13 Agosto, 2009 - 14:00 — Matthew Jacobson
Critical Social Research
Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before... He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.
- Kurt Vonnegut, "Cat's Cradle"
We consider our research as falling under the heading of critical social research as a critique of urban political practices within the contemporary Western colonial/capitalism with the duel intention of contributing to efforts to understand as well as disrupt its forms of reproduction. Western driven colonial/capitalism has since the 15 century produced uneven and exploitative economic practices, massive destruction in terms of environmental resources, and used its own negative effects as an excuse for new security means and state violence to keep those that are increasingly marginalized from disrupting ‘business as usual’. As Western social researchers we are naturally implicated in regards to how we theorize power relations and must consider seriously the historical tendency to reproduce ‘modernity’ itself in the manner in which we represent history, agency, space, time and place. Critical must be working from an ‘anti-capitalist’ and ‘anti-colonial’ framework; otherwise the expression loses its meaning . Although no ‘cure’ is known for this type of colonial ailment, reflexivity works to make explicit both our political and academic positioning in regards to the claims and hopefully cultivates or contributes to a kind of ‘enthusiasm’ for criticism and politically charged consideration of perplexing paradox epistemological plurality. As Western knowledge production is by definition ‘infected’ by ‘euro-centrism’ and we tried to get used to ‘humbly’ and critically seeing ‘what we are and what we are not’; to attempt to de-center our own research positions. For us it meant looking for as much at what we ‘don’t know’ rather than what is familiar; including the usefulness and perils of our limits and partial, temporal situatedness. We also needed to walk the line between naming Western colonial/capitalism as a globally based system and interconnected network of logics and economies while problematizing ‘grand narratives’ which attempt to make everyone a part of a particular theoretical construct.
A diverse and spread out group of academics from Latin America (in origin) and other historically non-colonial countries had organized themselves under the heading of decolonial writers and were working on the critique and reconceptualization of the historical epistemological roots of what they (in our words) theorized as the modern colonial/capitalist system of power (Walter Mignolo; Santiago Castro-Gomez; Auturo Escobar; Romen Grosfoquel, Enrique Dursell) . This was a critique of ‘critical social theory’ in Western Europe in its tendency to speak of totalizing paradigms of Western capitalism leaving non-western epistemologies in the margins and perhaps even fossilized. The call of these academics was to rethink colonial history and its simultaneous and interdependent project of global western capitalism as ‘two sides of the same coin’, ending up in epistemological plurality, rather than reproducing another epistemological center in western critical social theory (Grosfoguel and Cervantes-Rodriguez, 2002). This for us was an exciting and revealing call to ‘plural’ epistemological space and a spatializing of critical social theory suggesting a new kind of level of ‘relatedness’ theoretically and politically in terms of geopolitical responsibility. Thinking about plurality in terms of epistemology brought also a new perspective to ‘urban barrios’, the potential to look anew at our subjective positions (in our case as trained western critical academics), and to consider what lies beyond and inside the domination of Western political imaginaries, including our ‘criticalness’.
This was relevant to us in considering the Western urban context and how discourses of city ‘governance’ and urban restructuring are epistemological as well as material projects. We can identify Western dominant forms of capitalism within their colonial epistemology and practices both in terms of discourse and materiality. The project has a center both in terms of agents and institutions dedicated to its project. Resistance on the other hand is without any one center, thus it is only unified (if momentarily) by what it is against. In this way resistance looks plural, and as plural has the luxury and power of disorder and lacking the need for any center epistemologically.
Within the past 30-40 years the neoliberalization of Western European cities (as part of the extensions of colonial/capitalism) have increased disparity in income and resource access creating increasing social unrest . Critical social theory has worked to theorize and study how contemporary forms of Western colonial/capitalism along with its accompanied resistance have produced hegemonic relations, social unevenness and inequality, along with the search for more sustainable types of social relations. Critical theory is more joined by its resistive character to colonial/capitalism than any unified theory or methodological approach to social issues. The debates within different camps of critical theory, and even debates as to what constitutes a definition of ‘critical’ are live and important ongoing discussions. Post colonial critical theory has worked to break down Western mega-theories in terms of their ‘euro-centric’ epistemologies which have largely used ‘difference’ as a modality for racial, gender and class oppression. Feminist theory has worked at building partially located critiques which acknowledge and forward their limited and historical political agency and embeddedness. As a reactionary rather than constitutive project in relation to the ills of colonial/capitalism, critical research has no unified vision and is filled with contradictory theoretical and methodological debates. The critical project for social research centers on questions of knowledge production as a productive and politically charged activity thus challenging ways in which institutional practices (including academic) reproduce Western colonial capitalism. Fortunately in critical academic social theory there is increasing representation of diverse epistemological social political contexts and histories and ‘knowledge practices’. Western academic social theories have traditionally been based on the colonial epistemological narrative of what Castro-Gomez calls the ‘zero-point’, in which European ‘rational science’ discovered truths about society and the world (Castro-Gomez, 1998). Western critical theorists must be wary of theorizations which attempt to recreate universalisms which mask real politics and difference (be it Marx or whomever). Western academic critical work has developed alongside and within colonial/capitalism, so it must also work to ‘decolonize’ itself to open new critical spaces for alternative and incoherent mixtures of epistemological positions. Critical research should support a broad sense of fragmented and contingent ‘resistance’ to colonial/capitalism while holding firm to constantly recreating itself to work against the ever-present pulls to recuperate ‘critical’ into terms of mainstream status quo reproduction.
Critically approaching urban restructuring
Critical urban geographers critique of Western urban restructuring looks at how the past 30 years of neoliberalism have entered into forms of urbanization both in structural and political terms. We were interested in how to apply Foucault’s theorizations of ‘governmentality’ towards an understanding of the ways in which this urban restructuring was occurring as a process of government. Foucault (1982) and subsequently Rose (1999), Hook and others have outlined how subjectivities and ‘techniques of the self’ are produced in discourses as forms of ‘governance’, thus used normatively to make ‘desirable’ certain actions. We were interested in how this critique could be applied to an urban context in the midst of what Smith called ‘aggressive role out neoliberalism’ (Smith, 2000); signifying a cities urbanization restructuring interventions in contrast to more passive forms of simple ‘deregulation’, allowing freer movement by the private sector. If Western city governments have been more aggressively promoting the ‘neoliberal’ restructuring of the city, then we assumed we would see this also in forms of ‘restructuring’ the citizen, and thus resistance to the city’s urban plans as two fold; resistance to the concrete forms of urban renovations the city was proposing as well as a form of resistance to the exercise (or reproduction) of power relations the city was engaged in. As Rose has clearly outlined, our reflections on the manner in which the city’s urban restructuring discourses were producing particular types of citizenship isn’t assumed to be a linear exercise in ‘turning citizens’ into any particular subjects; as a type of subjectification it would be expected to be found in subjective discursive positions with a type of coherence within other discourses which make possible certain ways of thinking and acting while closing down, limiting, or constricting others (Rose,2001). Roses conceptualization of the ‘power of freedom’ suggests that these ‘discourses’ are circulated and enter social relations, dispersing themselves and permeating into the exchanges of everyday life, particularly forwarded by the widespread systems of ‘experts’ who embed particular norms within their institutional and often State sanctioned roles (Rose, 1999).
In contrast to working primarily on text, we wanted to enter actual urban space and make that our base of reflection throughout the paper. In that way we tended to use theory more from utility than from an attempt to speak back to particular theoretical debates and to help us with the confusing dynamics as to how power relations were being reproduced and resisted more as they appeared in ‘vivo’ and in the political debates we took part in. We tended to test theory by seeing if it ‘proved’ itself in what we saw and observed in the debates and conversations we had with those involved. Of course this type of research position is full of ethical, theoretical, and practical dilemmas in which we tried to consider somewhat openly or transparently in our text. The text we extracted and our manner of presenting them reflects these quandaries and our allegiance to the ‘field’ as the base for interpretation of text, rather than vice versa.
Vignette: Quandaries in ‘la Plaza’
When one sits in ‘la Plaza’, what plaza does one sit in? I remember when the city of Barcelona announced its plan to renovate the plaza Joan de Poeta, the enormous block, the heart of the community, where the new contemporary ‘marvel’ Italian designed market had been built. The older residents remember when the plaza was the site of the ‘escuela del mar’ and had a sports ‘pista’ in front. You could imagine the possibilities sitting there looking over the open cement before they began: community gardens where the children and older adults could work together growing their own food, a community run meeting area where all the various associations could gather and debate their issues and have educational seminars sharing their trades and experiences, sports areas for the youth to play basketball and be admired by their community, artistic spaces for young and old to create, a space with endless possibilities that for a small economic investment could be transformed over time by the residents themselves to support the needs of those that lived there. After the city rejected the idea of any sports areas outside of a play area for young children, we saw the model created in the cities drafting rooms; it was then clear (to no one’s real surprise) that they had no intention of making the central plaza a community space that had any potential for ‘community’; it was to be a public space that was septic of politics, and the polemic soil of relationships. When they finished it was a long wide cement field with a play area fenced in and a strange winding area at the end with oddly placed iron chairs in threes, separated so that it would be virtually impossible for any group of people to sit down and converse. The area had two ping pong tables which the kids loved to sit on and they even tried to put grass on small hilly spaces which died within days and became dust and dirt. If you had tried to make a space where a community couldn’t gather and meet easily, you would have had a hard time doing a better job than the city did. The most entertaining part was a fish sculpture which they paid some artist to do with stones that stuck up out of an area designed like a fish. The stones were sharpened to a point at the top and perhaps were to enact the actual spearing of a child who might happen to fall on them to represent a certain expression of realism. In contrast to the other embarrassing aspects of ‘la Plaza’; the parents complained and they were removed. The residents had a ‘memorial’ for the neighborhood when the Market was inaugurated by the city politicians, they didn’t have one for the plaza,…perhaps because the heart of the neighborhood had been removed, it would have to be more of a post-mortem.
Claiming our own text as historically situated and partial draws on the foundational critique of Donna Haraway (1991) as a way of calling attention toward ourselves as ‘speakers’ and thus, locating ourselves in relation to others. Making geopolitical position central in social research as a positional theoretical stance as well as ethical and political stance works to open the theatre of debate and as such, directs to certain kinds of critical inquiry. It provides the possibility for reflexive inquiry by forefronting issues of power and difference in terms of knowledge production, so the complications of power relations are open to debate and historical reflection. Urban critical geographers use the term ‘spatialization’ and decolonial critiques purposefully use this self label to center the ‘eurocentric’ embeddedness of much of Western society’s knowledge practices. They all call for open debates concerning historically located perspectives concerning knowledge practices working to loosen the western hegemonic grip on epistemology, and assuming that our understanding of reality is polemic and political. Western uses of the expression critical ‘thinking’ also have developed in these historical colonial power relations, as a reaction, to such an extent that we must be reminded how in terms of thinking and language we must be located, defined and proventionalized relating to the actual geographies of power, in order to forefront debates concerning our implications in uneven types of productivity .
Parker and Burman (1993) discuss ‘reflexivity’ in terms of accounting for the productivity of your own research, to be interested in the polemic of speaking, and to theorize this alongside comments about social context and process. Parker discusses in his conceptualization of three levels in which we can explore reflexively research practices; ‘in the historical assumptions we make about what research is and should do; institutional constraints on what questions can be asked and who can answer them; and personal alliances that open up some issues and close down others’ (Parker, 2005; pp.25). We worked from the point of view that our research was also a form of social practice therefore to make its ‘situatedness’ part of its strength by forefronting its located historical positioning and polemic act of producing ‘knowledge’ from its partiality, as located so that diverse and creative productions of non-compatible realities were included rather than relegated to the margins or invisibilized altogether.
The shift toward partiality and located historical analysis required a type of reflexive interest and awareness as to how we ourselves speak within limited and constrained historical political discourses. We were obligated to consider ourselves as a ‘player’ and producer as well as an analyzer in any city context in which we hoped to speak. In contrast to the positivist objectified construction of reality, we saw knowledge production as partial and full of agency with the potential to contribute to efforts to open debates concerning power relations, social inequity and the located production of knowledge, space and political practices.
Desde la perspectiva del conocimiento situado (Haraway, 1991) se considera que todo conocimiento se produce desde unas condiciones semióticas y materiales concretas que dan lugar a una cierta mirada, condiciones de partida que no suponen un obstáculo sino las mismas condiciones de posibilidad de la investigación. Siguiendo a Gadamer (1975), la interpretación se produce no por la igualdad entre la investigadora y el objeto investigado sino, al contrario, por la distancia entre ambos horizontes que genera la necesidad de un acto interpretativo. El objetivo no será, por tanto, el de ‘representar’ o ‘dar voz’ al objeto de estudio, sino el de expresar el efecto que el contacto con el objeto de estudio ha tenido para a posición material-simbólica de partida.-Montenegro, Bosch, et, 2005; pp. 25)
We chose to involve ourselves in a contested urban context to gain a more embedded perspective, to allow ourselves to be involved and affected as a means of understanding the context we were studying. From a situated critical perspective, this became an advantage, (although problematic) as we became more familiar with the social political world of those in resistance to the city’s urban plans and the context in general. We were able to observe from multiple perspectives what the main contested issues were from the opposing groups and contrasted those with the city’s rationales and arguments. We considered these doors to examine particularly about where and how the city was working at forming a broader and more inclusive consensus, how they were being resisted and for what productive purposes. Our interviews were conducted in an open ended semi-formal formate and our questions were constantly being refined as we went along.
‘The issue is one of making arguments for when and why one does this (get involved/participate); that is, not to pathologize involvement but rather to interrogate it…our responsibilities as researchers perhaps lie in trying to open up a sense of what needs to be said (and cannot yet be said), rather than always to come up with concrete proposals.’ (Burman, 2003; pp.111-113)
TEXT AGAINST TEXT IN CONTEXT: Contrasting ‘fictions’ in action
What strikes me now when I try to recall those impressions is that nearly all the great emotional memories I have are related to the political situation. I remember very well that I experienced one of my first great frights when Chancellor Dollfus was assassinated by the Nazis, in I think, 1934. It is something very far from us now…I remember very well that I was really scared by that. I think it was my first strong fright about death. I also remember refugees from Spain arriving in Poitiers. I remember fighting in school with my classmates about the Ethiopian War. I think that boys and girls of this generation had their childhood formed by these great historical events. The menace of war was our background, our framework of existence. Then the war arrived. Much more than the activities of family life, it was these events concerning the world which are the substance or our memory. I say ‘our’ because I am nearly sure that most boys and girls in France at this moment had the same experience. Our private life was really threatened. Maybe that is the reason why I am fascinated by history and the relationship between personal experience and those events of which we are a part. I think that this is the nucleus of my theoretical desires.
-Foucault (1988), pg. 7.
Foucault’s perhaps somewhat rare autobiographical comment historically situates himself and as a chance to consider the importance of historical context in terms of subjectivities. We don’t have to read the biography or autobiography of someone to learn from or be interested in their theories or ideas. But for social psychologists the question of the relationship between geopolitical histories and subjective identifications is central. As a critical tool and analytical ‘method’ throughout this paper we place primarily three forms of texts against each other in attempts to highlight and unearth particularly ‘normalized’ or hidden productive dimensions of urban political discourses. The three forms of text were: formal or informal texts from the city government (documents, articles, interviews either in the media or ones which we conducted); oppositional texts from neighborhood associations (documents, articles, and interviews we conducted); and fictional texts or personal commentaries which we created or borrowed. The first two forms of text we used to focus on contrasting the more ‘official’ texts of the city and those of the opposition to see if reading the differences would reveal aspects of how power relations were attempting to be reproduced. The third texts were either fictional texts or personal narratives which we created based on our experiences, observations, or imagination.
‘Foucault once described his works as fictions, which did not thereby weaken the force of the truths that they could make, remake and unmake. Deleuze suggests that a book of philosophy is in part science fiction, because it is a place where one writes ‘only at the frontiers of our knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance and transforms the one into the other’ …These pieces (his articles published in the book Powers of Freedom(1999)) are written at that border between what one knows and what one thinks it might be possible to think, between what little one grasps and the great gulf of ignorance which that partial grasp reveals.’ (Rose, 1999; pp.13).
We entered these texts when it seemed useful to create ‘alternative’ imaginaries and break out of the ‘normalizations’ of the texts or practices we encountered. In a sense like ‘science fiction’ we created other ‘realities’ to highlight and provide a contrast to the ‘giveness’ of the more dominant texts and practices that were present. These informal texts were also important for us to capture the multiplicity of narratives, the simultaneously convergence of positions and perspectives which worked better to simulate the ‘realities’ we observed occurring in particular ‘live’ social debates. They also set a context for considering how particular discourses in terms of urban social production become dominant, enduring, or eliminated. As a critical tool narratives or ‘stories’ can work to destabilize the dominance of any one singular text; Erica Burman comments:
`Stories evoke multiple, situated versions, rather pretending singular, authoritative claims to truth. The nuance of fiction that they conventionally bear destabilize the factual basis of knowledge claims and so exposes the power relations involved in their construction.’ (Burman, 2003; pp.102).
Framing text as ‘fiction’ loosens ‘claims to truth’ in narratives and gave us access to see the power effects of historical attempts to dominate knowledge practices. The ‘plurality’ within simultaneous narratives lend themselves to consider distinct and contradictory realities as existing together, a theoretical vantage point from which we could ask how certain discourses come to be dominant and how urban conflicts reflect the relation between dominant and marginal texts, particularly in relation to claims for a singular point of reference, or ‘truth’.
Vignettes and writing in plural
As can be seen throughout the paper I write almost entirely in the plural form, only when absolutely necessary in the first person to avoid confusion. I chose to do this because in fact, although of course I was gathering the data I used for the research and interpreting it, I consider it to be more of a collective process in that the theoretical basis for all my decisions are based on theories of others. My interpretations are primarily based in the interpretive schemes which I have had the good fortune to be exposed to through reading, my collaborations with colleagues, and those with whom I met in the urban context I studied. As such, it seems more accurate to position myself within the collective of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. I do break this norm by including what I have called ‘vignettes’ which are narratives that either I have created or were stories told to me by others. I use them purposely to give a more contextual and relational dynamic to a concept or observation, or at times to present ‘alternative’ narratives to the dominant and at times naturalized narratives of hegemonic Western colonial/capitalism.
Approaching urban text
The critical approach to urban text is as much a theoretical positioning in relation to language, theory and political practice, as a methodology. We examined urban political debates to question how the Western city and citizen is being produced and contested . What was important for our purposes was to problematize the productive nature of urban political debate and analyze how they are producing objects and subjects which work among other things to define what can be spoken about and who can speak in terms of urban debate. Texts can be ideologically productive both in what they say and what they omit, or naturalize through omission. The ‘real’ is often subsumed in texts, and can be interrogated to question its conceptualization and thus productivity. What this points to is the usefulness of making explicit the productivity of types of text in terms how they produce embodied subjects and rationales for the maintenance and forwarding of particular urban practices. The important critical political project for our purposes is to transform Western truth claims into visible analysis to forward critical debate concerning their productivity. Urban discourses are often constructed around certain ‘trueisms’ and include the negation of other epistemological spaces of annunciation, not only in relation to political rights, etc; but to challenges to their claims to universality, expertise, and the politics of what is permissible, realistic, and even possible.
The critiques of the mechanics of urban restructuring fit our earlier observations as the issues that were being contested in Barcelona on the urban level; rising costs of housing and food, the increasing privatization of public services, urban development projects involving collaboration between the private sector and city government systems, large scale urban projects designed to attract foreign investment, renovating old historic areas for tourism and ‘cultural’ attractions, all related to the deregulation of the European market. Thus, on a practical and theoretical level we encountered a healthy body of urban research identifying patterns of both macro and micro level interventions which were affecting Western European cities that could be associated with what they called ‘neoliberal’ urban restructuring (Smith, 2000; Peck and Tickell, 2002). Yet as social critical researchers we were interested in how this was occurring as a form of politics in terms of governance and regulation, or how urban restructuring was occurring on the discursive level as a restructuring not only of material spaces, but of social relations including subjectivities, and identities within the politically possible options for city residents.
Our initial move was to do preliminary informal research in a particularly conflictual urban context in a neighborhood in Barcelona, Spain, where we found many aspects which also fit the theorizations of ‘neoliberal’ interventionism including practices of ‘mobbing’, speculation, and the turning of old historic working class neighborhoods into high class investment areas and tourist zones causing large scale gentrification. This gave us a perspective on what type of restructuring was occurring, but as we mentioned left us with questions as to ‘how’ it was occurring in terms of urban political production, particularly in relation to the struggles and resistances that were also present. That is to say, we could see what was happening to the neighborhood and the debates that were taking place on the local level, but it was less clear how power relations themselves were being produced and resisted.
A ‘return’ to theory took us initially back to the conceptualization of neoliberalism by critical geographers and the critical concept of ‘spatialization’ as articulated by Dorren Massey (2005). Spaitalizing referred to locating politics and relations in terms of historical geographies, looking at how space, time and place are produced in the ways in which we ‘talk’. She was advocating for a rehistoritization of modernity, recontextualizing the origins of contemporary western power relations to the colonial moment, five hundred years ago rather than seeing ‘modernity’ with the inception of the industrial revolution (Massey, 2005). The historical shift emphasizes the epistemological colonial moment in which European based science and knowledge ‘truth’ practices began to accompany and legitimize the exploitation of large parts of the globe, as part of the colonial project. Capitalism and the industrial revolution are seen thus within the colonial project, rather than positioning colonialism as a previous form of what turned into capitalism.
Making space relational, critical?
If the domination of European modernity has created a kind of hegemonic ‘total’ such that it is difficult for Westerners to think their way out of or into ‘other’ spaces, it seemed important to find spatial imaginaries that capture the borders, practices and interventions of Western knowledge practices as a means of breaking and disrupting this domination.
Vignette: ‘I am the business…’
In the film Blade Runner the city was difficult to decipher precisely because nobody knew who where the ‘replicants’ and who were the humans. The difference between the two in terms of ‘emotion’ was becoming minimal but the issue of centralized control was clear, the ‘replicants’ were not going to disrupt power relations, they would reproduce them. Western life was ‘normal’; work, crime, police, politicians; but performed with total domination from the ‘center’. As the distraught replicant Raquel said, ‘I don’t do the business, I am the business’. The politics of modernity relates to the degree to which we are all enlisted in reproducing the ‘center’.
As Raquel mentions, the critical project is to bring out the micro and macro ways in which power relations control our ‘subjectivities’ to refuse replicating the dominant system of power relations and logics. In terms of urban politics, space as a metaphor works well to do several things: locate political relations in terms of geographies of space, time and place and to think about what kinds of epistemological politics are regulating how and what we think and act. To ‘spatialize’ is to make what Massey calls ‘relational space’ and a consideration of what she also termed the ‘geographies of responsibility’ (Massey, 2004). Massey called to our attention the need and utility of working to locate the production of space and identity (subjectivities) in terms of how they structure our relationships, how distance, time and place constructions create our sense of what and who we are responsible to and our possible options to think and act in relation to each other. Critical in terms of the spatial analysis of discourses means reflection on how subjectivities are always laden with dimensions and logics about who we care for, what we feel moved to speak about, and where our responsibilities lie. To move toward a sense of how neoliberal ‘governability’ was being produced in discursive spatial terms, we worked to see how space, time and place were embedded in urban political discourses and then reflect towards a formulation of the multiple forms of government and their subjective contingencies’. In this way ‘spatializing’ helped us reformulate our questions in terms of geopolitical relatedness, eventually forwarding an alternative imaginary of ‘plurality’ in terms of geopolitics, open spaces of annunciation. Space in this sense makes room for epistemological and political difference and relations in which antagonistic, unrelated, and contradictory ‘worlds’ can resist, exist and dialogue. Spatializing the analysis of urban discourses and productivity in terms of power relations allows us to ask what kinds of space (time/place) is being produced to particularly distinguish between universal (hegemonic space) and relational space, a needed foothold to enter a more relational debate concerning what Massey has termed the ‘geographies of responsibility’.