are all sites, not blogs, even though I use a platform which is usually associated with blogging. This realisation came to me yesterday when I read Jo Shaw’s entry on her future research agenda and had a look at her blog more generally.

Three observations.

First, Jo uses the self-reflective style of a blog entry to bring structure to her own work. As much as it’s a message to the rest of us following her, a blog entry also provides an opportunity for its writer to bring ideas and observations within the confines of a framework. The lovely thing about a blog is, of course, that you can always revisit that framework. You can always change your mind about priorities, emphases and relations. I guess the ideal is that the framework is ‘alive’ and develops in pace with the actual research that one does.

Second, Jo strikes an ideal balance between, for want of better terms, the ‘public’ and the ‘private’. Usually in academic writing I tend to distance anything taking place in relation to work from my private life. Someone once noted that my social media entries (I have a Twitter account) are ‘made from a distance’, so to speak. Even though I may have strong opinions about one thing or another, my person is usually a bit further away. Or at least this is the impression some people get. Jo, on the other hand, inserts observations of a more personal nature into her blog entries because, I guess, they matter. This is something I need to learn. And this is why my sites have been just that: sites rather than blogs.

Third, Jo is an excellent photographer. She visualises her blog entries and other social media messages with photographs that she has taken about the environment in which she happens to be at the time of writing. Some entries are even specifically about the visual aspects of a photograph. Now I wasted a whole youth in dark rooms printing from 35 mm black and white film. But after photography became digital, I sort of lost interest. Apart from the snapshots taken with smart phones and mediocre compact cameras, I didn’t really feel the need to capture my environment with pixels. But my wife gave me such an expensive camera body as a birthday present that I have to change course. So I’ve started an introductory course in digital photography at community college hoping that by the end of it I’ll master my camera rather than the other way around. Film and digital are two very different beasts. With this in mind, I’ve even chosen a WordPress theme for this blog that works best with a wealth of imagery. The first thing on my to-do list is to shoot a new header image for this site. But for now I’ll stick with the default.