Conversation Survival Strategies

The ‘conversation survival guide’ is topical at this time of year as many people mix with family and associates that do not hold congruent political and social values. Here are three:

1. How to survive your conservative relatives this Christmas

The piece I wrote last year for SBS: It’s that time of year again: when extended family comes together to laugh, love, and vehemently disagree on political issues. But what to do if you’re progessive, outnumbered and outgunned?

2. BBQ Ammo – How to Handle the Anti-Cyclist

You’re at a BBQ or a dinner party or some kind of social gathering. Conversation turns to you and the fact you like to ride. Quite a bit. Someone hears this and starts giving their two bob’s worth about how cyclists should be charged registration. Cyclists think they can totally disregard road rules. Cyclists shouldn’t be allowed on major roads. In short – let’s ban cyclists from our roads!

3. 12 ways to deal with a climate change denier – the BBQ guide

[It] probably means we’ll be subjected to at least one ranting, fact-free sermon by a Typical Climate Change Denier (TCCD). You know the drill. Make an offhand remark about unusual weather, and five seconds later someone’s mouthing off about how the internet says that climate change is a bunch of rubbish.

So, when you’ve been cornered by your TCCD, what do you do?


My comrade in another country, Jason Wilson, has a rousing Guardian column critiquing the middle-class progressive view that credentialised expertise — in the form of political ‘wonks’ — shall save us (and follow up Tumblr post clarifying comments about Piketty’s celebrity wonk book). Jason’s thesis is that politics is inherently antagonistic. The consensus-driven post-war prosperity was an anomaly and all post-political ‘Third Way’ technocracies of the 1990s have failed. With manifest irony, the problem is — to appropriate Heidegger — the essence of technocratic political wonkery is politically apolitical. Jason argues that political wonks need to resuscitate a partisan appreciation of society. The most savage way to interpret his critique is that alleged progressive political wonks want to perfect and take care of ‘the system’ first… and care for ‘the people’ second.

The grammar of progressive politics needs to put ‘the people’ before the ellipsis, sure, but what if antagonism is integral not only to democracy but to capitalism? Think about narratives of ‘disruption’ and the way total precarity is deployed as a capitalist technocratic project, it turns antagonism inward so the self becomes the site and project of coping with all kinds of insecurities while at the same time turning outward to fetishise the maintenance of borders. Do we need a way to appreciate different kinds of antagonism? What about all the ‘wars’ we have in the Culture Wars, or the neoconservative preference for launching wars on things (war on drugs, war on poverty and so on). What would this aesthetics of antagonism look like? How would it be ‘judged’?

Dinner text

Friends texting each other about dinner. Got me thinking condiments and their status as objects. it made me realise the dinner as a differential repetition of the event ‘to eat’ (also ‘to transduct’) is a kind of limit point of passage (‘point of no return’ is also such a limit point of passage, but I am thinking more ‘point of repetition but in different ways’). Here is what I wrote:

At what point does a condiment become an ingredient? Is it a question of scale? Or intent? Is vegemite an ingredient? What about ingredients of vegemite do they become ingredients of something else made with vegemite? At what point is such an assessment made? Just before it enters your body? Or is it entirely premised on the realising the eventualities of market exchange (or, to put it less harshly, the logistics of preparation)? I’d argue it is all irrelevant with matters being the social practice or action ‘to eat’ — an event, actualised in any number of ways. The ingredients then are not subsumed according to genus or class but the democracy of participating in the event (even if they are normatively destroyed through consumption or transduced into other forms of energy). Belonging is not a fiction created by market exchange premised on the ideology of choice (condiment or ingredient) but conjuring of a sufficient meal, an ethics of being worthy of the event.

Valorising Research, Teaching and the Research Hole

My (recently) ex-colleague Jason Wilson has published an insightful piece on self-funded research. We’ve had a number of chats about this over the last year. The examples I raised of ‘self-funded’ research were of cultural studies scholars in the 1980s who did not receive ‘funds’ for research and even included those (for example, like Meaghan Morris) who worked on the fringes of academia as journalists and in the media industry.

Jason makes a number of key points. Firstly, you need to be relatively privileged so as to be able to afford to this in terms of time and money. Secondly, he did not plan for this to be self-funded and the circumstances emerged because the funding application did not work out. This has some implications that Jason notes and that I want to expand on below. Third, he notes it is incredibly mobile, or it is as mobile as Jason is, and the project goes wherever he does, so there is no need for complicated ‘handover’ processes. Lastly, he notes that this experience has made him realise that ‘funding’ and ‘research’ are separate and that receiving ‘funding’ does not necessarily valorise ‘research’ (even though we are encouraged to think in this way). I want to add two points.

First, I want to speculate on the valorising relationship between ‘funding’ and ‘research’. I’ve just finished Graeme Turner’s What’s Become of Cultural Studies (2012) and the below passage resonated with a weird exchange I had with a colleague from another university late last year at a conference. She told me she had never taught at university and I was dumb struck. My first thought was how the hell do you test your ideas from your research to see if they work? Another colleague with a research-focused career suggested that it was the ARC and the various mechanisms which judged the first colleague’s research as worthy. ‘Worthy’ in this context means that it aligns with the government-prescribed ‘national interest’. Maybe the first colleague would not think of themselves in cultural studies, the second colleague certainly would. Here is what Turner says about this phenomena:

I routinely find, when I present talks on research applications and professional development in general, that most of those who attend these seminars take the view that they are entitled to entertain ambitions of a fulltime research career. […] [It] is hard not to feel that it is important for them to recognize that a research-only career remains an unrealistic ambition for 90 per cent of the academics working in cultural studies in Australia. In my own case, for example, the past 10 years of research-only employment have only come after decades of fulltime teaching.

It is the pragmatics of the situation that worry me most, then. And I wonder how these ambitions are being fed. Just what kinds of expectations are being sold to completing doctoral students and to junior staff members by their supervisors or by their university’s research office? Successful ARC applications result in significant funding benefits to the university, and so it is in the interests of Australian universities to encourage their staff to apply; the fact that so few will succeed ultimately does not bother the university much. It should bother us. It raises the possibility that we are going to be filling our teaching programmes with disappointed researchers who regard a conventional teaching appointment as the consolation prize. And it increases the possibility that those who are currently teaching cultural studies in our universities do not believe that the satisfaction teaching generates will play a fundamental role in sustaining them, personally or professionally. (emphasis added, pp 74-75)

I was very happy last year when I finally got to teach an upper-undergraduate unit that aligned with my research interests. My greatest challenge in doing research is not in producing new knowledge or thinking new ideas but in communicating them in a way that is sensible and which non-specialists can understand. I am not sure how teaching fits with others.

Relatedly, over the last year or so I’ve been experimenting with ‘modules’ within units in preparation of an exciting new unit ‘Newsroom’ in the Journalism program here at UC. ‘Newsroom’ is entirely based on research I’ve carried out over the last year on teaching methods for preparing students for the current industry context for media and journalism. It is based on my experience working in the magazine industry and working to adapt (or at least try to adapt) to a post-print industry, but extended beyond this. At its core is working with students to develop the capacity for producing their own expertise in industry contexts that we can’t even imagine. This production of professional expertise derived from the experience of testing out new practices and being confident in engaging with the world actually has more in common with the development of cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s then it does with the conservative forms of ‘journalism’ education from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. I am hoping those familiar with the so-called ‘media wars’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s can appreciate the irony of all this. Turner as well as Grossberg in his recent book on cultural studies both locate the capacity of one’s student to produce knowledge as a central aim of cultural studies and this has little to do with particular methodologies except in the most abstract (and concrete! Oh, Deleuzian puns). This is a modification of the Kuhnian science-based model of scholarship where instead of the research problems being created on the edge of the scholarly field, and scholarship in part being a performative power struggle between proponents of competing ideas, the edge of the scholarly field (at least in cultural studies) is reoriented so it coincides with the edge of our students’ understanding. ‘Student’ in this context does not necessarily mean undergraduate students at university as it includes anyone we are trying to educate with new forms of knowledge.

Lastly, I want to extend Jason’s point regarding the relationship between research and funding. There is a parallel to the transformation to what we regard as ‘news’ in the journalism industry. By transforming the structural conditions through which ‘research’ is produced, academics are compelled to produce funding applications year in and year out, regardless of whether or not they have a funding-worthy research project. Note ‘funding-worthy research project’ is not determined necessarily by the individual academic or even the institution where he or she is employed but by the constraints of the funding guidelines. Ironically, one of the major expenses for humanities scholars factored into research funding applications, besides for research-only positions, is teaching buyout, so another academic can be paid to cover their teaching. The character of ‘news’ was transformed in the early 20th century so instead of journalists finding news they produced news. News had to be produced because of the ‘news hole’ created by advertising schedules; something had to be put in the hole produced on the page between pre-sold advertising space. Similarly but not exactly the same, research has to be put in the hole produced by the current funding regime. Knowledge is not produced for its own sake, but as a consequence of the imperative to seek research funding. Separating the mechanisms by which research is valorised from the mechanisms by which funding is valorised will mean that knowledge production can be valorised for other reasons.

Here is useful test I might experiment with this year. Does my research help me with my teaching? Both ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ broadly understood.


The Map is the Territory

Mel has a very interesting work in progress paper up on her blog on “The territory of the post-professional“. We sometimes share very similar research interests. I’ve also looked at questions of territory and technological assemblages in my Communications Technologies & Change unit this semester.

In one week we looked at the relation between predictive algorithms and the individuation of subjectivity. Here is the entry for that week:

Buying Stuff Online and How Your Credit Card is You

Transformations of economy, emergence of global market. Globalisation. Function of credit cards as technology of communication/identity. eBay, Steam and online commerce. and the algorithmic production of surplus value.

Required reading Merskin, D. (1998). “The Show   for Those Who Owe: Normalization of Credit on Lifetime’s Debt.” Journal of   Communication Inquiry, 22(1), 10-26. [Particularly the section “A brief   history of credit”.]Merskin offers a critical reading of the reality TV show called Debt and the ways credit card and personal debt have become ‘normalised’ in US society. Read the section “A brief history of credit” (pages 11-16) for a quasi-genealogical account of the development of the credit card. What is the ‘credit card’ assemblage?
Recommended reading de Vries, K. (2010).   “Identity, profiling algorithms and a world of ambient   intelligence.” Ethics and Information Technology 12(1):   71-85.This is another tough reading, but useful for thinking about the way the everyday technological assemblages of communication contribute to or produce our identity. ‘Identity’ here is meant in a cultural sense. The classic example that de Vries explores to some length is the use of algorithms to predict consumer behaviour on shopping websites and suggest commodities we might be interested in purchasing through   online shop fronts like The relevant section is “Identity in a world of   profiling algorithms and ambient intelligence” (pages 76-79), but it is   worth exploring at length to gain a critical understanding of the ways   complex internet-based commercial interactions can affect the production (and   prediction) of identity.

In the lecture I did a kind of archaeology of the credit card in terms of the shifting composition of socio-technological relations across the long histories of some of the elements that constitute the ‘credit card assemblage’. The required research for this, so as to do the lecture, was a bit crazy. I learnt a great deal! Then I shifted gears a bit to talk about the function of predictive algorithms that are part of online shopping platforms. The de Vries reading is very good on this (and also pretty tough for third year undergraduates). In the context of predictive algorithms and algorithmic-based platforms (that aren’t necessarily ‘predictive’) there are two points I want to make with regards to Mel’s paper, specifically the paragraph introducing ‘algorithmic living’.

Firstly, unlike previous forms of self-knowledge in familiar ‘quantifications of the self’ (Weight Watchers, etc.) determined by a medium/average (statistical sense) of rough (molar) demographic categories, algorithmic indicators are far more mobile and the level of quantification is determined by the ‘resolution’ of the algorithm. ‘Resolution’ in this sense pertains to the ‘machinic affects’ of the ‘counting assemblage’; what are the forms of machinic visbility afforded by the technological assemblage of which the algorithm is but one (protocol) level? What are the ‘actions’ or ‘gestures’ being indeed by the algorithm?

Secondly, the (algorithmic) map (of aggregate molecular ‘actions’ of user-mulitiplicities) has become the (existential) territory (for the individuating assemblage of an ‘app’ or ‘platform’ user). Yes, the map is the territory (I’m phrasing it like that just to fuck with the old school semioticians a little bit:). The classic examples of this are or Google. Amazon indexes various ‘actions’ by users and users this for the ‘suggestions’ section. The capacity to index such actions are one of the affordances (action possibilities) of the platform or what I would call the machinic affects of the algorithm. The machinic affects are determined by the resolution of the algorithm. What actual action does the algorithm index? Visits? Location of mouse pointer or scrolling behaviour? Maybe. Definitely (in the case of Amazon): purchases, wishlist contents, ‘Kindle’ sharing behaviour, and so on. The aggregate map is produced by a multiplicity of such actions, this map then serves as part of the ‘territory’ by which other users of the same platform are individuated (as ‘dividuals’, cf. Deleuze). ‘Territory’ in this context is derived from the later work of Guattari.

What is interesting about Mel’s focus on ‘time’ and its management as a mode of self-governance is that by taking into account the above process of individuating there are two versions of temporality are in play: intensive and extensive. Management of time is traditionally ‘time’ as extension; there is  a range, which is divisible into ‘units’ of time. The individuation of a subject is an intensive process and operates at the level of ‘anticipation’ (relations of futurity) and ‘retention’ (relations of pastness). The ‘past’ in this context is literally and practically active; a multiplicity of ‘pasts’ from a multiplicity of users indexed according to their actions ‘feed’ (‘feed’ in the sense of both ‘appetite’ or ‘appetition’ (Whitehead) and ‘user feeds’ ie who you follow) into the pure present of algorithmic mapping and serve as a dynamic/selective virtual architecture that scaffolds the embodied process of the individuating subject who is actively anticipating his or her ‘next’ action. The ‘next’ action is the subject of such operations; this ‘next’ is an intensive temporal relation.

Management of time is only traditionally premised on the extensive dimension, as contemporary ‘social’ platform-based apps also include a valorising function which tempers time with a qualitiative experiential dimension. If you had a good time, then you’ll ‘like’ the shared photo. If you ‘like’ the book and ‘rate’ it on Amazon, then you bestow the assumed extensive time taken to read the book with a valorised experiential quality.